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Quiz yourself: just the facts

Preoccupied as we are with punctuation, grammar and usage, we on the copy desk know that precision in language also extends to factual accuracy. So when we deal with sentences like the examples below — all the work of professional journalists — we see what we are up against in the combat with error.

See what you can diagnose in these eight sentences before you consult the answers below.

(1) And 42 percent of the students with low grades are boys, compared with 28 percent who are girls.

(2) He brought a luna moth to school, and recently, when she saw a 14-foot woodpecker, it was he who told her it was a pileated woodpecker, a scarce bird in Maryland.

(3) In the opening scenes, he’s literally bending sideways as he walks, ducking in and out of doors like Groucho Marks.

(4) Silent auction in West County: Among the wonderful items up for sale is a live thoroughbred horse.

(5) Divers Clinton Suggs (left) and Victor McCaugherty pause during their dive to replace a hole underneath Dam No. 5 near Williamsport.

(6) And the magazine was almost always right — until 1936, when the editors confidently predicted that Pennsylvania Gov. Alf Landon would soundly defeat Franklin Roosevelt.

(7) The seven-member group, the Pasadena Citizens Task Force on Radium in Well Water, was split down the middle.

(8) The train tracks are believed to be part of the Underground Railroad by which slaves found their way to freedom.

Here is the commentary.

(1) I wonder what the other 30 percent were.

(2) Though I am no ornithologist, I expect that a 14-foot woodpecker would be a scarce bird in any state in the Union.

(3) Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Karl all went by Marx.

(4) It’s doubtful that a dead thoroughbred would fetch much at auction, unless, of course, the bidder manufactured dog food.

(5) This photo caption doesn’t show whether the hole is being replaced by a larger one, a smaller one, or a new one of the same size. Replace a hole? Repair a hole.

(6) Alf Landon was the governor of Kansas in 1936.

(7) Visualize how an odd-numbered group can be split down the middle.

(8) The Underground Railroad had routes, guides and safe houses, but not locomotives, trestles and tracks. The name was metaphoric.

Posted by John McIntyre at 10:09 AM | | Comments (2)


In response to your commentary on (1), adults with poor grades are neither boys nor girls.

In addition to your commentary on (3), which includes the phrase "literally bending sideways," what would it mean to figuratively or metaphorically bend sideways?

Also, what you call "the combat with error," I call "the war on error."

It always amazes me how much can be wrong with a single sentence. And like an onion, quite often nothing is left after the errors are removed. As you noted in No. 2, it's Marx, not Marks. And as AGB noted, the word "literally" is superfluous. But on top of it all, Groucho didn't walk bent over sideways; he bent at the waist, leaning forward.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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