rogersgeorge on June 29th, 2010

Parallelism might sound like some weird cult, but it’s merely good grammar.

Sometimes part of a sentence is compound, such as when you write two verbs for one subject. Tommy jumped and ran. No problem so far, right? Those verbs are both third person singular past indicative. (Remember all that from seventh grade?)

Even if you don’t remember all that, the point is that both verbs are that way.  That’s parallelism. The rule in English is that when you have a compound part of a sentence, the parts of the compound construction should be parallel.  You wouldn’t say, “Tommy jumped and running.”

When the sentences get longer, you have to be more careful, because the lack of parallelism is easier to miss. Here’s a sentence from a professional writer whose work I enjoy. He’s writing about himself, in the third person, and I suppose we can forgive him for this small solecism—he’s an astronomer.

“He is a skeptic, and fights misuses of science as well as praising the wonder of real science.”

So—do you see the compound verb? fights, and whoops! praising. He should get rid of the excessive “as well as” and use plain old “and.” then the parallelism is easier to see and get right:

“He is a skeptic, and fights misuses of science and praises the wonder of real science.”

Sometimes you can play fast and loose with parallelism, but when you want to write most clearly, keep it simple. Stay parallel.

See if you can spot some misplaced verb forms. Share one with us in the comments.

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A gaffe in a national news source

rogersgeorge on June 27th, 2010

…who, as usual shall remain unnamed. This is a subtle one, but if you get it right yourself, you’ll improve your writing. Here’s the incriminating evidence:

“In 1944, economic policymakers from 44 nations gathered at Bretton Woods, N.H., to devise a system for international exchange rates, centered around each country pegging its currency to the value of gold.”

The center is a point, folks. You don’t center around something. You center on something. You can revolve around something, and you can circle around something, even encircle something if you’re on every side at once. I know, these writers are journalists, not geometers, but their editor should have caught it. Harrumpf.

If you haven’t looked at it yet, download the free document I advertise over there on the right. It’ll give you some info to center your attention on.

Let me know if the link doesn’t work.

Unintentional Ambiguity

rogersgeorge on June 25th, 2010

Ambiguity can be effective in poetry and lies, but for good communication, you want to avoid it. Your reader ought to have no doubt about what you mean.

So here’s another way to be unintentionally ambiguous. Watch out for it.

Prepositional phrases normally come right after whatever they modify. This leads to ambiguity if you have two or more prepositional phrases in a row. Does the second phrase modify the first phrase, or do both phrases modify the same word? Sometimes you luck out and both ways make sense. Here’s an example:

“Mail the invoice on the day of shipment to the customer.”

We could decide that the sentence says to mail on the day etc—and mail it to the customer. But the sentence could also be referring to the day the item is shipped to the customer (as opposed to some other place, such as the local shipping terminal). Both ways mean about the same thing, though the emphasis is slightly different. Reversing the phrases is a little better:

“Mail the invoice to the customer on the day of shipment.”

The identity of the customer is not likely to depend on the day of shipment, so our mind makes the leap and attaches the day of shipment to mailing the invoice, even though it has to jump clear across the sentence to do so.

This is a trivial example, but misinterpreting two prepositional phrases in a row can lead to humorous or disastrous interpretations.

Humorous: “Two Sisters Reunited After 18 Years at Checkout Counter.” The grammar is fine, isn’t it? Try this: “Sisters separated for 18 years are reunited at a checkout counter.” No longer funny, but not ambiguous, either.

Can you come up with a serious misunderstanding? Share.

Another misused oldie

rogersgeorge on June 23rd, 2010

I’m used to seeing gaffes, typos, and solecisms in the writings of Internet marketers, but this is from the reasonably well-respected Chicago Sun-Times:

“Idle hands are the devil’s plaything, the old saying goes.”

The context is a review of Microsoft’s new hand-waving game interface, so the reference is a nice pun, but the writer got it wrong. Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop, according to Ben Franklin and my English teacher (Mrs. Clemens was even referring to me, perish the thought!), though versions of this aphorism have been traced clear back to Chaucer.

A bit of doggerel:

Internet searches
Are easy to carry out,
So check your quotes
If you have the slightest doubt

—and it wouldn’t hurt to check even if you don’t have any doubt. And that’s our lesson for today, students: Check your work.

Another old phrase everybody gets wrong

rogersgeorge on June 21st, 2010

“The exception proves the rule.”

Most people seem to think that this means that an exception to a rule proves that the rule exists. They often use this as an excuse to break the rule.

Braap! Wrong!

“Prove” is an old word for “test.” What the expression really means is that if you test the rule by breaking it, and get into trouble for it, the rule is real. Not quite the same thing.

Side note: The only time in the Bible where God invites people to test Him is in Malachi, which reads, in the King James, “Prove me now herewith…” I leave it as an exercise for the reader to find what the test is.

How’s your older English? Got any useful archaisms to share? Make a comment.