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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.
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.