The Wrong Stuff: Findings of a Forensic Grammarian 

Andrew H. Harris and Daniel Flatley, "Betsy DeVos Loses Student Loan Lawsuit Brought by 19 States" (Bloomberg):


U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos lost a lawsuit brought by 19 states and the District of Columbia, accusing her department of wrongly delaying implementation of Obama-era regulations meant to protect students who took out loans to attend college from predatory practices. 


FORENSIC VERDICT: The phrase "from predatory practices" is misplaced. Several alternate wordings will do, but let's try this one: "...accusing her department of protecting predatory loan practices instead of protecting college students." Hmm, it still needs work, but it's closer to the ideal.

* * * 

Scott Edwards, "Machete-armed men rampage through streets in violent clash" (Birmingham [U.K.] Mail):

A group of thugs were caught on camera clashing with each other in the middle of the road armed with machetes.


FORENSIC VERDICT: Put the parts together that belong together. The road wasn't "armed with machetes," so the sentence should have referred to "thugs  


Anya Leonard, "A Funny Philosopher" (Classical Wisdom Weekly):

It is told by Diogenes Laertius that while attending a banquet at the court of King Dionysius, Aristippus was commanded by the king to dawn a woman’s robe and dance around the palatial halls. 

FORENSIC VERDICT:  Spell-checkers don't spot when a writer has used an incorrect, but similar word. In this case, the writer wanted "don" instead of "dawn."




Eddie Pells, “After the title game, uncertainty” (Association Press article in Florida Times-Union, April 3, 2018):




An FBI investigation that resulted in the September arrests of 10 agents, coaches, and businessmen with basketball ties did what the NCAA never could laid bare the inner workings of a shady, money-grubbing business that’s been teetering on the edge of the rulebook and the law, for decades.




FORENSIC VERDICT: The 48-word sentence has three or four problems. First, the sentence needs to be simplified or broken up into separate sentences. Second, a “conditional” helper, such as “could” (or “would”) requires the main verb to be in the present tense form (“could lay” or “would go,” etc.). Third, after “bare,” we need a comma or a dash.








Steve Flowers, “Inside the Statehouse” (weekly column, April 11, 2018):




That bygone era of Alabama congressmen were very progressive New Deal Democrats; whereas, our delegation today is one of the most conservative in America.




FORENSIC VERDICT: The prepositional phrase tricks the ear by having “congressmen” next to the verb. The subject in that wording, however, is really “era,” so the verb should be “was.” A simple fix (besides that) is to convert the information in the prepositional phrase into a legitimate subject, as with this:

“The Alabama congressmen of that bygone era were very progressive. . . “ 




David Max Korzen, "Civilian Life Has Appeal for 'Burned Out' Air Force Pilots" (Real Clear


 But despite all his ferocity and determination, its possible Olds wouldn’t make it very far in today’s Air Force.


To their credit, Air Force leadership is attempting to reign in additional duties, yet despite setting themselves a deadline on October 1, 2016, for implementing changes, aircrew in flying squadrons report few tangible differences. 


As aviators come up on the end of their contracted service period they face a choice; take the money on the table from the Air Force or take a chance with the airline industry.  

FORENSIC VERDICT:  The first sentence requires "it's," a contraction for "it is," not for the possessive pronoun. The second sentence requires "rein in," as air jockeys and horse jockeys have to do. The third sentence needs a colon after choice. The words finishing out the sentence explain what is meant by choice. 


Headline in online edition of  The Birmingham [U.K.] Mail:

    Man stabbed to death after huge street brawl named as Jordan Ross

 FORENSIC VERDICT: So we name hurricanes and now they want to name street brawls? If so, why not just go with Street Brawl Jordan? By omitting words to make the headline work, they created the above problem. A full wording would have been "Man who was stabbed to death after a huge street brawl is identified as Jordan Ross." Ah, but it's too long the editor says. How about "Street brawl victim is ID'ed as Jordan Ross"?


Nina Metz, "Shooting Christmas classic not always 'Wonderful'" (Tribune News Service):

While [Jimmy Stewart] was making ["It's a Wonderful Life" in 1946], he was questioning the superficiality of Hollywood and acting in general, and John Barrymore (who plays Mr. Potter) said to him, "So are you saying it's more worthwhile to drop bombs on people than to entertain them?"

FORENSIC VERDICT: Mr. Potter, of course, was played by Lionel Barrymore. John had died in 1942 at age 60, whereas Lionel made it to 1954, dying at age 76. 



Michael Starr Hopkins, “Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand will lead Democrats to 2020 victory” (The Hill):


As relative newbies on the national political scene, neither Harris nor Gillibrand have had the time to accumulate the partisan ire that was often attributed to the former first lady and secretary of State. Neither Harris nor Gillibrand suffer from questions about their age or potential fitness for office. Neither Harris nor Gillibrand have to address unfair questions relating to their husband’s indiscretions or political decisions that they were not elected to make.



FORENSIC VERDICT: If the subject phrase involves “either/or,” “neither/nor,” or “or,” the rule for the verb is simple. If both items are singular, the verb requires a verb in the third person singular (e.g., “Neither Donald Duck nor Mickey Mouse appears in a Warner Bros. cartoon”). If one of the items is singular and the other plural, the verb is determined by the one closest to the verb (e.g., “Neither Snow White nor the Seven Dwarfs appear in a Warner Bros. cartoon”).




Caption for Civil War photograph that has been colorized:

 Pictured here is the infamous Lieutenant Custer with Union Troops in 1862, just prior to the battle that would cost his life. Custer was known for his vicious tactics as a soldier during the American Indian Wars. In a battle that became known as “Custer’s last stand,” he was scalped by a Cheyenne warrior.  


 FORENSIC VERDICT: Lieutenant Custer went on to climb the ranks during the Civil War but ran out of luck in 1876 at the Battle of Little Bighorn in Montana.




Gigen Mammoser, “Trump Supporters Enraged by 18th-Century Custard Recipe” (Munchies):

This year, the Fourth of July was a sensitive time for Trump voters. But with new evidence in the investigation regarding Trump's ties to Russia and stalled legislative agenda hanging over the presidency, what better way to blow off a little steam than to knock back a couple of beers, fire off bottle rockets, and salute the ol' stars and bars?  

 FORENSIC VERDICT:  The colonists in America had a custard-orange juice-nutmeg dessert called the "Orange Fool," but, alas, it was taken out of context. We can tsk-tsk the ignorance of the pro- (and anti-)Trump responders . . . but then we have to fuss at Munchies about one of its own errors: The Stars and Bars referred to the original, official Confederate flag.


Liel Liebowitz, "Rex Makin, Mr. Beatlemania, dies at 91" (The Tablet):

 ... when Epstein became the band’s manager, Makin became its de facto lawyer. He had his work cut out for him: when the boys caught the clap, Makin arranged for a discrete doctor. 


FORENSIC VERDICT: Few writers correctly distinguish between discrete and discreet. The first means "separate," while the second means "judicious."



Steve Flowers, "Inside the Statehouse: Alabama Politics" (syndicated column):

 He allowed Mrs. Mason to take control of his life and the reigns of the governor’s office.


The April 5 Ethics Commission ruling that found that there was a reasonable cause that the governor violated the Ethics Law is the coupe de gras to the Bentley/Mason regime. 

 FORENSIC VERDICT: We have two problems.


First, the writer is an insightful commentator about state politics, but he repeatedly can't differentiate between "reins" (as in "take the reins of a horse") and "reigns" (an administration, in state terms).


Second, it's dangerous to play around with foreign expressions unless you are well-grounded in the language. Even so, your readers may not be familiar with the phrases. The writer wanted coup de grâce (which means "mercy killing"). A "coupe" would refer to a two-door car with a solid top.




Catherine Roberts, "13 healthy foods to avoid for weight loss" (ActiveBeat): 

There are many different sugar alternatives and each carry their own risk. 

 FORENSIC VERDICT: "Each" is singular, so the second half of the sentence should have said "each carries its own risk."


Georgia Bristow, “BREAKING: Hillary Clinton VINDICATED After WikiLeaks Caught FABRICATING Fake Emails ” (Bipartisan Report):


The majority of his followers have been waiting with baited breath for the promised release of documents on the website WikiLeaks, in hopes that the information would hurt Clinton’s campaign.


FORENSIC VERDICT: There’s nothing worse than political supporters with fishhooks in their mouths. To avoid that image, make it “bated breath,” even though it’s a cliché.




Grant Suneson, “Headed to Prison” (Newsy, AOL News):


The contempt case could carry a six-month prison sentence. Arpaio's lawyer said he plans to plead not guilty and take his chances with a jury. It's probably fortunate for him that most felons can't be on it.


FORENSIC VERDICT: Online news services often fail to practice good journalistic practices. The final sentence above is sheer editorializing and should have either been attributed to some source or scratched out.

* * *


Alexander McCall Smith, 44 Scotland Street (a novel):


[Recalled from memory from an audiobook] She recalled their visit to Florence’s Uffizi and seeing Leonardo’s statue of David.


FORENSIC VERDICT: Almost, but not quite. The large statue in marble of the naked David was done by Michelangelo. Donatello, also of Florence, executed a David that was the first free-standing nude in bronze since the days of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Then Verrocchio did a similar, but clothed David in bronze. The model may have been his handsome young apprentice, Leonardo.


Jim Hightower, “Who won in 2016? Big money” (Nation of Change):


In one of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, the key clue that solved the whodunit wasn’t something that happened, but something that didn’t — specifically, a dog that didn’t bark.


FORENSIC VERDICT: The allusion should have been made to one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about Sherlock Holmes.




Want more?


Past issues of “The Wrong Stuff” are now available in a paperback, The Wrong Stuff: Findings of a Forensic Grammarian (2nd ed.)   


It’s good for writers, editors, English grammarians, and even cornet players with embouchure problems.



Chelsea Fagan, “17 Things You Learn From Growing Up In The South” (Thought Catalog):


 Everyone pretty much had free reign all summer, and people were very rarely indoors.


W.S. SAYS: If you are free to do pretty much what you want to do, you have free rein. If you are king and didn’t have to do any work to get the position, perhaps you have a free reign. Unless you have paid a pilot to seed the clouds during a drought, you may have free rain.  


Tony De Paul (writer), The Phantom (Mar. 2, 2014):


Pirates thought their captive must have swam to freedom after felling her guard.


W.S. SAYS: A traditionalist prefers the past participle to be “swum.” It’s all right to use “swam” since it may be approved in more liberal English handbooks. Of course, you’ll rip the time-space continuum, and your nose will fall off into your coffee, but, if you and your little friends don’t care, why should we complain?


Chrystia Freeland, “Sunday Review: Russia Has Already Lost the War” (New York Times):


Kiev smells like a smoky summer camp, from the bonfires burning to keep the demonstrators still out on Independence Square warm, but every day it is tidier.


W.S. SAYS: A sensible rule of writing is to put the parts together that belong together. Notice that “warm” is sort of tagged on at the end of a clause. For a smoother sentence, move it forward seven words so you are saying “to keep warm.”


Stewart Farquhar, “Why Spec Scripts Fail: The ‘Wrylie’ (Parentheticals)” (Script):


The terms Wryly, Wrylie or Wrylies, according to screenwriting legend, stems from the overuse of parenthetical instructions by writers who openly direct on the page.


W.S. SAYS: Since the subject “terms” is plural, the subject should be “stem.”


Ashley Alman, “One Percenter Convicted Of Raping Infant Child Dodges Jail Because He 'Will Not Fare Well'” (The Huffington Post):


The light sentence has only became public as the result of a subsequent lawsuit filed by his ex-wife, which charges that he penetrated his daughter with his fingers while masturbating, and subsequently assaulted his son as well.


W.S. SAYS: Nasty subject matter, but let’s focus on the grammar. Perhaps the phone rang when the reporter wrote “sentence has only.” After a conversation, she returns to the sentence and thinks it’s in the past tense, forgetting that the helper “has” dictates that the past participle should be “become.”


Eric Lach, “Appeals Court Finds Florida's 2012 Voter Purge Broke The Law” (TPM Muckraker):


The decision comes just days after Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) administration announced that it would abandon its efforts to purge the voter rolls would be postponed until 2015.


W.S. SAYS: The reader is faced with a mixed construction, created because the reporter left out parallel elements (e.g., “and that the effort”) and because the reporter overloaded the sentence.


Questions from readers:


We have a couple of questions about compounds. First, I’m assuming that, if it’s an adjective, you would write, “I need an overnight bag,” but, if it’s used adverbially, it might be, “I’ll be staying over night.” Is that reasonable? Also, is “someday” one word or two?


W.S. SAYS: Your assumption about “overnight” seemed reasonable, but several quality dictionaries say that it’s nearly always “overnight.” If you are using “night” strictly as a noun, you could write, “I prefer day over night.” “Someday” is a different matter. One dictionary says: “The adverb someday is written solid: Perhaps someday we will know the truth. The two-word form some day means ‘a specific but unnamed day’: We will reschedule the meeting for some day when everyone can attend.” Some spellcheckers create problems with some compounds. An older program may not recognize “freelance” or “clipboard” and insist that you put an unnecessary hyphen in the word or separate the words.



March 2014


Asks retired journalist Leo Coughlin:

 Is there some way an attack can be mounted on the destruction/warping or the language; to wit:


“Issue” has replaced “problem”; “reach out” has replaced “contact”; “lay” is consistently used for “lie” and its variants;

nominative and objective case are in the land of ignorance, so we end up with "they did it for he and his wife"; and the correct

past participle is unknown ("he has went").


To me, it is maddening


W.S. SAYS: A barbarian within the publisher’s office claims that copy editors and “clean copy” aren’t necessary because his readers don’t notice the difference. Such an attitude does not bode well for the future. On the other hand, any serious publication or website will strive for copy free of grammar and spelling errors. Check out the barbarian at


Promo tag in The Brio website (MSNBC):

10 Actors Who are Real Life Murderers (Death and Taxes)


W.S. SAYS: This libelous tag will enrage any half-way decent city editor or copy editor for its basic J-school ignorance. “Murder” or “murderer” is a specific term, generally requiring some degree of premeditation, even within the heat of the moment in, say, a barroom brawl. This tag, however, applies the term to several actors who were involved in traffic fatalities. If an individual has been convicted, then the writer may write “convicted murderer John Smith”; if the trial is underway, “accused murderer Joan Smith.” In fact, even the latter should be “Joan Smith, accused of murder.”


Neil Turitz, “Gravity Director Alfonso Cuarón Opens Up About Robert Downey Jr.’s Difficult Screen Test” (Studio System News):

We tried a test with him [Robert Downey Jr. for “Gravity”], and it was agony for him. It was a straightjacket for him. Very uncomfortable, not only physically, but also in terms of mentally, for performing.

W.S. SAYS: A straight jacket would not have any curves but would only hang straight, like two-by-fours. However, if you want someone constrained, you need a word that expresses tightening: “straitjacket.”



 February 2014


Can You Spell That, Please?


Philip K. Corbett focuses on several “wrong stuff-style” problems in his “After Deadline” column on usage and style in The New York Times.


“Nothing Could Prepare Me For What’s Revealed When This Glacier Lake Melts. OMG.” (Viral


That’s when the clouds moved in and reigned large hail down on them.


W.S. SAYS: Writers’ attention often drifts, and they misuse “reigned,” “reined,” and (in this case about an incident from 850 C.E.) “rained.”





January 2014


The best and worst

media errors

and corrections


The Poynter Institute of St. Petersburg has done a public service by compiling a year’s wrap-up about errors in the media and the corrections that may (or may not) have followed.


Media Matters has surveyed much of the same landscape and puts a searing focus on the failings of CBS’s “60 Minutes.”


Azzedine Downes, “Top Ten Heroic Animal Rescues of 2013” (Nation of Change):


After a call on the stranding hotline from the Massachusetts Environmental Police, IFAW dispatched to Pleasant Bay in nearby Chatham, where a seal that was strangled by a buoy line had been sited.


W.S. SAYS: Is it “sited” (located) or “sighted” (seen)? A buoy would be at a particular site, but some observer would “sight” a problem near the buoy,


Marian Wang, “This Year’s Best Reporting on Education” (ProPublica):


Duquesne University argued that many at the university cared and reached out personally to the adjunct, Margaret Mary Vojtko, said her situation was “holly unrelated to her employment status.”


W.S. SAYS: This flaw crept into an otherwise fine wrap-up of stories about educational problems and mismanagement. The adjunct’s situation was “wholly” unrelated, not “holly.” The original statement from Duquesne U had the phrasing correct.


Tracy Collins, “Girl, 13, brain dead after routine tonsillectomy” (Associated Press):


The ruling by Superior Court judge Evelio Grillo came as both sides in the case agreed to get together and chose a neurologist to further examine 13-year-old Jahi McMath and determine her condition.


W.S. SAYS: What is parallel here? Had they “agreed” and “chose,” with the verbs being parallel? Unlikely. Instead, they were agreeing to meet and (to) CHOOSE a neurologist, with the infinitives being parallel.





December 2013

TheWrongStuffSara Jones, “Victory: The Supreme Court Refuses to Hear an OK Law Banning Medical Abortions” (PoliticusUSA):


The very activisty and conservative Supreme Court refused to hear a struck down 2011 Oklahoma law today that “effectively bans all medical abortions”, which means that the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the law on the grounds that it put an unconstitutional burden on women stands.


W.S. SAYS: This was posted minutes after the ruling of the SCOTUS was handed out, so we shouldn’t quibble too much. Minor point: The comma goes inside the quotation (British style is outside). We do have two major problems. First, give the writer credit for creating the word “activisty.” Now hit her with a wet noodle because it’s lame. Second, a reader may have to re-read the last part of the sentence to figure out what it is saying. Why? Because “stands” is tacked on at the end, creating an awkward split. Better revision: “which lets stand the Oklahoma Supreme Court’s decision to” blah blah blah.




“Old West section: History of Butch Cassidy, LeRoy Parker” (


By this time, the Wild Bunch had an extensive allay of law officers hunting them wherever they went, and Butch had an impressive folio compiled by the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, whose operatives seemed to follow his every move, waiting for a slip-up.


W.S. SAYS: The website is using the wrong word. “Allay” is a verb and refers to “calming.” The writer probably wanted the word “array,” which would refer to “a large group or number of things.”




Headline in Nation of Change:


Want to Stop Monsanto? Stop Using It’s Best Seller: Round Up


W.S. SAYS: This is one of the top ten most irritating errors: using “it’s” (contraction for “it is”) when “its” (personal pronoun) is required.




Rebecca Crockett, “Hurt: The War Doctor Was One Of My Toughest Roles” (Kasterborous):


For a man with a vast and storied career, having played everyone from an old, crazy wand maker to someone with serious physical deformities to the victim of a viscous alien, one might think playing the part of the Doctor would be easy. Decide on your Doctor’s characteristic traits and play on them.


W.S. SAYS: The alien creature that came out of John Hurt’s chest was vicious. “Viscous” refers to liquids that may be thick and not flowing easily.



Shawna Vercher, “The Blog: Football, Rape and National Media: Five Things to Keep in Mind Regarding the FSU Case” (Huff Post Sports):


Again, we still do not know what happened between she and Mr. Winston, but can we finally abandon the idea that a woman at a party after midnight causes her coach to turn into a pumpkin while she dons a "Please Rape Me" t-shirt??




I get why everyone from the local news to ESPN are trying to temper this down by giving us the platitude that, "We just need to wait and see what happens with the investigation."


W.S. SAYS: Normally, we don’t pick on blogs, but this came from a sports blog of Huffington Post, which might be expected to give their blogs a cursory examination and fix. In the first selection, you don’t say “between she and” someone. “Between” is a preposition, so the pronoun should be in the objective case: “her.” In the second selection, the subject of the “why”-clause is “everyone,” which is singular. Either change the subject to something plural (e.g., “all critics”) or make the verb singular (“is trying”).


Want more?

Past issues of “The Wrong Stuff” are now available in a paperback, The Wrong Stuff: Findings of a Forensic Grammarian at


It’s good for writers, editors, English grammarians, and even cornet players with embouchure problems.






























November 2013


Bonnie Malkin, “Malala favourite for Nobel Peace Prize” (The Telegraph: The World Today):


The Taliban in response stood by their decision to shoot her [Malala Yousafzai] in the first place and have threatened to kill her again.  


W.S. SAYS: A misplacement of “again” suggests we are dealing with resurrections or zombies. Move the adverb closer to the verb, as in “and have again threatened.”


 Anthony Gucciardi, “3 Disturbing Fukushima Facts the Government is Covering Up” (Nation of Change):

 The mega Fukushima meltdown continues to assault the planet on a daily basis with barrages of radioactive fallout that have infiltrated everything from our international food supply to the Pacific Ocean. But instead of alerting us to this reality and helping us to be prepared for what’s coming, both the United States and Japanese governments have chosen to ignore and downplay the devastating affects of Fukushima in order to pretend that nothing is wrong.

 W.S. SAYS: The Fukushima disaster AFFECTS the world, but the governments are ignoring the EFFECTS.



Trevor LaFauci,Genius: How a 1990s Cartoon Character Perfectly Represents Ted Cruz” (Politicususa):

 Che Guevara started out believing himself to be a freedom fighter for the people of the Americas.  He ended up being killed participating in guerrilla warfare in Africa.

 W.S. SAYS: Actually Che was captured and executed in Bolivia by captors who didn’t want to risk his escaping again or his becoming the focus of a show-trial.


Gregory Ellwood, “10 Superheroes who really don’t need their own movie” (Zergnet):

 Don't feel bad for young Billy Batson though, he's still got the big golden lightening bolt emblazed on his chest but he's now going by Shazam instead.
W.S. SAYS: Billy Batson, of course, was the teen who could say “Shazam!” and elicit a bolt of lightning (note the spelling) that would turn him into Captain Marvel, a.k.a. The Big Red Cheese, according to the mad scientist villain Dr. Sirvana. D.C., Superman’s company, sued Fawcett, the Captain Marvel company, and, since comics were in a decline, Fawcett gave up. For years, kids were deprived of Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr. (Freddy Freeman, the crippled newsboy), and Mary Marvel. Another company came out with a superhero called “Captain Marvel,” and, when D.C. finally acquired the rights to the original character, they had to avoid the “Captain Marvel” title for the comic and used “Shazam” instead.

Back to the grammar: “Though” is used in place of “however,” so it needs a comma before it and then a semicolon. (Only über-nerds can tell what SHAZAM stands for.)


“Newton Blog: Switched [Sex] at Birth” (Real Clear Science):

Male? Female? Neither?

For centuries, society has pigeonholed itself into a traditional, two-dimensional view of gender. Adam and Eve, Jack and Jill, Sonny and Cher, Mork and Mindy: There's always a ying to a yang, a male to a female, never room for a third.

W.S. SAYS: The Chinese concept about dualities is actually “yin and yang.”


Marc Wortman, “When Mars Attacked 75 Years Ago—And Everyone Believed It” (Book Beast):

Returning stateside to New York, he was soon starring in and mounting productions of his own. He worked with John Houseman, Aaron Copeland, Joseph Cotton and many others who were already famous or soon to be.

W.S. SAYS: Journalists deal with hundreds or thousands of names each year, and it’s tricky to rely on memory when pounding away at the keyboard. This writer swings and misses with Aaron Copland’s name (orginally “Kaplan”) and then Joseph Cotten’s name.

 And, of course, there’s going to be a contrary view. W. Joseph Campbell in “Media Myth Alert” debunks the panic thesis in “Why ‘War of the Worlds’ show didn’t panic America.


John B. Judis, “This Book Was the First to Spill JFK's Secrets. So Why Has It Been Totally Forgotten?” (New Republic):

 During a second engagement, Kennedy did speed toward the destroyers, but failed to alert his crewmen and was rammed by a destroyer. Kennedy did save one of the crewman, but others were killed.

 W.S. SAYS: What are the best books on John F. Kennedy? This writer argues that “The Search for JFK (1976) by Joan Blair and Clay Blair, Jr., does not deserve to be forgotten. During the defense of the book, we encounter a proofing/editing problem with “crewman” instead of the plural.































October 2013


Cow Tipping: Fake or Really Fake?” (Modern Farmer):


Observe a group of cows laying down in a pasture, [dairy farmer Nate] Wilson says, and you’ll see that no two of them point in the same direction — part of their instinct for protecting the herd against the many natural predators cows once faced.


W.S. SAYS: Chickens lay eggs and perch, but cows lie down, except when they climb ladders of billboards and encourage us to “eat more chikin.”




1 John 1:3 (King James version):


That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.


W.S. SAYS: We are not quibbling with the grammar from 400 years ago, but notice that the first part of the sentence has an unusual structure. Normally, English will use the order of Subject + verb + direct object, but the King James crew of translators preferred the order of direct object (“That which…”) + verb (“declare”) + subject (“we”). Marvel at the structure and then try to write your own variations.




Ian Millhiser, “Police Halt Two Men With Assault Rifles Outside Farmers Market — Now The Men Might Sue” (Think Progress):


Earlier this month, two men decided to wander into a crowded farmers market in Appleton, Wisconsin[,] each with an AR-15 assault rifle strapped across their back.


W.S. SAYS: First, let’s address a minor point. A comma is needed after “Wisconsin” for two reasons. A comma follows the state when the city is also given, and the comma sets off a section of extra information. It’s a convention in American English. Could it be omitted, as we leave out any commas with our full names? “John Tiberius, Smith.” Of course, if you have a place with a directional name, as in “Metropolis West,” where would you look for the person in “Metropolis West Virgina,” in Virginia or West Virginia.


The main problem in the sentence is that the writer was derailed by “each.” The revision should be “each with…a rifle…across his back.” By having “their back,” it suggests that the two men shared the same back, giving new meaning to the admonition, “I got your back, bro.”




Mark Clark, “Star Trek FAQ: Everything Left to Know about the First Voyages of the Starship Enterprise” (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2012):


Majel Barrett Roddenberry held the financial reigns of the Roddenberry Star Trek empire until her death from cancer in 2009.


W.S. SAYS: Concerning “rains, reins, reigns,” If you hold them or take them, you want “reins.”




Anthony Gucciardi, “Monsanto Resorts to Dumping Millions Amid Failed GMO Battle” (Nation of Change):


Monsanto has utterly failed in convincing the public that their disease-linked genetically modified creations are ‘safe’, and the only option left is to resort to an assembly of dirty tricks. Spending a whopping 8.2 million just to fight GMO labeling in Washington, we have really begun to see the desperate and clinging nature of the failing biotechnology giant. Because in reality, Monsanto simply cannot stand to allow consumers to know what’s in their food.


W.S. SAYS:  We quote three “sentences” to show the problem. A major problem occurs in the second sentence with the ever-popular dangling modifier. The sentence suggests that “we” (i.e., the public) are performing the action in the “Spending”-section. Clearly it should refer to Monsanto as in some variation of “Since Monsanto has spent a whopping $8.2 million blah blah, we have blah blah.”


Incomplete sentences occur often enough in journalism and fiction, so you may wish to ignore the “because”-section fragment.


Let’s pick a few nits the opening sentence with single quote marks being around “safe” and then the comma outside of the close quote mark.


Grammar and style aside, readers may be curious about the writer’s general reputation. Many articles find fault with unlabeled GMO products, but one source finds Gucciardi lacking all around; see “Anthony Gucciardi: Anti-science crackpot and pretend journalist” at the Progressive Contrarian:




Want more?


Past issues of “The Wrong Stuff” are now available in a paperback, The Wrong Stuff: Findings of a Forensic Grammarian at


It’s good for writers, editors, English grammarians, and even cornet players with embouchure problems.







September 2013


Peter Filichia, “STAGESTRUCK by Peter Filichia: At the Alabama Shakespeare Festival” (Playbill):


Though the entire 1998-99 ASF season hasn't been set, expect Richard III as one of the Shakespeares, Lurleen (Mrs. George Wallace becomes governor after her husband is incapacitated) as the newest entry in the Southern Writers' Project, and It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues, a new musical.


W.S. SAYS: A recent search brought up the above article from 15 years ago. (It’s puzzling to this forensic grammarian why websites don’t clean up their postings. Ah well.) The excerpt errs because Lurleen Wallace became governor after her husband couldn’t run for a third straight term. He was only constitutionally incapacitated. Halfway through her term, Lurleen succumbed to cancer. Years later, when George was married to Cordelia Taylor, he was shot and paralyzed by a would-be assassin while campaigning in Maryland.




Cutlines for Picture of the Day (Daily Telegraph online):


Incredible footage of a Japanese electric train being struck by lightening


W.S. SAYS: Proofreaders often neglect to check the captions under photographs and may not notice that “lightning” is required in this sentence.




Steven Paul Leiva, “William Morrow Stabs at the ‘Heart’ of Ray Bradbury” (Huffington Post’s The Blog):”


The onset of the personal computer held no appeal for him, and the many advantages of Word Processing was not able to seduce him away from his beloved typewriter.




And if Ray was looking down from above (no, not from heaven, but from Mars) and saw what I saw he must have become livid, he must have become read-faced with anger, sputtering out curses and damnation against his publisher, William Morrow (an imprint of HarperCollins).


W.S. SAYS: In the first excerpt, the subject of the second main clause is “advantages,” so the verb should be “were.” The prepositional phrase “of Word Processing” was singular and threw off the writer since it was right next to the verb. In the second excerpt, the writer may be doing a pun with “read-faced” instead of “red-faced.” If so, it doesn’t succeed.




Vintage Car Auction Will Sell Off Low-Mileage Gems” (Associated Press):


The two least-driven cars, a 1959 Bel Air and a 1960 Corvair Monza, each have one mile on their odometer.


W.S. SAYS: The sentence has a singular sound, but the subject is "cars," followed by an appositive; it also implies that the two cars share one odometer. The "each" reinforces the singular sound, but we don’t want to end up saying “[they] has.” Ah, that suggests that the "each" is misplaced. A revision would be better off saying, " one mile each on their odometers" or “Neither car had more than a mile on its odometer.” The story did not discuss the possibility of the odometers having been rolled back.




Nick Venable, “Batman Before And After: How The Batsuit Can Change Or Ruin Careers” (Cinema Blend):


Regardless of whether it’s a “good” or a “bad” choice, casting [Ben] Affleck was definitely an interesting choice, as were each of those chosen to take the role before him.


W.S. SAYS:  The verb needs to agree with “choice,” and the “each” emphasizes the actors will be discussed individually, so make it “as was each.”




Associated Press, “Julie Harris, Broadway star, dies at 87” (USA Today):


In the movies, she was James Dean's romantic co-star in East of Eden (1955), and had rolls in such films as Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), The Haunting (1963) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967).


W.S. SAYS: She also had cornbread in South Carolina.




Anne Casselman, “Will Canada’s Proposed Tar Pipeline Muck Up Its Pacific Coast” (Yahoo News):


On Sunday, July 25, 2010, one of Enbridge’s pipelines in the U.S. sprung a leak near Marshall, Mich.


W.S. SAYS: Let’s go with the regular past tense “sprang.” It isn’t esoteric or old-fashioned. It’s not as if it was broken down into “spring, sprought, and sprought.”




James Conca, “What Is Wrong With The Keystone XL Pipeline?” (Forbes):


And then there’s the properties of this oil itself that enter into the risk portion of the analysis.


W.S. SAYS: We have an inverted sentence with the “there” construction. The subject is “properties,” so the verb should be “are” (or informally “there’re”).



August 2013


Jules Witcover, “A Congress Divided” (The National Memo):


House Speaker John Boehner, like a chief lemming leading his followers over a cliff, warned in advance of that Senate vote, in which 14 Republicans broke party ranks, that his flock would continue its obdurate ways on the politically explosive immigration issue.


W.S. SAYS: The notion grew up in popular culture that lemmings engaged in a suicide march to the sea (or a body of water). The lemmings do migrate, and, if a body of water is wider than expected, some of the weaker swimmers drown. They don’t just stupidly jump off a cliff.




Abram Brown, “Barnes & Noble CEO Lynch Out After Nook Woes Deepen” (Forbes):


That’s despite Lynch’s best efforts. He choose to work from the company Website’s offices rather than its corporate headquarters, and at times he would take a page from Apple’s playbook, personally introducing new products himself.


W.S. SAYS: “Choose,” of course, is present tense, and the writer really wanted to use “chose.”




Cutlines for photos by Bill Perlmutter (Der Spiegel):


Perlmutter proved most interested in people living in severly straightened circumstances and often took pictures of children at play, such as here in a Spanish courtyard.


W.S. SAYS: Two problems: Misspelling of “severely” and failure to use “straitened,” which means “tightened,” as in “he had gone without food so long that he had to tighten his belt.”




Veronica S, “Gunpowder found on hands of parents of Georgia baby allegedly shot by teens” (All Voices):


A few days later, 17-year-old De’Marquis Elkins and his 15-year-old alleged accomplice Dominique Lang, were arrested for the crime and charged with murder. Their trail is set for August.


W.S. SAYS: Let’s all sing “Happy Trails Again.” Too bad Dale Evans didn’t write “Happy Trials” for courtrooms. You also wouldn’t have a comma after “Lang” without having one at the start of the name.




“61 tons of silver found in shipwreck” (Associated Press):


A German U-boat spotted the vessel off the coast of Ireland on Feb. 17[, 1941] and fired a torpedo that sunk the Gairsoppa 300 miles southwest of Galway Bay.


