If you missed the first post in this series, click here.
This post is the 2nd and last installment of my grammar mini-series. Below you’ll find some hilarious mistakes, and fixes you can make to save face.
Remember: this is second-draft stuff. When you write your first draft, focus on getting everything down, and pay attention to your outline. Then give yourself an interval of time between drafts, after which you can settle down with your red pen and focus thoughtfully on your prose.
Immodest cooking and other embarrassments
Several years ago, when I was senior editor at an Indie publishing company, the only project I ever refused to continue working on was The Cookbook from Hell, written by, of course, The Author from Hell. The book and its author ruined everyone’s lives for the few years it took to get it (and her) out the door.
The recipe, which we ended up deleting from the book, opened with excruciating detail about how to season and prepare the chicken before employing the beer can. The author then wrote:
“Take beer can. Spread legs.”
Why am I telling you this? Because this author didn’t take the time to read and reread her manuscript. She handed it off to the editors with nary a thought as to how accurate or readable her book was.
Unfortunately, I see this sort of attitude all too frequently.
2nd draft is all about focus
Sometimes embarrassing mistakes make it into print not because the author doesn’t care but because he or she simply missed the issue or wasn’t aware that there was one. But that’s still not an excuse.
You can eliminate potential problems by using some of the strategies I’ve discussed before, such as reading your piece aloud before you submit it. Or by reading your work closely and frequently asking yourself, “Does this make sense?”
In other words, you need to focus.
Here are some hilarious sentences which, while grammatically correct, can be taken in more than one way and can definitely lower your credibility as a writer:
- Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges. Usually I badger authors to take out all unnecessary verbiage, but here I’d urge whoever wrote this headline to be a bit more generous. All that’s needed are one word at the beginning, such as “Government,” and two words in the middle, such as “completion of” or “opening of.” Amazing the difference this can make.
- Kids Make Nutritious Snacks. This one’s a bit trickier, because you have to be strategic regarding where to place additional words. For example, if you say, “Kids can make nutritious snacks,” or “Even kids make nutritious snacks,” you haven’t gained anything. How about, “Kids can make their own nutritious snacks” or “Learn how kids are making their own nutritious snacks”?
By the way, headlines are challenging, as sometimes you must pack everything into four or five words. Take your time with this.
- For anyone who has children and doesn’t know it, there is a day care on the first floor. This is mostly a punctuation issue; the phrase, “and doesn’t know it,” belongs to the second clause, not the first. How can we make the sentence plausible?
First of all, I don’t like the sentence opening. Prepositional or gerund/participle phrases at the beginning can spell disaster for the rest of the sentence. So feel free to totally rework and rearrange your words. Rigidity is the enemy of writers – although I’m all for 90 percent rigidity when it comes to grammar.
Here are some alternatives to those poor parents who don’t know they have kids:
- “Parents: Did you know there is a day care on the first floor?”
- “Parents, there is a day care on the first floor.”
- “If you have kids, you will be pleased to know that there is a day care on the first floor.”
- “If you have kids, check out the day care on the first floor.”
Journey into the nonsensical
- If you cannot read, this leaflet will tell you how to get lessons.
- War Dims Hope for Peace.
- If Strike Isn’t Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile.
- Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures.
Here, too, focus is the key. You can rework these sentences by sitting down and examining what exactly you are trying to get across. “What am I trying to say?” will be your new mantra.
Learning how to read (and write)
In the first sentence, there is nothing to do except call people up and offer them reading lessons. However, if you must have something in print, keep your audience in mind, use a picture, and simplify:
LEARN TO READ: 1-800-123-4567.
By the way, this is an important point. If you are writing a children’s book, you will have to simplify your language. There are even programs you can run your manuscript through that tell you the grade level of your prose on the Flesch-Kincaid readability scale. Rule of thumb: the younger the audience, the shorter the words (and sentences).
Opposites (sometimes) detract
The problem with the second sentence is that we have a pair of opposites. Deleting either “war” or “peace” is a good start:
- “War dims hope for quick solution to border dispute.”
- “Recent fighting dims hope for peace.”
The third sentence is repetitive. Focusing on the issue will help us figure out what we’re really saying. Perhaps we can even eliminate one of the clauses.
- “Strike to last indefinitely if immediate solution isn’t found.”
