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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, August 29, 2008

Criminal Sentence 85: Compound Subjects

From an article about surgery:

"The number and size of the incisions depends on the surgery and equipment needed."

There are two subjects here ("number" and "size")--a compound subject--but a singular verb ("depends"). Compound subjects contain an "and," so if you are connecting two items with an "and," you need a plural verb. It's easy to forget about the first part of the compound subject, so that's why this is such a common error.

Here's the rewrite:

"The number and size of the incisions depend on the surgery and equipment needed."

Thursday, August 28, 2008

A Punctuation Encounter

So yesterday I was in the store and couldn't resist buying some mints, partly because they were made by York, of Peppermint Patty fame, and partly because of the sale price: one of my favorite errors, .99c. Now of course I knew the store meant the price to be 99c, not almost 1c. I decided to do some research when I reached the cashier. I wanted to see if I could point out an error politely and if I would get a positive response from a store employee.

I prepared the cashier by telling him I was going to say something that would probably sound odd to him. I then told him I was excited to see these mints for under 1 cent. He looked at me blankly and I could tell he thought I was crazy. I pushed on. I explained that the price tag indicated point 99 cents, less than 1 cent. He again stared at me blankly and asked if I wanted the mints for one cent. I told him that I didn't but that my goal was to inform him and the store about the mistake. He rang the mints up as if I hadn't said anything and then said in the normal dull fashion, "Have a nice day."

So I apparently failed to get him excited about this mistake. However, I did my best to be polite and not become incensed. In the past I have pointed out a few errors in stores but have never gotten the response I was hoping for. I guess it's futile. I'll just go crawl back to my stack of style guides.

See this post about prices.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Criminal Sentence 84: Site vs. Sight

From a blog writer who was lamenting she had gotten too caught up in publicity:

"I had gotten so caught up in the ego of the blog that I lost site of my true role."

This is a common type of mistake that I've covered before. In this sentence, the writer meant "sight" instead of "site." I guess the writer was thinking about Web sites when she was writing her post.

It's hard to catch yourself making a mistake like this, so beware of similar-sounding words.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Criminal Sentence 83: Overused Quotation Marks

From an article about solar water heaters:

Incentive amounts vary, with a "typical" incentive being about $2,000.

For some reason, this writer wanted to highlight the word "typical," so he put it in quotation marks. However, when you want to highlight something, you're supposed to use italics or perhaps underlining. This sentence would be better with no quotation marks. In this case, I don't see the need for italics or underlining. This just seems like a normal sentence.

You use quotation marks to quote what someone says, or to indicate you're taking liberties with your description. For example, if you say, He was "a woman," then he really isn't a woman, but perhaps he is dressed up that way or affecting a high voice.

Many times I see the word free in quotation marks, as in Your next meal is "free." This actually means not free.

So, if you want to highlight something, don't use quotation marks. Use italics or underlining, or perhaps reword the sentence.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Poll Results 1

So thanks to all 46 readers who voted on the poll. It seems that long sentences won.
I dedicated a whole chapter to this topic. In short (or should I say, in long), several words come up in overly long sentences. If you see one or more of these words in your sentence, and if your sentence is more than around 40 words, then you might have an overly long sentence:
In addition, if you have lots of commas or a set or two of em dashes, then your sentence might be too long.
Do your best to break up long sentences because readers find them hard to follow.

Friday, August 22, 2008

"Typo Vigilantes"

An interesting article from my local paper:

Criminal Sentence 82: Hyphens or Em Dashes

A reader, Eric, has a question about em dashes:
This sentence is from this article published today on

When Politico reporters working on a story about Obama's law review presidency earlier this year asked if he had written for the review, a spokesman responded accurately - but narrowly - that "as the president of the Law Review, Obama didn't write articles, he edited and reviewed them."

What I'm wondering about is the use of the hyphens (rather than dashes) to offset the phrase "but narrowly."
Eric is right that you shouldn't substitute hyphens for em dashes, but it is a fairly common sight. These particular hyphens have spaces around them, so they are not confusing. Sometimes, though, I see hyphens instead of em dashes but with no spaces, and it can get confusing. Here's an example of a confusing sentence:

I saw a lion-eating a banana!-at the zoo.

Since a hyphen links words together, this first hyphen seems to link "lion" and "eating."

If you must use hyphens instead of em dashes (not recommended but sometimes unavoidable since the keyboard doesn't have an em dash key), please double them up (as in --) or put spaces around them. In Word you can set the program to create an em dash when you type two hyphens.

If you'd like to review what I said about em dashes, see CS 56.

