Posts Tagged ‘The Birmingham News’

COMMA OR SEMICOLON? THERE IS A DIFFERENCE.

Friday, 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.


Parallel Structure: No shifting gears in mid-sentence

Friday, February 6th, 2015

shifting gearsWhen 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 consider 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.


Changing “horses” in midstream is a poor sentence structure practice.

Monday, June 9th, 2014

horses midstreamParallel structure helps the reader move smoothly through a sentence because the reader does not have to keep "changing horses" or "switching gears" as far as the pattern is concerned. Once a writer sets a pattern for a series of items, he should stick to that pattern throughout the series. Consider this sentence from an excellent article about bullying that appeared recently in The Birmingham News:

Jefferson County Sheriff Mike Hale; rising Ramsay High School senior Brianna Gilbert; Christopher McCauley, the executive director of the David Mathews Center for Civic Life; and Birmingham Board of Education member Lyord Watson also said there needs to be better communication….\

The first, second, and fourth items in this series are in the same pattern: title, then name. For some reason, the writer jumps to a different pattern for the third item, giving the name first and then the title. Not only does this jar the pattern, it creates the necessity for semicolons between items because the title (coming after the name) must be set off by commas. 

It is simpler to write and to read this way:

Jefferson County Sheriff Mike Hale, rising Ramsay High School senior Brianna Gilbert, David Mathews Center for Civic Life executive director Christopher McCauley, and Birmingham Board of Education member Lyord Watson also said there needs to be better communication….

 

 


Addled Examples of Poor Agreement

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

Today's Grammar Glitches appear in recent issues of The Birmingham News. Both involve poor choices of subject and verb agreement with regard to what is singular and what is plural. Here is the first example:

 

Thus far, the state's efforts to boost its trained workforce has focused primarily on dual enrollment between public high schools and the the community college system.

Whoops! #1: The subject of this sentence is EFFORTS (plural with an S). TO BOOST ITS TRAINED WORKFORCE is a prepositional phrase that should not affect the relationship between the subject EFFORTS and the verb, which should be HAVE (plural) FOCUSED. The sentence should read this way:

 

Thus far, the state's efforts to boost its trained workforce have focused primarily on dual enrollment between public high schools and the the community college system.

Here is the second example:

 

Attention and honor was pointed in the right direction.

Whoops #2: This sentence has a compound subject. One subject connected to another subject by AND creates a plural subject. Therefore, the verb should be WERE instead of WAS. Here is the correct sentence:

 

Attention and honor were pointed in the right direction.

 

My thanks to www.reputation.com for their February 17 publication of an interview that highlights the significance of Grammar Glitch Central as a useful tool for business writers. If you'd like to know more about the motivation behind Grammar Glitch Central and see some of my favorite Glitch examples, please visit http://www.reputation.com/reputationwatch/blog/expert-interview-ruth-cook-how-write-more-clearly

 


Two New Agreement Glitches

Friday, April 19th, 2013

If you visit this blog regularly, you know that subject/verb agreement and pronoun/antecedent agreement are among my pet peeves.  I have recent examples of each to share with you today. First, this sentence from an article by Barnett Wright for al.com:

The relationship between Sewell and some commissioners have been strained.

Whoops #1: The word RELATIONSHIP is singular. It is the subject of the sentence.  COMMISSIONERS, which is plural, is the object of the preposition BETWEEN and has nothing to do with the subject/verb connection. The verb should be HAS. The sentence should read this way:

The relationship between Sewell and some commissioners has been strained.

 

Second, this sentence from an article by Kent Faulk for al.com about abortion clinic bomber Eric Robert Rudolph:

Besides the fact that Rudolph had agreed in his plea deal, federal officials also have said that it is illegal for a criminal to profit from their actions.

Whoops #2: Rudolph is A CRIMINAL (singular), so unless he has an accomplice helping him write his autobiography (which he does not), the pronoun THEIR (plural) is incorrect. It should be HIS (singular). The sentence should read this way:

Besides the fact that Rudolph had agreed in his plea deal, federal officials also have said that it is illegal for a criminal to profit from his actions.