W.S. SAYS: Earlier in the story, the AP writer(s) had said, “In 2012, Odyssey recovered nearly 48 tons of silver from the same wreck, bringing the total haul to 110 tons, or nearly 99 percent of the insured silver reported to be aboard the Gairsoppa when it sank.” For some reason, the story switched to “sunk” for the past tense. “Sank” is the preferred past tense, but some books will accept “sunk.” (Watch them. They are up to no good.) Choose the traditional or the informal, but don’t use both in the same story.




Jeff Bobo, “Hawkins woman allegedly fires at seven people, including children, for turning around in driveway” ([Eastern Tennessee’s] Times-News):


[Motorist Oscar] Scott said there were several people setting on the porch beside her when she fired.


W.S. SAYS: When we are at home in the hills, we can say we’re “setting on the porch” while we’re waiting to eat some cornbread and a mess of beans, but, when we write a news story, we want to say “sitting,” of course. (Pass the roastin’ ears, Maw.)




Headline for Science Codex:


Sherlock Homes inspired real life CSI


W.S. SAYS: Some anonymous writer/editor wrote the headline and didn’t bother to proofread it nor the article itself in one small respect. The posting was about the work of Dr. Ian Burney at the University of Manchester. Burney said, "But Sherlock Holmes - and especially Dr Thorndyke- were critical of they [sic] way Victorian pathologists might contaminate a scene and helped change practice for good.”




Headline in the U.K.’s Mail:


Former Nixon aide claims he has evidence

Lyndon B. Johnson arranged John F.

Kennedy's assassination in new book

W.S. SAYS: Hmm, wasn’t he killed in a convertible? Put the parts together that belong together, so move “in new book” after “claims.” Even so, the headline could be shortened, saying something like “Ex-Nixon aide’s book claims” blah blah blah.




“2nd body pulled from NY river where bride-to-be, best man flew into water after boat crash” (Associated Press):


Police said it was being piloted by Jojo John, 35, of Nyack, whom they suspect was intoxicated and who has been charged with vehicular manslaughter and vehicular assault.


W.S. SAYS: The ear is tricked by a parenthetical element. It sounds as if “whom” is required, but omit “they suspect” (or “they say,” etc.) and we clearly have a clause requiring the nominative case: “who…was intoxicated.”




Want more?


Past issues of “The Wrong Stuff” are now available in a paperback, The Wrong Stuff: Findings of a Forensic Grammarian at the following website:


It’s good for writers, editors, English grammarians, and even cornet players with embouchure problems.




July 2013


Robert Reich, “What We Need Now: A National Economic Strategy for Better Jobs” (Nation of Change):


These nations are implementing national economic strategies to build good jobs and widespread prosperity. The United States is not.  Both because we don’t have the political will to implement them, and we’re trapped in an ideological straightjacket that refuses to acknowledge the importance of such a strategy.


W.S. SAYS: “Straightjacket” is nonsensical. It could be, say, a style from the Mad Men era with narrow lapels. Now a “straitjacket” is a different matter. This refers to a jacket that can be tightened, and, after they come to take you away, hey hey, they may strap you, and trap you, in a straitjacket.




Steven Rosenfeld , “Supreme Court Says Human Genes Cannot Be Patented, Striking Down Breast and Ovarian Cancer Gene Patents” (Alternet):


The patents also allowed Myriad to set the terms and cost of testing. The firm argued that it needed the patents to protect hundreds of millions of dollars in research that lead to its tests.




“New Perspectives on the West: George Armstrong Custer” (


Custer was sent to the Northern Plains in 1873, where he soon participated in a few small skirmishes with the Lakota in the Yellowstone area. The following year, he lead a 1,200 person expedition to the Black Hills, whose possession the United States had guaranteed the Lakota just six years before.




Eric W. Dolan, “Issa directed Treasury inspector general to ignore IRS treatment of liberal groups” (The Raw Story):


The findings lead almost every politician, including President Barack Obama, to denounce the IRS.


W.S. SAYS: Past tense problems: I lead today, you led yesterday, we have led.




Robert Book, “Democrat:  ‘Not Fair’ to Subject Congress to Obamacare just like everyone else” (Forbes):


To rebut that allegation [that Congress was trying to impose an expensive health plan on plain citizens but not on themselves] and build confidence in the bill, a provision was added mandating that members of Congress – and their staff members – get there coverage through the new exchange system the bill set up.


W.S. SAYS: An odd feature of grammar misusage is that a writer will often use a phrase correctly (“and their staff members”), yet two words later end up saying “get there coverage.”




Headline and subhead on Tails magazine story about Rachael Ray:


EAT RAY LOVE / Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog


W.S. SAYS: No doubt a stylist said, “Let’s streamline our cover by omitting punctuation marks. After all, what could possibly go wrong?” Put the punctuation back in. Or here’s another fix: Add “for” after “cooking.” Maybe the headline writer was distracted by his or her pun with the main head. It alludes to an obscure film, “Eat Play Love.”




Cutlines on archeological sites (Huff Post World):


Under yet another parking lot in England, the same team that found the final resting place of King Richard III discovered an ancient 1,700-year-old Roman cemetary containing the remains of 13 bodies and various artifacts.


W.S. SAYS: Proofreaders are supposed to focus on captions, headlines, and other minor material in a publication. Someone should have noticed the red wavy line under what was supposed to be “cemetery.”




Headline on Ridgewood Glen Rock Patch newspaper:


Child Battling Rare Form of Cancer Named Ridgewood Police Chief


W.S. SAYS: Thanks to Brad Hall for spotting this. He had not heard of a cancer called “Ridgewood Police Chief.” That, of course, is one interpretation for the headline. The full idea for the headline meant to say “A child with a rare form of cancer has been named honorary Ridgewood Police Chief for a day.” A shortened version might be “Ridgewood Police Chief title goes to child with rare cancer.” There’s even room for the word “honorary.”




