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A Perfect Crime
March 7, 2012 - David Alexander
I don’t claim to be a perfect writer. Or even a good writer for that matter. I use sentence fragments. I often affect a breezy manner. I end paragraphs wherever I want independent of topic sentences. I’m not really a prescriptivist — someone who believes language has specific rules that are carved in stone and should never be broken. These people are often labeled “grammar Nazis.” And they often gas on about topic sentences and commas because all they can do is write topic sentences and use commas properly.
However, I’m not really a descriptivist either — someone who believes language is what people make of it and whatever is common usage is correct because speakers shape and define language. These people think “ginormous” is a word and that if a word makes it into the dictionary it is legitimate. They are idiots.
Between breakouts (those little briefs with mug shots of criminals), articles, cutlines for photos and blogs, I write between 7,000 and 8,000 published words each week. So, naturally I make mistakes. When you consider how much of my work week is actually spent sitting at my computer writing stories — a relatively small portion compared to all the other things I do — I crank out those 7,000 or 8,000 words in about four or five hours. That’s roughly 1,000 publishable words an hour.
But, again, I do make mistakes. However, being a writer causes me to notice the mistakes of others more so, just like what I write being displayed in a public forum puts my writing under the microscope. The difference is my mistakes are usually the byproduct of inattention due to time constraints. They don’t rear their ugly heads because I don’t know how to spell, where to place commas or the proper usage of “who” and “whom.”
And although I don’t fall into the “IT’S NEVER OK TO END A SENTENCE IN A PREPOSITION!” camp, I do notice that there are several mistakes that people make regularly. And for better or worse, I will simply list some of the more common ones here.
* Apostrophes denote possession or conjunctions
This mistake is most often made when writing years, abbreviations or the pronoun “its.” People will write “1950’s” and “ABC’s,” which is incorrect not mention confusing.
Placing an apostrophe indicates that you are using a conjunction (e.g., don’t stop thinking about tomorrow) or that someone owns something (e.g., Armand’s copy of “Swank”). When it is placed after a year, it indicates that the year owns something. Therefor it would be correct to write “1970’s Oscar winners” only if you are speaking about those people who won Oscars in 1970. If you mean to talk about songs, books or whatever else from an era, that era is simply written “the 1970s.”
The same is true for abbreviations.
Incorrect: There are many CFC’s in this hair spray. The CFCs don’t own anything here, so the apostrophe is unnecessary. And you don’t use an apostrophe in “its” because it is a pronoun like “his” and “hers.” So: The police department promoted its captain .
* There is no such thing as a “dead body”
A body, by implication, is dead. If it weren’t, it would be a person. Plain and simple.
* Something can’t be “totally destroyed/demolished” and someone can’t be “electrocuted/strangled to death”
These too are classic redundancies. Something can’t be partially destroyed or demolished. These words are absolutes. The same goes for “strangle,” which means to choke someone to death, and “electrocute,” which means to be shocked to death. If you are alive, you haven’t been strangled or electrocuted. You’ve just been choked and shocked.
I could go on. But I won’t. I’m not trying to seem linguistically superior or haughty, just make the point that nobody is perfect.
The fact is most people probably make these mistakes on a regular basis but nobody notices because what they write is not displayed on a billboard that is the local newspaper.
It doesn’t matter what the level of education or affluence with language. I notice these mistakes in books, on product labels and on TV. The perpetrators are far more educated than me and also have the benefit of having a team of editors at their disposal, who are also more educated than me. But still these grammatical abominations still see the light of day.
The sad fact is the veneer between what I write and what is printed is razor thin. To me, it is a far worse crime against language to perfectly construct an incorrect sentence than to imperfectly construct a correct one.
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