Custom Search

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mental_floss Messes Up Agreement


mental_floss is just about my favorite magazine. It offers short bits of useful and interesting information in a fun and funny format that has me reading page after page when I only meant to scan one paragraph. It's great to keep in the car for traffic jams or take along for your pedicure, not to mention putting a back issue in the bathroom for long and short visits.

That being said, I must take exception to a sentence that appears on page 67 in the current issue. It appears in a series of short articles about how restaurants became popular in the world.
One of the more distinctive aspects of restaurants in 19th-century France were their enormous menus.

Let's be logical here. If you are referring to ONE of the aspects of the restaurants, then the verb that goes with ONE would be the singular form WAS. ASPECTS, which is plural, is part of the prepositional phrase "of the more distinctive aspects" and does not affect the verb. MENUS, which is plural, comes after the verb and does not affect the verb because there is a subject at the beginning of the sentence. Therefore, the sentence should read as follows:

One of the more distinctive aspects of restaurants in 19th-century France was their enormous menus.

If you'd like to read more about the newspaper-size French cartes in the 19th century or about what the French Revolution had to do with the birth of the restaurant business or about how fast food was served in old Pompeii, pick up the current issue of mental_floss and turn to page 67.

Even though I love this magazine, I must point out one more sentence on this same page that did not please me. It is not an absolute rule, but I believe that an LY adverb, when used, is more effective if it does not separate a helping verb from the main verb. Consider this sentence from the short piece about fast food in Pompeii and on American train routes:

Hundreds of passengers would madly dash into cavernous dining halls on the platforms, where cadres of waiters in white aprons would splash meat and potatoes onto their plates and granular coffee into their cups.

I hope you will agree that this sentence would sound much better if the passengers WOULD DASH MADLY into the cavernous dining halls.

By the way, you can also check out the fascinating trivia by visiting http://www.mentalfloss.com/.

Friday, December 26, 2008

An introductory phrase can unmuddle a confusing sentence.


We have all written confusing sentences, but even when we know there is a problem, it is not always easy to figure out the best fix. Here is a good example from a recent story in The Birmingham News:

Lawyers for Siegelman and Scrushy have raised nine issues in their filings to the court they believe merit a reversal in the case.

The phrase "in their filings to the court" sits in the middle of the sentence, clogging meaning. In this case, the fix is simple. Just turn "in their filings to the court" into an introductory phrase, and the sentence is much clearer:

In their filings to the court, lawyers for Siegelman and Scrushy have raised nine issues they believe merit a reversal in the case.

The fix is not always this easy, but it certainly works here!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Incorrect use of INTO creates impossible magic situations.



  • ABRACADABRA! Criminal custodian turns herself into police!

    Be careful when using the word INTO. It should not be used in places where IN and TO should be separate. Look closely at this sentence, which appeared in The Birmingham News this week:

    XXXXX XXXXXX, a 28-year-old custodian at Bluff Park Elementary at the time of the burglary, turned herself into police Friday after being charged with theft....

    What the custodian actually did, I am sure, was to turn herself in to the police. In this case, IN is an adverb that describes the turning. TO is a preposition at the beginning of the prepositional phrase "to the police." It is not correct to substitute the word INTO in this instance.

    Here are some other examples:

    Abigail turned her co-worker in to the bank examiner. (NOT: Abigail turned her co-worker into the bank examiner. Do you think the co-worker wanted to be transformed into a bank examiner??)

John stepped in to fill his father's unexpired term as mayor.


Peter turned himself in to the authorities after the theft became public. (Peter might have wanted to turn himself into the authorities who would then not charge him!)



Thursday, December 11, 2008

An ING verb cannot be the main verb by itself.

When proofreading what you write, always check to make sure you are creating complete sentences. If you move words around, it is easy to have a sentence fragment without a complete verb. Notice in the first sentence of this paragraph that "are" is used as a helping verb with "creating" to create the complete sentence.



Here is a sentence that appeared Monday in an article in The Birmingham News. The reporter was writing about behavioral health issues found in soldiers returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan:



The screenings, which are required for all U. S. service members, including members of Guard and Reserve units, who return from combat tours.



There are three verb groups in this long sentence, but what the reporter ended up with was simply three verb phrases and no main statement in the sentence. I suspect this happened when he tried to combine ideas and then forgot to go back and proofread what he put together.



It is simple to fix this goof by simply eliminating the word "which" and turning "are required" into the main verb:



The screenings are required for all U. S. service members, including members of Guard and Reserve units who return from combat tours.