This one’s okay, but let’s dig a little deeper. What’s really going on here? Sounds like the workers have some nonnegotiable demands, no? How about:
- “Strikers dig in their heels; only hope is quick settlement.”
- “Strike must be settled quickly to avoid lengthy factory shut-down.”
Sometimes we need to completely rewrite a sentence in order for it to say what we want it to say. This is advanced self-editing!
Just the facts, Ma’am
- “Consistent low temperatures point to cold wave.” Again, not bad, but can we make it better?
- “Lowering temperatures signal imminent cold wave.” This sentence is nice, because it has a logical cause and effect. However, it means that the cold wave hasn’t occurred yet.
- “It’s not just low temperatures; it’s a cold wave!” Here’s another way to link the two issues, especially if the cold wave is happening now.
- “Cold wave hits Hawaii. Temperatures in the negatives.” Feel free to use two sentences if it helps you and your readers.
- “Cold wave hits Hawaii.” Another great solution. A cold wave means there are low temperatures. Ask yourself if the point of the story is to tell people there’s a cold wave or to link the cold wave to an unprecedented lowering of temperatures. If the point is simply to report a cold wave, then simply report the cold wave.
More fun for you, less commentary from me
Bargain basement upstairs. This is what happens when you rely on clichés. Again, focus on what you want to say, keep the principal idea, and replace the rest:
- “Sale items upstairs.”
- “Closeouts upstairs.”
- “Bargain department upstairs.”
Would the person who took the stepladder yesterday please bring it back or further steps will be taken. The issue here is using the same word(s) too close together and/or in a different context.
One of the first authors I ever worked for made me aware of my use of repetitive words, and I’m forever grateful to him.
Here’s one solution to the poorly written sentence above:
“Whoever took the stepladder yesterday is requested to return it immediately; otherwise, the administration will conduct a room-by-room search.” More detail can sometimes be a solution.
“The stepladder which was taken yesterday must be put back by 5:00 pm.” No need for threats; just make the main clause stronger.
“Would the person who took the bookshelf ladder yesterday please return it, or further steps will be taken.” If you want to retain the second clause, then change the first. Again, what is the problem? Can you solve it by substituting one word for another?
We can repair anything. (Please knock hard on the door; the bell doesn’t work.) This reminds me of the mistake I made in the first sentence of the post I published on May 29th. I was talking, as usual, about good grammar, and made a silly grammar mistake. Again, I’m forever grateful to my friend who spotted it.
I call this self-incriminating writing. If you’re going to assert an opinion, make sure you have all your facts straight. For instance, never say, “I’m writing my thesis on Jon F. Kennedy, who was assassinated in 1958.” (Can you spot both mistakes?)
Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers. Here, the problem is one of syntactical cognitive dissonance. We associate the expression “run down” with traffic accidents, not with traffic rules. Choose your words thoughtfully and mindfully, and make sure they fit the words and sentences around them. Good focus will help you catch most doozies.
Pure fun, even less commentary
- After tea break, staff should empty the teapot and stand upside down on the draining board. Reminds me of the beer can chicken recipe.
- We exchange anything: bicycles, washing machines, etc. Why not bring your wife in and get a wonderful bargain? Don’t give your husband any ideas.
- Elephants, please stay in your car. This one was spotted at a safari park. Change the punctuation; problem solved.
- Automatic washing machines: please remove all your clothes when the light goes out. Can we get a bit more explanation here? And delete the possessive pronoun.
- The farmer allows walkers to cross the field for free, but the bull charges. Remember the old joke, “How do you stop an elephant from charging?”
- Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over. Feel free to completely rewrite this one.
- Miners Refuse to Work after Death. Cue Twilight Zone music.
- Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant. I suggest this person read Eats Shoots and Leaves.
Couldn’t resist these
- Man Struck By Lightning; Faces Battery Charge.
- New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group.
- Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half.
- Hospital Sued by 7 Foot Doctors.
- Typhoon Rips through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this grammar mini-series, and I hope I kept you laughing while you learned.
But in all seriousness, fix your grammar in second draft. Your first draft should be more of a brain dump – within reason. If you focus too much on the rules in the first draft, you’ll never write a word.
When it comes to the disciplined self-editing of later drafts, however, it’s full speed ahead with focus and thoughtfulness.
Have you spotted any other hilarious writing mistakes? Put them in the Comments so we can continue laughing for the rest of the week.