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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).

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Criminal Sentence 209: Needed: A Good Home for my "Who" Clause

From today's newspaper (in the movie-summary section):

"Paul Rudd stars as a man about to be married who needs to find a best man."

The writing world is filled with orphan clauses, mostly "who" and "that" clauses that need to match up with the noun they modify. In my book I talk about a trick to help you avoid this kind of misplaced modifier:

1. Find a "who" or "that" clause.
2. Look to the immediate left. If the word directly before "who" or "that" is the noun that the clause modifies, bingo.
3. Otherwise, you need to rewrite.

Take the steps as we look at the "who" clause in today's criminal sentence.

1. Find the "who" clause: who needs to find a best man."
2. Look to the left. "Married" does not go with "who."
3. Rewrite.

Many writers, especially published ones, don't seem to know about this problem, which causes confusing sentences, or at minimum imprecise ones. Do me a favor and forward this post to at least one writer who would benefit from this knowledge.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Criminal Sentence 208: Working Hard or Hardly Paying Attention

From a book I read lately (the man was grading some bumpy ground):

"After working all day, the ground was approaching level."

Both the sentence and the ground are bumpy here. By now you should know that this is a misplaced modifier. The ground was not working all day.

I'm still waiting to read a book that contains no misplaced modifiers. Seems like an impossible wish.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Criminal Sentence 207: Quadruple Threat

From something I edited yesterday:

"Care and attention is given to each and every customer that calls us."

Four boo-boos here.
1) "Care and attention" is a plural subject, so "is" is incorrect.
2) "is given to" is passive voice, which is not the best writing style. Who is giving?
3) "each and every" is a wordy way of saying "every."
4) "that" usually follows inanimate objects, not people, so I prefer "who" in this case.

Overall, a pretty weak sentence. No hope for rehabilitation here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Poll Results 33

This was the question:

What's wrong with this? "Those of us who have experienced it, do not resist it."
Grammar 23 (28%)

Punctuation 55 (68%)

Spelling 2 (2%)

Congratulations to 68% of you. No comma needed in this sentence.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Is Modeling the Same as Writing?

I was watching America's Next Top Model and was surprised by something Tyra Banks said when critiquing a model wannabe:

"She’s the noun, not the verb. She looks like a model but she isn’t modeling."

What an astute statement. Strong verbs make good sentences; strong verbs must make good models, too.

So before you parade your sentences out on the runway, consider asking yourself if they're top-model quality.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Criminal Sentence 206: Think "Who?"

This morning I was looking in my local paper to see if I could find an error to showcase here. The front page was as far as I needed to go (this is a story about a nightclub that caters to plus-size people):

"When running a night that targets plus-size patrons, size matters."

Who is running the night? Not "size" I suspect.

When you're writing a sentence that starts with an "-ing" clause (such as "when running"), the word after the phrase ends--usually after a comma--should be the person/thing doing the action in the "-ing" clause. So, as far as "when running a night that targets plus-size patrons": who is doing that?

1. You notice you have an "-ing" clause.
2. You look at what follows the comma at the end of the clause.
3. You check that what you found in #2 matches up with the action depicted in #1.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Criminal Sentence 205: Dust out of Place

From a book I read:

"But sitting in the vinyl chair of a waiting room, the settling dust of my family’s collapse seemed unimportant."

I suppose dust could sit in a vinyl chair, but the writer ("I," most likely) is probably sitting there. I like the way that "the settling dust of my family's collapse" sounds, but it's in the wrong place. Here's a rewrite:

"But sitting in the vinyl chair of a waiting room, I realized that the settling dust of my family’s collapse was unimportant."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Criminal Sentence 204: Like, Totally

From a book I finished last week:

"Like getting on a boat, you wait for permission [to come into a room]."

This is a classic faulty comparison because the sentence compares "getting on a boat" with "you." Not really possible. I know we speak like this all the time, but when we write, it's better to be more precise:

"As when you're getting on a boat, you wait for permission."

This sentence compares "you" and "you." Like, totally correct!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Poll Results 32

This was the question:

What's wrong with this? "With enough money, we could buy a new van, instead of repairing the one that was seven years old with spit and glue."

Punctuation 36 (46%)
Grammar 31 (39%)
Spelling 0 (0%)
Wordiness 11 (14%)

Congratulations, 39% of you. The phrase "with spit and glue" doesn't belong next with "that was seven years old." In this case, you can't just move the phrase; you have to change the wording slightly:

"With enough money, we could buy a new van, instead of using spit and glue to repair the one that was seven years old."

Friday, April 17, 2009

Criminal Sentence 203: It's Not a Dress You Want

From a clothing Web site:

"With it's crisp linen and clean pintucks, you're sure to feel that spring is in the air decked in this effortlessly chic shift dress."

The dress sounds lovely, but the "it's" doesn't. "It's" is an abbreviation for "it is" or "it has," and that's not what the "it's" in this sentence should say. It should be "its," which is a possessive adjective.

I know it's easy to be careless, but I'd rather you were careful.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Criminal Sentence 202: Get Over Those Quotation Marks

From a book I just read (a book about being an ER doc):

How does one “get over” a mistake that cost another person’s life?

