A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Is "acting strangely" grammatically incorrect?

December 15, 1995

Dear Cecil:

I am sending you a copy of this letter I wrote to [San Francisco Chronicle columnist] Herb Caen at the urging of my husband. He says only a man of your intellect and discrimination can truly appreciate all its nuances.

Cecil replies:

It's a classic all right. You spend three pages kvetching to Herb about a grammatical error in his newspaper and in the process make about ten million mistakes yourself. Let me quote a few representative sentences:

As for the rapidly advancing era of illiteracy, sometimes it's funny to laugh and gaffe about, but other times it feels positively grievous, as though a huge chunk of literary and historical culture is dying. The specific incident which occasioned my writing today is a faux pas in today's Chronicle . . . The penultimate paragraph [of a certain story] states that Barbara Jeffers told police "her son had been acting strangely recently and had threatened her safety." I doubt very seriously that an agitated, frightened mother literally used the words "acting strangely." The only time I ever hear that expression, aside from newscasters in their embarrassingly misguided attempts to be "correct," is reverberating around my brain after reading it in the paper — oftentimes, I'm sorry to say, the Chronicle.

Cecil won't argue with your main point, which is that "act" in the sense of "appear" or "seem to be" is a linking verb properly followed by an adjective ("strange") rather than an adverb. However, in other respects your grasp of the mechanics could stand a little work. Thank God you've got me around to straighten you out.

(1) "Funny to laugh about" doesn't make any sense. You either mean "funny," period, or "fun to laugh about."

(2) "Gaffe" is not a verb. Perhaps you meant "chaff."

(3) "Feels positively grievous" feels positively weird. Better to say "makes one positively grieve."

(4) "Literary and historical culture"? Bag the meaningless adjectives.

(5) "As though" generally introduces contrary-to-fact or hypothetical statements and so takes the subjunctive: "as though a huge chunk of our culture were dying." However, the sense of the rest of the sentence is not that the death of the culture is hypothetical but rather that it is advancing rapidly upon us. Let's start over and say, "As for the rapidly advancing era of illiteracy, sometimes it can be comical, but other times one positively grieves for our dying language."

You are thinking: Cecil, I am unworthy of having my prose improved any further. Lavish your wisdom on some other chump. But I can't stand to leave a job unfinished.

(6) "Specific incident" is redundant. "Incident" means "specific occurrence."

(7) "Which occasioned" should be "that occasioned." Restrictive clause.

(8) You can't say "the incident that occasioned my writing is a faux pas." It has to be either "occasioned . . . was" or "occasions … is." Sequence of tenses.

(9) If the error appeared in today's paper, it's a good bet you're writing today too. Drop one instance of "today," which now appears twice in the same sentence.

(10) In the last sentence "aside from newscasters" is shy a preposition (think about it). Let's say "other than from newscasters."

(11) "Reverberating around my brain" cannot logically modify "the only time." Instead say "the only time I hear that phrase … is when it reverberates in my brain …"

(12) "Reading," as in "after reading it in the paper," is a dangling participle. Say "after I read it in the paper."

Putting it all together we have, "The only time I ever hear this expression, other than from newscasters who are misguidedly attempting to be 'correct,' is when it reverberates in my brain after I read it in the paper." Not perfect, maybe, but definitely improved. You appreciate my efforts, I'm sure. Just as Herb Caen appreciated yours.

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