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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).

Monday, November 30, 2009

New Grammar Girl Episode: "Because" or "Due to"?

Poll Results 64

Here was the question:

Is something wrong here? "The heart of Monet's home are the gardens, absolutely riotous with blooms."

Oui 68 (81%)
Non 15 (18%)

Congrats to 81% of you. The subject is the word "heart," which is singular, so the verb must be "is," not "are." I covered this topic in a recent Grammar Girl episode.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Criminal Sentence 307: Coffee with No Apostrophe

I didn't want to buy it, but it was the only coffee that met my requirements: dark roast and ground. It pained me to buy coffee that bragged this on the outside:

"A dark roast coffee lovers delight!"

Delightful taste but un-delightful punctuation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Poll Results 63

Here was the question:

Is this right? "He would lie himself down at their feet if he had to?"
Yes 12 (17%)
No 55 (82%)

Congrats to 82% of you. When it's just you relaxing on a couch, you lie down. When you put something down, or yourself down, you lay something down, as in "Now I lay me down to sleep." So this had to be "He would lay himself down..."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Criminal Sentence 306: Not Expecting

From a book I'm reading:

"four months' pregnant"

That's clever (I mean, incorrect) apostrophe usage. It might at first seem to be similar to "four weeks' worth," which does require an apostrophe. However, if you put each of these in the singular, it's easy to tell where an apostrophe is warranted:

one month pregnant
one week's worth

You wouldn't write one month's pregnant, nor would you write one week worth.

New Grammar Girl Episode: Where versus In Which

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Writer Mag Column 12: Three Grammar Myths

Ditch imaginary grammar rules, part 1

We grammarians love rules—and catching mistakes. You'll hear us say, "Don't put your apostrophe there. It goes here!" and "Make sure your subjects agree with your verbs!" Although we can be abrupt about grammar, we have to enforce these rules; otherwise, sentence chaos will ensue. And we will become upset.

Despite being one of those grammar snobs, I'm going to relax the rules today. Certain grammarians who came before me are wrong on a few counts. Yippee, you must be saying. We can ignore our grammar! Well, sort of. Let's take a closer look at a few questionable grammar rules.

Invented Grammar Rule 1: You may not end a sentence with a preposition.

Yes, you may! Winston Churchill weighed in on this supposed rule, saying, "That is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put." I agree. I will not put up with such odd sentences.

"To put up with" is an example of a phrasal verb, usually formed with a verb plus a preposition (or two). You can see from the Churchill example how ridiculous the no-preposition rule is. Writers should not have to go to such bizarre lengths to avoid a preposition at the end of a sentence. Here's a sentence we can't even stick a "which" into:

The lad shot up.

Here, we're saying that a boy grew tall—and fast. How can we not end the sentence with "up" unless we manufacture a new ending? I suppose "The lad shot up last year" sounds okay, but it's fine to stop at "up."

Of course, you are allowed to use "which" or "whom" to write around a preposition at the end of a sentence if you want to be more formal. Sometimes it sounds all right; other times it sounds ridiculous. Here's an example that's not so ridiculous:

Preposition at the end: That's the direction I came from.
Rewrite to avoid a preposition at the end: That's the direction from which I came.

Now, you do want to avoid unnecessary wordy prepositions, such as the ones that end these sentences:

Where's it at? ("Where is it?" will suffice.)
Where's he going to? ("Where's he going?" is just fine.)
That's the bridge the strict grammarian is going to jump off of. (You don't need "of.")

Invented Grammar Rule 2: You may not start a sentence with "because"; nor may you do so with "however."

Baloney! (Except if you write a "because" fragment, such as "Because I want to." But then there's the exception to the no-fragment rule, which is that you may use one occasionally to highlight something.)

As far as using "because," there's no reason to put the effect first and the cause second. It's perfectly fine to put the cause first and then mention the consequences. This invented rule seems to be one we follow out of habit. Because we're not used to putting "because" at the start, it might sound odd. However, we don't need to bother with this rule anymore. You may prefer to use "because" in the middle, and that's fine. But if you want to be a little daring, use "because" at the start.

As far as "however," which indicates a contrast, you can put it wherever you want (within reason). Here are some options:

She doesn't like chocolate. I, however, think she's crazy.
She likes vanilla ice cream. However, I think she's crazy.
She doesn't eat cake. I think she's crazy, however.
She hates cookies; however, I think she's crazy.

Pick a "however," any "however." However, check your punctuation, please.

