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If you have a writing, grammar, style or punctuation question, send an e-mail message to curiouscase at sign hotmail dot com.

Add Your Own Criminal Sentence!

If you find a particularly terrible sentence somewhere, post it for all to see (go here and put it in the Comments section).

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Criminal Sentence 146: Foreword March!

The name of a section from a book I am editing:


"Forward" means not backward, or not too discreet in showing affection:

I went forward.
That girl is too forward.

"Foreword" means the introduction to a book.

As we move forward to a new year, may you have a fun New Year's Eve and a grammatical and well-spelled 2009.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Criminal Sentence 145: "As" on the Brain

From a Web site on which I signed up for tennis lessons:

"Your registration will be active as soon as payment as been confirmed."

Lots of "as"es in this sentence. One too many, in fact.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Poll Results 16

This was the question:

Does this sentence make you laugh? "She had once hosted a show about her exploits on Court TV."

I myself laughed when I read this in a bestselling author's latest book, but a quarter of you weren't sure what the problem is. Since you are reading my blog, and since you know I hate misplaced modifiers, you should be able to guess that this is what's wrong. The phrase "on Court TV" is misplaced. It is right next to "her exploits" but it goes with "hosted." So this sentence is talking about her exploits on Court TV instead of the fact that she hosted a show on Court TV. That might be an interesting show: a show about exploits.

The sentence would be better like this:

She had once hosted a Court TV show about her exploits.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Criminal Sentence 144: Into the Breach

From today's paper:

"... the breach delivery of a baby..."

Breach = a large gap
Breech = the kind of birth where the feet or rear end comes first

The paper also had an article about a woman giving birth to her 18th child, but this child was born by Cesarean section.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Criminal Sentence 143: The KGB Will Get You for This

The beginning of a very long sentence in a book about Russia:

"Besides spying on other countries. conducting sabotage and assassinations, the KGB ..."
Just like the KGB, this sentence isn't very nice. The writer is stating that three activities the KGB participates in include spying, conducting sabotage and assassinations. Lovely. Well, let's be good Communists for a minute and make everything equal (parallel):
spying on other countries, conducting sabotage and carrying out assassinations. Three -ing words make the sentence parallel.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Criminal Sentence 142: Having Bad Dreams

Seen on a child's set of pajamas:

"Sweet Dream's"


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Criminal Sentence 141: A Mutinous Sentence

From a book about a mutiny on a Russian ship in the 1970s:

"You'll kill us all if you go though with a mutiny."

That was a good rhyme in that sentence: "go though." I'm glad the sentence passes spell check but let's just "go through" with proofreading our sentences instead of relying on a computer program.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Poll Results 15

Here was the question:

Why is this sentence incorrect? Fired at close quarters, it was overkill.

Something is wrong with spelling or punctuation. 2 (3%)
Nothing is wrong with it. 6 (9%)
"It" was not "fired at close quarters." 50 (81%)
You can't use an "it" after a comma. 3 (4%)

So 81% were right: "it was overkill" is an expression in which the "it" doesn't refer to anything. However, "fired at close quarters" does refer to something, but it's not mentioned: a gun.
How would you rewrite the sentence?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Criminal Sentence 140: The Doctor Is an Athlete!

From an American Lung Association brochure about the flu (this is a quote from figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi):

"As an athlete, my doctor stresses the importance of annual influenza vaccination to maintain my health. But now as a mother, I realize my whole family needs to be immunized and that's a responsibility that I take seriously."

Wonderful advice, especially since her doctor is an athlete. Wait a minute. Maybe the doctor runs marathons or something, but Ms. Yamaguchi is the athlete. Her second sentence is right: "as a mother, I," but she needs to rearrange the first sentence to something like this:

"I'm an athlete, so my doctor stresses..."

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Criminal Sentence 139: Dental Drama

From the mouth of my dental hygienist yesterday:

"Good brushing and good flossing is very important."

And subject-verb agreement is very important, too.

If you have an "and," chances are you have a plural subject: A and B are very important.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Criminal Sentence 138: Baby Jesus Is Nowhere in Sight

An error I come across a lot:

"Wanted: Marketing Manger"

I've trained myself to do a double take whenever I see the word "manager" because sometimes a "manger" wants to slip in. Although it is the Christmas season at the moment, marketing pieces don't usually need to involve mangers.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Criminal Sentence 137: One or More Clerks?

From a thriller I'm reading:

"The courtroom was dark and the clerk's pod next to the bench was empty."

I'm no lawyer or judge, but I have a feeling that this pod is an area where clerks for judges work. Unless you're in this book, where only one clerk ("clerk's pod) works tirelessly for who knows how many demanding judges.

Assuming there is more than one clerk, this should be "clerks' pod."

If you're a lawyer, correct me if I'm wrong.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Poll Results 14

This was the question:

"Does this spelling bother you? Thank's Giving"

Thanks to my brother for noticing that atrocious spelling somewhere.

I'm glad
that only one of you liked this spelling.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Criminal Sentence 136: Who Has Many Male Visitors?

Mike Lee in the UK was kind enough to share this blunder:

I just heard a reporter's introduction to an interview on the evening news, and I'm pretty sure it was a criminal sentence!

He said, "She told me about her neighbour's lifestyle, and her many male visitors", which makes it sound like the interviewee has "many male visitors", not the neighbour. Oops!

He's right. The reporter definitely should have said "...and her neighbour's many male visitors" (or neighbor's if you're in the USA).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Criminal Sentence 135: Time to "Bailout" the News

From a news question asked to viewers:

"Should the government bailout the auto makers?"

The phrasing wasn't exactly the same but the error was there: "bailout."

"Bailout" is a noun; "to bail [space] out" is a verb.

"The bailout is not going well." (noun)
"I would like the government to bail out my bank." (verb)

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Criminal Sentence 134: Confusing Commas with Dates

From something I edited:

"In the February, 2007, edition of the New York Times..."

The writer had the right idea, sort of. If you are doing a full date (for example, February 14, 2009), then you do need the commas around the year:

"In the February 14, 2009, edition of the New York Times..."

You're enclosing the 2009 within commas. Commas often go in pairs. Only one comma is lonely and incorrect:

"In the February 14, 2009 edition of the New York Times..."

If you don't have the date with the month, then you don't need commas:

"In the February 2007 edition of the New York Times..."

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Criminal Sentence 133: Sentence Disconnect

From a book I'm reading (farmers are recovering from a flood):

"Cattle and sheep are gone that the farmers thought were on safe ground."

This is one of those annoying misplaced modifiers that makes me do a double take because the sentence is so disconnected. When you have a "that" phrase (which should modify a noun) right after a verb, the sentence makes no sense: "the gone that did such and such" is just not possible.

In my view, it's not that hard to rearrange such sentences:

"Cattle and sheep that the farmers thought were on safe ground are gone."

When a "that" (or "who") phrase follows a verb, get used to cringing, and please don't do that yourself.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Poll Results 13

Here was the question:

What's wrong with this sentence: "He didn't have a conscious."

Most of you got it right: spelling.

Conscience=noun=the Jiminy Cricket voice that tells you not to take the cookies
Conscious=adjective=awake/opposite of knocked out

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Criminal Sentence 132: Oooh, I'm made

From a book I finished last week:

"Leonard is running made over it."

I had to read this sentence for a couple minutes before I realized there was a typo. It did pass Spell Check, though!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Poll Results 12

This was the question:

What's wrong with this sentence?

Strip malls may be an eyesore, but they sure are convenient.

Most of you got it right: the grammar is awry. "Strip malls" is plural but "eyesore" is singular, and they don't match. It would be better to write:

"Strip malls may be eyesores, but they sure are convenient.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Can or May: Grammar Girl Episode

Criminal Sentence 131: Big name or big store?

From something I recently edited:

"The big name stores don’t attract the same people."

As I noted in the title of this post, are we talking about a big name or a big store? A hyphen will clarify things: "big-name stores."

If you have two words that modify one thing, then a hyphen helps link them:

high-wire act
low-maintenance haircut
well-written sentence

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Criminal Sentence 130: What did the sun do?

From a beginning reader my son was reading:

"The sun shown in the sky."

This makes me mad. How can kids learn to read and spell if the books they read are not right? How can I protect my kids from bad spelling and bad grammar? Well, I can't. I will have to be an overprotective mother shielding her children from the evils of the world. Perhaps I'll do what my father, a writer, did with me: give me a dollar for every mistake I found. That's a good way to build up a piggy bank.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Criminal Sentence 129: Looking beyond redundant cliches

From the CNN crawl again:

"Sarah Palin is looking ahead to the future."

Really? I thought she was looking back in the past. This statement is so obvious as to be meaningless. If you really must, why not just say "looking to the future"? "Ahead" means "in the future.

I don't know what Sarah Palin is planning for herself, but maybe the CNN crawl writers can plan their sentences a little better.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Criminal Sentence 128: Dollars dollars and cents cents

From the CNN crawl:

"$25 million dollars"

This reads twenty-five million dollars dollars. Now if someone is giving me that amount, I won't complain, but otherwise, I must protest. The dollar sign ($) and the word "dollars" are the same, so you need only one, usually the dollar sign.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Criminal Sentence 127: Hurry and add punctuation!

From one of those mailed cards that advertise something:

"Hurry time is Limited!"

What is limited? Hurry time? Well, no

Before we go on, I'd like to complain about that capital L. No capital is Needed unless all of The words are capped or unless It's a proper Name. See how dumb random capitalization Looks? Caps do not equal emphasis.

Now, what to do about the hurry time?

Just add a comma!

Hurry, time is limited!

Or you could make it two sentences:

Hurry! Time is limited. (just one exclamation point needed)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Criminal Sentence 126: I like this sentence--not!