Notice that this sentence reads more smoothly if the comma between "units" and "who" is removed. The reason? The writer is using "who return from combat tours" to QUALIFY which units he is talking about. The comma would only be used if the "who" part is nice to know but does not QUALIFY the particular units.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

An Apostrophe Problem at Associated Press

I've said it before, and I'll say it again--an apostrophe should NOT be used to create the PLURAL of a noun. The following sentence appeared in an Associated Press story this past week:

Her attorney has said that the diaper's were her children's and that she did not wear them during her trip from Texas.

This sentence, of course, refers to the woman who drove non-stop to Florida to confront her rival for the affections of an ex-astronaut. (If you wrote this story as a novel, people would claim it was too unrealistic.)

The word DIAPERS should simply be PLURAL--that is, you add an "s" to show that she had more than one of them in the car. No apostrophe needed.

The word CHILDREN'S shows possession, so it is appropriate to add the apostrophe and then the "s" to indicate that the diapers supposedly belonged to the woman's children.

The sentence should be punctuated as follows:

Her attorney said that the diapers were her children's and that she did not wear them during her trip from Texas.

You could simplify this sentence even more by changing the use of "children" to a smoother form:

Her attorney said that the diapers belonged to her children and that she did not wear them during her trip to Texas.

***************************

Friday, December 5, 2008

Monk Corrects Natalie on "Who" and "Whom"


If you haven't met detective Adrian Monk yet, you need to check out this entertaining USA Network dramedy. I'm not sure when it comes on because we "tivo" everything and watch it when we're in the mood, but you can check the website.

In the episode we watched last evening, Natalie (Monk's trusty assistant) asked him about getting something certified. "Certified by who?" she said.

Monk, in his muttering way, reworded her question immediately--before answering her question. "Certified by whom?" he corrected.

Monk was pointing out that WHO is the SUBJECT pronoun and could not be used as the OBJECT pronoun after the preposition BY.

WHO is bringing the dessert?

WHO wrote this detailed report?


WHOM is the OBJECT pronoun, for use, in this case, after the preposition.

FOR WHOM was this position created?

BY WHOM were you given permission to attend?

Personally, I would simplify the second example here by making WHO the subject and getting rid of the prepositional phrase:

WHO gave you permission to attend?








Tuesday, December 2, 2008

"Your Child" does not equal "them" and "their."

I am back on my podium about subject/verb agreement today. Melissa Rayworth made some good points in a recent Associated Press article about parents involving children in charity during the holidays. However, she tangled up the agreement issue in her third paragraph with this sentence:



For example, helping your child gather used coats for donation to a homeless shelter can teach them more about their family's values than a dozen lectures on compassion ever could.



Good point, but YOUR CHILD refers to ONE person. Both THEM and THEIR are plural, so the grammar does not work. The most appropriate change here would be to use the word CHILDREN so that the whole sentence is plural:



For example, helping your children gather used coats for donation to a homeless shelter can teach them more about their family's values than a dozen lectures on compassion ever could.



If you don't like the plural version, you can still avoid the awkward HIM/HER usage by rewording the sentence this way:



For example, helping your child gather used coats for donation to a homeless shelter can teach more about family values than a dozen lectures on compassion ever could.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Grandson Spots Double Negative at McDonald's

I hope all my regular readers had a wonderful Thanksgiving and took at least a moment to think about what you are most thankful for. Among my many blessings are nine wonderful grandchildren who continue to delight and surprise me as they grow.

One of them--a fourteen year old--brought his cell phone camera with him to dinner yesterday and told me he'd made a photo for my Grammar Glitch Central blog. Unfortunately, the picture wasn't clear enough to use, but the message is still a good one. Here is what Zach spotted on the milkshake machine at a local McDonald's:

Don't put no more ice cream in this machine.

Whoops! If you have already written "don't," which is a contraction of "do" plus "not," then you do NOT need to add another negative with "no." Simply write the following to be correct:

Don't put more ice cream in this machine.






Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Some sentences are so awkward, it is best to "throw the baby out with the bath water" and start all over again!


Here is a question that appeared recently in a USA Today Q&A column written by Edward Iwata:


Is the bailout plan's limits on executive pay for companies that receive money a wise or dumb move?


What was that again? After three read-throughs, I figured out what the writer was trying to say, but I should have been able to follow the point the first time through.


First problem: The SUBJECT of this question is the word "limits," which is PLURAL. Therefore, the VERB that goes with that subject should be "are," not "is."


Second problem: How can "limits" (PLURAL) be described as "a wise or dumb move" (SINGULAR)?


Third problem: This sentence does what I usually refer to as "going around your elbow" to say what you mean. The subjects and verbs are all out of balance in this statement. I would suggest fixing the subject/verb agreement issues but ALSO doing what I often refer to as "throwing the baby out with the bath water" and starting all over again.

Here is my suggestion:
Is it a wise or dumb move to limit executive pay for companies that receive money from the bailout plan?
That seems much clearer to me. If you have another suggestion, please send it along.




Thursday, November 20, 2008

In this sentence, "than" needs "more."

I did a column recently on comparative and superlative wording. Here is another problem sentence in that area--this one from an Associated Press article about the new President's Cabinet picks. It appeared in The Birmingham News this week:

"But the health post could be key in an Obama administration than in some others, making Daschle a key player in helping steer the president-elect's promised health care reforms."

This is probably just a proofreading error by a reporter who left out the word "more" and then didn't catch the omission. If you say THAN, you are implying a comparison, so you need the word MORE in front of what is being compared. In this case, what is being compared is HOW key, or important, the post of Health and Human Services Secretary will be in this administration as COMPARED to other administrations. The sentence should read as follows:

But the health post could be more key in an Obama administration than in some others, making Daschle a key player in helping steer the president-elect's promised health care reforms.

So, stay focused when you are creating comparative and superlative statements, and ALWAYS proofread to be sure you expressed the relationship as you meant to.

Monday, November 17, 2008

AMOUNT is a lump sum noun (SINGULAR).

Are you tired of hearing me point out examples of errors in subject/verb agreement? I just can't give up on getting this one right. Here is a sentence from this morning's The Birmingham News:

He wrote that in the last four years alone, the total amount of fees and costs accumulated were more than $10 million.

Erin Stock was not quoting the federal judge who was referring to yet another potential financial disaster for Jefferson County. The statement was PARAPHRASED, so the reporter could have corrected any incorrect usage by the judge.

AMOUNT is a LUMP SUM NOUN (like laundry, sand, salt, money). It refers to a "lump" of something that is treated as ONE THING. Therefore, the verb should be singular. The sentence should read as follows:

He wrote that, in the last four years alone, the total amount of fees and costs accumulated was more than $10 million.

If you are an observant blog reader, you might also notice that I added a comma between "that" and "in." For me, this clearly sets off the inserted phrase "in the last four years alone." However, journalists are often expected to be skimpy with punctuation to save space, so I won't take points off for that.

If you are writing business prose, it would be wise to add the comma.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Usage Glitch: Is it PASSED or PAST?

I received a local newsletter last week and came across this sentence in the lead paragraph:

Summer and the Olympics have past, football is in mid-season, and Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are approaching quickly with 2009 just ahead.

I had two problems with this sentence. First, PAST and PASSED are different words with different uses. The word PAST is an adjective used to describe events that have already happened. It is a preposition used in phrases indicating time or location. It is also a noun used to refer to bygone times. It would be used appropriately in a sentence like this:

In past years, the holidays did not seem to arrive so quickly. (adjective)

The immediate past president of the PTA is Susan Oliver. (adjective)

We drove past the park three times. (preposition)

She submitted her resume past the deadline.

There are no skeletons in my past. (noun)

The past is no longer with us. (noun)

The word PASSED is a past participle used with helping words like "have" to indicate elapse of time. It is also a past tense verb by itself. It would be used appropriately in sentences like these:

The new legislation has passed in the Senate.

Susan was passed over when the lead role was cast.

John passed me the turkey gravy.

We passed by the park three times.

If you consider the examples above, I hope you would conclude that the sentence in the newsletter should read as follows:

Summer and the Olympics have passed,....

I also had a problem with the phrase "just ahead" at the end of this sentence. As described here, 2009 is not really "just ahead." It comes after Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas--all of which are "just ahead" of the time frame right after summer and the Olympics.

A writer should never try to give the reader too many time frames in one sentence without a clear road map. I would suggest rewording the end of the sentence this way:

Summer and the Olympics have passed, football is in mid-season, and believe it or not, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are approaching quickly, with 2009 just beyond.

By using "just beyond," the reader is looking AHEAD to the holidays and then BEYOND the holidays to the New Year.

All that said, the writer is correct that the holidays are fast approaching. I hope you are looking ahead and getting yourself organized.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Even Painters Should Proofread!



















My friend Marianne Moates sent this snapshot from Montgomery. I'm not sure exactly where this intersection is, but I would imagine many drivers do a doubletake when they pull up to it.


Perhaps the painter was so close to the work that he or she didn't notice.

We should all take a big step back from anything we write and make sure it looks good and is clear from a distance--both geographical and time.


Saturday, November 8, 2008

AP Gets Agreement Wrong in Headline

The Associated Press provides headlines and articles to my AT & T homepage. Here is a headline that made me cringe this morning:



Iraqis still needs US military, official says



Whoops! Here we go again with my pet peeve--incorrect subject/verb agreement. You can have one Iraqi or many Iraqis. If you write about more than one and put the "s" on the noun (subject), you cannot ALSO put an "s" on the verb "need."



This headline should read as follows:



Iraqis still need US military, official says



Friday, November 7, 2008

Proofreading is Really Important--Even in a Political Campaign!

