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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).

Monday, August 31, 2009

Poll Results 51

Here was the question:
Which sentence is correct?

You should eat vegetables everyday. 26 (22%)
Go online any time. 7 (5%)
She doesn't like any body. 1 (0%)
He doesn't eat anything white. 77 (65%)
I eat every thing. 6 (5%)

Congrats to 65% of you.

"Everyday" is an adjective that means ordinary; "every day" means each day.
"Any time" is usually used in a negative sentence: "I don't have any time." "Anytime" means "whenever you want."
"Any body" is usually used in a negative sentence: "He saw three bodies fall, but I didn't see any body." "Anybody" is used like "nobody" and "everybody."
"Every thing" means each thing; "everything" is most often used as one word.

If you're unsure about any of these, look them up for the full treatment.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Criminal Sentence 271: Looking for the Correct Subject

Overheard on Project Runway:

"Looking at the judges’ expressions, they are stone cold."

I feel stone cold about this sentence. Who is looking at the judges' expressions? Not "they," which refers back to the noun "judges." The actual subject--"I"--is missing. Let's add it:

"Looking at the judges’ expressions, I wasn't pleased to see that they were stone cold."

Always make sure you clearly state who is doing what, or else you will be eliminated.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Criminal Sentence 270: A Couple

From an article about a baseball game:

"'They hit a couple balls that didn't carry.'"

This is definitely a colloquial statement. The strictly correct way to put this would be "a couple of," or even "two." Many people leave out the "of" in informal speech. I guess that's fine, but avoid "a couple" and then a noun in formal essays.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Criminal Sentence 269: Your Body Type

From an ad in the paper:

"Find out what body type your are."

My body type is the proofreading type. Is yours that type too?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Criminal Sentence 268: Me, Me, Me

From an article about a taxi driver who donated his kidney to a woman he drove to dialysis (and who was prompted by a higher power to do so):

"The Phoenix taxi driver said [that] he was a man of faith and that a higher power wanted him to step in."'By then, me and the good Lord already had a talk.'"

He did a good deed, but me don't like his statement. "I" is the correct pronoun here: "The good Lord and I..."

And I added the missing "that," which makes the sentence completely parallel.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Poll Results 50

Here was the question:

Do you think that professional writers who have written multiple books should know the difference between “principal” and “principle”?

Yes, and they should never confuse the two words in their books. 39 (60%)
Yes, but we should forgive them if they confuse the two words in their books. 5 (7%)
No, and they are not responsible for confusing the two words in their books. 0 (0%)
Maybe, but the copyeditor should catch any word errors. 20 (31%)

I asked this because I recently read two books about the craft of writing and both misused "principle" instead of "principal." The errors were hard to ignore, and I groaned aloud--loudly.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Criminal Sentence 267: Migrating Jewelry

From a column in my local paper:

"It seems that since moving here from another state that all of my sterling silver jewelry tarnishes very quickly."

There are actually two errors here. The first is the repetition of the word "that." You need just one.

The second mistake is a misplaced modifier, because this sentence suggests that the jewelry moved here from another state. Obviously, the jewelry moved here but a person brought it. The sentence would be better like this:

"It seems since I moved here from another state that all of my sterling silver jewelry tarnishes very quickly."

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Writer Mag Column 6: Weak subjects

Don’t lose your subjects--help missing people find their way back into your sentences

Singer Paula Cole once asked in a song, “Where have all the cowboys gone?” As for me, I want to know, “Where have all the human subjects in our sentences gone?” Not as catchy, but just as important. So many people are missing from writers’ sentences that I decided to join the Missing Subjects Taskforce--a group who is tired of people-free sentences. We’re tired of asking ourselves, “Where have all the people gone?”

When the subject of your sentence is not a person but a thing, such as “the discovery” or “the bag of M&Ms,” the Missing Subjects Taskforce must put out an APB--that’s an All Persons Bulletin--on your sentence. The taskforce needs to find these missing people because we want active writing that shows people performing actions; we don’t want passive writing.

Passive writing pops up everywhere. Some might call this style of writing formal or academic writing, or even business writing. I just call it bad writing. Passive writing allows writers to lop off their subjects by using:

Vague “-ing” words. I’ll talk about those shortly.

Nominalizations, which I covered in my last article.

