By answering this question, it will really help me
February 16, 2018 9:20 AM   Subscribe

I'm a rhetoric/composition instructor at a community college. I see this (to me) very odd and distracting construction frequently in student writing, and I could use some assistance in addressing it. Examples: "By taking this action, it will help drive prices down." "With being an athlete, it makes it hard to study." Is there a name for this? Have you successfully addressed this in a class?

I've pointed this out to individual students during rough draft conferences and the like. But I don't think I'm doing it terribly effectively, because it pops back up. I just can't seem to formulate a good explanation as to WHY it's weird, and I was hoping some of you wonderful grammar/college English could give me some vocabulary with which to approach this in the classroom. Thank you much!!
posted by deep thought sunstar to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's a kind of dangling participle I think.
posted by crazy with stars at 9:26 AM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]


I think the way to describe this problem to students is to explain that the participial phrase should modify a noun actually in the sentence. In the second example, who is it that is being an athlete? They should be in the sentence if they are that important.
posted by nat at 9:31 AM on February 16, 2018


Can your students identify the subject of the sentence? That might be a good place to start. If you do, you can likely lead them to re-phrase the first sentence as "Taking this action will help drive prices down." It's still not a great sentence construction and you probably still want to progress to "If we take this action, blah blah..." You could even make a list of different ways to put this and ask them to pick the strongest one.

You can cite rules to show how crummy those sentences are-- some combination of a participial phrase that really should be a subject or a clause agreeing with the subject, plus those unnecessary words like "by" and "with,"-- but you probably let them break some other grammar rules in their writing. Plus, these constructions have a certain use in spoken English. My father, an incredibly precise stylist in writing, used to say stuff like "With the thought being that..." because he was thinking as he was formulating the sentence.
posted by BibiRose at 9:35 AM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


The preposition is unnecessary. In the question in your subject, the antecedent of "it" is the gerund phrase "answering this question". The "by" serves no function.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:36 AM on February 16, 2018


These are both subordinate phrases that don't clearly modify any given word in the sentence. Ask them to think of where they would move that phrases if it wasn't at the start of the sentence. There's nowhere for it to go, right? You wouldn't say "It by taking this action will help..."

It's also unnecessarily verbose. "Taking this action will help drive prices down." "Being an athlete makes it hard to study."

Fundamentally, they don't understand gerunds.
posted by praemunire at 9:38 AM on February 16, 2018 [16 favorites]


Yep, those are dangling modifiers, similar to (some would say a type of) misplaced modifiers, which might be a more common search term. The phrase before the comma should be referring to (modifying) the word immediately after the comma, but in those sentences, the phrase is referring to a subject not even in the sentence.

The corrections could be something like "By taking this action, we will drive prices down." and "being an athlete makes it hard to study".
posted by randomnity at 9:39 AM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]


Do they talk like this? It seems like it might be an attempt to write in a fancier way (in speech, someone might say, "I'm an athlete, so it's hard to study").

When I taught college English a million years ago, the book Errors and Expectations was the text for learning to figure out why students were doing what they're doing. Perhaps there's a more recent book that people can point to, but if not, getting a copy might be worth your while.
posted by FencingGal at 9:41 AM on February 16, 2018 [8 favorites]


Also, don't assume that something popping up again means you're not explaining it well. These students have probably had these writing habits for years - even a great explanation isn't going to change them overnight.
posted by FencingGal at 9:44 AM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


Yes, dangling participle. AND it is just not good to start a modifying phrase with "being," because of course the thing is being what it is, and it's clumsy to point it out.
The easiest way to explain the dangling part is to have them point out the subject of the second clause, and explain that the first phrase has to describe it. They never know what "modify" means from high school anymore.A good clear example helps. Like
NO: As an athlete myself, it is obvious why Joe misses class so often.
YES: As an athlete myself, I understand why Joe misses class so often.
As for "being:"
NO: Being an athlete myself, it is obvious why Joe misses class so often.
ALSO NO JUST BECAUSE BEING IS A CLUMSY WORD TO START A SENTENCE: Being an athlete myself, I understand why Joe misses class so often.
I hear this often these days, not only in writing but also in anything attempting formal speech, especially in the ubiquitous "That being said,...." before introducing a disclaimer.
posted by flourpot at 9:55 AM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


Ask them what or who is the subject of the sentence. “By baking these cookies, it will help me have dessert” only makes sense if “it” refers to a specific non-human cookie baker. Same with “by taking this action, it will help drive prices down.” What is helping to drive prices down by taking this action?

