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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).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Criminal Sentence 238: Apples to Oranges

From today's paper, about shoulder surgery for pitchers:

"Unlike muscles in the rotator cuff, which can be strengthened and regrown, surgery is the only way to repair a labrum tear."

So, surgery is unlike muscles in the rotator cuff? Ah, no. I think we need to redo this whole sentence to avoid a comparison mistake:

"Muscles in the rotator cuff can be strengthened and regrown; on the other hand, a labrum tear can be repaired only by surgery."

Although this new sentence is in passive voice, it is much better than the original.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Poll Results 42

This was the question:

Have you been published?
Yes. My work is available now. 8 (22%)
Almost. I'm under contract now. 0 (0%)
No, but I am trying. 14 (40%)
No. I am not a writer. 13 (37%)

Good luck to those who are trying to get published!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Grammar Girl Episode: Subject-Complement Agreement

Criminal Sentence 237: Errors: Just Beat It

A double error in an article about the death of Michael Jackson:

"Upon arriving at the hospital at approximately 1:14 p.m., a team of doctors, including emergency phsyicians and cardiologists, attempted to resuscitate him for a period of one hour and they were unsuccessful."

Very sad, but let's focus on this sentence.

1) "Upon arriving at the hospital at approx. 1:14"--I don't think a team of doctors arrived; they were already there waiting to treat the patient. So this is a misplaced modifier. It would be better to say, "When Jackson arrived at the hospital..."

2) That's an interesting way to spell physicians: "phsyicians."

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Criminal Sentence 236: To or Too

Seen on the side of an electrician's truck:

"No job to small"

to/too/two: different spellings and different meanings!

It's "to" bad the electrician didn't check his spelling before he printed his sign!

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Criminal Sentence 235: Falling Leaves

From a post in the comments section of a blog for writers:

"That releaves a lot of stress."

The dictionary releaves a lot of spelling mistakes.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Criminal Sentence 234: Who and That

From today's newspaper:

"This is a boy that went from obscurity to mega-fame in a very short space of time and who had to open himself up very, very quickly."

This is a very confused sentence. It uses both a "that" clause and a "who" clause to refer back to "boy." Traditionally, you use "who" clauses to refer to people and "that" clauses to refer to things. You are allowed, however, to use "that" clauses to refer to people if you want, but I don't think it's OK to use one of each in the same sentence. Pick "who" or "that" and then stick with it, please. I personally prefer "who."

Monday, June 22, 2009

Poll Results 41

This was the question:

What's wrong with this? "The actor is on a two month-long hiatus."

Unneeded hyphen 42 (43%)
Missing hyphen 51 (53%)
Nothing 3 (3%)

Congrats to 53% of you. A hyphen is missing in the compound adjective "two-month-long," which modifies "hiatus." Whenever you join up words to modify something, you use hyphens, as in "The soon-to-be-eaten chocolate looked yummy." If you put the words after the noun, however, then you don't need hyphens: The chocolate that was soon to be eaten looked yummy.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Criminal Sentence 233: Serves You Wrong

From a book I read:

"The thick bed of rotted leaves and soft earth served to muffle her footsteps."

There's nothing grammatically wrong with this sentence, but I feel that you can usually cut out the phrase "serve to" because it is useless. Why not just say, "The thick bed of rotted leaves and soft earth muffled her footsteps" and save two words?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Writer Mag Column 2: How to achieve parallel structure in your sentences

Writing in a parallel universe: How to achieve parallel structure in your sentences

Writers work hard every day to churn out the best possible prose, and it's nice to receive some recognition. If you hope to win a Pulitzer, a National Book Award or perhaps just a positive review on Amazon, you first must compete for and win the Sentence Synchronization Award. This soon-to-be-coveted honor goes to writers who practice perfect parallelism within each sentence.

Non-parallel sentences like "Roger has graying hair, a calm voice and never seems to hurry" will get you nowhere. In fact, they can damage your credibility. At best, readers will giggle at your misshapen sentences; at worst, they'll believe you incompetent and will stop reading your work. Nobody wants that, so I'm hoping that all of you are up for this event.

To achieve parallelism, you must make the parts of your sentences perform like those synchronized swimmers at the Olympics, who line themselves up exactly and do the same actions simultaneously. The swimmers train, train, train so that they can be synchronized, synchronized, synchronized. That is what writers must do, too. You must train yourself in the art of making sentences parallel.

Making sure elements of a sentence are parallel is a bit like making sure a subject agrees with a verb—only it's harder. Subject-verb agreement involves matching only one subject with one verb; parallelism, on the other hand, can involve multiple elements. You must undergo a tough four-step training program to compete for a Sentence Synchronization Award. Fear not; as your dedicated coach, I will be with you every step of the way.

Step 1 is to practice identifying sentences that contain like elements. A simple sentence like this won't concern those in training because it doesn't contain elements that need to be parallel: "The swimmers were beautifully synchronized." On the other hand, complex sentences that contain more than one like element must be parallel: "The swimmers had to jump into the water, swim upside down and point their toes." The like elements in this sentence are "jump into the water," "swim upside down" and "point their toes." The swimmers had to verb, verb, verb.

Moving on to Step 2, you will learn about what I call the base word, which changes with each sentence. The base word is the word that matches up with each element in the sentence. Looking back at the swimmers sentence, trainees will notice that the elements "jump," "swim" and "point" all fit nicely with the word "to," which is the base word in this sentence. It's tricky to notice a potential parallelism problem, so contestants should set aside time to practice identifying base words in sentences. Then repeat—as in, actually write down repeatedly—the base word in each sentence. Practice repeating yourself like this: "The synchronized swimmers enjoy jumping into the water, enjoy being upside down and enjoy pointing their toes." Quick, identify the base word! This exercise might not yield pretty sentences, but it is an intermediary step that if repeated enough will lead you toward the gold—I mean, award.

In Step 3, competition hopefuls will make sure that all of the elements that go with the base word are equal, at the same level, parallel. For example, this sentence is not parallel: "The swimmers decided to get out of the pool and that they needed a bite to eat." Although the infinitive "to get" and the "that" clause both go with the base word "decided," these two elements do not match each other. You need two infinitives or two "that" clauses, not one of each. If you want to try out for the event, pick one of these methods and reword this sentence now. Be sure that the parts of speech match up.

As the final training step, you will test your parallelism skills by writing normal, complex sentences. Then you'll need to ensure that the sentences are parallel in both ways: elements are parallel with the base word and elements are parallel with each other. The catch is that this time you won't repeat the base word. You'll have to jump straight into the pool without a life jacket.

Be reassured, however, that when you get to Step 4, you'll have had so much practice matching base words to elements and matching elements with elements that it will be easy for you to spot unparallel sentences. Take this ungrammatical sentence, for example: "The synchronized swimmers were agile, precise and eventually got used to their nose pinchers." What? (Negative buzz sound from the judge--me.) Not parallel: adjective ("agile"), adjective ("precise"), adverb-verb ("eventually got"). If you write a sentence like this, you will definitely not win the award. Please rewrite it now.

Use these four steps as you work to correct these Criminal Sentences:

Criminal Sentence 1: "She was smart, decisive and had sound judgment."

Criminal Sentence 2: "The sadist chopped off fingers, toes and gouged out eyes."

Criminal Sentence 3: "At the top of the trail you'll want to stop for a drink, some snacks and to take
in the incredible view."

Criminal Sentence 4: "The agency spied on other countries, conducted sabotage and assassinations."

Criminal Sentence 5: "The athlete has competed in seven races, won six medals and has a chance to compete for the world record."

E-mail your rewrites to me at As a bonus, fix the sentence featuring Roger at the beginning of this article.

Practice the four steps diligently, and rest assured that if I proudly bestow the Sentence Synchronization Award on you, you won't have to wear that pinched-nose thingy as proof that you won. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating; i.e., perfectly crafted, perfectly parallel sentences that I hope will win you plenty of accolades.

Sentence rewrites:
Note: You can rewrite these sentences in other ways, too.

Criminal Sentence 1:
"She was smart and decisive, and she had sound judgment, too."

Criminal Sentence 2:
"The sadist chopped off fingers, hacked away toes and gouged out eyes."

Criminal Sentence 3:
"At the top of the trail you'll want to stop for some refreshments and to take in the incredible view."

Criminal Sentence 4:
"The agency spied on other countries, conducted sabotage and carried out assassinations."

Criminal Sentence 5:
"The athlete has competed in seven races, has won six medals and has a chance to compete for the world record."

Shrimp Spelling

So I was in the store yesterday and saw some large shrimp for sale. There were two kinds of shrimp sitting next to each other, so when the lady asked me which one I wanted, I clarified by saying, "The one whose name is spelled wrong." Instead of flashing me a dirty look, as do most clerks if I point out a mistake in my perky voice, she looked stunned and embarrassed. Colossal shrimp had been spelled "Collasal." As soon as I had my shrimp in hand, she came around to the front of the display case and removed the sign so she could get it fixed. Very good job, Shrimp Lady!
I enjoyed eating those shrimp, which were collasally delicious!

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Criminal Sentence 232: To Become Grammatical

From a Web site:

"To become a published writer, there must be a market for your work."

This is a misplaced modifier: "to become a published writer" does not go with "there"; if you've read this blog for a while, you will know what I mean. If you don't know what I mean, please read the blog.

How would you rewrite it?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Criminal Sentence 231: A Date with Nuttiness

Seen on a sign outside a drugstore:

"Father’s Day is June 21th."

