Ask Me a Question

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 29, 2010

New Grammar Girl Episode: Is "I'm Loving It" Correct?

Criminal Sentence 333: A Musical Sentence

From a writing Web site:

"Just cut and paste your text into the box and viola!"

This made me laugh. A viola is a musical instrument; voilĂ  is a French expression.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Criminal Sentence 332: Ambiguous Headline

An interesting headline on a news Web site:

"Men don't cheat because their wives are ugly"

You can read this in two ways. The way it was intended:

"Ugly wives do not cause men to cheat"

The other way:

"Men don't cheat; the reason is their wives are ugly"

The first time you read the headline, which way did you read it?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Criminal Sentence 331: I Don't Agree with You on That

Overheard on "Antiques Roadshow" about a necklace:

"The inspiration for the components of the piece come from the Moorish and the Spanish tradition."

Two boo-boos here:
1) The subject of the sentence is "inspiration." Forget about the two prepositional phrases that follow. Therefore, the verb should be singular: "comes."
2) The Moorish tradition and the Spanish tradition are two separate traditions, so the word "tradition" should be plural: "traditions."

I'll bet that if this sentence had been written and then reviewed later, these two errors might have been detected. It's harder to fix such boo-boos when you're speaking, so I suppose I can forgive the jewelry appraiser for speaking imprecisely.

P.S. The necklace was valued at around $6,000.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Poll Results 71

Here was the question:

What's wrong here? "I wonder where he's gotten to?"

The past participle
24 (38%)
14 (22%)
The punctuation
10 (16%)
The preposition
14 (22%)

Was that a little tricky? Congrats to 16% of you. You don't use a question mark with a statement that isn't a question. The word "wonder" hints at a question, but the sentence itself is not a question. There are various kinds of questions:

Do you like ice cream?
You didn't eat all the ice cream, did you?
You ate all the ice cream?

On the other hand, "I wonder" involves just a statement. Therefore, no question mark:
I wonder where he's gotten to.

As for the past participle, in America, "gotten" is the usual past participle; in British English, it is usually "got." See this link for more on the verb "get."

As for ending the sentence with a preposition, it is allowed. See this link for more info.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Criminal Sentence 330: Time to Check for Redundancies

From something I recently edited:

"Springtime is a perfect time to come visit."

Nothing is grammatically wrong here, but it bothers me that the word "time" appears twice in such a short sentence. Although the words are used differently, it would probably be best to cut one out:

"Spring is a perfect time to come visit."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Criminal Sentence 329: Holmes Detects a Spelling Error

I saw the Sherlock Holmes movie this weekend (so-so), and was dismayed to see a spelling error in a headline of a newspaper in the movie. (Wow! That was a lot of prepositional phrases in a row!) Here's what it said:

"Sherlock Holmes Aides Police"

An "aide" is a person such as a nurse's aide or a political aide.
"To aid" is a verb: to help.

Writer Mag Column 16: Relative Pronouns

Hanging out with the relatives: Tips on how to use "that" and "which"

This holiday season, my relatives and I shared fun times, meals and a few germs. I should have spent time with some other relatives, guys like "that" and "which." If I had, I wouldn't be coughing right now. On the other hand, getting along with these relatives can be difficult—like any relatives, "that" and "which" have certain quirks.

A common place you'll meet up with "that" and "which," along with other relative pronouns such as "where" and "who," is at the head of a relative clause. You'll see them in sentences such as The potato salad that made me sick had not been refrigerated and The potato salad, which made me sick, had not been refrigerated.

The difference between a "that" sentence and a "which" sentence sometimes stumps writers. Choose "that" if you're giving vital information; you cannot delete the clause without changing the meaning. Choose "which" if you can delete the "which" clause. In the first potato-salad sentence, the clause "that made me sick" is describing a particular toxic dish. In the second, the "which" clause acts as an aside. The difference is officially called restrictive ("that" clauses) versus nonrestrictive ("which" clauses).

"That" and "which" have other uses, though, and that's where the quirks come in.

Quirk 1: You can sometimes leave out "that."

I think that you're wonderful has the same meaning as I think you're wonderful. In this sentence, it's perfectly fine to leave out "that." In a similar vein, the sentences I said I would eat a sandwich and I said that I would eat a sandwich are equal.