Thanks for your question, Eric.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Criminal Sentence 81: Where to Put Descriptions

From a review of a restaurant:

"The egg rolls arrived first, cool spring rolls in opaque wontons, stuffed with shrimp and fresh crunchy vegetables."

And later in the same article:

"A huge bowl of beef noodle soup is easily shared, packed with delicate rice noodles and slices of beef."

Both of these sentences contain descriptions that I feel are in the wrong place. The descriptive parts should be right next to the noun they're describing, so here are the sentences as I think they should be:

"The egg rolls, cool spring rolls in opaque wontons, stuffed with shrimp and fresh crunchy vegetables, arrived first."
"A huge bowl of beef noodle soup, packed with delicate rice noodles and slices of beef, is easily shared."
Even better, we can remove the passive voice in the second sentence:
"You and a friend can easily share a huge bowl of beef noodle soup, which is packed with delicate rice noodles and slices of beef."

When you describe something, make sure you put the description next to what you're describing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Criminal Sentence 80: "-ly" Adverbs

A common mistake I see:

"That is a poorly-worded sentence."

In this sentence, you don't need a hyphen. Normally you would use a hyphen to link up words that join up to modify a noun, as in "well-worded sentence," but here you don't need one because the "-ly" in the adverb ("poorly") automatically links up with the next word.

So, hyphens are usually good, but in this case one is not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Criminal Sentence 79: "Heighth" Is Not a Word

Overheard on the Olympic broadcast:

"She reaches an incredible heighth."

I've heard this before. I cringed then and I cringed just now. Nevertheless, I can see why people think it's a word:
Adjective=Long; Noun=Length
Adjective=Wide; Noun=Width
Adjective=High; Noun does not equal Heighth

"Height" is the correct word.

At these Olympics, we've reached new heights, but we haven't invented a new word: "heighth."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Criminal Sentence 78: Parallel Sentences

From a sentence about the Olympics:

"Phelps has seven gold medals in seven tries, compiled six world records and has a chance to trump the great Mark Spitz in his last race."

Of course, it's eight gold medals now.

Anyway, this sentence is not parallel. All the parts of a parallel sentence need to match each other. For example, verb, verb, verb or adjective, adjective, adjective. In this sentence, these are the three parts: "has," "compiled" and "has." (Technically, main verb, past participle, main verb.) There are only two cases of "has," whereas three are needed. The missing "has" is in the middle. Just add a "has" and it's all fixed:

"Phelps has seven gold medals in seven tries, has compiled six world records and has a chance to trump the great Mark Spitz in his last race."

You guys are in luck, because my upcoming article in Writer's Digest magazine is on this very topic. It should be on newsstands in about six weeks.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Criminal Sentence 77: Passive vs. Active Voice

Today there's no specific criminal sentence, but I thought I'd go over what passive voice and active voice are. Passive voice is generally not what you want; active voice is.

Passive voice: The book was dropped.
Active voice: So and so dropped the book.

In this passive sentence, we didn't state who dropped the book. Now, if the focus is on the book, then it's less important to state who did it. Most of the time, however, it's clear who did what, so it's better to state it so readers don't have to guess.

Passive voice: The table was set by my son.
Active voice: My son set the table.

Passive voice has three components:
A form of the verb to be: "was" in the sentence above
A past participle: "set" in the sentence above
The word "by"

My book goes over this in detail and gives you a chance to rewrite a few passive paragraphs.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Criminal Sentence 76: Colon or Semicolon?

From something I edited yesterday:

"A mailing can take many forms; letter, postcard, brochure."

I often see a semicolon instead of a colon. A colon introduces something, whereas a semicolon separates elements to a greater degree than a comma. Here are some examples:

Colon: "A mailing can take many forms: letter, postcard, brochure." (Introducing a list)
Comma: "I have an aunt, an uncle, and a grandma." (Separating a simple list)
Semicolon: "I have an aunt, Betty; an uncle, Saul; and a grandma, Martha." (Separating a more complex list that also contains commas)
Semicolon: "I have an aunt; on the other hand, you do not." (Separating two complete sentences that are linked to some degree)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Criminal Sentence 75: Using "the"

From something I just edited:

"London is currently the most expensive city in the world according to the Swiss Bank, UBS."

This sentence makes it sound as if there is only one Swiss bank, whose name is UBS. I don't believe this is the case. I'm sure there are many Swiss banks. Therefore, you need to ditch the "the" and the comma:

"London is currently the most expensive city in the world according to Swiss bank UBS."

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Criminal Sentence 74: Ambiguous Sentence

From something I edited recently:

"Here are four superior examples of boutiques with a single designer producing clothing that is made in France."

The words that got me temporarily confused are "designer" next to "producing." For a moment I thought a hyphen should be between them, but then I realized that wasn't right. To avoid sentences that might be ambiguous, I recommend using a "that" or "who" clause instead of the "-ing" form:

"Here are four superior examples of boutiques with a single designer who produces clothing that is made in France."

No ambiguity there.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Criminal Sentence 73: Do Elite Athletes Have Wings?

Said by an Olympic announcer about a swimmer:

"He has an incredibly wide wingspan."

Sure, he flew down the pool, but I didn't see any wings. I don't want to ruffle any feathers, but it would probably be better to say he has a wide "armspan," although my dictionary doesn't say that is a word. Perhaps, "he has very long arms."

Friday, August 8, 2008

Criminal Sentence 72: Teacher's, Please Pay Attention

From a sign in my child's second-grade classroom:

"Parent's don't forget to let me know how your child is getting home."

We just had Meet the Teacher night last night, and this does not bode well. My son's teacher has been at this school for 18 years and looks like she's been teaching for longer. I'm sure these mistakes were just careless. Nevertheless, how can kids learn the right way if the teacher doesn't do it right?

Now, this sentence has two punctuation errors.
1. This is obvious, and I can't believe a teacher would make this mistake:
"parent's." No possessive here. Just a plural noun: "parents."
2. This error is less obvious. When you address someone, you put a comma after the name or title: Bonnie, please check my apostrophe's. (ha ha) So this should be "Parents, don't forget..." Without the comma, it is just a statement: "Parents don't forget" but maybe teachers forget how to use punctuation.

So, teacher's, parent's and childre'n, please pay attention!

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Continuing from CS 69: Restrictive vs. Nonrestrictive

CS 69 has raised the complicated issue of restricted vs. nonrestricted.
Here's an example of each kind:
Restrictive: You are not allowed to wear shirts that are loud.
Here, the restrictive phrase is "that are loud." It limits, or restricts, what kind of shirt you're talking about. It is necessary information. The meaning of the sentence changes if you don't include this phrase:
You are not allowed to wear shirts.

Nonrestrictive: The screenwriter's brother, Jonathan, helped write the script.
Here, the nonrestrictive part is "Jonathan," which is surrounded by commas. The meaning of the sentence doesn't change if you leave it out; you lose just additional information:
The screenwriter's brother helped write the script.

In summary, restrictive means necessary to the meaning, and you don't use commas. Nonrestrictive means nonessential--extra--information, and you do surround the phrase in commas.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Criminal Sentence 71: Hoard vs. Horde

From a book I finished yesterday:

"Hoards of new people were moving in."

A hoard is a stash: a hoard of money, for example.
A horde means a large group: a horde of angry grammarians

These words sound alike but have different meanings. Watch your spelling!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Criminal Sentence 70: Another Lovely Misplaced Modifier

From an article about a famous person diagnosed with cancer:

"Benefiting from early detection through a doctor-ordered MRI, the cancer is not life-threatening."

I don't think the cancer is benefiting from early detection (if the cancer had feelings, it would probably be sad to be thwarted). Rather, it is the person who is benefiting:

"She has benefited from early detection through a doctor-ordered MRI, so the cancer is not life-threatening."

I have two other gripes about this sentence: "life-threatening" does not need a hyphen, and "detection" is a nominalization. Anyone want to try to reword it? It could be one or two sentences.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Criminal Sentence 69: Appositives with Commas

From the same badly written article about "The Dark Knight":

"The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother Jonathan is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil..."

At least one comma is missing--maybe two. An appositive is essential information that describes something. The "Dark Knight" sentence is giving more information about the screenplay. It was "penned with Nolan's brother Jonathan," so you need a comma after Jonathan (you enclose the appositive around commas). Now the second potential appositive is about the family relationships. If Nolan has only one brother, his name, Jonathan, is essential information. I don't know how many brothers he has, though.

So, if he has one brother, the sentence should read:

"The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother, Jonathan, is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil..."

If he has more than one brother:

"The screenplay, penned with Nolan's brother Jonathan, is a heavy, heady piece about good and evil..."

Friday, August 1, 2008

Criminal Sentence 68: "That" or "Who"?

From an article about the movie "The Dark Knight":

"[The movie] explores the community that cheers for the hero that operates outside or above the law."

The second "that" is incorrect, since "hero" is a person and you refer to people as "who":

"the hero who..."