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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, June 30, 2017

Guest-written Grammar Girl episode: Weird Words

Want to learn about some strange English words such as higgledy-piggledy? Check out this recent episode written by yours truly!

Friday, February 10, 2017

Thursday, February 2, 2017

New Grammar Girl Episode!

Curious about the origins of the words we use for the twelve months of the year? Check out my new episode for Grammar Girl!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Criminal Sentence 678: Stickler Mourns Death of Body

As a mother, I am always sad when I hear of a child dying. Likewise, as a grammarian, I am always aware of errors.

From today's newspaper (about the anniversry of a flood that swept away 12 people in Utah):

"The body of one boy, 6-year-old Tyson Black, was never found and is presumed dead."

After reflecting on the sadness of this sentence, we can turn to its grammar.

Let's take away some of the sentence so we can more clearly see the problem; we are left with "The body ... was never found and is presumed dead."

Here, the subject is "body." First, it was never found. Very sad. Very correct. Second, the body "is presumed dead." Sorry, but bodies used in this sense are always non-alive. To fix this, we just need to add one word: "he" and a comma before the "and."

"The body of one boy, 6-year-old Tyson Black, was never found, and he is presumed dead."

Very sad. Very correct.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Criminal Sentence 677: The Thread Police

The Phoenix area is home to a serial shooter, who has killed seven people. I hope they catch him pronto! This criminal sentence comes from an article about this criminal:

"The thread police say links the nine incidents to one another is forensics."

When I first read this sentence I asked myself what the thread police are.

It turns out that this sentence needs a strategically placed "that":

"The thread that police say links the nine incidents to one another is forensics."

Even better would be to eliminate the "to be" verb and more wordiness:

"Police say that forensics links the nine incidents."

By the way, I wondered whether "forensics" is singular or plural. When the word refers to the discipline of forensics, it is singular.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Criminal Sentence 676: Don't Be an "Ass"!

Happy Friday! I was looking at descriptions of new movies and came across this gem on the IMDb app about the film "How to Be Yours":

"Two people driven by their professional ambitions fall in love and are forced to reassess their goals ass they encounter the trials of a serious relationship."

The movie got a 7.2 rating, but I'll give that sentence a 10 for its entertainment value!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Criminal Sentence 675: This "Will Significantly Effect" You

Hello. I know it's been a while. The first sentence in an important newspaper story lured me from the kitchen table to the home office. (Yes, I am still in my pajamas.)

Here is the offender:

"Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a high-profile Texas abortion case will significantly effect how Arizona regulates abortion providers."

This article's lead grabbed my interest, but not in a good way. Politics aside, ugh! As this post's title suggests, there is a significant misspelling here: "effect" should be "affect." This error is pretty basic. If you Google "affect vs. efffect" you get 145 million hits, including a great explanation by my friend Grammar Girl.

For the most part, "effect" acts as a noun, as in "The effect of that blue eyeshadow is frightening." Most of the time when you need to use a verb, as in the offending sentence, you should use "affect" with an "a": "Will bad spelling affect my reputation?"

Yes, it will!

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Last new Grammar Girl guest-written episode this year

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Here is my last GG episode of the year. Hope you enjoy!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

New Grammar Girl episode

Here is a fun episode about phrases that contain the word blue!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Criminal Sentence 674: Let's Visit Dairy Island!

A chuckle-inducing sentence from an online blog:

"Don't stray from the dairy isle."

Don't worry. I won't jump on a boat and sail to that island. Instead, I'll go to the dairy aisle!

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Criminal Sentence 673: How big of chunks?

A quote from someone in yesterday's newspaper, in an article about workers trying to stabilize a giant rock that is poised to fall:

"We don't know how big of chunks are going to fall."

That's a big chunk of strangeness in my opinion. I understand what the person meant, but that does sound very odd, doesn't it?

He probably should have said something like this:

"We don't know the size of the chunks that are going to fall."

I realize that regular joes don't always speak grammatically. Perhaps I can let it slide in conversation, but nobody should write a sentence like that.

