Simple, clear help for your writing problems

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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