This should technically be Criminal Sentence 666 but I know that this number bothers some people. So I'm making it 665B. Before I get to the exciting criminality of the sentence, this 666 business reminds me of an interesting moment in my video store cashier life in about 1989. The total came to $6.66 but the woman said, "I'm not paying that amount. I'll pay you $6.65 or $6.67." I suggested one cent over.
Anyway, here is a sign I saw while at a red light earlier today (I didn't have time to snap a photo):
I was sitting in a movie theater and saw this message on the screen:
"Please turn off and refrain from cell phone use."
I am supposed to turn off my cell phone and refrain from cell phone use. I get it but this instruction doesn't quite work. I suppose it sort of makes sense to turn off cell phone use, but it's the cell phone, not the use, that I need to turn off. Plus, it's hard to use a cell phone when it's turned off!
Today's Dear Abby concerns a woman who is having boyfriend intimacy problems and Abby is advising the woman to be careful before she considers marrying him. The closing sentence suggests the couple go to a hotel:
"Before agreeing to marry him, I recommend you schedule some time alone together by spending a few romantic weekends at a hotel or motel."
Who would be marrying whom in this sentence?
"Before agreeing to marry him, I ..."
No, not I! "I" is Abby.
"Before you agree to marry him, I recommend you schedule some time
alone together by spending a few romantic weekends at a hotel or motel."
"I recommend that before agreeing to marry him, you schedule some time
alone together by spending a few romantic weekends at a hotel or motel."
I was disappointed to read this awful sentence in the Wall Street Journal, in an article about how skateboarders are now free to ride around at closed national monuments:
"And now, after years of ducking the national park police that patrol these plazas, this week's closure of public buildings and easing of surveillance offered skaters hope of revisiting their favorite spots."
The problem here is that "this week's closure ... and easing of surveillance" (the subject) does not match up with the modifier at the beginning of the sentence ("after years of ducking the national park police..."). Skaters, not closure/surveillance, have been ducking the police for years.
There's no quick fix here because the sentence is trying to cram in too much. Any volunteers to write two sentences that are more coherent?
This problem sentence is from the sports section of today's newspaper. Background: the two men's semifinals of the U.S. open were played yesterday. First was Djokovic vs. Wawrinka, and then came Nadal vs. Gasquet. Djokovic (a Serb) won a tough, marathon match, whereas Nadal won fairly easily.
So here is the sentence I am complaining about:
"While the Serb labored, Nadal swept past Richard Gasquet 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-2."
When I first read this sentence, I thought, "Hey, these matches were consecutive, not concurrent!" I had read the word "while" to mean "at the same time as" rather than "although."
Some publishers for whom I edit have a rule that I must change every "while" to "although" (unless the meaning is "at the same time as") and every "since" to "because" (unless "since" is used in a time sense). I oblige them because it is possible to misread the meanings of these words, as happened with the tennis sentence. If we change "while" to "although" here, the sentence no longer is ambiguous:
"Although the Serb labored, Nadal swept past Richard Gasquet 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-2."
From an online article (about a girl with cancer):
"Tinoco, like so many others, got the opportunity to partner with the
Make-A-Wish Foundation and her wish was the same as so many other tennis
fans across this globe; she wanted to meet Roger Federer."
The grammar problem concerns this comparison:
"her wish was the same as so many other tennis fans..."
This sentence compares "wish" to "fans." I understand why in casual writing everyone makes this type of mistake, because the two correct ways sound or look weird:
"her wish was the same as that of so many other tennis fans..." (sounds stuffy)
"her wish was the same as so many other tennis fans'..." (apostrophe looks weird)
Still, I prefer the right grammar.
You can avoid the problem by writing it differently:
"she wished for what so many other tennis fans have wanted"
"The involvement of parents and medical professionals act as a safeguard for
these young girls."
This is a classic subject-verb agreement error. The subject is "involvement" (singular) but the verb is "act" (plural). That pesky prepositional phrase ("of parents and medical professionals") got in the way.
The sentence should read as follows:
"The involvement of parents and medical professionals acts as a safeguard for
these young girls."
This is still not a great sentence. I would suggest changing it to this:
"By becoming involved, parents and medical professionals act as safeguards for these young girls."
From something I'm editing (about how to create an effective review site):
"Reading actual comments from past customers, good and bad, can be the most influential component on a review site."
The problem here is the "good and bad" phrase. It is supposed to modify "comments" but it sits next to "customers." Perhaps the customers are good; perhaps they are bad. But the writer didn't mean to talk about their character. Let's move the phrase to the right place:
"Reading actual comments, good and bad, from past customers can be the most influential component on a review site."
I might even like to change the commas to em dashes--to make what I'm saying more prominent:
"Reading actual comments--good and bad--from past customers can be the most influential component on a review site."
"Memories came flooding back of school days long ago."
Does this sentence sound odd to you? It does to me, especially "back of." Funny sounding or not, this sentence violates Strunk and White's Principle of Composition 20: "Keep related words together." The prepositional phrase "of school days long ago" goes with "memories," but the two are quite far away from one another.
Let's bring them back together:
"Memories of school days long ago came flooding back."
