April 22nd, 2015
Newspaper reporters and columnists can no longer rely on copy editors to polish their usage and grammar. More than one of them has actually thanked Grammar Glitch Central for pointing out an error or two. There should be someone at the newspaper office whose job it is to know good writing standards and apply them while proofreading. These days that is not happening. Reporters write their own copy, do their own proofreading, and click SEND.
Recently, a new problem is cropping up. Even if the reporters get it right, whoever creates the photo captions, headlines, and sidebars is making careless errors that detract from the quality of the reporting. That person ought to have a good command of standard writing skills and a desire to proofread for correctness. In ONE issue of The Birmingham News this past week, the following errors appeared in headlines, captions, and sidebars:
Whoops #1: In an article about the gyrocopter that landed in DC, the Tribune News Service reporter correctly stated that the pilot must stay away from the CAPITOL (the building), but the photographic caption says that "Doug Hughes landed on the grass in front of the United States CAPITAL on Wednesday." CAPITAL refers to the entire city. CAPITOL is the building in front of which Hughes landed.
Whoops #2: Columnist Edward Bowser correctly named the Birmingham Children's THEATRE when he referred to it numerous times in his article about their wonderful program of taking performances to schools. However, the headline for his column is this: "Birmingham Children's THEATER brings magic of stage to schools." Perhaps the incorrect spelling of a proper name is not a big deal, but I'm sure that group consciously chose to use the THEATRE spelling, and it would not have taken the headline creator more than a minute to check the website for the proper spelling–especially since Bowser had handed that person the correct spelling.
Whoops #3: In Mike Oliver's creepy but informative article about Alabama's 58 spider varieties, Mike correctly spelled RECLUSE when he listed the brown recluse as one of the three highly venomous spiders in the state. However, the caption next to the photo of this spider refers to it as the Brown RECLUDE Spider.
Whoops #4: In a sidebar that summarizes the details of an article about Alabama's pro-life legislature and the abortion issue, the first bullet contains this grammatically incorrect sentence: "Women must receive counseling designed to discourage her from having an abortion." WOMEN is plural. Therefore, the correct pronoun would be THEY. The sentence should be worded one of two ways: 1) WOMEN must receive counseling to discourage THEM from having ABORTIONS. or 2) A WOMAN must receive counseling to discourage HER from having an abortion.
Whoops #5: Those who create photo captions should understand where commas should go and, more importantly, where they should not go. One comma "rule" is that, if a title comes before a person's name, it is not necessary to set that name off (like an appositive) with commas. A second "rule" is that a subject should not be separated from a verb by a comma. In this sentence from a caption about a tour of a school campus, the comma between WILLIAMS and LEADS is incorrect: "Here, former Hoover schools Superintendent Connie Williams, leads faculty and parents from Shades Mountain Christian Schoool on a tour…."
It should not be unreasonable to expect a better level of correct usage than this. These are not acceptable errors.
April 2nd, 2015
Although grammar and usage standards are important for good writing, so are common sense and logic. Often, what your mind sends to your fingers is not exactly what you meant to say. That is one more reason why proofreading–with your brain in gear–is so important. You might think your message is clear, but when you go back and proofread, you can see that the wording needs tweaking.
Here are two examples of illogical statements written by people who did not go back and tweak;
Why would the US want to beef up the vulnerability of its satellites? Most likely, what this headline creator meant to suggest was that the US would beef up its SATELLITE SECURITY in order to avoid VULNERABILITY. A quick proofread before hitting "Send" should have caught this.
And a second illogical statement. This one appeared in the AL.com article I mentioned recently–the one with 17 errors in it. Here is the sentence:
The waste is mostly dry, the wetter waste, known as "cake" is scraped out during the 14-day span between the departure and arrival of the new flock.
This is a terrible sentence for several reasons. Let's begin with the logic. How can there be a 14-day span between the departure and arrival of the new flock? What this AL.com reporter is trying to convey is that there is a 14-day span between the departure of the previous flock (the one now on its way to dinner tables) and the arrival of the new flock (which will actually live for only six weeks before meeting the same fate).
So now the logic has been dealt with. Next up, the run-on sentence. THE WASTE IS MOSTLY DRY should stand alone as a separate sentence.
The reporter places a comma after WASTE, suggesting that what comes next is an inserted phrase (KNOWN AS "CAKE"), but he fails to place a second comma after CAKE to indicate the end of the insert.
All three of these things make for a sentence that causes the reader to utter a mental "Huh?" Here is a clearer, smoother version.
The waste is mostly dry. The wetter waste, known as "cake," is scraped out during the 14-day span between the departure of the previous flock and the arrival of the new one.
I hope these details did not ruin anyone's appetite. Happy proofreading.