I saved this goof until after the election because I didn't want to appear partisan before everyone voted. However, now that the decision has been made, I cannot resist pointing out a glaring goof that appeared in a letter Sarah Palin sent out about a week ago. There is no formal date at the top of the letter, so I am not sure exactly when it was written.

Underneath her name, SARAH PALIN, which is centered at the top of the page is this phrase:

Wendnesday Morning

I don't want to be like all those mean-spirited people who made fun of the Republican VP nominee for not knowing what the Bush doctrine was or whether Africa is a continent or a country and on and on, but I will suggest that it would be a very good idea to PROOFREAD what other people prepare for you to sign.

This letter has an identifier at the bottom of the page, suggesting it was issued by the Republican National Committee. Somebody there needs to PROOFREAD.

I remember, back in elementary school, having trouble learning to spell the word "Wednesday" because the "d" was silent. Whenever I had to write this word, I would say to myself inside my head: WED...NES...DAY, pronouncing it exactly as it was spelled. To this day, I find myself doing that with words that have silent letters.

If spelling is difficult for you, try my old trick.

I hope you voted and that you were as proud as I was on Tuesday evening to see that we Americans could have a peaceful yet exciting day of elections in spite of our differences.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Please Keep Your COMPARATIVE and SUPERLATIVE straight!

This morning's The Birmingham News contains an article by Phillip Rawls about Alabama's income tax system in comparison with other states. The headline jumped out at me for more reasons than one:


Alabama puts highest taxes on poor than other states


First of all, that is a sad commentary about our antiquated tax system. Second, the grammar is incorrect. "Highest" with the "est" on the end is a SUPERLATIVE. It is used to show the farthest range (up or down) of something. The word "than" suggests a COMPARATIVE of one tax rate with another. The writer has mixed two different levels of comparison. The sentence should read as follows:


Alabama puts higher taxes on poor than other states.
OR
Alabama puts highest taxes on poor of all states.


Phillip Rawls gets the comparison language correct in the first paragraph of his article when he writes:


A new national study shows Alabama levies more income tax than any other state on a family of four living at the federal poverty line.


Hm-mmm. Maybe someone else botched the headline. I'll give Rawls the benefit of the doubt on this one.



Sunday, November 2, 2008

Use of Two Negatives (a Positive) Creates Confusion

Whenever I read a sentence that uses two negative terms to make a statement, I look to see if it wouldn't be clearer stated in positive terms. Here is an example from Sunday's The Birmingham News, in an article about Governor Riley's support for merit pay for teachers:

There is not another segment of society that doesn't reward its workers for a job well done.

Your brain has to do a double loop to get the meaning of this. If you flip the sentence to the positive (and leave out the unnecessary "There is," you do NOT change the meaning, but the sentence is clearer to the reader:

Every other segment of society rewards its workers for a job well done.

In defense of Governor Riley, as I've commented several times before, we all say things like this out loud because we don't have the time to proofread, but I think you will agree the "improved" version is easier to understand.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Verb Confusion--One DOES, but Two DO

I just got back from running errands. My dry cleaners--like everyone else these days--has just raised prices. Someone had posted this sign on the front of the counter:

Prices does not apply to household items.

Whoops! If "prices" is plural and refers to more than one (which it does), the verb should also be plural. In this case, that would be "do."

Prices do not apply to household items.

I'd like my readers' opinions on something: I encounter these kinds of errors more and more as I travel around. Do you think I should just post them on the blog for the lessons they offer, or should I also point out the error to the "perpetrator"?

Please send me a comment with your opinion about this. Today, I was tempted to take a pen and just quietly fix the sign, but I didn't.

I'll look forward to hearing from you!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

CHECK-IN OR CHECK IN?

I went to get my mammogram this week (hope if you need one that you got yours this month, too, or whenever it is due). While at the 119 Health Center, I noticed this card sitting on the desk:


Please check-in at the front desk.


Whoever created this card forgot that "check-in" should be used as a NOUN or an ADJECTIVE. In the VERB slot, as in the sentence above, the hyphen is omitted. This sentence should read as follows:


Please check in at the front desk.


Below are some examples of how to use "check-in" correctly:


The check-in desk (ADJECTIVE) is located in the lobby.


After check-in (NOUN), the plenary session will be in the auditorium.


While you are here in the blog, why not click on the "compound words" site in the index on the right and see the other compound word problems I've come across.


Have a great day!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Agreement--Even for Jackasses


Kenneth Carter's "Web Surfing" column in Sunday's The Birmingham News lists some interesting and funny websites that have to do with being "nuts." One questions who really invented peanut butter, and another mentions the thousands of pounds of nuts sent to CBS when the network canceled the "Jericho" series. You can find all of them by checking the www.blog.al.com/techcetera website.

