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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).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Poll Results 67

Here was the question:

Which punctuation mark do you think takes the most abuse?"

20 (22%)
2 (2%)
41 (46%)
1 (1%)
Exclamation Point
16 (17%)
0 (0%)
3 (3%)
Quotation Marks
2 (2%)
4 (4%)

It seems that the comma won, but I still feel it's the apostrophe.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Criminal Sentence 318: Long movie, misplaced modifier

Well, as you all know, "Avatar" is here. And our friend the misplaced modifier is also here. Both are in the same sentence in my local newspaper:

"But at 2 hours and 42 minutes, the shortcomings gather momentum..."

The shortcomings are 2 hours and 42 minutes long? Yikes!

The new year is coming shortly. Let's all resolve to eliminate misplaced modifiers in 2010 and beyond.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Criminal Sentence 317: Somethings

From a form letter about parent-teacher conferences:

"I have somethings I want to tell you."

Somethings not right here. Somethings amiss at my kids' school.

Later today, I have to buy somegroceries and cook somethingfordinner. As illustrated here, you can't just mush words together like that. True, "something" is a word, but its plural is not, unless you're spooked and are telling me, "There are a few somethings out there."

The note should have said, "I have some things I want to tell you, but we won't be discussing spelling."

Writer Mag Column 14: Ambiguous Sentences

Don't double your meaning: Avoid ambiguous sentences

Other than writing a boring story, the worst thing a writer can do is write a confusing one. Your thoughts swim around in your head, and it's your job to make sure those thoughts come out onto the page in the way you intended. You certainly don't want to write an ambiguous sentence, one that has two or more possible meanings.

An ambiguous sentence leads to two problems. First, your readers have to read your work at least twice in order to get your meaning. Second, your readers may chuckle if your sentence is accidentally amusing. Neither problem endears you to readers. Granted, it's hard to catch your own ambiguous sentences, but don't worry. I have identified four main risk factors that you can watch out for:

1. Sentences with adverbs. If your sentence contains more verbs than adverbs—say, two verbs and one adverb—you'll have to be careful where you put your adverb. If an adverb could attach to either verb, readers could misinterpret your meaning. This Criminal Sentence made me laugh:

I looked at every teenager walking down the road differently.

The writer was trying to say that the "I" of the sentence was looking at teenagers differently, but instead the sentence seems to be saying that every teenager was walking differently. I know I'm getting old, but I think I would have noticed a bunch of teenagers who were walking differently. Anyway, the writer put the adverb in an ambiguous place. Let's make it clear:

I looked differently at every teenager walking down the road.

This sentence is no longer criminal, though I suppose I'm still over the hill.

2. Sentences that contain the word "and." The word "and" joins things together, but sometimes it's not clear which items are being joined. Take this Criminal Partial Sentence, which I saw outside a burger joint:

Burger and peach shake: $2.99

My first reaction to this as I drove by was: Ewww, a shake made with burgers? Of course, I knew that the sign was advertising two items: a shake and a burger. More customers would have stopped in if the sign had been less ambiguous:

Peach shake and a burger: $2.99

That is no longer gross.

Here's another Criminal Sentence that illustrates the problem with "and":

They screamed when he came near them and bolted.

I'm not sure whether the writer means they screamed and then they bolted, or he came near them and then he bolted. Readers can usually puzzle things out based on the context, but don't make your audience do your work for you. Instead, make it clear. Depending on your intended meaning, rewrite:

They screamed and then bolted when he came near them.
They screamed when he first came near them and then bolted.

Readers no longer need to be confused, though I suppose some screaming is in order either way.

3. Sentences that could benefit from a comma. Commas, which separate items, are helpful little guys. In certain cases, if you don't use a comma to separate words, readers will have trouble parsing the sentence. I did a double take when I read this Criminal Sentence:

When we spoke before you gave me most of what I needed.