March 26th, 2015
During business writing workshops, I am often asked about the proper number of spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. There is usually disagreement among the participants. Some say two spaces, absolutely. Others say one is enough.
The simple answer in 2015 is that one space is enough. Unlike typewriters, word processors automatically apportion the correct amount of space between letters and punctuation marks. If you doublespace after the period in something you've keyed in on a word processor, the receiver might have to make adjustments in the copy for your extra space.
In her column in The Birmingham News on Sunday, March 22, 2015, Kelly Kazek, who writes for Al.com from her base in Huntsville, offered a humorous look at this dilemma as well as some good examples of how that doublespace after a period is often viewed:
It makes you look older than carrying an AARP card in your wallet.
People will know you are now old enough to be a Walmart greeter.
Some HR folks use this to screen job applicants.
It is obsolete. No one teaches typing anymore.
Editors have to rekey copy submitted with two spaces after the period.
It is a "travesty" that bugs Kelly Kazek.
If you'd like to read Kelly's complete column, which is as hilarious as it is informative, you can find her on Pinterest at "Odd Travels" or "Real Alabama." Kelly says she writes about "the quirkiness of human nature from a humorous point of view," and this column is a perfect example. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org, find her on Facebook, or use this link to read her actual column: http://www.al.com/living/index.ssf/2015/03/for_the_love_of_punctuation_st.html. If you follow this link, you can also read the amazing array of comments.
Speaking of Facebook, please check out my post from March 25, 2015, which chastises Birmingham News reporters for using an apostrophe to form the plural of a word. As of this afternoon, this has been my most popular Facebook post yet at Grammar Glitch Central. That apostrophe error bugs me as much as the extra space after the period bugs Kelly.
March 9th, 2015
When President George Bush signed the legislation extending Daylight Saving Time by four weeks, I wonder if he realized how many people, including school children, would have to leave for work or school in the dark until April rolls around. In my part of Alabama, it was still pitch dark at 6:45 this morning. The days just aren't long enough yet.
That said, I'd like to point out that the official name of this "Spring Forward/Fall Back" ritual we follow every year (except in Arizona and Hawaii) is DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME, not SAVINGS TIME. The word SAVING is singular in this context.
A nod of approval from Grammar Glitch Central to John Oliver who used this correctly on "Last Week Tonight" in his hilarious "How is this still a Thing?" spoof of Daylight Saving Time.
NOTE: I added this update about John Oliver at 6:43 a.m. on March 11, and it is still pitch dark outside as kids in this neighborhood head out to the main road to catch their school buses.
February 27th, 2015
I am often asked about semicolons and how to use them correctly. Sometimes the writer wants to know if semicolons and commas can be used interchangeably. The answer is no. I think the two example sentences posted here will help clarify that answer:
In an article about an abandoned mausoleum in Bessemer, Alabama, a Birmingham News reporter created this statement:
The others buried there were: Peter Smith, Geneva Ann Jones, a 6-month-old girl who died from a heart condition in 1993; Vivian Lawrence, 49; Robert Samuel Vaughn, 74: Emily Parsons, 93; Annie Rae Stevens, 56.
NOTE: The names in the above example have been changed.
Whoops: When people are listed in a series, their names should be separated by commas. If additional information is given about some of the people, that information should be separated from the name with a comma. In that case, each person/information combo should be set off from the next person or person/info combo by a semicolon. This should be done consistently throughout the sentence.
In the example above, PETER SMITH is separated from GENEVA ANN JONES by a comma. The punctuation should be a semicolon to be consistent with the rest of the sentence. The word AND should be added after "93;" to indicate that ANNIE RAE STEVENS is the last person in the series. Also notice below that it is not necessary to use a colon after WERE in this sentence. It should read this way:
The others buried there were Peter Smith; Geneva Ann Jones, a six-month-old girl who died from a heart condition in 1993; Vivian Lawrence, 49; Robert Samuel Vaughn, 74; Emily Parsons, 93; and Annie Rae Stevens, 56.
When several items are in a series but none of them contain additional information that should be set off by commas, the items can be separated by just a comma. Notice below that there is no good reason for the semicolon after the word INVOLVED in this sentence from another article in The Birmingham News:
The notice says that anyone who wants to report an allegation should do so in writing to the court with as much information as possible, including the person or persons involved; the date on which the alleged violation occurred and specific details of the incident.
For business writing prose (as opposed to journalism style), I would add a comma before AND after OCCURRED, to indicate the end of the series. The sentence should read this way:
The notice says that anyone who wants to report an allegation should do so in writing to the court with as much information as possible, including the person or persons involved, the date on which the alleged violation occurred, and specific details of the incident.
February 16th, 2015
Here is a sentence I came across in an Associated Press release about FBI Director James Comey's comments on race relations and law enforcement:
"Answering questions after a speech at Georgetown University, he noted that there was 'a tendency to move onto other things as busy people.'"
Whoops #1: There is a difference in meaning between ONTO and ON TO. ONTO involves motion to the top of something, as in jumping ONTO the top of a picnic table or gluing glitter ONTO a greeting card. ON TO uses ON to suggest going forward, as in moving ON or getting ON and TO to indicate which direction the subject is heading.
Whoops #2: AS BUSY PEOPLE is in the wrong location for the meaning.
This sentence should read as follows:
Answering questions after a speech at Georgetown University, he noted that there was, among busy people, "a tendency to move on to other things."
February 6th, 2015
When you use a series of phrases within a sentence, it is important to set up a pattern and stick to it. This is PARALLEL STRUCTURE, which it allows your reader to grasp the series of phrases without having to shift gears because you shifted format.
Cameron Smith (Smith Strategies LLC) wrote an opinion piece for The Birmingham News about the recent State of the Union address. It included this rather convoluted sentence:
"Obama poked at conservatives, tried to rile them with talk of tax increases, more "free" government programs, and repeatedly espouse his "middle class" ideas for America."
Whoops! When reading this sentence, it is difficult to recognize what goes with what. MORE "FREE" GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS is not a separate phrase. It belongs with TALK OF TAX INCREASES as one of two things Obama tried to use to rile conservatives. However, REPEATEDLY ESPOUSE…. is a separate phrase and should use the verb form ESPOUSED in the same tense as POKED and TRIED.
So what to do? The three phrases that should be in parallel structure are these:
…POKED AT CONSERVATIVES
…TRIED TO RILE THEM WITH TALK OF TAX INCREASES AND MORE "FREE" GOVERNMENT PROGRAMS
…REPEATEDLY ESPOUSED HIS "MIDDLE CLASS" IDEAS FOR AMERICA
Here is what I conside a good edit of this sentence:
Obama poked at conservatives, tried to rile them with talk of tax increases and more "free" government programs, and repeatedly espoused his "middle class" ideas for America.
NOTE TO READERS: If you'd like to see some examples of how to befuddle the agreement in sentences, please check out the latest two posts on Facebook at Grammar Glitch Central.
January 27th, 2015
The first 2015 issue of The Pest Bulletin arrived with my pest control bill this week. In its article about bed bugs (Ugh!), I came across this sentence, which is a classic example of how to muddy your writing by avoiding parallel structure:
"The study found that bed bugs can both transmit to mice the parasite that causes Chagas disease–they can also pick up the disease from infected mice."
BOTH followed by a dash is not the way to word this. AND might work (BOTH TRANSMIT AND…), but it doesn't create the correct relationship. My choice would be the phrases NOT ONLY and BUT ALSO, which work well in this type of situation:
The study found that bed bugs not only can transmit to mice the parasite that causes Chagas disease, but they can also pick up the disease from infected mice.
Sorry for the "Ugh!" factor in this post. If you'd like to see how "whether stripping" not only keeps out cold air but also reduces the number of pests coming into your home, please see my Grammar Glitch Central Facebook page for January 26.
January 20th, 2015
My thanks to regular Glitch reader Joe C. for sharing this hilarious example. Yes, even rugs need proofreading sometimes! My friend Linda Beam, who blogs at www.writetothepoint.net and has a Facebook page called Write to the Point, also shared this example.
Take a close look at this rug, which graced the floor of the Pinellas County (Florida) sheriff's office for several months before a deputy noticed that the phrase below the state insignia reads, "IN DOG WE TRUST."
The error is a simple reverse of letters, but it is a big Whoops!
Joe reports that the rug will now be auctioned off, with proceeds going to a local animal rescue entity.
Hopefully, a new position–Pinellas County Proofreader–will be established soon.
January 16th, 2015
Regular Grammar Glitch reader Joe C. shared this "fast fact" about the state of New Jersey and pointed out that the Glitch in this description highlights "the classic disagreement between subject and verb." He commented that many people have trouble with "tricky collective nouns" like COLLECTION, LAUNDRY, MONEY, and other "lump sum" items that cannot be counted individually.
In the sentence at left, COLLECTION is the subject, not SPOONS. No matter how many spoons are in the collection, it is only one collection that IS DISPLAYED. I would add that good professional writing style would use the words MORE THAN rather than OVER in this instance. The sentence should read this way:
A collection of more than 5,400 spoons is displayed at the Lambert Castle Spoon Museum in Paterson, New Jersey.
To see another example of poor subject/verb agreement, scroll back two posts to January 5 (titled "INFORMATION is like LAUNDRY, MONEY or SAND.")