Friday Quiz: What’s Wrong?

Fridays on will feature three sentences that could use some kind of correction. Sometimes the sentences will reflect topics recently covered, and sometimes they will be a hint about what’s to come.

Determine what is wrong with each of these sentences, and decide how they could best be corrected. After the jump (click “continue reading” below), you’ll see my suggestions with very brief explanations. If you’d like to let the world know how you did, please feel free to post your scores in the comments! This might also give me ideas for future tips.


  1. The visiting group of tailors, sailors, and jailers have kept local bars busy this week.
  2. Keep an eye out for Joey, he’s tough to spot.
  3. I grabbed a muffin, turned out the light, and out the door I ran.

No peeking! Make your corrections now and check them after the jump!

Continue reading Friday Quiz: What’s Wrong?

To Boldly Go: Split Infinitives

Depending on when and where you went to school, you might have been told many times that your infinitives should never be split. Without getting into the grammatical mumbo-jumbo, here are some examples of infinitives that have been split:

to boldly go where no man has gone before.

Mom made me promise to never cross the street alone.

(from the Split infinitive article at Wikipedia): She decided to gradually get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

There is much contention about whether or not split infinitives should be considered standard or nonstandard, which is good news for the average Joe, because it means you can pretty much do whatever you want. This is one of those great instances where you can go with whatever feels right to you, and it’s probably going to be okay.

A quick note about why the argument exists: When language people set about to lay down some rules that would standardize English, they worked from models they already had. The split infinitive is linguistically impossible in Latin, a common language among learned people, so perhaps the construction in English sounded weird to them. When they set the rules down, they included one shunning the split infinitive strictly based on the fact that since you couldn’t do it in Latin, you shouldn’t do it in English.

Many people, including me, think it is now silly to adhere to rules that don’t make sense now and didn’t really make sense when they were written.

However, one should always be aware of the tension such writing might cause. When one is trying to write clearly, one does not want little things like that to get in the way of a message’s being interpreted correctly. Thus, you might consider re-writing the given examples this way:

to go boldly where no man has gone before.

Mom made me promise never to cross the street alone.

She decided gradually to get rid of the teddy bears she had collected.

Once again, it is up to you to determine whether or not re-writing in this fashion serves your purpose. Some would argue that in the teddy bear example, “gradually” seems to modify “decided,” meaning her decision was made a little bit at a time. I happen to like the sound of “gradually to get rid of” and “never to cross,” not to mention “boldly to go where no man has gone before,” which I didn’t suggest because it’s not the simplest fix in the first example. There’s a certain style and elegance in such construction, if one doesn’t overdo it!

Summary: It is up to you if you want to ever split your infinitives, as long as you’re making a thoughtful decision about it!

Pretty Maids in a Row: Parallel Construction, Part One

The best music from the eighties, nineties, and now!

Honolulu radio station KSSK is guilty of this shiver-inducing catchphrase. From a purely aesthetic viewpoint (and we’re big on the aesthetics of language), it’s actually not bad: It has a nice flow and is as close to poetic as a radio catchphrase is likely to get.


Think about what the sentence is saying. There are three items in this list of “best music.” What are they? Let’s outline the sentence and you’ll see where we’re going with this:

The best music from the

  1. eighties,
  2. nineties, and
  3. now.

What we’re looking at is a problem in parallel construction. Items in a series need to be in the same form, or the catchphrase doesn’t make sense. KSSK, without meaning to, claims that it plays the best music from THE eighties, THE nineties, and THE now, since all three of these items follow the in the sentence. A simple fix would be to add the to the first items in the list:

The best music from the eighties, the nineties, and now!

It’s still not a great phrase, because “the best music from now” is kind of a weird thing to call current hits, but at least now our catchphrase actually says what it means to say.

Here’s another quick example:

I like their coffee because it’s hot, fresh, and the price is the lowest in the state!

This is the kind of non-parallel writing I hear most often in television commercials or even from television journalists. Let’s talk about that coffee! It’s…hot! It’s…fresh! It’s…the price is the lowest in the state! Do you see how that last phrase doesn’t line up with the other items in the list? Here’s the fix, as if you didn’t already see it coming:

I like their coffee because it’s hot, fresh, and lower in price than anywhere else in the state!


I like their coffee because it’s hot, it’s fresh, and it’s most inexpensive.

You have to decide for yourself what the rewrite should look like, since you can see that there are shades of difference in the meanings of these two sentences. Just keep it parallel and go with what works best for your intended meaning!

If I had to pick one quick-fix for almost anyone’s writing in the professional world, I would pick parallel construction. It is amazing to me how often I see parallelism problems in television commercials, news reports, and professional correspondence. Take a look around and I’m sure you’ll spot it all over the place, now that you’re conscious of it!

For those still perhaps a bit hazy on the issue, please stick around. This is a topic we will return to with great frequency!

Usage Tuesday: Toward a Better Understanding

Which of these is correct?

Pressure to develop alternate sources of energy grows as we move toward the future.

Pressure to develop alternate sources of energy grows as we move towards the future.

Should it be toward or towards? The general advice is that they are both correct, but toward is more common in American English, while towards is more common in England.

Since you are free to use either, which should you use? Whatever seems more comfortable at the time?

It is my humble opinion that American English, when not a degradation of the Queen’s English, should be spoken in America, and British English should be spoken across the Atlantic. It has also been my observation that most people in my own life use towards. This is why I prefer toward. Since it sounds slightly different from what people around me are saying, I think it makes my own writing stand out just a little bit. I also think it has a classy sound to it. Compare:

The beautiful woman held out her arms and moved toward me.

My boss said she was working toward getting me the corner office and an enormous raise.


The reckless, drunken driver hurtled his sports car towards me and the beautiful woman.

My boss said she was working towards trimming all the extraneous fat from the payroll and would only keep employees willing to take an enormous pay cut.

Which sentences would you rather hear? The first two or the second two?

Keep in mind that this is just a matter of preference. If you’re wondering why I bothered to write about something that’s okay either way, it’s because now you KNOW the difference, and you’ll be conscious about which you use. You see, good writing is not about following rules, but about being aware of your own writing and the way it is being read by others. You may break rules, but if you break them on purpose, as a matter of style, that’s one thing. It is something else entirely to break rules because of poor understanding, right?

Now, whether you use toward or towards, you can at least know what the difference is and why you CHOOSE to use it!


Comma Chameleon: The Serial Comma, Part One

You already know that items in a series should be separated by commas:

I enjoy hiking, swimming, and writing.

That last comma, after “swimming,” is generally considered optional. This is often how you’ll see the same sentence:

I enjoy hiking, swimming and writing.

Both of the example sentences above are considered correct, but it is a good habit always to include the last comma in a series. Your sentences will never be incorrect if you include it, but they will sometimes be confusing if you leave it out. Take a look at this example:

The concert included hits by Loggins and Messina, Simon and Garfunkel and Hall and Oates.

Unless Paul, Art, Daryl, and John had a kind of Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice thing going on, it might be difficult to tell exactly what was performed at the concert!

So go ahead and expend that extra effort it takes to add that final serial comma! Your audience will thank you, if it notices at all!

Let’s Get it On!

Welcome to! My purpose here is to help the world (and its wide web) to improve the quality of its writing, one simple step at a time. I’m not going to make any wild promises about turning you into James Joyce in Ten Easy Steps, because the truth is that good writing takes practice, and good practice takes time, and the world doesn’t need another James Joyce anyway.

However, I do believe that one idea per day, explained simply and with clear examples, can make a difference, especially with frequent review. I will, as much as possible, stay away from the confusing language of English grammar that often acts as a barrier to learning good writing, and take my examples from the real world. My hope is that we can build a community here of eager learners, and that we can help each other move toward a better understanding of the beauty and function of the English language.

I am not an expert, though I have been a high-school English teacher for twelve years. Some of what I espouse as “good writing” might be bad writing in your eyes, or you might have a better explanation or a better fix than whatever I’ve offered. Please, let’s talk about it! I’m as eager to learn as I am to teach, so if you’ve got suggestions or corrections, please send along your ideas. You can send email to scrivener -[a..t]-, and comments will always be open on the topics I post.

I’m eager to get this going, so let’s dive in.