I was watching CNN at the gym and became confused by one of the headlines that flashed on the screen. It was talking about Sarah Palin and I think it was a quote. I was so flummoxed that I didn't notice the rest of it. Here it is:
"I like many governors are …"
At first I thought this was talking about "I like such and such"--here, "I like many governors." But then "are" got in the way. So "like many governors" is an aside. Take it away and the sentence reads "I are." Ow! That hurts.
As you can see, there are two things wrong with this sentence:
1. You need commas around "like many governors": "I, like many governors, ..."
2. You need to match the verb with the subject: "I am."
So let's imagine what the end of this sentence should be:
"I, like many governors, am ready to work on my grammar."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Criminal Sentence 125: You or yourself?

Slightly revised from earlier (hope it's clearer!)
From something I edited yesterday:

"If, after a short time of giving to someone less fortunate than you, you still feel that bad, then volunteer some more. "

Which "you" should be "yourself"? "Yourself" is a reflexive, which means that you're going back to the subject "you."

I gave myself a present (not I gave me a present).
He likes himself (not He likes him).
...after a short time of giving to someone less fortunate than yourself, you... (not than you).

You can't use a reflexive unless you're referring back to something already stated:
I sent flowers to him and to myself (you're referring back to "I").
He gave flowers to Jane and me (not to Jane and myself). (You can't say to myself here because you haven't stated I or me.)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Criminal Sentence 124: Marketing babble

I recently edited some marketing pieces that used a lot of words but said relatively little. Here's an example of the verbiage I had to deal with:

"Due to the vast knowledge of building retail structures, the company was able to quickly and accurately identify the necessary steps to ensure complete satisfaction and overall success."

This is so vague as to be meaningless. It is also quite wordy. If you're trying to lure customers, it's better to be specific. Differentiate yourself by giving specific examples instead of making general statements that anyone could make.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Criminal Sentence 123: Veterans and their day

Happy Veterans Day. No apostrophe is the preferred spelling of the holiday according to my references, but Veterans' Day is also acceptable.
Veteran's Day, which I see everywhere, is definitely not acceptable. More than one veteran was involved.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Criminal Sentence 122: Rewriting Practice

Can you cut this down, way down?

“The tailored jacket provided the woman with the ability to not only look good to her fullest potential but in addition also enabled her to show off her new figure.”

Post your shorter sentence in the comments section.

Poll Results 11

This was the question:

In this sentence do the two people have the same political views?

"I'm not sure what my mom's and dad's political views are."

85% of you were right: Their political views are not the same.

There are two apostrophes, so two political views.

See this post for more.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Criminal Sentence 121: How many days?

From a novel I finished yesterday:

"In two day's time..."

One day: one day's time
Two days: two days' time
Three days: three days' time

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Criminal Sentence 120: If "only"

From an article about the IRS:

"If it's a rebate you're waiting on, you only have until Nov. 28 to claim your cash."

I only have one problem with this sentence. I mean, I have ONLY ONE problem with this sentence. The word "only" should go next to the word it modifies, in this case, only one, not only have.

In the IRS sentence, Nov. 28 is the deadline; people have until Nov. 28 only.

In conversation, it's probably OK to put "only" in the wrong place, but when you're writing something, please be more precise.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Criminal Sentence 119: An informative "post"

The beginning of a sentence in something I edited yesterday:

"Post the survey, the company..."

This writer, who was trying to sound important but ended up sounding ridiculous, meant, "After the survey."

Someone in Britain might say, "Post the survey" to mean "Mail the survey." In America, "post the survey" could mean "hang up the survey for all to read."

"Post" is a prefix (it goes pre the word; I mean, before the word). You will see it in real words such as "postmortem" and "postpartum."

I suppose you could say something like "The post-survey results were good." If you're adding "post" to a word, you should add a hyphen, but be sure to check if your "post" word is in the dictionary. Some are closed compounds.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Criminal Sentence 118: Subject confusion

A statement I would not vote for (I came across this piece guest-written by a politician):

"Making the decision to put these vital projects on the November ballot was not taken lightly."

When a person is involved, I always advocate including the person in the sentence. At the moment, here is the subject: "Making the decision to put these vital projects on the November ballot." No person in sight there. Here is the verb: "was not taken." Passive voice. Bad. Vague. Boring.
Even if this style were OK (which it's not), you can't say, "Making the decision was not taken lightly." That just doesn't make sense.
So who is deciding something not so lightly? The writer. Let's call him Chris.
Chris might want to say, "I didn't take lightly the decision to put these vital projects on the November ballot." That's still a bit not great (nominalization: "decision," plus "to take something lightly" is a cliche). It would be better to use the verb "to decide," as perhaps here:
"After doing hours of research, I decided to put these vital projects on the November ballot."
Politicians tend to avoid using "I" so they can deflect responsibility. You, however, should not be afraid to state who is doing what. You should be responsible for your sentences.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Criminal Sentence 117: I have to go to the bathroom!

From something that I edited recently and that made me laugh out loud:

"It is an evening during which 10,000-plus rollerbladders take a 30-kilometer roll through the streets of Paris."

I hope they had bathroom stops along the way.

Poll Results 10

Which two sentences are correct?

She looked like she hadn't eaten in days.
28 (29%)
She looked like a hungry person.
59 (61%)
She looked as if a hungry person.
6 (6%)
She looked as if she hadn't eaten in days.
76 (79%)

The majority was right!
She looked like a hungry person, and She looked as if she hadn't eaten in days are right.


Use "like" when no verb follows:

He looked like Batman.
She seemed like a nice girl.

As (If)

Use "if" when a verb does follow:

She looked as if she would faint.
The cat seemed as if it would pounce.

Some of you might remember that English teachers went berserk when they heard this cigarette ad:

"Winston tastes good like a cigarette should."

If you don't know the difference between "like" and "as," this won't bother you, but now you know.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Criminal Sentence 116: Compound Possession

Happy Halloween!

A reader, Jan, sent me this lovely sample of incorrect apostrophes, warning me that an earlier sentence indicated it was clear that Tina and John had two separate service plans:

"Janet is compiling some statistics on Tina West and John Dentins, two customer's in the database. She wants to know the date of Tina and John's first service plan order."

Obviously, there shouldn't be an apostrophe in "customer's"; it's just a plural noun. As for "Tina and John's first service plan order," Jan said it was clear that each person had a service plan, so it should be "Tina's and John's first service plan order" (or even "orders").

Compound possession means that two (or more) people are sharing something, so they share the apostrophe:

my mom and dad's house (they share a house)
my mom's and dad's houses (they each have a house)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Wording Mishap: Which Day Do You Mean?

So on Thursday Oct 23, I arranged to meet with someone I've never met. She wanted to ask me about editing. We agreed to meet "next Wednesday," which to me was yesterday, Oct 29. To her, it meant Nov 5. So I stood around for 20 minutes. What does "next Wednesday" mean to you? The answer is: it's an ambiguous phrase, so if you don't want to stand around smiling awkwardly at strangers, state the date you mean.

This is how I see it, and as you can see, it's a bit confusing:

Today's Date Day You Mean What You Call It
10/30 11/6 next Thursday
10/30 11/13 Thursday after next
11/3 11/6 this Thursday
11/3 11/13 next Thursday
11/7 11/6 this Thursday

Do you agree with me or did the fact that I grew up in England mess me up?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Criminal Sentence 115: Noun or Verb?

From a sign outside a nutritionist's shop:

"How much protein should you intake per day?"

I don't know the answer to that, but I do know that "intake" is a noun, not a verb. You should take in x grams of protein per day. Your protein intake should be x grams.

Check your dictionary if you're not sure of the part of speech.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Criminal Sentence 114: Even Though

I was editing something yesterday and one paragraph contained the phrase "even though" three times. I would prefer you use it no times. Even though the phrase "even though" is grammatically correct, it's wordy. I would go with "although."

Another phrase to avoid is the super wordy "despite the fact that."

Despite the fact that you might want to use the words even though in your sentence, I recommend that you don't.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Good-writing instruction from a novel

I came across an interesting passage in a detective novel set in Sicily and originally written in Italian. The Inspector's case is being transferred to a rival agency.

"We're gonna serve up a hot case like this to those guys?" Augello reacted. "They won't even thank us for it!"
"Do you care so much about being thanked? Try instead to write that report well. Then bring it to me in the morning so I can sign it."
"What's that supposed to mean, write it well?"
"It means you should season it with things like 'having arrived at said premises, 'in lieu of, 'from which it may be surmised,' 'the above notwithstanding.' That way they'll feel as if they're on their own turf, in their own language, and they'll take the case seriously."

A nice piece of sarcasm.

Poll Results 9

It seems that fantasy/horror/sci-fi is your favorite genre.
As for me, I prefer anything else.

Doubled Words: Grammar Girl Episode

Friday, October 24, 2008

Criminal Sentence 113: "That" Is Not How to Write It

From a book I finished on Wednesday (the book was about a writing class):

"The student submitted a piece for class discussion that was shockingly incoherent."

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: make sure your "that" is next to what the "that" phrase modifies. In this case, "that was shockingly incoherent" refers to "a piece," not "a discussion." In fact, "that was shockingly incoherent" also refers to this whole sentence.

You can easily fix it by switching things around:

"The student submitted for class discussion a piece that was shockingly incoherent."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Criminal Sentence 112: Redundant Redundancies

Overheard on TV:

"It could potentially be very dangerous."

Do you think that maybe it might possibly perhaps be dangerous? Could it?

When you want to say that something might happen, you need only one of the following phrases per sentence:


Otherwise, you might perhaps possibly be repeating yourself.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Criminal Sentence 111: In "Need of" Proofreading

From the paper today:

"Opponents of Proposition 200 say payday-loan stores prey upon vulnerable consumers, like students, who need of a quick infusion of cash."

