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If you find a particularly terrible sentence somewhere, post it for all to see (go here and put it in the Comments section).

Friday, July 31, 2009

Criminal Sentence 256: The Worst Sentence of the Year

Today's example is so awful that I'm naming it the worst sentence of the year. It appeared in today's paper. Here is the background: A woman who was eight months pregnant was killed and another woman pretended the baby was hers. She was arrested for kidnapping. The medical examiner performed an autopsy on the woman who was pregnant, and the police are investigating the murder. Now here's what the reporter told us:

"The missing fetus was discovered during an autopsy."

This is the most ridiculous sentence! It claims that during the autopsy the fetus was found, when we know that the missing baby was found at the home of the woman pretending to be the mom. The baby was still missing after the autopsy was done.

The sentence was supposed to say that during the autopsy, the medical examiner discovered that there had been a fetus and that it was now missing.

I'm glad the baby, now in protective services, has been found unharmed, but I am dismayed at the reporter's lack of brains.

End of rant.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Criminal Sentence 255: There, their, they're

From a sign at my gym's child care area:

"All parents must make sure there kids are taking the right shoes."

"Their is" a problem with that "there," which is one of three words that sound alike:

1) "their," as in not "mine" or "yours"
2) "there," as in not "here"
3) "they're," a contraction of "they are"

Careless writers forget which one is which. If you tend to make this mistake, I suggest that when you use one of these words, you say to yourself, "Ding! I've just used a word that sounds like another word. Maybe I should double-check myself!"

Thank "ewe" "four" double-checking "yore" self. English contains many pairs and trios of similar-sounding words, so "bee" careful with your spelling!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Criminal Sentence 254: Yucky Shake

From a sign at a fast food restaurant:

"Burger and Peach Shake: $2.99"

My first reaction to this as I drove by was ewwww. A shake made with burgers? Of course I knew that the sign meant it cost $2.99 for two items--a shake and a burger. This is a classic ambiguous sentence (or partial sentence). It would have been better to advertise like this:

"Peach Shake and a Burger: $2.99"

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Criminal Sentence 253: With a passion for grammar

From something I edited:

"With a passion for cooking, it is no surprise that she named her organization and productivity consulting firm after a cooking term."

As you should all know by now, this sentence contains a misplaced modifier. "It" doesn't have a passion for cooking! The lady does! Let's reword it:

"It is no surprise that Mary, who has a passion for cooking, named her organization and productivity consulting firm after a cooking term."

Monday, July 27, 2009

Poll Results 46

This was the question:

What's wrong with this? "Cronkite's influence was said to rival presidents."

Misplaced modifier 16 (21%)
Subject-verb agreement 10 (13%)
Faulty comparison 45 (60%)
Wrong word 3 (4%)

Congratulations to 60% of you. You can't compare "influence" to "presidents." You need to compare "influence" to "influence." You can do this in several ways, some of which sound better than others:

1) Cronkite's influence was said to rival the influence of presidents. (repetitive)
2) Cronkite's influence was said to rival that of presidents. (fuddy-duddy, perhaps)
3) Cronkite's influence was said to rival presidents'. (not good)
4) It was said that Cronkite had as much influence as presidents did. (aah, much better)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Criminal Sentence 252: Headline Capitalization

A headline from something I recently edited:

"What can Airbags do for you?"

There are three schools of thought about head style. You can capitalize the first letter of all words all the time (that's easy enough to remember), you can capitalize the first letter of everything except words like "and," "of" and "the," or you can capitalize just the first word and any proper names.
This headline here follows none of these styles, so I deem it a criminal.
Some publications/offices have a style guide that tells employees which way to go. I prefer the cap everything style, mostly because then I don't have to struggle to remember which words need caps and which don't.
Does your publication/office have a style preference for heads?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Criminal Sentence 251: Coincidentally...

Seen in a magazine:

"Coincidently, ..."

Coincidentally, there is something called a dictionary...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Criminal Sentence 250: Ambiguous Besides

From something I edited:

"Besides these kinds of adventures are best shared with friends."

I had to read this sentence twice before I got it. I thought at first that "Besides these kinds of adventures" went together. Nope.

The sentence would be clearer with a comma:

"Besides, these kinds of adventures are best shared with friends."

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Criminal Sentence 249: Looking for Kanga

Seen on a sign at the side of the road:

"Wanted: Roomate"

Anyone seen Kanga?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Poll Results 45

This was the question:

Do novels written in the present tense instead of past tense bother you?

Yes 18 (36%)
No 31 (63%)

As for me, present-tense books bother me. I find such books hard to stick with unless the story is so compelling that I can overlook the present tense.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Criminal Sentence 248: Quite an Effect

From a blog I read:

"I hear lots of people complaining about the economy and how it’s effecting them."

I hear lots of spelling whizzes complaining about how the spelling is "affecting," not "effecting," them.

Most of the time, "affect" is used as a verb. "Effect," as in "the cause and effect of something," is usually used as a noun. Check the dictionary if you're not sure which one is right for your particular sentence.

Guest-Written Grammar Girl Episode: Using "Which" to Begin a Sentence

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Writer Mag Column 4: Imaginative Verbs

A bunch of “has-beens”: Use imaginative verbs, not the same old ones

Imagine you’re a fashion designer. You’ve spent months designing your outfits and making them the best you can. When Fashion Week comes around, you don’t want to find that your models are wearing the same old dresses as everyone else. Nor do you want them to walk down the runway in a dull manner. Plod, plod, plod. Rather, you want your models to strut and pose memorably. Pirouette, sashay, manage to stay upright while wearing incredibly high heels.

Now imagine you’re a writer. Oh, wait a minute; you already are. You’ve spent months designing your sentences and making them the best you can. When publication time comes around, you don’t want to discover that your sentences are wearing the same old verbs and that they’re walking through your sentences in a dull manner.

In sentences--and in fashion--you want to avoid the “has-beens”: you know, the verbs “to have” and “to be” and their equally dull friends “to get,” “to do” and “to use.” If you chop out your weak verbs and instead take advantage of descriptive verbs that entice and intrigue your readers, they will ask for more, not turn away out of boredom.

A sentence with a weak verb tends to be a weak sentence. We’re not talking grammar here; rather, we’re talking about style. Don’t automatically think you’ve written a good sentence just because it’s grammatically correct. Lots of bad sentences are grammatically correct. Some of these bad sentences might even be yours, especially if they contain one of the has-beens.

The most famous bad sentence of all time contains a has-been: “It was a dark and stormy night.” Although I can’t complain about the grammar of this sentence, it does display the unimaginative “it was” construction. Snore. In the same vein, “Once upon a time, there was …” will not win any awards, no matter how imaginative the fairy tale that follows. Again, the sentence is perfectly grammatical, but it displays the unimaginative “there was” construction. “It is,” “it was,” “there is,” “there was” and “there were” should all go the way of polyester: to the recycle bin.

Alas, these common constructions are not the only ones you’ll need to throw away. So I’m going to lay down a few rules for you designers who are searching for the most innovative ways to create your masterpieces; i.e., sentences:

1. Please, no more “it is”/“it was”/“there is”/“there was”/“there were.” There are more imaginative ways to express yourself. Of course, it is harder than it looks to come up with imaginative verbs. There is  a trick that you can use: It is called trying to be more specific.

Let’s say, for example, that you’ve written a weak sentence like this: “There was a woman who was good at writing.” First, shame on you for using two “to be” verbs in one sentence. Second, fix it! You have to focus on the woman and decide some specifics. Be creative, not vague. What color hair does this lady have? What body type is she? Is she wearing something noteworthy? You could start your sentence with “The talented purple-haired writer” and then use a specific, interesting verb to finish off the thought. Go ahead and try out this technique here, and then try it each time you compose a sentence.

2. Eliminate most cases of passive voice, a writing style where you place the object of the sentence into the subject position.

Another snore. A prodigious amount of passive writing is written by writers, and it has to stop. I’m sure that a whole article about this topic can be written by me. The editors will be contacted shortly and you will be notified of the publication date soon. Was all that passive voice caught by you? Go for active voice most of the time. You’ll thereby reduce how often you use “is,” “was” and “were.”

3. Avoid the following phrases, all of which contain the verbs “to be” and “to have”: “is/are able to,” “has/have/had the capability to” and “has/have/had the ability to.”

Modern sentences don’t need all that extra padding. The words “can” or “could” work just fine in all these cases. I think you can; I think you can.

4. Go through your manuscript and eliminate everyday verbs wherever possible.

You can search and replace on the computer, or circle and replace on paper. Personally, I like to circle weak verbs furiously with a red pen, but you can do whatever fits into your revision process. No matter how you learn the location of your weak verbs, your goal is to--I mean, you should aim to--find sentences that seem too general because of a blah verb and then improve them. It is likely that you can cut at least half of the “has-beens.”

Please follow these useful rules diligently. I understand that you can’t cut out every “to be” and “to have” verb. We say them all the time, and they come to our heads unbidden. So, OK--these verbs are allowed sometimes. You may use run-of-the-mill verbs in your rough draft, but your final, polished version must keep readers engaged with specific, active verbs.