NOTE: For those who are uncomfortable using HIS to refer to CRIMINAL (because it suggests the exclusion of female criminals), simply change that part of the sentence to the plural and write it this way:

Besides the fact that Rudolph had agreed in his plea deal, federal officials also have said that it is illegal for criminals to profit from their actions.


Seven errors in one article?

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

In my last post, I promised to continue discussing the frequency of errors in newspaper articles. Last week I tried to read an article in The Birmingham News about a woman who had been recruiting homeless people to cash counterfeit checks for her. By the time I reached the end of the article, I had highlighed seven errors, which I will share with you here, along with their corrections.

Whoops #1: As written, this sentence makes it sound as if the woman was driving a car that had a typewriter for a sidecar.

Law enforcement recovered $22,000 in counterfeit checks from the car she was driving along with a typewriter, he said.

The problem here is poor word order. The phrase about the typewriter belongs next to the counterfeit checks because both things were recovered.  The sentence should read this way:

Law enforcement recovered a typewriter and $22,000 in counterfeit checks from the car she was driving, he said.

 

 Whoops #2: The problem with this sentence is subject/verb agreement.

According to a preliminary estimate, a little over $110,000 in counterfeit checks were seized by law enforcement from Tate's home and car the day she was arrested, Bailey testified.

 A LITTLE OVER $110,000 is a lump sum of money and should be considered singular. It should not be used with the plural verb WERE. The verb should be WAS.

 NOTE: An even more efficient way to improve this sentence and avoid the WAS/WERE decision is to make it active rather than passive:

According to a preliminary estimate, law enforcement seized a little over $110,000 in counterfeit checks from Tate's home and car the day she was arrested, Bailey testified.

 

Whoops #3: This glitch has to do with verb tense.

…her role was to show others involved where the banks are and where the homeless people congregated, he said.

The writer should decide whether he is speaking in the present tense or the past tense. If he says HER ROLE WAS, then he should not say WHERE THE BANKS ARE (present tense) and then flip back to the past tense with THE HOMELESS PEOPLE CONGREGATED. If they congregated in the past, why would you need them where the banks are now? The sentence should read this way to be parallel in structure and verb tense:

…her role was to show others involved where the banks were and where the homeless people congregated, he said.

 

 Whoops #4 and #5: Strings of phrases can confuse meaning. The writer should also remember that AN rather than A is the correct article (noun determiner) in front of a word that begins with a vowel.N N writer should also remember that An    g. The also 

Investigators had been looking into Tate and others  after a  incident in the fall of 2011 after authorities were alerted to a incident in Trussville where someone tried to cash a counterfeit check.

The two AFTER(s) confuse the time frame.  The two uses of INCIDENT make it sound as if there are two separate incidents.  WHERE should refer to location, not function. Here is what I consider a better version of this sentence:

 Investigators had been looking into Tate and others after authorities were alerted to an incident in Trussville in the fall of 2011 during which someone tried to cash a counterfeit check.

 

 Whoops #6: A comma should not needlessly separate one clause from another. If a subordinate clause comes after an independent clause, it should not be set off with a comma.

The woman from Atlanta tried to hide about $15,000 in counterfeit checks under the vehicle, when police approached.

NOTE: This sentence might be more effective if the WHEN clause were placed at the beginning. If it is placed there, the comma would come after APPROACHED: 

When police approached, the woman from Atlanta tried to hide about $15,000 in counterfeit checks under the vehicle.

 

Whoops #7: When using pronouns like THEIR and THEM, it should be clear to the reader who THEY are in the sentence:

Between six and 12 homeless people have identified Tate as having recruited them during their investigation.

As written, this sentence makes it sound as if the homeless people were conducting the investigation.  THEM refers to the homeless people Tate recruited, but THEIR is meant to refer to the police investigators. That won't work. The phrase DURING THE INVESTIGATION should probably be left completely out of this sentence because I doubt that Tate was doing the recruiting during the investigation. Here is how the sentence should read:

Between six and 12 homeless people have identified Tate as having recruited them.