The sentence need of proofreading!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Criminal Sentence 110: There Is vs There Are

From a blog I read:

"There's very few 'nevers' in publishing."

A blog is conversational, so I guess I should allow this conversational "there is" (singular) with "nevers" (plural). However, I prefer that writers be more precise, so "there are" would be better.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Criminal Sentence 109: Less v Fewer

From a Web ad:

"Less wrinkles in only 60 minutes"

If only I could believe this claim. If only I could believe this grammar. You use "less" with nouns you can't count, such as sugar or furniture. You use "fewer" with items you can count, such as grains of sugar or pieces of furniture. Unfortunately, you can count wrinkles, so you need to use "fewer." People avoid this word because it sounds a little stilted. If you don't like it, then you can reword your sentence.

If you notice whether your noun is countable or noncountable, you'll have fewer grammar errors.

Poll Results 8

Where do you see the most errors? It seems it's a tie between what you write yourself and items you use at work. As for me, it's books I read for pleasure.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Criminal Sentence 108: Comma or Em Dash?

From an article about a Jazz club in Paris:

"Shortcomings aside, there’s lots to love about le Duc—not least, the fact that it has already given a new momentum to the city’s jazz scene."

This comma and this em dash are all wrong. An em dash indicates a long break in thought; a comma is a shorter break. When I get to the words "not least," I don't need a break, so no comma needed there. What about the em dash? Do we need a long or a short break? I kinda think short. How about this:

"Shortcomings aside, there’s lots to love about le Duc, not least the fact that it has already given a new momentum to the city’s jazz scene."

I like that better.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Criminal Sentence 107: Is a Tree a Person?

From a book I read yesterday:

"All the job required was a guy who didn't mind sitting in a tree who liked to shoot things."

What a lovely little misplaced modifier: "who liked to shoot things" does not modify "tree." What does it modify, I ask you? Oh, yes, "a guy." This sentence is problematic because, as usual with misplaced modifiers, it's trying to squeeze in too much. How would you break this into two sentences or one that's constructed better?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Criminal Sentence 106: I Literally Hate That

Writers tend to overuse "literally" as an intensifier, as in "I was literally petrified." This sentence would mean I was actually turned into stone, which is not the case. In a book I recently read, the author used "literally" every few pages, it seemed. Other than this weakness, the book was literally very good (ha ha).
If you're going to use "literally" at all, perhaps once every three hundred pages would be sufficient.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Criminal Sentence 105: Plural or Singular Subject?

Overheard on TV:

"I was born into a family where education, discipline and perseverance was just a given."

Three things cannot be "a given," though I understand why the speaker said it this way: it is awkward to say that a, b and c were givens. Nevertheless, when you have a compound subject, you need a plural verb, "were" in this case. To make this sentence grammatical, you'd need to reword it to something like "...a family where education, discipline and perseverance were expected of me."

Monday, October 13, 2008

Criminal Sentence 104: What Kind of Food?

I'm back from a week in Spain. I was happy to rest my proofreading eyes, but I did see a funny sign for a restaurant in Segovia:

Assian Food

I have a bit of jet lag at the moment, so that's the best I can do today. Tomorrow I should be up for a more interesting post.

As/Like at Beginning of a Sentence: Grammar Girl Episode

Poll Results 7

Congrats to 63% of you! "As a dentist" needs to be followed by who is a dentist. This is a misplaced modifier. I just covered this topic as a guest writer for Grammar Girl. Please see here.

Which sentence contains a grammatical error?
Looking for love, I went on a blind date.
10 (6%)
As a dentist, gold fillings are his specialty.
92 (63%)
Sad to be saying goodbye, he waved at the car as it drove away.
26 (18%)
Broken into pieces, the vase could not be repaired.
16 (11%)

Friday, October 3, 2008

Criminal Sentence 103: The Dreaded "It"

From something I edited:

"At age 90, it is likely Stevens will retire soon."

Another mistake I see a lot:

"As a new mom, it's hard to get up every two to three hours."

In both of these sentences, the dreaded "it" appears instead of the real subject. "It" is not age 90; "it" is not a new mom. These are misplaced modifiers. As a copyeditor, it bugs me to see them so often. (Um, I mean, As a copyeditor, I...)

So, who is 90? Mr. Stevens:

"It is likely (that) Stevens, age 90, will retire soon." (Add a "that" if you like.)

Who is a new mom? Well, no woman in particular:

"It's hard for new moms to get up every two to three hours."

Both of these newly minted sentences happen to start with "It," but that's not required. We could have said these sentences different ways, but I felt the above choices were the best.

When you start a sentence with a short phrase that ends in a comma, be careful an "it" isn't accidentally there (the word "there" also is incorrect in that location). Be sure the subject you're talking about is right next to your description.

If you have any questions about this, I urge you to read Chapter 5 of my book.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Criminal Sentence 102: Anymore v Any More

From a blog I read (it was having a contest):

"All I can say is that I'm not making a mistake. Anymore would give too much of a hint to the people who still haven't answered."

"Anymore" should be "any more" in this case.

"Anymore" goes in a negative sentence:
"I don't love you anymore."

"Any more" means "a little bit more:
If I give you any more chocolate, you will get a stomachache.

Sometimes a space does make a difference!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Criminal Sentence 101: I Hate Wordy

From something I edited recently:

"She made a careful selection of the fabric's color."

There's nothing grammatically wrong with this sentence, but it's just a tad too wordy for my tastes. What is wordy? Wordy is using more words than you need.

Compare it to this:

"She carefully selected the fabric's color."

Six instead of nine words there.

This poor sentence uses what I often rail against: a nominalization. Nominalizations often omit who is doing the action:

"The selection of the fabric was necessary."

Who selected the fabric?

The usage of (hint hint) of nominalizations by everyone must stop! (Please.)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Criminal Sentence 100: A Naughty Error

From a book I'm reading:

"Being the duke had other advantages..., including the right to indulge in a pubic display of power..."

Oops. that should have been "public"!!

Whenever I see the word "public," I momentarily freak out, thinking it says "pubic." In this case, I was right! Make sure to put that L in there!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Negative-Only Words: Grammar Girl Episode

Poll Results 6

I'm glad that the majority of you felt the same way as I do about apostrophe abuse. Should we try to eradicate this problem one apostrophe at a time? I haven't had much success correcting misused apostrophes when I see them at businesses I frequent, so maybe that's a lost cause. Perhaps all we can do is try to keep our own apostrophes straight.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Criminal Sentence 99: According to

An interesting misplaced modifier from an article I recently edited:

"The composition of the U.S. Supreme Court is arguably one of the most important reasons to vote according to Paul Smith, a professor of law."

The phrase in question is "according to Paul Smith, a professor of law." The whole statement is according to this man, but it sounds like the writer is suggesting we vote according to Paul Smith. A comma before the "according" phrase would fix this error, or you could move the phrase to the beginning of the sentence:

"According to Paul Smith, a professor of law, the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court is arguably one of the most important reasons to vote."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Criminal Sentence 98: How Many Guests?

Another sentence from that awful wedding article I already quoted:

"Your wedding should leave your guest with an experience as unique as your signature."

I guess this couple doesn't have many friends or family.

Proofread. Proofread. Proofread. Please.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Criminal Sentence 97: Not so Great

From something I edited recently:

"Having someone there to great theme is a good idea."

This is from an article written by someone obviously struck with nonproofread-itis. All I can do is laugh and hope for a better sentence next time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Irregular Plurals: Grammar Girl Episode

Historic v Historical: Grammar Girl Episode

Collective Nouns: Grammar Girl Episode

Using the Wrong Word: Grammar Girl Episode

Double Possessives: Grammar Girl Episode

Comparatives and Superlatives: 2 Grammar Girl Episodes


Have Got: Grammar Girl Episode

Shall v Will: Grammar Girl Episode

Loan v Lend: Grammar Girl Episode

Phrasal Verbs: Grammar Girl Episode

Singular Nouns That Seem Plural: Grammar Girl Episode

That: Grammar Girl Episode

Whose: Grammar Girl Episode

More Than v Over: Grammar Girl Episode

Sentence Length: Grammar Girl Episode

Subject-Verb Agreement: Grammar Girl Episode

Criminal Sentence 96: Don't Listen to Microsoft

What do you think of this sentence, suggested by Word's Grammar Checker?

"Ambulance, and his hand-me-down Mustang had been totaled had transported John."

Obviously, this is crazy. The following perfectly normal sentence is the one that Word wanted to change:

"John had been transported by ambulance, and his hand-me-down Mustang had been totaled."

My point here is that although it's good to turn on Grammar Checker, don't always believe it!

Bill Gates, if you happen to be reading this, you might want to work on the coding in your grammar program.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Poll Results 5

This week's poll:

What's the best way to write this sentence?

Cell phones are not allowed to be used here.
The usage of cell phones here is not allowed.
Using cell phones here is not allowed.
You may not use cell phones here.

The majority of you got it right: the last sentence is the best choice.

Those of you who have read the first three chapters of my book will know that the first three sentences here are examples of vague or passive writing.

Cell phones are not allowed to be used here. (passive voice: to be used)
The usage of cell phones here is not allowed. (nominalization: the usage of)
Using cell phones here is not allowed. (vague -ing word: using)

In all three sentences, the writer did not state a clear human subject. Although there are times when it's OK to be vague about who is doing what, most of the time it's best to state who is doing what.

Most weak writing can be identified (passive) through the reading of (nominalization) of the first three chapters of my book. Reading (vague -ing word) it now is recommended.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Criminal Sentence 95: Watch Those Zeros

A headline in a newspaper blurb:

"900,00 Midwest homes still lack power after Ike"

As you can see, the last zero is missing. Watch that when you type large numbers.

Criminal Sentence 94: "A part" vs. "Apart"

From the same article I quoted earlier (the wedding planning article):

"Ensure your guests are able to share and be apart of the activities."

This sentence suggests the guests be "apart" (from) the activities, which is the opposite of what the writer intended ("a part"). "Apart" with no space means away from. "A part of" means included in.

I am glad you are a part of this blog audience.
I hate it when we're apart.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Criminal Sentence 93: Verses vs Versus

From a headline I saw the other day:

"Old Verses New Traditions"

It's easy to type "verses" when you mean "versus." "Verses" with two e's are lines of poetry, whereas "versus" with a u means "as opposed to" or "against" if you're talking about a lawsuit. If you tend to get confused, try to remember "us versus them": "versus" has an "us" in it. "Verses" with an e and "poetry" both have an "e."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Criminal Sentence 92: How Many Ways?

From something I recently edited (about planning a wedding):

"An easy way to express yourself is through the music used during the ceremony and reception, table décor, or favors."

This sentence starts "An easy way" but then provides three ways. I often see sentences that mention a number of things but then the actual number of things discussed in the sentence is different. So this sentence would sound better this way:

"Three easy ways to express yourself are through the music used during the ceremony and reception, the table décor you choose, and the favors you give out."

Be sure to count how many things you're talking about in your sentence.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Poll Results 4

Here was last week's poll.

It's odd that its tail is missing.
Of coarse I like chocolate, silly.
She took a peek at the present.
He had had three hours' sleep when the alarm went off.

Almost everyone got it right: "coarse" should be "course," of course.

One reader had a question:

Dear Sentence Sleuth,

In the last polling sentence to vote for which sentence has the error:

He had had six hours' sleep when the alarm went off.

I was wondering why hours has an apostrophe at the end? Obviously it is because it is plural, but does it always? And is it ok to write "He had had. . . " I speak like that myself but when it's written it seems awkward.
Any comments you make will be welcome.
Thank you.

Actually, "six hours' sleep" is correct. It is the same as "six hours of sleep." If you were talking about one hour of sleep, you would write "one hour's sleep." Therefore, if you're talking about two hours or more, it's "two hours' sleep."

Friday, September 12, 2008

Criminal Sentence 91: More Incorrect Apostrophe's

From an ad from a nursery:

Available to Everyone
Residential or Commercial

Home Owners
Golf Courses
Land Mgt. Co's

Some grammarians allow an apostrophe plus an "s" after an acronym like HOA, so I guess I don't have a quibble with H.O.A.'s. As far as Co's, that is OK because it is an abbreviation. I do, however, object to Business'. That is definitely wrong. What I don't get is the writer pluralized apartments and other nouns correctly (no apostrophe). It must just be a careless error, but I still can't imagine making it.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Criminal Sentence 90: A Comma between Two Sentences

Take this sentence:

"Most of the Southeast Texas Gulf Coast is under a hurricane warning ahead of Ike and authorities ordered residents to leave the coastal city of Galveston."

There isn't anything wrong with this, but I wanted to point out that a comma before the "and" might have made the sentence a little smoother. A comma would eliminate a possible misreading: "a hurricane warning ahead of Ike and x." Earlier in the paragraph, I chose to put a comma before the "but." There's no rule that you must put a comma before a conjunction ("or," "and" or "but") between two sentences, but I think a comma there helps the reader.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Criminal Sentence 89: Commas in Salutations

A salutation is a greeting, as in "Hi, Bonnie." Although we all start e-mail messages with "Hi Mom" or "Hi Bill," we do need a comma. Other examples include "Sure, Dad"; "Have a good time, Andy"; and "Eat, Grandma."
Now what would happen if we left off the comma? If we wrote "Sure Dad," it wouldn't confuse anyone. But if we wrote "Eat Grandma," well that has a completely different meaning!

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Criminal Sentence 88: "Each and every"

A common redundancy:

"Each and every day, I eat oatmeal."

That's a healthy breakfast but not a healthy sentence

The phrase "each and every" is redundant because the words "each" and "every" mean the same thing. So it's as if you said, "I'm wearing a red and red shirt."

Try to ban the phrase "each and every" from your writing. Just use "each" or "every."

Thank you and thank you.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Poll Results 3

Here was the question:

The following sentence appears in a paragraph about a forgery. Is there anything wrong with it? The "Picasso" was very convincing.

This actually isn't a criminal sentence at all. There is actually nothing wrong with the sentence, so congratulations to those who answered that it's perfect as is. See this post for an explanation of quotation marks. Because we're talking about forgery, the Picasso picture isn't really a Picasso picture, so that's why "Picasso" is in quotation marks.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Criminal Sentence 87: Less vs Fewer

From something I edited recently:

"Choosing less than three or four is nearly impossible."

We all say such things, but they're grammatically incorrect. In this case we should say "fewer" because the items are countable. You use "less" when you're talking about uncountable items such as sugar: "This container has less sugar than that one."

Have you ever noticed the sign at the grocery checkout? It says something like "10 Items or Less." It technically should be "10 Items or Fewer." I know that sounds weird, but it's correct.

I don't expect any grocery store managers to change their signs. I only wish to spread grammatical wisdom throughout the land.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Criminal Sentence 86: Three Errors in a Row

From today's paper (concerning a question about how to address an envelope):

However, there are a couple of things about this one that intrigues me.

And in the very next sentence:

Why do you say "address an envelope to my son?"

Three errors in two consecutive sentences!

1. "a couple of things... intrigues me": Watch that subject-verb agreement when you have a lot of distracting stuff between the subject and the verb!
2. "why do you say...": Oops. Comma missing after "say."
3. ... to my son?": When the whole sentence is a question, the question mark goes outside the quotation mark, as it needs to be here. When you have a complete question within quotation marks, then the question mark goes inside.

More samples concerning error 3:

Correct: She asked, "Can you believe there were three errors there?"
Correct: Did she say, "There were three errors"?

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Reader Question: And/But

I got this question on my e-mail:
Can you start a sentence with an "And" or "But"? What are the rules surrounding this issue?
The traditional rules state that it's not correct to start a sentence with these words, but in practice these days it is fine to do so if you want to create a dramatic effect. I wouldn't start too many sentences that way because such sentences stand out.
I hope this has answered your question!

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Poll Results 2

Thanks to everyone who voted. The majority, 68%, got it right. The incorrect punctuation mark was an apostrophe. Here is the question again:
Which punctuation mark is incorrect? The naughty boy—he broke a window—was sent to the principals’ office; he claimed he was innocent, though.
The apostrophe is incorrect because there is only one principal; therefore, it should be "the principal's office."
I want to ask those of you who voted otherwise why you thought your answer was the correct one (the other choices were em dash, comma or semicolon.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Criminal Sentence 85: Compound Subjects

From an article about surgery:

"The number and size of the incisions depends on the surgery and equipment needed."

There are two subjects here ("number" and "size")--a compound subject--but a singular verb ("depends"). Compound subjects contain an "and," so if you are connecting two items with an "and," you need a plural verb. It's easy to forget about the first part of the compound subject, so that's why this is such a common error.

Here's the rewrite:

"The number and size of the incisions depend on the surgery and equipment needed."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Punctuation Encounter

So yesterday I was in the store and couldn't resist buying some mints, partly because they were made by York, of Peppermint Patty fame, and partly because of the sale price: one of my favorite errors, .99c. Now of course I knew the store meant the price to be 99c, not almost 1c. I decided to do some research when I reached the cashier. I wanted to see if I could point out an error politely and if I would get a positive response from a store employee.

I prepared the cashier by telling him I was going to say something that would probably sound odd to him. I then told him I was excited to see these mints for under 1 cent. He looked at me blankly and I could tell he thought I was crazy. I pushed on. I explained that the price tag indicated point 99 cents, less than 1 cent. He again stared at me blankly and asked if I wanted the mints for one cent. I told him that I didn't but that my goal was to inform him and the store about the mistake. He rang the mints up as if I hadn't said anything and then said in the normal dull fashion, "Have a nice day."

So I apparently failed to get him excited about this mistake. However, I did my best to be polite and not become incensed. In the past I have pointed out a few errors in stores but have never gotten the response I was hoping for. I guess it's futile. I'll just go crawl back to my stack of style guides.

See this post about prices.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Criminal Sentence 84: Site vs. Sight

From a blog writer who was lamenting she had gotten too caught up in publicity:

"I had gotten so caught up in the ego of the blog that I lost site of my true role."

This is a common type of mistake that I've covered before. In this sentence, the writer meant "sight" instead of "site." I guess the writer was thinking about Web sites when she was writing her post.

It's hard to catch yourself making a mistake like this, so beware of similar-sounding words.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Criminal Sentence 83: Overused Quotation Marks

From an article about solar water heaters:

Incentive amounts vary, with a "typical" incentive being about $2,000.

For some reason, this writer wanted to highlight the word "typical," so he put it in quotation marks. However, when you want to highlight something, you're supposed to use italics or perhaps underlining. This sentence would be better with no quotation marks. In this case, I don't see the need for italics or underlining. This just seems like a normal sentence.

You use quotation marks to quote what someone says, or to indicate you're taking liberties with your description. For example, if you say, He was "a woman," then he really isn't a woman, but perhaps he is dressed up that way or affecting a high voice.

Many times I see the word free in quotation marks, as in Your next meal is "free." This actually means not free.