But beware: You want to dress your sentences appropriately; don’t overdress them with fancy verbs that don’t fit. Add a bit of flair that suits the occasion.

It is practice time. This Criminal Paragraph needs help. It is bland, and there are too many to be and other uninteresting verbs that add no substance. I know that you have the ability to fix it. Decide what kind of person the paragraph refers to; pay attention to the mood that pervades the scene; get specific. Send your rewrites to, and I’ll make sure your designs are up to snuff.

Criminal Paragraph

It was a dark and cloudy morning when Penelope got out of bed and saw that it was time for her to get ready to walk in the runway show. There were going to be a lot of outfits that she would have to wear during the 30-minute show, and it would be necessary for her to put them on fast. Although she knew that she had the ability to do what was required, she thought that it was not going to be fun. She was an experienced model but there were rumors that there were going to be a few fresh-faced models at the show. Perhaps it was time for 30-year-old Penelope to do another job. There had always been that thought that she could work in her cousin’s pastry shop.

As you’ve learned in this fashion tutorial, a weak outfit (sentence) will not lure buyers (readers). So, when you design your outfits (sentences), please be more imaginative about how you dress your models (verbs). Remember that dark and stormy nights are such has-beens. Today, it is a bright and sunny day!

Criminal Sentence 247: Admitting You Have Typos

The last line of a post from a blog I read daily:

"Sorry, for the brief report and any and all typos and errors today, but I'm really trying to run out the door"

Two punctuation errors in that sentence (first comma not needed, and period missing). And there were several other mistakes, including "hollar" instead of "holler."

Which scenario is better? Being late arriving because you fixed your own typos, or being on time and having typos?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Criminal Sentence 246: Buried in Bad Grammar

From a book about an ancient pot that was smuggled out of Italy and then broken:

"Buried in documents from his legal files, I found another reference to the 15 fragments."

The question here is "What is buried in his legal files?" Is it "I" or perhaps the reference? Unless the "I" of this sentence is chest deep in paperwork, I believe it's the reference that is buried.

Don't steal ancient pottery, and don't write misplaced modifiers!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Criminal Sentence 245: Three for One

I had to get new tires yesterday and, being myself, I couldn't help but copy down the text of a large sign in the showroom:

"Underinflated Tires can decrease fuel mileage by 10%, that can add up to hundreds of dollars a year"

I had to sit next to this sign for 45 minutes! What horror! What torture! (OK, I'm exaggerating just slightly.)

Three errors:

1) No need to capitalize "Tires" unless you're talking about a proper name. Is some naughty person named Underinflated Tires going around and decreasing fuel mileage?
2) A comma between two sentences is called a comma splice. Comma splices are no-nos. There's a new invention the sign writer hasn't heard about: a period. A period ends a sentence.
3) What, a period is missing at the end of this sentence? Yikes!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Poll Results 44

Here was the question:

In which sentence are em dashes used incorrectly?

I spent $1,000--can you believe it?--at the mall. 11 (14%)
I love you--Do you love me too?--I hope so. 32 (42%)
Don't come around here anymore--unless you're coming to pay back the money you owe me. 20 (26%)
If you see her--or hear from her--please let me know. 7 (9%)
Beats me. I don't know how to use em dashes. 6 (7%)

Congrats to 42% of you. You can't use em dashes like periods, as they are in the second sentence. Em dashes indicate you're adding a quick aside. You can use a pair of em dashes around an aside in the middle of a sentence, as in the first and fourth examples, or you can use an em dash to add an aside at the end, as in the third example. One way to tell if you're using an em dash correctly is to to remove the em dash(es) and the aside. If the sentence still makes sense, then the em dash(es) is/are OK.

You can see em dashes everywhere. Notice in novels how they are used.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Criminal Sentence 244: I Have an Aversion to That!

From a book I read:

"It’s no wonder that Nick isn’t adverse to a little risk."

I am averse--not adverse--to that sentence. In other words, I have an aversion to that misspelling. "Adverse" means "antagonistic," whereas "averse" means "having a feeling of distaste." These are commonly confused words, so if you make this kind of mistake, you'll have to memorize how to use them. You can usually use "to" after "averse," so remember "averse to." You can usually use a noun after "adverse," as in "adverse circumstances."

Guest-Written Grammar Girl Episode: Rhetorical/Tag Questions

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Criminal Sentence 243: Who's the First Lady?

From a book I read:

"As First Lady, the agents acted as my protectors."

Now that's odd: how can agents be the First Lady? Well, they can't. This is just another misplaced modifier.

What is the writing world coming to?

