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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).

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Criminal Sentence 287: Two Misplaced Modifiers

Two lovely sentences from the same book:

1) "Mr. Sanders has friends in the building he was visiting that night."
2) "I went to the files in the corner of my office that Detective Carruthers had given me..."

Both of these have the same problem: misplaced modifier.

1) Was he visiting the friends or the building? Not the building, as suggested here. Friends. "That night, Mr. Sanders was visiting friends in the building."
2) Did the detective give me the files or the office? Not the office, as suggested here. Files. "I went to the corner of my office to get the files that Detective C had given me..."

If you have two nouns that a clause could modify, be sure you put the modifying clause next to the right noun.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Criminal Sentence 286: Have Patient's

Every Tuesday I volunteer at a hospital, and once again I cringed at a sign they've posted outside the little kitchen area:

"For the safety of the patient's, staff only."

That tries my patient's!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Poll Results 55

Here was the question:

How many punctuation marks are missing in this sentence? "Thank you Arizona for supporting your home town theatre."

17 (14%)
72 (61%)
19 (16%)
10 (8%)

Congrats to 61% of you. You need commas around "Arizona." In addition, "home town" is one word with no space.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Criminal Sentence 285: Double After

The first paragraph of a newspaper article:

"Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hospitalized Thursday after becoming ill in her office at the court after treatment for an iron deficiency."

I'm not so sure that I like two cases of "after" in this sentence, and there are too many prepositional phrases:

after becoming ill
in her office
at the court
after treatment
for an iron deficiency

I know that newspaper reporters want to cram in all the facts in the first sentence, but this is a bit much. Let's break it up:

"Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hospitalized Thursday after becoming ill in her office at the court. She had just undergone treatment for an iron deficiency."

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Criminal Sentence 284: Who's humiliated?

From a book I finished yesterday:

"Red in the face and shaking in the limbs, I supposed he wanted nothing more than to flee this humiliation..."

Who is red in the face here? Not the "I" of the sentence. The "he" is the one with the red face and shaking limbs. You'll have to rearrange the sentence to fix this misplaced modifier:

"Red in the face and shaking in the limbs, he seemed to want nothing more than to flee this humiliation..."

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Criminal Sentence 283: Council/counsel

From a book I'm reading:

"I kept my council."

When you are keeping your opinion to yourself, you keep your "counsel." A "council" is a group of people such as the student council.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Criminal Sentence 282: What an affect/effect!

From a book I'm reading:

"... if I don't affect some change in the nature of things, I shall be quite ruined..."

Affect/effect is one of those pairs that trips people up.

Affect as a verb means to influence, as in Her sleepiness did not affect the outcome.
Affect as a noun is a psychiatric term that refers to someone's demeanor, as in He had flat affect.
Effect as a verb often goes with "change," as in If you want to effect change, you must...
Effect as a noun often goes with "cause," as in Cause and effect: The effect of the chocolate was immediate.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Poll Results 54

Here was the question:

Would you shop at a place with this sign? "We beat all competitor's prices."
Yes. I don't see an error. 8 (8%)
No. I refuse to shop at places that use apostrophe errors. 21 (22%)
Yes. But I wish the shop would fix the error. 66 (69%)

"All competitor's" is not possible. "All" suggests more than one; "competitor's" suggests one. The store should change its sign to "all competitors'."

Friday, September 18, 2009

New Guest-Written Grammar Girl Episode: "Comprise" v "Compose"

Criminal Sentence 281: A little bit of wordiness

From a Web site:

"It gives us a little bit of optimism."

No grammatical problems here, but it's just too wordy for my taste. Eight words here when four would do:

"We are slightly optimistic."

Try your best to cut words. Your readers will thank you!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Writer Mag Column 8: Subject-Verb Agreement

Follow the Yellow Brick Road…: Take the Correct Steps to Fix Problems with Subject-Verb Agreement

Life used to be simpler: no Facebook, no YouTube, no MySpace. Nowadays, though, everybody uses these and other distractions to avoid working. Perhaps even some writers are guilty of this. Nah, not you… Well, even if you don’t use the Internet to avoid figuring out your next plot point, you do need to be aware of some dangerous distractions for writers: certain words or phrases that cause you to make mistakes with your subject-verb agreement. We writers need to watch out for this distracting stuff. If we don’t, our credibility might be shot.

