Monthly Archives: June 2014

A Pulitzer Prize-Winning Misplaced Modifier


First of all, I have to tell you that I loved Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, all 700-plus pages of it, so much that I know I will read it again. It was that enthralling: an exciting, educational, sad, funny, well-written, captivating book. Second of all, I have to tell you (in case you somehow missed this) that I am a grammar nerd of the first order. So when I came across a second misplaced modifier in this wonderful book, well, how could I let it pass without comment? I always wonder where the editors are who miss these bloopers.

Here is the cast of characters in this example: Popper is a tiny dog belonging to the protagonist, Theo. Boris is Theo’s closest friend, someone he met in middle school. The narrator is Theo:

“Popper—damp, but otherwise looking none the worse for his adventure—stiffened his legs rather formally as Boris set him down on the floor and then paddled over to me, holding his head up so that I might scratch him under the chin.”

Obviously, Popper was the one hoping for a chin scratch, but the way the sentence is constructed, Boris did two things: he put the dog on the floor and then paddled over to Theo to get his chin scratched. How to fix this? The sentence is fine up to the setting-on-the-floor part. It could be rewritten this way: “…stiffened his legs rather formally as he was set down on the floor and then paddled over to me….” You can probably think of other ways to avoid this misplaced modifier.

The rule about modifiers is that you have to ask yourself who did the action and then put that person’s (or in this case, dog’s) name or pronoun immediately following the modifier. I do love them, though. The results are often inadvertently very entertaining.

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Chagrined and Nonplussed

These are two bad feelings to experience.

Many people think CHAGRIN means a feeling of sadness, but it actually means  embarrassment or humiliation as a result of failure:

Larry was chagrined when he failed to get a minimum passing score on the chemistry final.

If you are NONPLUSSED (this can also be spelled with one S, although two are preferred), you feel confused and don’t know how to act:

Nonplussed, Larry thought he would be the valedictorian, but stunned by his failing chemistry grade he gradually acknowledged that honor was not to be his.

You may be aware that a different meaning for “nonplussed” is starting to overtake the original meaning as a result of common usage: people are using the word to indicate a lack of concern or caring, which is the opposite of the word’s original meaning:

Larry was nonplussed after he failed the chemistry exam because he hadn’t cared whether he made valedictorian.

This other usage is still cited in dictionaries by a note indicating that it is not yet standard; but my bet is that within 10 years it will have overtaken the historical definition. All languages change.


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Journalism Clichés


Carlos Lozada at the Washington Post listed clichés frequently seen in the media, clichés he would like to abolish. Here is a portion of the phrases he finds annoying and ready for destruction. Do you agree?

Christmas came early for [someone]

Chock full (“full” is just fine by itself)

Last-ditch effort (unless ditch-digging is involved)

Midwife (as a verb, unless involving childbirth)

Cue the [something]

Call it [something]

Pity the poor [something]

It’s the [something], stupid

Imagine (as the first word in your lede)

Time will tell if [something]

Palpable sense of relief (unless you can truly touch it)

Sigh of relief

Plenty of blame to go around

Rorschach test (unless it is a real one)

Turned a blind eye

I’m voting with Lozada.

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Do You Move In to or Move Into?

Here’s a question a reader posed. It is worth some thought:

A person is moving from one apartment to another. Would you say she is moving into the new apartment or moving in to it?

I vote for the first option. She is moving all her belongings inside the new digs; therefore, she is moving into it.

If you say she is moving in to that apartment, you are thinking of the verb as “moving in.” But that “in” is extraneous. She’s moving. You could save space and trees (OK, a tiny tree) by simply stating she is moving to her new apartment.

Feel free to disagree.


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What Kind of Word Nerd Are You?


I found this quiz posted at, written by Laura Hale Brockway . You probably can guess my score (and I’m damned proud of it!).

What kind of word nerd are you?

Step 1. Answer the following yes/no questions. (Be honest. This is a judgment-free zone.)

1. Do you subscribe to one or more style guides (or have one or more style guides on your desk)?

2. Do you catch typos all around you, even when you’re not looking for them?

3. Do you find yourself correcting the grammar in the books you read to your kids? (“Junie B. Jones” is the worst.)

4. Can you quote from “Eats, Shoots and Leaves?”  [Note from Judi: Yes, but I also wrote to the editor because the book contains about 10 major errors, most not attributable to the author’s English upbringing.]

5. Have you had more than one heated argument about the use of the serial (Oxford) comma?

6. Does seeing 1990’s or 30’s drive you to drink?

7. Do you feel an immediate sense of camaraderie with anyone who uses “comprise” correctly?

8. Can you spell “minuscule,” “inadvertent,” “supersede,” and “ophthalmologist” correctly? (Could you have done so before I just showed them to you?)

9. Is the hyphen your least favorite punctuation mark?

10. Do you use the word “decimate” correctly?

11. Do you giggle when you end a sentence with a preposition and know why it’s acceptable to do so?

12. Do people refuse to play Words with Friends or Scrabble with you?

Step 2. Count the questions to which you answered “yes.”

Word Nerd Elite—You answered “yes” to 10 to 12 questions.

You are in the upper echelon of word nerdiness. Very likely you are the primary person in your department or company whom others ask when they have a grammar or punctuation question. You may have even played dueling style guides with a co-worker. Finding typos on signs or in movie credits might feel like a victory for you. Welcome to the club. We meet for drinks every month on penultimate Wednesdays.

Word Nerd Moderate—You answered “yes” to 5 to 9 questions.

You exhibit a few of the telltale signs of word nerdiness. You probably know and use one style guide very well. Though you know the arguments for and against its use, you’re lukewarm on the serial comma. You have a pretty easy time keeping your composure when playing Scrabble.

Word Nerd Lite (or should that be light?)—You answered “yes” to 0 to 4 questions.

Other than one or two minor eccentricities, you’re not really a word nerd at all. You leave it to others to find typos and argue about word usage. Perhaps you’ve read “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” and you remember the joke about the panda. You haven’t quite memorized your style guide, but you have a few key sections highlighted.

Good job!



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More Verb Variants


She dived or she dove?

I recently wrote about “snuck” as a variant for “sneaked.” It’s no longer considered substandard, so you don’t have to sneak around if you’ve snuck it into your writing.

A few more verbs I’ve thought about since I wrote that post: “weave,” “dive” and “get.”

Which form do you prefer for the past tense of “weave”: “weaved” or “wove”? How about the past tense of “dive”? “Dived” or “dove”? Any of those words are acceptable.

The past participle of “get” gives you a choice as well. (The past participle may be a scary-sounding phrase, but all it means is the verb form that includes “has,” “have” or “had.”) Now I will get back to “get”:

Do you say, “I have got my flu shot” or “I have gotten my flu shot”? For some unknown reason, I am a “gotten” person, but either is correct. Both come from Middle English. The only time you will definitely need “got” instead of “gotten” is to show ownership:

“I have got three dollars in my wallet.” You wouldn’t use “gotten” in that sentence.


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I Don’t Get It, Part 2

The other day I wrote a post about a newspaper ad that bugged me. No matter how I tried to insert the ad, I couldn’t get it to post. I’ve now cropped it and hope it will work; it will make the post comprehensible. Here goes:



Yes! Here’s the rest of what I wrote, as a reminder:

From the initial idea to the finished ad in the newspaper, did not one person see the error and correct it? This happens so frequently, I have to wonder if editors exist any longer.

This ad is aimed at “graDuation” celebrations, but “congratulations” is not related. These two words are derived from entirely different Latin verbs. True, many people do pronounce “congratulations” as if the T were a D. But it’s not. Was the word never underlined, indicating a problem with it? Did not one person notice the error?

I may have to drown my sorrow and frustration in a two-pound lobster.



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