A Word, Please: 7 grammar terms that are fun to learn

Grammar jargon is enough to turn most people off of grammar forever. One ill-timed utterance of a term like “doubly transitive post-prepositional verb” and you might never take an interest in the subject again. But some language terms are actually fun.

Here are seven you’ll enjoy learning.


Squinting modifier. “People who eat sugar seldom stay thin.” See how the adverb “seldom” is positioned in a way that it could be modifying “eat” or it could be modifying “stay”?

That’s called a squinting modifier. It sits between two words it could modify, making it unclear which it’s actually modifying. A squinting modifier can be a single word, often an adverb, or a whole phrase.


Eggcorn. Coined in 2003 by a linguist describing someone who misheard the word “acorn,” an eggcorn is a word or phrase that sounds like another word or phrase and is mistaken for it.

Imagine an escape goat engaging in a little daring-do in a wheelbarrel and you have three eggcorns in a single sentence because that should say scapegoat, derring-do and wheelbarrow.

Scare quotes. Quotation marks have several jobs. They indicate words quoted verbatim from a speaker or cited verbatim from print. They sometimes indicate book or movie titles, like “Star Wars.” And they’re used to highlight words you’re talking about, for example, “eggcorns.”

But quotation marks can also mean you’re using a word in an ironic or nonstandard sense. When you say your “friend” borrowed money and never paid you back, you’re sarcastically pointing out that this isn’t standard friend behavior.


Dangling participle. A participle is the “ing” form of a verb used as a modifier: “Trembling, Jane reached for the door knob.” Normally, trembling is a part of a verb, but here we’re using it to describe Jane’s action.

Now look at that same sentence slightly rejiggered: “Trembling, the door knob was just out of Jane’s reach.” Unless we meant to say the door knob was trembling, we’ve made the mistake of moving our participle too far from the noun it’s supposed to modify. It’s dangling there, hence the term dangling participle.

Comma splice. Once upon a time, film editors made movies out of raw footage by cutting frames out of the film and “splicing” the ends together. So to splice means to attach two things to each other. That’s not a comma’s job — not when you’re using it right, anyway.

“I went to the park, there were lots of children there,” uses a comma to connect two independent clauses, creating a comma splice. We could fix the problem by inserting “and,” which unlike the comma has the power to connect whole clauses. Or we could break this sentence into two separate sentences. But as is, with just a comma connecting the clauses, this is an error.

Nonce word. A nonce word is a term that someone invented for one-time use. It’s hard to give examples because, by their very nature, nonce words come and go in an instant.

But here’s an example offered by Merriam-Webster: “‘ringday’ in ‘four girls I know have become engaged today: this must be ringday.’” In some ways, nonce words are indistinguishable from neologisms, which are new coinages.

Both types start as made-up newbies. Only time will tell which nonces will catch on, thereby earning neologism status.

Dummy operator. In grammar, an operator is a verb you move around to turn a statement into a question. “He is nice” becomes “Is he nice?” when you move the verb to the head of the line.


But that doesn’t work with most verbs. You can’t turn “They eat pizza” into a question with “Eat they pizza?” Instead, we use “do”: “Do they eat pizza?” The verb “do” adds no new information. It just lets us rejigger the sentence this way. So it’s a dummy operator.

June Casagrande is the author of “Mortal Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at