Let’s review the basics for a minute. I know that you know this already, but please bear with me: Even the best writers are occasionally careless with their subjects and verbs. A singular subject agrees with a singular verb, and a plural subject agrees with a plural verb. A singular subject involves a single item (e.g., “the tornado”) or a lone person (e.g., “the Wicked Witch”). A plural subject involves more than one item or person, such as “some incorrect sentences” or “the unhappy copy editors.”

Your subject-verb agreement is most likely fine when the subject lies close to the verb, as it is here: “The Wicked Witch of the West is melting.” The singular subject “witch” pairs up with the singular verb “is melting.” Obviously. I’m certain, though, that you sometimes commit a ghastly grammar goof when the subject is far from the verb. When you are in a hurry or are trying to cram too much into one sentence, careless errors strike.

Writers need to concentrate and stay on the yellow brick road. You can’t get on the correct path, though, unless you’re aware of the three main distractions that come between the subject and the verb. Prepositional phrases; the word “and”; and “that,” “which” and “who” clauses are the sneaky things that distract you and make you use the wrong verb.

Let’s tackle the most common troublemaker first: a prepositional phrase. Writers sometimes get confused because they mistakenly think that the last word of such a phrase is the subject. As the Wizard himself said, “Ignore the man behind the curtain.” You too must temporarily ignore a prepositional phrase when it follows the main word of your subject. Let’s dissect this Criminal Sentence, which I found in a book:

The meaning of these words aren’t known.

And the correctness of grammar aren’t known, either. In this bad sentence, the prepositional phrase “of these words” is in the way, and it apparently stunned the writer into confusion. If you just take it out for a minute, you can clearly see that the subject, “the meaning,” is singular. Therefore, the verb should be “isn’t” instead of “aren’t.”

“Who,” “which” and “that” clauses are sneaky distractions that interfere in the same way as prepositional phrases, but not when they’re alone. For example, it’s very unlikely that a native English speaker would make a mistake like this:

The Wicked Witch, who was having tea with her sisters, like monkeys.

Hang on and we’ll discuss these clauses in a minute.

The pesky word “and” causes some problems with subject-verb agreement. As we all know, the word “and” joins two (or more) items together. Logically, a compound subject, such as “Dorothy and Toto,” takes a plural verb. Sometimes, though, writers mess up even this seemingly simple kind of sentence. Take, for example, this Criminal Sentence, which I heard while on hold to make a doctor’s appointment:

Your patience and consideration is very much appreciated.

I did not appreciate that at all, and my patience was as sore as my throat. Amnesiac writers forget about the first part of their subject, so they use the wrong verb. The person who wrote this beauty certainly suffered some memory loss, because he or she forgot that “patience” and “consideration” are two separate things. Mr. or Ms. Careless should have used “are” instead.

Now back to those devious “who,” “which” and “that” clauses. They’re not problematic by themselves, but they do cause a problem when a sentence contains one of them along with a prepositional phrase or an “and.” Take this Criminal Sentence, which contains two distracting “who” clauses and an “and”:

The defendant, who was going on trial for murder, and her attorney, who was just out of law school, was late to court.

When your sentence is too long, as it is here, too much stuff is in the way and you make an error. Again, forget the man behind the curtain. The compound subject hidden amidst all the verbiage is “the defendant and her attorney,” so the verb should be “were.”

Now we must click our heels together and concentrate on how to fix these common errors, which make readers question your integrity. If you haven’t been getting regular agreement checkups, please promise to get on the right track immediately. It’s actually quite easy to stay on the yellow brick road. Simply find your subject and circle just the word (or words) that form the subject—and ignore everything else. Then, underline the verb and check if subject and verb match. If they don’t, berate yourself for a few minutes and then fix the problem.

These circles and underlines might seem tedious, but please mark up your pages until you learn to ignore all of these distractions. Both you and your readers will feel much better if you examine your work thoroughly and get rid of careless errors.