The construction "how [adjective] of..." works with singular nouns, as in "How crazy of a person are you?" But as we can see here, it doesn't work with plural nouns. I don't really know why. Any theories?

New Grammar Girl episode: Diminutives

Here's my latest episode:

Monday, August 10, 2015

Criminal Sentence 672: Em Dash Doozy

From today's newspaper:

"Apple is one of--if not the--largest holding by many individual investors, says SigFig."

In this sentence, the words between the em dashes (the --) are being emphasized, or at least they would be if the punctuation were correct. If you stick something in the middle of a sentence for emphasis, you need to be able to remove the em dashes and everything between them (the removal test), and the sentence needs to still make sense. Let's see what happens when we do this with our sentence:

"Apple is one of largest holding by many individual investors, says SigFig."

That's not right. In fact, it's downright criminal!

Let's fix it:

"Apple is one of the largest--if not the largest--holdings by many individual investors, says SigFig."

We had to repeat a word, but the new sentence is better. If we do the removal test, we end up with a coherent sentence:

"Apple is one of the largest holdings by many individual investors, says SigFig."

Of course, the sentence would probably sound better if we remove the passive "by" construction, but I'll hold off on complaining about that.

Monday, July 20, 2015

New Grammar Girl episode!

This is all about last names (though I made a bonehead error, saying that last names are sometimes called Christian names). Despite that bozo moment, I think you'll find the episode informative.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Criminal Sentence 671: The Curious Case of the Missing L

Last night, the kids and I enjoyed a nice dinner at a Chinese restaurant. I am glad I ate the "pork dumping"--er, I mean pork dumpling--before I saw this typo!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Criminal Sentence 670: This Time, a Criminal Editor

From today's newspaper, in a column explaining the jet stream:

"They are created by temperature contrasts which create pressure difference. Those contrasts create pressure differences and those pressure differences create winds."

Sounds a bit repetitive, huh? Well, it's clear that the writer's original sentence was the first one and then the copyeditor fixed it to be the second sentence (changing passive voice to active voice, and removing the "which"). However, the editor forgot to delete the original sentence. Oops!

As an editor, I edit original sentences like this one all the time. It's an editor's job to improve the text, not introduce errors, however. I try my best to reread what I've just edited, especially in a heavily edited piece.

This Criminal Sentence is a good reminder for me to do just that, and non-editors should reread their work, too!

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Monday, March 2, 2015

Criminal Sentence 669: Hello. My name is Monday Joe

From a book I'm reading:

"Monday Joe will make the judge see that." ("that" refers to "my [the narrator's] point of view.")

There's nothing technically wrong with this but it's ambiguous. The author means "On Monday" but writes just "Monday." The character's name is Joe, but it looks like Monday Joe. A comma might help:

"Monday, Joe will make the judge see that."

I think "On Monday," would be even better:

"On Monday, Joe will make the judge see that."

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Criminal Sentence 668: Fifty Shades of Ungrammatical

Happy Valentine's Day! Happy Ungrammatical Day!

From today's paper, in an article about how adult stores are going mainstream:

"Most people are not comfortable talking about how to improve their romance life with a complete stranger."

I had to chuckle at this: People are having romance with a complete stranger? Or are they talking with a complete stranger?

Some people have romance with a complete stranger, but on Valentine's you probably want romance with someone you know!

Let's fix it:

"Most people are not comfortable talking with a complete stranger about how to improve their romance life."

Now, go have some romance with someone, maybe even a stranger!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Criminal Sentence 667: Which State Do You Live In?

From an online article:

"If Richard Linklater’s Boyhood doesn’t live up to the Oscar hype surrounding it, at least the writer and director of the unique coming-of-age tale can take comfort in knowing it was the President of the United State’s favorite film of the year."

Which state is that?

I think he meant "the President of the United States' favorite film."

As an aside, it was a great film!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Criminal Sentence 665B: God vs Devil

This should technically be Criminal Sentence 666 but I know that this number bothers some people. So I'm making it 665B. Before I get to the exciting criminality of the sentence, this 666 business reminds me of an interesting moment in my video store cashier life in about 1989. The total came to $6.66 but the woman said, "I'm not paying that amount. I'll pay you $6.65 or $6.67." I suggested one cent over. 

Anyway, here is a sign I saw while at a red light earlier today (I didn't have time to snap a photo):

"God love's you."

The Devil's work or just carelessness?

Criminal Sentence 665A: Governing Rules

From the paper:

"As governor, Arizonans will know where I stand."

As governor, I will not write misplaced modifiers!!"

I suppose politicians know more about laws than grammar, but I still feel like complaining about this candidate's statement. 

A few years ago I actually did meet this man because we shared the same trainer and my session was after his sometimes. If I meet him again I'll probably not mention this oops.  

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Criminal Sentence 664: Turn That Bad Grammar Off!

I was sitting in a movie theater and saw this message on the screen:

"Please turn off and refrain from cell phone use."

I am supposed to turn off my cell phone and refrain from cell phone use. I get it but this instruction doesn't quite work. I suppose it sort of makes sense to turn off cell phone use, but it's the cell phone, not the use, that I need to turn off. Plus, it's hard to use a cell phone when it's turned off!

It would be better to ask this:

"Please turn off your cell phone now."

What do you think?

New Grammar Girl episode: Clipping

Sorry the notice is late. This came out a couple weeks ago:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Criminal Sentence 663: Is Abby Getting Married to a Reader's Boyfriend?

Today's Dear Abby concerns a woman who is having boyfriend intimacy problems and Abby is advising the woman to be careful before she considers marrying him. The closing sentence suggests the couple go to a hotel:

"Before agreeing to marry him, I recommend you schedule some time alone together by spending a few romantic weekends at a hotel or motel."

Who would be marrying whom in this sentence?

"Before agreeing to marry him, I ..."

No, not I! "I" is Abby.

Let's rephrase:

"Before you agree to marry him, I recommend you schedule some time alone together by spending a few romantic weekends at a hotel or motel."


"I recommend that before agreeing to marry him, you schedule some time alone together by spending a few romantic weekends at a hotel or motel."

Friday, October 25, 2013

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Criminal Sentence 662: Beable

A dumb typo from a Website:

"Nearly 20% of Americans expect they will never beable to afford to retire, according to a survey by HSBC, a financial services company."

Can those Americans proofread their work?

Monday, October 7, 2013

Criminal Sentence 660: Misplaced ducking

I was disappointed to read this awful sentence in the Wall Street Journal, in an article about how skateboarders are now free to ride around at closed national monuments:

"And now, after years of ducking the national park police that patrol these plazas, this week's closure of public buildings and easing of surveillance offered skaters hope of revisiting their favorite spots."

The problem here is that "this week's closure ... and easing of surveillance" (the subject) does not match up with the modifier at the beginning of the sentence ("after years of ducking the national park police..."). Skaters, not closure/surveillance, have been ducking the police for years.

There's no quick fix here because the sentence is trying to cram in too much. Any volunteers to write two sentences that are more coherent?

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Criminal Sentence 659: Don't Pin People on Your Corkboard!

A sentence from something I'm editing:

"... a large corkboard with notes from clients pinned to it."

I had to chuckle at this, as I imagined some poor clients pinned to his corkboard. The phrase "pinned to it" goes with "notes," not "clients."

Let's unpin them:

"... a large corkboard on which I've pinned notes from clients."

That's a little more formal sounding but a lot less painful for those clients (and for picky editors).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Criminal Sentence 658: The Effects of Bad Spelling

From an article about medicines used to combat stress:

"Unfortunately the side-affects of these drugs are often dangerous ..."

The "side-affects" spelling/unneeded hyphen caused me a teeny blip of stress! (It should be "side effects," with an "e" and no hyphen!)

To keep my cortisol level normal, I shall now meditate, do yoga, go to the gym or discuss the problem with a loved one. I will not sublimate the problem!

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Criminal Sentence 657: Ambiguous "While"

This problem sentence is from the sports section of today's newspaper. Background: the two men's semifinals of the U.S. open were played yesterday. First was Djokovic vs. Wawrinka, and then came Nadal vs. Gasquet. Djokovic (a Serb) won a tough, marathon match, whereas Nadal won fairly easily.

So here is the sentence I am complaining about:

"While the Serb labored, Nadal swept past Richard Gasquet 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-2."

When I first read this sentence, I thought, "Hey, these matches were consecutive, not concurrent!" I had read the word "while" to mean "at the same time as" rather than "although."

Some publishers for whom I edit have a rule that I must change every "while" to "although" (unless the meaning is "at the same time as") and every "since" to "because" (unless "since" is used in a time sense). I oblige them because it is possible to misread the meanings of these words, as happened with the tennis sentence. If we change "while" to "although" here, the sentence no longer is ambiguous:

"Although the Serb labored, Nadal swept past Richard Gasquet 6-4, 7-6 (1), 6-2."

Friday, August 2, 2013

Criminal Sentence 654: Heartwarming Story, Not Heartwarming Grammar

From an online article (about a girl with cancer):

"Tinoco, like so many others, got the opportunity to partner with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and her wish was the same as so many other tennis fans across this globe; she wanted to meet Roger Federer."

The grammar problem concerns this comparison:

"her wish was the same as so many other tennis fans..."

This sentence compares "wish" to "fans." I understand why in casual writing everyone makes this type of mistake, because the two correct ways sound or look weird:

"her wish was the same as that of so many other tennis fans..." (sounds stuffy)

"her wish was the same as so many other tennis fans'..." (apostrophe looks weird)

Still, I prefer the right grammar.

You can avoid the problem by writing it differently:

"she wished for what so many other tennis fans have wanted"

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Criminal Sentence 653: Doubly Bad

A sentence from a newspaper blurb about the high cost of student loans (it's a quote from someone at a financial company):

"It's clear rising student-loan debt and its larger economic impact is affecting how Phoenix residents feel about the value of a college degree."

First, I misread the beginning of this sentence, asking myself, "What is 'clear rising'?" Adding a "that" would solve that problem:

"It's clear that rising student loan debt..."

Some people feel they must delete every extraneous "that." Often, you can, but here I feel that this "that" is necessary. (And my "that" after "feel" is necessary too!)

Second, "rising student loan debt" and "its larger economic impact" seem to be two factors rather than one, so the verb "is" should be "are":

"It's clear that rising student-loan debt and its larger economic impact are affecting..."

Some of you, however, may feel that these two items could be wrapped up together to mean a singular idea. Your thoughts?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Criminal Sentence 652: Involve Yourself in Correct Agreement

From a newspaper article about Plan B:

"The involvement of parents and medical professionals act as a safeguard for these young girls."

This is a classic subject-verb agreement error. The subject is "involvement" (singular) but the verb is "act" (plural). That pesky prepositional phrase ("of parents and medical professionals") got in the way.

The sentence should read as follows:

"The involvement of parents and medical professionals acts as a safeguard for these young girls."

This is still not a great sentence. I would suggest changing it to this:

"By becoming involved, parents and medical professionals act as safeguards for these young girls."

Monday, June 10, 2013

Criminal Sentence 651: Ow! My Brain Hurts!

A typical sentence from something I'm editing:

Ok, the Doctor say's, I'm going to prescribe this anti-inflammatory, this should help you.

No quotation marks.
Incorrect capitalization.
Unneeded apostrophe.
Comma splice.

Owie. I'm too tired to fix it.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Criminal Sentence 650: Three Son's?

As I was on the freeway today, I had the privilege of driving next to a truck with the following business name painted on the side:

"Three Son's Trucking"

I frowned but did not crash.

"Three Son's" is never allowed in English! Or any other language!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Criminal Sentence 649: What is good or bad?

From something I'm editing (about how to create an effective review site):

"Reading actual comments from past customers, good and bad, can be the most influential component on a review site."

The problem here is the "good and bad" phrase. It is supposed to modify "comments" but it sits next to "customers." Perhaps the customers are good; perhaps they are bad. But the writer didn't mean to talk about their character. Let's move the phrase to the right place:

"Reading actual comments, good and bad, from past customers can be the most influential component on a review site."

I might even like to change the commas to em dashes--to make what I'm saying more prominent:

"Reading actual comments--good and bad--from past customers can be the most influential component on a review site."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Criminal Sentence 648: Sweet!

From a book about space travel:

"...the Mojave Dessert facility..."

This sounds awesome! Chocolate at Mojave?

Oops! I guess this is a fun typo! "The Mojave Desert facility" (which refers to the Mojave Air & Space Port) sounds a little less sweet but more accurate.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Criminal Sentence 646: A Man or a Spread of Food?

From today's business section:

"Buffet joins Twitter: Billionaire Warren Buffett..."

Will this Twitter feed provide all-you-can-eat news?

Friday, April 12, 2013

Criminal Sentence 645: Good Monetary News/Bad Grammar News

From a financial institution:

"The expense ratio on several of the funds you hold in this account have changed."

Yeah! Two expense ratios went down.
Boo! Bad grammar.

This should be changed to

"The expense ratios on several of the funds you hold in this account have changed."


"The expense ratio on several of the funds you hold in this account has changed."

And perhaps "on" should be "of" (if you don't mind two cases of "of" in this sentence).

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Criminal Sentence 644: No Pain, No Grain

From a financial document I am editing:

"Within that landscape, we isolate singular investment opportunities for exploitation and capital grain."

Is the grain corn or wheat?

I just had to chuckle at that.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Criminal Sentence 643: Memories of Good Grammar

From a book I'm reading:

"Memories came flooding back of school days long ago."

Does this sentence sound odd to you? It does to me, especially "back of." Funny sounding or not, this sentence violates Strunk and White's Principle of Composition 20: "Keep related words together." The prepositional phrase "of school days long ago" goes with "memories," but the two are quite far away from one another.

Let's bring them back together:

"Memories of school days long ago came flooding back."

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Criminal Sentence 642: Filter Out Bad Grammar

From an article about changing the water filters in your home:

"If not regularly maintained, bacteria can grow in the canisters."

This sentence suggests that homeowners should regularly maintain bacteria. The sentence meant to say that homeowners should regularly maintain the canisters (which contain the filters). Regular readers know that this error is called a misplaced modifier. And they know how much I hate such goofs!

Let's fix the sentence:

"If the canisters are not regularly maintained, bacteria can grow in them."

Now, stop maintaining bacteria in your home and change your water filter today!

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Criminal Sentence 641: What Is a Correct Question Mark?

A headline about Pope Francis:

New pope revives question: What is a "Latino?"

Perhaps it's true that someone of Italian heritage is not a Latino, but it is definitely true that this question mark is in the wrong place. It should be at the end:

What is a "Latino"? 

If the item in quotation marks is a question, the question mark goes inside; otherwise, outside.

Here are two correct examples:

She asked, "What is your name?" ("What is your name" is a question, so the question mark goes inside.)

What is the meaning of "doofus"? ("Doofus" is not a question; the question is the entire sentence, so the question mark goes outside.)


Politicians Can't Spell

From today's paper:

The Republic | Sat Mar 23, 2013 10:43 PM
How do you spell that? ... Apparently spelling is blind to party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans have had a little trouble recently. It happens to the best of us, but some of the flubs were on key message words these politicos might want to pay a little closer attention to next time.
Arizona Democratic Party spokesman Frank Camacho sent out a statement from Acting Executive Director DJ Quinlan talking about “Barrack Obama.” Never good to spell the big boss’ name wrong.
House Speaker Andy Tobin via Twitter commented on the “Medicade Expansion.” If you’re gonna knock it, you’d better first learn to spell it.
The Conservative Business League apparently needs to employ an English teacher. According to the league’s website, its board of directors includes Bob Thomas, one of people behind the recall effort of Democratic Rep. Chad Campbell, and Rod Ludders, who “hales” from Illinois. We’re glad he’s feeling so well.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Criminal Sentence 640: Not Like Flies

From a book about fruit flies:

"Like flies, our memories are initially short-lived..."