The word "before" is causing trouble here. Readers could read the sentence as "we spoke before you gave me [something]." If they did, the rest of the sentence would not make sense, so they'd have to back up and reread it. Only then would they realize that "When we spoke before" goes together. A comma would smooth the sentence for readers, saving them from having to wonder what goes with what. Here's a clearer version:

When we spoke before, you gave me most of what I needed.

Here's another Criminal Sentence that I had to read twice:

Besides these kinds of adventures are best shared with friends.

I thought at first that "Besides these kinds of adventures" went together. Nope. "Besides" is just by itself here, and a comma would instantly clarify things:

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

Friends can share commas, too.

4. Sentences with prepositional phrases. I've complained about prepositional phrases in other columns. They often lead to misplaced modifiers because they come between the noun and the clause modifying it. Sometimes a misplaced prepositional phrase can lead to a sentence that seems ambiguous, as happens in this amusing sentence:

There are letters from Confederate soldiers lying on a Federal desk.

For a minute it appears that soldiers are lying on a desk, but we know that letters, not the soldiers, are. The prepositional phrase "from Confederate soldiers" needs to be put in its place so that "lying on a Federal desk" is not bunched up against "soldiers." Let's be more precise and less humorous:

Letters from Confederate soldiers are lying on a Federal desk.

So, watch for misplaced modifiers like the one in the "soldiers" sentence. But also be aware that even if there's no misplaced modifier, a preposition may attach ambiguously to something, as here:

He complied with bad humor.

"Complied" seems to go alongside "with," as in "He complied with the rules." However, when we get to "bad humor," we realize we are mistaken. "With" goes with "bad humor," not "complied." It would be unambiguous to write it this way:

With bad humor, he complied.

Now that you know some ways to avoid ambiguous sentences, please make these five Criminal Sentences clearer:

1. We found the address that he gave me without difficulty.
2. A backpack with a laptop and a vaccination card was recovered.
3. All autumn essays floated into my computer inbox.
4. But I know for sure that unless we try our chances will be zero.
5. He's been tracking criminals with a microscope for quite a number of years.

Send your unambiguous rewrites to and I'll check if you've avoided double trouble.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Criminal Sentence 316: Inquiring minds

An instruction on a tutoring Web site (I tutor grammar and writing):

"If your holiday plans will prevent you from responding to student inquires, please temporarily change your account status."

This is why Spell Check is useless.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Criminal Sentence 315: Newsworthy misspelling

From CNN yesterday:

"France returns artefacts to Egypt"

News is ever-changing, but spelling isn't. The word is "artifacts."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Poll Results 66

This was the question:

"This holiday season, are you planning to give a gift on grammar or writing?"

Yes, I want all of my friends and relatives to brush up on grammar.
4 (10%)
No, but only because I'm the only grammar nerd in my family.
17 (44%)
No, but I'm going to treat myself to something in that genre.
17 (44%)
No, I'm not that interested in grammar after all.
0 (0%)

Well, I'm glad that you're all still interested in grammar.

Ho ho ho.

Friday, December 11, 2009

New Grammar Girl Episode: The Difference between Who and Whom

Criminal Sentence 314: Hyphen help

From a book I just finished:

"[The company] wants each new employee evaluated at thirty, sixty, and ninety-day intervals..."

When you have a compound adjective such as "ninety-day," you need a hyphen, as the author so nicely included. You also need a hyphen with the other numbers since they all modify "intervals": thirty-, sixty-, and ninety-day intervals."

The beginning two hyphens seem to just be hanging there, but they're waiting to be partnered up with "day" later in the sentence. You could repeat "day" three times, but that wouldn't sound so good.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Criminal Sentence 313: A sitting tree

From a book I read recently:

"Sitting in the snow, the tree before him seemed tall and it seemed to lean toward him."

I suppose trees can sit, but I think the character was the one getting a cold rear end. It's just a quick fix: "As he sat in the snow, the tree..."