Here are three Criminal Sentences to help you practice:

Criminal Sentence 1: The use of cell phones and pagers are prohibited.

Criminal Sentence 2: The safety and well-being of neighborhoods surrounding the airport has become a serious concern.

Criminal Sentence 3: The problem with these sandwiches, which my son fixed for me, are that they contain mustard.

Please fix these sick sentences before the Wicked Witch gets you. Send your corrections to and I’ll let you know if you made it back to Kansas or not.


Criminal Sentence 1: The use of cell phones and pagers is prohibited.

Criminal Sentence 2: The safety and well-being of neighborhoods surrounding the airport have become serious concerns.

Criminal Sentence 3: The problem with these sandwiches, which my son fixed for me, is that they contain mustard.

Reader Question

A reader wanted to know if this sentence contained correct grammar:

"Playing music games requires an intense focus on the separate elements of a song..."

He was mostly interested in knowing if "requires" was the correct verb. The answer is yes.

Here are some other examples:

Singing in the shower is fun.
Singing songs in the shower is fun.

It becomes plural if you have an "and":
Singing and dancing in the shower are fun.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Criminal Sentence 280: Hyphen or Em Dash

From a Web site about foods with too much sugar:

"Granola bars. Often deemed a healthful snack, some are tricky-a 1-ounce serving of a granola bar with oats, fruit, and nuts has 11 grams of added sugar."

This sentence is confusing: "tricky-a" makes no sense. It would make sense, though, to use a double hyphen (which turns into an em dash in Word): "some are tricky--a 1-ounce serving..."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Criminal Sentence 279: Before or After Math?

Seen on ESPN2:

"The after math of the Serena meltdown"

I thought this was an interesting error. "Aftermath" is a compound word with no space; "after math" might mean after a math class.

You can do better than that, ESPN2!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Poll Results 53

This was the question:

Which sentence uses the correct punctuation?
Do you think we should call her "Bubby?" 40 (31%)
Do you think we should call her "Bubby"? 87 (68%)

Congrats to 68% of you.
When the item in quotation marks is a question in itself, then the question mark goes inside the quotation marks. as here: He asked, "Did you arrive on time?"
When the item in quotation marks is part of a larger question, then the question mark goes outside the quotation marks. as in the correct answer.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Criminal Sentence 278: Former vs Formal

From a Web site:

"I ran into my formal teacher."

She meant "former teacher," I believe, unless her teacher was not informal. :)

"Former" means "previous."
"Formal" means "not informal."

I suppose they are easy to confuse, so watch out.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Criminal Sentence 277: Bad Quality

Heard on the US Open telecast:

"The quality of second serves aren’t good."

And the quality of the sentence ISN'T good.

Ignore the prepositional phrase when you are thinking about subject-verb agreement. In this case, you would be concerned only with "The quality ..." It's clear that it matches up with "isn't," not "aren't."

Watch out for those pesky prepositional phrases!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Criminal Sentence 276: An Interesting Flasher

Only I read signs in elevators, but I got rewarded yesterday:

"When flashing, help is on the way."

Someone named help will be flashing? Cool!

This gem was next to the emergency light, which I imagine is the thing that will be flashing. The sign writer should have written this:

"When the light is flashing, help is on the way."

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Criminal Sentence 275: Shaped

From a book I read:

"He squeezed the rock and felt that it was oval-shaped..."

This has two problems: it's wordy and it has an incorrect hyphen.

First, you don't need to say something is circle shaped or square shaped or oval shaped. Those words describe shapes.

Second, When a compound adjective follows a noun, you don't need the hyphen. Only when two or more words link together to describe a noun before the noun do you use a hyphen:

The ten-foot-high fence was in the way. (hyphens join the words that describe "fence")
The fence was ten feet high. (no hyphens because the words come after "fence")

This sentence would have been better like this:

"He squeezed the rock and felt that it was oval..."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Poll Results 52

This was the question:

Is the punctuation of this correct? "Careful, the drink you are about to enjoy is very hot."
Yes 58 (59%)
No 39 (40%)

Commas are tricky. In this case, 59% of you were correct. You use a comma after an interjection such as "careful." You could also use an exclamation point:


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Writer Mag Column 7: 5 Common Punctuation Mistakes

Five Scoops of Punctuation, Please: Avoid these common punctuation mistakes

Incorrect punctuation marks don’t bother the average person, but you’re not average. You’re a writer, and you know that if you abuse commas, em dashes, hyphens, quotation marks and apostrophes, your readers will moan and lament, screech aloud and vent—and if you annoy them enough, they might even throw your carefully plotted novel across the room. You ask, “All because of a misplaced apostrophe or an extra comma?” Yep, I’ve done it. (But I’m extra fussy.)