Keeping or omitting a "that" is often just a matter of personal preference. Some think (that) adding "that" improves the flow of the sentence and makes it easier for readers to understand. Others believe (that) they should delete every seemingly unnecessary "that." I often like to keep my "that" if it helps the rhythm of the sentence. It's up to you as the writer to decide.

If you do get rid of a "that," be careful not to write a sentence that could be ambiguous or misunderstood. In the sentence Natalie maintains Jake's yard is too small, it first appears (that) Natalie is maintaining Jake's yard. When we get to the end of the sentence, though, we learn (that) "maintains" is a synonym for "thinks." A "that" fixes everything: Natalie maintains that Jake's yard is too small.

It's sometimes tricky to know if your sentence is ambiguous because you, the writer, know what you mean. I always find it useful to put aside my work for a while and then read it again with fresh eyes, or you could always rope in a colleague to read over your work.

Quirk 2: It's OK to use "that" to refer to a person.

Traditionally, you use "who" with a person, as in He is the relative who poisoned me with his potato salad. It is also acceptable to use "that" instead of "who," although it might rub some people the wrong way. I personally prefer "who," but if you're a person that wants to use "that," go right ahead.

Quirk 3: You may use "which" at the beginning of a sentence—sometimes.

"Which" traditionally modifies a noun, as in the sentence I crossed the suspension bridge, which seemed to sway in the heavy wind. Here, "which" describes "bridge." You can also use a "which" clause to modify another clause or an entire sentence, as in I had to spend the whole day with my relatives, which tired me out. Here, "which tired me out" refers to the entire part of the sentence that came before it: "I had to spend the whole day with my relatives."

If you wanted to create a dramatic effect with the "bridge" sentence above, you could end the sentence at "bridge" and use a stand-alone "which" phrase: I crossed the suspension bridge. Which seemed to sway in the heavy wind. If you do so, you'll be using a sentence fragment. Which you are allowed to use occasionally to make your point stand out.

Use this technique sparingly, though. You don't want to overdo things. Also, ensure that your "which" clause doesn't confuse readers by potentially referring to more than one noun.

Quirk 4: You can use "where" instead of "at which" or "in which."

Compare these two sentences: The store at which I met you had a sale and The store where I met you had a sale. The first is a bit uptight, whereas the second is more conversational. Which one you choose depends on your audience or on the character who utters the words. A character who's asking questions in a courtroom might use "at which" or "in which"; a teenage character who's chatting with her friends is more likely to say "where."

If it wouldn't sound odd for your character to say "which," you can use different prepositions before it to make your sentence quite precise. For example, The house at which I saw you differs slightly from The house in which I saw you. If you use "where," you lose the subtle distinction: The house where I saw you.

Quirk 5: "That" clauses often turn into misplaced modifiers. (You've heard me say it before, but I enjoy repeating myself.)

Frankly, "that" clauses suffer terrible abuse. Take, for example, this awful sentence, taken from a newspaper article about how DNA in a leech helped solve a crime in Australia: Detectives found the leech at the crime scene and extracted blood from it that they believed was from one of the two suspects. The unusual sequence of words in this sentence—"from it that"—should be illegal in English. The perpetrator of this Criminal Sentence deserves a mandatory life term.

Another Criminal Sentence I object to involves a "that" clause but the actual "that" is missing (see Quirk 1): Sanders has friends in the building he was visiting that night. Was Sanders visiting the friends or the building?

Please fix these two Criminal Sentences and send your rewrites to If you're rusty on your misplaced modifiers, read up on them. Hint: If your sentence contains two nouns that a clause could modify, be sure to put the modifying clause next to the right noun.

My Guest Post on

Check out my guest post on the Guide to Literary Agents blog:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Criminal Sentence 328: Getting the Name Right

One of the top Belgian tennis players is named Kim Clijsters. Note the "s" on the end.

Seen on ESPN2's Australian Open tennis coverage when the camera panned onto Kim's husband:

"Clijster's husband"

This caption suggests Kim's last name is Clijster, which is not correct. Just move the apostrophe after the complete name:

"Clijsters' husband"

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Criminal Sentence 327: Birds Sneeze ... and

Subjects agree with verbs. From a column in my local paper:

"If you have a bird and it sneeze once or twice a day and the discharge is clear, there's probably nothing wrong with it."

Just a proofreading issue here.

P.S. I wouldn't want to be the discharge-color checker.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Poll Results 70

Here was the question:

Does this sound odd to you? "Incredible sandwiches and pizzeria"

Yes 83 (95%)
No 4 (4%)

So, should I tell the restaurant that its marketing slogan is odd?