William Boardman, “Secret Government in Vermont is Bi-Partisan” (Nation of Change):


The city ordinance fails to set any standards for guidance in it’s application, enforcement, or appeal. 


W.S. SAYS: Ah, the simplest of errors: putting an apostrophe on a possessive pronoun.




Want more?


Past issues of “The Wrong Stuff” are now available in a paperback, The Wrong Stuff: Findings of a Forensic Grammarian at the following website:


It’s good for writers, editors, English grammarians, and even cornet players with embouchure problems.



June 2013

Megan McArdle, “No, Democrats Did Not Just Want to ‘Count All the Votes’ in the 2000 Election” (Daily Beast):


A number of people have pushed back, here and elsewhere, have pushed back. Gore, they say, offered to do a hand recount of all 67 Florida counties on November 15th; if Bush would support it, and withdraw his lawsuits, Gore said he would withdraw his lawsuits too. Bush turned him down. This is supposed to prove that Democrats always had a committment to counting all the votes.


W.S.: The opening sentence could have said, “A number of people have pushed back, here and elsewhere.” It would also work if it had said, “A number of people here and elsewhere have pushed back,” but attention lapsed, and we had the repeated verb phrase. For the second problem, no one noticed that the spellchecker was highlighting the misspelling of “commitment.”




Teaser in a bulletin about a shocking development at a festival (Der Spiegel):


Father's Day in Germany is traditionally an occasion for massive alcohol intake and a bit of quality time with the guys. One such gathering on Thursday, however, was disrupted by a lightening strike, sending dozens of revellers to the hospital.


W.S. SAYS: The actual English-language article had the correct spelling for “lightning.” It just underlines the importance of publications and websites proofing and editing such secondary material as cutlines, headlines, decks, and teasers.




“Did Hemming Plaza just dodge a bullet?” (Metro Jacksonville):


This same group of people then met with Ms. Boree who, by reports, reacted quite hostility to the interference of outsiders and said that she had the money in the budget to do it now and wanted to proceed [with the proposal to cut down twenty-four trees at Hemming Plaza].


W.S. SAYS: “Hostile” is a fine word, most memorable in Florida for the assertion of legendary Coach Jake Gaither that he wanted his Florida A&M football players to be “agile, mobile, and hostile.” However, “hostilely” doesn’t make a smooth adverb, and, in fact, the sentence above actually uses the noun form. It would be better to say “Ms. Boree…reacted with hostility.”




Closed captioning about a Tufts University photographer (CNN):


…a photographer at the Boston Marathon scene from Toughs University.


W.S. SAYS: We can’t help wondering if voice recognition software was used on this error.




Mohi Kumar, “Once in a Blue Moon and Other Idioms That Don’t Make Scientific Sense” (Smithsonian):


Typically, 12 full moons occur from winter solstice to the next winter solstice (roughly three per season), but occasionally a forth full moon in a season could be observed.


W.S. SAYS: An interesting article takes a hit from “forth” instead of “fourth.”




Egberto Willies, “California Governor, Without Republicans To Obstruct Him, Creates Budget Surplus” (Addicting Info):

Suffice it to say that the budget deficit hole left by two wars, two massive tax cuts, and a massive drug program on the credit card by the previous administration along with an irresponsible & intransigent Congress cannot be solved in two terms.


California spending its surplus not on tax cuts, or abusive business incentives but instead on human capital in the form of education and improved healthcare is a sustainable long-term solution.

W.S. SAYS: The first sentence is referring to national politics and the second only to California, but they both have the same problem. In sentence one, “suffice it to say” is a throw-away that we can ignore. The main subject of the sentence is “hole,” and then the reader goes searching for a verb. Ah, there’s one 28 words away. In the second sentence, grammarians might quibble about whether “California” or “spending” is the main subject. Would the subject phrase be “California’s spending”? No matter, let’s go with “spending” and start looking for the verb. Ah, there it is 23 words down the road. Solution? The writer should put the parts together that belong together. The verb should be as close to the subject as is reasonable and euphonious. 




Robert Reich, “Beware Capitalist Tools” (Nation of Change):


Consumer benefits may sometimes exceed such costs. But, as we’ve painfully learned over the years (the Wall Street meltdown, the BP oil spill in the Gulf, consumer injuries and deaths from unsafe products, worker injuries and deaths from unsafe working conditions, climate change brought on by carbon dioxide emissions, and, yes, manipulation of the tax laws – need I go on?), the social costs may also exceed consumer benefits.


W.S. SAYS: A school marm would want the above sentences to be re-punctuated, with the “but” section tied to the first sentence by a comma. To the forensic grammarian, Reich’s division is all right. But (see?) he ends up with a front-loaded sentence in the 61-word sentence that follows. The reader has to go through 53 words before the main subject and verb appear. In short, we’ve got a COMPLICATED part and then a simple part. Best advice for a writer: Put the COMPLICATED material at the end of a sentence: “As we’ve…learned…, the social costs may also exceed consumer benefits, when we consider [put the COMPLICATED part here].”




Braden Goyette, “Meghan McCain Says She Found Out On Twitter That Her Dad Was In Syria” (The Huffington Post):


When news broke Monday that John McCain had snuck into Syria to meet with members of the opposition, his daughter found out the same way many of us did -- on Twitter.


W.S. SAYS: “Sneak” is a regular verb (sneak, sneaked, [have] sneaked), but vox populi have been trying to make it an irregular verb with “snuck.” If the metamorphosis were completed, would we have “sneak, snuck, snucken”? Everyone pretty much accepts “dove” as the past tense for “dive,” which really should be “dive, dived, [have] dived.” No one wanted to have “have doven” as the past participle.



Past issues of “The Wrong Stuff” are now available in a paperback, The Wrong Stuff: Findings of a Forensic Grammarian at this website: