Core Grammar #4: Mixed Sentences
The Pieces Just Don’t Fit Together
Two different problems can be called "Mixed Sentences." In both cases something in the first part of the sentence just does not fit with something in the last part of the sentence.
The basic definition of a mixed sentence is that it began in one direction, then switched to another direction without any warning. This is why mixed sentences are confusing.
Problem #1: The grammar doesn’t fit together.
As I said in Core Grammar #2 (What Is a sentence?), a sentence is a set of words which contains:
- a subject (what the sentence is about, the topic of the sentence)
- a predicate (what is said about the subject)
Some words and some word groups are not eligible to be subjects:
- Reflexive pronouns:
- Gwen and myself made the potato salad.
- Myself is in charge of the committee.
- Note: There is nothing humble or polite about misusing this pronoun. It's simply an error.
- Prepositional Phrases:
- Aboard the runaway train were frightened.
- Outside the boundary is dangerous to cross.
- Adverb Clauses:
- If you pay your bills on time can have a good credit score.
- Before we go on vacation must make reservations.
Often the problem is that a word or two got left out, and careful proofreading (perhaps with reading aloud) will point out the problem:
- The passengers aboard the runaway train were frightened.
- Before we go on vacation, we must make reservations.
The Topic Comment Sentence
You will not find much discussion of this one in grammar textbooks because it is a non-English structure. It starts by defining a topic, then (usually after a comma) gives a subject and a predicate:
- My uncle in Wichita, he is a good man.
- The chickens on MacDonald's farm, they are laying well this summer.
The usual repair is to simply delete the extra pronoun which is restating the subject:
- My uncle in Wichita is a good man.
- The chickens on MacDonald's farm are laying well this summer.
NOTE: In addition to being ungrammatical, the topic comment sentence is a very strong low-status marker.
Problem #2: The content doesn’t fit together.
A computerized grammar checker might catch the first sort of mixed sentence, but it will not catch the ones where the logic is fouled up:
- I have a husband and three children, which is a difficult schedule. The members of her family are not a schedule.
- The court decided that the woman's welfare was not safe with her abusive partner. The woman is who should be safe, not the welfare.
- Doctors, an honorable profession, requires a great attention to detail and a lot of memorization. Doctors are not a profession, medicine is.
Again, thoughtful proofreading is your best defense.
Is when… Is where…
Informal (and wordy) writing uses these phrases where a simple is would work much better. Here's why:
- Is when defines a time. (Noon is when I like to eat my lunch.)
- Is where defines a location. (Richland County is where I have lived for several years.)
These do not work:
- Music theory is where you discuss chords and chord progressions.
- If you mean that the discussion happens in a classroom in the Center for the Arts, you are nearly right, but music theory is not something you can find on a map. It is not a location.
- Linguistics is when experts study the structure of languages.
- Again, linguistics is not a time of day, at least not in this sense. The writer of this sentence was not aiming at "Linguistic experts meet on Monday evening at 7 o'clock."
Better, less wordy, and more straightforward ways to write those sentences would be:
- Music theory includes the discussion of chords and chord progressions.
- Linguistics is the study of the structure of languages.
- Writer's Reference S5 Mixed constructions
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Revised 6/24/21 • Page author: Curtis Allen • e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.