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Tense, Number, and Other Peeves

Copyright © 2002-2004, 2006-2010, 2015 by David E. Ross

I don't know if it is illiteracy or just plain ignorance, but some writers really mangle my native language. This is more than malapropism, confusion of homonyms, or misplaced apostrophes. And it's damned annoying. Such writers should be ashamed to expose their work to the public.

Somewhat reluctantly he changed clothes and leaves with his friends.
The writer who crafted this sentence repeatedly mixes present and past tense. Here he did it in the same sentence. More often, he did it within the same paragraph. He was not indulging in flash-backs. He just did not know better.

It was when Vicky that came in and asked if they was doing something that night that the bolt of lightning struck.
The same writer who could not keep his tenses straight also did not know the difference between singular and plural. And the first that did not belong here. It was quite difficult trying to push through the doughy mud he created. It took only two paragraphs of his story to inspire me to write this page, an indication of how distracting these writing errors can be.

Here is another example of mixed tense along with errors:

After we got back to the house we all celebrated James' birthday, he opened his presents and we all eat cake.

Let's break the sentence into pieces:

After we got back to the house we all celebrated James' birthday,
This is past tense. Since James is a name and not a plural, the possessive should be James's.
he opened his presents
This too is past tense. Since this is part of a compound sentence, a comma is required at the end.
and we all eat cake.
This is present tense. A narrative about what happened a few years ago suddenly changes into a narrative of what is happening right now — all in the same sentence. This should instead be
and we all ate cake.

Dialogue might be the most difficult part of fiction for an author to write well. Sometimes, the style of written dialogue is stilted and unnatural, unlike the way people actually talk. As long as an afflicted but otherwise interesting story has more narrative than dialogue, this defect can be tolerated.

However, when the author does not grasp the mechanics — punctuation and structure — the result is often so confusing that I really cannot follow either what is being said or who is saying it.

The overall goals should be:

Unique means one of a kind. It is like pregnant: Either you are or you are not. There is no such thing as more unique, most unique, or very unique.

"The guy I'm renting from said it was built in the early 1900 hundreds."

That means the house was built in the early 190,000s. The phrase should be either early 1900s or early 19 hundreds.

In journalism, the conventional style for writing a list is a, b and c. When writing for the Web — or for any media other than a newspaper or magazine — forget it! The correct way to punctuate a simple list of three or more terms includes putting a comma just before the and or or. That is, the example should be written a, b, and c.

The London Times used to put a period at the end of its name on its pages. Eliminating that period saved the newspaper over £100,000 per year in ink. Thus, it is easy to conjecture that the journalistic style resulted from a desire to save both ink and page space in publications that have press runs of 100,000 to more than 1,000,000. However, binding and marketing are more significant costs for books that have press runs of only 10,000 to 50,000; saving a page or a few dots of ink are not as important as clarity. Neither paper nor ink are involved in Web publishing, where clarity should be the only consideration.

But why is clarity involved in this issue? Consider the following list, which has sublists:

b and c
d and e

If you use the journalistic convention, this list would be written

a, b and c, d and e and f
which creates the question: Do d and e form a sublist with f a separate term, or is d a separate term with e and f forming a sublist? This question is answered by writing the list
a, b and c, d and e, and f
with a comma after each term (b and c and d and e each being a single term).

Strunk and White merely dictate

In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last.
Follett uses more than four pages to present the same rule, with examples of how the journalistic convention can cause confusion. He concludes that the conjunction (and, or, but) joins while the commas separate; one cannot serve the role of the other.

Follett also uses almost two pages to address the use of semi-colons in lists. When sublists themselves have more than two terms, semi-colons are used in the primary list so they won't be confused with commas used in the sublists. Thus, the list

b, c, and d
f and g
is written
a; b, c, and d; e; f and g; and h.
As described by Follett, semi-colons are also used when the list terms contain commas for other purposes.

The missing hyphen …

Joe bought three day passes. He wanted to spend three days at Disneyland…

From the context of the story (including the second sentence), Joe bought passes for three days, not three passes each for one day. Thus, Joe bought three-day passes.

Since there were actually six members of his group, Joe bought six passes. If they had stayed for only one day, Joe would have bought six day passes. The passes would have been only day passes instead of three-day passes.

To conclude, Joe bought six three-day passes.

In another story, I read

I met my wife to be at work.
This means that I met my wife (already married to her), and she was at work. What the author meant was
I met my wife-to-be at work.
That is, I met my future wife at our workplace.

Meld does not mean the same thing as merge. Meld is what you do while playing a rummy-type card game and lay a set of cards down on the table in a legal pattern (e.g., a sequence of three or more pips all in the same suit, three or more of the same pip in different suits). Never use meld except when describing a card game. If you mean merge, combine, or mix, use those words.

When sending E-mail to a friend or using instant messaging, abbreviations might be okay. However, when writing a story for a broad audience, consistently using b4 in place of before is both annoying and ignorant.

There is no such word as noone. No one is two words.

There is no such word as alright. All right is two words.

