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.")
January 10th, 2015
Mary Sanchez, opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star, could have benefited from a quick edit of her recent column about the new U. S. policy on Cuba. Using comparative and superlative forms like MORE and MOST can be tricky.
Take a look at this sentence:
"Our country's stand against the Castro regime was always mostly about the geopolitical threat to us, our country, than it was about the oppression of the Cuban people."
Good point, but MOSTLY is the superlative form (like GREATEST, FINEST, COSTLIEST). It does not imply a direct comparison between two things–in this case, THE GEOPOLITICAL THREAT TO OUR COUNTRY and THE OPPRESSION OF THE CUBAN PEOPLE. It does not fit with THAN. What is needed here is the comparative form, which would be MORE ABOUT….THAN…. The sentence should read this way:
Our country's stand against the Castro regime was always more about the geopolitical threat to us, our country, than it was about the oppression of the Cuban people.
We all make these mistakes as we commit our thoughts to paper. The solution is to spot and correct them by going back and editing the wording for clarity.
NOTE: Welcome to any of my Mobile workshop participants who may be reading this blog for the first time this week. I hope you find it useful and will visit often.
January 5th, 2015
Even experienced writers like long-time columnist Cal Thomas mess up subject/verb agreement sometimes. Here is a sentence from his excellent Christmas column, "What if the greatest story ever told is true?" A quick proofread by him or his editor would probably have caught this.
"The information provided by witnesses to these events are either true, or not."
Whoops! INFORMATION is a collective noun like LAUNDRY, MONEY, SALT, or SAND. These things are lump sums. We don't count them individually when we write or speak about them. In other words, people do not say that they have several LAUNDRIES to do today or that they have only one MONEY in the bank. They don't try to describe how many SALTS are in the shaker or how many SANDS are on the beach.
Therefore, these nouns are treated as singular and take a singular verb. Cal Thomas's sentence should read this way:
The information provided by witnesses to these events is either true, or not.
On the other hand, nouns that are not collective refer to things that can be counted, and people do say that they have several SHIRTS to wash or several DOLLAR BILLS on the table. They do describe the number of BEACHES in a state or the number of SALT SHAKERS in the cupboard.
The way to avoid this Glitch is to consider whether or not the noun you want to use refers to something that can be counted or not. Here are some sentences that illustrate this point:
1. The LAUNDRY is piling up this week.
The TOWELS are ready to be washed.
2. My MONEY is tied up in real estate.
There are three dollar BILLS on the counter.
3. The SAND on Gulf Coast beaches is bright white.
GRAINS of sand are in my shoes.
4. Is there enough SALT in the soup?
Three different KINDS of salt are on the shelf.
December 28th, 2014
I am about to finish a great first novel by Pauline Livers. Titled Cementville (Counterpoint Press) and set in rural Kentucky during the Vietnam War, it tells the story of a town that loses seven young National Guard soldiers in one brutal overseas attack. There is much more to it, but that is where the story begins.
I love the writing and the characterization, but I keep coming across sentences using LAY where LIE would be correct. Here are two examples:
from page 72: "…she lays staring at the brown stains in the ceiling, raggedy islands in a dirty sea."
from page 98: "They lay by the water on a soft bed of storm-tossed leaves,…"
Whoops! Both of these sentences are in the present tense, which means that a form of LIE is the correct choice. Here is why: LIE is an intransitive verb describing the act of reclining. It does not take an object. LAY is a transitive verb describing the act of putting or placing something. It does take an object (the thing being put or placed.)
Here is how these two sentences should read:
from page 72: "…she lies staring at the brown stains in the ceiling, raggedy islands in a dirty sea."
from page 98: "They lie by the water on a soft bed of storm-tossed leaves,…"
NOTE: For another example of how to use LIE and LAY correctly, please see my most recent Facebook post on the Grammar Glitch Central page. (December 28, 2014)
Please do not let these minor corrections keep you from seeking out and reading this excellent novel. If you like southern fiction that calls to mind writers like William Faulkner or Ron Rash, you will find Cementville to be a good read.
August 2nd, 2014
A letter to the editor in The Birmingham News last week included an odd, unintended perspective on war. The writer wanted to compare the current Israel/Palestine conflict to issues in the Korean War and made this statement:
In one of the most brilliant military strategies in the annuls of war, Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed behind enemy lines at Inchon and could have destroyed the North Korean Army and perhaps the Chinese Army.
Whoops! Much as I'd love to see war ANNULLED as a strategy for solving problems, the word this writer wanted is ANNALS (a chronological record of events). ANNUL is a verb (to make or declare invalid).
Personally, I rather like this incorrect usage. I pray regularly for the ANNULMENT of war and would rejoice in seeing the ANNALS of war be nothing but history, never to be repeated. What an idiotic, wasteful, and destructive way to resolve conflict!