I can see how you might be careless with punctuation. I understand that it’s hard to remember what you learned in grade school. If you’re rusty, here are five scoops on five common punctuation errors. Not as yummy as ice cream, I know, but good for your sentence health.


Commas are complicated. Periods are easy (at least for men). Bottom line: You shouldn’t use commas instead of periods, that’s called a comma splice. Did you notice that comma splice I just used? How naughty of me.

As we all learned in first grade, you use a period to end a sentence. That’s pretty much all it’s good for. OK, you’re right: you do use periods in abbreviations and prices, but if you’re looking for information about periods in a style guide, you won’t have much to read. On the other hand, you can find entire books dedicated to all the rules about commas. Go ahead and buy one if you want a challenge. And don’t forget to read it.

These Criminal Sentences illustrate the comma splice problem:

Criminal Sentence 1 (From a flyer posted to my front door): “My name is Mickey, I painted the outside of a house in your neighborhood.”

Criminal Sentence 2 (From a Web site): “Loading, please wait…”

As far as the first sentence, Mickey may paint well, but because I’m a fussy grammarian, I could never hire him.

The second sentence leads me to another common comma problem. You’re supposed to use commas after salutations, as in “Hello, Bonnie.” Criminal Sentence 2 seems to address someone named Loading. This oddly named fellow has been instructed to wait, as in “Bonnie, please wait.”

“Loading. Please wait.” These are two separate ideas, and they need to be separated with a period, not a comma.

Em Dashes

Em dashes—those long lines that are paired up in this sentence—point your readers a certain way. If em dashes could talk, they would loudly alert readers, “Wait a second. I have something important to add here—something I can’t wait to tell you!” If you misuse them—or overuse them—your readers will get frustrated and annoyed. They won’t like being pointed at incorrectly or jabbed at so often.

Writers use these arrow-like punctuation marks to point out something abruptly—in the middle of a sentence or at the end. (You certainly can’t start a sentence with an em dash. That would be weird.) No matter where your em dashes appear, you can do a quick check to see if you’ve used them correctly. Just temporarily delete your abrupt aside. After all, it’s not crucial to the sentence’s core meaning, and you can put it back later.

Your em dashes are right if the sentence still makes sense when you delete the em dashes and everything between them: “I lost my scarf—now where could I have put it?—at the mall.” This sentence makes perfect sense without the intervening question. You could certainly complain, “I lost my scarf at the mall.” If you have a lone em dash at the end of the sentence, do the same thing; if the sentence still makes sense when you take away the em dash and the aside, you may proceed.

The uninitiated often use em dashes in place of periods, as in this incorrect sentence I’m writing now—they seem to think they can just separate sentences with an em dash and readers won’t mind—however, it’s not correct to do that. (Readers do mind.) Incidentally, as we’ve already seen, somebody once invented something that denotes the end of a sentence, and that thing is called a period. He’s a nifty guy. Keep him in mind every twenty words or so.

Some writers mistakenly use an em dash in a sentence like this one—annoying me to no end. (Hint: That was an incorrect em dash just now.) Guess what? There’s been another neat invention, and this one indicates a short pause in a sentence. That’s our friend the comma. We’ve already met him, and he likes being invited over often.

Em dashes like to be social, too, but not as much as commas or most other punctuation marks. Some writers, though—myself included—are partial to em dashes and use them as often as possible. (I admit that I should curb my liking for em dashes.) We don’t want readers complaining to themselves—or to others—that we’re pointing at them too much. It gets old after a while. So hold back if you’re an overuser.
Well, how many Auntie Ems are too many? Dorothy had only one, but you can have probably two or three every page or so—unless you’re feeling wicked and want to risk being squished by that falling house.

