Monday, August 20, 2012

Some Common Grammar Gaffes, Part II - Past Perfect & Misplaced Modifiers

by Jodie Renner, editor, author, speaker 

In Part I, I discussed the differences between that and who, and which and that, as well as some common capitalization quandaries, all per Chicago Manual of Style. Here are some more grammar tips, mostly pertaining to fiction writing.

Use past perfect tense for mentioning prior events and introducing flashbacks:
Most novels are written in the past tense They were, She said, he went, they walked, I talked, we saw, the dog ate, the kids ran, etc. She picked up the phone. He drove around the block, and so on. So if you’re suddenly referring to something that happened before what’s going on “now”, it’s best to use the past perfect or “past past” tense: she had said, he had gone (or he’d gone), they had walked, we had seen (or we’d seen), etc. This avoids confusion for the reader, who otherwise may wonder whether we’re still in the same time frame we were or we’ve jumped back in time to an earlier incident.
In these examples, we start in the normal past tense, then, to indicate events that either just occurred or are going back in time, we switch to the past perfect, using “had” or just “he’d” “she’d” plus the past participle of the verb: “By the time we arrived at the station, all the passengers had gotten off the train.”  “She remembered that day. She had just picked up the phone when the doorbell rang.” Or “That morning, he had driven around the block several times before finding a parking spot.” Or “He recalled the night they’d discovered the body.” Not using the past perfect to indicate a shift further into the past can cause confusion with the readers as to when something actually happened or whether it’s occurring right now.
Examples from novels:  “She was still wearing her party dress. It was wrinkled. He figured she’d slept in it. He wondered where.” (Smoke Screen by Sandra Brown)

"If I had known he was going to walk, I would have just put a bullet in him and been done with it." (Murder One, by Robert Dugoni)
But if you’re switching to a fairly lengthy flashback or other backstory, it flows better if you just mark the transition further into the past by using the past perfect (had or ’d plus verb) for the first sentence or two, then switch to normal past for the rest of the flashback, except for the last sentence or two, where you again use past perfect to signal to the reader that we were in a kind of “past past” and are now going back to the normal “real time” past. If the flashback is only a few sentences or a paragraph long, stay in the past perfect, or “past past” the whole time.”
“Her thoughts drifted back to the night that had changed her life forever. She’d just been drifting off to sleep that summer night when she heard a motorcycle approaching. It stopped outside her window and went silent….” [Several more sentences in normal past tense.] … [Then, coming back to the “present” we use a sentence or two of past perfect, then switch to normal past.]
“That had been one of the most terrifying nights of her life. Now she shook off the frightening memories and forced herself back to the present.” 

Watch for those dangling participles:
Participles are verb forms that end in –ing or –ed, like “buzzing” or “roaring”, or “satisfied” or “soaked.” A participial phrase modifies a noun, like “Climbing the mountain, the hikers soon grew tired.” The phrase is talking about the activity of the person or thing closest to it, in this case, the hikers. Here’s an example of a dangling participle: “Climbing the mountain, the birds chirped merrily.” It’s not the birds that are climbing the mountain, so it needs to be changed to something like “Climbing the mountain, the hikers heard birds chirping around them.”
Here are some other examples:
“Gazing out the window, the willow tree swayed in the breeze.” This sentence implies it’s the willow tree that is gazing out the window. It would need to be changed to something like “Gazing out the window, she saw the willow tree swaying in the breeze.”
Or: “Slathered in chocolate icing and filled with cream, the customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts.”
It’s not the customers who are slathered in icing and filled with cream! This should be changed to something like, “The customers bought boxes of the sweet, decadent donuts slathered in chocolate icing and filled with cream.”
And misplaced modifiers are a mistake:
Watch where you put your descriptive phrases in sentences, as they modify the words closest to them. For example, “Tall and handsome, the teenage girl gazed at the basketball star in admiration.” As it is phrased here, the “tall and handsome” refers to the teenage girl, when it’s supposed to be describing the basketball star. It should be rephrased to something like “The teenage girl gazed at the tall, handsome basketball star in admiration.”
Similarly with: “Tired and dirty, the lady of the house watched the farm workers trudge past at the end of the long day.” As it’s written here, it’s the lady of the house who’s tired and dirty, not the farm workers. It could be rephrased to “The lady of the house watched the farm workers trudge past, tired and dirty, at the end of the long day." Similarly, you wouldn't want to write, “Exhausted from the grueling race, we cheered on the triathlon competitors as they jogged past.” (Unless watching them is exhausting for you!)
In Common Grammar Gaffes, Part III, I discuss lie vs. lay, and is it "and me" or "and I"?
See also my blog posts, “Style Blunders in Fiction” and “Hyphens, Dashes, Ellipses.”


  1. Great post. I have a difficult time with those past-tenses now and then, great to see it discussed, and with examples that make sense!

    Thank you!

  2. Thanks for dropping by and commenting, Chris!

  3. Thanks for the informative post.