Simple, clear help for your writing problems

Archives for grammar errors category

Here’s a sentence written by someone with writing problems. I found it in a report about broadband connectivity. Can you see a problem?

Our employees pop an AT&T card into their laptop computers, and they have instant connectivity.

The Problem There are two problems, though one is minor; I wouldn’t fix it.

Problem #1 The sentence is careless about quantity. It talks about many: Our employees getting instant connectivity with their computers. However, all those employees have only one AT&T card.

Solution #1 Employees need cards, not a card. The sentence should read as follows:

Our employees pop AT&T cards into their laptop computers…

Problem #2 By its end, the sentence is talking about employees and laptops. So, the statement they have instant connectivity is unclear. Do the employees or the laptops have connectivity?

Fortunately, it would be acceptable to say that the employees had instant connectivity or that the laptops had it… so it’s OK to let the ambiguity stand.

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I’m convinced that the greatest of all writing problems is laziness. People simply don’t listen to the words they write, and they publish nonsense. Worse, people hear bad writing, and indiscriminately repeat it in their own projects. This exposes more people to the bad writing, and some of them repeat it, and so on. Eventually, the writing problems of the original hack writer become writing problems of us all.

If You Want to know More

I’ve heard this awkward announcement hundreds of times: More information is available by calling this toll-free number…

Radio newscasters often end public service announcements with such a sentence. They shouldn’t. The sentence is nonsense. It begins by telling us More information is available by calling… This is weird. Who or what is calling? The information certainly isn’t calling. Information can be available from a source, at a source, through a source… but not by an action.

By the same token, you can get information by carrying out an action: by reading, by listening, by asking, by making a phone call…

Write a Real Sentence

Here are four grammatically correct expressions that convey the desired message:

Get more information by calling this toll-free number…

To get more information, dial this toll-free number…

More information is available. Get it by calling this toll-free number…

Call this toll-free number to get more information…

As easy as it was to think of these, it awes me that so many people so often spew the nonsensical More information is available by calling… Don’t be one of those people.

 

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There is a syndicated radio show on which the host, the producers, the writers, and all their friends have writing problems. It’s disturbing. This show has been advertising itself for months with a commercial that includes the following lead:

All successful businesses start out as an idea or a dream. It’s unfathomable that an entire production crew can overlook such a blatant error.

One or Many: Get it Right

The commercial’s lead suffers from a common error: it begins by talking about many things as a group, but finishes by telling you what only one thing is doing. The phrase, All successful businesses establishes that we’re talking about a group of businesses. But the conclusion, start out as an idea or a dream tells us the businesses start as only one idea or one dream.

Here are alternative sentences the radio show should consider to use as leads in their advertisement:

  • Each successful business starts as an idea or a dream.
  • A successful business starts as an idea or a dream.
  • All successful businesses start as ideas or dreams.
  • Every successful business starts as an idea or a dream.

I prefer the second, though all four follow the rules of grammar: If a sentence is about individuals, then the action must be of an individual. If a sentence is about a group, then the action needs to be of a group.

What’s the Difference?

If this distinction is challenging, here are steps to help:

1. Figure out what thing the sentence is talking about. The original sentence talks about successful businesses.

2. Decide: is the sentence about individuals or a group? Successful businesses refers to a group—as opposed to a successful business which refers to an individual.

3. Make the rest of the sentence agree. Successful businesses must start out as ideas or dreams.

Many businesses: ideas or dreams. One business: an idea or a dream.

Run my fourth alternative sentence through these steps:

1. What thing is the sentence about? It’s about successful business.

2. Is the sentence about one thing or many things? This one is tricky. The phrase Every successful business refers to many businesses, but as individuals. How can you tell? Here’s one way: if you were writing a sentence, would the next word be is or are? As in, …every successful business is When the right word is is, the whole sentence must talk about one thing. When the correct word is are, the rest of the sentence must talk about many things.

3. The rest of alternative sentence #4 agrees: a business starts out as an idea or a dream.

Practice Reduces Writing Problems

Review the following sentences to help get a grip on this challenging problem. Identify the incorrect sentences, and come up with at least one viable alternative:

  1. All pastry chefs know how to make a napoleon.
  2. Each dog will scratch where they itch.
  3. Does every sentence here have a flaw in it?
  4. Bill was upset when he learned that every dessert had peanuts in them.

Here’s how I’d call these:

1. Wrong. I’d go with any of these alternatives:

  • All pastry chefs know how to make napoleons.
  • Every pastry chef knows how to make a napoleon.
  • Every pastry chef knows how to make napoleons.

2. Wrong. Try these:

  • Each dog will scratch where it itches.
  • A dog will scratch where it itches.
  • Every dog will scratch where it itches.
  • All dogs will scratch where they itch.

3. The sentence is acceptable.

4. Wrong. Here are some alternatives:

  • Bill was upset when he learned that every dessert had peanuts in it.
  • Bill was upset when he learned that all the desserts had peanuts in them.
  • Bill was upset when he learned that each dessert had peanuts in it.

 

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Be Clear About Who is Who

There’s a class of writing problems that are very subtle. They arise when you lose track of the person about whom you’re writing. Simple statements become, at best, silly, and at worst, gibberish when you make this type of writing error.

A classic example of these writing problems has been running in a television advertisement lately. The announcer says something like, Do you have a problem with intangible digiplasitosis? Talk to your doctor. I did. It’s pretty clear what the announcer meant, but what the announcer said is that she talked with my doctor: Talk to your doctor. I did.

Keep Track of Who’s Who

I hope the announcer never talked with my doctor. She could reassure me by suggesting: Talk to your doctor. I talked to mine. Her mistake was that she started talking about my doctor, then switched to talking about hers without telling me about that switch.

