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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).

Friday, October 30, 2009

Criminal Sentence 297: Examples include this redundancy

From something I'm editing:

"Examples include a, b, and c."

This is redundant. "Example" means an item that represents a group as a whole; "includes" means is part of a larger group. It would be less redundant to say, "Examples are a, b, and c" or "..., including a, b, and c."

Also, when you use the word "include," you don't have to then use "and so on" or "etc." because by definition you are not giving a complete list.

While we're on this subject, the Latin abbreviation "e.g." means "for example."

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Criminal Sentence 296: A Recomandation for Spammers

The title of a junk e-mail I received and laughed at:

"A recomandation from a friend"

None of my friends misspell words in that way.

Being a spammer must be a hard job: all that rejection. Not that I want to encourage spammers, but they might get more people to open their e-mail messages if they spelled simple words correctly.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Criminal Sentence 295: Curing Aides

From a thank-you note written by a patient and posted at the hospital where I volunteer:


This is an unfortunate mistake. AIDS is a terrible disease; aides are helpers.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Criminal Sentence 294: Double Prepositions

Overheard on TV:

"That's the code in which I live by."

This is spectacularly bad. It uses two prepositions when only one is needed, and it uses two distinct ones, too. Here's what it should say:

"That's the code by which I live."


"That's the code I live by."

A similar error crops up in a Beatles song:

"the world in which we live in"

Monday, October 26, 2009

Poll Results 59

This was the question:

Which apostrophe is correct?

The apostrophes' uses are many.
9 (8%)
The comedian's salaries are too high.
3 (2%)
I've never searched a clients' office.
6 (5%)
The apostrophe's a wonderful punctuation mark.
84 (82%)

Congrats to 82% of you. Here are four correct apostrophes:

The apostrophe's uses are many.
The comedians' salaries are too high.
I've never searched a client's office.
The apostrophe's a wonderful punctuation mark.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Criminal Sentence 293: Fat or Thin?

Courtesy of CNN:

"Fat CEO salaries..."

Not thin CEO salaries?

The caption was complaining that these salaries were too large, not that the CEOs were too large. This is what I would call ambiguous. You could interpret it to mean that the salaries were fat, or that the CEOs were fat.

I would suggest rewording it:

"Fat salaries of CEOs"

I don't normally advocate using more words, but in this case being a bit wordy results in not being ambiguous.

New Grammar Girl Episode: Italics

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Criminal Sentence 292: You're/Your in Trouble

From a sign I saw at the hospital where I volunteer:

"You're attention please."

Is this sign telling me that I am attention? You are attention?

No!! It is a sign that needs an emergency intervention!

"Your attention please. Sometimes you need an apostrophe, and sometimes you don't. Thank you for listening."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Criminal Sentence 291: From It That (Yep, You Read It Right)

And now for something completely ungrammatical, from a newspaper article about how DNA in a leech helped solve a crime in Australia:

"Detectives found the leech at the crime scene and extracted blood from it that they believed was from one of the two suspects."

Yep. The words "from it that" are not allowed in English. They just don't make sense in that order.

If we want this sentence to make sense, let's just move some words around:

"Detectives found the leech at the crime scene and extracted from it blood that they believed was from one of the two suspects."

I realize that this sounds a little stilted, so it's fine to delete the words "from it," since that is understood:

"Detectives found the leech at the crime scene and extracted blood that they believed was from one of the two suspects."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Criminal Sentence 290: Let's Have a Duel

From something I edited:

"duel locking feature"

That's a silly feature.

"Duel"=a fight between two people (noun)
"Dual"=describing two (adjective)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Poll Results 58

This was the question:

Does this sentence make you chuckle? "Covered in a thick layer of dust, Martin was certain that the tray hadn't been touched in years."

Yes. That's a hilarious misplaced modifier.
45 (73%)
No. The sentence looks all right to me.
8 (13%)
No. I see it's a misplaced modifier, but so what?
8 (13%)

Of course I thought it was hilarious. Martin is not covered in dust; the tray is.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Criminal Sentence 289: Brooch or Broach?