 

Seven errors in one article would suggest that the writer did not proofread what he wrote. It would also suggest that The Birmingham News is no longer making good use of copy editors in the newsroom.


Three errors in one sentence. Too many?

Saturday, February 16th, 2013

crack the whipAs newspapers evolve in these fast-changing times, it appears to me that they are placing less and less emphasis on careful copyediting. Frequent errors in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage not only detract from the quality of the journalism, they also distract the reader. Too often lately, I read a sentence and then ask myself, "What was that? What is this reporter trying to say?"

Apparently, I am not alone in my frustration with this. My friend Mark, an excellent copyeditor in New York, sent me an email string recently that contained the following dialogue, which occurred after his friend Stephen came across the following sentence in a New York Times article:

More than 2200 flights for Friday had been cancelled, according to the Web site FlightAware, the majority originiting or departing from the areas affected by the storm.

Stephen sent this email to the Executive Editor of The New York Times:

Doesn't the copy desk edit copy anymore? The number 2,200 requires a comma; the American spelling of "canceled" has only one l; and "originiting" requires no comment.

The Executive Editor replied:

Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We all make errors, but you're absolutely right–three in one sentence is far too many. We'll get this fixed soon.

Stephen then emailed Mark:

In my opinion, three errors in the entire newspaper is far too many.

Mark responded with this:

Well dun, Steven. (Just kidding.) At least he didn't reply, "Your absolutely write…" On "cancelled," it is acceptable, not an outright error, but not the spelling preferred by Merriam-Webster. You and I as copyeditors would strike that second ell.

Keep on 'em. Keep crackin' the whip.

 I wonder what Mark and Stephen would think about a recent article (not an isolated example) in The Birmingham News that contained no fewer than SEVEN errors–in one article! In my next post, I will share those errors and their corrections.

In the meantime, I'd like to hear from any readers who have also noticed an increase in copy errors in local newspapers. Examples are always welcome, along with your comments, at Grammar Glitch Central. Mark asked me to encourage you to write to the editor(s) of your newspaper if you see examples of particularly careless writing or editing. He also said (and I agree) that it's good to write in and compliment the writers and editors when you see especially well-written pieces.

If your paper does not make it easy for readers to give feedback (say, with an email address at the end of an article or on the editorial page), contact the paper and ask them to open up for reader comments.

Like Mark, I would like to say, "Keep on 'em. Keep crackin' the whip." crack the whip


Pruning are?? Subject/verb agreement lacking

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

The "Ask a Landscaper" column in a recent issue of The Birmingham News contains a carelessly worded sentence:

Pruning off these buds are in essence pruning of the flowers before they bloom.

 The columnist is answering a reader's question about when to prune azaleas. First, the word PRUNING is a gerund (a verb turned into a noun by adding ING). It is the subject of the sentence and is a single function, so it is considered singular.  Therefore, the verb should be IS instead of ARE. Second, the columnist uses the phrase PRUNING OFF in reference to the BUDS, so it makes sense that he meant to use the same phrase PRUNING OFF in reference to the FLOWERS.  The sentence should read this way:

Pruning off these buds is in essence pruning off the flowers before they bloom.

I love gardening, and if you do, too, you are probably getting antsy about planting for the coming spring. I hope your azaleas and other plants are gorgeous this year.


Typos Tarnish a Good Article

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

We all create typos and grammar errors when writing. Sometimes a writer creates them with a slip of the finger on the keyboard. Other times they occur when the author decides to rewrite an awkward sentence and doesn't follow through with all of the necessary changes. And sometimes, the writer just plain does not know the correct usage. Most of the time, a good writer can catch and correct errors simply by taking time to proofread before hitting the Send button.

David Holloway writes energetic food articles for the new version of The Birmingham News. Although his information is always interesting and useful, his articles often contain careless typos and other mistakes that distract the reader. Here are some examples from one article that appeared during the holiday season:

We are not immune to a crackling fire, even though for many of that means  turning on the air conditioner. 

Whoops #1: The word US is missing from the sentence. It should read this way:

We are not immune to a crackling fire, even though for many of us that means  turning on the air conditioner. 

