The Big Picture

The adage that one can risk losing the forest for the trees applies to grammar and writing more than is often made clear. Yes, we have to understand how individual words work in a sentence, but if we forget that larger groups of words work together as a unit in their own right, we will miss the bigger picture—the point of the proverb.

One category of error in writing is called the misplaced modifier, sometimes also named a miscue. If someone in hospital administration says that patients were contacted using the new online portal, we will probably understand what was meant, but at the expense of both grammar and style. It is very good practice to begin the analysis of a sentence by reading it aloud in its entirety, from initial capital letter to the period. That will bring our attention before the sweeping panorama of the statement and let us see the stretch of ideas before us. Doing so with our example, we can see two large halves, first the clause patients were contacted, followed by the phrase using the new online portal. We can identify the first half as a clause because there is a subject (patients) and verb (were contacted); the remainder of the sentence must be some kind of phrase because there is no combination of subject and verb.

There, then, is the forest, and now we can enter more confidently into this stand of grammatical trees. Let’s note first that the verb in the opening clause is passive, which means that its subject, patients, is not the agent of the verb, not the one who undertakes the contacting, but in fact the one whom someone else, unnamed, contacted. When the grammatical subject of a verb is logically the object, we have a passive construction. Then let’s observe that the second half of the sentence opens with what looks like a present participle, using, followed by four words that make up the object of the participle—another group of words within the larger group of the second half of the sentence. Participles are adjectives, so to make sure the sentence is accurate, we have to identify the noun which the participle using is modifying. And therewith begins the problem. Who is using the new online portal?

We might be tempted to answer quickly, the patients, but the patients, remember, are not the agents of an active verb; they didn’t do anything at all. If using is a participle, then it is ultimately modifying the unstated subject of the passive verb were contacted—perhaps the writer of the sentence, perhaps the group of administrators who used the new online portal, perhaps someone else entirely. So one way to correct the inaccuracy of the logic, and to begin to improve style along with it, is to find the subject and convert the opening clause to the active voice: we contacted. But now our forest path is blocked, because we can’t simply add the remainder of the sentence or we’ll end up saying what we don’t mean: we contacted patients using the new online portal means the patients were using the portal, not the subject we. So either we add a comma to separate the two halves, thereby telling the reader that the participle using is meant to modify the far distant subject we, or we reverse the order of the two halves of the sentence so that it now opens with the participial phrase: using the new online portal, we contacted the patients.

That revision, though, is a little rough hewn, because using that new online portal suggests some effect grander that just contacting patients—perhaps more efficiently, more accurately than the old way? We have to be ready for obstacles like this when we are revising, because very often we have to struggle past new difficulties we create as we work to better our original statements. So here we might decide to unwrite the participial phase entirely and replace it with a prepositional phrase: we contacted patients through the new online portal.

But is the second half of the sentence really a participial phrase? One could argue that it is, but one could also say that the word using, ending as it does with the suffix –ing, is a gerund, which is not an adjective modifying a noun, but a noun itself naming the action of using. That would give us new possibilities for a revision, one of which might be: we contacted patients by using the new online portal, from which could emerge what is probably the best of the versions so far: we used the new online portal to contact patients.

If we are well advised not to miss the forest for the trees, another counsel might be to remember that form yields technique, which means that understanding the particulars of grammar will open up practical ways to better our sentences and let our readers see the big picture accurately.


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