This sentence states that our memories are like flies. Perhaps memories buzz and flit about in our heads, but the writer did not mean to say this. He meant to compare the memories of flies with the memories of humans. We can fix this in a number of ways. The two I like best are these:

"Like the memories of flies, our memories are initially short-lived..."
"Like the memories of flies, those of humans are initially short-lived..."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Criminal Sentence 639: A Male What?

According to my DVR, tomorrow's "Project Runway" has the contestants making clothes for a "male review."

I found this to be rather amusing. What are the men going to review?

Ah, someone should have written "male revue," which is a show where men gyrate around. :)

I will review the show as soon as it records!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Criminal Sentence 638: It's Just Lunch

From something I am editing (space related):

"...the demanding requirements of lunching humans into orbit..."

This was part of a very long sentence.

Are lunching humans demanding? I suppose I would demand no mustard but lots of mayo on my sandwich.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Criminal Sentence 637: Fire Experts or Just Experts?

From something I'm editing (an analysis of the Challenger explosion):

"Even so, in trials by fire experts voiced concerns and created opportunities to reconsider."

When I first read this sentence, I thought perhaps it was discussing "fire experts." If that were the case, the sentence would need a subject--who voiced concerns? A comma will clear up any confusion:

"Even so, in trials by fire, experts voiced concerns and created opportunities to reconsider."

Many times, a comma after a short phrase at the beginning of a sentence is unnecessary:

"In January I visited Australia."

If you want to use a comma, though, that's fine too:

"In January, I visited Australia."  

This kind of comma is often optional (unless you're following an in-house style guide that mandates you use one). I personally like to use a comma most of the time in such cases; others may disagree.

In the "fire expert" sentence, though, I feel a comma is necessary because it helps the reader understand the sentence faster.

P.S. This post is about commas, not clichés, but I do not care for the phrase "trial by fire" in this sentence. Perhaps the writer could have thought of something more original.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Criminal Sentence 636: Don't Pour That On Me!

From the book I'm editing: 

"The Simulation Supervisor and his evil team of training personnel would pour over all the procedures and rules."

I was starting to like this sentence because it had a little color (are training personnel over at NASA evil?). Then I got to "pour over." I started humming "Pour Some Sugar on Me," an 80s tune. 

Oh, wait. You didn't mean that someone poured a liquid on the procedures! You meant the people studied the procedures closely: pored. Glad we cleared that up!

Criminal Sentence 635: Take My Advice

This morning, I found another reason to dislike paying bills. This instruction is on the outside of an envelope:

"Enclose the remittance advise with your payment."


"Advise" is a verb, as in "I advise this company to check its spelling."

"Advice" is a noun, as in "Will you give me a discount if I enclose the remittance advice instead of the remittance advise?"

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Criminal Sentence 634: Ooh, excuse me!

From something I am editing (about the Space Shuttle):

"It took 20 months before the engine was capable of a 5-second burp at 100 percent."

A 5-second burp sounds fun--if you're 12!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Chicago Tribune mention--Anyone see the missing quotation mark?

The link doesn't work so well (,0,4792270.story), so here is the text:

