Archive | January, 2011

Who Gives a Darn About an Oxford Comma?

30 Jan

I have to tell you something: people who love grammar are not cool.  Now, you’re probably thinking, “Come on. Tell me something I don’t know.”  Well, fine.  I will: those new commercials promoting baby carrots actually star John Boehner‘s children.

As the carrots.

Because John Boehner is very orange.

So you may think you know just how uncool grammarians are.  But it’s just like that show Diary that used to be on MTV: you think you know, but you have no idea.

For one, we actually refer to ourselves as grammarians. Yes! We do!  That is a real word that real people actually use.  It’s a badge of honor, a means of introduction.  For example, I might walk up to you, extend my hand, and say, “Hello. I am Riane. I am a grammarian.”  And then you would say, “Hello.  It is nice to meet you.  I do not know what that word means but that is because I went on dates in high school.”  And then I would start to defend myself, but you would cut in and say, “Prom with your cousin doesn’t count.”

And for two, we have fights–real, legitimate fights–about things like Oxford commas.

First, a little history.

The Oxford comma has many names: it has been known as the serial comma, the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, or, less commonly, the series comma.  Why so many names?  Who knows.  Perhaps it’s called a Harvard comma when the sentence is about how much Yale sucks and an Oxford comma when the sentence is about bad teeth.

By definition, the Oxford comma is the comma used immediately before the final coordinating conjunction in a list.  For example, the last comma in the sentence “She had apple bottom jeans, boots with the fur, and the whole club looking at her” is an Oxford comma.  In a sentence like this, or in a simple list, the meaning of the sentence does not change whether the final comma is included or not.  I like apples, peaches, pears, and bananas and I like apples, peaches, pears and bananas are not vastly different from each other.  You might think that since the sentence makes sense with or without the comma, it should be up to the writer to decide whether or not to include it.

Not so fast.  You’ve forgotten that this is one of the great debates of our time!   It ranks up there with paper vs. plastic, Mac vs. PC, and Mel Gibson vs. keeping quiet and not being offensive.

In one camp, we have APA, MLA, The Chicago Manual of Style, and the AMA, all championing the Oxford comma.  Whenever there is a list, they say, the Oxford comma should be included.  Their argument is that it creates consistency and clarity.  If you’re in a discipline that uses one of these manuals, then, when in doubt, put the comma in.

But in the other camp, The New York Times, The Economist, The AP Stylebook, and virtually all of Europe claim that the Oxford comma is clunky and obsolete.  Their stance is that, in general, the final comma before and, or, or nor is an antiquated, unnecessary waste of space and should be left out.  (And I do realize that I just used an Oxford comma in a sentence about how some people believe you shouldn’t use Oxford commas.  That, Alanis, is ironic.)

Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple.  Like I said, in some simple lists, the meaning is unaffected by whether or not an Oxford comma is used.  It’s best to go with the style of your discipline–or the preference of your professor–in cases like that.  But sometimes, the inclusion or exclusion of the final comma does change the sentence’s meaning, and that’s where things get tricky.

The example used most often here is a misleading book dedication that reads: To my parents, Ayn Rand and God. This sentence leaves the Oxford comma out, and the reader is left to understand that the writer’s progenitors were actually Ayn Rand and the Lord Most High.  What does that make the writer?  Some sort of Herculean demigod who champions the free-market?  No one knows, but if Dan Brown caught wind of this, he’d probably be tempted to write a book about it, so to stop that from happening, it’s much better to include the comma.  No matter what stylebook that you’re using, always side with clarity.  To my parents, Ayn Rand, and God just makes a lot more sense.

Ultimately, I would suggest always going with the side of your stylebook or professor unless the meaning of the sentence is compromised.  Always check the last two items in your list: if you’ve left the Oxford comma out, make sure that those last two items haven’t accidentally been weirdly smashed together (think of my parents, Ayn Rand and God) to change the meaning of your sentence.  Great debates aside, sense is what matters here.

And someday, when you’re older and more mature, you can decide for yourself whether you’re for or against Oxford commas.  It’s one of those great milestones of growing up, like losing your first tooth or getting your driver’s license.  Or going to a dance with someone who isn’t your cousin, but personally, I think that one is overrated.

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Thesis Statements

23 Jan

If you’re anything like me (half-human, half-robot, and allergic to dairy), you know that no post about the formation of thesis statements would be complete without a reference to Wesley Willis, the paranoid schizophrenic street performer from Chicago who landed a record contract with gems like “Kris Kringle Was a Car Thief,” “Cut the Mullet” and “I’m Sorry That I Got Fat (I Will Slim Down).”

Now, right now, you’re probably thinking, “Oh, come on.  Not that old ‘teaching thesis statements by referencing a homeless schizophrenic from Chicago who wrote songs about guilty holiday icons and outdated hair styles’ trick.”  I know—it’s clichéd.  If you had a dollar for every time one of your English teachers talked about Wesley Willis, you would have a lot of dollars.  I know. But stick with me.

The reason I mention Wesley is because my favorite song by him, “I’m Sorry That I Got Fat (I Will Slim Down),” is the perfect way to introduce the importance of and reason behind thesis statements.  As the opening synthesizer beats drop, Willis introduces the track, saying, “This is the song that I’m gonna rap about: it’s called that ‘I’m Sorry That I got Fat (I Will Slim Down); this is the song reminding me that I’m fixing to lose weight and go on a strict diet.”  The rest of the song details Willis’ weight struggles: he got fat, he explains, by eating too much fast food between 1987 and 1991.  But he’s sorry that he got fat, he says.  He has a plan to slim down.

Sure, Willis’ writing leaves something to be desired—like grammar, and sense—but the introduction to the song also exemplifies nearly everything that, in a paper, a thesis statement should be.  A thesis statement generally comes at the end of the introductory paragraph.  In “I’m Sorry That I Got Fat,” the opening beats from Willis’ dollar store synthesizer act as the introductory paragraph: they exist to get the listener’s attention.  The opening lines are the thesis sentence: Willis picks out the song’s main point—he’s sorry that he got fat; he will slim down—and tells the listener that his song will explore that theme.  This is exactly what a good thesis statement should do.

All thesis statements are different, but your thesis statement should always do the following:

  1. Present the main point of your paper.  If someone asked you to sum up the main point of your paper up in just one sentence, what would you tell them? Your answer to this question is the starting point for your thesis statement.
  2. Briefly explain how (or why) you will be presenting this main point.  An improved thesis statement by Willis might have said, “This song will explore the detrimental effect of the fast food industry on working class Americans by chronicling my personal struggles with weight loss and gain caused by, among others, McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Burger King.”

If you don’t know the main point of your paper, wait until you’ve written it to come up with a thesis statement.  Read through the paper, decide how to sum it up in a sentence or two, and then go back to your introductory paragraph and plug it in.  Your thesis statement doesn’t need to explain everything you’ll talk about in your paper—there’s no room for that.  The thesis statement tells the reader what your paper’s main claim is, and tells him what important points he should be looking out for as he reads it.

Your thesis statement can’t be boring, either.  What claim is your paper making?  What point are you trying to prove?  A bad thesis statement might be something like: “People gain weight sometimes.”  Well, sure.  No one disagrees with you there.  A better thesis statement is: “The fast food industry causes people to gain weight.”  That’s more specific: it’s making a claim that someone may disagree with (and that makes it interesting).  An even better thesis statement is: “The fast food industry causes people to gain weight through their use of false advertising, addictive ingredients, and shady characters like ‘Jared the Subway Guy.’”  Now the reader knows that you’re making a specific claim and where your paper is heading as to try to prove that claim.

But now that I mention it, I really would like to see a paper written about Jared.  I don’t trust him.  How do we even know that those are his pants?

I Have a Dream: That You Will Use Parallel Structure Correctly

17 Jan

If Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t use parallel structure so effectively in his speeches, would we still remember him today?

Well, yes.  But that’s not the point.  The point is that today, in honor of the great Reverend, we’re going to explore a cornerstone of good writing: parallel structure.

Parallel structure means repeating a certain patterns of words in a related pair or series.  This is easy to see in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech, a segment of which I’ll copy here:

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal.’

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.”

The parallelism is easy to see here: the repetition of “I have a dream that …” is one of the most famous examples of parallelism in written history.  It’s so common, in fact, that I’m a little embarrassed that I’m using it here.  All I need next is a post about how rap is just hip poetry, and I’ll be every high school English teacher in the country.  (Accordingly, I should point out that teachers who say that rappers are just modern Shakespeares have never read the lyrics to “Like a G6.”)

But parallelism isn’t always so easy to spot, or correct, in our own writing.  It’s often much more subtle, and that’s where writers get tripped up.  Take another line from King’s speech, for example:

“With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

As this sentence showcases, whenever a writer is making a list of any sort, the items in the list must be parallel to each other.  King creates parallelism in this line when he repeats infinitive phrases (to + a verb).  If he had written, “…we will be able to work together, to pray together, struggling together, and we can go to jail together,” there would be no parallelism, and his ideas, no matter how powerful, would be lost in his mangled verbs.

Remember this:

1. Do not mix forms.  “Bobby likes swimming, running, and biking” is a correct parallel sentence, because all of his verbals (these are called gerunds, but you don’t need to know that right now) end with -ing.  “Bobby likes swimming, running, and to bike” is not correct because the forms do not match each other.

2. Do not mix forms. You won’t always run into issues with parallelism in a simple list, like above.  You must maintain parallel structure when repeating a clause, too.

Incorrect: Bobby was told that his swimming was superb, that his running was incredible, and he was an amazing biker.

Correct: Bobby was told that his swimming was superb, that his running was incredible, and that his biking was amazing.

3. Do not mix forms.  A sentence cannot switch between active (the subject does the verb) and passive (the verb is done by the subject) voice.

Incorrect: Bobby trained, read fitness books, and good meals were eaten by him.

Correct: Bobby trained, read fitness books, and ate good meals.

4. Do not mix forms.  All of your verbs should be in the same tense: don’t mix past with present tense, present with future tense, etc.

Incorrect: Bobby will go to the Olympics, will win gold, and he wanted to make his country proud.

Correct: Bobby will go to the Olympics, will win gold, and will make his country proud.

And don’t worry: you don’t need to know what an infinitive phrase or a gerund is to check your writing for parallelism.  If you have a list of any sort, make sure that all of the items in that list are similar and parallel to each other.  If you’re writing a resume, make sure that you describe your job skills in a parallel way (i.e. “As a sandwich artist, I oversaw the counter, cared for customers, and created edible art”).

Finally, to close, one more wonderfully parallel thought by Dr. King:

“If you can’t fly, then run.  If you can’t run, then walk.  If you can’t walk, then crawl.  But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”

And just for posterity’s sake, the poetic ruminations of “Like a G6”:

“Sippin’ on, sippin’ on sizz, I’ma ma-make it fizz; girl, I keep it gangsta’, poppin’ bottles at the crib.”

Shakespeare would be proud.

Grandma’s Law: I vs. Me

9 Jan

My grandma is a stickler for grammar, so it’s no wonder that I ended up the way that I did.  But while I understand that a properly used subjunctive clause doesn’t get everyone’s heart racing, like it does mine, my grandma is a little less understanding.  She loves grammar, and if you don’t, well, you’d better figure out pretty quickly how to fake it in front of her.  But growing up, and even now, the grammar rule that she most ardently championed was the “I vs. me” rule.

I think that being very picky about the correct time to say “I” and the correct time to say “me” is a prerequisite to becoming a grandmother.  I like to imagine a line of potential grandmothers in a DMV-like facility, being questioned by some sort of grandmother sergeant.

Sergeant: Do you swear to spoil your grandchildren indiscriminantly?

Grandmother: Yes.

Sergeant: Do you swear to never–I mean never–look out your rearview mirror while backing out of your driveway?

Grandmother: Of course.

Sergeant: Will you insist on buying ill-fitted clothing from somewhere like Talbots or L.L. Bean for your teenaged grandchildren on their birthdays and major holidays?

Grandmother: Actually, if I could get my bag, I can show you this lovely turtleneck sweater vest I just bought for my grandson–

Sergeant: … and finally, do you swear that whenever one your grandchildren says “me” when she should have said “I,” you will immediately correct her, and not let the conversation continue until she has proven that she is repentant and will never do it again, so help you God?

Grandmother: I do.

Nearly every conversation I had with my grandma growing up involved an interaction like this:

Me: … and Lisa and me went to the park, and we–

Grandma: Lisa and I.

Me: No, you weren’t there.  Lisa and me were there, and–

Grandma: Lisa and I.  It isn’t Lisa and me.  It’s Lisa and I.

Me: Oh, okay.  Anyway, we were at the park–

Grandma: Say it.

Me: Say what?

Grandma: Say “Lisa and I.”

Me: Lisa and I were at the park–

Grandma: Very good.

Me: Now I’ve forgotten my story.

The problem is that grandmas seem to indiscriminately favor “I” over “me.”  But guess what, world’s grandmas?  Sometimes it is “me.”  Here’s how to decide if you should be saying “I” or “me.”

“I” — I is a first-person singular subject pronoun.  This means that if, in your sentence (written or spoken), you are the person doing the action, you should use I.  This is pretty easy with simple sentences.  Cookie Monster being the exception, you won’t run into too many people seriously saying, “Me want cookies.”  If you want cookies, you recognize that you are the person doing the action (wanting), and so you say, “I want cookies.”  If there are multiple subjects in your sentence (“Lisa and I”), the same rule applies.  An old elementary school rule works well here: if you’re unsure whether to use I or me, try the sentence with just I or me in it.  Another trick to decide between the two is to substitute he for I and him for me. Your ear is pretty (though not completely) reliable once the sentence is cleared up a bit.

“Me” — When we were younger, our grandmas went to work training us to say “I” instead of “me.”  Unfortunately, some of our grandmas have trained us too well: there are slews of people out there, walking around, saying foolish things like, “Well, just between you and I, something very secret and terrible is going to happen on Wall Street today.”

Let me say this very clearly: the correct answer is NOT ALWAYS I.  I is a subject, and me is an object: this means that I does something, whereas me has something done to it.  

If the pronoun is the object of a preposition (in simple terms, meaning that it immediately or almost immediately follows a preposition) like between, then you need to use the objective pronoun: me.  So it is correct to say “between you and me” or “behind Stan and me.”  In fact, anytime something is happening to your pronoun, the answer is me.  “He told Jack and me that the scary Wall Street thing wasn’t going to happen anymore” is correct, because the subject (“He”) is acting upon the two objects (“Jack” and “me”).  Remember, you could take “Jack” out to test if the sentence sounded right: “He told me that the scary Wall Street thing wasn’t going to happen anymore.”  However, even though your ears can be useful, don’t rely on them completely: “between you and I” might sound grandma-friendly, but it’s wrong.

So here’s to Grandma, who loved me enough from the very beginning to make sure that I didn’t talk like a fool.  And I mean from the very beginning.  I like to imagine myself as a baby, sitting in a high chair, smearing bananas all over my face, and looking up–with a face full of tenderness and wonder–to say my first fully-formed phrase: “Mommy and me love you.”  And as my parents weep and my aunts and uncle cheer, my grandma reaches out, holds my tiny little hands, looks me in the eyes, and then slaps me sternly on the wrist.

“Mommy and I love you.  Mommy and I.”

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