Watch Out for Lumbering Syntax

By Expert Author Request: Keep an Eye Out for Your Subject and Predicate!

Syntax (in language) is the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed, structurally rich sentences. Poor syntax is one of the most unnerving errors for any writer and it can cause a chain reaction of misdirecting confusion.

Here’s an example of poor syntax one Expert Author gave:

There is a bottle of milk on the table that belongs in the refrigerator.

In this sentence, the table evidently belongs in the refrigerator. Here’s the sentence again with clearer syntax:

On the table, there is a bottle of milk that belongs in the refrigerator.

Depending on the placement (and even word choice), the meaning can completely change, which can wreak havoc on your intention. Sometimes it’s best to take a step back and simplify the sentence: Know the subject (or subjects) and the predicate.

The subject is the person, place, thing, or idea that the sentence is about. The predicate tells the reader about the subject (what the subject is doing, etc.).

For example:

Fred and his pet badger run on the trail every afternoon.

To identify the subject or subjects, we find the verb of the sentence. In this example, the verb is “run.” Who ran? Fred and the badger (our subjects) ran. Therefore the predicate is “run on the trail every afternoon.”

Next time you’re proofreading, watch out for lumbering syntax errors that don’t clearly identify the subject like the examples below.

Spouse Swap?

Walter Cotton is the proud possessor of a brand-new convertible car and also a new wife, having traded the old one for a liberal allowance.

Traded in his wife?! What he meant to say …

Having traded his old car for a liberal allowance, Walter Cotton and his new wife are the proud possessors of a brand-new convertible car.

Don’t Mind If I Do …

Children should have their parents look at their Halloween treats before eating them.

Somewhere, a child sobbed as they watched their parents eat all of their Halloween treats. Or it was much worse – the child ate their parents! This might clear things up:

Parents should inspect all Halloween candy before allowing their children to eat the treats.

Is That Legal?

I have a wife and three kids, all under the age of 12.

Legalities aside, the reproductive biology of the above statement isn’t quite logically sound. What the speaker intended to say …

My wife and I have three kids who are under the age of 12.

As you can see in the above examples, lack of clarity and perception of the information can often wreak havoc on the author or speaker’s intention. Next time you’re proofreading your articles, make sure every sentence clearly identifies your subject (of course exclamations and commands are excused) and your predicate clearly shows what is happening in relation to the subject.



That’s a funny example about trading in your wife, Penny. I wonder if my husband wrote it with the request that his next wife have fewer opinions.

Thank you, too, for the smile your post rendered on this rainy Friday and the reminder for clarity in our writing.

Presently, I’m taking a poetry course and syntax is major.


Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 9:49 AM


Ricky writes:

I know I have made these errors. Thank you for a refreshing lesson.

Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 9:52 AM


Randall Magwood writes:

I think we’ve all suffered from poor syntax. Generally when i write my articles, i try to make it as easy to read as possible – not for a search engine, but for PEOPLE. And sometimes because of it… my syntax errors are all over the place lol. I proofread my articles before submitting them, but correct syntax flows past my mind.

Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 9:59 AM


Alec Shute writes:

Thank you for the advice! It’s something everyone is guilty of from time to time and I certainly agree that if authors create sentences which are confusing or ambiguous to readers, they should be replaced :)

Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 11:23 AM


davidinnotts writes:

Just to be sure, I ran these examples through Word2007.

Yup! Not a sausage! The auto systems don’t seem to regard these syntax issues as grammar (or aren’t smart enough to spot them) so you’ll need to keep syntax howlers out of your text yourself – it’s a job for real people.

Of course, we’re told and told to run our articles past other people, who’re likely to spot stuff that we might miss through familiarity with our own writing and preferences.

Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 11:36 AM



Good stuff to remember as the words come rolling out of my brain onto the screen into an article or novel. Thanks

Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 12:40 PM



Actually some of those boo-boos are kind of funny. I know I constantly catch myself making mistakes. Thanks for the reminder.

Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 12:42 PM


Damayanthi writes:

Thanks for sharing this. English is my second language and I know I make these mistakes.

Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 12:49 PM


Sara writes:

Word 2007 does not catch errors that I expect. Do you know of any way to tweak it to get better results?

Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 3:51 PM


davidinnotts writes:

Hi, Sara. I commented on this in the for the passive/active voice post last week, comment 29. Here it is again, anyway – but remember that these machine helps aren’t as clever as we are and can never catch everything.

“Microsoft’s Word has had a good grammar checker (which they bought in!) for the last 15 years.

“Most people don’t know that it can be tweaked to check for different writing styles – but it can. How to get to this depends on the version, but from Word2007 onwards (with The Ribbon) you follow this route:
Office Button (top left of the window) > Word Options (bottom of the dialog box) > Proofing; then look down this long list for “When correcting spelling and grammar” and click ‘settings’ opposite ‘writing style’. You can then set and unset the options you want the checker to look for in both grammar and style – plenty to choose from!”

And Mary commented on this that the EzineArticles grammar checker always give you more to correct (or at least, consider. Remember that a grammar and spelling checker ‘suggests’ possible changes to consider and you might well reckon that you got it right!)


Jeanne Melanson writes:

Great post! Enjoy finding syntax errors. I’ve always been a stickler for that. I’m glad you shared with with us. It was enjoyable reading. Jeanne


Lance Winslow writes:

Good stuff, all authors should be paying attention to syntax. I also believe that when you listen to people talk in conversation you will see how often they make these mistakes, but in a conversation, generally it sounds right and you know what they are saying. For those who use speech recognition – be careful while editing, it’s really easy to make these mistakes, it’s one of the challenges I’ve been working on, you must concentrate when editing, and think about it while you write.

Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 6:07 PM


David Berry writes:

As article publishers, proof reading content for clarity is key. If you are uncertain of your content quality, ask someone. Even though I’ve published 300+ blog posts on my site, I still ask my wife to review my content. She always has the same response, “I don’t know why you asked me, I wouldn’t have gotten my masters degree without your blogging skills.” To that end, regardless of your skill level, it never hurts to get another pair of eyes.

Comment provided October 19, 2012 at 11:03 PM


stafford writes:

Thank you for your ariticle, I know I will need to do some improvement.

Comment provided October 20, 2012 at 4:13 AM


Fred Fishburne writes:

I once knew a man with a wooden leg named Smith. I never knew the name of his other leg. What movie?

Comment provided October 20, 2012 at 7:29 AM



Mary Poppins, Fred Fishburne, thanks be to Google!

Comment provided October 20, 2012 at 7:52 AM


patricia gaines writes:

This was great. Thanks

Comment provided October 20, 2012 at 6:26 PM


Andres Martinez writes:

penny, thank you for your advice!

Comment provided October 22, 2012 at 9:09 PM


Peter Nehemia writes:

For a non-native, like me, this article is very useful. Thank you.

Comment provided October 25, 2012 at 2:20 AM


Olu Jordan writes:

Thanks a lot for this. These are little foxes that spoil the vine, especially for those of us using English as the second language. Again, thanks.

Comment provided November 1, 2012 at 12:29 AM


Fred Kariuki writes:

Great post! It was enjoyable reading. Glad I discovered this on google.

Comment provided November 1, 2012 at 5:06 AM


Sara woodward writes:

I had the dubious pleasure of working for a client who murdered syntax with blissful ignorance and impunity. Spelling was an optional extra and he genuinely believed he was a wordsmith. He decided to write his own blog and my Monday mornings will never quite be the same again. Thanks for an informative and amusing article.
Sara Woodward

Comment provided May 15, 2013 at 2:30 PM


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