Archive | January, 2012

Gotta Keep ‘Em Hyphenated

30 Jan

A couple of weeks ago, we talked about how to correctly use the dash.  This week, we’ll be talking about the dash’s little brother, the hyphen.  The hyphen is to the dash what the iPod shuffle is to the 80 gb., what a mini-horse is to a regular-sized horse, or what a baby bug-eyed lemur from Sweden is to Amanda Seyfriend.

The hyphen is trickier than a pimp-magician.  Most of its rules are situational, and scholars often disagree on when hyphens should or should not be used.  However, there are some guidelines you can follow to keep this tricky vixen in its proper place.

The Hyphen (-)

The hyphen’s primary duty is to join things together.  In this way, it is much like the man we are having officiate our wedding, Reverend Bungee Cord.  The problem is when a hyphen is necessary and when it is not.  Here are some guidelines:

1. Use the hyphen to join a compound adjective when it precedes a noun, but not when it follows it.  A compound adjective is simply an adjective that is made up of two or more parts.  For example: two-headed, quick-witted, one-way.

I used hyphens in that list for clarity’s sake, but in general, you only need the hyphen if the compound adjective precedes the noun.  For example, you would use the hyphen if you wanted to say, “I ran down the one-way street.”  However, you would not use a hyphen in a sentence like, “The street was one way.”

This is more of a rule of thumb than anything.  Some words are automatically hyphenated, such as part-time and full-time.  And when you’re dealing with more than two modifiers (for example, mother-in-law), my opinion is that the hyphen only helps.  But this is where good judgment and a good dictionary will come in handy.  Of course, by that, I mean dictionary.com.  Everyone knows the only use for a real dictionary is so that you can take a picture of your wedding rings on top of the entry for “love.”  Your ideas are original, brides of America!

2. Use a hyphen to join a prefix to a proper noun (a noun that must automatically be capitalized).  For example:

I am pro-United States of America, but anti-United Arab Emirates, because I always accidentally click on the latter when choosing what country I come from on a list.

As you can see, just because the nouns modified (United States of American and United Arab Emirates) are capitalized, pro and anti do not need to be capitalized.  They just need to be joined via the hyphen.

3. Also use a hyphen to join a single-letter prefix to a word.  Examples include O-Town and X-Ray.  The former is the greatest boy band of all time, and the latter was the medical device that diagnosed* me with a broken heart when I found out that Ashley Parker Angel would not be joining them for their reunion tour.

*This is not the medical use of an x-ray machine.

4. Use a hyphen to write out numbers of twenty-one to ninety-nine.  A nice way to remember this is by the classic children’s rhyme:

Twenty-one to ninety-nine

Get your drink and stand and line,

Because this is the time you can imbibe

in double digits–party time!

But you probably won’t live that long because life expectancy in the United States is 78.1 years according to most recent available data, and it might be better to spend your time drafting a will than doing Jager Bombs,

and Bingo was his name-o.

5. Don’t use a hyphen after an adverb that ends in -ly.  For example, phrases like swiftly tilting planet, badly drawn boy, or vaguely familiar concept would not be hyphenated.

The hyphen is a great little piece of punctuation.  Even though its rules can sometimes be hard to pin down, its great power is in its ability to bring things together.  In that way, it is nearly as powerful as the strongest bond of all: love.  Also, superglue-human-centipede.

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Email Etiquette: Part One :) :) :)

24 Jan

I used to be very expressive in my emails.  I found an email recently that I wrote to a friend in high school, a friend with whom I was very angry but didn’t want to, you know, tell.  The reason I know that I was angry is because I changed my settings so that I was typing with gray font on a black background.  And–this is the kicker–I used the font Impact.

I’m toying with a similar idea for wedding invitations I have to send to people I don’t actually want to attend my wedding.  These black and gray, Impact-touting numbers will be in stark contrast to the regular invitations, which will be typed in Comic Sans MS, and the invitations sent to fans of Dan Brown, which will be typed in Windings.

