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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, January 30, 2009

Talking about Disabilities: Grammar Girl Episode

Criminal Sentence 161: School Gets it Doubly Wrong

Two errors from a one-page newsletter sent home from my son's elementary school:

"Lets make 2009 an active and healthy year!" (apostrophe missing)

"Any student who would like to raise money for the American Heart Association, may do so by bringing in donations during the week of Jump Rope for the Heart." (unnecessary comma)

Are schools exempt from promoting good punctuation? No.

Am I personally going to have to teach my children good punctuation? Yes, because I can't rely on the schools.

Sad, huh?

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Criminal Sentence 160: Groucho on Grammar

A famous joke from Groucho Marx:

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got into my pajamas I'll never know.”

Does anyone know why this is funny? It's all because of a misplaced modifier: "in my pajamas." What is in pajamas? Not the elephant! If you wanted to take all the humor out of it and make it grammatically correct, here's how it would go:

"One morning, when I was in my pajamas, I shot an elephant."

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Criminal Sentence 159: Verb, Verb Verb; Parallel, Parallel, Parallel

From a book I am reading:

"He was in his eighties, quite deaf, and seemed in poor health."

This is a classic unparallel sentence. He was description, description, and description; not he was description, description, and verb. Or, he was verb, verb, verb.

You can fix this sentence in various ways:

"He was in his eighties, was quite deaf, and seemed in poor health."
"He was in his eighties, quite deaf, and seemingly in poor health."
"In his eighties, he was quite deaf and seemed in poor health."
And so on...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Criminal Sentence 158: The Meaning of Subject-Verb Agreement

From a book I'm reading:

"The meaning of these words aren’t known."

From the look of things, the meaning of grammar aren't known either.

Take away the prepositional phrase and the criminal sentence reads like this:

"The meaning ... aren't known."

Oops: "ISN'T known."

The moral of this story is know your subject and then know your verb.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Poll Results 20

So, how many apostrophes are OK?

Any number: "Sarah’s daughter’s boyfriend’s mother's
dog's food" is fine. 18 (43%)
Three is the limit: "Sarah’s daughter’s boyfriend’s mother"
is fine. 3 (7%)
Two: "Sarah’s daughter’s boyfriend" is fine. 19 (46%)
One: "Sarah's daughter." 1 (2%)

I tend to agree with two; otherwise, it becomes way too cumbersome. If you want to indicate possessives of possessives, you could use of: "the mother of Sarah's daughter's boyfriend," but I still think that's cumbersome. Perhaps I should revise my opinion to one only.
I'm surprised that some of you would allow any number!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Criminal Sentence 157: Hiking and Being Parallel at the Same Time

From something I edited recently:

"At the top [of the trail] you'll want to stop for a drink, some snacks, and to take in the incredible view."

Sounds like a lovely hike, but it's not a parallel sentence. I did a double take near the end of the sentence because unparallel sentences throw the reader off. These are the elements that need to be parallel but aren't:

to stop for a drink
some snacks
to take in the incredible view

So we need to use three "to + verb" constructions (infinitives) or some other parallel format. I pick infinitives.

"At the top [of the trail] you'll want to stop for a drink and some snacks, and to take in the incredible view."

Now this is an incredible sentence to go along with the view.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Criminal Sentence 156: How to Catch Anglers

From an article about fishing:

"My goal is to tell anglers where to start fishing and how to catch them."

This lovely sentence has two errors: one is regular and one made me laugh out loud.

1) My goal is to do a and to do b: This is wrong because it states there is one goal but there are two goals. So, "My goals are..." is what we want.

2) The second goal here seems to be "how to catch anglers," with the "them" standing in for the only plural noun so far mentioned: "anglers." Of course the writer meant "fish," but since fish weren't yet mentioned, the "them" refers back to "anglers." How do you catch anglers? I wonder.

So the revised sentence should read (sorry, it's not as amusing as the original):

"My goals are to tell anglers where to start fishing and how to catch fish."

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Criminal Sentence 155: Am I a "They"?

A conversation I had with a telemarketer yesterday:

Him: "Is Bonnie there?"
Me: "Who's calling?"
Him: "This is Joe."
Me: "Joe from what company?"
Him: "Are they there?"
Me: "How can you call Bonnie a 'they'?"
Him: Confusion and a quick hanging up

It was cool that I could insert grammar into this fascinating conversation with Joe from whatever company. Another way I annoy telemarketers is ask if they need editing or proofreading help. I'm sure they do but they usually hang up before I can try to sell them my services.

So is it ever OK for me to be a "they"? "They" refers back to a plural subject, and I'm certainly not plural (though I do have children). Joe should have asked, "Is she there?" He knew he was looking for a female person, so he should have used "she," or he could have repeated my name.

There are some who allow a plural pronoun to refer back to a singular subject if the gender is unknown. In conversation I suppose it's fine to say something like "Anyone who hides their money under their bed is crazy." In formal writing, though, I recommend rewording the sentence so you avoid this problem: "People who hide their money under their bed are crazy."

