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An Unparalleled Letdown

Bad grammar weakens good writing, but some bad writing is grammatically flawless. Today we’ll discuss parallel structure and show how faulty parallelism can ruin a sentence without breaking any rules of grammar.

Self-editing is part of writing. We could write I wrote the letter. I signed the letter. I sent the letter. But we discover at an early age that we don’t need three sentences. Instead, we compress the information into one sentence: I wrote, signed, and sent the letter.

That’s where parallelism comes in. When two or more elements (wrote, signed, sent) are given equal consideration in the context of a sentence, they should be as similar as possible: wrote, signed, and sent are all active verbs in the past tense, giving the sentence parallel structure. That is what makes I wrote, signed, and sent the letter simple, direct, and clear.

Now consider this rickety sentence: She lost her agent, publisher, and her books weren’t selling. That’s like saying She lost A, B, and 3; what happened to C? This is verbal bait-and-switch. The reader expects another noun after agent and publisher, and feels cheated when the third element is a clause instead. Why not rewrite the sentence with two independent clauses: She lost her agent and publisher, and her books weren’t selling.

A different kind of faulty parallelism: On my vacation, I want to sit back, relax, and to have fun. To keep things parallel, either remove the second to and say I want to sit back, relax, and have fun, or put to in front of all the verbs: I want to sit back, to relax, and to have fun.

Here’s a mistake you see all the time: DeWayne is as smart or smarter than Hank. Did you catch it? As it stands, the sentence states DeWayne is as smart than Hank, or smarter. Make it DeWayne is as smart as or smarter than Hank.

We close with this monstrosity: “The five-bedroom estate home features distinct architectural finishes, wraparound terraces with eastern- and western-facing views, and is near downtown Lafayette.”

The writer has us anticipating a third noun to go with “finishes” and “terraces.” So how about something like “and an ideal location just minutes from downtown Lafayette.” When we read instead the feeble “and is near downtown Lafayette,” we almost feel betrayed.

Pop Quiz

See if you can fix these sentences’ faulty parallelism.

1. I have earned two degrees, entered the health care field, and have lost forty pounds.

2. I wasn’t informed or interested in the offer.

3. Juanita is proud of her painting and how well she writes.

Pop Quiz Answers

1. I have earned two degrees, entered the health care field, and lost forty pounds. (OR have earned, have entered, have lost)

2. I wasn’t informed about or interested in the offer. (OR I wasn’t informed of or interested in the offer.)

3. Juanita is proud of her painting and her writing. (OR She is proud of how well she paints and writes.)

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Posted on Tuesday, February 18, 2014, at 2:05 pm


Media Watch 2

Recent cringe-inducers from the print media …

An upscale music venue ran ads for “An Evening With Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jr.” The second line said, “Formally of the 5th Dimension.” It was only after several weeks that someone caught the silly gaffe and sheepishly changed “Formally” to “Formerly.”

From an article about a musician: “He hardly fit the paradigm of an insecure singer/songwriter.” Why not “singer-songwriter,” with a hyphen, instead? In recent years the slash has become all the rage, but many authorities dismiss it as a substandard option—“a mark that doesn’t appear much in first-rate writing,” says Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage. “Use it as a last resort.”

A columnist wrote, “It is I who is the bamboozled one.” At least he didn’t write “It is me.” But written correctly, the sentence would say, “It is I who am the bamboozled one.” In technical terms, the relative pronoun who agrees with its antecedent (“I”) in both number and person. If who is representing I, it must take am, the same verb that I takes.

A curious sentence about a San Francisco neighborhood: “They can kiss goodbye to Alamo Square.” No, they can say goodbye to Alamo Square. Or they can kiss Alamo Square goodbye. They could even give the beloved locale a kiss goodbye. But “can kiss goodbye to”?! Maybe the copyeditor was on vacation.

A world-famous writer of steamy novels fired a broadside at critics of her larger-than-lifestyle: “Reading the latest vitriolic article about the hedge around my house, my reaction was enormous sadness.” The sentence falls apart under close analysis: it says her “reaction” can read articles. A best-selling author who writes danglers? Say it isn’t so. She should have either replaced “Reading” with “When I read” or changed the second part to “I reacted with enormous sadness.”

Even seasoned professionals are liable to make loopy mistakes when they don’t proofread.

 

Pop Quiz
The following are sentences recently heard over the airwaves. See if you can spot the errors.
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grieviously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whomever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correctly.”

 

Pop Quiz Answers
1. “If he believes that canard, he’s grievously mistaken.”
2. “It depends on Hillary Clinton or whoever gets the nomination.”
3. “I want to see if I have this correct.”

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Posted on Tuesday, February 11, 2014, at 5:41 pm


Sic for Sick Sentences

We have noticed a dismal new trend: not capitalizing words that need it. Flouting the rules of capitalization is yet another indignity visited upon our beleaguered language by self-appointed visionaries who seem hellbent on transforming standard English, even though many of them can barely read, write, or speak it.

From a recent magazine article: “ ‘i am just now noticing how long his arms are. maybe happy people have long arms,’ he emailed me.”

The writer of this piece chose not to point out that his correspondent should have capitalized “i” and “maybe.” It highlights an interesting problem: how to alert the reader when a direct quotation is in flawed English.