Friday, January 15, 2010

What do you want to know about?

A challenge for you: what question of style, grammar, usage or punctuation would you like me to cover in a future Writer Magazine column? Just read the columns I've written so far to make sure I haven't already answered your question, and remember it has to be a somewhat larger issue or a cluster of related issues.

Please post requests in the Comments section. If it's a topic that is too brief or if I like the idea but it's rejected by the editors, I'll answer the question in a post.

If your question does indeed become the basis for a column, I'll mail you a free signed copy of The Curious Case of the Misplaced Modifier! (And later I'll quiz you on it. Just kidding. Maybe.)

Criminal Sentence 326: Hyphen Issues

A nutrition tip from an iPhone app:

"Top a whole wheat muffin with all fruit jams."

This information might be useful, but at first I thought I was being instructed to put every kind of fruit jam onto a whole--not a partial--wheat muffin. Let's break it down:

"a whole wheat muffin" with no hyphen suggests "an entire wheat muffin," not a muffin made of whole wheat. Another sentence in this vein might be "I ate a whole apple." A hyphen clears everything up:

"a whole-wheat muffin"

Now for the second one:

"all fruit jams"

At first I thought it meant every kind of fruit jam. Another sentence in this vein is "All muscular men can flex." As earlier, a hyphen clears up the jam problem and informs us that it's an all-fruit jam.

So this tip is encouraging us to put jams that are all fruit on top of muffins made of whole wheat. We aren't supposed to pile on every jam known to (wo)man.

It's amazing how a lack of hyphens can confuse readers.

New Grammar Girl Episode: Using the Word "Get"

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Criminal Sentence 325: "Woman" Is the New "Female"

Two sentences close together in an article in today's paper:

"Who is likely to be the first woman president of the United States? ... Despite our assumption that a female president is inevitable and likely soonish..."

I personally object to using "woman" as an adjective. If presidents were ordinarily female and we were marveling at the possibility of a president who is a man, how many of us would write "the first man president"? Zero of us, most likely. Anyway, despite my dislike of "woman" as an adjective, it's common enough. So my second gripe here is that the writer was not consistent: woman president/female president. Pick one and stick with it.

Do you object to "woman" as an adjective?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Criminal Sentence 324: Donate a good sentence today

From a caption in an article about needy food banks:

"United Food Bank needs volunteers to pick backyard fruit for donation that would otherwise go to waste."

I wish this sentence would go to waste. A free grapefruit for anyone who can rewrite this correctly.

Hint: misplaced modifier.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Criminal Sentence 323: Pronouns

I'm trying to train my third grader to summarize books succinctly. He often begins his summary with "they." Of course I have no idea who he's talking about because a pronoun must refer to a previously mentioned noun.

Same problem here, in a book I read recently:

"Though they've never seen them [facial expressions], people blind from birth still use them."

As we find out later in the sentence, "they" means "people blind from birth." The fix is easy: just do a switcheroo:

"Though people blind from birth have never seen them [facial expressions], they still use them."

That mostly fixes the problem, but we still have two plural nouns, so the pronouns could confuse readers. It might be a good idea to avoid the pronouns:

"Though people blind from birth have never seen facial expressions, the sight impaired still grimace and smile, for example."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Poll Results 69

Here was the question:

How many things are wrong here? "Tell Us what you think. Let us know how were doing."

2 (2%)
13 (13%)
64 (68%)
14 (15%)

Congratulations to 68% of you. Here are the two errors:
1) No need to capitalize "Us."
2) "were" is missing an apostrophe: "we're."

What did 15% of you think was also wrong?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Criminal Sentence 322: Proper nouns

From a Web site:

"However, with the dawn of the internet, that information is now readily available."

The phrase "the Internet" is usually capitalized.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Writer Mag Column 15: Comparisons

Dare to compare: Watch out when you’re making comparisons

When looking for a romantic partner, you may make a mental list of attributes and then compare various men or women with your ideal. But you can't make a love connection if the two of you are incompatible. In the same vein, when writing a sentence, you must compare two like items in a way that makes sense to readers. If you don't, you could end up with an incompatible, vague or one-sided comparison.

Comparisons can be tricky. In your mind, you're comparing two of the same item, but sometimes what you write doesn't come out as you intended. Comparing correctly is all about balance. Your readers are happily motoring along in your story. When they see an item that is being compared, their minds expect the other half of the equation to match up. If you inadvertently compare two incompatible things, though, readers will be miffed and confused.

