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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, May 30, 2008

Criminal Sentence 27: Misplaced While Traveling

From a newspaper article about a young girl captured by Indians in the 1850s:

"While traveling west in 1851, American Indians attacked her family near Gila Bend."

The Indians were already in the west, so it was her family who was traveling there. The sentence should read:

"While traveling west in 1851, her family was attacked by American Indians near Gila Bend."

This corrected sentence is in the passive voice, which you might want to avoid, so here's another way to express this same idea:

"While she and her family were traveling west in 1851, American Indians attacked them near Gila Bend."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Criminal Sentence 26: Don't Run On

From a water bottle I drank at the ballpark last night:

"We can all make a difference, please recycle."

Good sentiment; bad punctuation. This sentence is really two sentences that should be separated with a period, not a comma:

"We can all make a difference. Please recycle."

You can't put two complete thoughts together with just a comma. Wrong;

I love you, will you marry me?
He ate too much cake, he got a tummy ache.


I love you. Will you marry me?
He ate too much cake. He got a tummy ache.
He ate too much cake, so he got a tummy ache.
He ate too much cake and got a tummy ache.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Criminal Sentence 25: Hyphens II

From an ad in the paper:

"There's never been a better time to save on our locally-made custom furniture."

When you have an -ly adverb, such as locally, you don't need to join it up to the following word with a hyphen. You need just a space. If it's another adverb, such as well, then you would use a hyphen:

I want to buy some well-made furniture.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Criminal Sentence 24: Hi (Or Bye), Hyphen

At the deli counter:

"Place your order now and it will be ready for you in 15-minutes."

No hyphen necessary!

If you use a descriptive phrase directly before a noun, then you need a hyphen:

The 15-minute movie was too short.

Compare these examples, with correct hyphens:

The 38-year-old was a copy editor.
The copy editor was 38 years old.
It took 25 minutes to go shopping.
The 25-minute shopping trip was fun.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Criminal Sentence 23: Crazy Comparison

From an article lamenting how American Airlines is charging for checked bags:

"Like its competitors, skyrocketing fuel costs have put the carrier's balance sheet in a vise."

This sentence compares "competitors" to "fuel costs," not what the writer intended. When you start a sentence with "Like," be sure that what follows the comma is what you're comparing. Here are a couple ways to rewrite this sentence:

Like its competitors, the carrier is facing financial difficulties due to skyrocketing fuel costs.


Skyrocketing fuel costs have put the carrier's balance sheet--as well as those of its competitors--in a vise.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Criminal Sentence 22: Shorten When You Have the Ability (When You Can)

From a brochure about printing:

"We have the ability to print on a wide variety of coated and uncoated stocks."

The phrases "have the ability to" and "are able to" are both wordy ways of saying "can." One of your goals when you are writing should be to use the fewest number of words, so I discourage you from using these two phrases. I prefer "can":

"We can print on a wide variety of coated and uncoated stocks."

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Criminal Sentence 21: Not Her's

From an online book review I saw this morning:

"I'm a big fan of her's."

I'm not a big fan of that. "Her's" is not a word. "Hers" is a possessive adjective, and possessive adjectives do not use apostrophes. Other possessives, such as Jake's or the teacher's, do.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Criminal Sentence 20: Nasty Nominalization

From a book I was reading last night:

"I knew I was wasting time, crouched in a bush being gradually covered by snow, listening to spirits, but slowly the conviction grew that there was someone breathing, not all that far from me."

I object to this part: "the conviction grew that..." First off, the "that" clause should be next to "conviction." This is a misplaced modifier, and I've already discussed this problem. The cause of this particular misplaced modifier is the word "conviction." This is called a nominalization. Lots of words that end in "-tion" are nominalizations, so watch out for them and try not to use them. They are vague nouns that allow the writer to omit who is doing what. We know from the beginning of this sentence that "I" is doing all the action/thinking here. If you continue using "I," you avoid the misplaced modifier and the nominalization:

"...slowly I became convinced that..."

I rail against nominalizations in my book and in my first column for Writer's Digest. Help me eradicate them: learn what they are and vow not to use them!


Friday, May 16, 2008

Criminal Sentence 19: Including What?

From something I just edited about a zoo:

"The zoo will be divided into six 'biozones,' including the Guyana Forest, the African Equatorial Forest, the Sahelo-Sudan Savannah, Patagonia, Madagascar and Europe."

The first part of the sentence tells us there are six biozones. Then the sentence lists all six. You can't use the word "including" because you're listing them all. If you want to use "including," you have to give an incomplete list. This is a complete list, so you need to use a colon:

"The zoo will be divided into six 'biozones': the Guyana Forest, the African Equatorial Forest, the Sahelo-Sudan Savannah, Patagonia, Madagascar and Europe."

In a similar vein, I often see sentences such as this:

"The attributes of the vehicle include five-speed transmission, scratch-resistant paint and more."

Please don't use "include" along with "and more" in the same sentence. That is redundant. Just say this:

"The attributes of the vehicle include five-speed transmission and scratch-resistant paint."

Remember that when you use "include," by definition you're giving an incomplete list.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Criminal Sentence 18: Compound Confusion

From something I edited. The writer was discussing how he was able to lobby the Legislature successfully:

"Showing flexibility and being willing to compromise was an important step in getting this legislation passed."

"Showing flexibility" and "being willing to compromise" form a compound subject, which requires a plural verb. In addition, the writer is discussing two steps, not one. The sentence should read like this:

"Showing flexibility and being willing to compromise were important steps in getting this legislation passed."

If you use an "and," check that you're using a plural verb.