In one of the entries, Carter messed up the subject/verb agreement. He was talking about the http://www.jackassworld.com/ website and made this statement about the "idiots" who perform crazy stunts for MTV. Here is his sentence:

Their hairbrained stunts and masochistic behavior boggles the mind.

Because Carter writes about BOTH stunts AND behavior, he has a COMPOUND (plural) SUBJECT with two items connected by "and." Therefore, he needs the plural verb "boggle." The sentence should read as follows:

Their hairbrained stunts and masochistic behavior boggle the mind.

Even if you check out http://www.jackassworld.com/, I hope these nuts and their stunts don't (not "doesn't") give you any stupid ideas.

Friday, October 17, 2008

More on Choosing Good Wording to Fit Meaning

Here is another example of wording that does not effectively reflect meaning:

Freda Tarbell, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said it may not be until mid-morning Sunday before officials allow residents to return home.

This is one of those sentences that makes the reader think "Huh?" and then reread to try to sort out the meaning. It could be fixed SO easily, if the writer did a little proofreading, by eliminating the unnecessary negative word NOT and the confusion of trying to use both UNTIL and BEFORE in the same sentence.

The sentence should read as follows:

Freda Tarbell, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, said it may be mid-morning Sunday before officials allow residents to return home.

Wouldn't you agree that this simple fix makes the sentence clearer and smoother?

If you have an entangled sentence you'd like help with, please send along a comment, and I will be happy to work on it for you.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Choose Wording to Fit Meaning

It is always a good idea to go back and proofread something you have written. Sometimes we just don't make the right word choices to express our meaning. Here is a good example from Saturday's The Birmingham News:

"We believe it has been in operation as long as 2005."

Because this was an exact quote from a sheriff's spokesman (about the hydroponic warehouse marijuana operation in Kingston), the goof is not the fault of the reporter, but it still makes a good point about wording.

AS LONG AS is a phrase used to express time up to some specific point or in relationship to some qualification, as in "As long as the store remained open..." or "He is in charge as long as we let him be."

The sentence that is quoted above expresses time in relationship to another time and should use the word SINCE to show that relationship:

We believe it has been in operation SINCE 2005.

Perhaps it is a small distinction, but good writing should read smoothly. The reader should not be thinking, "What was that again?" and rereading what you wrote to be sure of the meaning.

AS LONG AS you write clearly, your readers will get your meaning without scratching their heads.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Be Sure Verb Agrees with the SUBJECT, Not the Phrase Object


While visiting a local bank this week (like most of us in this current financial crisis), I found myself preoccuped with a poster set up on the desk of the banker. This was the headline:


1 in 4 Households Become an Identity Theft Victim


Good information, but poorly worded. This sentence is NOT saying that several households become victims. It is saying that one household becomes a victim (all singular).


The sentence should be written as follows:


1 in 4 Households Becomes an Identity Theft Victim


Do watch out for identity theft--as well as subject/verb agreement goofs. You do not want to be the one person in four who loses his identity.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Quotation Marks...And Then Quotation Marks

The following sentence appeared in the "Jobs" feature of The Birmingham News on Sunday:

“Their attitude is that, ‘You’re very lucky that you’ve got me as your (accountant/physician/salesman),” said Robicheaux.

The writer got the OUTSIDE set of quotation marks correct.
  • Double quotations marks around what Robichaux said
  • A comma INSIDE the quotation marks at the end of the quote when the speaker credit is at the end

The writer was also correct in putting a single quotation mark before "You're" because he was inserting another quote inside the first one. However, he apparently got busy and forgot the second single quotation mark at the end of the "quote within a quote." The sentence should look like this:

“Their attitude is that, ‘You’re very lucky that you’ve got me as your (accountant/physician/salesman),'” said Robicheaux.

Notice that you have three quotation marks together where BOTH the outside quote and the inside quote end.

Here are some good reminders about using quotation marks:

  • Put quotation marks at the beginning AND the end of anything you copy word for word from what someone said.
  • ALWAYS put commas and periods INSIDE the quotation marks.
  • Use single quotation marks around anything you quote inside something you are already quoting.

Here are a couple examples:

The Birmingham News has a Sunday column called "Jobs."

"We have a Bull Connor problem," Condoleezza Rice said recently as she described the distrust Iraqis feel towards their police forces. She was recalling her childhood during the turbulent 1960s in Birmingham.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

You're About to Be Reminded About Your "Your/You're" Grammar

I love to read the daily posts of the ProBlogger because they are full of good suggestions for improving my own blog and linking it in creative ways to the wider world.

Occasionally, however, I find a grammar glitch in the good advice. Sunday's blog is a good example of how NOT to confuse two words that sound exactly alike:

The key to getting picked up is to write content that adds to the conversation on partner sites. Your articles need to be highly relevant and add value to the article your linking to.