An easy rewrite is “taking this action will help drive prices down.” If that doesn’t make sense, then the sloppy writing has revealed sloppy thinking around a causality.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 9:59 AM on February 16, 2018


You might make them try an exercise where they have to cut their sentences down until they can't be cut them anymore without changing the meaning. I remember doing that exercise in college. In your examples, the obviously quicker, more direct way to write them is "taking this action will help drive prices down" or "being an athlete makes it hard to study." They could probably be written as more direct and more concise from there.

I agree you could also ask them to identify the subject and then write a direct, concise sentence that follows a simple subject > verb construction and ask them which one sounds clearer to them. I don't know what to call this either problem necessarily, but it definitely is a clunky way to express an idea.
posted by AppleTurnover at 10:09 AM on February 16, 2018 [3 favorites]


Sometimes I treat these as mixed constructions and talk about how two different sentences can be generated from what the student has written.
posted by audi alteram partem at 10:14 AM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


You're not going to fix this just by telling your students to pay more attention.

This construction — like it or not — is everywhere in informal spoken English. Even you probably use it when you're speaking off the cuff, though of course you try not to when you're writing or speaking from a script. Because it's common, an untrained reader isn't going to find it jumping out at them as wrong or odd. And that's going to be true no matter how much attention they pay.

It's like if I tell you to pay close attention to flurby gabaluffs in your writing. Until you've actually learned what a flurby gabaluff is, and acquired the skill of recognizing it on the fly, you can pay as much attention as you like and it won't get you anywhere.

So, yeah. Instead of just paying more attention using their existing skills, they're going to have to learn a new skill: how to recognize a dangling modifier. If they want to learn this, they'll have to practice going through some steps. First, look at a sentence. Then, ask yourself if it has an initial modifier. Then, figure out what it modifies. Then, figure out whether that is the subject of the sentence or not. Eventually, after they run through those steps enough times, this will become second nature.
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:17 AM on February 16, 2018 [4 favorites]


I actually think the root of this problem is often just a plain old indefinite pronoun (plus, of course, the sense that a "By/With" independent clause at the beginning makes their writing sound more Official). It's lazy use of "it," very often. They might find it reassuring to know that, when they've used "it" indefinitely in this way, it's an easy fix:
" By  studying for the test  , it  makes getting a good grade more likely."

I also wonder if part of the problem may be that, somewhere in their past, teachers hammered into them the edict to NEVER start a sentence with a gerund—in an ill-advised effort to prevent fragments. So when they feel the urge to start a sentence with a gerund, they tack on a comparatively safe-seeming preposition. Just a theory.

Anyway, I would start with a simple crappy-modifier example like "By eating that spoiled cheese, my stomach started to hurt." They'll recognize that stomachs don't eat things. Then go from there.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 10:55 AM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


This book is excellent if you would like a general reference.
posted by KateViolet at 11:01 AM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


They are also utilizing passive voice, perhaps in a misguided attempt to sound scholarly. Teaching them the benefits of making their voice active when appropriate would help with this awkward sentence construction. Using active voice in your examples turns the sentences around to "This action will help drive prices down" and "Being an athlete makes it hard to study."
posted by LKWorking at 11:27 AM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


(Neither of these sentences is in the passive voice. Similar passive-voice sentences would be "prices are driven down" or "studying is made hard." These are active-voice sentences that happen to have "it" in subject position, as CheesesOfBrazil points out.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 11:36 AM on February 16, 2018 [3 favorites]


I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong or even awkward about your first sentence because a preceding sentence could make it unobjectionable: "when the Federal Reserve Board meets next week, it will almost certainly raise interest rates."
posted by jamjam at 12:11 PM on February 16, 2018 [1 favorite]


LKWorking: "They are also utilizing passive voice, perhaps in a misguided attempt to sound scholarly. Teaching them the benefits of making their voice active when appropriate would help with this awkward sentence construction. Using active voice in your examples turns the sentences around to "This action will help drive prices down" and "Being an athlete makes it hard to study.""

