Stick to Chocolate and Beer

I’m not sure what’s worse about this BBC excerpt, that Belgium is joining the military-on-our-streets bandwagon,  or that their army is “only” 300 strong:

“Troops have been deployed across Belgium to guard potential targets of terrorist attacks, following a series of anti-terror raids and arrests.

Up to 300 soldiers will be mobilised in Brussels, Antwerp and elsewhere.

Belgium’s interior minister told the BBC that his country had to make use of all the forces at its disposal.”

This is a classic case of what I would call ‘inadvertent parallelism’ as the quantifiable fact (300 soldiers) is followed by an qualifying statement that, although entirely accurate, inadvertently suggests a link to the number in the previous statement. Thus this scenario suggests that Belgium’s armed forces consists of 300 soldiers. I always thought Belgium was a small country, but really….they should perhaps stick to their proverbial.



Burglar Enters Basement Through Lady (Another Dangling Modifier)

Lord, aren’t I lucky, I came across another lovely dangling modifier at work today, with the added bonus of a misplaced comma:KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

“They came in through the basement and the lady that occupies the space downstairs, said they can wiggle the window and come in very easily.”

I felt for the poor woman, having burglars come through her: that experience must have been physically trying and reminiscent of reverse childbirth. The comma is incorrectly placed, as you should never separate the subject from its verb unless it is a qualifying phrase that follows the subject. A more specific version of this sentence should read:

“The burglars came in through the basement window.  The lady, who occupies the space downstairs, said that the window can be wiggled open easily.”

Firstly, I thought it better to cut the sentence into two for clarity. The first is the event in question; the second sentence qualifies the first. Next, I specified who the ‘they’ were, as it is always better to specify the subject rather than having an orphaned pronoun. As the impetus of the initial sentence was to include a comma, I created am appositive phrase to modify the subject, the “lady.” The commas are not necessary but I am a fan of commas to help provide a nicer rhythm to a sentence, and to help break out concepts. I next added “that” to turn the object of the second sentence into a stronger clause. Lastly, I condensed the two ideas, of the window being wiggled and of the burglars coming in easily, together, for increased clarity.

Voila! The recipe for a better sentence.

The Failure of 8 Year-Olds (aka, Dangling Modifiers)

I was recently helping a colleague clean out his 21GB inbox (People, do you really need all the daily work minutiae? I think I have to write a segment on inbox management at some point), and came across this beautifully ambiguous line that virtually leapt out at me during the email exorcism:

“The staff spend close to 100% of their day in front of the monitors and they are nearly 8 years old so are on the brink of failure.”

I had not realized that we hired eight year-olds, and damned if those eight year-olds weren’t about to kick the bucket and/or screw up colossally. I also hadn’t made the leap of faith that equated being eight with being a failure. I thought that one had to wait till the age of fifty to start contemplating whether one’s life was a failure.

I do believe this little sentence drives the point home that it is important to qualify all dangling modifiers:

“The staff spend close to 100% of their day in front of the monitors. Those monitors are nearly 8 years-old and are likely* on the brink of failure.”

* In the defense of monitors, I should add that one cannot presuppose that an eight year-old monitor is about to stop working…there is a good chance that the monitor is going to crash soon, but this scenario is a likelihood, not a certainty.


Spelt vs. Spelled: Duking it out in the Dictionary

Not my mountain

There are other mountains to die on. Choose your grammar battles with care.

I recently got into an argument over the use of the word ‘spelt’ and a colleague insisted, quite heatedly, that there was no such word. In turn, I insisted, gently albeit pointedly (it was one of my ‘up-aboves’), that we look up the word in a dictionary. She was emphatic that ‘spelt’ was incorrect, and paraphrased one of our chronic letter writers who had at some point chewed my colleague out for misspelling ‘spelled.’

– I should note here that the letter writer had self-imposed themselves to be a bastion of proper grammar and syntax relative to my line of work, and almost exclusively wrote in acronyms. Taking any grammatical advice from them, even via a third-party, was tenuous at best. –

Dutifully, I looked up ‘spelt‘ on, my favourite reference site. Aside from being an ancient wheat variety, ‘spelt’ is a variant of ‘spelled.’ I looked at my colleague triumphantly…in a humble way of course, no use lording it over her. She shook her head. “No, it’s not right.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the dictionary was accused of being incorrect. Now I am the first person who will admit that there is no perfection in life save for Buddha and Jesus; however, the dictionary is a running second to those two deities.

Higher pay scales than mine dictated the moment, and ‘spelt’ was promptly swapped out for ‘spelled.’

The lesson in all this, aside from restraining one’s self from saying, “I told you so,” was that there is no such thing as infallibility when it comes to definitions, and it is always best to check, just in case you have been using a word, or spelling a word, incorrectly all these years.

…which I hadn’t been, just for the record.


Consistency in Writing: Proper Nouns

This topic will probably be the theme of the blog for the better part of a while. One thing I keep coming across at work is the need for consistency in what we do. I just had a report sent back for some edits, albeit minor ones, some of which were persKONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAnickety items that were more the whim of the Clerk than grammar/syntax edits, but she had one good catch: the title of the committee about which the report was written was presented in two different formats. Now usually I catch this sort of thing, but as this is a bit of a confessional, I’ll admit that I missed noticing the second format.

Errors happen: never pleasant to have them pointed out (at least they are caught!), and one needs to be gracious enough to admit to them.

When these sorts of things happen,  I do mentally give myself a swift kick in the rear end, as I pride myself on catching (almost) all such lapses of consistency. Such a lapse is the equivalent of missing a period at the end of a paragraph (another lesson once made, quickly learned).

One thing though is not to let any error rue your day, as it could always be worse, and greater organizations than you and yours have made grammatical errors on official documents (and feel free to share any doozies that you have come across using the form below, they are always priceless!).