Writing Instructor Makes House Calls?

Photo by jim quenzer on Unsplash

I don’t normally make house calls. Normally, I work as a writing specialist in The Writing and Research Center at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, New York. There, I help students with their essays and their research papers. Sometimes, however, I do receive emergency calls from neighbors, relatives, and friends, so I try to assist them when I can. The following are some recent experiences.

First, my neighbor Tom called: “Jim, my computer says I got a ‘split infinitive.’ Can you help me?”

“You know, Tom, a split infinitive is not really a big deal. The phrase sounds worse than it is, and lots of writers use split infinitives often, especially if they’re trying to highlight a particular point.”

“Yeah, but my boss is a real stickler for perfection, so can you stop by and help me with it?”

“I’ll be right over.”

Within minutes, I was looking over Tom’s shoulder at a New Year’s resolution on his computer screen: “My primary work goal for 2019 is to thoroughly and efficiently organize my office and my entire department.”

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

“Tom, that’s a disaster,” I said jokingly.

“You should see my office,” he responded seriously and pessimistically, as if he’d never succeed at his tasks.

Fortunately, Tom’s minor grammatical problem was easy to fix. All he had to do was move his two adverbs — “thoroughly and efficiently” — to the end of his sentence, so it read as follows: “My primary work goal for 2019 is to organize my office and my entire department thoroughly and efficiently.”

An infinitive, as I explained to Tom, is merely the “to” form of the verb (to clean, to dust, to fumigate), and you don’t want to “split” those two words by inserting any other word or words between them.

“Thank, Jim,” Tom said as I left. “I want you to seriously know how much I appreciate your help.”

“Pardon me?” I asked in disbelief since he was obviously not paying attention.

Tom then thought about what I said before he rephrased his farewell: “I want you to know seriously how much I appreciate your help.”

Two nights later, at about 11:30, I received another distress call from my older cousin Samantha.

“Jim, can you get over here quickly?”

“What’s up?”

“I have a ‘misplaced modifier’ in my email cover letter, and I have to send it off before midnight.”

“Don’t touch it,” I cautioned. “You can only make it worse.” Fortunately, Samantha lives less than five miles from our house, so, despite the late hour, I drove there quickly to assess the problem. Like Tom, she was somewhat agitated as she showed me the key sentence in her letter:

“Discouraged and underutilized, my current boss encouraged me to apply for this position within the company.”

Photo by William Iven on Unsplash

Since a misplaced modifier usually indicates that a word or phrase has been used in the wrong position and can, therefore, create confusion for the reader, I immediately asked her the key question: “Who is “Discouraged and underutilized,” you or your boss?”

“I am, of course,” she answered somewhat indignantly, as if I were still the young whippersnapper who teased her regularly at our family gatherings.

Always the teacher, I began to explain: “But your modifier, ‘Discouraged and underutilized,’ directly precedes the phrase ‘my boss,’ so it looks like your boss is feeling that way.”

“Just show me how to fix it, please; we’re running out of time.”

I quickly showed her two solutions. She could mention herself after that introductory phrase and tweak the remainder of the sentence: “Discouraged and underutilized, I asked my boss if I should apply for the position.” Or, she could change both the introductory phrase and the remainder of the sentence, “Looking to make better use of my skills, my current boss encouraged me to apply for the position.”

Samantha thought my first suggestion sounded stronger and more pro-active, so she made the change and emailed the letter with five minutes to spare. Then, she sent me home with a small plate of her homemade marshmallow cookies. Who says teaching isn’t rewarding?

Finally, my final house call occurred just a few days ago when Danny, an old buddy from high school, invited me to his house for lunch.

“Really?” I asked in disbelief. I hadn’t seen Danny in years.

“Yeah, I’m really desperate,” he quickly admitted. “I’m struggling with a dangling participle.”

“What’s for lunch,” I asked.

When I arrived, Dan explained that he now had a new job working from home, and he was about to send his first memo to his staff of salespeople scattered around the country. Obviously, he did not want to look incompetent, yet he had written the following: “Wanting to succeed in every way, the year 2019 should be our best year ever.”

This dangling participle is actually quite similar to Samantha’s misplaced modifier except that it’s even more confusing. In Samantha’s original sentence, the reader knew that either Samantha’s boss wanted her to apply for the job, or Samantha herself wanted to apply. In Dan’s case, with the dangling participle (basically a phrase that begins with the -ing form of the verb), the reader has no real idea about who wants to succeed in 2019. In fact, the sentence makes it sound like the new year itself wants to succeed. Again, I went into question mode.

Photo by Michael on Unsplash

“Danny, who wants to succeed in 2019?”

“I do. My salespeople do. We all do. Isn’t that obvious?”

On a certain level, he was right, of course, because everyone does want to succeed, but his sentence did not make that clear; his dangling participle forced the reader to work too hard to figure out what he was trying to say. So I asked him: “What exactly are you trying to say here?”

“I want my salespeople to know that I am willing to help them to be successful this year.” A big part of me wanted to tell him to write just that, but I also wanted to show him how to correctly revise his first draft. So I thought about his comment for a bit and suggested the following revision. “Wanting all of you to succeed in 2019, I will do everything I can to help you make that happen.”

“That sounds great. Let’s go with it.”

Obviously, the revision is much clearer because Dan’s people are mentioned in the participle, and Dan himself follows immediately after that phrase, similar to what Samantha decided to do in her cover letter. Since the rest of the memo was in good shape, he sent it off before we sat down to eat. Then, we reminisced about the good old days.

At HVCC, our spring classes start again this week, and as I prepare to work primarily with young people who are still learning about proper written communication, my recent house calls remind me that strong, clear writing is a skill that will serve these students well not only during their academic studies but also well into their professional careers.

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate

Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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