Just had to laugh at that one.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Poll Results 40

Here was the question:

What's wrong with this? "The city's too laid back for Type As like me."

Unneeded apostrophe 3 (3%)
Missing apostrophe 43 (56%)
Faulty comparison 4 (5%)
Incorrect capitalization 26 (34%)

I was looking for the missing apostrophe in Type A's. Otherwise, it looks like As. As for the capitalization of Type A, my dictionary says it can be type A or Type A.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Criminal Sentence 230: A Bad Start

The first sentence of a book I finished yesterday:

"The day that Ryan Evans's world changed forever began as any other day he'd spent in the hot desert might have begun."

This is not an auspicious way to begin a book. Way too wordy and dull. I had a bad feeling about this book because of this sentence, and it proved true that it wasn't written very well.

A first sentence should grab a reader, but this grabbed me the wrong way.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

"That" or "Who" after a Person

A reader of my new "Watch Your Language" column on asked me this:

"What I noticed a lot lately and bugs me is that people will use "that" when they should use "who." For example, "The man that sells ice cream on the corner retired." I always believed "who" should be used when talking about people, but since I see and hear "that" used so much, I started to doubt myself. Am I correct?"

This is a good question. My grammar sources tell me that Shakespeare and the Bible, for example, use "that" after a person. So although it isn't incorrect to use "that" after a person, it's more common to use "who," and I prefer "who."

Stick with "who" after a person, but it's OK to use "that" if you really must.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Criminal Sentence 229: Ambiguous or Ungrammatical?

From a newspaper:

"A backpack with a laptop and a vaccination card also was recovered."

At first glance, this sentence seems ungrammatical; it appears that the subject is a compound subject: "a backpack with a laptop and a vaccination card." Those are two things. So when we see the verb "was," we do a double take. Then we consider that the backpack could have contained two items: a laptop and a vaccination card. It's possible, so the "was" could be grammatical.

If the backpack really did contain two items, here's a clearer way to write this sentence:

"Also recovered was a backpack that contained both a laptop and a vaccination card."

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Criminal Sentence 228: Sheep in Strange Clothing

Seen on a TV show about fashion:

"Shear top"

Hmmm. A top to wear while shearing a sheep, perhaps? Or maybe a top to wear to reduce wind shear?

Nope, a "sheer" top, a top that is light and perhaps easy to see through. Aah, that's better.

You may shear a sheep in a sheer top, but it's sheer nonsense to wear a shear top.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Poll Results 39

This was the question:

What's wrong with this? “How I work with my clients and my expectations for and of my clients are completely different from every single other agent out there.”

Problem with subject-verb agreement 15 (18%)

Incorrect word choice 11 (13%)

Faulty comparison 41 (50%)

Misplaced modifier 14 (17%)

50% of you are right. You can't compare "how I work with my clients and my expectations for and of my clients" with "every single other agent out there."

Friday, June 5, 2009

Criminal Sentence 227: "It Was" a Problem

From a book I read recently (about Avignon, France):

"It was in December 1360 that the threat once again descended on Avignon."

This is an example of wordy writing. Can you tell me what three words you can cut?

Grammar Girl Episode: Principal vs. Principle

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Writer Mag Column 1: Take Care of Your “Who” and “That” Clauses

Save the Orphans: Take Care of Your “Who” and “That” Clauses

A nasty epidemic is sweeping the world and is producing lonely orphans. No, it’s not swine flu; it’s a plague that has seeped into everyone’s writing and won’t go away. Even The Elements of Style, written some 90 years ago, complains about it (Rule 20). I’m talking about orphaned “who” and “that” clauses. They’ve been cruelly separated from their parents and they need to find a way back home.

Never heard of this epidemic? Well, pick up any book or newspaper and you’ll find these poor orphans sprinkled among otherwise decent prose. New York Times-bestselling authors are not immune—and, unfortunately, neither are you. So you must become a careful writer, because only you can cure this plague. You must take action now. Help reunite these orphans with the correct family members before the children become lost forever, left to languish in print and ridiculed by ornery copy editors like me.

I’ve plucked some orphaned “who” and “that” clauses from various books and papers I’ve read—and cursed—recently. It’s a good idea for you to examine the following five Criminal Sentences so that you can A) learn about this problem, which devastates a writer’s credibility; and B) laugh at the ridiculous sentences your fellow writers have wrought:

Criminal Sentence 1 (from a book): “Cattle and sheep are gone that the farmers thought were on safe ground.”

Criminal Sentence 2 (from a newspaper): “Paul Rudd stars as a man about to be married who needs to find a best man.”

Criminal Sentence 3 (from a book): “Seeds were being sown in the young man’s mind that were soon to grow into a virulent hatred of the place.”

