Archive | October, 2011

All … about … ellipses ………..

30 Oct

I am inherently bad at guessing what kids are supposed to be dressed as for Halloween.

I think it’s the pressure.  Whenever I open the door and see a child holding out a candy bucket or pillowcase, I feel like it is my duty to validate the child and the child’s parents by immediately knowing–and naming–what the costume is supposed to be.

But the pressure gets to me.

If I open my door and see a child wrapped head to toe in toilet paper, the word “mummy” is suddenly gone from my vocabulary, and I’m left hemming and hawing.

“Ah, yes.  I see you’re . . . a . . . burn victim?”

Superman shows up at my door.

” . . . Primary color lover pentagon man?”

Then there are some costumes for which, try as I might, I just can’t conjure up a guess.

“You’re . . . a . . .”

And I leave it.  The tiny little cretin stares up at me, begging me with his Puss in Boots eyes to name his costume, not appreciating that by simply saying, “You’re . . . a . . . ” I’ve taught him a valuable lesson in existentialist philosophy!  He is the one responsible for giving his costume meaning! What is more true a concept than the very statement, “You’re . . . a . . . ” when it is the subjective individual who captains his own destiny?!

And so a lot of kids don’t come to my door.  Also because I now live on the third floor of an apartment building.  Also because I give out walnuts and brochures about dental safety.

One thing that all of those responses have in common, though, besides their blazing ignorance, is the use of the ellipsis.  Ellipsis (plural: ellipses) is the official name for the “. . . ” punctuation mark.  I know most of you are familiar with the concept of ellipses, because I’ve received emails from you.  Let’s have a list with some facts and ground rules for ellipses.

1. In the Halloween example sentences above, I used ellipses for what is probably their most common use in casual writing: to denote a pause or a trailing off.  This is an actual purpose of the ellipses, and in the right context (correspondence, dialogue, creative writing) it is absolutely acceptable in moderation.  Ending a sentence (of dialogue or otherwise) with an ellipsis can denote a number of things: a trailing off, a sense of uncertainty, a sense of doom, etc.

2. Don’t make your ellipsis do all the heavy lifting, though! As you can see above, ending or starting a sentence with an ellipsis (again, using it to denote a certain mood is not appropriate for formal or research papers) can mean a number of things, and it could be the cause for some major miscommunication.  For example: if you send me a text message that ends with an ellipsis, I categorically assume that you are mad at me.  To me, the ellipsis makes everything either angry, cryptic, or creepy.  Look:

I’m wearing your dress!


I’m wearing your dress . . . 

If I received the first message, I would assume it was from a friend who was excited to be wearing my dress.  If I received the second message, I would assume that Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs has stolen a friend’s phone and my life was about to get very, very dark.

You might not read ellipses like this, but that’s exactly the point: everyone interprets them differently.  That’s why you need to be careful when using them in any kind of correspondence.

3. Use ellipses in moderation.  They do not replace standard punctuation marks.  Your emails should not be strung together by a series of ellipses.  You need some definite starting and ending points.

4. Ellipses are also used to denote words, phrases, lines, or paragraphs that have been omitted from quoted material.  You can do this to save space or eliminate words or phrases that are unnecessary for your purposes.  However, you may not use an ellipses to change the author’s meaning.

5. Different style books have different rules for ellipses spacing.  In general, most require that there should be one space before the first ellipsis mark, one space between each mark, and one space at the end.  You type it like this: space period space period space period space.  It looks like this: “Different style books have . . . rules for ellipses spacing.”

6. Most of the time, you should not use ellipses at the beginning of a quotation to indicate the omission of material.

Incorrect: Riane stated that most style books ” . . . require that there should be one space before the first ellipsis mark . . . .”

Correct: Riane stated that most style books “require that there should be one space before the first ellipsis mark . . . .”

The only time that you should use an ellipsis at the beginning of your sentence is if it is not clear that that you’ve omitted information from the quote’s beginning.

7. You may have noticed that I used four dots at the end of that last sentence.  This is correct, and it is the only time you should use more or less than three dots.  When an ellipsis ends a sentence (as it does above), you need three dots for the ellipsis, and one dot as the period.

