Believe it or not, there are at least two college instructors
in the United States who use my grammar notes with their classes.
They say it’s the best way they have ever found to make
grammar interesting. Since it’s back-to-school time, I
figured this would be a good time to repost my Advanced
- Restrictive Phrases and Clauses
A restrictive phrase or clause is one that is so
essential to the meaning of the sentence (or clause) that it
cannot be omitted without substantially changing its meaning.
My girlfriend who likes oral sex was with me at
Restrictive phrases and clauses are not set off by
commas. In general, when we say these phrases and clauses orally,
we do not pause when we speak them.
On the other hand, the writer does not consider
non-restrictive phrases or clauses be essential to the
meaning of the sentence—they just add additional information
and are set off by commas.
If the writer punctuates the sentence in this way, he is
suggesting that the information conveyed by “who likes oral
sex” is essential. The most likely explanation is that he
has more than one girlfriend, and the one who was with him at the
movie was the one who likes oral sex. The same words would have a
different meaning if they were punctuated like this:
My girlfriend, who likes oral sex, was with me at
This would mean that he has one girl girlfriend (who likes oral
sex and was with him at the movie). By putting the words
“who likes oral sex” within commas the author is
saying that they are non-restrictive—that is, they
don’t change the meaning of the sentence—they just add
some additional meaning.
Here’s why grammarians use the word restrictive
to describe this use of commas. In the first example, the guy has
many girlfriends, and “who likes oral sex”
restricts the reference to a subset—in this case to
just one of them. In the second example, the guy has only one
girlfriend, and so “who likes oral sex” does not
restrict the reference to a subset.
I recently read the following comment in the disclaimer at the
beginning of a story:
This is my first story, written from a
woman’s point of view.
I think the author meant to leave out the comma. Without the
comma, the sentence would suggest that the author had written
other stories, but none of these was written from a woman’s
point of view. With the comma, it means that this is the first
story he ever wrote (or published), and this first story is
written from a woman’s point of view.
Technically, the same logic should be applied even to single
The woman enjoyed having sex with her dog
Without a comma between dog and Ralph, this
sentence technically suggests that the woman had more than one
dog, but her enjoyment was restricted to Ralph. However, lots of
good writers ignore this nuance—especially if the number of
dogs would be clear from the context or if nobody would care
anyway. Another good reason to omit the comma with a
non-restrictive word or phrase occurs when the comma would add
(rather than remove) confusion. For example,
In one evening Sharon had sex with Sue, her dog,
Ralph, the night watchman, Bill, and Ray, her ex-husband.
In this example, it’s not obvious whether Ralph is the
dog, the night watchman, or a separate person. It would be more
obvious that Sue had fucked only four animate beings if the
sentence were punctuated like this:
In one evening Sharon had sex with Sue, her dog
Ralph, the night watchman Bill, and Ray, her ex-husband.
Of course, a better solution would be for Sharon to become
celibate—or at least monogamous.
- Dangling and
A misplaced modifier is a phrase that is supposed to
modify one word but is placed in the sentence in such a way that
it appears to modify the wrong word. A dangling modifier is a
specific type of misplaced modifier. It just dangles (hangs
there), usually at the beginning of the sentence or clause. In the
following example, it logically sounds like the guy is sucking his
Having sucked my cock vigorously, I spread her
legs and began to mount her.
The ambiguity is removed if the sentence is written like this:
Having sucked my cock vigorously, she spread her
legs and invited me to mount her.
Here’s a dangling modifier I found in a story I was
After thoroughly sucking the toes of both her
feet, she sat down, placed her stockinged feet on either side of
my still erect cock and began to masturbate me with the soles of
her stockinged feet!
What this sentence literally says is that the woman
sucked her own toes before she masturbated the guy’s cock.
What the author meant to say was this:
After I had thoroughly sucked the toes of both
her feet, she sat down, placed her stockinged feet on either side
of my still erect cock and began to masturbate me with the soles
of her stockinged feet!
Actually, either activity might be fun to watch, but the author
should be clear.
Even single words can be misplaced and cause confusion. What
does the following sentence mean?
I only made love to Bob that weekend.
Literally, this means
I only made love to Bob (and did nothing else
with Bob or anyone else) that weekend.
However, the author probably meant
I made love only to Bob that weekend. (I
didn’t make love to Tom, Dick, or Harry that weekend.)
Or the author might have meant
I made love to Bob only during that weekend. (I
didn’t make love to him prior to or after that weekend.)
Even very good writers occasionally use misplaced or dangling
modifiers. One of my students recently found a dangling modifier
in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. (I
understand this is what the advertisements mean when they say that
the Demi Moore version is an “adaptation” of the
original—the producers cleaned up the dangling modifiers.)