Another "however" we need to consider is a "however" that no grammar stickler can complain about if it comes at the beginning:

However grammatical you are, you can always improve.

In this case, "however" means "to whatever extent."

Invented Grammar Rule 3: You may not split an infinitive.

Incorrect. Invented rules are made to be broken. There's no law against using an adverb to break up the two parts of an infinitive: the "to" and the verb, as in "to drive."

We have quite a few options, so let's look at them all. Here's a normal sentence that doesn't break any supposed rules:

I needed to drive her to the store quickly.

But what would happen if I put "quickly" between "to" and "drive"? Some grammarians would frown. However, it's fine to split the infinitive as long as it sounds natural.

I needed to quickly drive her to the store.

This sounds pretty natural, doesn't it? I think so. Don't listen to sticklers who would avoid splitting an infinitive by writing a weird sentence like this:

I needed quickly to drive her to the store.

Although sentences like these aren't wrong, I'm going to complain about them. They sound awkward. I like my adverbs in the middle because that's where they usually sound the most natural.

Occasionally, though, some adverbs don't fit smoothly between the two words of an infinitive:

I wanted to then eat a sandwich.
He had to almost be sick.
The ship began to now list.

These sentences sound much better with their adverbs elsewhere:

Then I wanted to eat a sandwich.
He almost had to be sick.
The ship now began to list.

If you're having trouble deciding how to place adverbs around an infinitive, just go with what sounds best to your ear.

One last warning: Don't accidentally place your adverb between two words that it could modify. Readers will then be unsure which item the adverb modifies. Consider these sentences:

I resolved to quickly do my homework. ("Quickly" goes with "do.")
I quickly resolved to do my homework. ("Quickly" goes with "resolved.")
I resolved to do my homework quickly. ("Quickly" goes with "do.")
I resolved quickly to do my homework. (Ambiguous and awkward: could mean "resolved quickly" or "to do quickly." A no-no.)

Warning to breakers of these non-rules
Although you've seen that these so-called rules are not true grammar rules, some grammarians might criticize your perfectly fine sentence. Therefore, consider your audience when you break one of these non-rules. If you're writing for a potentially uptight group or person, you might want to ensure your sentences don't rub anyone the wrong way, even if you're right and they're not.

In my next column, I'll take on a few more supposed grammar rules that you can break. Yippee!

Criminal Sentence 305: Linguists Can Write Awkwardly

I'm reading a book about the origins of English. The author is making the point that many linguists don't think that Welsh, Cornish, and Celtic had any influence on English. He, on the other hand, feels that these languages are related. The author came up with a really weird sentence as he was discussing why linguists dismiss these languages so easily:

"Frankly, another likely factor is that Irish, Welsh, and Cornish are not languages anyone is apt to become familiar with who is not of Celtic ancestry."

I had to read that a few times. Of course, all it comes down to is a misplaced modifier. The "who" clause does not modify "with." It modifies "anyone." I was surprised that a linguist would create such an odd sentence. Let's match things up:

"Frankly, another likely factor is that Irish, Welsh, and Cornish are not languages anyone who is not of Celtic ancestry is apt to become familiar with."

Grammatically okay but still hard to get (plus there are four "to be" verbs, which make the sentence wordy and dull). Let's try again:

"Frankly, linguists without Celtic ancestry are likely not familiar with Irish, Welsh, and Cornish."

I hope that is more intelligible.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Criminal Sentence 304: Helpful Comma

From something I edited:

"The bloated database was very hard to query making it difficult to identify problems."

You can't just stick in the "making" clause. Right now it's just sitting there. Let's add a helpful comma:

"The bloated database was very hard to query, making it difficult to identify problems."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Criminal Sentence 303: Who is a member?

From a brochure I got in the mail yesterday:

"As a loyal Get More Rewards member, we wanted to thank you with a few discounts to some local retailers."

Thanks, but your grammar stinks!

Who is a member? Not "we." Let's match things up better:

We wanted to thank you for being a loyal Get More Rewards member, so here are a few discounts to some local retailers.

If you wanted to keep the "As" at the beginning, it would have to be something like this:

As a loyal Get More Rewards member, you deserve some discounts.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Poll Results 62

This was the question:

What is wrong with this sentence? "He's been tracking criminals with a microscope for quite a number of years."