Here’s a test of your em dash strength:

In which sentence are em dashes used incorrectly?

1. I spent $1,000—can you believe it?—on shoes.

2. From shoes to scarves to hats—we have it all.

3. Don’t come around here anymore—unless you’re coming to pay back the money you owe me.

4. If you see her—or hear from her—please let me know.


Hyphens smooth things over for readers. They may be little, but they can make sentences more readable in a big way. By linking two or more words to describe something, hyphens prevent misunderstandings. If you wrote this sentence, for example, you could confuse your readers:

“The lion taunting zookeeper was arrested for animal cruelty.”

The sentence appears to be about a lion but is in fact about a wayward zookeeper. A little hyphen helps the sentence a lot:

“The lion-taunting zookeeper was arrested for animal cruelty.”

The hyphen links up the two words to make a compound.

Some writers put hyphens in the wrong places. You can’t create a hyphenated compound after the noun unless the word itself is always hyphenated. Notice this incorrect sentence:

“The inspection was poor-quality.”

You don’t need to link together the words “poor” and “quality” because it’s clear that they both refer to “inspection.” On the other hand, you do need a hyphen in this case:

“The poor-quality inspection cost the homeowner lots of money.”

Without the hyphen, the sentence might at first seem to be about “the poor.”

Now it’s your turn to be the hyphen police. Please take these two sentences into custody; once you fix them, you can release them on their own recognizance:

Criminal Sentence 3: The crazy haired copyeditor saw a punctuation mistake.

Criminal Sentence 4: My 18th century ring was stolen.

Quotation Marks

Here’s a short rant on overused quotation marks. If you’re trying to emphasize something, you “don’t need” to put it in quotation “marks.” Nine times out of ten, you use quotation marks to quote speech. Hence their name. They’re not called “highlight marks” or “colloquial expression” marks. If you want to highlight something, find a more natural way to do so.

One legitimate reason to use quotation marks around something that is not quoted speech is for cases when you want to be sarcastic or deceptive. So if your character is a teenager who told her mom that someone was a “friend,” in quotation marks, you’re informing readers that he wasn’t just a friend. He was a boyfriend and the character didn’t want her mom to find out.

Don’t do what these criminals did or I’ll have to “come after you”:

Criminal Sentence 5: How do you “get over” a mistake that cost another person’s life?

Criminal Sentence 6: Come in for your “free” sandwich.


I get a little bent out of shape about those little bent things called apostrophes. My husband rolls his eyes whenever I whine about misplaced punctuation, but I have to wince when I see sock’s for sale at the swap meet. You’re sock’s irritate me. Don’t they irritate you, too? If they don’t, I’d like to change that.

Merchants mess up apostrophes simply because punctuation is unimportant to them. Prices and inventory are what matter. Fine. I’ll just have to avoid fresh produce from now on. Writers, on the other hand, should be able to handle these little punctuation marks.

Our apostrophe pals serve two main purposes: to indicate possession and to create a contraction. Let’s start with possession. I’m sure you’re aware that an apostrophe attaches to a noun—not to an adjective or a verb. The tricky part is to pay attention to whether the noun is singular or plural. Use an apostrophe plus an “s” to indicate a singular person or thing is possessing something. For example, if you’re writing about the rolling eyes of my husband, you should write “my husband’s rolling eyes” (and then later “my husband’s tired eyes”).

When you have a plural person or thing, use an “s” plus an apostrophe (or an “s” plus an apostrophe “s” if you like that style). You couldn’t write “my husbands’ rolling eyes,” though, because that would be illegal. On the other hand, if the husbands of more copy editors become impatient, it would be OK to write “the husbands’ rolling eyes” or “our husbands’ tired eyes.” An easy way to check if you’ve placed the apostrophe correctly is to temporarily rearrange the phrase by using an “of”: “the punctuation of the sentence” (“the sentence’s punctuation”); “the punctuation of the sentences” (“the sentences’ punctuation”).