By Heidi Stevens, Tribune Newspapers
February 20, 2013
We were going to spend today discussing sequestration, a word springing from the lips of politicians left and right and begging to be more clearly defined.
Then we read Time columnist Joel Stein's explanation, upon which it's impossible to improve: "The situation in which the federal budget will be different if something doesn't something before something."
Which leaves us room to discuss a word springing from the lips of actual people, much to the dismay of other actual people.
The word is "that." For all its banality, "that," has an impressive ability to irk folks.
"My pet peeve is 'that,'" writes Words Work reader Gene Keefe. "'The judge felt that it took too long.' 'The hearing officer ruled that it was too far away.' 'I heard that you are too tall to shoot pool.'"
"Where you have a verb and 'that' after it," Keefe contends, "it makes the sentence longer without any change."
It's a complaint we hear with some regularity, often from readers lamenting an undisciplined wordiness creeping into much of our discourse.
But 'that' has its share of vocal defenders.
Jay Heinrichs, author of "Word Hero: A Fiendishly Clever Guide to Crafting the Lines that Get Laughs, Go Viral, and Live Forever" (Three Rivers Press) and one of our favorite language dudes, calls himself "a that guy."
"'That' does make a sentence longer by an entire, often annoying, syllable," Heinrichs says. "But it serves to pin down the object of a sentence.
"Our unraveling grammar needs all the pins it can get."
Bonnie Trenga, author of "The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier: How to Solve the Mysteries of Weak Writing" (Writer's Digest Books), wrote a blog post titled "When to leave out 'that.'"
Her conclusion? Sometimes.
"Some people think adding 'that' improves the flow of the sentence and makes it easier for the reader to understand," Trenga writes. "Others believe they should delete every seemingly unnecessary 'that' because they want to maintain an economy of words.
"I'm all for cutting unnecessary words," she writes. But I often like to keep my 'that' if it helps the rhythm of the sentence. You'll have to judge whether using 'that' in your particular sentence improves or hurts its flow."
Trenga agitates for 'that' inclusion in the case of "garden path sentences," linguist Steven Pinker's term for sentences that appear to be going in one direction but wind up in another.
"Aardvark maintains Squiggly's yard is too big," Trenga offers as an example.
"Without a 'that,' the reader is initially led to believe that Aardvark maintains, as in mows, Squiggly's yard," she writes. "If you add in a 'that,' it's clear from the beginning that Aardvark just has an opinion: Aardvark maintains that Squiggly's yard is too big."
You could turn to the grammar big guns on this one, but they hardly put the issue to rest.
The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's style guide by which many writers swear, lists as its seventeenth principle of composition: Omit needless words.
In each of Mr. Keefe's sentences, "that" does appear to be pretty needless.
The Associated Press Style Book, on the other hand, argues for keeping the word in your toolbox:
"There are no hard-and-fast rules, but in general:
•That usually may be omitted when a dependent clause immediately follows a form of the verb to say: The president said he had signed the bill.
•That should be used when a time element intervenes between the verb and the dependent clause: The president said Monday that he had signed the bill.
•That usually is necessary after some verbs. They include: advocate, assert, contend, declare, estimate, make clear, point out, propose and state.
•That is required before subordinate clauses beginning with conjunctions such as after, although, because, before, in addition to, until and while: Haldeman said that after he learned of Nixon's intention to resign, he sought pardons for all connected with Watergate.
"When in doubt, include that," AP says. "Omission can hurt. Inclusion never does."
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Copyright © 2013 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Criminal Sentence 633: Nice Broach??

From a weird story about using TP as a fashion accessory:

"Not your grandmother's broach: One model sports an antique pin with a tissued twist while others rock cocktail rings that are simply 'Charmin.'"

The problem here is "broach," which is a verb: He broached the subject at lunch.

The writer meant "brooch," a piece of jewelry.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Criminal Sentence 632: Thrifty vs Spendthrift

From an article about a man who finally started saving for retirement:

"My wife is thrifty and our combined incomes were well over $100,000 a year. With her spendthrift abilities we were able to pay off all of our credit card debts."

I had to laugh at that. He called his wife a spendthrift when he meant to repeat she was thrifty.

Thrifty = saves money well
Spendthrift = wastefully extravagant

Criminal Sentence 631: Less vs Fewer

A headline in today's paper:

"Less New Year fireworks in badly polluted Beijing"

That would need to be "Fewer ... fireworks."

If you can pair "many" with the noun, you use "fewer"; if you pair "much," you use "less."

We'd write "many fireworks," not "much fireworks."

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Criminal Sentence 630: Let's Review Apostrophes!

From something I edited today:

"Our monthly column let's you dress like a star, for a fraction of the cost."

Oh, dear. Let's pretend we aren't using contractions and see how this sentence reads:

"Our monthly column let us you dress like a star, for a fraction of the cost."

Hmmm. That isn't so great. 

Let's = let us
Lets = a verb: He lets me eat as much candy as I want.