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Friday, August 29, 2008

A Case of Addled Agreement

Here is a convoluted sentence that appeared in the "Money" section of The Birmingham News yesterday morning:

Tennessee Valley Authority officials are looking at the feasibility of completing its two unfinished nuclear reactors in northeast Alabama and has asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reinstate its construction permits.

Whew! The subject of the sentence is "officials," so "officials are looking" works just fine. However, the second verb in the sentence is "has asked," but it still goes back to "officials" for the subject. Therefore, it should be "have asked."

In addition, this sentence uses the pronoun "its" twice. The "its" refers to the TVA, not the TVA officials, and this also makes the sentence awkward because "TVA officials" is the subject.

The better pronoun choice would be "their," referring to the TVA officials who are the subject of the sentence.

Tennessee Valley Authority officials are looking at the feasibility of completing their two unfinished nuclear reactors in northeast Alabama and have asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to reinstate their construction permits.

I hope all of my readers will take their time when choosing subjects and verbs and make sure they agree.

Have a great Labor Day weekend!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Verb Should Agree with Subject

I came across this awkward sentence in a Letter to the Editor published in the San Jose Mercury News this morning:

Second, the only situation where things might be wished otherwise are well-understood cases of exceeding moral clarity.

Because "situation" (which is singular) is the subject of this sentence, the verb cannot be "are" (which is plural). However, if you simply change "are" to "is," the sentence remains awkward.

Sometimes, your best choice is to do what my grandfather used to call "throw the baby out with the bath water and start all over again." Here are a couple suggestions for better wording:

The only instances (situations) where things might be wished otherwise would be well-understood cases of exceeding moral clarity.

Only in situations involving exceeding moral clarity might things be wished otherwise.

Things might be wished otherwise only in situations involving exceeding moral clarity.

Another LY Adverb Example

While editing a paragraph in a manuscript of my own this afternoon, I came across another LY adverb error. I had written the sentence this way:

The property had previously been leased to the Russ family who operated a butcher shop next to the inn.

The better choice would be to move "previously" so it is not separating the parts of the verb:

The property had been leased previously to the Russ family....

Another choice would be to used "previously" at the beginning of the sentence, still keeping the subject and the parts of the verb together:

Previously, the property had been leased to the Russ family....

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Placing "LY" Adverbs for Clarity

Workshop participants often ask about the appropriate place to locate "ly" adverbs in sentence structure. One good policy is to avoid placing an "ly" adverb between the subject and the verb. The sentence usually reads more smoothly if the "ly" adverb comes after the verb.

Here is an example I came across in a brochure this week while visiting in the Bay area near San Francisco:

Sunset's headquarters sits upon land that originally was part of a grant to Don Jose Arguello, governor of Spanish California in 1815.

This sentence reads more smoothly if the word "originally" is moved so it does not separate "that" from "was." (This is not a rule--just a preference.)

Sunset's headquarters sits upon land that was originally part of a grant to....

It is interesting to note that, in this same brochure, the suggestion about placement of the "ly" adverb is followed in this later sentence:

Flower color comes primarily from blooming shrubs and perennials.

In the sentence above, "primarily" does not separate "color" from "comes," as it would in the wording: "Flower color primarily comes from...."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Time Expressions with "Between"

Using "between" in combination with the word "to" creates an awkward and illogical phrase. Here is an example of this goof (as it appeared in an article in The Birmingham News on August 14):

At the same time, it is estimated that electricity use will increase 29 percent between 2006 to 2030....

Events happen "between" one time AND another time. Or, they happen "from" one time "to" another time. The above sentence should read as follows:

At the same time, it is estimated that electricity use will increase 29 percent between 2006 and 2030 (or: from 2006 to 2030).

Once you make a habit of checking this one, the logic will be clear, and your writing will also be clearer.

Monday, August 4, 2008

A Kiss from Benjamin Franklin

Writing instructors often refer to "KISS" (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) as a reminder to express yourself in the simplest terms that make your point. Although his language might be a little antiquated for today's readers (and also a little more gracious), founding father Benjamin Franklin knew that simple, direct writing is the best choice for communicating information.

In a recent review of his writings in The New Yorker magazine (January 28, 2008, page 78), Jill Lepore quotes Franklin as suggesting the following:

“A multitude of words obscures the sense.”

“To write clearly, not only the most expressive, but the plainest words should be chosen.”

“If a man would that his Writings have an Effect on the Generality of Readers, he had better imitate that Gentleman, who would use no word in his Works that was not well understood by his Cook-Maid.”

I could not agree more, but I must point out that most of us do not automatically write in simple and direct terms. The trick to good writing is to jot down ideas quickly, then go back and wield the "wordiness ax" until you end up with simple, direct wording.
Of course, if you are not sure your final draft is simple and direct enough, you can always run it by your Cook-Maid for an honest opinion.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Apostrophe Confusion--Again!

I am still trying to help reduce the number of apostrophe goofs that appear in print. Here are three I came across recently, followed by the corrected versions:

Another blogger posted this sentence on his website in June:

It depends upon what others write about you and the ranking of their SITE'S in Google....

Let me repeat AGAIN: The apostrophe is NOT USED in making a word plural. He should have referred to "their SITES" (with no apostrophe).


The Hoover Library Fiction website recently described a book as follows:

The "New York Times" bestselling AUTHORS most remarkable novel yet...." (sounds as if several authors put the book together)

This description intends to describe ONE bestselling AUTHOR'S most remarkable novel yet (novel belongs to author, so AUTHOR'S, which is possessive).


The Birmingham News carried a sports story last Monday morning in which the reporter just couldn't make up his mind about IT'S and ITS. Because he apparently wasn't sure which version was correct, he decided to use both and wrote a sentence that went something like this:

This team is now pleased with its quality and it's speed.

He really can't have it both ways. When he is writing about the quality and the speed BELONGING to the team (IT), he MUST use the version WITHOUT the apostrophe:

This team is now pleased with its quality and its speed.

Usage Blooper: THEIR for THERE

As many of you know, I have been extremely busy this summer teaching business writing workshops around Alabama. I apologize for not keeping this blog as current as I should have, but my workshop participants have shared many great examples of grammar and usage issues, and I will try to share all of those with you in the coming days and weeks.

One usage goof that still pops up pretty consistently is confusion of THEIR and THERE. This example appeared in a book review in a newsletter someone shared with me last week:

This book explains why their were cotton mills in Roswell before the war....

Whoops! THEIR is the possessive form and can only be used when you are referring to something that belongs to a group of people, as in "The people of Roswell were proud of THEIR cotton mill."

The sentence above in red should have used THERE which, in this sense, is just a place holder at the beginning of the sentence:

This book explains why THERE were cotton mills in Roswell before the war....

The other use for THERE is to show location, as in "The mill is over THERE in that valley."

Now that that issue is cleared up, THERE should not be any reason for readers of this blog to confuse THEIR use of these two words!

Time Expressions Should Read Smoothly

When you write the times for an event, think about the logic of what you are expressing. Recently, I received an invitation to a book release party, and the time frame was expressed as follows:

...on Saturday, beginning at 4 p.m. until 6 p.m. (sounds as if the BEGINNING is from 4 until 6)

I also see times expressed this way:

...on Saturday, between 4 p.m. until 6 p.m.

If you say "beginning at" or "between," you CANNOT continue with "until." The wording does not make sense. Here are some correct suggestions for expressing time frames:

...on Saturday, from 4 p.m. until 6 p.m.

...on Saturday, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m.

I hope you are able to read this entry at some point between now and the next time I post to this site.