Several years ago, I read the following sentence in a newspaper article: “She decided to stop having sex after going to church.” I think that the writer meant that the woman had taken a vow of chastity for religious reasons, but the sentence made me think of this song.
In other words, the sentence made it sound as if the woman might still be sexually active but has decided to make Sunday her day of rest.
Why do sentences often end up saying something other than what the writer meant them to say? Often, it’s because some word or phrase is in the wrong place. The sentence ends in the adverbial phrase “after going to church.” I think that the writer wanted this phrase to modify the verb “decided.”
The problem is that, like Miss Piggy, adverbial phrases are promiscuous. Like adverbs, adverbial phrases can modify verbs, adjectives, verbal nouns, and entire clauses or sentences. If “after going to church” is positioned directly after “having sex,” it will sound as if it is intended to modify “having sex.” The solution to the problem in this sentence is to move the adverbial phrase to a different location. You can put the adverbial phrase directly after the verb that it’s supposed to modify, or you can put it at the beginning of the sentence:
- She decided, after going to church, to stop having sex.
- After going to church, she decided to stop having sex.
In general, I pay especially careful attention to the placement of adverbs and adverbial phrases in sentences that have more than one verb or that contain verbal nouns (e.g., gerunds or infinitives).
Unfortunately, most Americans have no idea what a gerund is, or an infinitive. They might not even know how to identify an adverbial phrase. As a result, they would have no way of explaining what is wrong with the original sentence. Thus, they would have no way of recognizing that the sentence illustrates a common problem that they can learn to avoid
Many prominent educators argue that grammar is boring and that grammar lessons don’t improve students’ writing skills. My guess is that they don’t know how to teach grammar or writing.
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