I would also like to harp about the unnecessary repetition of the word "seemed."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Criminal Sentence 312: Including repetitiveness

From something I edited recently:

"Several actions have been taken with great success including (but not limited to)..."

Well, if this isn't wordy and repetitive, I don't know what is. This is the worst kind of blather.

The word "include" by definition means you're giving a partial list, so you don't need to say it again and repeat it again (just kidding there).

This sentence is also passive. Why not say who did what exactly?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Criminal Sentence 311: Sick Doctor's Message

A sentence I heard while on hold for the doc's office:

"Our philosophy and goal is 100% satisfaction."

I had to cringe at that. But it's a common enough problem: a simple case of mismatch. When there is a single item, use a singular verb; when you have more than one, use a plural verb. So writers just need to ask themselves, "How many items am I talking about?" Here, the answer is two, so we need a plural verb:

"Our philosophy and goal are 100% satisfaction."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Poll Results 65

Here was the question:

How many things are wrong here? "With more value than ever, you’ll find unbeatable deals in every section on everything from travel and entertainment to fashion, grocery and more."

Definitely one
8 (9%)
Definitely two
16 (19%)
Two if you're picky
6 (7%)
Definitely three
31 (37%)
Three if you're picky
21 (25%)

Let's have a look:
Definite error 1: "With more value than ever, you'll..." "You" does not have more value than ever. That's a misplaced modifier.
Definite error 2: "...unbeatable deals in every section on everything..." Another misplaced modifier. The words "in every section" are in the way. This part of the sentence should read "unbeatable deals on everything."
Potential error: The phrasing "everything from travel and entertainment to fashion, grocery and more" is questionable. You could argue that the "and more" section is wordy and unnecessary, but technically it's not wrong. It would probably be better to say, "everything from travel and entertainment to fashion and grocery."
Congrats to 25% of you.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Criminal Sentence 310: Apostrophe abuse

From a Web site:

"If the cyst is small, its' rupture usually occurs unnoticed."

This is an apostrophe violation!

"Its" is a possessive adjective, as in "Its tail is wagging."
"It's" is a contraction of the words "it is," as in "It's raining/It is raining."
"Its'" is not a word.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Writer Mag Column 13: Three Grammar Myths Part 2

Ditch imaginary grammar rules, part 2

My last column dealt with three invented grammar rules, and I showed you why you don't need to follow them blindly. I want to clear up more misconceptions about grammar, so without further ado, here are three more fake rules.

Fake Rule 1: You must always use a comma before the last item in a series.

Punctuation rules are cut and dried. You must put a period at the end of a sentence. An end parenthesis is required if you've used a beginning one. And so on.

Punctuation rules are also complicated, but there's one rule you don't have to worry about anymore. It's called the serial comma, and it's not a rule but a style choice. Although The Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style tell you to use a comma before the last item in a series of three or more items, you really don't have to. If, for example, you're writing that your character was wearing a hat, a purple necktie and a pair of shiny shoes, no comma is required after the word "necktie." Of course you can put one there if you want, but it's not mandatory.

Two caveats:

1) Once you've chosen which style you like, you need to be consistent. This means that if you prefer to use the serial comma, you should use it at all times, not just sometimes. If you prefer not to use it, then don't.

2) If readers could become confused by your list, use a comma before the last item—even if you are consistently not using the serial comma. Although you will no longer be 100 percent consistent, you'll be 100 percent clear.

For example, let's say you're writing about two married couples (Olivia/Ben and June/Chris) and a single woman (Jennifer) who had dinner together. It might be hard to tell who is with whom if you don't use the serial comma:

Olivia and Ben, June and Chris and Jennifer met at the restaurant.

If you want to make it clear that Jennifer arrived alone, you should add the serial comma:

Olivia and Ben, June and Chris, and Jennifer met at the restaurant.

Fake Rule 2: You're not allowed to use "since" to mean "because"; nor are you allowed to use "while" to mean "although."