You’ve probably heard someone at least as confused expressing concern for you or others. People say such things as: As your boss, tell me what you need so I can get it for you, or the much more subtly incorrect, As your friend, let me help you with your writing problems.

Consider the first example. We’ll assume the person talking is the boss, so saying As your boss, starts the sentence talking about the boss. But the phrase, …tell me what you need… isn’t about the boss; it’s about you. Putting the two phrases together, the sentence begins by establishing you as your own boss: As your boss, you tell me what you need…

The boss should have said, As your boss, I want to know what you need so I can get it for you. But don’t stop with fixing only writing problems. There’s also an ego problem in the boss’s statement. Simplify and add humility so it reads, Please tell me what you need so I can get it for you.

The second example unravels the same way. In that sentence, who is whose friend? The confusion is subtle, but at the word let, the speaker switches from talking about himself or herself to taking about you—without telling you about the switch. The error becomes clear if you change the sentence to read As your friend, you let me help you with your writing problems.

Any number of rewrites can fix the mistake:

  • As your friend I want to help you with your writing problems.
  • I’m your friend. Let me help you with your writing problems.
  • Let me help you with your writing problems.
  • Let me, as your friend, help you with your writing problems.

Fix These Writing Problems

Each rewrite makes it clear who the sentence is talking about at every moment. The only way to eliminate writing problems involving who’s who is to stay vigilant. Make sure it’s clear who you’re taking about so your readers don’t think you’ve been visiting with their doctors.

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Ryan Seacrest said this at the end of an installment of American Idol: In the end there can only be one American Idol. Don’t count this mistake among your writing problems.

Mistake? You ask. This sentence could easily mean that the only thing left in creation at the end of the show is an American Idol. Consider: …there can only be one American Idol implies that nothing else at all can exist.

It seems likely Mr Seacrest was telling us that eventually there would be one American Idol. His statement would be clear if he simply omitted the word only so the sentence became In the end there can be one American Idol. By misplacing the word only in an attempt to add emphasis, he has, instead, made the statement unclear.

Put Only Where it Belongs

The statement, In the end there can be one American Idol is clear. Spoken emphasis on the word one achieves Seacrest’s intent. However, if you really need to use the word only, use it as follows: In the end there can be only one American Idol.

This minor rewrite of Seacrest’s sentence ties the words only and one together. It leaves the possibility that there can be other things besides that one American Idol.

Use Only Sparingly and Appropriately

Consider the title of this post: Today, Only Fix One of your Writing Problems. It suggests that the only thing you should do today is fix one of your writing problems. If it must include the word only, the title should be, Today, Fix Only One of your Writing Problems. With that change, it suggests you should fix one writing problem, but let the others go for today. It doesn’t forbid you from doing other things.

When you use only in a sentence, reread the sentence carefully and decide whether only is in the right place. Here are some examples to help you recognize how a misplaced only changes the meaning of your words:

The sentence: You should only move this box.

Means: You should do nothing except move this box.

In contrast:

The sentence: You should move only this box.

Means: This box is the only thing you should move… but there may be other things for you to do as well.

Here’s another:

The sentence: Are you only giving me a tomato?

Means: Are you doing nothing more than giving me a tomato?

In contrast:

The sentence: Are you giving me only a tomato?

Means: Are you giving me nothing more than a tomato? I understand that you may do other things as well.

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I rank confusion with the words I and me among the most inexcusable writing problems. Do you have this problem? Are you aware whether you have it? Even very unskilled writers recognize misuse of these words, and you lose credibility quickly (or at least you annoy your readers) when you pick the wrong words.

I’ve never met someone who chooses incorrectly when speaking about only one person. For example, no one accidentally says—or writes—Me am going to the zoo or Please give that to I. However, many writers get confused when two or more people creep into the conversation.

You and Me Can Fix our Writing Problems

That subhead refers to two people: You and Me. Its flaw is obvious. It should read, You and I can fix our writing problems. It’s obvious because you can easily chop off the phrase You and and read the rest of the sentence as if it referred only to you: Me can fix my writing problems. Gibberish.

The example reveals a simple strategy: When you refer to yourself along with one or more other people, cut the other people out of the sentence and decide whether it sounds right. If you can’t make it sound right with I, substitute me and vice-versa. When you find the correct word, put the other person or people back into the sentence. Here are some more examples:

Me and the programmers…

Me and the programmers design all the interfaces for our software systems.

Remove and the programmers from the sentence and you get:

Me design all the interfaces for our software systems.

It’s nonsense; the correct word choice is I as in the following sentence:

I and the programmers design all the interfaces for our software systems.

Janet and I…

He ripped seven pages out of a book that belongs to Janet and I.

Remove Janet from the sentence and it reads:

He ripped seven pages out of a book that belongs to I.

The correct word is me; the sentence should read:

He ripped seven pages out of a book that belongs to Janet and me.

Practice to Reduce your Writing Problems

Here are some sentences for you to evaluate. I’ve used underlines in place of the key words. You decide: should each blank contain the word I or me?

  1. My husband and ___ were very upset by the condition of the flowers.
  2. The condition of the flowers really upset my husband and ___.
  3. ___ and my dog are going for a walk.
  4. The presentation was just perfect for the commissioner and ___.
  5. The commissioner and ___ felt that the presentation was perfect!

If these gave you trouble, review and practice. Whenever you use I or me in a sentence, do this:

  • Break the sentence down so it’s talking about you and you alone.
  • Decide whether I or me works in the reduced sentence.
  • Rebuild the sentence to include whoever else is supposed to be in it.

Here are the correct words for the blanks in the practice sentences above:

  1. I
  2. me
  3. I
  4. me
  5. I

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