Category Archives: Grammar

Common grammar mistakes: Dangling participles.

Common Grammar Mistakes: Dangling Participles. (From OptimumCareer on Flickr.)

As an editor, I have a number of literary and textual pet peeves. Surprisingly (or, perhaps not?), lolspeak is not one of them. But, in any case, some things just drive me and every other like-minded nerd insane. One of things includes dangling participles. To review, a participle is a verb pretending to be an adjective. Usually, this is a verb in its -ing form. For example, the word run is normally a verb, but add an -ing ending and it can become an adjective. So, when you say “I run every morning,” it’s a verb. But, it can also be an adjective: “I forgot my running shoes this morning.” The word run went from verb to adjective, which also forms your present participle.

So, now you understand participles. Good. Now, we move on to participial phrases.

Participial phrases are phrases that include, you guessed it, participles. These phrases are meant to modify the subject of the sentence. For example: “Drinking my coffee, I thought of an example of participial phrases.” Drinking my coffee” modifies the subject, “I,” with “drinking” as the participle.

Another example would be: “Stifling a yawn, I shuffled off to make more coffee.” “Stifling a yawn” is the participial phrase, modifying the subject, “I” (yet again). “Stifling,” of course, serves as the participle.

Okay, with all that said, dangling participles are participial phrases that are left with nothing to modify. Meaning, they are supposedly there to modify the subject, except the subject doesn’t agree with its modifier.

You might ask how this is possible. Well, here’s an example: “Drinking my coffee, the coffee-maker had shut off.” As you can imagine, this does not make sense. “Drinking my coffee” should modify… the coffee-maker? No. The coffee-maker is not drinking my coffee, I am. So, where am I? Hence, the reason these errors are called dangling participles– so sad and alone, without a subject to modify.

There are ways to fix this, of course. Instead of “Drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” Now, “drinking my coffee” is modifying the correct subject and–there I am!– the coffee is being drunk by me this time, not the coffee-maker.

One handy way to make sure you don’t make this mistake is to put a silent “while” before any participial phrases. So, “Drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off” becomes “While drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” Using the word “while” will emphasize what the modifying participle is doing, which will then remind you that the subject should agree with this action. If it’s more helpful for you to actually begin the phrase with “While…” rather than just with the participle, that’s fine, too. Just be mindful of who is doing what and what should be modifying whom.

So, to be clear:

“Drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” This is good.

“While drinking my coffee, I noticed the coffee-maker had shut off.” This is also good.

“Drinking my coffee, the coffee-maker had shut itself off.” This is bad.

“While drinking my coffee, the coffee-maker was gone.” Even worse.





Common grammar mistakes– Lay versus lie.

In many of my grammar posts, I often discuss common but misused words like it’s versus its or I.e versus E.g.. So, for this week’s installment, I’ll be covering the differences between lie and lay, probably the most misconstrued of all.

The most barebones difference between lie and ‘lay’ is that ‘lay’ requires a direct object. Going back to third grade, direct objects follow transitive verbs or action words. They are the “what?” and “who?” of the “subject+verb” equation. As in:

Jenny(subject) + played(verb)+WHAT?” Answer, soccer (direct object).

So, lay needs something or someone to do the laying– for instance, “Lay your book on the table.” Of course, as a command, the subject is the invisible ‘you’ and the sentence can be diagrammed as follows:

(You, subject) + Lay(action verb) + your book (direct object) +on the table (prepositional phrase, but more on this later)

Lie, on the other hand, does not require a direct object. So, if you want to lie down on the couch, you’re free to do so. Please note: “on the couch” is NOT a direct object (yet another prepositional phrase, more on that later) as the couch is not doing the lying down, you are the one doing it. Okay, get up now.

Sounds easy, right?

Here’s an easy way to remember:

Fans of older music will be shocked to know that both Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton are wrong: “Lay, lady, lay” should be “Lie, lady, lie“, and “Lay down, Sally” should be “Lie down, Sally”. Yet, Kelly Rowland, in all her pop-princess glory, is totally right with “Lay it on me“. Well, that’s music for you.

The present participles of these verbs aren’t so bad, either. As a reminder, participles are part of the perfect tenses– they are the latter half of verb phrases with am, has/has been, and have/have been in them.

The present tense of lie is lying— as in, “I’m lying down on the couch right now; it’s pretty awesome”. Or, “He’s been lying on the couch for a while, he must be lazy.”

The present tense of lay is laying, which is pretty straight forward. One example is: “She has been laying her coat on my chair every day since she’s moved in.” Or, for special occasions, you can say: “The Golden Goose has been laying golden eggs again!” This works because the golden eggs serve as the direct object in this sentence; it’s a different definition, but the same rule applies.

Okay, here comes the really tricky part.

The past tense of lay is laid. The past participle of lay is also laid. Too easy.

But, the past tense of lie is lay. Not so easy. And, a little ridiculous, if you ask me. To make it a little more difficult, the past participle of lie is lain. Ugh.

(To refresh your memory: the past participle is used to form the perfect tenses–I.e, the verb phrases that have has, have, and had in them.)

Laws of language aside, it is what it is. Your job though is to remember it. I don’t have any funny or stupid-yet-oddly-helpful ways to remember it, so just memorize it. Sorry, guys.

Here’s how to conjugate both lie and lay in the past tense, with examples::


  • Present tense: Lie

I lie in bed at night, thinking about dinosaurs.

  • Past tense: Lay

Yesterday, I lay there thinking about them, too.

  • Past Participle: Lain

And, the night before last, I also had lain in bed thinking about them. I may have a problem.



  • Present Tense: Lay

I lay my coat on this chair, usually.