It's wordy. 11 (10%)
A phrase is in the wrong place. 36 (34%)
Something is spelled wrong. 0 (0%)
Two of the above. 40 (38%)
None of the above. 18 (17%)

Congrats to 38% of you. "Quite a number of years" is a wordy way of saying "many years." In addition, a phrase is in the wrong place: "with a microscope." You could interpret this sentence to mean that the criminals have a microscope, instead of the He of the sentence. It would not be ambiguous, or wordy, to say this:

"For many years, he's used a microscope to track criminals."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Criminal Sentence 302: What kind of soup is that?

On a sign at a drugstore:

"Cambell,s soup"

Sure the p is silent, but it's not absent.

And a comma is not the same as an apostrophe. See this mini-rant.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Reader Question: Welcome or Welcomed?

Here is a question from Robert:

Dear Bonnie,

Thank you so much for the extremely useful (and fun) episodes you have written for Grammar Girl. I've also found that "The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier" is a must-have for anyone mindful of how to properly express themselves in writing and speaking.

I have a question for you, if I may. I trust I'm not the only one putting the "welcome vs. welcomed" question on the table, but I must admit I'm still not sure which one goes where and why. For example, in the sentence, "Your employees would be welcomed to paint alongside our volunteers," is welcomed used correctly? The meaning I'm going for is: "We would all love to have your employees paint alongside our volunteers."

Thank you so much for your help,
Let's look at his sentence: "Your employees would be welcomed to paint alongside our volunteers." I have to say that I prefer his other one: "We would all love to have your employees paint alongside our volunteers." But to answer his question, "would be welcomed" is not incorrect; it is just passive voice. Some unnamed person is welcoming the employees to do something. In this case, "welcomed" is a verb.

You could say, "Your employees are welcome to paint." In this case, "welcome" is an adjective.

So the answer to the question is that you could use either "welcome" or "welcomed," depending on how you use it. Of course I generally advise against passive voice if there is a better, active way of putting your thought.

Thanks, Robert, for the question.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Criminal Sentence 301: Can tension stand?

From a book I'm reading:

"Standing before him, the colander clenched tightly before her, the tension in her face stabbed at him."

As I read this sentence, I got worried when I reached "the colander." I thought this was going to be a misplaced modifier, because "the colander" is not "standing before him." Then I realized I hadn't yet gotten to the subject of the sentence. So I relaxed. But then the stress went way up when I got to "the tension." The sentence did in fact contain a misplaced modifier. Tension cannot stand as far as I know; the "her" of the sentence is standing before him and is tense. Let's rewrite:

"As she stood before him, the colander clenched tightly before her, the tension in her face stabbed at him."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Criminal Sentence 300: Free. Free.

I redeemed my free birthday coffee today, thanks to a card I got in the mail:

"Come in for your free birthday drink. On us."

I appreciated getting a free drink but was wondering why they had to say it was free twice:

free = free
on us = free

Monday, November 9, 2009

Poll Results 61

This was the question:

Please ask a friend, co-worker or family member who doesn't read this blog: Agree or disagree? These days, the general public doesn't know much about grammar and punctuation.

Agree 55 (96%)
Disagree 2 (3%)

Sounds like a bunch of grammatical friends!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Traditional or Modern Apostrophe

Do you know how to make a singular noun that ends in s possessive?

Tennis' greatest rivalry or tennis's greatest rivalry?

Some guides tell you 's and some tell you just '. The traditional view is 's, but nowadays just an apostrophe is accepted. Do you think that's criminal or acceptable?

Writer Mag Column 11: Avoiding Generic Words and Cliches

Spice up your writing: Avoid generic words and clichés

Are you one of those people who eats the same dinners every week? Meatloaf on Monday, spaghetti and meatballs on Tuesday, etc., etc.? If this describes your eating habits, your palate might welcome some new flavors. And if you write the same way—using the same old generic vocabulary and clichés again and again—your readers might appreciate fresh words and some spice in your writing.

After all, readers enjoy specific, entertaining prose, not vague sentences that anyone could write. If you've been reading this column regularly, you know that I've complained about a number of vague and wordy ways of writing. You've seen how to replace weak verbs with better ones and how to use clear subjects along with your clear verbs. Now it's time to do more: stop using general nouns and adjectives, and get out of that box—I mean, stop using clichés so often.

Writers slip into using generic vocabulary when they are writing a first draft or are too tired to come up with anything better. If you have jet lag, I suppose I can excuse you. Otherwise, think harder and use your imagination, please. Here's a short list of words that you can almost always replace with something more specific:

• People/person
• Man
• Woman
• Thing
• Bad
• Good
• Interesting
• Different

These meat and potato words are neither good nor interesting to read. "The man was bad" just doesn't cut it. Of course, when you're scribbling out a first draft, feel free to use generic words, but when you're polishing, vary your vocabulary. Perk up your prose by adding a bit of frisée, a few parsnips or other uncommon ingredients.