Criminal Sentence 4 (from a book): “All the job required was a guy who didn't mind sitting in a tree who liked to shoot things.”

Criminal Sentence 5 (from a book): “The student submitted a piece for class discussion that was shockingly incoherent.”

Are these sentences shockingly incoherent or what? Yes, they exude badness, but unfortunately such jumbled and imprecise sentences abound.

You know that an orphan is crying out for her mama when the word right before the “who” or “that” clause does not match up. These five orphans are screaming loudly for their mothers because they’ve been placed right next to scary strangers (in other words, each “who” or “that” clause is next to something that it doesn’t truly modify):

Criminal Sentence 1: “gone that the farmers thought were on safe ground.”

Criminal Sentence 2: “married who needs to find a best man.”

Criminal Sentence 3: “mind that were soon to grow into a virulent hatred of the place.”

Criminal Sentence 4: “tree who liked to shoot things.”

Criminal Sentence 5: “discussion that was shockingly incoherent.”

These orphans are scared and alone. Let’s reunite them with their anguished families, who have been longing to be close to them (in other words, please place each “who” or “that” clause right next to what it modifies):

Criminal Sentence 1: “cattle and sheep that the farmers thought were on safe ground.”

Criminal Sentence 2: “a man who needs to find a best man.”

Criminal Sentence 3: “seeds that were soon to grow into a virulent hatred of the place.”

Criminal Sentence 4: “a guy who liked to shoot things.”

Criminal Sentence 5: “a piece that was shockingly incoherent.”

We did it! Almost. All we have to do is rewrite the sentences. Some are easy; you simply need to rearrange the clauses within each sentence. Some are medium hard; you must reword your sentences to make the syntax correct. Others are super hard because too much is crammed in; you’ll probably have to make each of these bad sentences two sentences. As official coordinator of orphan reunitings, I’ll help you with the first two, but you’ll need to practice on the other three yourself:

Criminal Sentence 1: “Cattle and sheep that the farmers thought were on safe ground are gone.” (I just rearranged the clauses.)

Criminal Sentence 2: “Paul Rudd stars as a man who needs to find a best man in time for his upcoming wedding.” (I had to reword the sentence to make the syntax correct.)

I’m confident you can help the remaining three orphans get back home. Just give it a try and then e-mail them to the world headquarters of Orphan Reunitings International ( I’ll be happy to check the paperwork.

Now that you are aware of the orphan plague, I’m counting on you to help me combat it. I need you to take two separate but equal actions:

1) Spread the word. Share this important sentence-health information with all of your writer colleagues. The more people know about this plague, the easier it will be to contain.

2) Ensure that you don’t contribute to the epidemic. When you write a “who” or “that” clause, say aloud (if you’re alone), “Hey! I’ve written a ‘who’ or ‘that’ clause!” Train yourself to notice these clauses—circle them if you have to—and check that everything matches up. It’s even OK to become incensed with other writers’ orphaned “who” and “that” clauses. As a writer, you probably read a lot, too. Noticing others’ errors may help you avoid making them yourself.

If you neglect your “who” and “that” clauses, you’ll get in trouble with your readers (and with any testy copy editors who are lurking nearby). You want your readers to love you, not ridicule you. Let’s keep things all in the family.

Criminal Sentence 226: Lean on Me

The first sentence of an introduction to a book I finished:

"The writer would like to thank the many who leant their time, wisdom, and patience to the improvement of this book."

Obviously this sentence has not been improved enough! I find two ways to improve it:

1) Spell "lent" correctly!
2) Avoid the nominalization: "the improvement of." Why not just save words and say, "...patience to improve this book."

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Criminal Sentence 225: The Eyes Have It

From a book I finished last week:

"The man watched him and the girl with slow eyes."

This sentence displays another pesky prepositional phrase: "with slow eyes." Currently, it's next to "the girl," but does the girl have slow eyes? Nope, from the context of the paragraph, the man watched her slowly. So it should be:

"With slow eyes, the man watched him and the girl."

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Criminal Sentence 224: Puzzling Headline

A New York Times print headline:

"Plane vanishes carrying 228; cause puzzle"

That cause a puzzle with me. The subject is "Plane," so the verb after the semicolon should be singular, as is "vanishes."

Perhaps the headline writer was so traumatized by the terrible news that his or her grammar flew away, too.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Poll Results 38

This was the question:
What's wrong with this, which I saw on a sign today? "Bathroom use are for customers only"
Spelling 2 (2%)
Passive voice 0 (0%)
Subject-verb agreement 63 (68%)
Punctuation 1 (1%)
Two of the above 26 (28%)

This was a bit tricky on purpose. "Two of the above" is correct. The subject does not agree with the verb, and a period is missing at the end of the sentence.

Shame on the sign writer!