In this post I had a bit of a rant about words to watch out for when you’re drafting or (more likely) editing. I want to add a couple more to the list. Well, one word and one sentence construction.
The word is the humble “of”. The book I’m reading now is well edited, except for slightly awkward sentences like this:
The rage beat inside of my heart.
Every time I see a sentence like this it pulls me out of the story, because I want to cross the “of” out. It isn’t doing anything there except adding to the word count, which is only ok in the first draft of a NaNoWriMo manuscript—but once you’re past the drafting stage, show no mercy.
The other construction is more egregious because of the potential to cause the reader to giggle. I heard this one on the news the other day:
Large and out of control, hundreds of fire fighters are working to control the blaze.
I’m sorry, what?!
This type of construction is called a “dangling modifier” (I usually call it a “dangling whatsit”, because that’s how I roll.) I’m sure you can see the problem: by having the modifying clause where it is, the sentence reads as though the fire fighters are the ones out of control, rampaging through the wilderness like Godzilla with a fire hose.
I want it to be true, but I’m pretty sure that’s not what they meant.
Whenever a clause doesn’t contain the subject (like “large and out of control”), make very sure the part that follows immediately after specifies what the subject is. Likewise, if you use an “it” or a “they” (or any other pronoun), make very sure it’s 100% clear what you are referring to. (Or “to what you are referring”, if you want to be all stuffy about it. This is a plain English blog, though, so I don’t tend to bother with that.)
Wikipedia has a good post on dangling modifiers here if you want to learn more.