So, if you want to highlight something, don't use quotation marks. Use italics or underlining, or perhaps reword the sentence.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Poll Results 1

So thanks to all 46 readers who voted on the poll. It seems that long sentences won.
I dedicated a whole chapter to this topic. In short (or should I say, in long), several words come up in overly long sentences. If you see one or more of these words in your sentence, and if your sentence is more than around 40 words, then you might have an overly long sentence:
In addition, if you have lots of commas or a set or two of em dashes, then your sentence might be too long.
Do your best to break up long sentences because readers find them hard to follow.

Friday, August 22, 2008

"Typo Vigilantes"

An interesting article from my local paper:

Criminal Sentence 82: Hyphens or Em Dashes

A reader, Eric, has a question about em dashes:
This sentence is from this article published today on

When Politico reporters working on a story about Obama's law review presidency earlier this year asked if he had written for the review, a spokesman responded accurately - but narrowly - that "as the president of the Law Review, Obama didn't write articles, he edited and reviewed them."

What I'm wondering about is the use of the hyphens (rather than dashes) to offset the phrase "but narrowly."
Eric is right that you shouldn't substitute hyphens for em dashes, but it is a fairly common sight. These particular hyphens have spaces around them, so they are not confusing. Sometimes, though, I see hyphens instead of em dashes but with no spaces, and it can get confusing. Here's an example of a confusing sentence:

I saw a lion-eating a banana!-at the zoo.

Since a hyphen links words together, this first hyphen seems to link "lion" and "eating."

If you must use hyphens instead of em dashes (not recommended but sometimes unavoidable since the keyboard doesn't have an em dash key), please double them up (as in --) or put spaces around them. In Word you can set the program to create an em dash when you type two hyphens.

If you'd like to review what I said about em dashes, see CS 56.

Thanks for your question, Eric.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Criminal Sentence 81: Where to Put Descriptions

From a review of a restaurant:

"The egg rolls arrived first, cool spring rolls in opaque wontons, stuffed with shrimp and fresh crunchy vegetables."

And later in the same article:

"A huge bowl of beef noodle soup is easily shared, packed with delicate rice noodles and slices of beef."

Both of these sentences contain descriptions that I feel are in the wrong place. The descriptive parts should be right next to the noun they're describing, so here are the sentences as I think they should be:

"The egg rolls, cool spring rolls in opaque wontons, stuffed with shrimp and fresh crunchy vegetables, arrived first."
"A huge bowl of beef noodle soup, packed with delicate rice noodles and slices of beef, is easily shared."
Even better, we can remove the passive voice in the second sentence:
"You and a friend can easily share a huge bowl of beef noodle soup, which is packed with delicate rice noodles and slices of beef."

When you describe something, make sure you put the description next to what you're describing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Criminal Sentence 80: "-ly" Adverbs

A common mistake I see:

"That is a poorly-worded sentence."

In this sentence, you don't need a hyphen. Normally you would use a hyphen to link up words that join up to modify a noun, as in "well-worded sentence," but here you don't need one because the "-ly" in the adverb ("poorly") automatically links up with the next word.

So, hyphens are usually good, but in this case one is not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Criminal Sentence 79: "Heighth" Is Not a Word

Overheard on the Olympic broadcast:

"She reaches an incredible heighth."

I've heard this before. I cringed then and I cringed just now. Nevertheless, I can see why people think it's a word:
Adjective=Long; Noun=Length
Adjective=Wide; Noun=Width
Adjective=High; Noun does not equal Heighth

"Height" is the correct word.

At these Olympics, we've reached new heights, but we haven't invented a new word: "heighth."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Criminal Sentence 78: Parallel Sentences

From a sentence about the Olympics:

"Phelps has seven gold medals in seven tries, compiled six world records and has a chance to trump the great Mark Spitz in his last race."

Of course, it's eight gold medals now.

Anyway, this sentence is not parallel. All the parts of a parallel sentence need to match each other. For example, verb, verb, verb or adjective, adjective, adjective. In this sentence, these are the three parts: "has," "compiled" and "has." (Technically, main verb, past participle, main verb.) There are only two cases of "has," whereas three are needed. The missing "has" is in the middle. Just add a "has" and it's all fixed:

"Phelps has seven gold medals in seven tries, has compiled six world records and has a chance to trump the great Mark Spitz in his last race."

You guys are in luck, because my upcoming article in Writer's Digest magazine is on this very topic. It should be on newsstands in about six weeks.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Criminal Sentence 77: Passive vs. Active Voice

Today there's no specific criminal sentence, but I thought I'd go over what passive voice and active voice are. Passive voice is generally not what you want; active voice is.

Passive voice: The book was dropped.
Active voice: So and so dropped the book.

In this passive sentence, we didn't state who dropped the book. Now, if the focus is on the book, then it's less important to state who did it. Most of the time, however, it's clear who did what, so it's better to state it so readers don't have to guess.

Passive voice: The table was set by my son.
Active voice: My son set the table.

Passive voice has three components:
A form of the verb to be: "was" in the sentence above
A past participle: "set" in the sentence above
The word "by"

My book goes over this in detail and gives you a chance to rewrite a few passive paragraphs.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Criminal Sentence 76: Colon or Semicolon?

From something I edited yesterday:

"A mailing can take many forms; letter, postcard, brochure."

I often see a semicolon instead of a colon. A colon introduces something, whereas a semicolon separates elements to a greater degree than a comma. Here are some examples:

Colon: "A mailing can take many forms: letter, postcard, brochure." (Introducing a list)
Comma: "I have an aunt, an uncle, and a grandma." (Separating a simple list)
Semicolon: "I have an aunt, Betty; an uncle, Saul; and a grandma, Martha." (Separating a more complex list that also contains commas)
Semicolon: "I have an aunt; on the other hand, you do not." (Separating two complete sentences that are linked to some degree)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Criminal Sentence 75: Using "the"

From something I just edited:

"London is currently the most expensive city in the world according to the Swiss Bank, UBS."

This sentence makes it sound as if there is only one Swiss bank, whose name is UBS. I don't believe this is the case. I'm sure there are many Swiss banks. Therefore, you need to ditch the "the" and the comma:

"London is currently the most expensive city in the world according to Swiss bank UBS."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Criminal Sentence 74: Ambiguous Sentence

From something I edited recently:

"Here are four superior examples of boutiques with a single designer producing clothing that is made in France."

The words that got me temporarily confused are "designer" next to "producing." For a moment I thought a hyphen should be between them, but then I realized that wasn't right. To avoid sentences that might be ambiguous, I recommend using a "that" or "who" clause instead of the "-ing" form:

"Here are four superior examples of boutiques with a single designer who produces clothing that is made in France."

No ambiguity there.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Criminal Sentence 73: Do Elite Athletes Have Wings?

Said by an Olympic announcer about a swimmer:

"He has an incredibly wide wingspan."

Sure, he flew down the pool, but I didn't see any wings. I don't want to ruffle any feathers, but it would probably be better to say he has a wide "armspan," although my dictionary doesn't say that is a word. Perhaps, "he has very long arms."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Criminal Sentence 72: Teacher's, Please Pay Attention

From a sign in my child's second-grade classroom:

"Parent's don't forget to let me know how your child is getting home."

We just had Meet the Teacher night last night, and this does not bode well. My son's teacher has been at this school for 18 years and looks like she's been teaching for longer. I'm sure these mistakes were just careless. Nevertheless, how can kids learn the right way if the teacher doesn't do it right?

Now, this sentence has two punctuation errors.
1. This is obvious, and I can't believe a teacher would make this mistake:
"parent's." No possessive here. Just a plural noun: "parents."
2. This error is less obvious. When you address someone, you put a comma after the name or title: Bonnie, please check my apostrophe's. (ha ha) So this should be "Parents, don't forget..." Without the comma, it is just a statement: "Parents don't forget" but maybe teachers forget how to use punctuation.

So, teacher's, parent's and childre'n, please pay attention!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Continuing from CS 69: Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive

CS 69 has raised the complicated issue of restricted vs. nonrestricted.
Here's an example of each kind:
Restrictive: You are not allowed to wear shirts that are loud.
Here, the restrictive phrase is "that are loud." It limits, or restricts, what kind of shirt you're talking about. It is necessary information. The meaning of the sentence changes if you don't include this phrase:
You are not allowed to wear shirts.

Nonrestrictive: The screenwriter's brother, Jonathan, helped write the script.
Here, the nonrestrictive part is "Jonathan," which is surrounded by commas. The meaning of the sentence doesn't change if you leave it out; you lose just additional information:
The screenwriter's brother helped write the script.

In summary, restrictive means necessary to the meaning, and you don't use commas. Nonrestrictive means nonessential--extra--information, and you do surround the phrase in commas.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Criminal Sentence 71: Hoard vs. Horde

From a book I finished yesterday:

"Hoards of new people were moving in."

A hoard is a stash: a hoard of money, for example.
A horde means a large group: a horde of angry grammarians

These words sound alike but have different meanings. Watch your spelling!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Criminal Sentence 70: Another Lovely Misplaced Modifier

From an article about a famous person diagnosed with cancer:

"Benefiting from early detection through a doctor-ordered MRI, the cancer is not life-threatening."

I don't think the cancer is benefiting from early detection (if the cancer had feelings, it would probably be sad to be thwarted). Rather, it is the person who is benefiting:

"She has benefited from early detection through a doctor-ordered MRI, so the cancer is not life-threatening."

I have two other gripes about this sentence: "life-threatening" does not need a hyphen, and "detection" is a nominalization. Anyone want to try to reword it? It could be one or two sentences.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Criminal Sentence 69: Appositives with Commas

From the same badly written article about "The Dark Knight":

"The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother Jonathan is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil..."

