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Plain English Campaign announces 2008 Golden Bull winners

I’m not a fan of year-end retrospectives or awards. I know what happened during the past year, I don’t need a reminder. And awards often are just a gimmick to recognize the giver rather than the recipient.

But the Plain English Campaign recently announced its Golden Bull winners for 2008, highlighting the “the year’s ‘best’ examples of gobbledygook.”

Read the list of honorees–all of them are deserving. (And thankfully none of them are clients of mine!)

(Via Grammar & Composition)

Maureen Dowd is a lazy writer

Read a  New York Times’ op-ed writer for a few months and you know what his or her column will say ahead of time.

  • Thomas Friedman: Globalization is good and inevitable.
  • Nicholas Kristof: Life is miserable in developing countries.
  • Bill Kristol: I am wrong about everything.
  • Paul Krugman: George W. Bush is bad.
  • Bob Herbert: There’s nothing a government program can’t fix.

While Maureen Dowd doesn’t hawk an ideology, she seldom makes sense. She just fires out a slew of zingers; sure, some of them hit, but mostly she makes a mess. Every Dowd column I read has me thinking The Times sacked its copyeditors.

But as I’m a Tiny Fey fan (and who outside of Wasilla isn’t these days?), I read Dowd’s cover article on the comedian in this month’s Vanity Fair. As expected, there are several passages that are great examples of how not to write.

  • “Vintage-y Upper West Side apartment”—Tacking a “y” onto the end of a word is the epitome of lazy writing. A minute or two searching a thesaurus probably would have led Dowd to a real word or phrase.
  • “Her [Fey’s] former S.N.L. pal Colin Quinn”—Were Fey and Quinn once, but no longer, friends? Or is Dowd just referring to the fact that they used to work together? If it’s the former, don’t leave your readers hanging, dish the dirt Dowd. If it’s the latter, “pal” is a lousy word choice; we all have colleagues with whom we aren’t friends.
  • “Then she retreated backstage at S.N.L., wore a ski hat, and gained weight writing sharp, funny jokes and eating junk food”—On first read, it sounds as if writing jokes made Fey fat. Writing the fragment as “she gained weight eating junk food while writing sharp, funny jokes” prevents confusion.

Is it British English or just wrong?

Because I have a fetish for has-beens who cash out, a few months ago I was following David Beckham’s first MLS game on David Beckham took finally the field

The phrase “took finally the field” gave me pause: Did make a rare grammatical mistake? Or was it just another lame attempt by an American sports writer to infuse humor into a piece on Beckham by trying to sound British?

About 30 minutes later, I had my answer. David Beckham took finally the field

It’s better to be wrong than a hack anyway.

The post in which I admit my grammatical flaws

In “Do you make these mistakes when you write?” on Copyblogger (a site I mentioned in my last post) Brian Clark highlights seven common mistakes that the masters Strunk and White and some of Copyblogger’s readers have highlighted:

  1. Loose vs. lose
  2. Me, myself, and I
  3. Different than vs. different from
  4. Improper use of the apostrophe (I’ve delved into that subject a few times)
  5. Parallelism
  6. i.e. vs. e.g.
  7. Could of, would of, should of

My main problems concern “lead” vs. “led” and “their” vs. “there.” While I know the differences between them, it requires conscious thought to make sure I get them right. Usually good grammar comes easier to me.

What writing mistakes are you prone to make?

A non-native English speaker’s thoughts about English

Prajwal Sharma, who wrote about “Cleaning up your writing by avoiding these six common mistakes” as a guest writer on this site,” has a couple of good articles about English from his days writing for The Truman State Index (free registration required) [Update Jan. 3, 2015: Neither column is available online any more.]:

  • “Americans’ command over English falls dismally short”
  • “Native speakers should try teaching English abroad”

Both of Prajwal’s pieces, however, are insightful and worth reading. I usually enjoy reading non-native English speakers’ thoughts on our language. (Although I love the irony of one column saying that American’s mastery of English is dismal, yet the other piece encourages English speakers to share their knowledge with people trying to learn their language.)

I’m not the only writer and editor who takes pictures in public restrooms

Bad grammar is bad grammar, be it in a medical book or a public bathroom.

As he mentioned on his blog Bad Language, Matthew Stibbe thought, “I’m sure they don’t actually want people to put toilet tissue and nothing else down the loo but I did feel like I was breaking the rules when I had a pee” upon seeing this sign above a toilet, er, loo in Starbucks:

A sign on the wall of the loo at Starbucks

I’m just glad, however, that I’m not the only writer and editor willing to take a picture in a public restroom for the sake of documenting bad grammar.

I’m giving my most difficult client to my future mother-in-law

The hardest person to edit is yourself. People often read text they wrote as it is in their head, not how it appears on the paper. To overcome that barrier, I’ve suggested having the computer read back your text to you. That trick helps, but it doesn’t catch every mistake.

That’s what a mother-in-law is for—or, in my case, a soon-to-be mother-in-law. My fiancée’s parents were in town last weekend. We had a lovely time perusing wedding-related facilities. At one point, however, Margaret’s mom pulled me aside and said, “I’ve been reading your website.” Ut-oh. “In one post you used a semicolon where you should have used a comma.”

Now, in the long history of conversations between guys with websites and their future mothers-in-law, this exchange was an innocuous one. Nevertheless I was bothered because (to paraphrase Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby) everyone suspects himself of having mastered at least one piece of punctuation, and this is mine: I am one of the few people I have ever known that know how to use a semicolon. (And, yes, it should say “who know,” not “that know.” The mistake is Fitzgerald’s, not mine.)

Later on, when we were back at our apartment, my soon-to-be mother-in-law and I reviewed several entries on this site but, alas, could not find the incorrect semicolon. So now I have a mother-in-law who probably questions both my punctuatory prowess and ability to provide for her daughter and a website that has an erroneous semicolon.