The same goes for combining a fully quoted sentence with a partially quoted sentence.  In that situation, place a period at the end of the fully quoted sentence, and then follow it with the space dot space dot space dot rule.  There will still be four dots, but the first dot comes right after the last letter, like a normal period.  Spaces come afterwards.  I’ll use text from #6 as my example.


“You may have noticed that I used four dots at the end of that last sentence . . . It is the only time you should use more or less than three dots.”  (Problem: Only 3 dots.)

Incorrect Again:

“You may have noticed that I used four dots at the end of that last sentence . . . . It is the only time you should use more or less than three dots.” (Problem: 4 dots, but all evenly spaced.)


“You may have noticed that I used four dots at the end of that last sentence. . . . It is the only time you should use more or less than three dots.” (Correct! The first dot comes right after the last word, and the rest are spaced.)

8. Those scenarios are the only exceptions to the three dot rule! Never two, never five, never a line like this …………… even if you’re just writing an email.  That doesn’t look like punctuation.  That looks like mouse droppings.

9. So Happy Halloween, everybody. I hope you get everything you deserve . . . .

See?! That’s creepy, isn’t it?


Occupy Well Street

23 Oct

“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” -The Facebook quote section for people who consider themselves quite deep and/or political.

We all have dreams.  To become doctors, teachers, engineers.  To change the world, to change the neighborhood, to change one life.

My dreams are more simple.  For example, I once had a dream that I was stranded on an island floating in the sky with Pocahontas, overlooking a fenced in, pre-industrial San Francisco.  We spent our days lying in hammocks and hoping for rescue, and, in the afternoons, overseeing a man named Kevin as he sorted berries into various handmade bowls (six berries in each bowl) because, as a fellow island-dweller reminded us, “Sometimes Kevin steals.”

As we grow up, often, simple childhood dreams like that die.  But there’s been one dream I’ve always held on to: that one morning, I would visit a coffee shop and, while in line, lead a stirring, impromptu discussion with the patrons and baristas about why it is grammatically correct to answer the question “How are you?” with “I am good.”

Friends, yesterday, that actually happened.

Let’s backtrack.

The good vs. well question is one that has plagued grammar-loving people probably all the way back to the 1700s.  I estimate the 1700s because before that, what plagued people were actual Plagues.

When people use “good” when they should use “well,” I actually shudder.  So before we move on, I’m going to give you a brief run-down on when you should be using “well.”

First, as a noun.  As in, “Did you know that if you throw a penny into a well, you get a wish, but if you throw a graduate student into a well, you get to hear a sort of ‘thud-thud-splash’ noise?”

“Well” is also an adverb.  And therein lies the difference between good and well.  Good is an adjective.  Good, as an adjective, modifies nouns.  You can say Pizza is good (good is modifying the noun pizza) or That is a good, loud song (good is helping to modify the noun song).  And unless that song is by Nickelback, you’d be absolutely correct.

Well is an adverb.  That means that it modifies verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs.  You can say You play tennis well (well is modifying the verb play) or It was a well recorded song (well is modifying the adjective recorded) or They did well as a group (well is modifying the verb did).  And unless that group is–wait for it–Nickelback, you’d be absolutely correct.

Well, as an adverb, answers the question “how?”  How do you play tennis?  How was the song recorded?  How did they do as a group?  Apparently, in all of these cases, well.  UNLESS IT WAS NICKELBACK! Right?! They are bad at tennis and music.

You could, technically, say They did good as a group, but that sentence has a different meaning than They did well as a group.  You would say They did good as a group if the group was actually doing good deeds: feeding the homeless or rescuing orphans or dressing up naked animals in cute little outfits.

The bottom line here is OH MY GOODNESS, for the LOVE, do NOT use good to modify an action verb.  Use well.  Otherwise, I cannot be responsible for my actions if we encounter each other in a darkened alley.  And my actions will involve grabbing and smashing your face and screaming, “STOP! STOP!!”  And I will do that well.

Now here’s where we get controversial.  Sorry to go all Ryan Seacrest on you by telling you that this was the topic of the post and then making you sit through hours of other stuff you don’t care about on the way. Also, by having elfish features.

