Keep Your Memoirs Free of Dangling Modifiers

Today I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know. That old Groucho Marx joke perfectly illustrates what a dangling or misplaced modifier is. Many of you memoir writers have never written professionally or formally studied writing. To help you with your writing challenges, I promised this blog would address tricky grammar issues from time to time. So welcome to English class!

How could you rephrase Groucho’s statement to make it less ambiguous? Today, while still in my pajamas, I shot an elephant. That removes the ambiguity. While writing your memoirs, you might have a sentence like this: Not yet 10 years old, my parents’ divorce hit me hard. Do you see why that opening phrase dangles? The word you need after the comma must be “I??? to explain who was not yet 10 years old. The way it’s written, the divorce is what’s 10 years old.

Here’s another example: Walking through the dirty puddles, our shorts were splashed with clumps of mud. That indicates that your shorts were walking through the puddles, when really you were the ones walking. To fix it, you’d say: Walking through the dirty puddles, we splashed clumps of mud on our shorts. Learning this rule will help you to make your memoirs clear for the reader. For more on misplaced modifiers, check this link at

When Writing Memoirs, Don’t Let Verb Tenses Make You Tense!

I’d like to discuss verb tense because it confuses many people, and I don’t want it tripping you up as you write your memoirs. Most likely, you’re writing your autobiography in the past tense: “I was born…went to school…accepted a job.??? As much as you can keep it that simple, you should be fine. But sometimes you want to express a more complicated time sequence. Past perfect and past perfect progressive are two other tenses you may find yourself needing.

The past perfect tense conveys action that took place before another action that also happened in the past. You form it with the word “had.??? An example: “I had intended to go to college, but when the war started I decided to sign up instead.??? You intended to go to college before you changed your mind, so you need the “had intended??? construction.

The past perfect progressive tense is similar but uses the “…ing??? form of the verb preceded by “had been.??? Example: “I had been enjoying my time at home raising my children, but when the youngest entered high school I thought it was time to go back to earning a paycheck.??? Again, this indicates a past action that preceded another past action, but the difference is that it was an ongoing action—in this case, the act of enjoying. From time to time I will give you these grammar tips, and I hope this helps you as you write your memoirs.

Correct Apostrophe Use in Writing Memoirs

blog10As you write your memoirs, you may have questions about grammar and sentence construction. I’m a writer and editor by profession, and I teach an adult education writing class. On this blog I’ll try to help you with the most common writing difficulties. One mistake I see over and over is apostrophe misuse, particularly with regard to pronouns.

The confusion stems from our use of apostrophes to show possession as in, “John’s autobiography is very interesting.??? But notice what happens when we replace “John??? with a pronoun: “His autobiography is very interesting.??? The apostrophe disappears, because possessive pronouns like “his??? do not use apostrophes. “It,??? “your??? and “whose” are pronouns, too, so as possessives—indicating belonging to someone or something— they need no apostrophe: “The cat licked its paws???; “I enjoyed reading your memoirs; Whose book is this????

However, contractions also take apostrophes: “Sue’s [Sue has] finished writing her memoirs.??? When we replace “Sue??? with a pronoun, this time the apostrophe remains: “She’s [She has] finished writing her memoirs.??? All contractions with pronouns work the same way: “It’s [It has] been a nice day???; “You’re [You are] doing a great job???; Who’s [Who is] at the door?” So when you want to use a confusing pronoun—its/it’s; your/yours/you’re; their/theirs/they’re; whose/who’s—determine whether to apply the apostrophe form by testing whether you can replace the word with two words meaning the same thing.

Photo: © Alexandr Tkachuk