This is what the bracketed editor’s mark [sic] was invented for. The [sic] mark is found only in direct quotations, always enclosed in brackets. In formal writing, an author or editor inserts [sic] directly after a word or sentence to notify readers that something is off or incorrect but is reproduced exactly as it originally appeared (sic means “thus” in Latin). In the passage at hand, the “i” would be easy to deal with: “i [sic] am just now noticing …”

The “maybe” is more problematic. The use of [sic] has its practical limits. You’d never see “m[sic]aybe happy people have long arms.” And if the author wrote “maybe [sic] happy people have long arms,” the [sic] would be so far from the offending m that a reader might miss the point and think the entire word maybe was somehow unacceptable. Nonetheless, this is the only realistic option where [sic] is concerned.

By not confirming who was responsible for the lowercase i and m, the writer ran the risk that his readers would blame him for the e-mailer’s lapses. Evidently, this was a risk he was willing to take.

 

Pop Quiz

These sentences demonstrate bad habits that one sees frequently nowadays. Can you cure what ails them?

1. The real problem in such cases are the criminals.

2. Chocolate is our childrens’ favorite desert.

3. She’s not here- she left an hour ago.

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. The real problem in such cases is the criminals. (It’s not pretty, but it’s correct.)

2. Chocolate is our children’s favorite dessert.

3. She’s not here—she left an hour ago. (Don’t use a hyphen to do a long dash’s work. Note: Some writers space long dashes on both sides, others (as here) use no spaces. Hyphens are never preceded or followed by a space.)

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Posted on Monday, January 27, 2014, at 2:01 pm


The Future of English?

The New York Times has called the author Jess Walter “ridiculously talented.” “His sentences nearly sing,” says the Los Angeles Review of Books. “One of my favorite young American writers,” says fellow novelist Nick Hornby.

We agree with the critics. Walter’s 2012 best-seller Beautiful Ruins is a masterpiece. But today we’ll do a different kind of book review.

Our job at GrammarBook.com is to preserve and promote standard English. This sometimes puts us at cross-purposes with Walter, who chooses to speak to his readers in an easy, accessible voice—the people’s English, not the scholars’ English. If his writing is where the language is headed, we traditionalists must accept that we are fighting numerous losing battles.

In Walter’s short story We Live in Water one finds this line: “The resort was comprised of three newer buildings.” Word nerds will question why he didn’t use composed instead of comprised. In 1926, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler hissed, “This lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.” Seventy-six years later, in 2002, Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words was no less emphatic: “Comprised of is a common expression, but it is always wrong.”

So it seems clear that Walter used the phrase because he either did not know or did not care that “the experts” say it’s wrong. By writing “comprised of,” Walter is legitimizing this “common expression” over the adamant objections of a dwindling cadre of fuddy-duddies.

From Walter’s 2003 novel Land of the Blind: “I don’t know who liked this new world less, him or Mr. Leggett.” Walter, who could have used the correct he in this sentence without sounding stilted or affected, opted instead for the colloquial him. Apparently, neither he nor his target audience loses any sleep over such erudite technicalities.

In another short story, The New Frontier, the author writes, “He convinced her to model.” But technically, he persuaded her to model. “Convince may be followed by an of phrase or a that clause, but not by a to infinitive,” counsels Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer (1983). That rule is upheld to this day by the Associated Press Stylebook: “You may [only] be convinced that something or of something.” Walter isn’t buying. He’s trusting his own ear, as writers will do. The fine distinction between convince and persuade, he is saying, has become a quaint bit of trivia.

He introduces sentences with danglers. He repeatedly writes “different than” rather than “different from.” He says “snuck” even though sneaked is still considered the correct option. At least once, he uses strata—the plural of stratum—as a singular. He writes “close proximity,” long dismissed by sticklers as a windy redundancy.

Walter is too busy spinning his wondrous tales to be distracted by such minutiae—his instincts tell him: Why bother?

Why, indeed? That question gives all language watchdogs nightmares.

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Posted on Wednesday, January 22, 2014, at 10:57 am


Revised and Expanded Blue Book Coming Next Month

The eleventh edition of The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is set for a February debut. It has been six years since the tenth edition was published. So when the publisher, Jossey-Bass, requested another go-round, the team at GrammarBook.com was elated.

We trust that readers will find the new, extensively revised and expanded version in keeping with the author and founder Jane Straus’s vision of a direct, concise, unfussy grammar book.

The Blue Book, which started life as a booklet for California state employees, has now sold around 200,000 copies. Over the years, we’ve seen the number of subscribers to our weekly blog grow from dozens to scores to hundreds; now, there are almost 40,000 of you worldwide.

As we have grown, we have heard from readers from every walk of life and all corners of the earth. Some of you have been outspoken about things we could be doing better—and we are listening. We can’t forget an e-mail we received from a group of amateur linguists in England who felt we were too quick to label as “rules” what might better be termed conventions. One example of this distinction: although American writers and editors insist upon the placing of commas and periods inside quotation marks without exception, it nonetheless smacks of provincial pomposity to call this a “rule” of English when virtually every other English-speaking country ignores it.

So, with a nod to that shrewd e-mail, the new edition stresses the difference between rules on the one hand and conventions, customs, and tendencies on the other. For instance, there are ironclad rules for apostrophes—nowhere will you see the possessive of women written womens’. But other uses of the apostrophe are open for debate. Some write Learn your ABCs and others prefer your ABC’s. Some write the 1990s and others swear by the 1990’s.

The new Blue Book takes on English in all its often maddening complexity, acknowledging its quirks, gray areas, exceptions, limitations, and contradictions. We realize that people want straight answers, but with English, there sometimes aren’t any, and we would be remiss in saying otherwise.
 

Order the new edition of The Blue Book through Wiley.com and get 30 percent off and FREE shipping. Simply go to bit.ly/1996hkA and use discount code E9X4AYY.

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Posted on Tuesday, January 14, 2014, at 2:23 pm