I still dislike the corrected sentence because it never states who is getting the legislation passed. Although we know "I" did it, it would be better to state that:

I showed flexibility and was willing to compromise, both pivotal qualities a lobbyist needed to get this legislation passed.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Criminal Sentence 17: Soundalikes

Not a sentence but criminal all the same.

On the menu at my daughter's school:

Green beens

"Bean" sounds like "been," but "beens" isn't a word!

Another one I saw on a sign outside a drugstore:

Summer Sandles

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Criminal Sentence 16: Another Misplaced Modifier

These are so common that I could put one here every day.

From an article about bike helmets:

"The accident has left the boys' mothers with new concerns about the vast number of kids on wheels they see without helmets."

I object to "wheels they see without helmets." This implies the writer is seeing something but not wearing a helmet. "Without helmets" belongs with "kids." A lot of information is crammed in this sentence, so that's why this misplaced modifier escaped the writer's notice. You need to rewrite the sentence so all the parts fit together correctly:

The accident has left the boys' mothers concerned because they see so many kids who don't wear helmets when they're on wheels.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Criminal Sentence 15: The Art of No Typos

From a movie synopsis (Redbelt) in the paper:

"Chiwetel Ejiofor is outstanding as an honorable marital-arts teacher...."

This is a funny typo: marital arts instead of martial arts. And this error is why you should be careful not to rely on Spell Check. In my head I file pairs (or trios) of words that I often see mixed up. Then when I see one of them, I do a double take to ensure the right one is there.
I wrote about this topic in one of my Writer's Digest articles. Here's my favorite line from my article: "Butt, dew knot re-lie on Spell Check too fined yore miss-takes!"

Friday, May 9, 2008

Criminal Sentence 14: Overusing quotation marks

From an ad for male incontinence (which I read with great interest! Actually it was a huge headline, so I noticed it):

Up at night having to "go"?

No quotation marks necessary. Sometimes writers like to highlight a word that is somewhat colloquial by using quotation marks, but you don't need to do that. If you want to highlight something, all caps, italics or underlining might be appropriate. But use sparingly!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Criminal Sentence 13: Vague Subjects

From an online map service:

"When using any driving directions or map, it's a good idea to do a reality check and make sure the road still exists, watch out for construction, and follow all traffic safety precautions."

This is a typical misplaced modifier that involves a vague subject. The sentence starts off with "When using" but fails to state the implied subject: "you." As a result, what comes after the comma ("it") inadvertently--and incorrectly--becomes the subject of the sentence. It would be better to write "When you're using..."

In my book I call these "vague -ing" words. They're very common but no other writing book I've found covers them. Please be extra careful when you start a sentence like this. Always ensure that you state who is doing what.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Criminal Sentence 12: The Sport of Finding Missing Apostrophes

Today, my newspaper's Sports section displays a lack of much-needed apostrophes. I read just two articles, one on basketball and one on baseball.

Basketball headline: Suns door all but closed to D'Antoni
Baseball headline: Diamondbacks relievers getting job done

Within these articles: Suns management
Diamondbacks starter Randy Johnson

In all of these cases, I believe there should be an apostrophe at the end: Suns' door, Diamondbacks' relievers, etc. The question here is if "Suns" and "Diamondbacks" are nouns or adjectives. In the sentence "The Diamondbacks won," Diamondbacks is a noun. In the sentence "The Diamondbacks' win was expected," it is an adjective. Therefore, you need an apostrophe. One way I use to check my apostrophes is to temporarily use an "of": "management of the Suns" (Suns' management). "Pet of the teacher" (teacher's pet).

It can't be a coincidence that the writers left out so many apostrophes. Perhaps they're doing it on purpose. I'm going to ask the editor of the Sports section why. If he answers, I'll let you know his response.

A few hours later...
Well, the Sports editor was kind enough to answer. It's AP style not to use an apostrophe in a phrase like "the Diamondbacks reliever." Doesn't mean I like it, though.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Criminal Sentence 11: Watch Your Backside

From a sales letter I edited recently:

"Complete enrollment instructions are provided on the backside."

"Back side" (two words) means the reverse side. "Backside" (one word) means rear end.


Monday, May 5, 2008

Criminal Sentence 10: Pour vs. Pore

This is an especially egregious example because it comes from the acknowledgments in a grammar book. The author is thanking his copy editor:

"She poured over each page of the manuscript with youthful laughter, unwavering encouragement, and sage advice."

After I got over the shock of reading this, I had to laugh youthfully.

"To pour over" is to dispense liquid on top of something or someone. "To pore over" is to study something carefully.

Please pore over your writing and proofread, or I'll have to come pour something over you!

Friday, May 2, 2008

Criminal Sentence 9: Crazy Caps

From an ad in today's newspaper:

"All Prices slashed for Immediate liquidation."

Capital letters indicate you're starting a sentence or using a proper name. A proper name is a city's name, or a product's name, or a person's name, for example. "Prices" and "Immediate" are not proper names, so these words should start with a lowercase letter. I often see this random use of caps, perhaps an attempt to make words stand out.

I find It rather Annoying. And I wish Writers would Stop doing it.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Criminal Sentence 8: Recipe for a Misplaced Modifier

From a recipe for the mushroom spread I made yesterday:

"Before pureeing, this combination makes a fine filling for turnovers."

According to this sentence, "this combination" is going to be doing some pureeing. Oops. This is a misplaced modifier, which I complain about in my book and in my upcoming Writer's Digest column (coming in the next issue). When you start a sentence with a phrase like "Before pureeing," whatever comes next is what goes with it. The sentence structure is messed up here, so you need to state who is doing the pureeing. You can rewrite this in a number of ways. I like this sentence:

"If you want to use this combination as a yummy filling for turnovers, don't puree it."