 

The second error involves typing one word when he meant to type another (and not going back to notice):

So in the coming weeks we will endeavor to offer you a guide to entertaining, only our party with  have a Southern accent. 

Whoops #2: The word WITH should be the word WILL:

So in the coming weeks we will endeavor to offer you a guide to entertaining, only our party will have a Southern accent.

 

The third error again involves the wrong word choice, but I am not sure exactly which correct word should replace it–GOER or HOST. See what you think:

…your working boy and professional party goes  has a few ideas about how not to overdo it. 

Whoops #3: David could be a PROFESSIONAL PARTY GOER or a PROFESSIONAL PARTY HOST, but certainly not a PROFESSIONAL PARTY GOES.

It is easy to type AND when you mean AN, and a spell checker doesn't know the difference, but a good writer proofreads and catches such things:

…you just aren't sure if you can eat and entire steamship round of beef.

 

Whoops #4–AND is a conjunction. What David wants here is the article AN in front of the noun phrase ENTIRE STEAMSHIP ROUND. It should read:

…you just aren't sure if you can eat an entire steamship round of beef.

 

The final error in this otherwise interesting article is a full-blown grammar glitch. If you read this blog often, you know it is one I point out frequently–subject/verb agreement. There is also a verb choice error:

And   if  you  attempt it you will only antagonize your host or hostess who aren't amused by your legendary eating skills.

 

 Whoops #5 and Whoops #6: It would be best to antagonize only one person–either the HOST or the HOSTESS, rather than both. Using the verb AREN'T (plural) doesn't work with the OR reference. Also, using the word WILL after IF suggests a possible outcome in the future, so the verb AREN'T does not work. The sentence should read this way:

And if you attempt it, you will only antagonize your host or hostess who will not be amused by your legendary eating skills.

PLEASE PROOFREAD!

 

 

 

 

 


BOTH BROTHERS = A YOUNG ADULT??

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

Here is another "sermon" on agreement, which is an important part of good writing. In a recent article in The Birmingham News, I came across this sentence:

As a young adult, both brothers found their way back and ended up staying.

Whoops! #1:A YOUNG ADULT can only refer to one person. BOTH BROTHERS refers to two people. Therefore, A YOUNG ADULT (singular) needs to be changed to YOUNG ADULTS (plural). The sentence should read this way:

As young adults, both brothers found their way back and ended up staying.

The same issue of the newspaper contained this sentence, which also has an agreement problem:

Bob Smith Construction Co. of Trussville, with engineers from Blount County, are working to get the bridge fully restored and open to traffic.

Whoops! #2: The subject of this sentence is BOB SMITH CONSTRUCTION CO. (singular). The inserted phrase between the commas, WITH ENGINEERS FROM BLOUNT COUNTY, is not part of the subject. Therefore, the use of the plural verb ARE is incorrect.  The sentence should read this way:

Bob Smith Construction Co. of Trussville, with engineers from Blount County, is working to get the bridge fully restored and open to traffic.

And then there was this sentence:

As the state continues to close psychiatric hospitals–10 have been shuttered in the past 15 years–and moves toward community-based care, these kind of broadly-trained psyciatric nurse practitioners are greatly needed.

 

The word THESE is plural and cannot be used with the singular word KIND. The writer must use either THESE KINDS or THIS KIND. In this sentence, the writer is referring to NURSE PRACTITIONERS, which is plural, so the choice should be THESE KINDS. The sentence should read this way:

As the state continues to close psychiatric hospitals–10 have been shuttered in the past 15 years–and moves toward community-based care, these kinds of broadly-trained psyciatric nurse practitioners are greatly needed.

 

 

 

 

 

Whoops! #3: The word THESE is plural. It cannot be used with the singular word KIND. A writer must use either THESE KINDS or THIS KIND. In this sentence, the writer is referring to NURSE PRACTIIONERS (plural), so the choice should be THESE KINDS. The sentence should read this way:

As the state continues to close psychiatric hospitals–10 have been shuttered in the past 15 years–and moves toward community-based care, these kinds of broadly-trained psyciatric nurse practioners are greatly needed.