Christian Homeschooling Resources

Sharpen Your Grammatical Clause

  • Marlene Caroselli Ed.D
  • 2012 21 Dec
Sharpen Your Grammatical <i>Clause</i>

The Logical Life

It’s been said the grammatical man leads a logical life. The saying, of course, applies to women and children as well. However, more than logic is imparted by the correct use of words. There’s a self-confidence that can be gained as well. When a person knows he is speaking properly, he doesn’t hesitate to express his thoughts.

The confidence that ideally begins early in a child’s education will sustain her throughout her life. Of all the subjects she studies, only language arts skills will be used every single day as she moves from schooling and ultimately into a job—inside or outside the home. Yes, math and social studies and foreign languages are important, without a doubt. But no other subject is required on a daily, even an hourly, basis for the rest of your child’s life.

Helping children understand grammatical rules and feel comfortable applying them is a serious obligation for the homeschooling parent. Because those rules are finite and basically constant, it’s not a daunting task to memorize them. We’ll look at two grammar rules today. First, we’ll explore the rule, and then we’ll examine it further via an example. Finally, I’ll provide a quiz to test your understanding.

The Law of Proximity

Let’s begin with a little-known law, the Law of Proximity. The rule says that when a pronoun is used, it must refer to the closest already-referenced noun. If the sentence is written so that two nouns might be referenced, then the reader (or listener) will be confused. Look at this sentence: 

Donna called Rosie every day while she was in the hospital.

It could be that Rosie was in the hospital, but the writer of this sentence might have meant that Donna was in the hospital. Here’s a much better construction:

Donna was in the hospital for a week. She called Rosie every single day.

It’s clear now that “she” refers to “Donna,” the obvious antecedent. When the meaning is not clear, that is, when you have a pronoun with two possible earlier references, the problem is called an “indefinite antecedent.” 

Radio announcer Jerry Coleman once made the following statement about baseball legend Dave Winfield: “Winfield goes back to the wall to catch the ball. He hits his head on the wall and it rolls off! It’s rolling all the way back to second base. This is a terrible thing for the Padres.” 

You see the problem right away, don’t you? The problem is the word it. There are three possible noun antecedents: wall, head, and ball. According to the Law of Proximity, the closest noun is wall. And we know the wall was not rolling!

Coleman, of course, meant the ball was rolling. But for a moment, the “terrible rolling thing” does appear to be Winfield’s head!

Practical Application Practice

Using these sample sentences, have your child draw arrows from each underlined word to the two possible antecedents for each underlined word.

1.   After the Senator watched the lion perform, he was fed 25 pounds of raw meat.

2.   Hostility and aggression can be destructive to you and your family members, so you should get rid of them.

3.   You have many skills prized by employers, so be sure to take advantage of them.

4.   Two years ago, a mole grew on my nose, which I then had surgically removed.

5.   A truck ran off the road and struck the telephone pole as it tried to get back on the paved road.

6.   She admired his biceps as they nodded to one another, strangers united by a clear attraction.

7.   From the car of Mrs. Dipner, strangers stole a cell phone, even though her husband was in it.

8.   The Air Force pilots were impressed by the waves as they crashed on the rocks.

9.   People who use certain medications that smoke frequently run the risk of damaged health.

10. Sandra will have her cat’s tail operated on, but if it doesn’t heal, she’ll have to be put away.

Then, work with your child to rewrite the sentences so that the antecedent is clear. Or simply eliminate the pronoun altogether. For example, the first sentence could be revised as follows:

The Senator watched the lion perform. Afterwards, the lion was fed 25 pounds of raw meat.

Bringing clarity to meaning is always a good goal, and usually there are several grammatical options that will work well.

Misplaced Modifier Rule

Words and phrases that modify other words in a sentence should be placed near the person or thing they are describing, especially when you have a complex sentence. A complex sentence has both a dependent clause and an independent clause. The independent clause, a simple sentence, is separated from the dependent clause by a comma. A good way to verify the correct placement of modifying phrases is to ask yourself, “Is the person or thing being described immediately before the comma the same person or thing being described immediately after the comma?” 

The world was amazed by the swimming skills of Olympian Michael Phelps at the most recent summer games. However, twenty years ago another swimmer, David Berkoff, took the world by storm. He was a student at Harvard University and was well known for his backstroking power. He had analyzed the dolphin kick and once revealed in an interview, “It seemed pretty obvious to me that kicking under water seemed to be a lot faster than swimming on the surface.” 

If you’re familiar with the laws of physics, you know that turbulence and air on the surface of the water create resistance, which can slow down a swimmer. Berkoff stayed under water as long as he could, especially at the start of a race and after reaching the wall and kicking off for a return lap. Reporters loved his maneuver and named it the “Berkoff Blastoff.” 

Berkoff, who won four Olympic medals because of this specialized kick, acknowledged that he probably would not have made the Olympic team without it. He admits that without the kick, he was a good backstroker, but not a great one. By the way, his revolutionary move led to officials imposing a limit of 15 meters for swimming under water.

Here’s how an American sportscaster reported on Berkoff’s race: “Using the Berkoff Blastoff, we see David Berkoff take the lead.” The sentence suggests that “we” (the reporters) are using the Blastoff. And, of course, it’s the swimmer who is using the Blastoff. The modifying phrase is misplaced. The participle just dangles. It would have been much more clear to those who heard the broadcast if the sportscaster had said this: “We see David Berkoff take the lead, using his famous Berkoff Blastoff!”

More Practice

Underline the correct sentence in each pair.

1.   Being correctly typed, the boss appreciated my report.

      Being correctly typed, my report was appreciated by my boss.

2.   Walking rapidly down the hall, I was startled by a noise.

      Walking rapidly down the hall, a noise startled me.

3.  Being old and decrepit, I was able to buy the house for a low price.

     Being old and decrepit, the house sold for a low price.

4.  Tired and depressed, quitting seemed to be the only available option.

     Tired and depressed, he decided that quitting was the only option available to him.

5.   Confused by the freeway signs, she passed up the exit ramp.

      Confused by the freeway signs, the exit ramp was passed up. 

6.  Singing a popular song, her bicycle could be seen speeding down the street with her astride it.

     Singing a popular song, she sped down the street on her bicycle.

7.  Traveling in Europe, I was amazed by the number of polyglots.

     Traveling in Europe, the number of polyglots I observed amazed me.

8.  Searching frantically through my desk, the report suddenly appeared.

     Searching frantically through my desk, I found the report buried beneath some old folders.

9.  Running down the street, I saw the bus go right by me.

     Running down the street, the bus passed right by me.

10. Staring out the window, the cityscape was enchanting.

      Staring out the window, the man found the cityscape an enchanting sight.*

The easiest way to make the best grammatical choices in sentences like these is to ask, “Who or what are they talking about in the beginning of the sentence?” Then ask, “Is that the same person or thing being talked about in the second half of the sentence, after the comma?” If so, the sentence is written correctly, and readers will be able to comprehend it easily.

Grammar indeed has power. It is a power you will want to impart to your child to help facilitate his or her transitions to various stages of learning...and of life.

*Answers: 1. second sentence 2. first 3. second 4. second 5. first 6. second 7. first (An introduction of the word polyglot provides another opportunity for vocabulary expansion. Explore other words with the poly– prefix, which means “many.” For a quick science lesson, research the “glottis.” A polyglot, your child will soon see, is a person who is conversant in more than one language.) 8. second 9. first 10. second

Copyright, 2011. Used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine, Winter 2010-11. Read the magazine free at or read it on the go and download the free apps at to read the magazine on your mobile devices.

Marlene Caroselli, Ed.D. is a prolific author, keynoter, and corporate trainer. You can reach her at Additional language arts learning tips can be found in blogs at

Publication date: December 21, 2012