Passive voice, which we’ll go over in a minute.

Unless you’re writing about guillotines, you are not allowed to lop off your subjects.

Vague “-ing” Words

You know you have a vague “-ing” word when your word ends in “-ing,” but the reader doesn’t know who the subject is. Take this Criminal Sentence:

“When using any driving directions or map, it’s a good idea to do a reality check and make sure the road still exists.”

Where have all the drivers gone? Perhaps they zoomed off into oblivion. Let’s try to get them back safely. The vague “-ing” word in this sentence is “using,” in the phrase “when using.” It’s vague because the sentence never says who is using. Sure, you’re allowed to start a sentence like this, but a person must show up after the comma. Here, an “it” surfaces instead, making this a classic misplaced modifier and causing groans everywhere. Aside from the bad grammar, the sentence fails to state the implied subject: “you.” It would be better--and more grammatical--to write “When you’re using ...” Or you could say, “When using any driving directions or map, you ...”

You probably need some practice with vague “-ing” words. Here are two Criminal Sentences for you to populate:

Criminal Sentence 1: It’s important to be specific when writing sentences.

Criminal Sentence 2: Writing vague sentences is prohibited.


I’ve already complained about nominalizations, which allow writers to omit man, woman and child. Remember that sentences filled with nominalizations, such as “the discussion of” and “an appearance by,” tend to leave out all the people. Learn what nominalizations are, and then ban them from your writing.

Passive Voice

Not many people make an appearance with passive voice, either. In a passive-voice sentence, we often don’t know who did what because no person is there to do it. As you may remember from school, a passive-voice sentence turns the object of the sentence into the subject. Let’s compare an active-voice and a passive-voice sentence. Take this normal thought (normal in my house, at least): “I ate the whole bag of M&Ms.” This is an active sentence. I, the subject, did something to the candy, the object. (What did I do to the candy? I scarfed it down.)

If we turn the sentence around and make it passive voice--oh, how it pains me to do so--we start with the candy: “The whole bag of M&Ms was eaten by me.” If you don’t want to claim responsibility, you can omit the “by me” and no one will be the wiser: “The whole bag of M&Ms got eaten.” Perhaps if you don’t state who ate the candy, then it has no calories.

These three Criminal Sentences contain passive voice and are sorely lacking people. Rewrite them so that a person appears.

Criminal Sentence 3: The table was set.

Criminal Sentence 4: The coffee is being made as we speak.

Criminal Sentence 5: Too many sentences are written in passive voice.

All Three at Once!

And now for the most terrible sentence that appears in this column. This poor sentence suffers from all three passive-writing problems simultaneously. Imagine the horror! A local politician wrote this sentence and my local paper printed it:

“Making the decision to put these vital projects on the November ballot was not taken lightly.”

“Making” is the vague -ing word, “decision” is the nominalization, and “was not taken” is the passive voice. Let’s list all the ways that this sentence is bad:

1. “Making” does not refer to any particular person, and it leaves me asking, “Who?”

2. Instead of a human, a nominalization (“decision”) appears.

3. The passive-voice verb, “was not taken,” is bad, vague, boring.

4. On top of it all, the sentence makes no sense. You can’t write, “Making the decision … was not taken lightly.”

Let’s try to ascertain who is hiding behind all the nonsensical verbiage in the politician’s Criminal Sentence. Ah, it’s the writer himself. Let’s help him take responsibility for his actions. Because he’s writing about his own decision-making process, he is the decider. He is the “I” that has been missing all along. He might want to use the verb “to decide”:

“After researching the issues for hours, I decided to put these vital projects on the November ballot.”

Politicians tend to avoid using “I” and other clear subjects so that they can deflect responsibility. On the other hand, you, a writer, should not be afraid to state who is doing what. You must state who is doing the action, except if you’re purposely withholding that information in a mystery, for example. You must be responsible for your sentences, and one way to be responsible is to ensure you’re stating who is doing what. When a person is involved, I always advocate including the person in the sentence.

Please find all the missing persons in the five Criminal Sentences that have assaulted your senses in this column, and send your rewrites to I’m sure all these lonely souls will be happier once they’re found. And, if you help them return home, we’ll welcome you onto the Missing Subjects Taskforce. If, however, you keep refusing to name names, we just might bang on your door and demand that you identify the people you’ve been hiding.