  • Past Tense: Laid

Earlier, I laid my coat on this chair  But, it’s not there.

  • Past Participle: Laid

Oh, I forgot I had laid my coat on the bed instead. Fail.

Easy? It can be when working with present tense, but it can get confusing when using the past tense. Unfortunately, the only way to learn how to do this properly is by memorizing these rules. But, it gets easier with practice, don’t worry. Soon enough, you’ll be laying and lying all over the place.

Common grammar mistakes– E.g versus I.e.

Common Grammar Mistakes: E.g. versus I.e.

In the world of Internet slang, abbreviations have become the norm. While it’s hard to argue what FWIW or IAWTC mean, E.g and I.e are confused for one another all the time. Of course, these two abbreviations are infinitely older than netspeak as they both have Latin origins. But, despite this and their importance in academic writing, their usage is often misconstrued.Too often are they used interchangeably when they really shouldn’t be.

“So, what do they mean?”

I.e is an abbreviation for the Latin phrase id est, which can be roughly translated to “it is” or “that is”. E.g. is an abbreviation for exempli gratia, or “for example”. You can see where I’m going now.

I.e.  is used to specify or to further clarify a particular. For instance, you would use I.e. to say “I like editors who from New York– I.e., Stefanie Arr” to mean you like only me out of all the editors from New York. (Right?) If that wasn’t so obvious, here’s a better example: “Stefanie Arr is from the big city– I.e., New York.” This is correct because I am from only one big city– New York– and I.e. introduces this clarification.

E.g. is used to give an example or an instance. So, if you say “I like bloggers who write useful advice– E.g., Steve from LSAT Blog“, then you’re saying that you like bloggers who write about useful things, such as Steve, but aren’t limiting your list to just Steve (because I should be included, too.)

A helpful way to remember what each of these abbreviations mean is to use thise easy, if not cheesy, tip: E.g. can be remembered by thinking of it as “egg zample”– like “example” but with a strange, foreign accent. Or, you can take the more mature route and remember that  “E” stands for example.

The way to remember I.e. isn’t so weird a memory trick, but it’s just as useful: just imagine I.e. stands for “in essence”. Or, take the “I” to stand for “in other words”.

“Okay, so what now? How do you use them?”

Well, you can these abbreviations in a number of ways. They are usually used in parenthetical statements, but you can also use them as separate clauses, preceded by a dash (–) or a semicolon (;). You can also use them to introduce either an entirely new sentence. Given what these abbreviations mean, you can use them however you would normally use “in essence”/”in other words” or “for example”.

Easy, right?

Now, here are two last things to note:

  1. Always follow these abbreviations with a comma. So, whether you use them in the middle of a sentence or to start off a new one, always use a comma afterwards, like this “E.g., …”
  2. Don’t italicize them. I italicized them above because I was defining them but, in normal usage, they don’t have to be. This is according to a number of grammatical authorities, including The Chicago Manual of Style.


Common grammar mistakes.

Below are a few of the most common mistakes I have found in students’ writing. They are also some of the more trickier rules in grammar– interesting correlation, no? So I’ve compiled a list with basic explanations in order to alleviate some of this confusion.

1- Your and You’re
These two always, always, always, trip up my students. Admittedly, I get a little confused, too, at times and autocorrect doesn’t help. However, the basic rule to remember is the difference between using the possessive pronoun and using a contraction.


Your is a possessive pronoun. It’s helpful to think of it as a form of the word “you”, as in “I edited your paper” or “I love your blog”. It is a possessive pronoun in that it means the paper and the blog in the above sentences belong to, well, you.

You’re, on the other hand, is a contraction; more specifically, it’s a contraction of you and are. For example, you can say “You’re right, this blog is awesome” or “That paper you’re working on is coming along great”.

See the difference? When trying to figure out when to use you’re or your, think of what you’re trying to say. What always helps me is to substitute them with “you are” and see if it makes sense. “You are doing so well” make sense, so you can use the contraction you’re. “Congrats on you are A” doesn’t, so you have to use your.

2- Its and It’s
Okay, here’s when it starts to get a little trickier. The difference between its and it’s is similar to your and you’re– one’s a possessive pronoun and and the other is a contraction. But, how they are formed is a little confusing.

It’s seems like the possessive of it, yes? Well, no.
It’s is, instead, the contraction of it and is. Weird, I know. Apostrophe and all, it’s is used like this: “It’s important to avoid grammar mistakes”.

Its, on the other hand, is the possessive of it. You use it like this: “My paper! I lost one of its pages”. The pages, of course, mean they belong to the paper itself. So, you can think of “its” being like her or his, possessive pronouns (more on parts of speech later) that show ownership of something.

3- Than and Then
This is the hardest rule to keep straight; I say this because this trips me up, too. What’s so difficult about than v. then is that it’s not a difference of pronouns or contractions, but of conjunctions and adverbs.

“Um… what?”

I know. Let me explain.

Than is a conjunction (specifically a subordinating conjunction, but we can get into that later). Conjunctions conjoin — they bring together two parts of a sentence, whether it’s nouns, clauses, or sentences. Than works to compare two items, as in: “It’s better to do well than to fail” or “I like this topic choice more than that one.”

Then is an adverb (again, more on that later) that relates to the passage of time.

You can use then in ways like the following example:
“I started working on my essay but then realized I needed some help.”

Unlike than, you can use then to begin a sentence:
“First, you begin by brainstorming. Then, you can work on an outline.”

It is a bit tricky, but it’s actually not very hard to keep straight once you get the hang of it. The easiest way to remember this is that the “e” in then is in “time“. It’s cheesy but it works.

Stefanie Arr