Well, you can. Most of the time. Strict grammarians may not like it, but "since" and "because" can be synonyms, as can "while" and "although." My dictionary confirms it. Since we don't want to absentmindedly do away with perfectly good synonyms, let's keep them around. Here are some perfectly good sentences with "since" and "while":

"Since I love you, let's get married," he said.
"While I love you, too, I don't want to commit," she answered.

This conversation would be just as sad with "because" and "although":

"Because I love you, let's get married," he said.
"Although I love you, too, I don't want to commit," she answered.

Fussy grammarians might be a teensy bit right in some cases, though. "Since" and "while" do have other meanings, and you need to ensure you don't write an ambiguous sentence. You'll often use "since" to refer to how much time has passed, as here:

Since yesterday, all I've thought about is you.

You couldn't use the synonym "because" in that sentence. The same goes for "while" when you mean "at the same time as":

I thought about you while I was moping around.

"Although" would not make sense there.

Sometimes, readers may be unsure which sense of the word you mean, and that is when you should avoid using "since" and "while" to mean "because" and "although." The following two sentences could be interpreted in two ways:

Since they spoke, she's had second thoughts about her answer. ("Since" could mean "from the time that" or "because.")
While I loved her, she was not good to me. ("While" could mean "during the time that" or "although.")

Therefore, in cases where readers could interpret your meaning in two ways, stick with "because" or "although."

Fake Rule 3: You're not allowed to use "over" instead of "more than."

No actual grammatical rule states that "over" cannot be used instead of "more than" to mean "in excess of." It seems that some grammarians object to "over" simply because they're used to doing so. It's just a tradition, and it's time to break it.

Go ahead and choose whichever one sounds better in your particular sentence. For example, you could say you ran "over a mile" or you ran "more than a mile." Either way, you'd be a bit tired. You could also say the price is "not over $5" or "not more than $5." In these cases, either choice sounds fine.

Other times, one or the other will sound better. With ages, "over" usually sounds more natural:

Unfortunately, I am now over 39. (Not “I am now more than 39.”)

On the other hand, “more than” sounds better than “over” in this sentence:

His salary went up more than $1,000 a month. (That's quite an achievement, and it sounds more natural than “His salary went up over $1,000 a month.”)

In these last two columns, you've seen that it can be fun to ignore grumpy grammarians. From now on, though, I'll probably return to being a bit grumpy myself. I hope you won't ignore me!

Criminal Sentence 309: Where there's a "will" there's a way

From today's forecast in the paper:

"Day will start cool but warm up by afternoon"

Sounds a bit odd, doesn't it? I think it will sound much better with an extra "will":

"Day will start cool but will warm up by afternoon"

There was definitely space on the line.

Now that's a sunny forecast.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Criminal Sentence 308: Coffee with No Apostrophe II

Places that sell coffee apparently need help with their apostrophes (see this previous post). Here's another coffee-related apostrophe error:

Wish for good coffee at the in-laws

Let's pretend for a second that we're not wishing for good coffee at this place but rather at my house. How would we write it?

Wish for good coffee at Bonnie's

Note the apostrophe. So where does an apostrophe go in the original sentence? The apostrophe goes at the end of a plural noun, which in this case is "in-laws":

Wish for good coffee at the in-laws'

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Commas in nouns of address

A reader sent me this funny story:

My friend is doing a birthday party for her husband. She just now phoned me from the bakery. She wanted them to put the following on the cake:

Happy 80th Birthday, Bill

They were trying to tell her that they NEVER put a comma after the word “birthday” in something like that. They were being a bit obstinate about it, so Sharon called the “official Grammarian of Grossmont High School” (even if I am retired).

Well, of course, I told her, “Put that comma there, Baby! You’re 100% correct. “Bill” is a noun of direct address, and nouns of direct address are always set off by commas!

Ah, the beat goes on………

and I replied:

well good for you!!!!

Did you hear the rest of the story yet??

I think this is what they put on the cake:

Happy 80th Birthday comma Bill