Criminal Sentence 266: Royally Bad Sentence

From a book about the craft of writing:

"Often the words are out before we can reign them in."

"Reign" refers to leading, as in "The queen reigned for 50 years." "La reine" is queen in French, in case you wanted to know.

"Rein" refers to an animal harness, as in "Santa hooked up the reins to the reindeer."

I was disappointed to see a writing book abuse this word.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Criminal Sentence 265: Role-ing My Eyes

From a newspaper article about school enrollment:

“We can’t withdraw students from our roles until after the 10th day.”

Notice how I said, "enrollment," not something like "enrolement." That's because lists of students at schools are called "rolls," not "roles." "Roles" refers to parts in a play or movie, for example.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Criminal Sentence 264: Speling Problem

A teaser from Yahoo! this morning:

"What really killed Mozart?

After years of guesswork, researchers believe they now know the answer.
An 18th-cenury 'epidemic'"

I've heard of penury, but not cenury. Guess they forgot to check their spelling.

And what did off the composer?

"Strep throat may have killed Mozart: study"

Monday, August 17, 2009

Poll Results 49

Here was the question:

How many hours a week do you devote to improving your grammar/writing?
1-5 23 (44%)
6-10 5 (9%)
I spend all my free time on grammar/writing. 4 (7%)

I guess you already figured out that I'm with the 7%.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Criminal Sentence 263: High and Low

From a Web site:

"Low and behold"

"Lo" is a seldom-used interjection. It often pairs up in the phrase "lo and behold."

"Low " is an adjective meaning not high, among other things.

Grammar Girl Episode: Distracting Predicate Nouns

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Reader Question: Prepositional Phrases

Here's an excellent question from a reader named John:

"I have trained myself out of passive voice--mostly--and now find that trains of prepositional phrases is my favorite way of turning a six word thought into a 12 word sentence. The easiest way out of this is noun pairs (in the center of the town becomes in the town center). Often that doesn't sound quite right in the sentence, and I know that recasting the sentence is what is really needed. Suggestions?"

John is right that prepositional phrases can unnecessarily lengthen a sentence:

"The shoes of the man fell off" is a lot wordier than "The man's shoes fell off."

Therefore, I do suggest that you replace prepositional phrases where it makes sense. As for recasting the sentence, that is another good idea that can help you shorten, shorten, shorten. For example, "The meaning of his words was lost when the train blew past him" is pretty wordy. You can take the essence of your idea and recast it: "The train drowned out his words."

When you're first learning to cut prepositional phrases, you can simply search for "of" in your word-processing program. Then you can determine which cases of "of" are wordy and then cut, cut, cut.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Criminal Sentence 262: Naughty Medicare representative

A simplified version of a real sentence from a book I read:

"He discussed his belief that unnecessary procedures were being done at the hospital with a Medicare representative in Stockton, CA."

This sentence is not grammatical because it is trying to squeeze in too much information. There are simply too many prepositional phrases: "at the hospital," "with a Medicare representative" and "in Stockton, CA." The sentence makes it sound as if the Medicare representative was participating in the unnecessary procedures.

Common sense tells me that the "He" of this sentence discussed something with a Medicare representative and that they were in Stockton at the time.Let's try to have the sentence state that:

"He was in Stockton, CA, when he told a Medicare representative that he felt unnecessary procedures were being done at the hospital."

Not the most perfect sentence but a vast improvement over the original.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Criminal Sentence 261: Apostrophe Un-Happy

From a nursery ad:

"10’000’s of trees"

First of all, I would think it's thousands of trees, not ten thousands of trees. Second, you don't use an apostrophe to pluralize a number. It is true that you can use an apostrophe to pluralize something if ambiguity would result, as in "I got all A's." If you had no apostrophe, it would look like "As." However, there's no ambiguity with this number, so no apostrophe.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Poll Results 48

This was the question:

Which sentence is correct?

I had an adverse reaction to the carob. 62 (79%)
What's the affect of eating too much chocolate? 6 (7%)
I have a big horde of chocolate. 6 (7%)
She took a peak at the candy. 4 (5%)

Congrats to 79% of you.The phrase "adverse reaction" is sometimes mistaken for "averse reaction," which is incorrect.
In sentence 2, "affect" should be "effect."
In sentence 3, "horde" should be "hoard."
In sentence 4, "peak" should be "peek."

Many words sound the same, so check the dictionary if you're not sure of the spelling.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Criminal Sentence 260: Nonsensical FAQ

From a writing contest FAQ page:

"How large of print is allowed?"

This wasn't written by an ESL student as far as I know. Could this be considered a careless error? I don't know. What's the right way to express this thought?

"What is the biggest font size allowed?"

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Writer Mag Column 5: Wordiness

Healthful food doesn’t have fillers--and neither should your writing

Emulsifiers, preservatives, thickening agents and fillers. Don’t those sound delicious? Well, no. You don’t want to fill your body with these unhealthful items. Neither do you want to fill your writing with wordy phrases, unfocused fillers and rambling blather. Food companies increase the shelf life of their products by adding all these substances. Many writers are equally guilty of increasing the width of their prose by adding unneeded words and phrases.

This Criminal Sentence, written by someone I’ll call Mr. Lazy, illustrates what I mean:

“Due to the vast knowledge of building retail structures, the company was able to quickly and accurately identify the necessary steps to ensure complete satisfaction and overall success.”

I took this from something I edited recently, and I felt very full after reading a whole page of sentences like this. Although my eyes read a lot of words, my brain didn’t detect much substance. The sentence is so vague as to be meaningless. It is pure fluff and filler. This depresses me, because nine out of 10 nutritionists--I mean, copy editors--will tell you that such sentences are as prevalent as the fillers in processed food. It’s time to crack down on such flabby writing. You are no longer allowed to be like Mr. Lazy. You must become Mr. or Ms. Succinct. Throw away those old recipe books that you’ve been following. It’s time to create some nouveau cuisine: substantial sentences that actually say something concrete.

Before we can cook up some better sentences, we need to learn what ingredients are bad for our sentences’ health. We want to avoid three levels of wordiness.

Wordy phrases come first. Lots of phrases might qualify for this list. Loyal readers may remember that I covered quite a few wordy phrases in my previous article, “A bunch of has-beens.” They include “it is/was,” “there is/are/were,” “is/are able to,” “has/have/had the capability to” and “has/have/had the ability to.” Be sure to memorize this list and avoid using these fatty fillers. Here’s a short stack of some other thickening agents that you should remove from your pantries because these empty calories add little to your work:

1. “The fact that,” found in phrases such as “due to the fact that” and “in spite of the fact that.” Despite the fact that you might want to use the words “the fact that” in your sentence, I recommend that you don’t. Examine this Criminal Sentence, taken from a book about a prison camp: “Adding to our pile of misery was the fact that we also weren’t in a permanent camp.” Seventeen words. Let’s be more succinct: “Not being in a permanent camp added to our pile of misery.” Twelve words there.

2. “On a … basis” and “in a … manner.” These are longwinded ways to avoid using an adverb. Take this Criminal Sentence: “He trips in a clumsy manner on an ongoing basis.” Why not just save words and say, “He trips clumsily every day”? We don’t need to be afraid of adverbs. Adverbs are our friends! Used sparingly, they add a bit of spice.

3. “Each and every.” Each and every time I see this phrase, it grates on my nerves! “Each” means “every,” so there’s no need to repeat yourself, repeat yourself. Pick one, please.

4. “The reason is because” and “the reason is that.” “The reason” and “because” are identical twins that mean the same thing, so you don’t need to say both together. The reason I say this is because it’s wordy. “The reason is that” is also a bad filler. Take this Criminal Sentence: “The reason that she doesn’t like okra is that it’s slimy.” Although I don’t mind the slime, I do mind this wordy sentence. Let’s just use the word “because” somewhere else in the sentence: “She doesn’t like okra because it’s slimy.”

5. “And,” “also,” “in addition” and “too.” I often see more than one of these in the same sentence. This is redundant in addition to being redundant, too.

Wordy sentence structure constitutes the second level of wordiness. The main culprits here are passive voice and nominalizations, covered in Chapters 1 and 2 of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier by yours truly. I’ll be tackling passive voice in my next column, so here I’m going to focus on nominalizations, which lead to wordy, soporific sentences.

You likely use nominalizations all the time without knowing what they are. When you create a nominalization, you nominalize, which means you turn a verb or an adjective into a noun. Take this nine-word Criminal Sentence: “She made a careful selection of the fabric’s color.” In this sentence, the writer for some reason changed the verb “to select” into the noun “selection.” There’s nothing grammatically wrong with the sentence, but it’s just too wordy for my taste. Compare it to this improved sentence, which doesn’t use a nominalization: “She carefully selected the fabric’s color.” Six words instead of nine. The usage of (hint, hint) nominalizations by everyone must stop! Nominalizations and passive voice are two of the main wordy sentence structures. Learn what they are and avoid them.

The last level of wordiness is what I call the “BS factor.” Mr. Lazy, the creator of that awful Criminal Sentence up front, fell prey to the BS factor. I can see why he fell into this trap. I remember BS-ing my way through a school essay that had to be at least 1,000 words. My ideas weren’t fully formed, so I tried to make myself sound knowledgeable by fluffing things up. (I fluffed grammatically, of course.) Just as I did all those years ago, Mr. Lazy was trying to puff up the importance of whatever was he was saying, he didn’t know what to say, and he was trying to fill space. Unfortunately, many writers are like Mr. Lazy and the high school me: They drone on without saying much.

How did Mr. Lazy and all these filler-happy writers get this way? Well, we can perhaps blame our high school and college English teachers. Rather than teaching students to produce clear and meaningful sentences, they promoted grammar rules and a word minimum. I’m all in favor of grammar rules, but I think a self-imposed word maximum would help all of us write more succinctly. The best writing teacher I ever had assigned us one-paragraph essays. Having little space to say a lot sure helped me focus.

Now it’s time for that nouveau recipe you’ve been waiting for. Following these simple rules will ensure that you’ll write things short and sweet:

1. Never use the thickening agents/wordy phrases listed earlier.

2. Avoid passive voice, nominalizations and other weak sentence structures. Read my article on getting rid of weak verbs. If you follow the instructions there, you’ll become less wordy and your sentences will be more substantive. Read The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier if you want to learn even more.

3. Focus your thoughts and know what you want to say. Use specific facts, specific nouns and specific verbs. Don’t make general statements that anyone could make. This is hard, so you may have to work at it.

4. Realize--and admit--that your writing is wordy. You’re allowed to write down unfocused ideas and to ramble a bit in a rough draft. But your final version must be much more concise. Put aside your draft for a while and then cut it down--perhaps way down. Examine every phrase and shorten, shorten, shorten.

I don’t have any Criminal Sentences or Paragraphs for you to rewrite today, but I would like you to examine your own writing critically. Find something you’ve written recently and see if you can follow the new recipe. If you want to send the before and after versions to me at, I would love to see them. Unlike most nutritionists, I will certainly allow you to use plenty of shortening.

Criminal Sentence 259: How Many Parents Do You Have?

From a blog I read:

"I lived in my parent's house."

I don't know if this person is a child of a single parent, but I'm guessing not. He would have said "my mom's house" or "my dad's house." Therefore, I think he was fortunate to live in his parents' house--that's s apostrophe, not apostrophe s.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Criminal Sentence 258: Concerns about agreement

From my community newspaper:

"Over the past 18 months, the safety and well-being of neighborhoods surrounding the airport has become a serious concern."

I have a serious concern about this: there is more than one concern in the sentence:

the safety of neighborhoods
the well-being of neighborhoods

Therefore, we need to pluralize everything:

the verb "has become" (should be "have become")
"a serious concern" (should be "serious concerns")

Here's the rewrite:

"Over the past 18 months, the safety and well-being of neighborhoods surrounding the airport have become serious concerns."

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Criminal Sentence 257: A sentence at it's worst

From an ad in my community newspaper:

"Assisted living at it’s best"

I doubt it.

It's (It is) best if you learn how to use "its."

Monday, August 3, 2009

Poll Results 47

This was the question:

Which sentence is not wordy?
Due to the fact that it's snowing outside, I am not able to wear sandals. 2 (2%)
He has the ability to write well. 20 (24%)
Using a flashlight, I searched the basement. 52 (63%)
I always proofread myself on a continuous basis. 8 (9%)

Congrats to 63% of you. The following phrases in the other sentences are wordy:

Due to the fact that
am not able to
has the ability to
on a continuous basis (and always means the same thing)

Now for the better phrases:


Try to use one word instead of several.