Today, we are going to briefly discuss proper etiquette when emailing a professor.

1. Unless you have a good reason not to, assume that your professor doesn’t know who you are.  This means that you should provide your first and last name, and the class you have with him (including the name and section of the class, the time, and whether it is a MWF or TTH class).  Even though you know his name, to him, there is a good chance that you are Shoulders-And-Head-Above-A-Mac-Version #86.

Don’t take this advice if you, like me, are in a graduate program with only 12 other students and are in constant personal and virtual contact with your professors.  There is no need for me to sign my emails as: “Riane, that girl who always sits in the middle-back-right area of the 9 classes we’ve had together, with whom you eat dinner each Wednesday, and who is the godmother (both fairy and regular) to your children.”

However, even if you know a professor well (or think you do), it is still a good idea to state the class to which your email refers.  Professors are busy people.  Those elbow patches aren’t going to sew on themselves!

2. Use a standard font.  The only reason that fonts like Comic Sans MS exist is to predict which people will be wearing over-sized Disney-themed sweatshirts well into their 40s.  The correlation is startling.

3. In general, the email should fit within a page view, meaning that no scrolling is required.  There’s a good chance that if your issue takes that long to discuss, it would be better to set up a meeting and talk about it in person.  Also, people tend to ignore things that are too long.  It’s a little known fact, but FDR was so ignored by the end of his fourth term that his final speeches were all just variations on: “Hey.  HEY.  HEY!  GUYS!  Hey GUYS!!  Okay, that’s it, I’m going to fake polio.”

4. No emoticons.  No hearts.  No smiley faces, wincey faces, angry faces, or money faces.  No long-stemmed roses you created using just your keypad.  It’s just like the obnoxious influx of movies about superheroes nobody cares about: just because you can make it doesn’t mean we want to see it.

5. Don’t use a lot of slang, words like “um,” or unnecessary ellipses.  If you need to email your friends in the sort of dragging, uncertain way that “um”s and ellipses, create, go ahead.  But professors don’t have time to weed through your verbal loitering.  After all, those elbow patches aren’t going to sew–wait, really?  I already did?  Anyway, professors are busy with classes and grading and stuff, so clean up your emails.

6. Sign-off “Thanks, name” or just with your name.  Do not sign off with overly-descriptive adverbs such as “remorsefully” or “haphazardly.”  Also, it is best to not use any phrase that may have graced your middle school yearbook, such as LYLAS; love always; keep in touch; or dogs bark, ducks quack, I’m the one who signed your crack, but seriously, please let me know if you could bump my final grade up to a C.

7. This should go without saying, but use spellcheck and grammar check. If you don’t know your professor well, this may be her first or only impression of you.  And if you are asking for some sort of favor, extension, or advice, bad grammar and spelling are going to really hurt your chances.  If your email provider doesn’t come with a spellcheck/grammar check option (and most do, if you look around), copy and paste your email into a Word document.

Respect your professors’ time and don’t make them wade through problem emails.  My impression from the movies is that professors already have a lot to worry about, such as using large chalkboards to manically solve the mathematical mysteries of the world, or, even worse, worrying about their 3-minute long classes where as soon as they start lecturing, the bell rings, and they have to shout out the next week’s assignment to the students as they rush out of the classroom.  Happens every time.

Dash-ing Through the Snow

15 Jan

I was born in California, but I lived there only until I was two, which is why I think the whole “California” thing didn’t really stick to me.  The sole reason I am not a Katy Perry fan is because I take issue with her song “California Girls.”  I believe that a much more accurate chorus to that song would go something like:

California girls,

they’re really pale and white.

They get sun-poisoning

even just listening to “Here Comes the Sun.”

Daisy Dukes

are a reference to an old TV show

and not something

they’d put on their body.

Whoa, oh, oh, etc, and then I divorce Russell Brand.

Where I’m really from is the Midwest.  I love the Midwest.  I grew up and spent most of my life outside of Chicago, I did my undergraduate in Indiana, I worked in Wisconsin over the summers, and now I’m in graduate school in Ohio.  The Midwest is my oyster … except that I’m from the Midwest, so I don’t trust food from the sea or other countries, so I should rephrase: the Midwest is my piece of butter deep-fried in more butter fried in a caucus fried in a suburban parent’s tears.

The weather goes like this in the Midwest: spring makes a brief appearance, about for as long as that show based on the Geico cavemen.  Then summer is very hot and humid.  Then there is fall.  Sometimes, it gets HOT again in fall, and that’s crazy.  But then it goes back to being fall-like, and that, somehow, is also crazy to us.

Then there’s winter.  Winter is long and cold and snowy and somehow has the magic power of, no matter how many times we have experienced it, managing to shock the ever-loving crap out of us.  Because the one thing that Midwesterners love, above all, even above secretly fearing foreign cultures, like the Middle East, or The Village in New York, is being shocked by the weather they experience every year.

My Facebook is inundated right now by people who think that the best use of their time and statuses is to let all of their friends know that they have noticed that it is snowing.  I also try to use my Facebook to point out other bits of common Midwest knowledge, like, “The Bears are the football team from Chicago!” or “Everyone who lives West of the Rockies is possessed by demons!”

And it’s not just this year, where the snow came later than usual.  It’s every year.  “I have noticed that it is cold outside,” we have to say to each other.  “I, too, have noticed that it is freezing,” we reply.  “That sure is what the weather is!  I am surprised because it is winter, and the winter is producing winter-like weather.”

I should admit now that I have no transition from this rant, which is about snow, to the topic, which is about dashes, except to re-reference the title, which is Dash-ing Through the Snow.

So.  Here we go!

The dash is my favorite piece of punctuation.  I overuse it the way that Midwesterners overuse … their statuses … to talk about snow.  Shoot, that actually would have been the perfect transition.

Today, we’re going to talk about the differences between an en dash and an em dash. The uses of each of these deserve any entire post, and those may come in the future, so this will be a brief overview.

The Hyphen (-)

I mention this because THE HYPHEN IS NOT A DASH.  The hyphen is the tiniest horizontal line on your keyboard.  Its uses are nuanced enough that it also deserves its own post, but for now, know that for any of the uses I am about to discuss for the em and the en dash, a HYPHEN SHOULD NEVER BE USED.

The En Dash (–)

The en dash has its name because it is about the size of the letter n.  On a Mac, the En Dash can be created by hitting the Option Key + the Dash key.  On a PC, type ALT + 0150. Here are its uses and rules:

1. Used for periods of time when it can replace the word to.  For example:

Lebron James was at least sort of a respectable athlete from 2003–2010.

Hey, Midwest, it can pretty much snow from October–April.  Prepare yourselves.

2. Used instead of a hyphen (which creates simple compounds) when combining open compounds, which are basically compound words with spaces in them.  For example:

The New York–Pennsylvania border is the border where the Midwesterner stops trusting.

3. There should be no space before or after the en dash.  It touches both words.

The Em Dash (—)

Similar to the en dash, the em dash got its name because it is about the size of the letter m.  On most computers, if you type two consecutive hyphens and have the letter of the next word immediately follow, as soon as you hit the space bar, the hyphens should join to create the em dash.  If your computer does not do this, on a Mac, type Option + Shift + Dash button.  On a PC, type Alt +0151.  When I say that I love dashes, it’s the em dash that I’m talking about.  Here’s how this beauty works.

1. An em dash indicates an abrupt change in thought.

Gossip Girl really isn’t—oh, never mind.

