Correct, but could be better

rogersgeorge on October 27th, 2012

You can write a sentence that is perfectly correct grammatically, but it’s still not right. (Finding these sentences is one reason to let your work sit for a while, then re-read it.) Here’s an example of a sentence that’s technically correct in its grammar, but it’s not correct in its context.

Artifacts created from one of the five buttes, Obsidian Butte, first appear in Native American villages around 510 B.C. to 640 B.C. … However, for decades, researchers thought Obsidian Butte erupted thousands of years earlier.

To be really correct, the sentence should say “…Obsidian Butte had erupted thousands of years earlier.” The sentence is in an article on volcanism in the Salton Sea in Scientific American online, and I encourage you to read it. The  sentence refers to something that happened in the past, the eruptions. So far, so good. But the eruptions that happened in the past ended before something else that happened in the past, namely the creation of the artifacts. When you have something that starts in the past, and ends in the past, you should use the past perfect, not the simple past.

The only photo of the butte I could find was copyrighted, so here’s a picture of some obsidian in situ

Read the article and you will see a couple more places where the past perfect is more correct. It will be good practice for you.

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Adverbs used as adjectives

rogersgeorge on October 25th, 2012

The most famous example of using an adverb when you want an adjective is when people start a sentence with “hopefully.” English teachers in particular like to complain about it. Here’s an example sentence:

Hopefully, my party will win the election.

Hopefully means “in a hopeful manner.” What people mean when they say a sentence like this is, “I hope my party wins the election.” I think getting people to get this construction right is a losing battle. Everybody knows what you mean, and it’s even correct to say it this way in German. But to those of you who pay attention to your use of language, and who want what you say or write to be smooth and clear, and not the object of curmudgeonly snickers, I recommend you say what you actually mean. “I hope…”

“Hopefully” isn’t the only culprit. People make this mistake a lot, and it often goes unnoticed. Here’s a sentence from an interesting article in Wired:

What do HIV, Ebola and SARS have in common? For one, they have terrifying fatality rates. But more importantly, they are all zoonotic diseases, meaning they jumped from animals to humans.

No! It’s more important, not more importantly.

Are you a thankful person? How about this article title:

Thankfully, I don’t keep Kosher anymore.

I hope (not hopefully) you don’t mind that I used something sectarian, but I think you can tell that what the writer means is “I am thankful that I don’t etc.”

An interesting fact about Kosher food

Enough examples of doing it wrong. Here’s an example of doing it right: Voice of America, this time (last paragraph in the article):

It is reported that Turkey has extradited to Tunisia a suspect in the Benghazi attack, but State Department officials would not comment on whether U.S. authorities are trying to question that individual.

Notice how easy it would be to start the sentence with “Reportedly, Turkey has …” I’m not all that gung-ho about the reporter using the passive, but at least it’s grammatical.

I end with a test. Is “potentially” used correctly in this sentence, or not? (The article is here.)

In contrast, a single hacker who figures out how to impersonate other voters could potentially cast thousands or even millions of fraudulent votes.

I hope you will be more careful about your adverbs now.