A Word, Please: Here are some tangible ways to fix bad sentences

Nathan Turner checks the price on a chest of drawers with carved horse heads.
June Casagrande writes that “For sale: Antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers” is a cautionary example about prepositional phrases that can be misleading.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles)

Have you ever read a sentence that just didn’t work but you couldn’t put your finger on what was wrong? Have you ever written one?

Reader-unfriendly sentences are everywhere. Many you can fix just by making sure the main clause contains a tangible subject and an action-oriented verb, like changing “It was the act of shooting the bandit that got the deputy a promotion to sheriff” to “The deputy shot the bandit. The mayor promoted him to sheriff.”

Other bad sentences are more complicated. Here are a few concepts that come up a lot in bad sentences.


“Having called in sick to work for the fourth day in a row, the entire sales department had to pick up the slack in Jane’s absence.” Sentences that begin “having (blank)ed” are often terrible. But “having” is just one of many “ing” or “ed” words that can create “danglers” — modifying phrases that attach to the main clause in a confusing or imprecise way. In theory, a participial phrase at the head of a sentence should be followed immediately by the noun doing the thing in the participial phrase. “Walking down the street, Mark saw a pothole.” When you move or remove the noun, Mark, it becomes unclear who’s walking: “Walking down the street, the pothole was spotted by Mark.” “Walking down the street, the pothole posed a glaring safety hazard.” Contrary to the implication of those last two examples, potholes can’t walk. Fix danglers by putting the person or thing referenced in the modifying phrase as close to that phrase as possible.

Columnist June Casagrande shares some of the “zombie rules” listed in a book about grammar called “Bad Advice.”

Misplaced prepositional phrases

“For sale: Antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers.” I don’t know if this supposed classified ad is real. But it’s famous as a cautionary example about prepositional phrases, which are phrases hinged on a preposition like “with,” “to,” “on,” “from” and “in.” These phrases sometimes work like adjectives modifying a noun (“burger with cheese”) or like adverbs modifying an action (“fled in terror”). As you can see from our desk example, these prepositional phrases need to sit as close as possible to the noun or verb they modify so we know it’s the desk, and not the lady, that has thick legs and large drawers.


“The ineffectiveness of Brad’s teaching of etiquette was underscored by the rudeness with which his students took part in the eating.” Some words are born to be adjectives, but you can make them into nouns anyway. For example the adjective “rude” has the noun form “rudeness.” Verbs become nouns when you use the “ing” form as a subject or object, as in “The singing of the national anthem took place.” But when you do this, you turn a dynamic action or a vivid description into a static object: “the ineffectiveness,” “the eating.” Avoid using the noun form of any word that shines brightest as a verb or adjective.

Vague words

The more specific your nouns and verbs, the more vivid your sentence will be for the reader. Don’t say “people” if you can say “shoppers.” Don’t say “items” if you can say “milk and eggs.” Don’t say “vehicles” if you can say “antique Aston-Martins.” Same goes for verbs. Don’t say “moved” if you can say “ran.” Don’t say “created” if you can say “sculpted.” Don’t say “parted” if you can say “divorced.”

Passive voice

Passive voice doesn’t mean what you think it means. It refers to a very specific sentence structure in which the object of an action is made the grammatical subject of a sentence. “The coffee was made by Ben” is passive because the coffee’s not the one “making.” It’s the thing being made. No matter how you arrange that sentence, the doer of the action is Ben. So opt for active-voice “Ben made the coffee” unless you’re deliberately downplaying the doer of the action: “The coffee was already made.” In those cases, passive voice can be the best choice.

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

Support our coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.