The first "your" is correct--the possessive form that shows the articles belong to "you." The second "your" is supposed to be a contraction of "you" and "are" and, therefore, should be written you're.

The sentence should read as follows:


The key to getting picked up is to write content that adds to the conversation on partner sites. Your articles need to be highly relevant and add value to the article you're linking to.

If you're wondering whether or not the contraction is okay, the answer is yes. Website copy is considered more casual and conversational than formal business prose.

if you're wondering about the final sentence that ends in a preposition, you can lighten up on that one a little, too. Contemporary English allows a preposition at the end of the sentence--at least when it makes the sentence less awkward (Is this the person with whom I saw you last evening?), but avoid redundant and unnecessary ending prepositions that create SLANG expressions like "Where are you going TO?" and "Where will you be AT?" The two SLANG examples would be just as clear without the end prepositions, so leave them off.

By the way, if you want some good advice about managing and promoting your own website, be sure to check out http://www.problogger.net/.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Word Usage Important If You Want to Convince This Voter

Many people are bouncing e-mails around as part of the political process lately. Some of the background data is interesting and informative, but I am always skeptical of the message when the writer uses poor grammar or usage.

Jerry Teasley of Pine Mountain, Georgia, says he is a former banker and then goes on to blame the current financial crisis on decisions made by Jimmy Carter's and Bill Clinton's administrations. I will leave the decision about his opinions to you (You can read the rest of what he says by Googling his name.), but Mr. Teasley does not seem to understand when to use there and when to use their. He also does not recognize the difference between a compound noun and a verb used with an adverb.

Here is a sentence about Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from his comments:

In addition, since 1989 their have been several politicians who have
received campaign donations and kick backs from these two failed
institutions.



First of all, the word their is possessive and is only used to refer to something belonging to "them."


Second, kickback is a compound word referring to money paid to someone in return for a biased decision on a public matter. To kick back
means "to relax."


If Mr. Teasley wants to persuade intelligent people to agree with him about financial matters, he should brush up on his grammar and usage before writing his opinions. His sentence should read as follows:


In addition, since 1989 there have been several politicians who have
received campaign donations and kickbacks from these two failed
institutions.






How to Tell If That Bank Notice is Legitimate or Not

In these "scary" economic times, we need to be extra careful about preserving our financial resources. The last thing any of us needs right now is to be the victim of a "phishing" scam that tricks someone into revealing personal security information.

First of all, it is NEVER a good idea to respond to an online inquiry that asks for such information even if it LOOKS as if it came from your bank.

Second, the grammar in these notices is often really bad because they are crafted by criminals, not educated bank officials.

I've posted a good example below. This one appeared in my e-mail box this week, and it didn't take more than a few seconds to recognize that it was written by someone who would not have been hired by my bank. I've deleted the bank name, but left everything else the same. See if you agree:


Dear Customer,

To ensure your safety and protection in all internet banking transactions, We (no need to capitalize) were cross-examining all accounts file (this word not needed) Via (no need to capitalize) our newly upgraded SSL server. This is to inform you that we encountered an error updating your SECURITY QUESTION and ANSWER in your Online Banking profile. To avoid someone from accessing (poor wording--TO KEEP SOMEONE FROM...) your account, we request you verify your account immediately. We also wish to inform you that from time to time you will be having difficulty accessing special account features and might be liable to facing online fraud (LIABLE FOR...) for which (the bank) wouldn't (not likely a real bank would have used a contraction here) be held responsible unless your account has been updated. We kindly ask you to "click here"
so as to update via our newly upgraded SSL server.We apologize for any inconveniences.
Thank you,

I did leave one grammar/usage error uncorrected just in case the perpetrator happens to read this blog, but I doubt that is likely.

If you think you know what the other error is, please add a comment, and I will let you know if you are correct.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Do I Forego? Or Forgo?


Kathy Kemp's column in Sunday's The Birmingham News taught me a word usage distinction I'd never thought about before.

Kathy was congratulating Dr. Regina Benjamin who won a MacArthur Fellowship "genius grant" recently. Kathy wrote:

The South Alabama family practitioner, who regularly forgoes a salary in order to serve uninsured patients in tiny Bayou La Batre,....

I don't use the word "forgo/ forgoes" very often, but the last time I did, I probably spelled it wrong because there is another word "forego" that is similar.

After reading Kathy's wonderful column, I did a little checking and will share my answers with you. For the record, in case you ever need to use either of these words:

FORGO (forgoes, forgoing) means to do without or abstain from.
I try to forgo dessert. Dr. Benjamin forgoes her salary so the clinic can survive.


FOREGO (foregoes, foregone) means to go before or precede.
In a good budget, saving foregoes spending. It is a foregone conclusion that it will rain today.