At least one comma is missing--maybe two. An appositive is essential information that describes something. The "Dark Knight" sentence is giving more information about the screenplay. It was "penned with Nolan's brother Jonathan," so you need a comma after Jonathan (you enclose the appositive around commas). Now the second potential appositive is about the family relationships. If Nolan has only one brother, his name, Jonathan, is essential information. I don't know how many brothers he has, though.

So, if he has one brother, the sentence should read:

"The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother, Jonathan, is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil..."

If he has more than one brother:

"The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother Jonathan, is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil..."

Friday, August 1, 2008

Criminal Sentence 68: "That" or "Who"?

From an article about the movie "The Dark Knight":

"[The movie] explores the community that cheers for the hero that operates outside or above the law."

The second "that" is incorrect, since "hero" is a person and you refer to people as "who":

"the hero who..."

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Criminal Sentence 67: How Much Is That Burger?

I was watching the ballgame yesterday and a burger ad came up. The printed price of the burger on the screen was .99c (as in less than 1 cent) but the voiceover said ninety-nine cents, which of course is the true price.
I see this mistake all the time. There are three ways to write prices less than 1 dollar:
25c = 25 cents
.25 = 25 cents
$0.25 = 25 cents.
.25c means a quarter of a cent.
So this price for a burger is a super bargain!
I wonder what would happen if I went into the burger joint and demanded the burger for .99c. I do wonder if there would be any legal argument for that price. I asked a lawyer friend of mine. I'll see what she says. Although I don't like burgers I could go to this national chain and ask just for kicks!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Criminal Sentence 66: Hyphens Help Avoid Ambiguity

From an online article:

"I looked at the biggest selling albums of all time in America."

When I first read this, I mistook "biggest" as a description of size, not as it was intended: as an intensifier meaning most. In cases where your sentence could be misread, I recommend using a hyphen to avoid ambiguity:

"I looked at the biggest-selling albums of all time in America."

Another example that could be misleading if you don't use a hyphen:

The man eating lion returned home.

Does this mean that a man who was eating lion went home? Probably not. If you write "man-eating" then you remove all doubt.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Criminal Sentence 65: A Phrasal Verb Workout

From a sign I saw at the gym. The sign was advertising a promotion and this sentence explained one of the benefits:

"Get a free bottle of water every time you workout."

The word "workout" is a noun. The verb "to work out" has a space. This is a classic phrasal verb mistake.

I wrote an episode on this very topic for Grammar Girl:

It's something you should checkout (I mean check out).

Monday, July 28, 2008

Criminal Sentence 64: If "Only"

When we speak, we say things like "I only have one car" and "It'll only hurt for a minute." We use this "only" to emphasize. Only one car. Pain for only one minute. However, the "only"s in these sentences are in the wrong places. Although it doesn't seem natural, we should say, "I have only one car" and "It'll hurt for only a minute." I'm acutely aware of these "only"s but I still find myself saying these kinds of sentences. So I understand that when we speak we will misuse "only." When we write, though, we should be more careful.

Paraphrased from today's paper:

"This offer is only good today."

So where should the "only" go?

Friday, July 25, 2008

Criminal Sentence 63: Give "the Ability" a Rest

From something I edited:

"The software gives parents the ability to support teacher efforts."

Another similar sentence (I made it up):

"I have the ability to burst into flight if I wear this magic cape."

These sentences are perfectly correct, but I hate them nevertheless. Mostly because they are wordy. Here are more concise versions:

"The software allows parents to support teacher efforts."

"I can burst into flight if I wear this magic cape."

I recommend avoiding "the ability." It is a nominalization and leads to wordy sentences.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Criminal Sentence 62: Another Naughty Nominalization

From a magazine I just proofread:

"The archaeologist made a thorough documentation of the ruins and artifacts."

This sentence is grammatically correct but not well written. I object to the phrase "made a thorough documentation of." Why not just say "thoroughly documented"? That saves three words and is much more to the point. "Documentation" is a nominalization, which I rail against in my book and in one of my WD columns.

Please learn what nominalizations are and then please try to avoid them!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Criminal Sentence 61: Doubly Not Proofread

From an article about a local summer storm:

"SRP shut off power the lines so people to escape their vehicles safely."

I don't usually find two dumb errors in one sentence. Bottom line: failure to proofread.

It sounds as if an English learner, not a professional journalist, wrote this sentence. It's criminal!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Criminal Sentence 60: Another Faulty Comparison

From an article about homeowners' associations:

"But, unlike other states where associations may evict homeowners for a few dollars, Arizona associations cannot foreclose until the unpaid assessments have accumulated for more than one year or until the amount owed reaches $1,200, whichever occurs first."

The problem lies in the beginning of this sentence, where "other states" is compared to "Arizona associations."

Anyone want to try to make a correct comparison? (You don't have to continue the sentence past "foreclose" if you don't want to.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

Criminal Sentence 59: But Sometimes Spell Check Is Useful

From the glowing comments from the back of a book I'm reading:

"In this memoir Terri Jentz grapples with the deep subconcious of America..."

This book is turning out to be very good, but the spelling on the back cover is not. In an earlier post, I asked you not to rely on Spell Check to catch mistakes, but that doesn't mean to not use it at all. There really is no excuse these days to have misspelled words.

So use Spell Check as a first line of defense against mistakes but not as your only defense.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Criminal Sentence 58: Who's or Whose?

From a book I'm reading:

"Who's line is that?"

If you spell out the contraction, this question becomes "Who is line is that?" and that doesn't make any sense.

These pairs are easy to confuse if you're not careful:

you're, your
it's. its
who's, whose
they're, their, there

Spell out your contractions to check if your right. (Did you catch that?)

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Criminal Sentence 57: Why You Can't Rely on Spell Check

From a book I was reading:

"Trying to asses the impact of the revolt is difficult."

This sentence would pass spell check but wouldn't pass muster anywhere else.

Don't be a bunch of "assess" and rely on spell check!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Criminal Sentence 56: Em Dash or Colon?

From something I recently read for a client:

"We have several core competencies—they are"

I often see em dashes used incorrectly, especially instead of a period. The main use of an em dash is to initiate a break in thought:

"He asked me out—I couldn't believe it—and I gladly accepted."

So, above it would be better to use different punctuation:

"We have several core competencies:"

Monday, July 14, 2008

Criminal Sentence 55: Vague To The Max

From an article about couples counseling:

"Tears are a frequent occurrence."

This is one of the vaguest sentences I've seen in a while. It doesn't state who is crying. Why not just say, "She cried a lot"? Unless you're writing a murder mystery and want to conceal someone's identity, please state who is doing what. Your readers will thank you.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Criminal Sentence 54: Who's Unconscious?

Overheard on a forensics show:

"Once unconscious, he hit her head on the floor."

This was a very sad story of a man who murdered his wife. If this sentence were not part of such a terrible crime, I might laugh. This misplaced modifier suggests that the man was unconscious while he hit her. That would be hard to do. The narrator unfortunately meant that the woman was unconscious. He meant to say, "Once she was unconscious, he hit her head."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Criminal Sentence 53: Lose or Loose?

From the directions to a game my daughter got for her birthday:

"If the pyramid falls, you loose."

Way to teach those young ones good spelling.

"Lose" means not win. "Loose" means not tight.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Criminal Sentence 52: Oh No!!!!

From a sign in a clothing shop:

Returns on Underwear"

NO!!!!!! There are two problems with this sign. 1) The exclamation points should be at the end. 2) Only one exclamation point is necessary. Two is overdoing it.

By having the exclamation point(s) in the middle, this sign seems to say the opposite of what it means. (It really means that there are no returns on undergarments. An emphatic no, mind you.)

It gave me a laugh. How about you?

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Criminal Sentence 51: Dumb Typo

From a Washington Post article in my local paper:

"Ten it changed."

That doesn't make much sense. First you write the sentence; ten (I mean then) you check it!

Monday, July 7, 2008

Criminal Sentence 50: Palette or Palate? (Or Pallet?)

From a Web site about Wimbledon:

"It was like a palette-cleansing sorbet."

This sentence suggests that a paint tray had something to do with this scenario. The writer meant "palate."

I've often seen the words palette (paint tray), palate (used for tasting) and pallet (wooden crates or a makeshift bed) confused.

Try to remember the right spelling you need!

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Criminal Sentence 49: Annoying Little Hyphens

From the instructions on a coffee maker I saw while waiting for coffee this morning:

"There are controls on the left and right-hand sides of the machine" (or something to that effect).

In this sentence, the word "left" is sort of hanging there unattached. It goes with "hand" as does "right," which has a hyphen already. When you have more than one word that is part of a compound word, all need a hyphen. So it should be "left- and right-hand sides."

Another example:

"An eight-, six- and five-year-old attended the party."

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Criminal Sentence 48: Tricky Parentheses

When you have a period and some parentheses, how do you know whether the period goes inside or outside of the parenthesis?

Incorrect: I am making you dinner tonight (that's unusual.)
Correct: I am making you dinner tonight (that's unusual).
Correct: I am making you dinner tonight. (That's unusual.)

If the entire sentence is within parentheses, as in the last example, then you put the period inside. In any other circumstance, you put it outside. (Now you know.)

Monday, June 30, 2008

Criminal Sentence 47: Faulty Comparison

From a newspaper column where the columnist answers readers' bizarre questions. In this column, the columnist didn't remember how to make bird feeders out of old pill bottles:

"I have made tuned wind chimes in the past, but like making bird feeders out of old pill bottles, the directions are long lost."

This sentence incorrectly compares "making bird feeders" to "the directions." Writer and reader can understand this sentence, but it's better to compare like things.

You can rewrite this in a number of ways. Here are two examples:

"I have made tuned wind chimes in the past, but like the directions for making bird feeders out of old pill bottles, those for making tuned wind chimes are lost."