There is no such word as anymore. Any more is two words.

Chris would of gone for it.

In speaking, we often hear the contraction would've meaning would have. Sometimes, it might sound like would of; but that's not the way it's spelled. In writing, either use the contraction — a single word, correctly spelled, with an apostrophe — or else write out would have.

He's had to of talked with Tommy …

Could of, should of, and had to of are also wrong.

Yes, I condemn excessive reliance on automated spell-checkers because they only find words that just don't exist. They can't distinguish homonyms or malaprops.

However, some form of spell-checking is mandatory if a writer is not to appear illiterate. I didn't think stating this principle was necessary until I saw the word non-shalantly in a story where the author meant nonchalantly (without any hyphen).

Failing to proofread or use a software spell-checker can be very obvious. Seeing dimeshed when the context indicates dismissed is an obvious clue that the writer lacks any pride in his creation.

But pride in a literary creation also requires manual proofreading, not merely using a software spell-checker. If more writers for the Internet had that pride, this "Malaprops and Other Writing Problems" Web site would not exist.

If you use technical jargon, learn what it means and get it correct. I saw the following in a Web story:

"Beating victim, apparent broken wrist, multiple contusions, seems to have taken a severe blow to the head. BP 60 over 80, shallow breaths. … Incubate. Start an IV drip, 0.5 saline solutions. …"
First of all, blood pressure (BP) is always given with systolic (the higher number) before diastolic (the lower number). Here, either the numbers are reversed, or else the beating victim's blood was flowing backwards. Then, the victim was neither a bacterial culture nor a premature newborn; he had to be intubated, not incubated. I know this, and I'm not a medical professional.

Problems with technical jargon are not limited to medicine.

Ahh Roger that Ghost Rider we have you on our radar slow your R.o.D. (Rate of Decent) to 100 knmph (knotical Miles per Hour) and come in on strip 2, on vector won won niner tree wind speed is 25 knots and holding, flight deck is clear, call the ball.
This quotation (supposedly a flight controller on an aircraft carrier, talking down a pilot for landing on the ship's flight deck) included the parenthetical phrases. While the speed of a ship is often measured in knots, distances are in nautical miles. And a knot is nmph (nautical miles per hour), never (as seen elsewhere) knots per hour, which would be nautical miles per hour per hour (an expression of acceleration, not speed). Notice that the wind speed is correctly stated. Of course, in the dialogue being quoted, the parenthetical phrase would have never been uttered. In real life, such a quotation would have been
… slow your R.o.D. to 100 knots …
If an explanation were required, it should have been in square brackets to indicate an insertion by the writer and not by the speaker:
… slow your R.o.D. [rate of descent] to 100 knots …

Yes, there is such a word. But why not use trance?

Three problems in one story:

Thomas Cook is the name of a British travel and tour agency founded in the 19th century. The quality of Cook's services created a world-wide reputation for well-planned tours that has existed well more than 160 years. Today, the phrase Cook's tour means an in-depth visit of all important places, not merely in the sense of a trip to a foreign land, but even when a proud owner shows a guest around his home.

The phrase is never written cooks tour. The C is always capitalized, and the apostrophe is mandatory: Cook's tour.

I guess I'm going through a mid-live crises …

Crises is the plural of crisis. The correct phrase is mid-life crisis. Only if there is more than one should the word be crises, but the quote is clearly about only a single crisis. And this is a crisis at the middle of life, not a living crisis.

The complete name of the Italian Renaissance artist, architect, and poet is Michelangelo Buonarroti. Often cited by only his first name, he is never Michael Angelo.

The three items immediately above (plus a number of entries in my Malaprops and Homonyms pages) were all from the same story. The plot was sufficiently interesting that I continued reading it despite many, many errors of grammar, punctuation, and syntax — and the fact that the author even had two different chapters numbered the same.

This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.

While many have attributed that quote to Winston Churchill, none have been able to provide any substantiation that he actually said it. The quote refers to criticism against ending a sentence with a preposition. If the great English orator, writer, and statesman had actually commented on this issue, he more likely would have said something more succinct, such as

I will not put up with this nonsense.

The problem, of course, is that a preposition — of, in, at, from, about, et cetera — should refer to something (its object). But a dangling preposition refers to nothing.

Read the following sentence aloud:

Kyle, Rob, and Tim sat in the living room swapping memories for the next hour while Hal sat, still in awe of where he was and whom he was with for he was still starstruck by Rob, the Broadway star.
Now read the revised sentence:
Kyle, Rob, and Tim sat in the living room swapping memories for the next hour while Hal sat, still in awe of where he was and in whose company he was; for he was still starstruck by Rob, the Broadway star.
This might not be the way we speak. But changes in words and punctuation make the written words easier to understand.

Now compare this abomination

A prisoner he could do what ever he wanted to with.
with a rewritten version
He could do whatever he wanted to a prisoner.
Not only is the latter better grammar; but it is also better style — sharp, clear, and emphatic.

An author wrote about a pre-teen boy and his father:

He turned toward Mike, and ran to him, crying big crocodile tears of joy, and saying, "I love you!"

The legend is that, when crocodiles eat, they open their mouths so wide that tears are forced out of their eyes. The phrase crocodile tears thus refers to someone falsely crying over his victim, especially a murderer mourning over someone he has killed. However, the context of the quote above clearly indicated that the tears were real and not a fake show.

I have no idea what the author of the quote really meant. Further, he wrote a run-on sentence.

All of the following appeared within the first few lines of the first chapter of a story:

The phrase meaning someone who is overly virtuous in a coy, smug or sentimental manner is goody two shoes, which is from the title of a nursery tale first published in the 18th century. The author whose story I was reading is simply illiterate and obviously did not even use a computer spell-checker.

Tattle means to gossip. The correct phrase here is tattle tale, meaning a person who spreads stories (tales) about misdeeds. Here, the author confused homonyms.

The difference was neither new nor old; it was unknown. Neither of them knew the difference. This is another homonym confusion.

As I indicated elsewhere in this Web site, if English is not your native language, tell your readers; we will then be tolerant of your mistakes. If English is indeed your native language, however, please do not embarrass yourself and annoy your readers by inflicting illiterate ignorance on us.

wary, cautious, prudent, discreet

I read a story where circumspect appeared in a context that clearly showed the author meant the opposite. No, he was not being sarcastic; he was just being ignorant and illiterate.

If you use a word in a story that you don't normally use every day, check a dictionary to make sure it means what you think it means. Failure to check is a very frequent cause of malapropisms.

We found, not without some difficulty, a parking spot …

I had to read this twice to make sure I understood what the author meant. He meant

We found, with some difficulty, a parking spot …
which would have been more simple and more easily understood.

Although tiny, a comma can make quite a difference.

He gives us an astonished look when he sees Mike and we stop to introduce him.

When I first saw the sentence above, I immediately though it contained a pronoun error, that it said he sees Mike and we (which, of course, should be he sees Mike and us). Only after further analysis did I realize that a comma was missing. The sentence should have been:

He gives us an astonished look when he sees Mike, and we stop to introduce him.

a unit of 300-600 soldiers, one-tenth of an army legion [ancient Rome]

In Caesar's Gallic War a cohort was a unit of soldiers. There were six centuries (100 men each) to a cohort, ten cohorts to a legion (therefore 6,000 men). A century, then, would correspond to a company, a cohort to a battalion, and a legion to a regiment.

Cohort does NOT mean companion or coworker. The word should be used only to refer to a group of generally equal individuals. Thus, cohorts refers to several groups of individuals, not to several individuals.

perplexed, confused, or bewildered
I read a story in which nonplused was clearly used to mean the opposite of its definition. The character in the story remained clear-headed and unfazed with a full understanding of the situation.

Many arguments have been fought over splitting infinitives, whether it is proper to insert an adverb between to and the verb that follows it. There seems to be consensus that splitting an infinitive in Latin is definitely wrong; but Latin is not English, for which issue is not yet settled.

I take the position that splitting an infinitive in spoken English might be acceptable, primarily because we can emphasize words in spoken English to make clear the meaning. However, the following example shows why I reject splitting an infinitive in written English.

You need to be inside to adequately be able to protect the boys.

What a muddy piece of crap that is! Both the grammar and style are improved by rephrasing it as:

You need to be inside to protect the boys adequately.

persuading not to do something, deterring by advice or persuasion

There is no such word as diswaying, which does not even have a d near the end. However, diswaying was used by a writer who uses neither a dictionary nor a computer spell-checker, someone who has no pride in what he creates.

Try to make sense of the following dialogue while reading it aloud. Be sure to read every single word.

"So, how come you aren't off attending college like Brandon and Ty? I asked.

"I'm doing my first two years at junior college and then I'll to transfer," Lee said, that way I can save money and help my folks with the family business. What are you doing?"

I am not entirely sure of what the author meant. The best I can do to correct this is:

"So, how come you aren't off attending college like Brandon and Ty?" I asked.

"I'm doing my first two years at junior college and then I'll transfer," Lee said, "That way I can save money and help my folks with the family business. What are you doing?"

The original reflects both a failure to understand how to punctuate dialogue and a lack of proof reading. See if you can find the punctuation I added, the word I deleted, and the word that I capitalized.

Every mussel in your shoulder's are all knotted up.

I refuse to rewrite this garbage. Just follow the two links.

Once again, I must insist that authors consult a dictionary. In one case I saw "…they stand with unsurety…". The definition of "surety" is

security against loss or damage or for the fulfillment of an obligation, the payment of a debt, etc.; a pledge, guaranty, or bond
There is no such word as "unsurety". I have no idea of what the author meant.

In another case, I saw "fulsome in their praise". From the overall context, the author meant that the praise was generous or sincere. However, "fulsome" means

offensive to good taste, especially as being excessive; overdone or gross; excessively or insincerely lavish
Thus, the phrase meant quite the opposite of what the author intended.

Last updated 12 February 2015

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