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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).

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Criminal Sentence 365: Buy By, Error(s)

Thanks, Rick, for this link:

Headline at news site.

Minors 15-17 Years-Old Can By Greyhound Tickets

Error 1: 15-17 Years-Old: No hyphen needed.
Error 2: By should be Buy.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Criminal Sentence 364: Infertile-Couple Alert!

Taken outside a video store. I couldn't just drive by without snapping this shot.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Poll Results 80

This was the question:

"Has this blog helped you with your grammar/punctuation/style/syntax?"

Yes 34 (89%)

No 4 (10%)

To the 10%, please let me know what else I can do.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Criminal Sentence 363: There are Capitalization rules

From an ad in the paper (this was a head):

"There is Help."

There are perhaps three ways to go with capitalization with heads:
1. Initial cap all words: There Is Help.
2. Initial cap only the first word and proper names: There is help.
3. Initial cap all words except articles (like "a" and "the" and short prepositions like "of" and "by"): There Is Help for Your Capitalization Problems.

The important Things are To be Consistent and to Not Capitalize randomly.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Criminal Sentence 362: Are You High?

From a writing Web site:

"[So and so] sponsors five high profile writing competitions."

O, Hyphen. Where Art Thou?

Of course I've carped on this before, but it hasn't sunk in.

Are these high profile writing competitions? No. That looks too naked.

Are they high profile-writing competitions? No. They're not taking place at altitude, and they're not competitions on how to write profiles.

Are they high-profile writing competitions? Oui!! They are writing competitions that this company believes are high profile.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Criminal Sentence 361: Experiencing Em Dash Symptoms

You can't just stick an em dash in when you want to pause. That's what commas are for. Em dashes indicate an aside or long break. If you want more information--search for em dash on this blog (that was an incorrect em dash just now).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Reader Question: Comma Use

A good question from a reader:

My name is Rishi, and I am a college student who is very interested in learning how to write grammatically-error-free prose. It is a tall order, but your blog (and articles in Writer’s magazine) have been very helpful teaching aids. I was introduced to your blog by way of the Grammar Girl’s website. After noticing that many of articles appearing on her site were guest written by you, I clicked on the link to your blog -- and have been hooked since.

I was wondering if you could please help me with this question: Why do many clauses that begin with the phrase “and that” have a comma in front of the conjunction “and?” Take, for instance, the sentence: “I wish it were raining a lot right now, and that the wind would blow fiercely more often.” I understand that a comma (and a conjunction) needs to be inserted between two independent clauses, but it seems to me that the second part of the sentence – which begins with the phrase “and that” – is not an independent clause. After all, we would never use the expression “and that the wind blows fiercely more often” in a stand-alone manner. I wonder, then, why is it that clauses of this sort have a comma inserted in front of them?

I would be very grateful for your insight, Ms. Trenga, and many thanks for your time.

With gratitude,

p.s.: I hope that I have not committed an egregious number of grammatical errors in this email!

Rishi is right about commas and independent clauses. If you go by that rule, a comma before "and that" would not work. But... commas also indicate a pause, and if you have a long sentence, a comma can help the reader pause in the right place, so my view is that a comma would be acceptable in a long sentence. If, on the other hand, you have a somewhat short sentence like "I like it that you smile and that you laugh" then a comma would not be necessary.

Thanks, Rishi, for the question, and no, your e-mail message was not full of egregious errors!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Poll Results 79

Here was the question:

What is your relationship with your dictionary?

Whenever I come across an unfamiliar
word or phrase, I race to look it up.
41 (56%)
I sometimes look something up.
29 (39%)
I don't own a dictionary and/or don't
know how to access
1 (1%)
I use my dictionary as a doorstop.
2 (2%)

Glad to see most everyone likes the dictionary!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Writer Mag Column 20: Adverbs

Hanging around unnecessarily: Why you should eliminate most adverbs

Adverbs have a bad reputation. It’s not that we editors don’t like them. We have nothing to complain about when adverbs do their job successfully —that is, modify adjectives, verbs or other adverbs. We object, though, when writers rely on adverbs to do the work of strong verbs, or use them redundantly, or place them awkwardly. Only then do we want writers to trim their useless adverbs mercilessly.

Let’s quickly deal with adverbs that you writers can definitely cut: adverbs used carelessly as intensifiers. You could, for example, write "She smiled happily," but that would be redundant, and no one would smile happily while reading your (un)carefully crafted sentence. "Frowned morosely" and "jumped up and down excitedly" are other examples of repetitive verb-adverb combinations. Most of the time, a descriptive verb will suffice.

Now for a brief list of utterly useless adverbs. You really should cut these out: "extremely," "definitely," "truly, "very" and "really." You can totally use them, though, if your characters are surfers. Otherwise, avoid them mightily.