"I have made tuned wind chimes in the past, but the directions for making them are lost, as are the instructions for making bird feeders out of old pill bottles."

Friday, June 27, 2008

Criminal Sentence 46: How Much?

On a sign at a fast food restaurant:

".99c roast beef sandwiches"

Wow! Under 1 cent for a roast beef sandwich? What a bargain!

The store meant 99c or $0.99. .99c is .01 less than 1 cent.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Criminal Sentence 45: Years (of) Experience

A common error I see:

"I have eight years experience."

This should be "years' experience" or "years of experience."

Just think about it if you used one year:

"I have one year experience." This sounds wrong (and it is!): "one year of experience" or "one year's experience."

I have too many years' experience making this correction.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Criminal Sentence 44: Your or You're?

My battery died earlier today, conveniently allowing me to go to an auto parts store and see this:

"Bring in you're old battery and we'll give you $3." (Or something to that effect.)

That should be "your." You can test if the contraction ("you're") is right by pretending you don't have a contraction and spelling it out:

"Bring in you are old battery and we'll give you $3."

As you can see, this does not make sense. It would make a cool insult, though: you old battery.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Criminal Sentence 43: Question Marks and Quotation Marks

From an illuminating article about funeral arrangements:

Are caskets "one size fits all?"

The question mark should be outside the quotation mark in this case.

Question marks mixed with quotation marks can be tricky. If what you're quoting contains a question mark, then the question mark goes inside the quotation marks; if the entire sentence is a question, then the question mark goes outside.

Here are some correct examples:

Are caskets "one size fits all"?
"Do I look fat in this?" asked Mary.
Can you believe he called me "fat"?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Criminal Sentence 42: Hire More Grammarians, Not Table Cleaners

From a sign at the IKEA restaurant. The rest of the sign indicated that customers should bus their own trays.

"By taking your tray to the tray station, we can continue to keep prices low."

This sentence contains an amusing misplaced modifier. It says the exact opposite of what's intended. IKEA wants "you" to take your tray away, not "we," as stated here.

How about this, IKEA:

"If you take your tray to the tray station, we can continue to keep prices low."

Thanks for the Swedish meatballs, and the memories.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Criminal Sentence 41: How Old Is This Mom?

I had to laugh at this sentence.

From a parenting magazine, where a mom is answering the question "What trait of yours do you hope your child doesn't inherit?":

"My stubborn nature. The bad thing is that at age one and a half, I think he already has some of it!"

According to this sentence, the mom, not the son, is one and a half. Let's rephrase:

"The bad thing is that at age one and a half, he already has some of it, I think!"

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Criminal Sentence 40: Read What You Write

From a fascinating article on who was chosen for the list of hottest bachelor:

"Bruce Willis, who has been linked to model Emma Hemming, landed him a spot too."

This should say either" landed a spot" or "landed himself a spot." It seems that this sentence was edited but not proofread. Editing is good, but proofreading is even better.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Criminal Sentence 39: I Wouldn't

Overheard on a TV show:

"I wouldn't have had to if you would have told me the truth."

When you have an "if" clause, you don't use "would. In the above sentence, you use "had":

"I wouldn't have had to if you had told me the truth."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Criminal Sentence 38: I'm "Sore" about This

From a weather report yesterday:

"Temperatures will sore to 112 once again."

Ouch! I think the writer meant "soar."

Today it's supposed to be 113! Another ouch!

Monday, June 16, 2008

Criminal Sentence 37: "There Are" Better Ways to Say It

Writers love the phrase "there are" (or "there is"). For example:

"There are three girls standing over there."

This is just wordy. I feel it's almost always best to cut out unnecessary cases of "there":

"Three girls are standing over there."

Many times, you can get rid of a boring "to be" verb (such as "are" and "is"):

You can turn "There are six students who attend the school"
"Six students attend the school"
and you save three words.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Criminal Sentence 36: Wherefore Art Thou, Comma?

From an article on last night's baseball game:

"With one out, Luis Castillo hit a hot shot to third where Reynolds couldn't handle it."

Commas can be tricky but I recommend you add one after "third." You're giving additional information. Another example (with correct comma):

Sam and Pam went to the prom, where they had their first kiss.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Criminal Sentence 35: Incompletes

From an article on a restaurant I like:

"The garden of eatin' pizza ($13.75 for a 12-inch pizza; $12 for an 18-inch pizza), a sauceless pizza with marinated roma tomatoes, basil and garlic in olive oil, topped with mozzarella cheese and splashed with balsamic vinegar."

Sounds delicious, but the sentence is missing a main verb: is ("is topped with..."). This kind of sentence is known as an incomplete sentence or a fragment.

Did you catch the other fragment I used above on purpose? This one is missing a subject:

"Sounds delicious."

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Criminal Sentence 34: To Ire or To Irk?

From a Web headline:

"Slow batter ires Big Unit"

(FYI, "Big Unit" is a nickname for pitcher Randy Johnson, who is 6'10".)

The verb here should be "irks," which means "annoys." "Ire" is a noun that means "anger."

A new headline:

Lack of Dictionary Use Irks Copyeditor

Monday, June 9, 2008

Criminal Sentence 33: Apples to Apples

A quotation from Roger Federer, who lost the French Open tennis final to Rafael Nadal in an embarrassing fashion:

"He was more dominant than the previous years."

Granted, Federer is Swiss, so English is not his native language, but I see native speakers make this same mistake. In this sentence, "he" is compared to "previous years." We know what he means, but when you're making a comparison, it would be better to compare apples to apples:

"He was more dominant than he was in previous years."

Here, I compared "he" to "he."

Friday, June 6, 2008

Criminal Sentence 32: Don't Repeat

A common error I see:

"It was dark and also foggy."

I made this one up, but I see a lot of similar sentences, sentences that use both "and" and "also" together. In this case, please delete "also" because it is repetitive. Also watch out for "in addition." I often see this phrase in the same sentence as an "and." Some writers use both for emphasis, but most of the time it is redundant.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Criminal Sentence 31: Commas or Semicolons

From an article about Obama:

"Attendees included Sex and the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker, President Kennedy's speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, and Caroline Kennedy."

When I first read this sentence, I thought the writer was implying that SJP was Kennedy's speechwriter. Actually, the sentence could mean three things:
1. There were four attendees: SJP, an unnamed speechwriter, Ted and Caroline.
2. There were three attendees: SJP (who is Kennedy's speechwriter), Ted and Caroline.
3. There were three attendees: SJP, Ted (who is Kennedy's speechwriter) and Caroline.

I think the writer meant number 3. Semicolons in the right places would remove any doubt:

Attendees included Sex and the City actress Sarah Jessica Parker; President Kennedy's speechwriter, Ted Sorensen; and Caroline Kennedy.

Now the sentence is clear.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Criminal Sentence 30: Insure or Ensure?

From an ad for financial services:

"Lock in your appointment now to insure these special rates"

The word "insure" is usually used to refer to insurance:

I would like to insure my car, please.

When you're saying that you want to be sure about something, you use "ensure":

Please ensure you lock the door before you leave.

Now, if you use "ensure" instead of "insure" in the criminal sentence, it still sounds odd, so let's improve it:

Lock in your appointment now to ensure you receive these special rates.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Criminal Sentence 29: Me or Myself?

From a Q&A column in my newspaper. The writer is asking about whether to close air conditioning vents in two unused rooms.

"With two bedrooms being unused, it leads to a debate between my wife and myself."

In addition to being poorly worded, this sentence has a grammatical error: "myself" instead of "me." Although the writer is talking about himself, "me" is correct.

You use "myself" (and other reflexive pronouns like it: himself, herself, ourselves, themselves) when you've already mentioned "I" (or he, she, we, they):

I washed myself.

You wouldn't say, "I washed me."

In this criminal sentence, there is a debate between two people: the wife and the writer. If the writer had an argument with himself, he could say, "I had a debate with myself."

Monday, June 2, 2008

Criminal Sentence 28: Not "In Tact"

From an article about a poor pitcher hit in the mouth by a baseball:

"Blackburn didn’t lose consciousness, and his teeth stayed in tact."

That should be "intact," an adjective meaning not broken. "Intact" is one word. "Tact," a noun, means the ability to speak or act without offending someone. "In tact" is not a valid combination of words.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Criminal Sentence 27: Misplaced While Traveling

From a newspaper article about a young girl captured by Indians in the 1850s:

"While traveling west in 1851, American Indians attacked her family near Gila Bend."

The Indians were already in the west, so it was her family who was traveling there. The sentence should read:

"While traveling west in 1851, her family was attacked by American Indians near Gila Bend."

This corrected sentence is in the passive voice, which you might want to avoid, so here's another way to express this same idea:

"While she and her family were traveling west in 1851, American Indians attacked them near Gila Bend."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Criminal Sentence 26: Don't Run On

From a water bottle I drank at the ballpark last night:

"We can all make a difference, please recycle."

Good sentiment; bad punctuation. This sentence is really two sentences that should be separated with a period, not a comma:

"We can all make a difference. Please recycle."

You can't put two complete thoughts together with just a comma. Wrong;

I love you, will you marry me?
He ate too much cake, he got a tummy ache.


I love you. Will you marry me?
He ate too much cake. He got a tummy ache.
He ate too much cake, so he got a tummy ache.
He ate too much cake and got a tummy ache.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Criminal Sentence 25: Hyphens II

From an ad in the paper:

"There's never been a better time to save on our locally-made custom furniture."

When you have an -ly adverb, such as locally, you don't need to join it up to the following word with a hyphen. You need just a space. If it's another adverb, such as well, then you would use a hyphen:

I want to buy some well-made furniture.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Criminal Sentence 24: Hi (Or Bye), Hyphen

At the deli counter:

"Place your order now and it will be ready for you in 15-minutes."

