Position those Modifiers Correctly

rogersgeorge on March 6th, 2017

It’s fun to catch the mass Media, such as (ahem) CNBC when they get something wrong. I suppose they were in a hurry to get this headline out ahead of the competition, but still.

NASA: Seven Earth-sized planets discovered orbiting another star that could host water and life

The clause that starts with “that” is an adjective clause. You know where adjective clauses go, don’t you? Right after the word they refer to! Not halfway down the sentence. That star can’t host water and life, the planets could!

Here’s one correct way:

NASA: Seven Earth-sized planets that could host water and life discovered orbiting another star


I read the article, and it happens that the headline is wrong anyway. Only three of the planets are in the habitable zone. The other four aren’t. Beware of sensationalism and bad grammar.

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Another Absolute

rogersgeorge on March 4th, 2017

Absolutes are concepts that either are or aren’t—no middle ground. Perhaps the most well known use of an absolute is a quip, “she’s a little bit pregnant.” Pregnancy is a thing where either you are or you aren’t. I mentioned an absolute, unique, some time ago. Here’s another that I just ran into. Misused in the example, of course:

And second, this engine might one day push spacecraft to velocities sufficient enough to open the Solar System to human exploration.

The article, from Ars Technica, is pretty interesting, about a new type of rocket engine. (Go to the article to find out what the first thing is.) Sufficient is an absolute. Something is either sufficient or it isn’t. You can say something like “almost sufficient,” but that’s the same as “not sufficient.” So the phrase “sufficient enough” is a solecism. Don’t use it.

That earlier post, about absolutes, mentions several others. Words that are absolutes might be tricky, but they aren’t unique!

An Interesting Use of the Future Tense

rogersgeorge on February 28th, 2017

I generally advocate not using the future tense in expository writing, saying that you should use the present tense for customary actions no matter when the action happens. But here’s a usage that I haven’t seen for a while. It hinges on context, in this case temporal context. First the quote:


Pope Julius II dies. He will lay in rest in a huge tomb sculptured by Michelangelo.

First, of course, let’s ignore that they used the wrong verb, “lay.” It should be LIE in rest!!! harrumpf.

Okay, on to the lesson.

This is a line from a this-day-in-history-type post from another site. In effect, the line says “Today five hundred years ago…” Also in effect, the sentence is a headline. Both of these usages pull the chronological context to now, and in terms of now, he won’t be interred for at least a day or so.

So in that context, the interment is in the future, and it certainly won’t be a customary action but a, well, once-in-a-lifetime event, so you can get away with using the future tense.

You would also be perfectly correct casting the whole sentence in the past tense, keeping yourself in the 21st century:

On this day in 1513, Pope Julius II died. They intered his body in a huge tomb sculptured by Michaelangelo.

But that doesn’t convey the hint that it was a while before the body entered the tomb, which wasn’t completed for more than 30 years. And today the body is in St. Peter’s Basilica. I’m not certain that he ever even occupied the tomb! Not that that has anything to do with grammar…

The Importance of Context

rogersgeorge on February 24th, 2017

Not a lot of content in today’s lesson, but some.

The source of the humor in this Freshly Squeezed is the misalignment of contexts. Context is the framework you operate in. The bully has no interest in getting his language right, and the kid who’s being picked on wants to deflect the risk by changing the subject, from a bullying context to a learning one. He didn’t exactly succeed, but he doesn’t seem to have expected to, either.

Anyway, at least in a less intimidating situation, it’s a good idea to match your framework of operation with your reader’s. You’ll communicate better.

A Really Common Mistake

rogersgeorge on February 22nd, 2017

I suppose we’ll lose this battle, but “snuck” is incorrect. It’s “sneaked“!

Curtis - 02/14/2017

I suppose Ray Billingsley can be forgiven for wanting to make Curtis idiomatic, but don’t you ever use “snuck” in your writing. I suppose it’s imitative of sing, sang, sung. Except ever try saying “snack” for the past tense of “sneak”? Doesn’t work, does it? So we went with the perfect, and now we say “sung” when we mean “sang.” Sigh. I’m such a curmudgeon, wanting to get language right…

It’s spelled “meow,” by the way, and the sound kittens make is “mew.”