This section discusses the most common grammatical problems found in student papers. The problems relate to the following topics:

  • Modifiers (misplaced and dangling)
  • Agreement: singular and plural words
  • Reflexive and intensive pronouns (the “self” words)
  • Split infinitives


“Modifiers” are words that give readers additional information about the parts of a sentence. Adjectives and adverbs are among the most common modifiers.

The green slime was poured quickly into the beaker.

In this sentence, green is an adjective that modifies slime, and quickly is an adverb that modifiespoured.

Such simple one-word modifiers are easy to manage, but writers often run into difficulty when they use longer adjective or adverb phrases.

Misplaced modifiers

A misplaced modifier is usually an adjective or adverb phrase placed in the wrong position in a sentence:

Example from Groucho Marx:
“Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas, I’ll never know.”

Measuring thirty miles wide, the plane entered the eye of the hurricane.

It is not the plane that is “measuring thirty miles wide,” but the eye of the hurricane.

Dangling modifiers

The dangling modifier is a word or phrase that does not have a subject to modify. It is said to “dangle” because it has no word to which it can be logically attached.

Many dangling modifiers are participle phrases.

Example (Dangling):
Calibrating the thermistor through the temperature range of 17° to 19° Celsius, a value of 4.0 +0.1°C.I molar was obtained.

The sentence above reads as if the “value” did the calibrating. The subject of the phrase is actually the experimenters, who do not appear in the sentence.

Corrected Example:
Calibrating the thermistor through the range of 17° to 19° Celsius, we obtained a value of 4.0 + 0.1°C. 1 molar.

In this sentence, it is clear that “we,” the experimenters, did the calibrating.

Infinitive and prepositional phrases may also be dangling modifers.

Example (Dangling):
To do well in college, good grades are essential.

This sentence does not state who wants “to do well in college.”

Corrected Example:
To do well in college, a student needs good grades.

In this sentence, it is clear that the modifier refers to “a student.”

Agreement: singular and plural words

Subject-verb agreement can be difficult to manage. In our informal conversations, we use “incorrect” agreement so often that formal, correct agreement sometimes looks strange. Moreover, the rules governing certain collective nouns and indefinite pronouns vary among grammar books and may change with new editions. The rules below are consistent with The Scott, Foresman Handbook for Writers, 7th ed.

Watch out for subjects that fall into the following categories:

1. Indefinite pronouns–pronouns that do not refer to a particular person or thing,
2. Collective nouns–nouns that refer to a group,
3. Nouns with irregular plurals–nouns whose plural forms do not end with an –s or –es, and
4. Incorrect plurals-—words that do not exist in the dictionary.

Some indefinite pronouns and collective nouns take singular verbs, some take plural, and some take singular or plural according to the context.

1. Indefinite pronouns

Pronouns that are always singular:

another, anybody, anyone, anything, each, every, everybody, everyone, everything, no one, nobody, nothing, somebody, something, someone, much

Pronouns that are always plural:

few, many, several

Pronouns that may be singular or plural, depending on the word to which they refer:

all, any, either, more, most, neither, none, some

Example (singular):
Some of the lab space is covered with green slime.

In this sentence, some refers to space, which takes a singular verb.

Example (plural):
Some of the benches are covered with green slime.

In this sentence, some refers to benches, which takes a plural verb.

2. Collective Nouns

Collective nouns are those that name a group: audience, class, committee, crew, crowd, family, jury, team, etc.

Some collective nouns can take either singular or plural verbs. Some grammar books state that your choice depends on whether you are treating the group as a unit or as separate individuals:

Example (Singular):
The committee plans to finish its report tomorrow.

Here, “committee” is considered a unit.

Example (Plural):
The committee agree that the workers should get a raise.

Here, “committee” is considered a collection of individuals.

“Number” is a particularly troublesome collective noun:

“The number” is always singular: The number of wolves in the park has exceeded our expectations.

“A number” is always plural: A number of wolves have migrated south from Wyoming.

3. Nouns with Irregular Plurals

analysis-analyses index-indices
appendix-appendices medium-media
bacterium-bacteria phenomenon-phenomena
crisis-crises radius-radii
criterion-criteria stimulus-stimuli
curriculum-curricula stratum-strata
datum-data thesis-theses
hypothesis-hypotheses vortex-vortices

The most troublesome words among this group are “criteria” and “data.” In formal writing, including all ChE undergraduate papers and reports, “criteria” and “data” are plural:

The main criteria were weight and cost.

Our data are the best.

4. Incorrect plurals

equipments–The word “equipment” is both singular and plural.

softwares—Write and say “software programs.”

Reflexive and intensive pronouns (the “self” words)

Words like “myself,” “himself,” “yourself,” and “itself” may be either reflexive or intensive pronouns. They are reflexive when used in sentences in which the subject and the object refer to the same person:

Reflexive: I fooled myself into thinking I would get the job.

These pronouns are intensive when used as modifiers, to emphasize another noun:

Intensive: I myself cleaned up after the experiment.

Reflexive/intensive pronouns need someone to “reflect” in the sentence. They cannot stand alone. In the above sentences, the word “myself” does the work of reflecting or intensifying “I.”

Some of us make the mistake of using a reflexive/intensive pronoun to replace personal pronouns like “me”:

Example (incorrect):
When you’re finished with the report, give it to Kevin or myself.

This sentence does not sound formal or elegant; it sounds wrong! This usage is called an “untriggered reflexive” because there is no “I” to “trigger” the reflexive pronoun.

Corrected Example:
When you’re finished with the report, give it to Kevin or me.

Here “me” is used correctly as an object of the preposition “to.”
Don’t be afraid of “me”!

Don’t forget that these are NOT words: hisself, theirself, theirselves, themselves

Split Infinitives

An infinitive is a verb form beginning with “to”: to see, to do, to make, to sell, to create, etc. In formal writing, do not break up the “to + verb” construction with any other words:

Example (incorrect):
We measured the liquid with a scale in order to not make any mistakes.

Corrected Example:
We measured the liquid in order not to make any mistakes.