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Criminal Sentence 242: Funny Mustache

From a book I am reading:

"All I had was a vague recollection of a man with slicked-down hair and a little Latin mustache who was always cheerful."

Wow, a cheerful mustache. That's entertaining prose. Again, as usual, I am pointing out a misplaced modifier. The clause "who was always cheerful" doesn't belong next to "mustache"; it belongs with "a man." Just move "cheerful" before "man" and your problem is solved:

"All I had was a vague recollection of an always cheerful man with slicked-down hair and a little Latin mustache."

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Criminal Sentence 241: Groaning Outloud

From an LA Times article about tennis:

"He has focused on the simple principal of moving aggressively forward."

I groaned audibly when I read this sentence. There's just no excuse for this elementary error in the LA Times.

"Principal" should be "principle." A simple principal would mean either a simpleton who is leading a school or an uncomplicated part of a loan that is not interest. A "principle" is a tenet or law.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Poll Results 43

This was the question:

What's wrong with this? "As one of our Loyal Customers, we would like to say thanks."

Incorrect grammar 7 (8%)
Incorrect punctuation 3 (3%)
Incorrect capitalization 12 (14%)
Two of the above 62 (73%)

Congrats to 73% of you. Loyal Customers does not need to be capitalized, and the "we" in this sentence is not one of our loyal customers; an unmentioned "you" is. Here is how I would rewrite this:

"Thank you for being a loyal customer."

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Writer Mag Column 3: Dangling modifiers

“Spot the loony": Dangling modifiers can be unintentionally funny

As a child in London, I was exposed to the crazy humor of Monty Python's Flying Circus. One of my favorite skits was "Spot the Looney" (spelled the British way), in which a news anchor exhorted viewers to examine various video clips and then locate the people who were nuts. As expected, most of the people in the skits were loonies. Now that I'm all grown up, I get to spot the loony almost every day—except that these loonies aren't people; they're sentences that contain dangling modifiers.

I remember a long-ago day when I first got to play this new version of "Spot the Loony." I read this sentence: "Freshly painted, the visitors to the museum enjoyed the reopened exhibit." An amusing thought that the visitors were freshly painted, but unlikely. What is likely, unfortunately, is that you've written similar dangling modifiers—lots of them. You've also probably read your fair share of unbalanced and loony sentences written by others. They're so common that if I want to find one, I just have to read something. The last eight or so novels I devoured—some from bestselling authors—contained at least one egregious dangler (also known as a misplaced modifier). Reading the work of famous writers, it's hard to believe that so many misplaced modifiers slip through (hint, hint).

Think back to your own childhood, during which you learned how to form grammatical sentences. All those years ago, you parsed sentences such as "The unbalanced man is waving his arms" and "Waving his arms, the unbalanced man disrupted traffic." You also learned about modifiers, which come in many forms, from a simple adjective (like "unbalanced") to more complicated phrases (like "freshly painted") and clauses (like "waving his arms"). "Unbalanced" modifies the noun "man," and the clause "waving his arms" modifies "the unbalanced man." We cannot play "Spot the Loony" in these sentences because they are grammatical. But don't worry; you'll get to play the game very soon.

A modifier becomes misplaced, and loony, when it describes the wrong word or phrase. Take this loony sentence: "Waving his arms, traffic was disrupted by the unbalanced man." The traffic wasn't waving its arms; traffic doesn't even have arms! Pick a modifier—any modifier—and it can dangle in a loony manner. Most dangling modifiers dangle at the beginning of a sentence—as with "freshly painted" in our first example. Let's see about these two modifiers: "paying attention to their sentence structure" and "as a diligent writer." Can you spot the loony?

First is this doozy:

"Paying attention to their sentence structure, it is important that writers don't create dangling modifiers."

Yikes! "It" is not what's paying attention; writers should be:

"Paying attention to their sentence structure, writers should double-check what comes after the introductory word, phrase or clause, because that's what the modifier describes."

Second comes this crazy sentence:

"As a diligent writer, there are several ways to avoid dangling your modifiers."

In this sentence, "there" is not a diligent writer; we're talking about a person who should be diligent:

"As a diligent writer, you must be careful not to inadvertently paint any museum visitors."

Paying attention … writers. Check. Modifier and modify-ee match. As a diligent writer … you. Check.

Honestly, though, it doesn't matter where the modifier is or what its exact components are. You just have to worry about catching it. And that's the hard part, because when you're accidentally writing a dangling modifier, it seems right. You know what you mean, but it comes out all wrong on the page. Misplaced modifiers creep into your prose when you're not paying attention. If you've been staring out the window instead of watching your modifiers, you need to do something about it. You need to imagine you're on a British TV show from the 1970s and play "Spot the Loony."