From an article about changing the water filters in your home:
"If not regularly maintained, bacteria can grow in the canisters."
This sentence suggests that homeowners should regularly maintain bacteria. The sentence meant to say that homeowners should regularly maintain the canisters (which contain the filters). Regular readers know that this error is called a misplaced modifier. And they know how much I hate such goofs!
Let's fix the sentence:
"If the canisters are not regularly maintained, bacteria can grow in them."
Now, stop maintaining bacteria in your home and change your water filter today!
The Republic | azcentral.comSat Mar 23, 2013 10:43 PM
How do you spell that? ... Apparently spelling is
blind to party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans have had a little
trouble recently. It happens to the best of us, but some of the flubs
were on key message words these politicos might want to pay a little
closer attention to next time.
Arizona Democratic Party spokesman Frank Camacho sent out a statement from Acting Executive Director DJ Quinlan talking about “Barrack Obama.” Never good to spell the big boss’ name wrong.
House Speaker Andy Tobin via Twitter commented on the “Medicade Expansion.” If you’re gonna knock it, you’d better first learn to spell it.
The Conservative Business League apparently needs to employ an
English teacher. According to the league’s website, its board of
directors includes Bob Thomas, one of people behind the recall effort of Democratic Rep. Chad Campbell, and Rod Ludders, who “hales” from Illinois. We’re glad he’s feeling so well.
"Like flies, our memories are initially short-lived..."
This sentence states that our memories are like flies. Perhaps memories buzz and flit about in our heads, but the writer did not mean to say this. He meant to compare the memories of flies with the memories of humans. We can fix this in a number of ways. The two I like best are these:
"Like the memories of flies, our memories are initially short-lived..."
"Like the memories of flies, those of humans are initially short-lived..."
We were going to
spend today discussing sequestration, a word springing from the lips of
politicians left and right and begging to be more clearly defined.
Then we read Time
columnist Joel Stein's explanation, upon which it's impossible to improve:
"The situation in which the federal budget will be different if something
doesn't something before something."
Which leaves us room
to discuss a word springing from the lips of actual people, much to the dismay
of other actual people.
The word is
"that." For all its banality, "that," has an impressive
ability to irk folks.
"My pet peeve is
'that,'" writes Words Work reader Gene Keefe. "'The judge felt that
it took too long.' 'The hearing officer ruled that it was too far away.' 'I
heard that you are too tall to shoot pool.'"
"Where you have
a verb and 'that' after it," Keefe contends, "it makes the sentence
longer without any change."
It's a complaint we
hear with some regularity, often from readers lamenting an undisciplined
wordiness creeping into much of our discourse.
But 'that' has its
share of vocal defenders.
Jay Heinrichs, author
of "Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines that Get
Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever" (Three Rivers Press) and one of our
favorite language dudes, calls himself "a that guy."
make a sentence longer by an entire, often annoying, syllable," Heinrichs
says. "But it serves to pin down the object of a sentence.
grammar needs all the pins it can get."
Bonnie Trenga, author
of "The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries
of Weak Writing" (Writer's Digest Books), wrote a
grammar.quickanddirtytips.com blog post titled "When to leave out
think adding 'that' improves the flow of the sentence and makes it easier for
the reader to understand," Trenga writes. "Others believe they should
delete every seemingly unnecessary 'that' because they want to maintain an
economy of words.
"I'm all for
cutting unnecessary words," she writes. But I often like to keep my 'that'
if it helps the rhythm of the sentence. You'll have to judge whether using
'that' in your particular sentence improves or hurts its flow."
Trenga agitates for
'that' inclusion in the case of "garden path sentences," linguist
Steven Pinker's term for sentences that appear to be going in one direction but
wind up in another.
maintains Squiggly's yard is too big," Trenga offers as an example.
'that,' the reader is initially led to believe that Aardvark maintains, as in
mows, Squiggly's yard," she writes. "If you add in a 'that,' it's
clear from the beginning that Aardvark just has an opinion: Aardvark maintains
that Squiggly's yard is too big."
You could turn to the
grammar big guns on this one, but they hardly put the issue to rest.
The Elements of
Style, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's style guide by which many writers
swear, lists as its seventeenth principle of composition: Omit needless words.
In each of Mr.
Keefe's sentences, "that" does appear to be pretty needless.
The Associated Press
Style Book, on the other hand, argues for keeping the word in your toolbox:
"There are no
hard-and-fast rules, but in general:
•That usually may be
omitted when a dependent clause immediately follows a form of the verb to say:
The president said he had signed the bill.
•That should be used
when a time element intervenes between the verb and the dependent clause: The
president said Monday that he had signed the bill.
•That usually is
necessary after some verbs. They include: advocate, assert, contend, declare,
estimate, make clear, point out, propose and state.
•That is required
before subordinate clauses beginning with conjunctions such as after, although,
because, before, in addition to, until and while: Haldeman said that after he
learned of Nixon's intention to resign, he sought pardons for all connected
"When in doubt,
include that," AP says. "Omission can hurt. Inclusion never
I'm a copy editor and writer. I wrote The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing, published in 2006 and now available in paperback. In 2007-2008, I wrote "The Sentence Sleuth" column for Writer's Digest magazine.