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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).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Poll Results 67

Here was the question:

Which punctuation mark do you think takes the most abuse?"

20 (22%)
2 (2%)
41 (46%)
1 (1%)
Exclamation Point
16 (17%)
0 (0%)
3 (3%)
Quotation Marks
2 (2%)
4 (4%)

It seems that the comma won, but I still feel it's the apostrophe.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Criminal Sentence 318: Long movie, misplaced modifier

Well, as you all know, "Avatar" is here. And our friend the misplaced modifier is also here. Both are in the same sentence in my local newspaper:

"But at 2 hours and 42 minutes, the shortcomings gather momentum..."

The shortcomings are 2 hours and 42 minutes long? Yikes!

The new year is coming shortly. Let's all resolve to eliminate misplaced modifiers in 2010 and beyond.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Criminal Sentence 317: Somethings

From a form letter about parent-teacher conferences:

"I have somethings I want to tell you."

Somethings not right here. Somethings amiss at my kids' school.

Later today, I have to buy somegroceries and cook somethingfordinner. As illustrated here, you can't just mush words together like that. True, "something" is a word, but its plural is not, unless you're spooked and are telling me, "There are a few somethings out there."

The note should have said, "I have some things I want to tell you, but we won't be discussing spelling."

Writer Mag Column 14: Ambiguous Sentences

Don't double your meaning: Avoid ambiguous sentences

Other than writing a boring story, the worst thing a writer can do is write a confusing one. Your thoughts swim around in your head, and it's your job to make sure those thoughts come out onto the page in the way you intended. You certainly don't want to write an ambiguous sentence, one that has two or more possible meanings.

An ambiguous sentence leads to two problems. First, your readers have to read your work at least twice in order to get your meaning. Second, your readers may chuckle if your sentence is accidentally amusing. Neither problem endears you to readers. Granted, it's hard to catch your own ambiguous sentences, but don't worry. I have identified four main risk factors that you can watch out for:

1. Sentences with adverbs. If your sentence contains more verbs than adverbs—say, two verbs and one adverb—you'll have to be careful where you put your adverb. If an adverb could attach to either verb, readers could misinterpret your meaning. This Criminal Sentence made me laugh:

I looked at every teenager walking down the road differently.

The writer was trying to say that the "I" of the sentence was looking at teenagers differently, but instead the sentence seems to be saying that every teenager was walking differently. I know I'm getting old, but I think I would have noticed a bunch of teenagers who were walking differently. Anyway, the writer put the adverb in an ambiguous place. Let's make it clear:

I looked differently at every teenager walking down the road.

This sentence is no longer criminal, though I suppose I'm still over the hill.

2. Sentences that contain the word "and." The word "and" joins things together, but sometimes it's not clear which items are being joined. Take this Criminal Partial Sentence, which I saw outside a burger joint:

Burger and peach shake: $2.99

My first reaction to this as I drove by was: Ewww, a shake made with burgers? Of course, I knew that the sign was advertising two items: a shake and a burger. More customers would have stopped in if the sign had been less ambiguous:

Peach shake and a burger: $2.99

That is no longer gross.

Here's another Criminal Sentence that illustrates the problem with "and":

They screamed when he came near them and bolted.

I'm not sure whether the writer means they screamed and then they bolted, or he came near them and then he bolted. Readers can usually puzzle things out based on the context, but don't make your audience do your work for you. Instead, make it clear. Depending on your intended meaning, rewrite:

They screamed and then bolted when he came near them.
They screamed when he first came near them and then bolted.

Readers no longer need to be confused, though I suppose some screaming is in order either way.

3. Sentences that could benefit from a comma. Commas, which separate items, are helpful little guys. In certain cases, if you don't use a comma to separate words, readers will have trouble parsing the sentence. I did a double take when I read this Criminal Sentence:

When we spoke before you gave me most of what I needed.

The word "before" is causing trouble here. Readers could read the sentence as "we spoke before you gave me [something]." If they did, the rest of the sentence would not make sense, so they'd have to back up and reread it. Only then would they realize that "When we spoke before" goes together. A comma would smooth the sentence for readers, saving them from having to wonder what goes with what. Here's a clearer version:

When we spoke before, you gave me most of what I needed.

Here's another Criminal Sentence that I had to read twice:

Besides these kinds of adventures are best shared with friends.

I thought at first that "Besides these kinds of adventures" went together. Nope. "Besides" is just by itself here, and a comma would instantly clarify things:

Besides, these kinds of adventures are best shared with friends.

Friends can share commas, too.

4. Sentences with prepositional phrases. I've complained about prepositional phrases in other columns. They often lead to misplaced modifiers because they come between the noun and the clause modifying it. Sometimes a misplaced prepositional phrase can lead to a sentence that seems ambiguous, as happens in this amusing sentence:

There are letters from Confederate soldiers lying on a Federal desk.

For a minute it appears that soldiers are lying on a desk, but we know that letters, not the soldiers, are. The prepositional phrase "from Confederate soldiers" needs to be put in its place so that "lying on a Federal desk" is not bunched up against "soldiers." Let's be more precise and less humorous:

Letters from Confederate soldiers are lying on a Federal desk.

So, watch for misplaced modifiers like the one in the "soldiers" sentence. But also be aware that even if there's no misplaced modifier, a preposition may attach ambiguously to something, as here:

He complied with bad humor.

"Complied" seems to go alongside "with," as in "He complied with the rules." However, when we get to "bad humor," we realize we are mistaken. "With" goes with "bad humor," not "complied." It would be unambiguous to write it this way:

With bad humor, he complied.

Now that you know some ways to avoid ambiguous sentences, please make these five Criminal Sentences clearer:

1. We found the address that he gave me without difficulty.
2. A backpack with a laptop and a vaccination card was recovered.
3. All autumn essays floated into my computer inbox.
4. But I know for sure that unless we try our chances will be zero.
5. He's been tracking criminals with a microscope for quite a number of years.

Send your unambiguous rewrites to and I'll check if you've avoided double trouble.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Criminal Sentence 316: Inquiring minds

An instruction on a tutoring Web site (I tutor grammar and writing):

"If your holiday plans will prevent you from responding to student inquires, please temporarily change your account status."

This is why Spell Check is useless.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Criminal Sentence 315: Newsworthy misspelling

From CNN yesterday:

"France returns artefacts to Egypt"

News is ever-changing, but spelling isn't. The word is "artifacts."

Monday, December 14, 2009

Poll Results 66

This was the question:

"This holiday season, are you planning to give a gift on grammar or writing?"

Yes, I want all of my friends and relatives to brush up on grammar.
4 (10%)
No, but only because I'm the only grammar nerd in my family.
17 (44%)
No, but I'm going to treat myself to something in that genre.
17 (44%)
No, I'm not that interested in grammar after all.
0 (0%)

Well, I'm glad that you're all still interested in grammar.

Ho ho ho.

Friday, December 11, 2009

New Grammar Girl Episode: The Difference between Who and Whom

Criminal Sentence 314: Hyphen help

From a book I just finished:

"[The company] wants each new employee evaluated at thirty, sixty, and ninety-day intervals..."

When you have a compound adjective such as "ninety-day," you need a hyphen, as the author so nicely included. You also need a hyphen with the other numbers since they all modify "intervals": thirty-, sixty-, and ninety-day intervals."

The beginning two hyphens seem to just be hanging there, but they're waiting to be partnered up with "day" later in the sentence. You could repeat "day" three times, but that wouldn't sound so good.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Criminal Sentence 313: A sitting tree

From a book I read recently:

"Sitting in the snow, the tree before him seemed tall and it seemed to lean toward him."

I suppose trees can sit, but I think the character was the one getting a cold rear end. It's just a quick fix: "As he sat in the snow, the tree..."

