Skip directly to content

Yet another blowout yesterday. Left-Out Comma (after parenthetical phrases) made quick work of Nouning Verbs by a 70.2-29.8 percent margin and advances to the quarterfinals.

Today features a classic context between between a problem that often shows up in writing and one of the sticklers' all-time favorite pet peeves. The latter is Disagreement in Number: for example, writing, "A group of students are [instead of "is"] meeting with the dean today," or, "Everyone who wants to go to the play should buy their [instead of "his or her"] ticket." People who hate this especially hate it when a plural verb is used with the word "none."

The writing problem is Vagueness and Abstraction. It can be seen in excessive use of the word "many" (without specifiying how many), the passive voice, and abstract nouns that end with -"tion." When you combine this with the weak verb "to be" and the weak verb "of," you can...

Yesterday's match was no contest. "Its/"It's" Confusion trounced Dangling Modifiers, 67.3 percent to 32.7 percent and advances to a highly anticipated quarterfinal matchup against Wordiness. (As always, you can see the current state of the bracket here.)

Today's contest is a fairly geeked-out one. On the one side, there's a mistake that I see in student writing all the time and that I (deliberately) made in the second sentence of this post. Can you spot it? It's the missing comma after "32.7 percent." Another example would be "JFK was assassinated on November 22, 1963 in Dallas." There's no confusion about what either sentence means, but comma rules are comma rules, darn it, and the rules say to put a comma after "1963."

Going up against the phantom commas is a particularly annoying recent trend, seen especially in business and show-biz jargon, of nouning such verbs as hire, ask, reveal, and get...

Results of the first match are in, and, frankly, it was uncompetitive. Wordiness jumped out to a quick early lead over Cliches, and though the spunky underdogs made a couple of runs, they never could reduce the margin to less than 20 percentage points. Final result: Wordiness 60.2 percent, Cliches 39.8 percent.

Today's first-round matchup features two strong contenders. Anyone who reads student papers, or the Internet, knows that confusion between its and it's, your and you're, and there, their, and they're is rampant. A more venerable issue is that of dangling modifiers, that is, sentences like, "As a threat to the future of the world, I think global warming deserves our full attention." Only you can decide which one will advance to the quarter-finals, so please vote.

As always, you can view the current state of the bracket here.



Welcome to March Madness for language geeks! Starting today and continuing through the first round, quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals, I'll post on this site a poll in which you can vote on which is the worse of two "sins against the language." You can review the results in real time!/7d1a97592a235. Within a couple of weeks, we should have a winner. The first contest is a pretty clear-cut one. "Wordiness" is merely what occurs when an individual utilizes expressions of excessive length, oftentimes culminating in a sentence that appears to extend indefinitely. Cliches are the poster child of tired expressions, truisms on steroids. But at the end of the day, it is what it is.

At one point in J.D. Salinger's novella "Seymour: An Introduction," the narrator, Buddy Glass, says, in a parenthetical aside about his sainted older brother:

(When Seymour was twenty-one, a nearly full professor of English, and had already been teaching for two years, I asked him what, if anything, got him down about teaching. He said he didn't think anything about it got him exactly down, but there was one thing, he thought, that frightened him: reading the pencilled notations in the margins of books in the college library.)

I was reminded of that quote the other day when I opened a copy of Steven Levy's book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution that I had taken out of the Swarthmore College Library. This is what I found when I got to page 52: