7 “You Know What I Meant” Mistakes

By Mark Nichol

One can often stumble through a sentence that isn’t quite right and then backtrack to make sense of it and then, reasonably confident of its meaning, slog out again and continue on one’s way. Or one can waltz right through a sentence and keep right on dancing. Which technique do you prefer your readers to follow? (Hint: What would you, as a reader, rather do?) Don’t let “You know what I meant” be your byword for stringing trains of words together — avoid these almost-right constructions. (Links to related posts follow each example.)

1. “The agency acquired the parcel in 1931, but at that time — in the heart of the Great Depression — public acquisition of the adjacent property was not feasible — even though it grove was offered at a bargain price.”
A sentence is allowed one em dash, which sets off one part of the sentence from another with a sudden break to indicate an abrupt change in direction or a surprising statement, or a pair of em dashes to serve as a more emphatic replacement for two commas or a brace of parentheses.

If you find yourself with three em dashes, convert a singleton to a comma or use parenthetical alternatives for the pair; two’s company, but three’s a crowd: “The agency acquired the parcel in 1931, but at that time — in the heart of the Great Depression — public acquisition of the adjacent property was not feasible, even though the grove was offered at a bargain price.” (em dashes).

2. “Those who opt for military service would only serve as military police, truck drivers or in homeland-security posts.”
In a list of items, use one preposition to serve the entire list, or pair each item up with its own preposition; opting for something in between violates the requirement of parallel structure. My revision makes “military police or truck drivers” a single compound list item. Note, too, the inversion of only and serve (and the resulting change of meaning): “Those who opt for military service would serve only as military police or truck drivers or in homeland-security posts.” (parallel list structure in a sentence)

3. “The film is less concerned with naval warfare than close-ups of the star’s face.”
The lack of a parallel marker in the sentence makes the reader stumble, as if one has reached the top of a stairway before one expects to. (The statement appears to mean that the film is less concerned with naval warfare than close-ups of the star’s face are concerned about naval warfare, and the sentence should end with are — no, wait, that’s not what it means.)

The insertion of a second with to more clearly identify the juxtaposed parallel phrases “naval warfare” and “close-ups of the star’s face” guides the reader’s steps: “The film is less concerned with naval warfare than with close-ups of the star’s face.” (parallel phrase structure within a sentence)

4. “As an entrepreneur, name recognition is important and the new name is more recognizable.”
The implication of this sentence is that name recognition is an entrepreneur. However, the intent is to communicate that the writer is an entrepreneur and that for that reason, it is important that the name of the person’s business stand out. To express this idea effectively, the introductory clause requires a personal pronoun; I have also inserted a comma before the beginning of the final clause to set it off more distinctly: “Because I am an entrepreneur, name recognition is important, and the new name is more recognizable.” (dangling modifier)

5. “The agency cites strong evidence linking a cold virus to the mysterious SARS that has killed seventeen people worldwide.”
This sentence implies that more than one mysterious SARS exists, and the one in question is responsible for seventeen deaths. However, the writer is referring to the one and only SARS, which is mysterious and which has killed seventeen people. That reading is effected by the simple insertion of a comma and the change of the restrictive that to the nonrestrictive which: “The agency cites strong evidence linking a cold virus to the mysterious SARS, which has killed seventeen people worldwide.” (restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses)

6. “It would be something analogous to a YMCA (which stands for ‘Young Men’s Christian Association’).”
This sentence indicates that a YMCA — a building — stands in for a spelled-out name. It is the initials, however, that substitute for the full name: “It would be something analogous to a YMCA (the initials of which stand for ‘Young Men’s Christian Association’).” (mistaking a name for an entity)

7. “Smith himself could not do the job because he had angered many supporters through his support of the reservoir project.”
As (not) punctuated, this sentence implies that Smith could do the job, but not for the reason stated; another (unstated) reason explains his suitability. But what the writer means is that Smith could not do the job, and the dependent clause (the one beginning with because) explains why.

A comma inserted before the clause clarifies that this latter interpretation is correct: “Smith himself could not do the job, because he had angered many supporters through his support of the reservoir project.” Better yet, invert the clauses, but trade the pronoun in the dependent clause for the person’s name: “Because Smith had angered many supporters through his support of the reservoir project, he himself could not do the job.” (punctuating before a dependent clause)

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7 Responses to “7 “You Know What I Meant” Mistakes”

  • Steve M

    Great article. I have a question on #4, however. Could it also be written this way:

    The new name is more recognizable, and as an entrepreneur, name recognition is important to me.

    This would place more emphasis on the new name, and the give the reason for the change.

  • Nerra

    I think there is an additional error in the first example beyond the dashes.

    “even though it grove was offered”

    In the revision, “it” becomes “the”. So, I assume the error was typographical. I just thought I’d point it out to make a cleaner test.

  • Al

    @Steve M

    “The new name is more recognizable, and as an entrepreneur, name recognition is important to me” is stil incorrect I’m afraid, as it suggests that “name recognition” is an entrepreneur. Here are corrected versions:

    The new name is more recognizable, and name recognition is important to me as an entrepreneur.

    or

    The new name is more recognizable, and as an entrepreneur, I find name recognition important.

  • Lena

    Great post indicating common errors.

    “Those who opt for military service would serve only as military police or truck drivers or in homeland-security posts.”

    Tell me, is the ‘or’ before ‘truck drivers’ mandatory? Can a ‘comma’ replace the ‘or’ ?

  • Mark Nichol

    Steve:

    Yes, that works.

  • Mark Nichol

    Lena:

    No, a comma is erroneous, because “truck drivers” lacks a preposition, so the items are not parallel. You could write, “Those who opt for military service would only serve as military police, as truck drivers, or in homeland-security posts,” but you might as well bundle “military police” and “truck drivers” as one item following a common preposition.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Definitely something to be wary of. In fact, there’s a current radio ad in which the character says she remembers when her son “told me he hated me and slammed the door in my face.” I keep wondering what kind of oddball she must be to have a door installed in her face to begin with…

    You see what I mean? We must be careful in not only which words we select but how we link them up, otherwise we can inadvertantly come off looking foolish and making our work appear to be drek. Whether we’re writing to earn a paycheck or to influence the future we won’t get very far if we, and by extension our writing, is perceived as ineffective and poorly performed.

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