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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).

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.