Dr. Benjamin plans to forgo personal use of the $500,000 grant money she will receive, too. She will use it to help complete the new Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic Building. This is a woman who truly deserves our admiration. The philosophy that foregoes everything she does is quite simple: "It's nice to be needed," she says.
If you'd like to know more about this remarkable person, just GOOGLE her name for all kinds of information.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Bailout? Or Bail Out? It Depends on the Sentence.

The news is full of references to a possible bailout of the financial markets. We should know this week whether or not Congress will vote to bail out the Wall Street financial firms that are melting down on a daily basis.

Certainly, the grammar issue is not as important as the financial one, but I'm no expert on the financial issue. I will point out that bailout (one word) is a noun, or possibly an adjective, as in "This bailout will be costly." or "This bailout legislation needs revision." Bail out (two words) is the verb form (bail = verb, out = adverb that describes the verb), as in "If we bail out these firms, who will be next with a request?"

The online NEWS ALERT from The Wall Street Journal got a little hasty with the grammar this week and posted this sentence:

U.S. lawmakers said a tentative deal has been reached to bailout the troubled financial system. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said bailout deal legislation still needs to be finalized, but that "I think we're there" on a deal.

If you put "to" in front of a word, you should be using the VERB form (creating an infinitive). If you use the word to describe a noun, you should use the ADJECTIVE form (used correctly here). The sentence above should read:

U.S. lawmakers said a tentative deal has been reached to bail out the troubled financial system. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said bailout deal legislation still needs to be finalized, but that "I think we're there" on a deal.

Belk's department store had an advertisement in Sunday's The Birmingham News that used "knockout" incorrectly. Knockout (one word) is a noun and should be used as a subject or object (with "a" or "the" in front of it). In the Belk ad, which was promoting the good cause of Wacoal's "FI(GH)T for the CURE" campaign, this was the sentence:

Help KNOCKOUT breast cancer.

Because this sentence should have used the verb form, it should have read as follows:

Help KNOCK OUT breast cancer.

Right next to the ad was an article about Friday evening's Presidential debate that quoted Fox News commentator William Kristol as saying correctly,

"There was no knockout, and maybe no knockdown, but McCain was on the offensive throughout."

The above sentence was correct because both words were used in NOUN slots. To use the VERB forms correctly, Kristol would have to have said something like this:

Although McCain was on the offensive throughout the debate, he did not knock out or knock down his opponent.

Next time you are in the checkout lane at the grocery store, check out the headlines on all those magazines to see if they are correct.








Wednesday, September 24, 2008

JEOPARDY! Promotes Good Grammar

On the first section of the popular quiz show JEOPARDY! on September 23, one of the categories was "Grammar." The contestants had to guess the questions for answers about things like adjectives and active and passive voice.

This is a good reminder that, in most of your writing, ACTIVE voice is the best choice. "Bob ate the pie." That was the example given on the show. In this sentence, Bob (subject) is DOING something.

The PASSIVE voice example, which I like to refer to as "going around your elbow to say what you mean" was "The pie was eaten by Bob."

A good way to keep yourself in active voice is to avoid writing phrases like "by Bob" or "by the assistant." If there is a "by" phrase in the sentence, get rid of it and promote its object to subject, as in:

The report was written by her assistant.

Her assistant wrote the report.

I hope that helps. If you are not happy with your level of usage and grammar, one good help can be to watch quiz shows that involve words and thinking. JEOPARDY! is a good one. So is WHEEL OF FORTUNE.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Job Hunt Not Going Well? Check the grammar in your resume.

In my travels to various companies and state agencies to do business writing workshops, I often hear HR managers state that their first "cut" to a pile of resumes is to eliminate all those with spelling or grammar errors. As one manager at a prominent Birmingham company told me recently, "I simply won't consider an applicant whose resume has errors."

Dr. Mildred L. Culp writes a syndicated column about workplace issues that appears in The Birmingham News and Mobile's Press-Register on Sunday mornings. She responded to a reader's letter this week with much the same advice about the importance of good grammar and usage in resumes. See what you think of the writing quality of her reader's letter:

...I would your help in maybe redoing my resume because I have been job hunting for over a year without any luck I keep trying to better my education to help but with no luck so if you have time please give me some advice. I am currently enrolled into the H&R Block tax course but I am not sure where to list it at.

Whew! In her response, Dr. Culp referred to the grammatical errors in the letter (missing word, run-on sentences, incorrect prepositions) as "door closers," and I would certainly agree with that. Here are my suggestions for improving this dreadful paragraph:

I would like your help in redoing my resume because I have been job hunting for more than a year without success. I keep trying to better my education, but I am still unable to get ahead. If you have time, please give me some advice. I am currently enrolled in the H&R Block tax course, but I am not sure where to list that on my resume.

Doesn't that read more smoothly?