Whatever this is, it is definitely not the passive voice.
posted by crazy with stars at 12:33 PM on February 16, 2018


"when the Federal Reserve Board meets next week, it will almost certainly raise interest rates."

The verb in the first clause of that sentence isn't a gerund like the examples in the OP.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:47 PM on February 16, 2018


That's an example of a preceding sentence that renders the first example in the question unobjectionable, kevinbelt: "when the Federal Reserve Board meets next week, it will almost certainly raise interest rates. By taking this action, it will help drive prices down."
posted by jamjam at 1:42 PM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]


Linguistically, could the above-the-fold examples be cases of topicalization or topic and comment structure? In some languages, you simply start off by saying what the sentence is going to be about, then there's a topic marker particle—は wa in Japanese—and then you finish the sentence.
posted by XMLicious at 2:26 PM on February 16, 2018


Years ago when I was in a writing workshop, a fellow writer circled all my excessive uses of the word "it" to point out that at times I used it without a clear antecedent. So you could try that with your students, if they're clear on the concept of antecedents. It sure worked for me. It made me a stickler with the use of "it," which is easy to toss around sloppily if you're not careful. You could ask susceptible students to check that every time they use the word "it" they can find a clear noun that "it" is referring to.
posted by gigondas at 6:07 PM on February 16, 2018 [2 favorites]


I don't know what this is called, but I see it all the time. I tried to explain it for a few semesters. I called it "the by error" and made a worksheet with a bunch of offending sentences for them to correct. From which worksheet they benefited not at all. I think I'll try again this week. I'll start by writing a "by" clause on the board and then I'll call on people and make them finish the sentence. Repeat ninety times. Then make them write three sentences beginning with a by clause. Whereupon they'll write "By the stream a tender violet grew..." "By God, I'm gonna kick ass in my respiratory therapy class or die trying." "By ten p.m. we'll be out of class, I hope to Christ." They will fail to grasp the concept the same way in this very thread people have failed to understand what the hell passive voice is supposed to be and think that any sentence with a form of the verb to be in it is in the passive voice. People probably learn something in English class. I remember learning how to make subjects and verbs agree and that "Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" is a sad story, so surely my students are having similarly rich experiences? I mean, they're in there 3 hrs a week for a whole semester, so it stands to reason. Maybe it's even something about grammar for some of them, though I've never seen any evidence.
posted by Don Pepino at 12:35 PM on February 17, 2018


Years ago when I was in a writing workshop, a fellow writer circled all my excessive uses of the word "it" to point out that at times I used it without a clear antecedent. So you could try that with your students, if they're clear on the concept of antecedents. It sure worked for me. It made me a stickler with the use of "it," which is easy to toss around sloppily if you're not careful. You could ask susceptible students to check that every time they use the word "it" they can find a clear noun that "it" is referring to.

One of my high-school English teachers accomplished this by outlawing "it," as well as what she called "naked thises" (that is, we could say "This concept encompasses blah di blah" but not "This encomplasses blah di blah"), in our papers. I think she started by circling them but then started docking our grade if we used either. I found that having to be specific really helped my formal writing.
posted by lazuli at 1:37 PM on February 17, 2018


Hey, check it out: "the by error" showed up in popular new singlemingle site "Trump.Dating!"

“...we believe that by matching patriotic and political viewpoints as a base foundation of the relationship, it will allow one to focus on what really matters.”
posted by Don Pepino at 5:37 AM on February 20, 2018


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