More to the point, here is part of a sentence written by one of
the best authors on a.s.s.:
…we enjoyed our platonic relationship and
the chance to talk about our dates and relationships with a
sympathetic member of the opposite sex.
What this author meant to say was this:
...we enjoyed our platonic relationship and the
chance to talk with a sympathetic member of the opposite sex about
our dates and relationships.
The most famous example, of course, is the sentence taken from the SAT:
He could only masturbate after the test was
That must have been a rough test! What the sentence literally
says was that after the test was over all the poor guy could do
was jerk off. The correct answer put only before
after, suggesting that he simply had to wait till the
test was over to do his more important solitary work. Actually, if
you’re familiar with the SAT, you’ll probably agree
that the original sentence is perfectly plausible.
In many cases the ambiguity is cleared up by the context. But
if you have time to revise your work, why not make it easy on your
readers by putting the modifier (in this case only in a
place where it is clear what it modifies—in this case, right
before the word or phrase to which it refers)?
Here’s your final exam on misplaced modifiers. Can you
see why a person might say Ouch! while reading this
passage from an actual a.s.s. story?
Kathy helped me up from my chair and removed my
Cara bent down and untied and removed my shoes. Jennifer
unbuttoned my pants and let them drop to the floor exposing
a hard-on through my boxers, which Karen quickly removed.
Just to be cautious, the author should have considered putting
the final clause in a separate sentence: Karen quickly removed
the boxers. As it is, the reader might think Karen removed the
- Relative and
Relative and interrogative pronouns are who and
whom (also whoever and whomever).
Technically, who and whom are either relative or
interrogative pronouns. That doesn’t matter for now. The
rules for using relative and interrogative pronouns are
The main rule is that the way the word is used in its clause
determines the form to use. In general, if it’s a subject
(nominative case) use who (or whoever). If
it’s an object of a verb or of a preposition (objective
case), use whom (or whomever).
If you are uncertain how to apply this rule, you can do it by
ear. Simply replace who by he (or she)
and whom by him (or her), and see if
the sentence sounds right.
That is the man whom I plan to seduce
(Whom is the object of seduce. I plan to seduce
him tonight. “I plan to seduce he tonight”
That is the woman who will seduce me
(Who is the subject of will seduce.
She will seduce me tonight. “Her will
seduce me tonight” sounds absurd.)
Whom do you plan to seduce tonight?
(Just answer the question: “I plan to seduce him
(not he) tonight.)
Who will seduce you tonight?
(Just answer the question: She (not her) will
seduce me tonight.)
In America, correct grammar is often viewed with suspicion.
Therefore, some people use who almost all the time,
especially when it occurs at the beginning of a sentence.
Therefore, intelligent people may say the following, even though
they know each sentence is incorrect:
Who did you fuck last night?
This should be:
Whom did you fuck last night?
If you say it correctly, the person to whom you are speaking
will know you’re either an English teacher or a narc.
Who do you want to sleep with
This should be:
With whom do you want to sleep
However, guys to whom this would be said would suspect that
they were in for an expensive and perhaps boring evening with a
girl who would say this correctly. It’s just not cool.
My impression is that in written speech, almost anyone can feel
comfortable using the proper word. I guess maybe the ordinary
person thinks if you have time to revise, then it’s OK to
Sometimes confusion arises from the fact that
who/whom appears to be part of a different
clause. However, as long as you put the word in the right clause
and follow the preceding guidelines, you will not make mistakes.
Here are some more difficult examples:
I know who will seduce me tonight.
Some people think that who is the object of
know. This is not accurate. Whois the subject of
seduce. The whole clause “who will seduce me
tonight” is the object of “know.” You can solve
the problem by inserting he/him. He
will seduce me.
The issue is sometimes more difficult with whoever.
This is because many people who can distinguish who and
whom by ear get confused by the longer word.
I’d like to have sex again with
whoever seduced me last night.
Many people incorrectly say whomever, because they
think the word is the object of the preposition
“with.” This is incorrect; it is the subject of
“seduced.” Again, you can solve the problem by
inserting he/him. He seduced me last
I’d like to have sex again with WHOMEVER I
night. (Many people correctly say WHOMEVER, but
they do this because they think the word is the object
of the preposition "with." This is incorrect; it is the
object of "seduced." Again, you can solve the problem
by inserting HE/HIM. I seduced HIM last night.)
That’s all there is to it.
