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May 26th, 2004

Report on a find-the-mistake contest

by Barbara Wallraff

You’re a tough audience -- that’s for sure. Two weeks ago I included a grammar mistake in this column on purpose and challenged you to find it. As an incentive, I offered to send one randomly chosen reader who found the mistake a signed copy of my new book, “Your Own Words.”

Boy, did you give me a going-over. People reported finding as many as four mistakes in my 500-word column. I was left wondering whether some quotation marks got turned around in the process of transmission from me to the newspaper syndicate to your paper. If so, I’m sorry, but the error I’d planted was even more egregious than that. I’m not the only one who thinks so: More than two-thirds of the hundreds of people who wrote found the mistake I wanted you to find.

What was it? First let me tell you a few things that weren’t it.

A number of readers objected that my phrase “grammar mistake” should have been “grammatical mistake” -- and they probably have been seething since the second sentence of today’s column. Nope, sorry. There’s an old-fashioned point of view according to which one should not say “grammatical mistake,” because the mistake in question is actually ungrammatical. I don’t go that far; I don’t think “grammatical mistake” is out-and-out wrong. But nouns, like “grammar,” are often used adjectivally: For instance, think of “punctuation error” and “spelling mistake.” “Grammar mistake” wasn’t the, um, grammar mistake.

One reader said that “down-to-earth,” in my phrase “if you want to be both correct and down-to-earth,” should not have been hyphenated. What sharp eyes you have! This is a point about which reasonable writers, editors and readers may well disagree. However, The Associated Press Stylebook, whose rules most newspapers follow, says, “When a modifier that would be hyphenated before a noun occurs instead after a form of the verb ‘to be,’ the hyphen usually must be retained to avoid confusion.” Those hyphens weren’t the mistake either.

My sentence “‘Foot soldiers’ and ‘footraces’ and ‘footpaths’ each involve plural feet” occasioned a lot of comment, mostly about “each involve.” True, when “each” comes before a noun, it’s either a singular pronoun (as in “each of them”) or an adjective modifying a singular noun (as in “each word”). But when it comes after a noun or nouns, as it did in my sentence, it’s an adverbial modifier. My sentence had three subjects, each plural, so the plural verb “involve” was correct.

What was the mistake, then? Why, it was the apostrophe in “one reader, chosen at random, who finds the mistake and let’s me know what it is.” Some people had a good time pointing this out. For instance, Charmi Miller, of Troy, N.Y., wrote: “Very funny. Let’s do this: If I lets you know what the mistake is, will you lets me have the book?”

Forgive me, Charmi. I hope it’s reward enough for you to see your name in the paper. The reader whose correct answer I drew at random is Lisa Perrotta, of Brownstone Township, Mich. -- and the signed copy of “Your Own Words” is already on its way to her. And now lets (just kidding!) take a break from pointing out mistakes in this column, if you don’t mind.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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