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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 29, 2009

Grammar Girl Episode: All Right vs Alright

Criminal Sentence 223: Nay on Lay

From an article in today's paper (about the death of a 150-year-old saguaro cactus):

" 'It's laying on Mother Earth,' said Todd Willard, a Tonto National Forest wildlife biologist."

Sorry, Todd, but I need to lay your statement in the trash.

To recline=to lie
To put something down=to lay down

I hate to admit that "lay down" to mean recline is very common in speech, so it's probably standard now. I want to complain about it anyway.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Criminal Sentence 222: Placing Prepositional Phrases "Without Difficulty"

From the latest novel by a New York Times bestselling author:

"We found the address he gave me without difficulty."

I'm glad it wasn't difficult to give out the address. Or was it not difficult to find the address? Oops. The finding, not the giving, turned out to be easy. Let's reword:

"It wasn't hard to find the address he gave me."

Or perhaps this is better:

"It wasn't hard to find the address he had given me."

When you have a prepositional phrase, be sure to place it correctly!

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Criminal Sentence 221: Debate over Prepositions

Today's big headline:

"Debate begins over Obama's court pick"

There is no debate, though, that this syntax is messed up.

What does the "over" phrase describe? Not "begins." Let's just move it next to what it does modify, "debate."

"Debate over Obama's court pick begins"

Monday, May 25, 2009

Poll Results 37

Here was the question:

How did you hear about this site?

Through my book's Amazon page 1 (1%)
Because I heard about it on a "Grammar Girl" show 42 (76%)
By looking for grammar/writing resources on the Internet 7 (12%)
By word of mouth 5 (9%)

Thanks, Grammar Girl!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Criminal Sentence 220: Desperate for a Dictionary

From something I edited yesterday:

"Seventy separate facilities, many of which are individually operated, were on numerous desperate systems and technologies."

I had to laugh at that one.

"Disparate" = different
"Desperate" = really in need of something, like a dictionary

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Criminal Sentence 219: I Wish You Wouldn't

From an interview with a pitcher:

"I wish I wouldn’t have started."

This is a case where the speaker made the verb tense more complicated than necessary. Why do you need two auxiliary (or helping) verbs: "wouldn't" and "have"? I dunno. You don't.

The sentence needs just one:

"I wish I hadn't started."

You can imagine yourself saying, "I wish you hadn't done that." You wouldn't say, "I wish you wouldn't have done that."

I hear this tense problem in other sentences, such as this:

"If she would have listened, I would not have put her in time out."

You need to change the first verb:

"If she had listened, I would not have put her in time out."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Criminal Sentence 218: Don't Put the Cart (Pronoun) before the Horse (Noun)

From a book I read recently:

"If it’s available, make sure to order Armagnac."

This is a common mistake: using a pronoun before you've mentioned what the noun is. A pronoun refers back to a noun that you've already mentioned, so if you haven't mentioned the noun yet, it confuses the reader. To solve this problem, just switch the pronoun and noun around:

"If Armagnac’s available, make sure to order it."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Criminal Sentence 217: Obama Has Had a Term at Notre Dame?

From a newspaper:

"The president faces one of the noisiest controversies of his term at the University of Notre Dame."

This sentence suggests that Obama has had a term--in other words, served in some position of importance--at Notre Dame. Definitely not the case. The prepositional phrase "at the University of Notre Dame" is misplaced and accidentally joins up with what came before: "his term." So let's rearrange:

"While at the University of Notre Dame to give the commencement speech, the president faces one of the noisiest controversies of his term."

Be careful where you place your prepositional phrases; they get misplaced a lot!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Poll Results 36

What do you think of what a sportscaster said to another? "Thanks for efforting that report."

Sounds fine to me. 2 (2%)

Makes me cringe. 83 (97%)

That "verbification" definitely made me cringe. "Effort" is a noun only; "make an effort" would be the verb to use in this case.

As Grammar Girl has said, "Don't verbify me, bro!"

Friday, May 15, 2009

Criminal Sentence 216: Odd Apostrophe

I was reading a book and came across this odd apostrophe:

"$250,000’ worth of poker chips"

Now if we wanted to spell this out (with a smaller dollar number for simplicity's sake), an apostrophe is warranted:

"ten dollars' worth of poker chips"

Just as you would do here:

"one dollar's worth of poker chips"

I've never seen an apostrophe used this way and I don't think it's allowed, though my style guides are silent on the matter.

If you come across such a situation, I would suggest not using an apostrophe after a dollar sign. In the $250K example, it would be awkward to spell out the number and then use an apostrophe, so you would have to reword the sentence somehow.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Criminal Sentence 215: Puss in Boots and in Ears?

