How to avoid ungrammatical sentences: Beware of the ug


Vision 72


How to avoid ungrammatical sentences:

Beware of the ug


Dr Bob Rich

Copyright © 2013, Dr Bob Rich, All Rights Reserved




One of my pet hates as a reader is an overdose of ungrammatical sentences. When editing, I mark these with [ug], which I think is quite appropriate.


The principle is simple: every sentence needs a subject, verb and object. In “George threw the ball,” “George” is the subject of the sentence (who or what the sentence is about), “threw” is the verb, and “the ball” is the object. “The table was in the corner” has all three elements.


This is true even if the sentence long and complex so that it consists of so many words that they are beyond counting, if it runs over several pages, not that I am going to make this one that long, and even if its syntax is convoluted beyond belief. This ramble can be condensed into subject = “the sentence;” verb = “is true;” and object = “long and complex.” There are interpolations and sub-clauses, but they don’t affect the need for the three elements.


A perfect example of a complex but grammatical sentence is from Ngaio Marsh: A lifesize effigy of a Japanese warrior in an ecstasy of utmost ferocity, clad in full armour, crouched in warlike attitude, his face contorted with rage and his sword poised to strike. Subject = “effigy of a Japanese warrior;” verb = ‘crouched;” object = “in warlike attitude.”


Personally, I go with KISS: “Keep It Simple, Stupid!” A long, complex sentence takes effort to read and understand, and this distracts the reader from the content, where we want the attention to be. But that’s for another essay.


For now, I’d like to give a few examples of how ugs arise.

  • Period instead of comma. “For some reason I cannot understand. Some people cut a perfectly good sentence into two.” The first part is the ug: no object (what I cannot understand).
  • Subordinate clause hived off. “Whatever your imagination creates becomes possible. Like breaking that record, achieving success at work or meeting that wonderful person.” Here, the ug is the second part.
  • Adjectival or adverbial phrase separated off. Sometimes an adjective (word qualifying a noun) or adverb (same for a verb) consists of several words. These are of course a necessary part of the sentence, not a separate statement. “Her shawl was beautiful. Pink and almost translucent, with silver and gold threads through it.” Simplest fix is to replace the period with a comma, but more elegant is “Her beautiful shawl was pink and almost translucent, with silver and gold threads through it.”
  • Omission of the verb “to be.” “Something odd in this situation.” Correct is “Something was odd” or “Something is odd,” depending on whether the writing is in past or present tense.
  • Treating a gerund as a verb. A gerund is a verb modified, usually with the addition of -ing, so that it names an activity, behaviour, state of mind, or state of being.
( Kolln & Funk, Understanding English Grammar. Allyn & Bacon, 1998). “Seven children playing in the field.” This can be fixed in two ways: “Seven children were playing in the field,” of “Seven children played in the field.”

Let me know if you find other common sources of ugs.


Finally, when are ugs allowable?

  • As you may have noticed here, headings are not sentences, so don’t need the three elements.
  • Ugs are more permissible in dialogue than in narrative, because some people do speak like that. An important aspect of dialogue is to make each speaker distinctive, and one way might be to give incorrect grammar to some speakers. However, even then it should not be overdone.
  • At times of extreme emotion and tension. In the middle of a passionate love scene, or a fight to the death, or during the endless few seconds of a fall from a cliff, broken sentence fragments mimic the way the mind works in such situations. So, ugs are a good thing -- provided they don’t occur anywhere else.
  • During a musing, dreamlike state. A person is idly thinking so that reality recedes. Those thoughts will be long, somewhat disjointed, and some of them may be ungrammatical. Again, this device only works if ugs don’t happen elsewhere. Also, note that too much musing slows a story down, and is one step away from boring.

So, there you have it. From now on, there is no excuse for unwarranted ugs in your writing.