Now on to contractions—just try to breathe. It’ll all be over very soon. Unlike labor contractions, contractions of words are short. “We’ll” is a shortened “we will”; “he’ll” is the contraction of “he will.” These words mean something totally different without the apostrophe. The contraction you should be most wary of is “it’s,” short for “it is.” The young and the careless always confuse “it’s” (contraction) with “its” (possessive adjective). Please be old and careful, and remember that possessive adjectives, such as “your,” “hers” and “their,” never use an apostrophe.

The best way to avoid apostrophe errors with contractions is to avoid contractions altogether. Well, I guess that won’t work. The next best way is to just stop and double-check yourself by spelling out the contracted words. For example, if your sentence is “Let’s check our apostrophes,” you know you’re right because you can say, “Let us check.” If your sentence is “My mom never let’s me eat ice cream,” you know you’re wrong because you can’t say, “My mom never let us me.”

Please fix the poor, sick apostrophes in these three Criminal Sentences:

Criminal Sentence 7: “I lived in my parent’s house when I was a child.”

Criminal Sentence 8: “It take’s dedication and lots of practice.”

Criminal Sentence 9: “Lets make 2009 an active and healthy year!”

Now that you’ve read and learned all about these friendly and useful punctuation marks, give yourself a round of applause. Next, I think you should indulge in a real scoop of ice cream—as long as you promise to use commas, em dashes, hyphens, quotation marks and apostrophes correctly.

P.S. Write me at with the answers to today’s questions, and tell me what flavor of ice cream you like best. I like peanut butter and chocolate.



Criminal Sentence 1: “My name is Mickey. I painted the outside of a house in your neighborhood.”

Criminal Sentence 2: “Loading. Please wait…”

Em Dashes

Em dashes are used incorrectly in Sentence 2: “From shoes to scarves to hats—we have it all.” You can’t say only “From shoes to scarves to hats.” You need to use a comma instead of the em dash: “From shoes to scarves to hats, we have it all.” Another option is to turn things around: “We have it all—from shoes to scarves to hats.” “We have it all” could stand by itself.


Criminal Sentence 3: The crazy-haired copyeditor saw a punctuation mistake.

Criminal Sentence 4: My 18th-century ring was stolen.

Quotation Marks

Criminal Sentence 5: How do you get over a mistake that cost another person’s life?

Criminal Sentence 6: Come in for your free sandwich. (Quotation marks around “free” suggest that the sandwich isn’t really free.)


Criminal Sentence 7: “I lived in my parents’ house when I was a child.”

Criminal Sentence 8: “It takes dedication and lots of practice.”

Criminal Sentence 9: “Let’s make 2009 an active and healthy year!”

Criminal Sentence 274: Agreement Problems

Two sentences from an online article:

1) "Their secret: thin crust, half the cheese, and extra vegetables."
2) "The restaurant boasts about their perfect-sized lunch combos as if super-sized individual pizzas and high-calorie 'side' salads are a good thing."

Both of these sentences suffer from the same problem: the number of items don't match.

Sentence 1: "their secret" is singular, whereas what comes after the verb is plural (three things are listed).
Sentence 2: "a good thing" is singular, whereas what comes before the verb is plural.

Both nouns (secret/thing) should be plural to match the other side of the equation.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Criminal Sentence 273: An Extra Fatty Sentence

From an online article about fatty pizzas:

"Fare from the sea is one of the best ways to go, but sprinkled over a bed of starchy dough and fatty cheese and you've got a different story altogether."

This sentence has a number of problems. First, it is way too long. I suggest breaking it up after "to go." Now we can see that the rest of the sentence is missing a correct subject. There is no clear word that goes with "sprinkled." We know from the context that the writer meant "seafood," but it's missing. In addition, two cases of "and" might be confusing. Here is a better way to express this idea:

"Fare from the sea is one of the best ways to go. However, you've got a different story altogether when you sprinkle seafood over a bed of starchy dough and fatty cheese."

Avoid fatty pizzas and fatty sentences, please.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Criminal Sentence 272: Odd Splling

The title is misspelled on purpose because of this typo in a book:

"This book was set in Minion, a typefce produced by..."

Proofreading is important, even on the unimportant pages that describe the book's typeface.