I've been dealing with a painful ear infection and ruptured eardrum, so I did some reading online. Found this lovely sentence:

"If the infection builds up, the eardrum may rupture to allow the puss to flow out."

This seems to have happened to me, except for the part about the cat.

"Pus": icky stuff
"Puss": fluffy animal

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Criminal Sentence 214: "Nemesis": Singular or Plural?

Said by a baseball announcer:

"Their nemesis have been the opposing pitchers."

If the words were "nemesi" (singular) and "nemesis" (plural), this would have some chance of being correct. However, the singular is "nemesis" and the plural is "nemeses." The subject ("nemesis") is singular, so the sentence should be as follows:

"Their nemesis has been the opposing pitchers."

The sentence would sound even better if we made the object ("pitchers") singular:

"Their nemesis has been the pitching of the opposition." (or "the opposition's pitching")

Monday, May 11, 2009

Poll Results 35

This was the question:

What is the problem here? We shot a signal flair in the air.

Grammar 22 (20%)

Spelling 84 (79%)

Punctuation 0 (0%)

I found a very similar sentence in a book. 79% of you are right that the spelling in this sentence is off. "Flair" means panache; "flare" means a light signal.

Watch "yore" spelling, "pleas."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Criminal Sentence 213: Some Consonants Should Be Doubled

From the CNN crawl:

"White House is 'disapointed' with Manny Ramirez."

I am disapointed, too, especially with that "speling."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Criminal Sentence 212: Eyes on the "Prise"

From a sign in a coffee shop:

"Long prised for its tantalizing unpredictability, this coffee..."

That sentence is not "prized" for its correctness.

"Prized" means valued or recognized; "prised" means used as a lever.

How to Use Past Perfect

A reader asked whether this sentence is correct:

I took another look at the questions that had spurred me to mention education in the first place.

He wanted to know if "had spurred" was in the correct tense.

Yes, that is correct, and it's called past perfect. You get a past perfect tense when you add the word "had" to a past participle (a past participle is something such as spoken or broken). Past perfect indicates something that happened before another event in the past.

In this sentence, there are two past actions: "I took another look" and "questions had spurred me." The use of "had" indicates that this action came before the other one, so first, the questions spurred him, and then he took another look.

Here's another example:

I had just opened the door when the phone rang.

Here, the two past events are I opened the door, and the phone rang. First comes the action with the helping verb had: I had opened the door; then the phone rang.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Grammar Question

Ashley has this question:

Is the following sentence grammatically correct?

"One of the unexpected outcomes of this training program has been the positive rewards that our students have accrued midway through the program."

I think it is incorrect, because "positive rewards" are clearly plural, as the author uses the word "have" later in the sentence. And of course, I think it is wrong because the sentence starts out singular ("one of the unexpected....").

Thanks for the question, Ashley. I agree that the sentence sounds awkward, but the subject ("one") does agree with the verb ("has been"). It's tricky because the sentence contains a mix of singular and plural.

Overall it's a bad sentence that should be rewritten. It would be better to state what positive rewards you're talking about because at the moment this sentence is too vague. I'll just make up a reward as I rewrite (just for fun, I'm imagining that the training program is for budding archaeologists):

"Our students are midway through the training program and have unexpectedly learned how to deal with raging sandstorms as they dig for fossils in the desert."

This is probably not the reward that the writer was talking about, but you can tell that the rewritten sentence sounds a lot more specific, and there's no question about subject-verb agreement.

If you have a problematic sentence, just rewrite it! And be more specific while you're at it!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Criminal Sentence 211: A Couple Minutes to Think about Apostrophes

From a book I just read about hostages in Colombia:

"If a rescue attempt came, we’d have a couple minutes head start."

An apostrophe is missing after the word "minutes." This is a tricky use of apostrophes, but if you imagine the sentence says "a minute," wouldn't you automatically say "a minute's head start"? Yes, so in the plural it should be minutes'.

Sometimes you can avoid an apostrophe by using "of" instead, but it doesn't work here.You would have to reword:

"a two-minute head start"

It does work here:

I have ten years' experience.
I have ten years of experience.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Poll Results 34

This was the question:

What's wrong with this? "This book is dedicated to my wife whose love and support have made it possible."

Grammar 31 (32%)

Spelling 2 (2%)

Punctuation 63 (65%)

65% of you are correct. This sentence would be better with a comma after "wife"; otherwise, it suggests that the person has more than one wife and the author is thanking the one who provided love and support.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Grammar Girl Episode: Troublesome Contractions

Criminal Sentence 210: Capable of Being Wordy

From the wordy files:

"The company is capable of..."

It doesn't matter what the company "is capable of" doing; the writer has succeeded in being wordy.

"Is/are capable of" means "can," so let's use that one word instead of the other three:

"The company can..."