I would also like to harp about the unnecessary repetition of the word "seemed."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Criminal Sentence 312: Including repetitiveness

From something I edited recently:

"Several actions have been taken with great success including (but not limited to)..."

Well, if this isn't wordy and repetitive, I don't know what is. This is the worst kind of blather.

The word "include" by definition means you're giving a partial list, so you don't need to say it again and repeat it again (just kidding there).

This sentence is also passive. Why not say who did what exactly?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Criminal Sentence 311: Sick Doctor's Message

A sentence I heard while on hold for the doc's office:

"Our philosophy and goal is 100% satisfaction."

I had to cringe at that. But it's a common enough problem: a simple case of mismatch. When there is a single item, use a singular verb; when you have more than one, use a plural verb. So writers just need to ask themselves, "How many items am I talking about?" Here, the answer is two, so we need a plural verb:

"Our philosophy and goal are 100% satisfaction."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Poll Results 65

Here was the question:

How many things are wrong here? "With more value than ever, you’ll find unbeatable deals in every section on everything from travel and entertainment to fashion, grocery and more."

Definitely one
8 (9%)
Definitely two
16 (19%)
Two if you're picky
6 (7%)
Definitely three
31 (37%)
Three if you're picky
21 (25%)

Let's have a look:
Definite error 1: "With more value than ever, you'll..." "You" does not have more value than ever. That's a misplaced modifier.
Definite error 2: "...unbeatable deals in every section on everything..." Another misplaced modifier. The words "in every section" are in the way. This part of the sentence should read "unbeatable deals on everything."
Potential error: The phrasing "everything from travel and entertainment to fashion, grocery and more" is questionable. You could argue that the "and more" section is wordy and unnecessary, but technically it's not wrong. It would probably be better to say, "everything from travel and entertainment to fashion and grocery."
Congrats to 25% of you.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Criminal Sentence 310: Apostrophe abuse

From a Web site:

"If the cyst is small, its' rupture usually occurs unnoticed."

This is an apostrophe violation!

"Its" is a possessive adjective, as in "Its tail is wagging."
"It's" is a contraction of the words "it is," as in "It's raining/It is raining."
"Its'" is not a word.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Writer Mag Column 13: Three Grammar Myths Part 2

Ditch imaginary grammar rules, part 2

My last column dealt with three invented grammar rules, and I showed you why you don't need to follow them blindly. I want to clear up more misconceptions about grammar, so without further ado, here are three more fake rules.

Fake Rule 1: You must always use a comma before the last item in a series.

Punctuation rules are cut and dried. You must put a period at the end of a sentence. An end parenthesis is required if you've used a beginning one. And so on.

Punctuation rules are also complicated, but there's one rule you don't have to worry about anymore. It's called the serial comma, and it's not a rule but a style choice. Although The Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style tell you to use a comma before the last item in a series of three or more items, you really don't have to. If, for example, you're writing that your character was wearing a hat, a purple necktie and a pair of shiny shoes, no comma is required after the word "necktie." Of course you can put one there if you want, but it's not mandatory.

Two caveats:

1) Once you've chosen which style you like, you need to be consistent. This means that if you prefer to use the serial comma, you should use it at all times, not just sometimes. If you prefer not to use it, then don't.

2) If readers could become confused by your list, use a comma before the last item—even if you are consistently not using the serial comma. Although you will no longer be 100 percent consistent, you'll be 100 percent clear.

For example, let's say you're writing about two married couples (Olivia/Ben and June/Chris) and a single woman (Jennifer) who had dinner together. It might be hard to tell who is with whom if you don't use the serial comma:

Olivia and Ben, June and Chris and Jennifer met at the restaurant.

If you want to make it clear that Jennifer arrived alone, you should add the serial comma:

Olivia and Ben, June and Chris, and Jennifer met at the restaurant.

Fake Rule 2: You're not allowed to use "since" to mean "because"; nor are you allowed to use "while" to mean "although."

Well, you can. Most of the time. Strict grammarians may not like it, but "since" and "because" can be synonyms, as can "while" and "although." My dictionary confirms it. Since we don't want to absentmindedly do away with perfectly good synonyms, let's keep them around. Here are some perfectly good sentences with "since" and "while":

"Since I love you, let's get married," he said.
"While I love you, too, I don't want to commit," she answered.

This conversation would be just as sad with "because" and "although":

"Because I love you, let's get married," he said.
"Although I love you, too, I don't want to commit," she answered.

Fussy grammarians might be a teensy bit right in some cases, though. "Since" and "while" do have other meanings, and you need to ensure you don't write an ambiguous sentence. You'll often use "since" to refer to how much time has passed, as here:

Since yesterday, all I've thought about is you.

You couldn't use the synonym "because" in that sentence. The same goes for "while" when you mean "at the same time as":

I thought about you while I was moping around.

"Although" would not make sense there.

Sometimes, readers may be unsure which sense of the word you mean, and that is when you should avoid using "since" and "while" to mean "because" and "although." The following two sentences could be interpreted in two ways:

Since they spoke, she's had second thoughts about her answer. ("Since" could mean "from the time that" or "because.")
While I loved her, she was not good to me. ("While" could mean "during the time that" or "although.")

Therefore, in cases where readers could interpret your meaning in two ways, stick with "because" or "although."

Fake Rule 3: You're not allowed to use "over" instead of "more than."

No actual grammatical rule states that "over" cannot be used instead of "more than" to mean "in excess of." It seems that some grammarians object to "over" simply because they're used to doing so. It's just a tradition, and it's time to break it.

Go ahead and choose whichever one sounds better in your particular sentence. For example, you could say you ran "over a mile" or you ran "more than a mile." Either way, you'd be a bit tired. You could also say the price is "not over $5" or "not more than $5." In these cases, either choice sounds fine.

Other times, one or the other will sound better. With ages, "over" usually sounds more natural:

Unfortunately, I am now over 39. (Not “I am now more than 39.”)

On the other hand, “more than” sounds better than “over” in this sentence:

His salary went up more than $1,000 a month. (That's quite an achievement, and it sounds more natural than “His salary went up over $1,000 a month.”)

In these last two columns, you've seen that it can be fun to ignore grumpy grammarians. From now on, though, I'll probably return to being a bit grumpy myself. I hope you won't ignore me!

Criminal Sentence 309: Where there's a "will" there's a way

From today's forecast in the paper:

"Day will start cool but warm up by afternoon"

Sounds a bit odd, doesn't it? I think it will sound much better with an extra "will":

"Day will start cool but will warm up by afternoon"

There was definitely space on the line.

Now that's a sunny forecast.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Criminal Sentence 308: Coffee with No Apostrophe II

Places that sell coffee apparently need help with their apostrophes (see this previous post). Here's another coffee-related apostrophe error:

Wish for good coffee at the in-laws

Let's pretend for a second that we're not wishing for good coffee at this place but rather at my house. How would we write it?

Wish for good coffee at Bonnie's

Note the apostrophe. So where does an apostrophe go in the original sentence? The apostrophe goes at the end of a plural noun, which in this case is "in-laws":

Wish for good coffee at the in-laws'

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Commas in nouns of address

A reader sent me this funny story:

My friend is doing a birthday party for her husband. She just now phoned me from the bakery. She wanted them to put the following on the cake:

Happy 80th Birthday, Bill

They were trying to tell her that they NEVER put a comma after the word “birthday” in something like that. They were being a bit obstinate about it, so Sharon called the “official Grammarian of Grossmont High School” (even if I am retired).

Well, of course, I told her, “Put that comma there, Baby! You’re 100% correct. “Bill” is a noun of direct address, and nouns of direct address are always set off by commas!

Ah, the beat goes on………

and I replied:

well good for you!!!!

Did you hear the rest of the story yet??

I think this is what they put on the cake:

Happy 80th Birthday comma Bill

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.