- Verb tense and time
In general, you should start with one tense and stick with it,
unless you have a reason to change. The most common mistake is for
authors to mix the present and past tense together. I do this
myself when I am writing my first draft of these reviews, but I
make an attempt to go through my manuscript before I post it and
adjust the verbs to a single tense—usually the present.
It would normally be considered a mistake to write the following:
Susie walked into the room. I go over to her and
start to flirt with her.
On the other hand, a good writer might mix tenses like that on
purpose. As written, the first sentence tends to describe a
mundane, past event (in the past tense). By using the present
tense in the second sentence, the author may be trying to bring us
back into the past and feel that we re seeing it actually
If my students do this and seem to be doing it for a purpose, I
let them get away with it. Were I to find these sentences in
Hemingway or Steinbeck, I probably wouldn’t even bother
contacting their publisher.
A serious problem is once you start changing tenses, it may be
difficult to get back to the regular (past) tense. As I said, if
you re a good writer and have a feel for the language, you can
possibly get by with changing tenses, and the shift may even
enhance your story. But most authors should find a tense and stick
Mixed Action: Once you choose a main tense for your
story, you do have to change tenses to describe action
that occurs before or after your main action. I
am not going to try to describe exact guidelines for all the verb
tenses that occur in the English language. Maybe I ll do that some
other time. Right now, all I want to say is this: when you change
tenses, make sure the change conveys what you really want to
Here is an example of a mistake made by a very good
There was no sign of her at my place. I guess she
went to see her boyfriend. It took me a long time to get to sleep
that night, wondering about Brenda and her boyfriend, and what
they did together.
The problem is with the verb guess. The author is
describing something that happened in the past. All the other
verbs are in the past tense. It would be reasonable to
use guess in the present tense, but then it would mean that the
guessing took place at a different time than everything else. As
it is written, the second sentence can be paraphrased thus:
Even today I don’t know where she was. I guess
she went to see her boyfriend.
In the context of the story, that paraphrase makes no sense.
It’s not what the author meant to say. The narrator is
writing now about something that happened many years ago.
At the time the narrator is supposed to express this thought, he
does know that Brenda was not with her boyfriend. (In
fact, the main gist of the story is that the narrator was
the mystery boyfriend—unknown to him at that time.) What the
author meant to say was this:
Today I know where she was. At the time I assumed
she had gone to see her boyfriend.
The problem is that the incorrect verb actually has a perfectly
legitimate meaning; but that meaning is not what the author meant
to say. If authors do this too often, readers have no choice
except to ignore the author’s verb tenses. This deprives the
author of an effective tool for communicating action clearly. I
would have written the second sentence like this:
I assumed she had gone to see her boyfriend.
I would have used assumed instead of guessed,
because I think that verb describes more clearly what the narrator
actually did. He didn’t take a guess. He made an
In the very next paragraph the author says this:
Sunday morning she was there again, sitting in
the back. This time Brenda was wearing a bikini and sunning
herself. I guess it was better than her just being wrapped up in a
ball like the last couple of days. Communication lines were still
In this case, guess is fine. All the other action is
in the past, but the author is now retrospectively making
a guess why Brenda was wearing a bikini and sunning herself. The
sentence means this:
Even today I’m not sure why Brenda was wearing a
sunning herself. I guess it was better than what she had been
My point is not that this author is an idiot.
He’s a very good writer. Rather, my point is that verb tense
does make a difference. I find that the best strategy is
to find one tense and stick with it—except when you have a
good reason to change tenses.
To put it differently, be sure to make your verb tenses
actually describe the real sequence of thought and action.
In addition, the English language has a wide variety of verb
tenses. It is not sensible to try to cover them all here; but here
are some examples of verbs showing past action:
We fucked for nearly an hour.
We have fucked for nearly an hour.
We had fucked for nearly an hour.
We did fuck for nearly an hour.
We were fucking for nearly an hour.
We had been fucking for nearly an hour.
We used to fuck for nearly an hour.
Each of the preceding sentences expresses a slightly different nuance.
Try them out, and see if you can tell the difference.
Finally, words other than verbs can help describe when an
action took place. Use these words carefully and correctly. For
example, a person might say
I am going to fuck my husband’s brains out
If that person carried out her plans and commented on the activity the
next day, she would say:
I fucked my husband’s brains out last night.
Of course, she could also make the first statement, but that would require
a second fuckation.
Where people sometimes make mistakes is when they put the idea into a more
My husband sent me roses the next day because I
had fucked his brains out last night.
The problem is that phrases like last night and words like tomorrow take
their perspective from the time they are stated. The previous
sentence should have said this:
My husband sent me roses the next day because I
had fucked his brains out the night before.