Tuesday, May 24, 2011

David Hunter's op-ed on grammar mistakes we see all too regularly

In his Knoxville News Sentinel column entitled (sic.) You're grammatical errors can cost you, former cop David Hunter notes a few mistakes we (unfortunately) see all the time.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The challenge of putting "only" where it belongs

Nothing tests the precision of our writing like the placement of modifiers like "only" and "just."

Note how the meaning in the following sentences changes according to the position of only.

She said that she loved only him. [She loved no one else.]
She said that she only loved him. [Even love has its limitations.]
She said that only she loved him. [No one else loved him.]
She said only that she loved him. [She said nothing else.]
Only she said that she loved him. [No one else said it.]
She only said that she loved him. [She didn't mean it.]

This is covered in Harbrace Chapter 25, entitled Coherence: Misplaced Parts, Dangling Modifiers, which starts with the straightforward advice, "Keep related parts of a sentence together. Avoid dangling modifiers."

Rule 25a: To make your meaning clear to readers, place modifiers near the words they modify.

Section 25(1) reads, "In formal English, place modifiers such as almost, only, just, even, hardly, nearly and merely immediately before the words they modify."
The placement of "only" and "just" can change the meaning of a sentence in any number of ways.

Here are several examples of misplaced "only"s:
From the Knoxville News Sentinel: "A Parade All-America, [tailback Gerald] Riggs only managed 256 yards before [coach Trooper] Taylor's arrival."
The point is that 256 yards were not that many, so the "only" should go next to 256. As the sentence reads now, it implies that Riggs only "managed" 256 yards--that is, he didn't do something else with them.

In another News Sentinel story, the point guard for the Christian Academy of Knoxville hoops team commented on a 6'5" youngster who had recently arrived at his school: "They said he was only playing baseball." [This could mean that he was doing the sport more for fun than for long-term ambition.]
The point guard meant to say, "They said he was playing only baseball,"-- that is, not playing basketball, as a 6'5" youngster should.

Before the college football bowl season a few years ago, the News Sentinel explained that UT fans had been asked to send in ticket requests for two bowl games, so the ticketing process would be further along when bowl selections were announced. In the story, an otherwise carefully worded sentence reads, "Fans are only obligated to purchase tickets for the bowl in which Tennessee plays."
With the word "only" placed as it is, the meaning of the sentence is that fans are only obligated to purchase tickets, they are not required or bound in some stricter way. To achieve the meaning intended, it should read, "Fans are obligated to purchase tickets only for the bowl in which Tennessee plays."

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Harmon Killebrew's beautiful handwriting

Harmon Killebrew, who hit 573 home runs for the Washington Senators, Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals, died of cancer yesterday at age 74.

As Thomas Boswell writes in today's Washington Post, Killebrew was always known for his gracious demeanor, his great strength and his self-discipline on and off the field.

As the autograph above attests, he also had beautiful handwriting. Killebrew wrote this note at the request of Sports Illustrated baseball writer Steve Wulf, who knew of my affection for the old Senators, who moved to Texas to become the Rangers in 1970, one step removed from Killebrew's old, old Senators, who moved to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1961.

Killebrew was born and grew up in Payette, Idaho. He said he got his great strength from hustling 10-gallon milk cans in his summers as a young man. Presumably there was a grammar school teacher in Payette who taught him his elegant hand.

In a fond obituary in today's Minneapolis StarTribune, La Velle E. Neale III writes that "former Twins outfielder Torii Hunter remembered Killebrew as a mentor, both on and off the field. He said Killebrew looked at his autograph several years ago and deemed it to be illegible. 'I had a doctor's signature,' said Hunter, now with the Los Angeles Angels. 'I had a 'T' and an 'I' and a dot-dot. He said, "What the hell is this?" Killebrew told Hunter that if kids found that baseball, they would start throwing it around the park because they couldn't read the signature.' "

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Commas after introductory words containing a verb form

From Ruge Rules

The Rule: Place a comma after any purely introductory group of words containing a verb form.

As in: Instead of forgetting about the incident, he sought out the culprits.

Or: After working the problem, he sat down.

Or (with an understood, or elliptical, "I am"): Once in bed, I go right to sleep.

BUT: be careful about words at the start of a sentence with a verb among them that are actually the subject of the sentence.

As in: To expect every student to do his or her reasonable best is not to expect too much. (No comma.)

This is in the Harbrace College Handbook, under 12b (1).

Rule 12b(2) pertains to Introductory phrases before independent clauses.
It says, "Omit the comma after introductory prepositional phrases when no misreading would result:

As in: In a crisis we chose Lincoln and FDR. In between we choose what's-his-name.

Compare: Because of this, beauty differs radically from truth and goodness in one very important aspect.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Back to grammar fundamentals, says Kim Brooks of Salon.com

Death to high school English

by Kim Brooks of Salon.com:

My college students don't understand commas, far less how to write an essay. Is it time to rethink how we teach?