The way to play the updated version of this game is to pay attention to words, phrases and clauses at the beginning of your sentences. You need to train yourself to notice these. At first you may want to simply circle them—or you can underline them, highlight them, decorate them with glitter. However you want to make them stand out is fine with me. Just spot them. One clue to keep in mind is that a modifier at the beginning of a sentence is usually followed by a comma. Once you've found a modifier at the beginning of a sentence and you've found a comma, you need to ask yourself, "What does this modifier describe?" The answer to that question must be the next thing that appears in the sentence; the item being modified follows the comma. You need to question everything that follows your circles, highlights or glitter. Does the right word come after your modifier? It does? Yippee! Your credibility is intact.

And what's a writer without credibility? You don't want readers to laugh at your confused sentence structure or to think you're imprecise. Dangling modifiers, like this one I found recently, can be hilarious: "Growing from a pile of sticks and mud, we found several stands of large mushrooms." How great would it be if people could grow from sticks and mud? Next time you're writing science fiction, go ahead and use that line. Otherwise, watch your grammar.

So how do you rewrite loonies that you've spotted? Sometimes, it's just a matter of placing the correct subject after the modifier and the comma. Other times, you'll have to rewrite the whole sentence and change the sentence structure. Let's rewrite the mushroom sentence. What's growing from a pile of sticks and mud? Well, we've already determined that "we" are not; "several stands of large mushrooms" are. You could move this subject after the comma: "Growing from a pile of sticks and mud, several stands of large mushrooms were visible." We could also change the sentence structure: "We found several stands of large mushrooms growing from a pile of sticks and mud."

Now it's time to "Spot the Loony" in earnest with 10 crazy Criminal Sentences. Dangling modifiers are so common—and so loony—that you need lots of practice. Send your rewrites to me at, and I'll confirm your status as a professional loony-spotter. Here are the loonies:

Criminal Sentence 1: "After working all day, the ground was approaching level."

Criminal Sentence 2: "At age 90, it is likely the judge will retire soon."

Criminal Sentence 3: "As a new mom, it's hard to get up every two to three hours."

Criminal Sentence 4: "Sitting in the vinyl chair of a waiting room, the settling dust of my family's collapse seemed unimportant."

Criminal Sentence 5: "If convicted, that gamble could cost her 16 to 22 years in prison."

Criminal Sentence 6: "Fool or not, in this crisis I miss him bitterly." (Hint: Spoken by a woman who has just called her husband a fool.)

Criminal Sentence 7: "Once unconscious, he hit her head on the floor."

Criminal Sentence 8: "Benefiting from early detection through a doctor-ordered MRI, the cancer is not life-threatening."

Criminal Sentence 9: "While traveling West in 1851, American Indians attacked her family."

Criminal Sentence 10: "Before pureeing, this combination makes a fine filling for turnovers."

Once you become used to noticing modifiers at the beginning of sentences, you can spot the loony whenever you're reading. Then you'll be a pro and can invite all your friends to play the game. And, if you feel like it, you can watch the original "Spot the Looney" skit on the Internet. You're guaranteed to laugh, as I do when I read dangling modifiers.

Criminal Sentence 240: Writing "Differently"

From a book I finished recently:

"I looked at every teenager walking down the road differently."

So the kids were walking differently? Were they members of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, that famous British comedy skit from the 70s?

This is an example of a misplaced modifier. In this case, the word "differently" is misplaced. It seems to modify "walking," but it truly modifies "looked." The speaker has started looking at teenagers differently.

Fixing it is fairly easy: just move the word "differently" so that it modifies "looked":

"I looked differently at every teenager walking down the road."


And please be careful that your adverbs clearly modify what they're supposed to, especially if you have more than one verb or adjective in your sentence.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Criminal Sentence 239: A Plethora of Errors

The text of a notice stuck to my door yesterday:

"Hi, allow Me to introduce Myself. My name is XYZ, I painted the outside of a house in Your neighborhood. If You would like to stop by and take a look at it You can pass by XYZ address. Also if You want a free estimate please call Me at either one of the numbers above and You can verify that I Am indeed the CHEAPEST yet PROFESSIONAL Painter in the Valley."

Definitely not as professional as I would like. The list of errors is quite long here:

1) You don't need to capitalize pronouns other than I. Nor do you need to capitalize the words "Am" or "Painter."
2) There are two comma splices here: "Hi, allow me..." and "My name is XYZ, I painted..." Periods would be better than commas.
3) You don't need all caps to make something stand out.
4) "cheapest yet professional" makes no sense. "Cheapest and most professional" would sound more professional.