When you see comparison words such as "than," "like," "unlike," "similar," "different," "more" and "less," be aware that an incorrect comparison may be lurking. Take this Criminal Sentence as an example of what not to do:

Unlike married couples, dating may be required for you.

This sentence inaccurately compares "married couples" and "dating." Oops. A casual listener will probably understand that you're comparing "married couples" and single "you." But it's better to be precise and compare similar things. In this case, the sentence should compare "married couples" to some other person:

Unlike married couples, you may need to date.

This Criminal Sentence incorrectly compares "appearance" to "beauty queens":

Her appearance was said to rival beauty queens.

This is a sneaky sentence because it doesn't use one of the "watch-out" words. Instead, the verb "rival" indicates a comparison. Let's rewrite this sentence using two common strategies for ensuring you're comparing two compatible things.

1. Use "that" or "those" to stand in for the second side of the comparison: Her appearance was said to rival that of beauty queens.

Here, we've compared the singular noun "appearance" to the singular pronoun "that." Although this has become a formal-sounding sentence, it is grammatically correct. If you don't like this strategy, move on to the next solution.

2. Reword the sentence. This is often the best option because doing so allows you to avoid vague comparisons. A sentence such as "A is better than B" doesn't communicate much information. If you make your comparisons more specific, you'll not only get rid of any potential comparison problem, but you'll also write a better sentence, as here: She was so beautiful that she rivaled Miss America.

One-sided comparisons are almost as bad. Get it? "Almost as bad as what?" you might ask. (Almost as bad as incorrect comparisons.) Writers often forget to finish the other side of the equation, and that leaves readers hanging. And it's often hard to recognize that you've done so, mostly because you've finished the thought inside your head instead of on the paper. Let's work on this Criminal Sentence:

This hair gel is more effective for attracting ladies.

This sentence is missing the "than" part. Although it may be difficult to recognize that you've left out vital information, it's easy to fix one-sided comparisons once you’ve found them. Either add the missing part or make it a more specific comparison. Using the first technique, we come up with this now-balanced sentence:

This hair gel is more effective than hairspray for attracting ladies.

Useful information, I'm sure, but let's go a bit further and make this comparison even more specific and useful:

While hairspray can help you lure a potential mate, this neon pink hair gel will really attract the ladies.

You're almost ready to launch yourself into the world of comparisons. I just want to warn you about one other teensy comparison-related mistake: Remember not to use "then" instead of "than." Therefore, you're not allowed to brag to a date, "I know more about comparisons then the average person." It's more "than."

Please fix these Criminal Sentences and send your rewrites to

1: My expectations are completely different from everyone else.
2: Unlike muscles in the rotator cuff, surgery is the only way to repair a labrum tear.
3: The tennis player was more dominant.
4: Like the store's competitors, skyrocketing fuel costs have hurt its bottom line.

Criminal Sentence 321: Creative Fiction

Overheard on the Sirius radio broadcast while I was at the gym:

"Which fictitional character..."

I couldn't hide my surprisification at hearing this. I stopped mid-arm curl. This is a creative combination of the real words "fictitious" and "fictional." Will this make it into the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Criminal Sentence 320: Comma fix

From a blog post:

"I wanted to write fiction, but couldn’t seem to sell it."

This comma is not necessary. Usually, a comma separates two complete sentences before a "but" or "and." So a comma would be necessary if another "I" appeared:

"I wanted to write fiction, but I couldn’t seem to sell it."

I would recommend no comma if there isn't a second "I," but some might say they like the comma because it adds a pause.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Criminal Sentence 319: Symbols and words

Seen on a sign:

"500' to 1000' square feet"

A similar problem:

"$10 million dollars"

English has a handy number of symbols that are used in the place of words. Therefore, it is redundant to use both the symbol and the word at the same time.

In the feet example, it would be better to get rid of the ' symbol; in the dollars example, get rid of the word "dollars."

Monday, January 4, 2010

Poll Results 68

Here was the question:

Which holiday-related error gets your goat the most?

Seasons Greetings 10 (13%)
Happy Holiday's 43 (59%)
New Years Eve/New Years Day 14 (19%)
Something even worse! 5 (6%)

I can't imagine what's worse! I hope you all have a happy and grammatical new year.