Archive | April, 2011

And In Conclusion …

29 Apr

“When I die, I want to go peacefully in my sleep, like my grandfather did; not screaming and yelling like the passengers in his car.”

-Jack Handey

The end of things is very important.

Now, wait a minute, there’s no need to weep and gnash your teeth: this is not the end of Grammarsaurus Rex.  This is just a post about the ends of papers: conclusions.

Believe me, when Grammarsaurus Rex comes to an end (in the year two thousand NEVER), we’re going to do it right.  The last post will have “Graduation” by Vitamin C looping over and over again in the background; they’ll retire my jersey and hoist up into the rafters (I wear a jersey and a Seattle Supersonics Starter jacket while I write these); and then, glory of glories: Rachel gets off the plane! Joey chooses Pacey!  The Island was just a purgatory universe!

And then like two years later I come back and play for the Wizards.

Your own conclusions don’t have to be that difficult.  Then again, it’s going to be a lot easier for you to say goodbye to your paper than it will be for my adoring fans to say goodbye to this site.

The purpose, length, and tone of conclusions will vary paper by paper (this is true for introductions as well, and pretty much any writing style tip), but there are some basic guidelines to adhere to:

1. Your conclusion does not have to (and I would venture to say it SHOULD not) start with the words “In conclusion.”  We know it’s your concluding paragraph.  At the end of it, your paper stops, and that’s a big tip-off.  In conclusion, stop insulting our intelligence.

2. Your conclusion SHOULD NOT introduce specific new points.  The place for new information is the body of the paper.  Putting new information in the  conclusion paragraph makes it seem like you just forgot to add it earlier.

3. Your conclusion should redress the main points you made in your paper.  This does not mean copying and pasting your introduction.  Don’t do that.  Your conclusion is, in a very basic sense, a re-worked introduction: you should use the conclusion to pound in your reader’s brain the most important points in your paper.  Find a new, fresh way to say them: don’t just list the things you just talked about in the exact same way you wrote about them.  That’s boring.

4. Your conclusion should leave no doubt in the reader’s mind as to why you presented all of the information you did in your paper.  Use the conclusion to make certain that your central theme or thesis has been realized: tie everything together.

5. Don’t end with a specific point like, “And thirdly, we can say that water is delicious and wet to drink.”  Don’t end with a boring and generic summation of your paper, either: “As you can see, this was a paper about water.”  If I wanted generic, I would go to Walmart, and I’ve got enough Dr. Thunder and Frosted Non-Vegetable Circles to last me all weekend, thank you very much.

6. That means you have to end with something big: a call to action, a scathing indictment, a thought-provoking question.  What are the implications of everything you just discussed?  What does it mean for the big picture?  Leave the reader with something to chew on: a mind-bending milkbone, if you will.

And if you can’t come up with anything that makes for a strong ending, do what non-French filmmakers do when they want their movie to seem deep, and just end with the word “fin.”  Although I’ve always wondered what’s so thought provoking about dolphin appendages.  Maybe a reference to Flipper?

Of course, just ask Sandy Ricks–most things are.


Hi, My Name Is … What?

21 Apr

There is nothing more important than a good introduction.

I’ve realized this more and more recently, as I’ve started working out to a Jillian Michael’s DVD called “Ripped in 30.”  What’s great about Jillian is that, since she is one of the trainers on The Biggest Loser, she’s worked with the toughest clients of all, and this has really softened her heart so that she can say encouraging things like, “Come on, you lazy pieces of stay-at-home nonsense!  A 600-pound person can do this exercise WHILE they are having open heart surgery performed upon them!  You are useless!  You paid money to hear me say this!  600 pounds!!  Come on!”

The opening of the video–the introduction–really got me thinking about the way that the whole workout DVD industry approaches things, and I think they need some retooling.

The DVD starts and bam–there is Jillian Michaels, in a neon spandex suit that accents just exactly where her muscles are growing micro-muscles.  And then, in a move reminiscent of Fergie at the Super Bowl, she starts shouting at me:


And then she gets mean.

My couple of weeks with Jillian have convinced me that the workout DVD industry needs to learn the secrets of a good introduction.  If, at the beginning of the DVD, Jillian was sitting on her couch, crying at an episode of Teen Mom while drinking expired milk out of the carton, then, right away, we might connect.  Then maybe she could spend the first few workouts actually talking herself out of working out: she, like me, would cite reasons like “My butt feels like it is part of the couch, and I love that about myself” and “Shut up, YOU work out.”  But by the time she eventually got off the couch, changed out of those pajama pants she borrowed from her little brother three years ago and never returned, and starting actually working out, I would be with her.

All because of the introduction.

Writing a good introduction isn’t much different: it’s all about hooking your audience, however you can.  Some of the suggestions that you’ve probably gotten over the years about how to start off an introduction are actually valid.  The classic list includes:

1. An interesting or relevant quote.

This should, of course, relate to your topic.  And please, unless you’re doing it in a really interesting way, do not start off by saying, “Webster’s Dictionary defines _______ as ….”  This is just the worst idea.  In fact, Webster’s Dictionary defines that strategy as the worst idea.

2. A shocking statement.

A lot of people tend to phrase these as a “Did you know?” question, but doing that waters down the shock.  When Warheads were popular, kids wouldn’t walk up to you with one (apple flavored if they were wusses, lemon or black cherry if they were warriors) and say, “Did you know this is shockingly sour and that when you eat it, your face will contort in ways you didn’t think possible?”  No.  They gave you one and said, “Eat this.”

If you’ve got a crazy or shocking fact–something that flies in the face of reason, common beliefs, or logic–then just say it.

3. An anecdote or story.

People love stories–if you have one (from your personal life or from someone else’s–someone you know, someone famous, someone you’ve read about–life) that relates to your subject, you should tell it.  You’ll have to keep it brief, though.

3 1/2. A rhetorical question.

I hesitate to include this in the list, which is why I’ve only allowed it to be item 3 1/2.  I’m hesitant because, in general, people use this technique very, very poorly.  A rhetorical question is simply a question to which you don’t expect an answer; if you create a question that really works at the mind, that makes the reader think, or that stirs controversy–from the very start of your paper–then you’ve created an effective rhetorical question, and you should, by all means, open with this.  But too often, rhetorical questions in papers look like this:

Did you know that many people go to zoos?

Have you ever wondered when the Civil War started?

A rhetorical question doesn’t give you permission to take a well-known or uninteresting fact and turn it into a question.  All that accomplishes is to make you half of the girls in my high school?  Who would say declarative statements like they were asking them?

And remember this: your opening sentence doesn’t have to be the most brilliant sentence ever written.  Too many writers get stuck because they won’t begin their paper until they’ve come up with their own “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  Well, guess what?  You aren’t Charles Dickens.  Charles Dickens is dead and no one cares about him anymore.

Regardless, not every paper you write will open brilliantly.  Just make sure that, whatever you do, you’re aware of your audience (who will be reading what you’ve written), and that you’ve written something that’s going to grab their attention.

Of course, there’s more work to be done after you get those first few sentences, but that’s a topic for another time.  Jillian Michaels is already in the DVD player, and even from the other room, I can hear her soft, soothing intonations:


Semicolon Cancer

6 Apr

Is there nothing more beautiful than a semicolon?  A period stacked on top of a comma in a sort of literary yoga pose, reaching up towards the grammar-loving sun, offering up gifts of linked independent clauses, breathing in, breathing out. Namaste.

I had to look up facts about yoga to write those couple of sentences because I know nothing about yoga, except that if I were a yoga instructor (or is it yoga master? Yoga sensei?  Yoga Mr. Miyagi?), I would wear a pink leotard and scream, “Be a pretzel! Be a pretzel!  This is comfortable for you!  Find inner peace!  Find inner–why aren’t I seeing more pretzels?!”

So I write a grammar blog instead.

There is nothing peaceful, though, about a misused semicolon.  Experience has taught me that people who don’t know how to use semicolons tend to stick them in random places in random sentences because they think they might fit there.  They think semicolons are like the Rihanna of grammar–they pop up everywhere.  Sure, put her in a song with Jay-Z.  Put her in a song with Justin Timberlake.  She’s got songs with Kanye.  She’s got songs with Slash.  Yeah, put her in a song with Mannheim Steamroller.  I thought I heard her in the background vocals of a Gregorian Chant once.  Singing a song to your newborn?  Why not invite Rihanna over for a guest verse?

Semicolons are not Rihanna, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need a … wait for it … S.O.S.  (High five!)

Semicolons are primarily used to link two related independent clauses together.  The term “independent clauses” is IMPORTANT.  This means that everything written before the semicolon must be able to stand alone as its own complete sentence, and everything written after the semi-colon must be able to stand alone as its own complete sentence.

Incorrect Example:

I love to dance and skip in the park; when the sun is shining.

“I love to dance and skip in the park” is a complete sentence, but “When the sun is shining” is not.  Therefore, the semicolon does NOT belong here.  The sentence should just read “I love to dance and skip in the park when the sun is shining.”

Correct Example:

The clouds broke, and rain poured down on my lined-up collection of yellow wooden ducks; thankfully, I was already singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”

Since “The clouds broke, and rain poured down on my lined-up collection of yellow wooden ducks” could be its own sentence, and “Thankfully, I was already singing ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade'” could be its own sentence, the semicolon is correct.  This means you could replace the semicolon with a period, and the sentences would still be grammatically correct.

You’ll notice that, even thought it technically starts a new sentence, the first word (thankfully) after the semicolon isn’t capitalized; it never should be, unless the first word after the semicolon is a proper noun (like Chicago or Sarah).

However, you should only use semicolons to connect independent clauses that are related to each other in meaning.  The semicolon is just a way to solidify the connection between two thoughts.  It’s like a wedding ring–a symbol of the bond between two entities–except that cute little boys don’t carry semicolons down the aisle on a pillow to deliver them to the blushing independent clauses.

And finally, a semicolon can be used as a super comma in a super list.  If you make a list whose items include commas (this often happens with place names, dates, and long descriptions that include commas), then you can use a semicolon to break it up.

Example #1:

I have lived in Chicago, Illinois; Marion, Indiana; East Troy, Wisconsin; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Dark Side, The Moon.

The semicolons in this sentence prevent it from looking like a gigantic and confusing mega-list.

Example #2:

At Comic-Con, I saw Jack, who had taken illegal steroids in order to look like the Hulk; Tom, who said he was dressed as Mr. Incredible, but who was actually just incredibly pale; and a man in a trench coat who was apparently confused about who The Flash was.

And there you have it.  Semicolons in a nutshell, with only three or four jokes about Rihanna.

And they said it couldn’t be done.

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