If you would like to contact Dr. Culp about help with job search, you can access her website at www.modbee.com/workwise. Her sydicated column originates at the The Modesto Bee in central California. You can e-mail her at culp@workwise.net.



Sunday, September 21, 2008

A New Wrinkle in the "Its" Fabric

I see examples of confusion about the proper use of "its" (possessive) without an apostrophe and "it's" (contraction of it+is or it+has) with the apostrophe. Today I came across a new one: putting the apostrophe AFTER the "s," which would not ever be correct.

While visiting the Gulf coast, we surfed the Internet this morning for good prices on a round of golf and came across this sentence during our search:

Perdido Bay Golf Club was the former site of the Pensacola Open for 10 years, and continues to hold its' integrity as a premier championship golf course.

There would NEVER be a good reason for putting an apostrophe AFTER the "s" in "its." Also, as I've pointed out in several previous posts, an apostrophe is NEVER used in the possessive form. Therefore, the sentence should read as follows:

Perdido Bay Golf Club was the former site of the Pensacola Open for 10 years, and continues to hold its integrity as a premier championship golf course.

While we are looking at this sentence, let me also point out that the meaning is a little confusing. I believe the writer meant to suggest that Perdido Bay Golf Club was the site of the Pensacola Open for ten years, not the FORMER site for ten years.

In addition, as I have pointed out in many of my grammar workshops, it is not necessary to put a comma before "and" when what comes after "and" is not a complete thought.

How about rewriting this sentence as follows for better punctuation and greater clarity:

Perdido Bay Golf Club was the site of the Pensacola Open for 10 years and continues to hold its integrity as a premier championship golf course.

Now that we have that straight, I hope you are having a great weekend wherever you are and whatever you're doing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Still having trouble with "its" and "it's"? You are not the only one.

While shopping on the Internet this week, I came across two websites that have not figured out how to use its and it's correctly. The first was the teavana.com website that offers wonderful, high quality green tea at great prices. In advertising their product, someone wrote:

Green tea has long been praised for it's health benefits.

I agree about the tea, but it's WITH the apostrophe is not the possessive form. It can only be used where you can replace it's with "it is" or "it has." That does not work here. You would not say, "Green tea has long been praised for 'it is' health benefits (or praised for 'it has' health benefits). The sentence should read this way:

Green tea has long been praised for its health benefits.

After ordering my tea, I moved on to hydrangeas. We are thinking about putting some in our side yard, and I wanted to check on the best season for planting them. On a website with beautiful photos and great information, I saw the following sentence about the Annabelle variety of hydrangea:

Annabelle seems to be variable in the quality of it's bloom.

This sentence has the same problem as the "tea" sentence. It is referring to the bloom OF THE Annabelle variety. Therefore, it needs the possessive form to show that the bloom belongs to the Annabelle.

Most of us would never consider putting an apostrophe in HIS, HERS, OURS, THEIRS, YOURS, so why do we persist in putting one in ITS when it is possessive? The sentence should read as follows:

Annabelle seems to be variable in the quality of its bloom.

I hope these examples are helpful. It's (It has) been fun trying to explain this grammar rule and its two different usages.

Monday, September 15, 2008

If you must use "oneself," it is one word. But there's a better way.

Here is a sentence from the Sunday, September 14, edition of The Birmingham News.

A recent survey found that 82 percent of respondents considered paid sick leave for ones self a "very important" employee benefit.

You need to make a whole series of corrections to get this one right. First of all, if you must refer to "oneself," it is a one-word pronoun. It is also rather old-fashioned. Even if you did write it as two words, it would need an apostrophe (one's self).

Second, if you are speaking about respondents (plural), the word oneself (singular) is not the best pronoun choice anyway. You need to use themselves (plural) as the pronoun to refer back to the respondents, so the sentence should read this way:

A recent survey found that 82 percent of respondents considered paid sick leave for themselves a "very important" employee benefit.

I hope you agree that these changes make this a much smoother and clearer sentence.

I also hope you share this blog with your co-workers who might consider themselves fortunate to meet me through you!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

A Collection--even of MANY outfits--is still just ONE collection.

This morning's "People" section in The Birmingham News has a short piece about the influence of the punk era from the 1970s on the current New York Fashion week. I suppose that helps prove the theory that there's really nothing totally new in the world.

In referring to Rag & Bone designers, the article says, "Their collection Friday wasn't the only ones inspired by the era's nonconformity."

No matter how many designs Rag & Bone showed, if you refer to their collection, it is still just one collection. The sentence should read:


Their collection Friday wasn't the only one inspired by the era's
nonconformity."
So, if you are out shopping this month for new fall fashions, I hope you will conclude that the world of fashion is a place where you can relive whatever era of your life you like the best. If it doesn't come up this season, just wait one or two!