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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, April 30, 2008

Criminal Sentence 7: Everyday Is Ordinary

So a few weeks ago I'm driving by a construction site. A new grocery store is going up. Its name and hours are on a sign even before the building is finished. This is not really a sentence, but I'm sure you'll forgive me:

Everyday 8am-10pm

Nothing special at that store. It's just regular, ordinary, everyday. No need to shop there. I don't think that's the kind of customer response the store was hoping to get. A space is a little thing, but here it makes the difference between "daily" (every day) and
"run of the mill" (everyday).

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Criminal Sentence 6: Songwriters, Please Don't Lay Down

"Lay back. It's all been done before."--Avril Lavigne
"Decisions that made my bed/Now I must lay in it."--Maroon 5
"Lay down."--My daughter's daycare teacher

It seems that from the earliest age, kids are being taught to "lay down." If you're like my husband, you'll say that this is just how the language is moving. I hate to admit that he's right and I can't do anything about it. To make myself feel better, I'm just going to complain about it a little bit.

If you want to use "lay," more than one person or thing is involved. You "lay" something or someone down: lay the baby on the bed, lay the grammar book on the table. If you are tired and want to rest, only you are involved and you use "lie": I'm going to lie down.

It gets a bit tricky in the past tense.
I lie down every morning. I lay down yesterday morning.
I always lay the baby down at 7. I laid the baby down at 7 yesterday.

And I just saw this quote: "I’m certainly not happy with it, by any means,” Zito said. “But this is the bed that I’ve made. I have to lay in it for the time being and I have to overcome."

Monday, April 28, 2008

Criminal Sentence 5: Subjects and Verbs

Have you ever been washing your hair in the shower and noticed a grammar error on your shampoo bottle? Yep, happened to me this morning.
"Lively whipped bubbles along with a nourishing Botanical blend of Allantoin, Chamomile, Rosemary, Nettle and Nature's own gentle cleanser, Soapbark, adds incredible softness."
This is a classic subject-verb agreement problem. I wrote about this in one of my Writer's Digest articles, and Grammar Girl recently used my column on her podcast ( Here, the subject is "bubbles" and the verb is erroneously "adds." It should be "add" because "bubbles" is a plural subject. The copy writer made this error because there's a lot of what I call stuff in the way. All that stuff about herbs confused the writer. If you take all that away, you can easily tell there's an error: "Lively whipped bubbles adds incredible softness."

Friday, April 25, 2008

Criminal Sentence 4: Misplaced Prepositional Phrase

From a book I was reading last night. It was written by a bestselling author.

"He dialed the number at the hospital of Dr. X."

This sentence suggests that Dr. X owns the hospital. When you use a prepositional phrase (such as "of Dr. X"), be aware of what comes directly before it. In this sentence, "of Dr. X" belongs with "number," not "hospital." Both "at the hospital" and "of Dr. X" are describing "the number." Only one phrase can follow it, so you have to rearrange the sentence's elements somewhat. I suggest you write "He dialed Dr. X's number at the hospital."

My husband says, "I read this as he dialed the hospital number where Dr. X works." Perhaps you could read it that way. In that case, you should aim for an even clearer sentence than what I suggested above. You don't want your sentence open to too many interpretations.

To eliminate any confusion, you could simply write "I called Dr. X at the hospital" (as opposed to "I called him at home").

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Criminal Sentence 3: Nonsense in Print

I cut this sentence out of a magazine a few years back:
"Ron Smith, owner and chief instructor of the recognized school, said he believes his school was chosen because his program specializes in teaching personal devilment and life skills to children, teens and adults."
Most kids have a little devil in them already.
The moral of this story is you should always read what you've written before you send it off to the printer.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Criminal Sentence 2: It's vs. Its

"Due to the proximity of it's flamboyant sister city, London, Edinburgh often gets overshadowed."

"It's" is a contraction of "it is," whereas "its" is an adjective known as a possessive adjective. Possessive adjectives such as "hers" and "his" never use an apostrophe. It's easy to get them confused if you're not paying close attention.

Here's how to test if you're using "it's" and "its" correctly:
If you can substitute "it is" for your "it's" or "its," then "it's" is right! If not, then use"its."

"it's flamboyant sister": You can't write "it is flamboyant sister," so it should be "its."

Until you're sure you're using these two words correctly, I recommend doing the little test to check yourself whenever you see an "it's" or "its."

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Proofreading Tips

  • Get a writing buddy and check each other’s work.
  • Before you call something finished, leave some time to let it sit. Then go back and reread it with a critical eye.
  • Use a dictionary and Spell Check to make sure you’re using the right word and the right spelling. Don’t rely on Spell Check because it doesn’t catch word errors.
  • Read your work aloud in a monotone so you read what is actually there, not what your brain expects.
  • Become familiar with the kinds of mistakes you often make (its/it’s, etc.) and look out for them.

Criminal Sentence 1: Wrong Word

An error a day keeps a copy editor in business.

The first criminal sentence I'll present to you comes from an article about restaurants:

"From a dining perspective, the city has made strides to offer choices for more sophisticated pallets."

I think the writer meant "palates." I often see mistakes with these similarly spelled words: palate, palette and pallet. It's very easy to mess this up, so you just have to be aware that many words sound or look alike. Remember to proofread yourself before you consider something final. See my post on proofreading tips.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

What error bugs you most?

For me, a misplaced apostrophe makes my face red. I go ballistic when I see sock's for sale or "visitor's hours," as if there will be only one visitor.
Apostrophes are little things but they do make a difference. We mustn’t be so careless; we must make an effort. Apostrophes should be our friends and we should take care of them. We don’t want to leave them hanging where they don’t belong or leave them out when we should include them.

Grammar Girl endorses Curious Case, now out in paperback!

Grammar Girl, a fellow grammarian and my friend, has endorsed my book! Here's what she says:

"A cute little grammar book that uses a solve-the-mystery format to make writing rules fun."
--Mignon Fogarty, host of the award-winning Grammar Girl podcast

Thanks, Mignon!!

You can write better--right now!

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