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Measure up, word nerds

I’d like to go to church this morning, Pentecost and all that, but there are all those people circling the house, pounding feebly at the door, and pleading for the answers to yesterday’s quiz on word nerdiness.

Here you are: the original ten sentences, the identification of the problems they present, and a note on scoring your nerdity at the end.

  

1. A rapidly developing drought and unseasonably hot weather throughout Maryland has stolen the early promise of this year’s wet spring, parching lawns and gardens and raising fears among farmers of a return to the disastrously dry years of the mid-1980s. 

  

Subject-verb agreement: drought and weather constitute a compound subject, so the verb has to be have stolen.

  

2. Although boys do get lice, they tend to prefer females.

 

The rule is that the pronoun refers back to the nearest noun as its antecedent, right? So they stands in for lice and all is fine, right? That’s the rule.

But when you have an although a does b, c does d, the parallelism leads the reader to identify c with a, permitting a reading of the sentence that boys prefer females to lice, which is, of course, a good thing. Changing they to the insects or the vermin makes everything plain.

But wait, there’s more: a proper word nerd insists on proper parallelism, in this case either boys and girls or males and females. In this case, since the context establishes that we’re talking about children, boys and girls is the preferable choice. Extra credit if you did that.

 

3. The thing that first caught my eye was a large silver cup that Charles had won for skating on the mantelpiece.

  

Word order and position in sentences count for more in English than in many other languages, and you have to watch where you plop down your prepositional phrases. The thing on the mantelpiece that caught my eye was the large silver cup that Charles had won for skating. 

 

4. After he died, Bates identified the body as the man who had claimed to be John Wilkes Booth.

  

That opening subordinate clause prepares you to think that he anticipates the subject of the sentence, but the modifier is misplaced (unless Bates made the identification by means of a Ouija board). After the man who had claimed to be John Wilkes Booth died, Bates identified the body would fix that.

But since identified the body already indicates that we are talking about a corpse, the shortest and simplest remedy for the sentence is to lop of after he died. Extra credit if you did that.

  

5. Stopped at the light at Saratoga Street, a man in a Cleveland Indians hat crossed in front of her like a black cat.

 

Misplaced modifier: That opening participial phrase is assumed to refer to the subject of the sentence, but instead it refers to her, the driver of the car. The simplest fix is to turn the participial phrase into an adverbial subordinate clause that refers to crossed: While she was stopped at the light at Saratoga Street, a man in a Cleveland Indians cap crossed in front of her like a black cat. Or, equally satisfactory: A man in a Cleveland Indians hat crossed in front of her while she was stopped at the light at Saratoga Street.

 

 

6. The train tracks are believed to be part of the Underground Railroad by which slaves found their way to freedom.

  

Yes, this is a factual error, but it is not merely a factual error, like writing that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 6, 1941. (It happens.) It also represents a failure to recognize that Underground Railroad is a metaphor for the network of routes and way stations by which slaves made their way to freedom. (I no longer have the original text, so I cannot tell you what the hell railroad tracks the writer was referring to.)

  

7. The old expression, it’s like trying to turn around the Queen Mary, no longer holds. While it’s 100 feet longer than the original ship, this one turns on a dime, thanks to three thrusters. In no time flat the ship turned 90 degrees, going from a horizontal position between two piers into a vertical one ready to head into the berth, with the ease of a kid twirling a toy boat in a bathtub. I believe that RMS Titanic once performed much the same maneuver.

The ship moved from a perpendicular position between the two piers to a parallel one.

And, if you are a proper word nerd, you should also have objected to the inept effort to freshen up not merely one but two cliches, turn around the Queen Mary and turn on a dime. Trying to rehabilitate cliches is a mug’s game. Extra credit if you eliminated one or both.

 

 

8. The world’s largest spice producer, insulated by an armor of takeover safeguards adopted this summer, is sitting comfortably on the sidelines awaiting the fallout from the takeover free-for-all embroiling the nation’s food industry.

  

I invite my students to do a metaphor census on this one. The world’s largest spice producer is (1) wearing armor, (2) sitting down in armor, (3) at a football game (sidelines), (4) expecting nuclear radiation (fallout), (5) from a street brawl (free-for-all). If you have no idea what the writing is talking about, it is because he has moved you to distraction with this metaphor salad in a botched attempt at vivid writing.

  

9. Joseph Fewsmith, an expert on the Chinese leadership at Boston University, said, only half jokingly, “It seems that Jiang is stronger today than he was yesterday.” 

 

My God, the Red Chinese have taken over BU! 

Professor Fewsmith is an expert at Boston University on the Chinese leadership. Keep an eye on those prepositional phrases.

 

 

10. The group included more than 100 informants whom CIA officials concluded had been implicated in major crimes abroad, including killings, kidnappings and terrorist acts — and who also provided inadequate intelligence.

That attributive CIA concluded dropped into the middle of the sentence without commas leads you to look for an object of concluded rather than reading it as CIA officials concluded [that].  CIA officials concluded [that] they/who had been implicated. And the second, parallel subordinate clause, who provided intelligence, should have signaled the .

This is why it’s safer for most people to stick to who; they get into trouble when they try to use whom. Unless they are hard-core word nerds.

 

 

How’dja do? Ten sentences. If you got all ten, that’s excellent, and six is passing. But unless you also got the three extra credits, I cannot give you full marks as a black-belt, ninja, thirty-second-degree word nerd.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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