I don't know how ER docs deal with life and death issues, but I do know that you don't need quotation marks when you're using a colloquial expression such as "get over." They are "unnecessary."

I've always wondered why writers want to use quotation marks for words that are not quoted speech. If you tend to do this, can you explain your rationale?


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Criminal Sentence 201: Keeping Sentences Parallel

From a book I finished yesterday:

"He was smart, decisive and had sound judgment."

And a couple pages later:

"He has graying hair, a calm voice and never seems to hurry."

Both of these suffer from the same problem: The parts don't fit together right. Make a list and you'll see what I mean.

He was smart
had sound judgment

He has graying hair
a calm voice
never seems to hurry

Both sentences are missing a verb in the middle. One way to fix it is to add the missing verb:

He was smart
was decisive
had sound judgment

He has graying hair
has a calm voice
never seems to hurry

If you want to avoid repeating a verb, you can rewrite the sentence. One way:

Smart and decisive, he had sound judgment.
With graying hair and a calm voice, he never seems to hurry.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Criminal Sentence 200: Prepositions Suck

From today's paper (an article about an 80s band):

"The group split in 1989 due to a dispute over royalties that lasted for most of the 90s."

Prepositional phrases always get in the way. Here, "over royalties" comes between "dispute" and the "that" clause, causing a classic misplaced modifier. The royalties didn't last for most of the 90s; the dispute did. Just reword: "due to a royalty dispute that lasted..."

If you see a prepositional phrase and then a "that" or "who" clause, get ready to rewrite. For those of you who haven't read Chapter 5 of my book, please do so now and start spreading the word!!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Poll Results 31

This was the question:

What do you think of this TV slogan? "More movie, less commercials"

I know it's ungrammatical but I don't care. 15 (21%)

I know it's ungrammatical and I wish TNT would stop using it. 50 (71%)

I don't see what's wrong with it. 5 (7%)

For those who don't know what's wrong, the issue here is countable and noncountable nouns. You would say less sugar because sugar is not countable. You would say fewer commercials because they are countable.

I found this interesting couple of paragraphs in which the "fewer" and "less" situation is messed up at the end:

The airline industry flew fewer people in 2008 but treated them better, arriving on time more often and losing fewer bags. Passengers also were not as apt to be bumped from flights by overbooking, which was a big problem when airlines were running at or over capacity.

The downside: Less flights, higher prices — some airlines now charge extra for any luggage — and fewer frills.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Criminal Sentence 199: The County or the Girl

A song title I came across:

"Dry County Girl"

I thought this was a funny song title because at first I couldn't tell if the county or the girl was dry. Common sense tells me it's the county, but still I did a quick double take. A hyphen would clear everything up:

"Dry-County Girl"

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Criminal Sentence 198: Commas Are Not Periods

From a Web site:

"Loading, please wait…"

The punctuation of this makes it sound as if someone is telling "Loading" to please wait, as in "Bonnie, please wait." These are two separate ideas and two separate sentences that need to be separated with a period, not a comma:

"Loading. Please wait."

I've seen this on a lot of Web sites in a similar form:

"Welcome, please sign in."

Use a period, thank you. I mean Use a period. Thank you.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Criminal Sentence 197: Ewes Yore Dick Shun Airy

From an article in a magazine:

"All they need are broaches for those dresses."

They don't need "brooches"?

"To broach" as in "to broach a subject" means to begin speaking about a subject. This is a verb.

"A brooch" is a decorative pin. It is a noun.

Many words sound alike but are spelled differently and have different meanings. Pleas ewes yor dick shun airy.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Poll Results 30

This was the question:

Do you accept this? "I wish you wouldn't do that," she grated.
Yes 48 (50%)
No 47 (49%)

I'm surprised that this many people accepted "grated" as a synonym for "said." As far as I know from looking in the dictionary, "grate" means "shred" as in cheese, not speak in an annoyed manner.

I read this kind of sentence in a fairly bad mystery and its sequel. It certainly grated on my nerves. I won't be buying any more books by this author. I encourage you to avoid using this word for "said."

Friday, April 3, 2009

Criminal Sentence 196: Five in Five Grammarians

From a magazine article:

"Approximately one in five adults suffer from allergic rhinitis."

Well, five in five grammarians would be allergic to this sentence. "One" is a singular subject. It's a bit tricky when you add a prepositional phrase into the mix: "in five adults." "One in five adults" is still a singular subject, so the verb should be "suffers."

One vs. You: Grammar Girl Episode

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Criminal Sentence 195: Wringing My Hand's

Written by a writer on a blog about publishing (which makes it even worse):

"Hand's down."

Perhaps Joe Schmoe is unaware of apostrophes or plural nouns, but a writer? Eek!

Quick review here:

contraction: Use an apostrophe. It is becomes it's.
possessive: Use an apostrophe. The bag belonging to Barbara is Barbara's bag.
plural noun: Do not use an apostrophe. My hands are cold.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Criminal Sentence 194: Put It in an Envelop

From an online article about American Idol:

"The band manages to envelope the singers with sound and rock the house."

It's true that envelopes (the noun) envelop (verb) some stationery, but no stationery is involved in this sentence.