From a book I finished:

"...a diamond broach..."

Brooch=Jewelry you pin on (noun)
Broach=To raise a subject (verb)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Poll Results 57

This was the question:

How many errors are in this sentence? "The paramedic, who tried to staunch the flow of blood rushed patient to the hospital."

16 (11%)
81 (56%)
42 (29%)
5 (3%)

So 29% of you are correct. Here are the three errors:

1) To staunch should be to stanch. These two words are confused all the time. Staunch is an adjective meaning firm, as in I am a staunch believer in good spelling. Stanch is a verb that means to stop the flow, as in I stanched the flow of blood coming from my head.
2) You can't have just one comma. You need either two (the second one would be after blood) or none, depending on the context.
3) The word the is missing before patient.

Sorry I haven't been posting lately. I was in Italy. I highly recommend Pompeii!

Writer Mag Column 10: Long Sentences/Fragments

Aim to be average: Avoid overly long sentences and sentence fragments

No writer wants to be average. As far as your sentence length, though, average is better most of the time. The long and the short of it is this: If you stuff in too many things, you’ve got an overly long sentence. Readers shy away from such sentences because they hate getting lost amid clauses and commas. On the other hand, if you leave out a subject, verb and/or object, you’re stuck with a fragment. Incomplete sentences may annoy readers if you use this device too often. Neither kind of sentence is ideal--usually.

Let’s look at long sentences first. Marcel Proust is famous for writing long, unintelligible--I mean, artful--sentences. He even wrote a 958-word behemoth once. Congratulations to him, but too bad for readers. Back in Proust’s day, e-mail and TV didn’t exist to distract the public, so I guess readers were a hardier bunch. And copy editors must have been scarce. Nowadays, though, most readers won’t stand for such windiness. They just don’t have a very long attention span.

Proust’s enormous sentence is an anomaly, but long sentences certainly haven’t disappeared. These days, plenty of meandering sentences roam through manuscripts. Here are some ways to tell if your sentence is too long:

1. You read your sentence but can’t remember what happened at the beginning of it.

2. The sentence contains more than 20 words.

3. The grammar-checker in your word-processing program underlines your entire sentence with a long squiggle, and the squiggle goes on for several lines.

4. Your sentence contains too many “which,” “that” and “who” clauses; an overabundance of commas and semicolons; at least a few cases of “and” or “but”; and multiple pairs of em dashes or parentheses.

The best way to tame your inner Proust is to figure out what you’re trying to say. Pinpoint what your main idea is. This is often difficult because you’ve probably crammed two or three main points into your long sentence. Once you remember the sentence’s main idea, you must cut out all of your detours. You’ll then have to strategically place these leftovers somewhere else. You can create new sentences out of some of these parts. Other parts you may have to squeeze in somewhere nearby. You may even need to delete some of your leftover crumbs, so don’t become too attached to every word you create. Once you’ve allotted everything to its proper location, make sure all of your new sentences fit together seamlessly.

You’re aiming for medium-sized sentences--around 20 words long on average. Average length means minuscule by Proust’s standards. Although Proust was able to cram in 10 or more ideas into each sentence, today’s readers can’t process that many ideas simultaneously.

Let’s do a little test to see how many ideas are too many for one sentence:

One idea: The actress went to an audition. (Fine.)

Two ideas: Although the actress went to the audition, she didn’t get the part. (Still fine.)

Three ideas: Although the actress went to the audition, which lasted one hour, she didn’t get the part. (Still fine, but getting to be a little long.)

Four ideas: Although the actress went to the audition, which lasted one hour, she didn’t get the part, which was for a woman who was stranded on a desert island. (Eek! That’s too unwieldy for most readers.)

Five ideas: Let’s not even go there.

If you wanted to impart all the information in the four-idea sentence, you’d have to break it into two sentences. One option would be this: Although the actress went to the one-hour audition, she didn’t get the part. She would have been playing a woman stranded on a desert island. Or you could eliminate one of the ideas, as here: The actress auditioned for but didn’t get the part of the woman stranded on a desert island.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find sentence fragments. Also known as incomplete sentences. Hey, do you think Proust ever wrote one of those? Nah. Bet not. Incomplete sentences are missing something. Often the subject.

Fragments can be a good device to use when you want to highlight something dramatic. For example, you might write, “The lurking man was carrying something in a knapsack. A head.” This fragment says, “Wow! Look at me. I’m special.”

Fragments do indeed call attention to themselves, but please use your head. If you overdo them, you’ll annoy your readers, and then nothing you write will seem special anymore. You may even confuse readers if you stick in a fragment that doesn’t clearly relate to the surrounding sentences.

So now we know that we don’t want sentences that are too long or too short. But by no means am I suggesting that every sentence be the same length. A string of medium-sized sentences would anesthetize readers. I am suggesting, though, that you use long sentences and fragments sparingly. Use just enough to keep your readers interested. Vary the rhythm.

No Criminal Sentences today, but I invite you to e-mail me egregious examples of overly long sentences or fragments that seem to come out of nowhere. Send candidates to, and we’ll post the best one in each category.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Poll Results 56

This was the question:

Which do you prefer?

Your savings is $0.50. 38 (51%)
Your savings are $0.50. 36 (48%)

That's pretty close. That's not unexpected because both are allowed.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Question: Where does "also" go?

A great question from Mary:

Please weigh in on the recent trend of using the AP Stylebook as an excuse to rail against any use of split infinitives and even "split" verb phrases. Often the changes these folks insist on making render the sentence clunky, formal, and grating, at least to my ears.

What do you think? For example, they change the perfectly fine

"The techniques are also used to fight cancer." to "The techniques also are used to fight cancer."

I agree that the "also" sounds better in the first sentence. The AP Stylebook advises "In general, avoid awkward constructions that split infinitive forms of a verb or compound forms.... Occasionally, however, a split is not awkward and is necessary to convey meaning." An example it doesn't like: "There stood the wagon that we had early last autumn left by the barn." Of course it prefers "There stood the wagon that we had left by the barn early last autumn."

The listing in the AP Stylebook doesn't specifically use "also," but I know I have read newspaper sentences that use "also" in an awkward manner. I guess we can just call it a style, and if you don't like it and don't work for a newspaper, you can put your "also" wherever seems natural.

Two links to Grammar Girl episodes that touch on these subjects:

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Criminal Sentence 288: How Many Lawyers?

From a book I'm reading:

"[I] looked through the lawyer's directory until I found a number, and made the call."

If there really were something called a lawyer's directory, only one name would be in it because the apostrophe tells us so: lawyer's.

So I think we need to put the apostrophe in the right place: lawyers'.

Writer Mag Column 9: Using the Wrong Word

Under the Whether: Fix embarrassing word errors

I’ve seen some very sick sentences lately. One in particular made me wince in pain and laugh at the same time. Back in May, I was unlucky enough to suffer from a painful ear infection. Aside from going to the doc multiple times and being dosed with various antibiotics, I went to a medical Web site to learn more about my unfortunate condition. This is when I learned the painful truth of my illness: “If the infection builds up, the eardrum may rupture to allow the puss to flow out.”

Oh, I see. A cat is to blame for my ruptured eardrum. When I read this error, I was in too much pain to inform the site about it, but now that I’m healed perhaps I should tell them that one of their sentences is gravely ill. I wouldn’t be surprised if I encountered more sick sentences on this Web site. And I hate to tell you this, but many of your sentences undoubtedly suffer from this illness, too.

Our language is beautiful but a pain in the eardrum as well. Too many words sound alike, confusing the unready. English contains pairs and trios such as “principal”/“principle,” “hanger”/“hangar” and “palate”/“pallet”/“palette.” The list is interminable; the possibilities for word mix-ups, endless.

As a copy editor, I’ve met many sentences that are at death’s door, and I callously laugh at their plight. Word errors are funny—as long as someone else has goofed. It’s great to put your readers at ease with a joke or two, but if they’re smiling at what you wrote in all seriousness, that’s not good.

Word errors are a real problem because they slip in unnoticed and are extremely hard to catch—even if you’re a seasoned writer who proofreads closely. Even copy editors aren’t immune: I once wrote “chocolate moose” when referring to a luscious brown dessert. I can excuse myself because I was only eight, but if you write for a living, there is no excuse.

If you’ve ever written “discreet” instead of “discrete,” it’s really not your fault, though. You can blame your brain, which sometimes takes a little vacation. You’re writing quickly so your ideas don’t evaporate. You’re paying attention to plot and dialogue. You’re thinking about that luscious brown dessert you promised yourself—if you write enough. You’re completely unaware that you thanked an editor for “pouring” over your manuscript or that you described a queen sitting on her “thrown.”

As a diligent writer, you must “pore” over your work carefully. (You can “pour” while you pore, but please make sure it’s something liquid.) As a wordsmith, you must protect your “throne.” (If you sit on a “thrown,” your subjects will throw you off it immediately.) As a writing professional, you must stand up for correct writing “principles.” (You can stand up for a school “principal” if one is in trouble.)

Now that you know about this devastating illness, you can work towards a cure. You’re probably already taking some basic precautions. You look words up in the dictionary, and you use Spell Check on every piece. Forgive me for this blunt warning, butt pleas dew knot re-lie on Spell Check too fined yore miss-takes! Spell Check misses a lot.

Frankly, the only way to catch word errors is to turn into a suspicious hypochondriac. Not very relaxing, but it gets the job done. When you proofread yourself, imagine it’s a worst-case scenario. Suspect it’s wrong and it might be. Start thinking like a proofreader. Pair up similar-sounding words in your brain, and when you come across one of the words, do a double take to ensure you’ve written the right one. For me, alarms go off with these words: “it’s” and “its,” “compliment” and “complement,” “affect” and “effect,” “conscience” and “conscious,” “hoard” and “horde,” and my favorite—“public” and that other word without the “l.”

Even when my brain is ready to catch mistakes, I still need to do more. It is so difficult to find lurking word errors that I have to resort to a robotic chant to catch them. I can’t just read the words as if I were a regular person relaxing with a book. I have to say each word aloud in a monotone, syllable by syllable. This slow, ridiculous reading prevents my brain from skimming over the words. You should try it too, but not in front of a first date or anyone you want to impress.

Word errors will embarrass you and will make you shriek in pain and horror if you discover them after they’ve been printed. No one wants to write sick sentences, so consider following my unconventional advice. Your writing will undoubtedly become cleaner, and you’re chant mite even help yew fined sum other errors, two!

Here are some amusing Criminal Sentences for you to fix:

Criminal Sentence 1: “The patient’s body becomes tense as she steals herself to endure the dental procedure.”

Criminal Sentence 2: “Often the words are out before we can reign them in.”

Criminal Sentence 3: “All parents must make sure there kids are taking the right shoes.”

Criminal Sentence 4: “I hear lots of people complaining about the economy and how it’s effecting them.”

Criminal Sentence 5: “The writer would like to thank the many who leant their time, wisdom, and patience to the improvement of this book.”

Please send your answers to The doctor will be in and ready to examine your sentences.


Criminal Sentence 1: “The patient’s body becomes tense as she steels herself to endure the dental procedure.”

Criminal Sentence 2: “Often the words are out before we can rein them in.”

Criminal Sentence 3: “All parents must make sure their kids are taking the right shoes.”

Criminal Sentence 4: “I hear lots of people complaining about the economy and how it’s affecting them.”

Criminal Sentence 5: “The writer would like to thank the many who lent their time, wisdom, and patience to the improvement of this book.”