Good-hearted people across the English-speaking world (which should be ALL of it, RIGHT?! Because unlike most of the world, I only speak one language. My job opportunities are limited. USA! USA!) want to use well correctly.  They too cringe when someone says, “He played the trombone real good.”  And it’s because of these good intentions that you hear intelligent people everywhere answering the question “How are you?” with “I am well.”

I do not do that.  I say, “I am good.”  I say it confidently, despite the sneers and the gnashing of teeth, despite the gasps and the screams and the general haughty sniffing.

Yesterday morning, at Redtree Art Gallery and Coffee Shop, the barista asked, “How are you?” and, as always, I said, “I am good.”  And my well-intentioned fiancé, who always answers, “I am well,” looked at me and, kind of judgingly, asked, “Why do you always say that?”

Five minutes later, the barista and most of the patrons, who were all awesome, were gathered around the counter, and we discussed why “I am good” is an absolutely acceptable, usually more correct response.

The explanation is simple.  Like I said, well is an adverb, so it modifies verbs.  This is why people think that well should be used in this case.  Am is a verb, they posit, so therefore, well should be used to modify it.

Not quite.

Well is used to modify action verbs.  An action verb is any verb that isn’t a linking verb.  Linking verbs include all forms of the verb to be (is, am, was, were, etc.), and other words, like seem and become.

Linking verbs are not followed by adverbs.  They are followed by nouns or adjectives.  These are known as predicate nominatives (for the nouns) and predicate adjectives (for the adjectives).  Predicate nominatives and adjectives essentially re-name or tell us something about the state of the subject.  There is no such thing as a predicate adverb.

If I say I am Riane, then I is the subject, am is the linking verb, and Riane is the predicate nominative.  If I say I am thirsty, then I is the subject, am is the linking verb, and thirsty is the predicate adjective.  You would never hear somebody say I am thirstily, because thirstily is an adverb, and there is no such thing as a predicate adverb.

When someone asks, “How are you?” and your reply starts with “I am,” then you are bound by the rules of grammar to finish that sentence with a predicate adjective.  Well is not an adjective.  Good is.

The only time that it is technically correct to say I am well is when you are specifically referring to your health.  This is because well does have a secondary function as an adjective, and this function is specific to health.  If you were in the hospital for weeks and afterwards, a concerned friend asked, “How are you?” it would be correct to say, “I am well,” but only if you understood that the question was medical and that you were using well in the one instance where it is a health-related adjective.

So the next time that someone sneers at you when you say “I am good,” hold your head up high and know that you are correct.  After all, you don’t need well-meaning strangers to judge you based on one issue.

That’s what vegans are for.


Keeping Up With The Joneseseses’

17 Oct

The issue of possession has been on my mind lately because of an adorably annoying new game my now fiancé likes to play.  Also because a demon has taken over my soul.

Just kidding. The game is not adorable.

After I accidentally referred to it as “my wedding” instead of “our wedding” a few too many times, he realized I had some ownership issues.  To test these waters, he started mentioning other things to see how much they would bother me, like this insane notion that technically–TECHNICALLY–when we got married, all of my books would be–TECHNICALLY–our books.

“No!” I screamed like a banshee trapped inside of a chihuahua trapped inside one of those really loud Sun Chips bags.  “MINE!”

After taking some time to slow down and reflect on the beauty of matrimony, commitment, and the concept of two becoming one, though, I realized that the idea of everything being shared in a marriage is actually quite symbolic of THE FACT THAT THAT IS UTTER NONSENSE, LEAVE MY STUFF ALONE, EVAN.

So his new game is this: he refers to everything that is distinctly mine or distinctly his as being “ours.”  He loves saying things like, “Can you grab our wallet for me?” or “I really like our new sweater.”  I respond by threatening to punch him with our fists.

Possessions aren’t simple in a relationship, and possession isn’t always a simple concept in grammar.  And the culprit?  This time, it’s not a fiancé; it’s the apostrophe.

The apostrophe is a punctuation mark that indicates contractions and possession.  When I say contraction, I mean words like don’t, can’t, you’re, she’s.  The apostrophe here indicates a letter that has been left out. Don’t = do not.  Can’t = can not (or cannot).  Contractions like these will ALWAYS come with an apostrophe.

But we’re going to concentrate on the apostrophe’s primary duty: indicating possession.  I just used it in the possessive case in that last sentence when I mentioned the apostrophes primary duty.  I’m talking about the primary duty of the apostrophe, so therefore, it is the primary duty that belongs to the apostrophe. Therefore, we tack on an ‘s.  We see this all the time: the man’s walking stick, the meeting’s purpose, the basketball court’s legacy.  In each case, the ‘s is necessary because it indicates possession.  If it isn’t a literal possession (like the walking stick, which is an actual possession of the man), you can always rephrase to test whether possession is involved by using the phrase of the: the purpose of the meeting, the legacy of the basketball court.  If it is, you need an apostrophe before the s.

The real trick comes with plurals and words that naturally end in s.  First, plurals.

If you need to make a plural noun possessive, make the noun plural first before even thinking about the possessive form.  This means that before you worry about apostrophes, boy becomes boys, woman becomes women, and mouse becomes mice.  This is a very important step.  Some nouns become plural by adding an s (see boy –> boys), and some change completely (mouse –> mice).  Do this first.  Always.

Once you’ve made the noun plural, then you can add the ‘s.  But IF YOU DO THIS–if you make a plural noun possessive–you are saying that something belongs to the group.  If I say it is the women’s dream, I am saying that it is a dream that belongs to multiple women.

Now, a list!

1. If a singular noun ends with an s, like grass, you can just put an apostrophe after the last s and leave it at that.  The grass’ green color is absolutely correct.  Some say you should instead write the grass’s green color, but in my (and many’s) opinion, that makes thing ugly and overcomplicated.  The single apostrophe will do just fine.

2. The same is true if pluralizing a noun causes it to end with an s.  If I say the boys’ shoes, I can still just put the apostrophe after the final s.  And remember, if I said that, I would have to mean shoes that belonged to multiple boys.

3. Some words are naturally possessive.  These are called possessive pronouns and they DO NOT NEED APOSTROPHES.  Examples include: his, hers, its, theirs, ours, yours, whose.  I don’t know why these words are the way they are, but they … are.  Do not use apostrophes with these words.  They are already possessive.

4. Remember: it’s means it is.  Its is the possessive  form of it.

5. And no matter what, grammarians and scholars everywhere fully believe that I BOUGHT THEM AND THEY’RE MINE, SO LEAVE MY BOOKS ALONE, EVAN.


9 Oct

Steve Jobs’ legacies are many.  He influenced the technological world, the design world, and the leadership world.  And as soon as I purchased a MacBook, he influenced my ability to enter literally any Starbucks in the world and feel instantly validated.  It used to be that if I wanted to get any writing done in public (so that people would know that I was arty and interesting/not paying for Internet at my apartment), I would be forced to risk the shame and ridicule of having to take out my–and I shudder to say this–Sony Vaio.

It’s hard to relive moments like that, because they are dark.  Mustachioed hipsters would flee the coffee shop in droves rather than risk being seen with me and my Vaio; sometimes, on the way out, one would slam his skinny, Patchouli-scented, bird-tattooed fist on my table and seethe, “I’ll bet you don’t even ride a fixed-gear bicycle, do you? DO YOU?!”  And I wouldn’t respond, because my computer had just crashed and deleted everything I’d done for the past six years.

I love Macs for a lot of reasons, and not just because they make me look awesome. Another reason is that, to me, they make things simpler.  A lot of really nerdy friends of mine hate Macs for the very same reason.  “The user has less control and blah blah blah and programming and RAM and World of Warcraft!” they say, I think, while shoving their masking-taped glasses up on their 256-bit noses.

Whether you are a Mac or a PC fan, the Steve Jobsian concept that simplicity is king must be the rule in your writing.  Some of the worst papers I’ve ever read are written by otherwise intelligent people who think that being wordier makes them sound smarter.

This is not true.

Sometimes people get too wordy in writing because, like I said, they think that bigger words and longer phrases are indicative of intelligence.  And some people do it because their paper has to be at least five pages long, and even though they’re using three-inch margins, quadruple spacing, and size 72 font, they can’t quite get there.

To those latter people, I need to tell you something: your professors do realize what you are doing.  And if they’re not saying something, it’s not because you’ve fooled them; it’s because you’ve made them sad.

I’m more concerned about the folks in the former category, though: the folks who think that the bigger word is always the best word, and that the longer sentence is always the better sentence.

Clarity must always be the goal in writing.  This does not mean that all of your sentences should be short, boring, straightforward offerings; I’m not suggesting that Fun With Dick and Jane is the Mecca of good writing.  I am suggesting that you are often being wordier than you should be, and it’s making your writing look immature.

Here comes a list:

1. Do not use a bigger word if you are not completely certain of its meaning.  The thesaurus is just like that girl in high school who asked you for help in Math but never invited you to her parties: it is only sometimes your friend.  And guess what, Cindy McCoy, I NEVER WANTED TO GO TO YOUR STUPID PARTIES ANYWAY. I HAD A LOT OF CHORES I HAD TO DO AT HOME, SO, YEAH, I KIND OF HAD A LOT GOING ON.

2. If you find that you have written a sentence that is three lines or longer, re-evaluate it.  Chances are that there is a place that you can (and usually should) break it into at least two sentences.

3. If you have a sentence that contains multiple bulky punctuation marks–parentheses, dashes, semicolons–re-evaluate it.  Sometimes sentences like these are unavoidable, especially in research papers when parenthetical citations are necessary.  But a lot of times, at least one of these punctuation marks could go.

4. Replace wordy phrases with shorter phrases (or a single word) that would convey the same meaning.  I’ll provide you with just a few common cases where the simpler expression in parentheses would be better:

Be of the opinion that (think, believe)

Because of the fact that/in view of the fact that (because, since)

At this point in time/at the present time (now)

In the event that (if)

Until such a time as (until)

With regard to (about, regarding)

On an annual basis (yearly)

Has the ability to (can)

In spite of that fact that (although, though)

At the time that (when)

5. Also eliminate redundant phrases or terms.  Examples include:

ATM machine, ISBN number, PIN number, LCD display (ATM, ISBN, PIN, LCD)

Free/complimentary gift (gift)

Exact same (exact or same)

Twelve noon (twelve or noon)

Round in shape, brown in color, heavy in weight (round, brown, heavy)

There are hundreds more examples of this, but I’m counting on you, the reader, to provide me with them.  So, have at it: what are your least favorite redundant/wordy phrases?

And to close, a final salute to Steve Jobs.  May we all live our lives in such a way that when the rainbow wheel of death comes for us, we embrace it, because we know that the afterlife will be just like an Apple product: white, shiny, and absent of Microsoft products.

To Infinitives and Beyond!

2 Oct

I recently became engaged.  No, not in a crossword; to be married! This is a very exciting time.  And I’m proud to say that I’ve already taken up stride with all the classy brides-to-be of the past and gone absolutely sasquatch bananas.

I realized I had gone crazy when I caught myself texting my fiancé at 3:00 in the morning using the phrases “bow ties” and “so stressed out” in the same sentence.

That was when I realized I had lost sight of reality.  Bow ties are not the sort of thing to be stressed out about: suspenders are.  I mean … thick or thin?  THICK OR THIN?!  And the rest of the world thinks America doesn’t know what real hardship is.

Another aspect we have to consider are the vows.  On the one hand, there’s the classic to have and to hold, to love and to cherish, blah blah blah.  On the other hand, there are non-traditional vows, ones written by the bride and groom themselves.  Evan and I have already made a shortened version of those non-traditional vows to each other: it was on a romantic walk in the mall, outside of the Apple Store, where he swore to me that he would never wear Hawaiian-print shirts, and I swore to him that I would never wear mom jeans.  He has never hugged me harder.

But–and here comes grammar!–do you know what those phrases (to have and to hold, to love and to cherish) embedded in the traditional vows are called grammatically?  I’ll tell you.  Those are called infinitive phrases.

An infinitive phrase is simply the word to plus a verb in its simplest form. To have.  To hold.  To love.  To cherish.  Since an infinitive requires the simplest form of the verb, it would be incorrect to say “to held” or “to cherishing.”  As Dwight Schrute says in that NBC show that we’re just going to pretend ended last year like it should have, “Michael always says, ‘K-I-S-S. Keep it simple, stupid.’ Great advice; hurts my feelings every time.”

Right now, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute! Just one post ago you told me that to is a preposition! What gives?! As retribution, I am going to tell all of my friends to subscribe to your blog and leave a ton of comments!”

Well, that’s okay. You’re allowed to express your anger in whatever way you need. But you are right: to can also function as a preposition.  However, it’s easy to spot the difference: to + a noun or noun phrase = a prepositional phrase.  To the altar, to the minister, to the looney bin.  Whereas to + a verb = an infinitive phrase. To propose, to marry, to lose your mind.

Infinitive phrases can serve many roles in a sentence: the subject, the direct object, an adjective, an adverb, or a subject complement.  In this way, they’re kind of like the James Franco of sentences: they kind of do everything, but they should never host the Oscars.  Okay, at some point that analogy breaks down.

Let’s have some examples of infinitives functioning as different parts of sentences, shall we?


To play football in the NFL is my greatest ambition.

The infinitive is to play, but I’ve italicized the entire phrase because it is the whole phrase that acts as the subject of this sentence.

Direct Object:

I want to eat.

What do I want? To eat.


The only way to survive in the woods is by eating bugs, even if you’re only there for a few minutes.

To survive is an adjective because it modifies way.  Question: which way? Answer: the way to survive.


My co-worker Frank, who has eyes like topaz and skin that glitters in the sun, says if I am writing this blog to get rich and famous, I need to quit it with the Stephenie Meyer jokes.

To get rich and famous is an adverbial phrase because it modifies the verb writing.  Question: why am I writing this blog? Answer: to get rich and famous.  That’s not true, though. I’m not writing this blog to get rich and famous. I’m writing this blog to get rich and famous and maybe somehow knighted.

I’m going to leave subject complements alone for the time being.

Finally, the question on everybody’s mind: what to do about split infinitives? Also, what is a split infinitive?

A split infinitive occurs whenever a word (or phrase) is inserted between to and the verb of the infinitive phrase.  To slowly run is a split infinitive, because the word “slowly” has been inserted between to and run.

The hard and fast rule about split infinitives is this: mostly you should try to avoid them, but not necessarily.  How’s that for clarity?

I’ll say this: split infinitives are one of those things that grammarians like to argue about.  Some say the rule is antiquated and based in an irrelevant devotion to Latin, which, by the way, is not what we speak.  Others hold fast that infinitives are just like Kill Bill: they’re better as a single entity.  The argument is, for grammarians, right up there with the Oxford comma and which is the better lonely food: Stouffer’s Dinner for One or an entire carton of ice cream.

For practical purposes, I would give you this advice: in formal writing, or in assignments, be conservative.  This means (oftentimes, for the sake of your grade) avoiding split infinitives whenever possible.  However, overall, I’ll allow that occasionally splitting an infinitive with one adverb or two adverbs is not a big deal and is generally acceptable.  In fact, sometimes it makes for powerful writing.  To prove this point, many point out that the famous line from the Star Trek series–To boldly go where no man has gone before–is itself an effective split infinitive.  I respond to this the way I always do when someone gives me Star Trek-related advice: with a condescending slow clap.  And an invitation to vote on the lonely food poll.

Final summary:

1. Never create giant split infinitives. To on a cloudy afternoon following lunch run is my favorite thing is an awful sentence.  Never write a sentence like that.

2. In informal writing, go ahead and occasionally split with one or two adverbs, but only if it’s the most effective way of getting your point across.

3. In formal writing, be careful.  Avoid a split infinitive unless you are absolutely certain that the entire meaning and power of your sentence would be lost without it.  And even then, reconsider one more time.

And finally, an admonishment from me, someone looking ahead to marriage, to all of those lonely split infinitives out there: stay together for the kids.

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