I can't wait for the next telemarketer to call. "They" just might get an earful from me.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Poll Results 19

Here was the question:

What is wrong with this sentence? “The marketing and branding principals are the same for a sole practitioner as they are for a small business or a large business.”

15 (18%)
59 (71%)
9 (10%)

Well, 71% are right: "principals" should be "principles." Remember that your principal is your pal.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Criminal Sentence 154: Apostrophe or Comma?

Seen on a used car for sale:


Sounds like a nice price. A squiggle near the bottom of the line is called a comma; a squiggle up in the air is an apostrophe.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Criminal Sentence 153: Dare to Compare

From a Website:

"Have you ever wondered how your take-home pay measures up to some local sports celebrities?"

No, but I have wondered about the grammar of this sentence. This sentence is problematic because it compares "take-home pay" to "local sports celebrities." You can't compare a rate of pay to a person. Now I know that the 100% grammatical version might sound a bit fuddy-duddy, but it's better:

"Have you ever wondered how your take-home pay measures up to that of some local sports celebrities?"

You could also write this (note the apostrophe at the end):

"Have you ever wondered how your take-home pay measures up to some local sports celebrities'?"

Apples to apples:

"take-home pay" compared to "that of some local sports celebrities"
"take-home pay" compared to "some local sports celebrities'"

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Criminal Sentence 152: Who's a Fool?

From a book I'm reading (the wife, who is speaking, has just spent a paragraph describing what a fool her husband is):

"Fool or not, in this crisis I miss him bitterly."

Who's a fool? The woman, the man or, perhaps, the writer? Yes, the writer.

Here's a non-foolish version:

"In this crisis I bitterly miss him, fool or not."

Or maybe this:

"In this crisis I bitterly miss him, fool that he may be."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Criminal Sentence 151: Thats Wrong!

From a banner ad:

"Read how a mother of two invented a diet thats changing America forever!"

I wouldn’t click on this in a million years! And thats final.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Poll Results 18

This was the question:

Should incorrect usage that is used by the masses (such as “lay down” instead of “lie down”) be considered correct if used enough?

Yes, the majority has spoken. 7 (11%)

No, rules are rules, and we all should learn them. 30 (47%)

Sometimes, but it depends on which incorrect usage it is. 26 (41%)

Those of you who said sometimes, which incorrect usages(s) do you think should be allowed to proliferate?

Friday, January 9, 2009

Criminal Sentence 150: Painful Bad Grammar

From a book I am reading (set in the 1690s):

"Soon after, he grew a swelling in his foot and in his groin that had to be lanced."

Ouch: his groin had to be lanced? This sentence's bad grammar is as painful as a lanced groin!

The swelling, not the groin, is what had to be lanced:

"Soon after, he grew swellings in his foot and in his groin, and they had to be lanced."

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Criminal Sentence 149: Naked Ill Will

From a Web site:

“Jennifer Aniston made headlines the world over last November, when she finally broke her silence about ex-husband Brad Pitt's ladylove, Angelina Jolie. But Brad bares no ill will."

What does he not bare? (To bare, in this case, means to reveal, as in "to bare his teeth.")

Oh, he bears no ill will. Good for him, but shame on the writer of this sentence.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Criminal Sentence 148: Past Tense vs. Past Participle

Overheard from a TV show about fashion:

"My look should have went out the window 20 years ago."

And the speaker should have studied in English class a little more.

What's a past participle? It's the second word in a combination like "have gone" or "was eaten" (here, the past participles are "gone" and "eaten"). It goes with a helping verb, such as "have" or "was."

What is past tense? It's a standalone verb that describes the past, as in "I went out yesterday."

Sometimes the past participle and the past tense are the same, as in "I should have studied" and "Yesterday I studied." Many times, though, they are different.

You're not allowed to combine a past-tense verb with a helping verb, as in "have went." You have to use a past participle with a helping verb: "have gone."

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Criminal Sentence 147: It's Crazy

From the beginning of a note to me from my daughter's daycare:

"We know Monday's are crazy..."

Yes, I know. Extra apostrophes are crazy!

Good thing those poor innocent minds didn't see that (though maybe they saw the "Lion's" label next to some artwork hung up in the entryway of the school).


Monday, January 5, 2009

Poll Results 17

This was the question:

What's wrong here? "During the six hour-ordeal, passengers were able to talk with officials via intercom and rescuers tethered to harnesses brought them sandwiches and soft drinks, said general manager Steven Yeo."

87% of you were right: it's the punctuation of "six hour-ordeal" that's wrong. It's an unusual error that I haven't seen before. I happened to be on the Washington metro and noticed this mistake staring at me from a neighbor's newspaper. As 87% of you know, it should have been "six-hour ordeal."

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Writing tips from a Sentence Sleuth reader

Mr. John Roach was kind enough to send me this link, in which he quotes advice from pros, including me: