Episode 140: October 10, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today, guest-writer Bonnie Trenga helps us understand modifiers that come at the beginning of a sentence.
As a guest-writer, I plan to talk about two kinds of troublesome modifiers that begin a sentence. Like many of you, Suzanne wants to know if it’s OK to start a sentence with an “as” phrase, as in the sentence “As citizens of China, we enjoy eating noodles.” Of course you can, but you have to pay attention to what comes after this phrase.
“As” at the Beginning of a Sentence
In the phrase “as citizens of China,” the word “as” is a preposition that means “in the role of” or “in the capacity of” (1), but the whole phrase acts as an adjective to modify what comes next, in this case “we” (2). I often find myself saying sentences like “As a copy editor, I must correct many mistakes.” Now you try. Just plug in the specifics for your own job: “As a whatever, I do whatever.” A home inspector might say, “As a home inspector, I have to watch out for bats in the attic.”
Misplaced Modifier Alert
So feel free to start a sentence with an “as” phrase, but just be careful that you put the person that the “as” phrase refers to right after the job name. It would be incorrect to say, “As a home inspector, bats sometimes fly in my face when I’m in the attic.” That’s called a misplaced modifier, because the modifier, the “as” phrase, mistakenly modifies “bats.” This is a very common error that I as a copy editor see.
Notice that in the last sentence I said, “I as a copy editor.” This sentence, although a bit awkward, is correct because “I” is next to the “as” phrase. An “as” phrase can sneak up on you in the middle or at the end of a sentence, too, so make sure you put the correct person after the “as” phrase no matter where it appears. Most of the time, though, the “as” phrase will be at the beginning of the sentence. So if you’re at all like me, you’ll yell to yourself, “There’s an ‘as’ at the beginning of this sentence!”
As a stickler for grammar rules, I urge you not to use “it” or “there” after an “as” phrase. So this would be wrong: “As a copy editor, it pains me to see this error so often.” You should instead say, “As a copy editor, I feel pain when I see this common error.” As a copy editor, there are too many times when I have to rearrange sentences. Wait a minute. I should have said, “As a copy editor, I have to rearrange sentences too many times.” As a student of grammar, you should try to remember this mantra: “As,” “job name,” comma, “person.” That way, you’ll remember the correct order and avoid a misplaced modifier.
Should You Use “Like” at the Beginning of a Sentence?
I’ve already mentioned, I think, that as a copy editor, I find many misplaced modifiers at the beginning of sentences. You might have heard a previous episode on misplaced modifiers, which goes into more detail. As someone against misplaced modifiers, I could go on about this topic for hours, but I’ll warn you about just one other type of common misplaced modifier. “Like”—and its opposite, “unlike”—often begin a sentence but lead to a misplaced modifier in the same manner as the word “as.” Take this faulty sentence: “Like most of you, the reason I study grammar is that it’s fascinating.” Here, “the reason” is not like most of you; “I” am like most of you, and “I” should go right after the “like” phrase. You’re comparing “most of you” to another person, so be sure that the person you’re comparing comes right after the comma.
So when you see a sentence that starts with an “as,” “like,” or “unlike,” pay a little extra attention to what comes next. Like me, you probably want to keep your grammar straight.