No hyphen necessary!

If you use a descriptive phrase directly before a noun, then you need a hyphen:

The 15-minute movie was too short.

Compare these examples, with correct hyphens:

The 38-year-old was a copy editor.
The copy editor was 38 years old.
It took 25 minutes to go shopping.
The 25-minute shopping trip was fun.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Criminal Sentence 23: Crazy Comparison

From an article lamenting how American Airlines is charging for checked bags:

"Like its competitors, skyrocketing fuel costs have put the carrier's balance sheet in a vise."

This sentence compares "competitors" to "fuel costs," not what the writer intended. When you start a sentence with "Like," be sure that what follows the comma is what you're comparing. Here are a couple ways to rewrite this sentence:

Like its competitors, the carrier is facing financial difficulties due to skyrocketing fuel costs.


Skyrocketing fuel costs have put the carrier's balance sheet--as well as those of its competitors--in a vise.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Criminal Sentence 22: Shorten When You Have the Ability (When You Can)

From a brochure about printing:

"We have the ability to print on a wide variety of coated and uncoated stocks."

The phrases "have the ability to" and "are able to" are both wordy ways of saying "can." One of your goals when you are writing should be to use the fewest number of words, so I discourage you from using these two phrases. I prefer "can":

"We can print on a wide variety of coated and uncoated stocks."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Criminal Sentence 21: Not Her's

From an online book review I saw this morning:

"I'm a big fan of her's."

I'm not a big fan of that. "Her's" is not a word. "Hers" is a possessive adjective, and possessive adjectives do not use apostrophes. Other possessives, such as Jake's or the teacher's, do.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Criminal Sentence 20: Nasty Nominalization

From a book I was reading last night:

"I knew I was wasting time, crouched in a bush being gradually covered by snow, listening to spirits, but slowly the conviction grew that there was someone breathing, not all that far from me."

I object to this part: "the conviction grew that..." First off, the "that" clause should be next to "conviction." This is a misplaced modifier, and I've already discussed this problem. The cause of this particular misplaced modifier is the word "conviction." This is called a nominalization. Lots of words that end in "-tion" are nominalizations, so watch out for them and try not to use them. They are vague nouns that allow the writer to omit who is doing what. We know from the beginning of this sentence that "I" is doing all the action/thinking here. If you continue using "I," you avoid the misplaced modifier and the nominalization:

"...slowly I became convinced that..."

I rail against nominalizations in my book and in my first column for Writer's Digest. Help me eradicate them: learn what they are and vow not to use them!


Friday, May 16, 2008

Criminal Sentence 19: Including What?

From something I just edited about a zoo:

"The zoo will be divided into six 'biozones,' including the Guyana Forest, the African Equatorial Forest, the Sahelo-Sudan Savannah, Patagonia, Madagascar and Europe."

The first part of the sentence tells us there are six biozones. Then the sentence lists all six. You can't use the word "including" because you're listing them all. If you want to use "including," you have to give an incomplete list. This is a complete list, so you need to use a colon:

"The zoo will be divided into six 'biozones': the Guyana Forest, the African Equatorial Forest, the Sahelo-Sudan Savannah, Patagonia, Madagascar and Europe."

In a similar vein, I often see sentences such as this:

"The attributes of the vehicle include five-speed transmission, scratch-resistant paint and more."

Please don't use "include" along with "and more" in the same sentence. That is redundant. Just say this:

"The attributes of the vehicle include five-speed transmission and scratch-resistant paint."

Remember that when you use "include," by definition you're giving an incomplete list.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Criminal Sentence 18: Compound Confusion

From something I edited. The writer was discussing how he was able to lobby the Legislature successfully:

"Showing flexibility and being willing to compromise was an important step in getting this legislation passed."

"Showing flexibility" and "being willing to compromise" form a compound subject, which requires a plural verb. In addition, the writer is discussing two steps, not one. The sentence should read like this:

"Showing flexibility and being willing to compromise were important steps in getting this legislation passed."

If you use an "and," check that you're using a plural verb.

I still dislike the corrected sentence because it never states who is getting the legislation passed. Although we know "I" did it, it would be better to state that:

I showed flexibility and was willing to compromise, both pivotal qualities a lobbyist needed to get this legislation passed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Criminal Sentence 17: Soundalikes

Not a sentence but criminal all the same.

On the menu at my daughter's school:

Green beens

"Bean" sounds like "been," but "beens" isn't a word!

Another one I saw on a sign outside a drugstore:

Summer Sandles

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Criminal Sentence 16: Another Misplaced Modifier

These are so common that I could put one here every day.

From an article about bike helmets:

"The accident has left the boys' mothers with new concerns about the vast number of kids on wheels they see without helmets."

I object to "wheels they see without helmets." This implies the writer is seeing something but not wearing a helmet. "Without helmets" belongs with "kids." A lot of information is crammed in this sentence, so that's why this misplaced modifier escaped the writer's notice. You need to rewrite the sentence so all the parts fit together correctly:

The accident has left the boys' mothers concerned because they see so many kids who don't wear helmets when they're on wheels.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Criminal Sentence 15: The Art of No Typos

From a movie synopsis (Redbelt) in the paper:

"Chiwetel Ejiofor is outstanding as an honorable marital-arts teacher...."

This is a funny typo: marital arts instead of martial arts. And this error is why you should be careful not to rely on Spell Check. In my head I file pairs (or trios) of words that I often see mixed up. Then when I see one of them, I do a double take to ensure the right one is there.
I wrote about this topic in one of my Writer's Digest articles. Here's my favorite line from my article: "Butt, dew knot re-lie on Spell Check too fined yore miss-takes!"

Friday, May 9, 2008

Criminal Sentence 14: Overusing quotation marks

From an ad for male incontinence (which I read with great interest! Actually it was a huge headline, so I noticed it):

Up at night having to "go"?

No quotation marks necessary. Sometimes writers like to highlight a word that is somewhat colloquial by using quotation marks, but you don't need to do that. If you want to highlight something, all caps, italics or underlining might be appropriate. But use sparingly!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Criminal Sentence 13: Vague Subjects

From an online map service:

"When using any driving directions or map, it's a good idea to do a reality check and make sure the road still exists, watch out for construction, and follow all traffic safety precautions."

This is a typical misplaced modifier that involves a vague subject. The sentence starts off with "When using" but fails to state the implied subject: "you." As a result, what comes after the comma ("it") inadvertently--and incorrectly--becomes the subject of the sentence. It would be better to write "When you're using..."

In my book I call these "vague -ing" words. They're very common but no other writing book I've found covers them. Please be extra careful when you start a sentence like this. Always ensure that you state who is doing what.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Criminal Sentence 12: The Sport of Finding Missing Apostrophes

Today, my newspaper's Sports section displays a lack of much-needed apostrophes. I read just two articles, one on basketball and one on baseball.

Basketball headline: Suns door all but closed to D'Antoni
Baseball headline: Diamondbacks relievers getting job done

Within these articles: Suns management
Diamondbacks starter Randy Johnson

In all of these cases, I believe there should be an apostrophe at the end: Suns' door, Diamondbacks' relievers, etc. The question here is if "Suns" and "Diamondbacks" are nouns or adjectives. In the sentence "The Diamondbacks won," Diamondbacks is a noun. In the sentence "The Diamondbacks' win was expected," it is an adjective. Therefore, you need an apostrophe. One way I use to check my apostrophes is to temporarily use an "of": "management of the Suns" (Suns' management). "Pet of the teacher" (teacher's pet).

It can't be a coincidence that the writers left out so many apostrophes. Perhaps they're doing it on purpose. I'm going to ask the editor of the Sports section why. If he answers, I'll let you know his response.

A few hours later...
Well, the Sports editor was kind enough to answer. It's AP style not to use an apostrophe in a phrase like "the Diamondbacks reliever." Doesn't mean I like it, though.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Criminal Sentence 11: Watch Your Backside

From a sales letter I edited recently:

"Complete enrollment instructions are provided on the backside."

"Back side" (two words) means the reverse side. "Backside" (one word) means rear end.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Criminal Sentence 10: Pour vs. Pore

This is an especially egregious example because it comes from the acknowledgments in a grammar book. The author is thanking his copy editor:

"She poured over each page of the manuscript with youthful laughter, unwavering encouragement, and sage advice."

After I got over the shock of reading this, I had to laugh youthfully.

"To pour over" is to dispense liquid on top of something or someone. "To pore over" is to study something carefully.

Please pore over your writing and proofread, or I'll have to come pour something over you!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Criminal Sentence 9: Crazy Caps

From an ad in today's newspaper:

"All Prices slashed for Immediate liquidation."

Capital letters indicate you're starting a sentence or using a proper name. A proper name is a city's name, or a product's name, or a person's name, for example. "Prices" and "Immediate" are not proper names, so these words should start with a lowercase letter. I often see this random use of caps, perhaps an attempt to make words stand out.

I find It rather Annoying. And I wish Writers would Stop doing it.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Criminal Sentence 8: Recipe for a Misplaced Modifier

From a recipe for the mushroom spread I made yesterday:

"Before pureeing, this combination makes a fine filling for turnovers."

According to this sentence, "this combination" is going to be doing some pureeing. Oops. This is a misplaced modifier, which I complain about in my book and in my upcoming Writer's Digest column (coming in the next issue). When you start a sentence with a phrase like "Before pureeing," whatever comes next is what goes with it. The sentence structure is messed up here, so you need to state who is doing the pureeing. You can rewrite this in a number of ways. I like this sentence:

"If you want to use this combination as a yummy filling for turnovers, don't puree it."