You’ll also hear complaints about adverbs that are used alongside verbs of attribution, such as "said," "asked" and "stated." Some overeager writers think they’re being clever when they tack on adverbs to their "saids," as in "‘I told you not to hit your brother over the head,’ she said angrily." Most creative-writing guides suggest sticking with a lone "said" most of the time. Let the substance of the dialogue get across the way it’s being said; don’t rely on an adverb to do it for you. So, when you peruse your close-to-final draft, critique your adverbs on a usefulness scale. If you could cut the adverb without irreparably harming the sentence, please do so.

Next we come to adverbs that are allowed to stay—but not in the position where they currently are. I’m mainly talking about "only" here. Consider this sentence:

Candace only edits on Tuesdays.

Here, "only" is next to "edits," which for sticklers suggests that the only thing Candace does on Tuesdays is edit; she does not write, she does not sleep, she does not eat. She only edits. Of course we all understand that the sentence means that Candace edits just on Tuesdays, but "only" is in the wrong position. It should come closer to "on Tuesdays." We have two choices: "Candace edits only on Tuesdays" and "Candace edits on Tuesdays only." Granted, misplaced "onlys" pop up in everyday speech, but in writing it’s best to be more precise and use "only" in the right place. Hint: The right place is almost never before the verb.

Adverbs unwittingly get misplaced elsewhere, too, especially when your sentence has two verbs and one adverb. Consider this sentence:

She was looking at the man thoughtfully.

The adverb "thoughtfully" clearly modifies "was looking." Things get a bit dicey if we add another verb, though:

She was looking at the man running thoughtfully.

Here, "thoughtfully" could modify two verbs: “was looking” and “running,” so the sentence could mean she was looking thoughtfully at the man, or she was looking at the man who was simultaneously running and pontificating. Most readers would likely assume that "thoughtfully" goes with the closer verb, in this case “running.” No matter the correct interpretation, you don’t want to leave your readers wondering. Rewrite as appropriate: either "She was looking thoughtfully at the runner" or "She was looking at the man who was running while thinking."

Finally, I want to mention the issue of hyphens with adverbs. Hyphens are useful for joining words that together describe a noun. Take this sentence:

The 10-year-old boy hopped on one foot.

Here, the two hyphens join up the three words to create one unit that modifies “boy.” A hyphen helps in this sentence, too:

The big-footed man had trouble finding shoes.

With “-ly” adverbs, though, you should ditch the hyphen because the “-ly” in the adverb automatically links up with the next word. Therefore, the punctuation in this sentence is incorrect:

The spiritually-inclined woman went to church.

Just a space there, please:

The spiritually inclined woman went to church.

Note, however, that if the hyphenated words come after the noun, you can get rid of the hyphens:

The boy who was 10 years old hopped on one foot.

Sadly, we are at the end of our hopefully not useless time together. Please rewrite these Criminal Sentences and send your carefully rewritten rewrites to

1. That is a poorly-worded sentence.
2. I sandwiched myself between the woman and the youth who was eating uncomfortably.
3. “I hate spinach,” yelled the girl loudly.
4. There’s never been a better time to save on our custom built furniture, which is locally-made.
5. I only meant to eat one cookie, but I was very naughty and gobbled down the whole box hungrily.

Criminal Sentence 360: Customer's

Take away the apostrophe in "Customer's" and put it where it was missing yesterday, and then two national chains can earn my busines's.
P.S. The company, Fry's, doesn't seem to know there's an apostrophe in its name, too!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Criminal Sentence 359: Mechanics On Sale

How much do the mechanics cost?

Ah, the difference one apostrophe makes...

(mechanics' tool sets)

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010

Poll Results 78

This was the question:

Is this sentence correct? "I remember when we lay in the grass."

39 (36%)
69 (63%)

Congrats to 36% of you. This sentence is in the past tense. To see what's what, let's put it in present tense:

"I lie in the grass."

What's the past tense of the verb "to lie"?

Yesterday, I lay in the grass.

What's the past participle of "to lie"?

I have lain in the grass for two minutes.

What's the progressive form of "to lie"?

I have been lying in the grass since yesterday.

Now let's confuse ourselves by looking at the verb "to lay," which you use with an object, such as "I want to lay the blanket on the bed."

Present tense: He lays the blanket on the bed.
Past tense: He laid the blanket on the bed.
Past participle: He has laid the blanket on the bed.
Progressive form: He is laying the blanket on the bed.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Criminal Sentence 357: What the Dickens!

Seen in a book:

" of Dicken's greatest creations"

His name is Charles Dickens, so that should be Dickens'.

Have a great weekend and put your apostrophes in the right place, plea's!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Criminal Sentence 356: A Bad Way to Start (A Sentence)

Seen on a Web site (the lead sentence of the article):

"When looking for Manhattan's latest in inexpensive food, the East Village and Lower East Side have always been good places to start."

Nice misplaced modifier there; not a good way to start. When I visited the Lower East Side last year I did look for some good food, but in this sentence no person is looking for the food. The East Village and Lower East Side certainly aren't. Just add a "you're" and you're set:

"When you're looking for Manhattan's latest in inexpensive food, the East Village and Lower East Side have always been good places to start."

I know I've harped on this repeatedly, but this was an egregious example and in the first sentence to boot!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Criminal Sentence 355: Lead vs. Led

From something I recently edited:

"The reader is lead to analyze the evidence and formulate a sound conclusion."

I often see this mistaken "lead," which, of course, should be "led." The verb is "to lead," and this is how you conjugate it:

Present: I lead, you lead, she leads, he leads, it leads, we lead, they lead
Past: I led, you led, she led, he led, it led, we led, they led
With a past participle: I have/had led, you have/had led, she has/had led, he has/had led, it has/had led, we have/had led, they have/had led

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Question: "Hi."

A question from Josephine:

"My sister and I have a difference of opinion here.

She criticized me for putting a comma between "Hi" and her name, "Lil."
Example: Hi, Lil,

I said that one goes there. She said that it doesn't.

Who is right?"

Josephine is right. Although most people don't use a comma in casual e-mails, you really should put one in:

Hi, Josephine.
Good job, Josephine.
Thanks for the question, Josephine.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Giveaway Results

Here was the rewriting challenge:

"As a product marketing manager, keeping a pulse on what the competition is doing is critical."

Congratulations to winner Ginny Baird, who created this succinct sentence:

A product marketing manager keeps a pulse on the competition.

She wins a free copy of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier by Moi and The Grammar Devotional by Mignon Fogarty.

The two runners-up are Heather Swarthout and David Wolf, who each win a free copy of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier by Moi.

Thanks to everyone who entered the contest.

Poll Results 77

Here was the question:

March 4 is National Grammar Day. How are you planning to celebrate

I am going to speak/write grammatically all day--even all week! 20 (32%)
I am going to spread grammatical knowledge far and wide. 26 (41%)
I am going to read grammar-related blogs and books. 21 (33%)
I ain't gonna do nothin special. 16 (25%)

Hope you all had a grammatical day!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Criminal Sentence 354: Which Which?

From a Web site article that quotes a singer about American Idol:

"Some of the judges, I don't think they're qualified to even judge," the Grammy Award-winning singer said, without specifying which judge to which she was referring.

Which which is a good which, or are both whiches whiches which we can live with?

The first which--"which judge"--is fine. Which judge are you talking about?
The second which--"to which she was referring"--is fine, assuming you don't like prepositions at the end of a sentence.

Two whiches together, though? I wouldn't.

Which which do you think I will be getting rid of?

"...without specifying which judge she was referring to."

It's fine to end a sentence with a preposition, especially if not doing so results in a weird which situation.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Writer Mag Column 19: Copyediting Checklist

Lucky Seven: Tips for tip-top writing

Now that your manuscript is completed, take a bow. Well done. I tip my hat to you. However, you’re not actually done yet. Sadly, what first comes out of our heads isn’t always brilliant, and we all make mistakes. Of course, you don’t want important thoughts to evaporate, so scribble away while your ideas are fresh; you’ll shape your sentences during subsequent drafts. You do write more than one draft, right?

Before you can wrap your writing in a bow and send it on its way, you must first run down this list of jobs to ensure your piece is in top shape. You may already do some of these copyediting tasks. If not, get busy!

Job 1: Become familiar with the kinds of mistakes you tend to make and then check for them. I personally suffer from Overuse of Em Dash Syndrome and Long Sentence-itis. You, on the other hand, may mess up your apostrophes, or perhaps you tend to confuse similar-sounding words. Whatever your bugaboos, keep them in the back of your mind as you read over your work. If certain words trip you up, search for them using your computer’s Search and Replace features, or you could write a manual list to remind yourself of your pitfalls. The more you become aware of mistakes you always make, the easier it will be to find them—and eventually you won’t even make them.

Job 2: Look for lapses of consistency. If you’re writing something in the non-fiction arena, it might be a good idea to keep a style sheet of terms you’re using. That way, you can always remember how you’ve capitalized words or spelled certain terms. Readers will look down on you if you sometimes use one way, sometimes another. If you’re writing fiction, it might not be a bad idea to use a style sheet, either. It’s a good way to keep track of characters’ names and identifying features (you don’t want to call a minor character a redhead in one chapter and then later turn her into a brunette, for example). Another consistency issue that often crops up, whether in non-fiction or fiction, is the verb tense you use. Sometimes writers begin in past, switch to present and then go back to past. Decide at the outset what tense you’re going to use, and then stick with it.

Job 3: Cut out passive phrasing. You can check if you’ve written a passive sentence in at least two ways: check your subjects, and check your verbs. Unless you write about buildings, bugs or other non-talking items, most of your sentences are probably about people. But do people populate your sentences, or is your audience reading about a ghost town? Take, for example, this vague and passive sentence: “To overcome the challenge, certain objectives were set forth.” I am certain that people are involved here, but I have no idea who specifically. I also don’t know what the challenge is and what objectives the workers must meet. Do a census in your own work and see if you’re paying enough attention to the people. Another easy way to find vague and passive sentences is to examine your verbs. If you use a lot of “to be” verbs, chances are you have overused passive voice or have written many uninteresting sentences. As with Job 2, you can search and replace; at least half of your verbs may turn out to be blah.

Job 4: Aim to cut each sentence by a little. You’ve probably been wordy. Ask yourself if you really need to use so many words to get your point across. Search for this list of common wordy phrases and consider replacing them with the items in parentheses:

despite the fact that (although)

even though (although)

in spite of the fact that (although)

not only … but also (and)

on a [adjective] basis (adjective + ly)

in a [adjective] manner (adjective + ly)

each and every (each [or every])

is/are able to (can)

has/have the capability of (can)

the reason that … is because (because)

The list could go on. Also look for places where you’ve said the same thing twice.

Job 5: Do me (and yourself) a favor and learn what misplaced modifiers are—and then never use them. Misplaced modifiers often make writers—even New York Times-bestselling authors—look ridiculous. As I’ve said in columns past, you need to watch out for three common kinds of misplaced modifiers: those at the beginning of a sentence, those involving a “who” or “that” clause and those involving a prepositional phrase. Don’t write doozies like these three Criminal Sentences:

1) “As First Lady, the agents acted as my protectors” (the agents cannot be the First Lady).

2) “Soon after, he grew a swelling in his foot and in his groin that had to be lanced” (ouch; the swelling, not the groin area, had to be lanced).

3) “The man watched him and the girl with slow eyes” (the man watched the girl slowly; the girl does not have slow eyes).

Job 6: Do a quick grammar check. Common grammatical errors include incorrect subject-verb agreement, non-parallel sentences and incorrect comparisons. Review my columns on these three subjects.

Job 7: Do a quick Spell Check. You shouldn’t turn something in without pressing “Check spelling.” However, doing so does not absolve you from carefully reading each word you’ve written. Spell Check does not catch word-usage errors such as “if” instead of “in.” I suggest reading your work aloud in a monotone so that your brain does not skip over incorrect words. You should also put aside your work for a time so that you can look at it with fresh eyes.

Criminal Sentence 353: Unheroic Punctuation

Courtesy of CNN yesterday afternoon:

"Hero pilot, Capt. Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger retires"

Just one little comma missing. When you use what's called an appositive, you need to surround it with commas, as here:

"The author of Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens, created the character of Mr. Bumble."

"Charles Dickens" is the appositive. It clarifies "The author of OT."

In CS 353, we need a comma after "Sullenberger" because "Capt. Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger" is an appositive.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Spelling Errors

Visit this post, on Nathan Bransford's informative blog, and read the comments! There fun-knee!

Criminal Sentence 352: A Long Fossil

From a book I am reading (pay attention to the third sentence):

"Certainly fossils are a particular pleasure. They do not appeal to everyone, for they are the remains of creatures. If you think on it too much, you would wonder at holding in your hands a long dead body."

Ahhh, the power of hyphens. Compare "a long-dead body," which joins up "long" and "dead" to modify "body," and "a long dead body," which suggests that the dead body is long. The fossils described in this book are small snail-like creatures.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Criminal Sentence 351: Grammar Giveaway

In honor of National Grammar Day on Thursday, here's a Grammar Challenge.

The person who corrects Criminal Sentence 350 in the best way (judged by me) will win a free copy of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier by Moi and The Grammar Devotional by Mignon Fogarty.

Send your rewritten sentence, along with your contact info, to The deadline is midnight (MST) on Thursday, March 4, and it's one try per e-mail address. If more than one person rewrites the sentence well, the first-received answer will win. I will choose two runners-up, who will each receive a free copy of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier.

Criminal Sentence 350:

"As a product marketing manager, keeping a pulse on what the competition is doing is critical."

Hint: I like good subjects and good verbs.

Good luck!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Poll Results 76

Here was the question:

What's wrong here? "I was tempted to abandon everything I had planned and instead lead the men across the river."

A noun
5 (6%)
A verb
31 (38%)
A conjunction
38 (46%)
A preposition
7 (8%)

When I read this sentence in a book, the verb "lead" threw me because I thought it was supposed to be "led," the past tense form. So congrats to 38% of you. We can clarify the sentence with just one word:

"I was tempted to abandon everything I had planned and TO instead lead the men across the river."