Verb Mistakes #1: Heard on Television

Quite apart from stylistic errors involving redundancy and inapt word choice, television can be a rich source of grammatical errors. Here are four examples.

INCORRECT: Gin was drunken out of necessity, not choice.—Documentary narrator
CORRECT: Gin was drunk out of necessity, not choice.

The forms of the verb drink are:
Present: drink/drinks
Simple past: drank
Past participle: (has/have) drunk

Drunken is an adjective: “He has a reputation as a drunken, lazy lay-about.”

Drunk is also used an adjective: “He was drunk as a lord.”

INCORRECT: [She] has announced she wasrunning for Senate yesterday. —News reporter
CORRECT: [She] announced yesterday she isrunning for Senate.
CORRECT: [She] has announced she is running for Senate.

“Has announced” is a verb in the present perfect tense. Adverbs of time like yesterday are not used with this tense. Even if the announcement was made in the past, the fact of the candidate’s campaign for the Senate exists in the present.

INCORRECT: [Context: Three meat inspectors were murdered at a sausage factory.] Each of them were shot several times.”—Radio announcer
CORRECT: Each of them was shot several times.”

Each is singular and requires a singular verb.

INCORRECT: What kind of things would they bein the market of buying?
CORRECT: What kind of things would they be in the market to buy?

There is no hard and fast rule that would guide an ESL speaker to choose an infinitive over a participle in this construction. There are, however, certain abstract nouns that are always followed by an infinitive. For example: ability,desireneedwishattemptfailureopportunity,chance, and intention. In the expression “to be in the market,” market is abstract.

Possible responses to the question “What are you in the market to buy?” might be “I’m in the market to buy a house” OR “I’m in the market for a house.

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Usage Mistakes #1

The sentences below illustrate various types of mistakes in wording born from (not “borne out of”) ignorance or carelessness.

1. All the progress we have made to educate people about the hazards of smoking may be for not.

The writer, perhaps unfamiliar with the termnaught, assumed that the last word of the sentence is intended to denote negation rather than futility: “All the progress we have made to educate people about the hazards of smoking may be for naught.”

2. President Obama traveled to Cuba for a historical visit.

A historical visit is one that occurs in history, though one should not refer to a visit this way;historical is superfluous. The writer meant to state that the visit is historic; that word means “of significance to history” (though it sometimes refers simply to something established or existing from the past): “President Obama traveled to Cuba for a historic visit.”

(But shouldn’t it be “an historic visit”? No, because the correct pronunciation of historic is to sound the h, though many people, including me, believe it is easier to use an and treat the first letter of the following word as silent.)

3. His speech was a load of dribble.

Some people seem to think that references such as the one here are to someone’s writing or utterance being worth no more than drool, but the correct word for foolish or silly talk (which can refer to slavering but is etymologically unrelated) is drivel: “His speech was a load of drivel.”

4. The list is virtually a whose-who of prominent community members.

The pronoun whose has no place in this sentence. The phrase “who’s who” (the contraction is of “who is”) refers to a roster of notable people or things or summaries about them, or to such a group collectively: “The list is virtually a who’s who of prominent community members.” This usage—without a connecting hyphen—stems from publications with titles modeled on the phrase, such as Who’s Who in American Art.

5. Where does the US Jewish population predominately live?

Predominate is a verb; the correct adjectival and adverbial forms are predominant andpredominantly: “Where does the US Jewish population predominantly live?”

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3 Cases of Too Many Commas

This post illustrates several types of sentences that incorporate excessive punctuation. Each example is followed by a discussion and a revision.

1. Much of what happened between the moment Jones sat on a bench to enjoy the view and police opened fire and killed him, has been the subject of contentious debate.

A verb is preceded by a comma only when that comma is one of a pair that frames a parenthetical phrase: “Much of what happened between the moment Jones sat on a bench to enjoy the view and police opened fire and killed him has been the subject of contentious debate.” (An example of the type of exception noted is “Much of what happened between the moment Jones sat on a bench to enjoy the view and police opened fire and kill him, and why the police reacted the way they did, has been the subject of contentious debate.”)

2. The stakes are high because, without effective management of regulatory risks, organizations are reactive, at best, and noncompliant, at worst, with all of the attendant consequences.

The punctuation bracketing the phrases “at best” and “at worst” is optional, but because they, in combination with the required commas that set off the sentence’s parenthetical phrase and its subordinate clause, create a cluttered effect, it’s best to omit the discretionary ones: “The stakes are high because, without effective management of regulatory risks, organizations are reactive at best and noncompliant at worst, with all of the attendant consequences.” (Note that in the case of “at worst,” only the preceding comma can be deleted, because the one that follows it serves double duty, setting off the subordinate clause as well.)

3. He would replace conservative, Justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.

This sentence is punctuated as if “Justice Antonin Scalia” is an appositive of conservative—that is, as if the phrase and the word are equivalent to each other—meaning that the parenthetical phrase could be omitted without affecting the validity of the sentence’s grammatical structure. However, the result would be the flawed statement “He would replace conservative, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.”

Conservative is simply part of a descriptor providing additional information about the person named; therefore, no intervening punctuation is necessary: “He would replace conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.” (Note that because the descriptor is “conservative justice,” not simply conservative, justice is not a job title and is therefore not capitalized.)

A revision of the sentence that incorporates an appositive and thus validates the parenthetical punctuation, is “He would replace a conservative justice, Antonin Scalia, who died last month, leaving behind a bitter election-year fight over the future of the court.” (Here, “Antonin Scalia” —and the framing punctuation—could be omitted without damage to the sentence.)

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