Grammar Catastrophes

A blog about catastrophic failures to deploy English grammar effectively.

This goes way beyond the Oxford comma

Saturday, February 05, 2005


In this Washington Post article about the fate of red-light cameras in Northern Virginia, the following sentence appears:

"The cameras are used in Alexandria, Fairfax City, Falls Church and Vienna and Arlington and Fairfax counties."
Gregory has already discussed (in passing) the use of the Oxford comma. While some commas would certainly help this poor sentence, more drastic measures are required. The last four items on the list are joined by "and." Moreover, it is not entirely clear that only Arlington and Fairfax are counties. I suggest the following revision:
"The cameras are used in the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, Falls Church, and Vienna, as well as the counties of Arlington and Fairfax."
This is still a little shaky, but since Vienna is technically a town, things are a bit easier:
"The cameras are used in the cities of Alexandria, Fairfax, and Falls Church, the town of Vienna, and the counties of Arlington and Fairfax."
Much better.

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Yes, Virginia, cannot use commas.

Saturday, January 22, 2005


Some writers and organizations find the comma truly impossible to use correctly. is one such entity. The following excerpt is illustrative: "Up to 15 inches of snow was forecast in New Jersey and areas around New York City during the weekend, and accumulations of up to 20 inches were possible in parts of New England, the weather service said."

Comma splices are horrendous in situations such as this. This needless punctuation interrupts the reader and disturbs the flow of information. As an engineer, I have encountered many writers who assume that a comma must be placed not only before the last item in a list, as Oxford commas are, but also before all instances of the word "and." I usually want to weep when I see this in reports by my colleagues.

This snippet from includes one other bad habit of newspaper writing: attributing sources at the ends of sentences and paragraphs. Partly because of my years of writing for radio news and partly because of my easily confused nature, I prefer the written word structurally to resemble the spoken word as much as possible. Therefore, written sentences should flow linearly and not circularly. When reading this statement the first time, one expects the assertion either to be well-known fact or to be the writer's opinion. Delivering a source after the assertion requires a reevaluation of that assertion, particularly when the source turns out not to be of the highest caliber or to be anonymous. In written word, one may reread a statement after learning its source, but the spoken word affords no such luxury. To make an attribution the ultimate element of a sentence not only forces a reevaluation of the previous content but interrupts the flow of the paragraph by awkwardly tacking an afterthought onto an otherwise concluded sentence.

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Latin plurals and a very long sentence

Wednesday, January 19, 2005


In this New York Times article about Harvard President Larry Summers' remarks about women pursuing academic careers in math and science, there is something to be commended and something to be criticized.

First, the article contains the following: "Some Harvard alumnae said they would suspend donations to the university." It brings joy to my heart when someone uses Latin plurals correctly. Indeed, alumnae is the correct term for more than one alumna. Bravo.

Second, one Harvard alumna is quoted as follows: "Arguments of innate gender difference are hogwash and indirectly serve to feed the virulent prejudices still alas very alive and now even more so due to your ill-informed remarks." It is possible (but, by my reading, unlikely) that these remarks were spoken, in which case the Harvard alumna in question should be forgiven. From the context in the article, however, I believe that these remarks were written in an e-mail. We should expect better from a Harvard grad. First, the sentence above should be two sentences (at least.) Second, "alas" ought to be offset by commas. I am the king of comma faults, yet even I know about offsetting things like "alas." Third, "...virulent prejudices still alas very alive and now even more so..." reads as being very—I don't know—rabid?

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