Round up the usual grammar suspects

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • January 15, 2012 - 7:05 PM

I was waiting to transfer flights at Chicago's Midway Airport when I overheard a man at the bar ask his companion, "On a scale of one to 10, how good are you?"

Naturally, I was curious to hear her answer.

She took a sip of wine. In a low, throaty voice, she said, "Why don't you try me out?"

Pretending to be writing something important on my laptop, I leaned closer. It's my job to know these things.

"Well, then," the man said, flashing a Humphrey Bogart smile, "are you up for a little examination?"

"I'm up for anything," she said demurely. "Are you?"

"Excuse me," I said. "I couldn't help overhearing your conversation." I handed the man a sheet of paper. "You need to be careful these days," I said, "even when you think you know someone well."

"All right, then," the man said. He looked at the woman. "Ready?"

"I'm always ready," she said, closing her eyes.

"It looks like there are four parts: strategy, word choice, grammar and punctuation."

"Say it again, Sam."

He repeated the four components. Then, reading from my script, he said, "Complete the following sentence: 'Before you write your first word, you need to know your purpose, audience and ....'"

Somehow I knew she would answer correctly.

"For your second and third points," he said, "choose the preferred usage in the following word pairs: 'Your principal/principle goal is to connect with your reader' and 'Here's a complementary/complimentary copy of my book.'"

Again she chose correctly. It was as though she were playing a part in a movie and knew every line by heart.

"Now for grammar," he said. "Identify the error in this sentence: 'Of all the airports in all the world, she flies into mine, however, I'm glad she did.'"

She identified the error.

He gave me a look as if to say, "I knew she was good." I nodded in appreciation.

"For your fifth point," he said, "correct the punctuation error in this sentence: 'The whole world is about three drink's behind.'"

Without hesitating, she said, "Your apostrophe is preposterous."

"Five out of five points," he said, "and two times five is a perfect 10."

Her correct answers were (1) topic or material, (2) principal, (3) complimentary, (4) comma splice (which can be corrected by replacing the comma before however with either a semicolon or a period) and (5) an unnecessary apostrophe in a plural word.

"And now I have one for the two of you," she said. "Are you ready, boys?"

"Take your best shot," I said.

"All right. Add the two missing punctuation marks to this sentence: 'Heres looking at you kid.'"

With that, she threw back her wine, stood up and walked away.

The man looked at me reproachfully.

"I'm so sorry," I said. "Here. Take this." I handed him a copy of William Sabin's "The Gregg Reference Manual."

"Well, at least we have Paris," he said.

"Actually," I said, "I'm flying to Key West."

Stephen Wilbers offers seminars in business writing. E-mail: Website:

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