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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).

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.)