Once you”ve ended your essay, spend whatever time is left editing and proofreading. You can”t do a complete makeover, but you can do a great deal to improve communication between you and your readers.

Editing for Clarity

Check your essay for clarity by asking yourself whether a reader could misconstrue anything you”ve written. Penny T. wrote her essay about runaway teenagers—those desperate kids who leave home in search of a different life. One of her sentences read “The last thing parents should do is talk to their kids.” Coming to that sentence, a reader might well wonder whether Penny means that parents should talk to their kids as a last resort, or, that in a list of what parents ought to do, the final step is talking to their kids.

Later in the essay Penny wrote, “Ellen told her friend Debbie that she had made a serious mistake by running away from home.” Penny certainly understood what she intended to say, but a reader can”t tell whether Ellen took a dim view of Debbie”s actions or whether Ellen herself had second thoughts about her own flight. Granted, these sentences have been quoted out of context, but the point remains: What may seem perfectly clear to a writer may send a puzzling message to the reader.

That”s why you should work hard to arrange your words in the clearest order. Watch for grammatical perils that interfere with meaning, especially (1) misplaced modifiers, (2) dangling participles, and (3) lack of parallelism—all discussed in the pages that follow.


Modifiers are words, phrases, and clauses that tell something about or limit the meaning of a particular word or statement. For example:

The bedroom had a broken window.

The adjective broken is a modifier because it tells something about the condition of the window. In other words, broken “modifies” window.

Jessica bought a mouse that was guaranteed to work with her computer.

The clause that was guaranteed to work with her computer is a modifier because it tells something about the mouse. It modifies the noun mouse.

Modifiers must be placed so that they modify the correct words:

Mike only loves Sharon.

Here only modifies the verb loves. The modifier is appropriate if Mike feels nothing but love for Sharon—no admiration, no awe, no respect, nor any other emotion. If, however, Mike has but one love, and she is Sharon, then only is misplaced. Properly placed, only should come either before or after Sharon:

Mike loves only Sharon. or Mike loves Sharon only.

Another example:

Naomi decided when she had finished the essay to watch TV.

In this sentence, when she had finished the essay is the modifier. But it is hard to tell whether it modifies decided or watch. If it modifies decided, Naomi finished her essay and then made a decision to watch TV. If it modifies watch, Naomi worked on her essay and decided at some point that she would watch TV when she had completed the work.

When she had finished the essay, Naomi decided to watch TV.
While writing an essay Naomi decided to watch TV when she had finished.

Now the meaning of both sentences is unambiguous.

Obviously, misplaced modifiers can cloud a writer”s intentions. To avoid the problem, place modifiers as close as possible to the words they modify:


Philip donated his old car to a charity that no longer ran well.

The modifier that no longer ran well is too far from car, the word it modifies.


Philip donated to a charity his old car that no longer ran well.


The bowling alley lends out shoes to its customers of all sizes.

The modifier of all sizes should be closer to shoes, the word it modifies.


The bowling alley lends out shoes of all sizes to its customers.


In a sentence words must fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes, a misplaced word looks as though it fits, but it fails to say what the writer intended.

(1) While running to English class, the bell rang.
(2) Working full time, the summer passed quickly.
(3) When only eight years old, my father warned me about smoking.

The ludicrous meaning of these sentences may not strike you immediately, but look again. Do you see that these sentences describe a surreal world in which bells run to class, summers hold full-time jobs, and youthful fathers dispense advice? The problem is that these sentences try to mate two groups of words that can”t go together. The parts are mismatched. After the comma in sentence 1, you expect to find out who is running, but you are not told. Likewise, after the commas in sentences 2 and 3, you are not told who was working and who is only eight years old. In short, you”re left dangling. Hence, the label dangling modifier has been given to this type of construction. To correct the error, add the noun or pronoun to be modified, as in:

While the boys were running to English class, the bell rang.
Because Charlotte worked full-time, her summer flew by.
When I was eight, my father warned me about smoking.

Re-writing the whole sentence is often the best cure for a dangling modifier, as in:


Still sound asleep at noon, my mother thought I might be sick.


My mother thought I might be sick because I was still sound asleep at noon.


While talking on the phone, the stew burned in the pot.


While I talked on the phone, the stew burned in the pot.

Practice in Identifying Misplaced and Dangling Modifiers

Directions: Revise the following sentences that contain a misplaced or dangling modifier. Some sentences may be corrected by shifting the placement of one or more words. Others need more substantial revision.

1. After completing the chemistry homework, that pizza tasted great.

2. Sound asleep in the hammock, Denise discovered her boyfriend.

3. Used all night to illuminate the steps, I needed new batteries for the flashlight.

4. Driving down the mountain road, a rock hit my windshield and smashed it.

5. Stopping to rest after a long hike, a grizzly bear stood in front of me.

6. After a quick breakfast, the school bus picked me up.

7. A report was submitted about the bank robbery by the police.

8. At the age of ten, Sasha”s family emigrated from Russia.

9. A bone was given to the dog we didn”t want.

10. Left alone in the house, every sound terrified the child.


A lack of parallelism in phrases and clauses is not just bad form but can be a source of confusion. Sound parallel structure, in contrast, keeps equivalent ideas in the same grammatical form. Take, for example, a sentence that lists the characteristics of a restaurant in which to have a family birthday party:

We are looking for a place that is private, plenty of space, has a friendly staff, and that people like to look at.

TIP images

Each element in a series must have the same grammatical structure.

The sentence makes some sense, of course, but it”s awkward because the four qualities of a desirable restaurant are not expressed in parallel form. Instead, they are a mix of an adjective, a phrase, and two clauses. One way to fix the problem is to use only adjectives, as in:

We are looking for a place that is private, spacious, friendly, and attractive.

Or use a series of nouns each preceded by an adjective:

We are looking for a place with total privacy, ample space, a friendly staff, and attractive surroundings.

When you arrange the pieces of a sentence in parallel form, the writing becomes clearer and stronger. It also puts you in the company of some of the world”s greatest stylists. Abraham Lincoln, for example, used parallelism at Gettysburg: “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” And later, “that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

John F. Kennedy used parallelism in his inaugural speech: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us good or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Like Lincoln and Kennedy, good writers everywhere know and apply the following principles of parallel construction.

1. Parallel ideas in a series should be expressed in the same grammatical form. Each idea should be equally important to the meaning and structure of the sentence. Use conjunctions such as and, but, for, or, yet, so, and nor to join parallel ideas.


Hazel”s parents objected that she played loud music and to the late hours she kept.


Hazel”s parents objected to the loud music she played and to the late hours she kept.

The parallel ideas consist of prepositional phrases followed by a pronoun (she) and verbs in the past tense (played, kept).

2. When used to compare or contrast, parallel ideas should be grammatical equivalents. In a comparison, for example, an idea expressed in a phrase must be paired with another idea also expressed in a phrase. An idea stated in a clause must be paired with another idea stated in a clause, and so forth.


They are worried more about public opinion than for what the effect of the proposal may be.

The prepositional phrase about public opinion may not be paired with the clause what the effect of the proposal may be.


They are worried more about public opinion than about the effect of the proposal.

3. Parallel ideas can also be expressed with pairs of words such as either/or, neither/ nor, whether/or, both/and, and not only/but also. But keep both words close to the parallel ideas.


I either plan to invite my aunt or my uncle to go shopping with me.

The signal word either is too far removed from the parallel phrases, my aunt or my uncle. Its placement misleads the reader into thinking that the verb plan is one of the parallel ideas.


I plan to invite either my aunt or my uncle to go shopping with me.

4. When articles, prepositions, and conjunctions appear before the first in a series of parallel items, they may have to be repeated before the others in the series.


Our mechanic did a better job on my car than his.

Did two mechanics work on the same car or did one mechanic work on two different cars? To clear up the ambiguity, repeat the preposition on, as in:


Our mechanic did a better job on my car than on his.

Sometimes repeating both a preposition and an article is necessary:


Before signing the contract, Tiffany spoke with the president and treasurer of the company.

Did Tiffany speak with one person or with two? Repeating with the helps to clarify the meaning:


Before signing the contract, Tiffany spoke with the president and with the treasurer of the company.

5. Parallel ideas should be logical equivalents.


Terry is six feet tall, kind, and a Texan.

Physical features, traits of character, and place of origin are not logically coordinated.

Less absurd:

Terry, a six-foot Texan, is kind.

It is still not terribly logical, but at least the revision emphasizes only one of Terry”s qualities—his kindness.


On Sunday, Meredith not only painted her toenails but got married.

This sentence is grammatically flawless, but unless it was written to get a laugh, it is ludicrous. Regardless of what you may have been told, painting toenails and getting married are not equivalents.

Less absurd:

Before her wedding on Sunday, Meredith painted her toenails. or On Sunday, after painting her toenails, Meredith got married.

Subordinating one of the ideas restores the logic, however weird.

Practice in Identifying Parallel Structure

Directions: Look for faulty parallelism in the following sentences. Write a correct version of the offending word or phrase in the space provided. Some sentences may be correct.

1. Mr. Phillips is funny, interesting, and inspires his classes to learn history.

2. The talk-show host not only was accused of being a bigot but also too stupid to continue working at the station.

3. Since Jenny started taking AP Math, she has worked harder and fewer parties.

4. Her job consisted mostly of writing and typing letters, reports, and various types of phone calls.

5. Mike likes to go to bed early and getting up early to do his work.

6. Our cat Sylvia was short-haired, affectionate, intelligent, and disappeared for days at a time.

7. Maggie hasn”t yet decided whether to be an art historian or commercial art.

8. The audience at the graduation ceremony both felt pride and satisfaction when the announcement was made.

9. The police officer walked into the courtyard, got caught in a crossfire, and was shot in the chest.

10. Either way, Nat expects to move to the country because he loves nature and live simply because he has little money.

11. The kids had not only scattered their books all over the bus but also the sidewalk.

12. His ideal house would be in a good location, with land around it, and with a view.

13. Joan”s pencil was broken, yellow, and came from this box.

14. His training in design would help him to know how to furnish the house simply and decorating would be simple, too.

15. The landlady told him that he could not have a microwave in his room and showers after 11:00 o”clock.

16. Hearing no car horns and buses and to be miles from friends may cause him to become bored and restless.

17. Either the mouse will find a quick way into the attic or will gnaw at the siding for days.

18. City living is exciting, convenient, and provides plenty of entertainment.

19. After winning the lottery, he”ll have an apartment in town, a house in the country, and find a job in the suburbs.

20. I think that Adam has the ability to win his match, defeat Tom in the sectionals, and he”ll emerge eventually as the best high school wrestler in the state.