When searching for the right word to impress your readers, you could spend a lot of time using a thesaurus, but I don't want you to do that. Pompous-sounding and out-of-place vocabulary attracts negative attention. Readers don't want to try to remember the meaning of an SAT word every paragraph. Nor do they relish whipping out their dictionaries too often. I once read a book that used the word "fissiparous" numerous times. You won't be surprised to hear that I almost put the book down numerous times. I stuck with it, though, because I did want to hear about the Battle of Hastings. I had to force myself to overlook the writer's atrocious professorial style so that I could learn all about 1066.

Although the thesaurus is out, I do want you to spend a few extra seconds to be more precise with your descriptions. You could say that I mean for you to "go the extra mile," but that would be a cliché!

The first person who wrote "think outside the box" was very creative; these days, though, that is a tired phrase and I never want to see it again. Understandably, you don't want to "reinvent the wheel," so you're tempted to use familiar phrases. In other words, you're tempted to be lazy. But it's a bad idea to "beat a dead horse to death." Here's a short list of clichés to "put out to pasture":

• Going forward
• Strong as an ox
• Looking ahead to the future
• Cutting edge
• As big as a house
• Pushing the envelope

When readers encounter phrases they've seen over and over, they don't pay much attention. They may even roll their eyes. Inventive ways of putting words together, on the other hand, jump out at readers and make them remember what you've written. You write to be creative, don't you? Now is your opportunity.

Of course, you don't want to write something overly bizarre, although I do admit it might be briefly entertaining to pen the words "she scribbled like a fairy eating rutabagas." Just like overly fancy vocabulary, words that don't go together attract negative attention.

Let's practice not writing like everyone else. Here's a drab paragraph that is similar to what you might read in an unimaginative marketing piece. (Pity me because I get to edit a lot of such drivel.) Please "bite the bullet" and cook up something a bit better.

Criminal Paragraph:
The company is committed to providing quality products and timely, cost-effective solutions to customers, and years of knowledge and understanding have helped the people be good at their jobs. The workers meet their customers' needs every day, and going forward, they plan to meet their most challenging requirements. The products that the company offers are top quality and can't be beat. In addition, the company can quickly and accurately identify the necessary steps to ensure complete satisfaction and overall success.

Please send your rewrites to I look forward to reading your spicy concoctions. Anything you write is bound to be an improvement. Be as creative as you like, and be sure to add some ingredients I haven't seen before.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

When the Grammarian Doesn't Know Everything

I hate to admit it, but I do not know everything about grammar or spelling.

I was recently trying to remember how a certain expression is spelled: Is it "rack your brain" or "wrack your brain"? Hmm. I had to look it up because I didn't know. Turns out that it's "rack."

Apparently "wrack" is similar to "wreck," and appears in the set phrase "wrack and ruin."

My valuable "Garner's Modern American Usage" tells me that "the root meaning of brain-racking refers to stretching, hence to torture by stretching." Ouch.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Criminal Sentence 299: Schizo

From a sign in a shop:

"Bra's and Panties"

I can never understand how someone can write a sign like this. One part is correct while the other is wrong. Does the person make a mistake and then realize it's a mistake so the next part is right, but then forgets to correct the first part? Or is the person just not thinking? Can anyone enlighten me?

P.S. No apostrophe needed!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Criminal Sentence 298: I'm Guilty

This, unfortunately, is my own Criminal Sentence. Luckily, I caught it before it was published:

"Pompous-sounding and out-of-place vocabulary attract negative attention."

Yikes! That should be "attracts." The subject is "vocabulary," which is singular. I got distracted by the two compound adjectives.

You can read this corrected sentence, and the rest of my extremely grammatical article, on Thursday, when my new column comes out.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Poll Results 60

Here was the question:

What is lying on the desk in this sentence? "There are letters from Confederate soldiers lying on a Federal desk."

Letters 42 (50%)
Soldiers 12 (14%)
Could be either 27 (32%)
Neither 2 (2%)

Grammatically speaking, the word "soldiers" comes right before the clause "lying on a Federal desk," so congrats to 14% of you. We all know that the writer meant "letters," but the "from" prepositional phrase got in the way, as it so often does with misplaced modifiers.

Those of you who did not get the right answer, please reread the blog entries that are marked Grammar. You could use a refresher on the dreaded misplaced modifier problem.