2. An em dash—and this is how I most often use it—can indicate an interruption.  That previous sentence is an example.  The em dash there is serving the same purpose as a pair of parentheses, but the tone is slightly more abrupt.  It also allows the interruption to be more tied to the sentence than an interruption cased in parentheses might.  The em dash is the perfect middle ground when a comma or parenthesis would be too weak, but a period or a semicolon would be too strong.

2. An em dash can (sparingly) replace parentheses, pairs of commas, or a semicolon.

I have a friend—Johnny Dogood—you may be interested in meeting.  (A pair of parentheses or a pair of commas could also be used in this case.)

I go to the gym—she goes to Jim’s.  Jim’s is the name of another gym. (A semicolon could replace the em dash here.)

While these uses are fine in informal writing, in general, it is best to use the conventional punctuation mark (the pair of commas or the semicolon) in formal writing—unless you have a very good reason for using the em dash.  For example, I just chose to use that em dash because it indicated a quick, but pointed aside.

3. As with the en dash, there should be no space on either side of the em dash.

Like I said before: a hyphen should NOT BE USED IN PLACE OF THE EN DASH OR THE EM DASH.  It is not the same thing.  We’ll cover hyphens more in-depth later on, but for now, just know that they would not be used in the examples I gave above.

I was going to stick to the Katy Perry theme and write some grammatically-updated lyrics to “Your Love Is My Drug,” but I just found out that Ke$ha sings that song, not Katy Perry.  Clearly, I don’t know much about popular music, but my understanding of Ke$ha is that “your love” is probably the street name for what I can only assume is a dangerous cocktail of Sudafed, calcified regret, clumps of greasy hair, and a Depression-era fear of keeping her money in a bank … which is why she stores it in her name.

Misplaced Modifiers (And Car Hoods)

9 Jan

I have a tendency to hyperbolize.  I’ve been told by some that this makes me seem dishonest, but I like to believe that I just experience the world so very deeply that it is impossible for me to describe a peanut butter sandwich as anything but either “the best thing I have ever encountered; it tastes like angel tears mixed with baby coos mixed with the first time you finally get The Beatles” or “this sandwich is a travesty on par with human trafficking.”

Because of this tendency to react strongly to everything, I was surprised at my reaction when the hood flew off of my interstate-driving-70MPH speeding-in four lanes of traffic-car.  The reaction was this: nothing.  The hood crashed into my windshield, snapped off the hinges, and flew into the great beyond behind my car, where it should have killed someone.  But I didn’t scream.  I didn’t swear.  I didn’t swerve.  I drove on for about five seconds, in some form of shock, until I realized that my car was driving without its undergarments on, and so to save it from a Britney Spears-like paparazzi incident, I pulled over.

I didn’t think it was possible for my white 1998 Camry with a gas tank that doesn’t open unless you rig it to get any classier.  It turns out that the one way to do this is to drive a white 1998 Camry with a gas tank that doesn’t open unless you rig it … with a black hood.  I can’t afford to paint it, so I look like an impressionist painter’s version of a cop car.

A black hood doesn’t belong on a white car.  Maybe that’s not very progressive of me, but there it is.  The hood functions, but it sticks out.  And–here comes the transition!–the same is true with misplaced modifiers.

A modifier is sort of a catch-all term.  Basically, a modifier is a word or phrase that describes something else.  The number one rule about the modifier is that it needs to be as close as possible to the word that it is modifying.  Therefore, a misplaced modifier is a word or phrase that is improperly separated from the word it modifies.

There are funny examples of the mix-ups that misplaced modifiers can cause all over the World Wide Internets.  People write things like, “For sale: oak chairs by a lady in Oak Park with thick legs.”  Everyone laughs.  The problem is a misplaced modifier.  The modifier “with thick legs” is meant to describe the oak chairs, so those two phrases need to be next to each other.  The corrected version would read: “For sale: oak chairs with thick legs by a lady in Oak Park.”

There are all kinds of misplaced modifiers: squinting modifiers, dangling modifiers, misplaced modifiers that result from the improper placement of the adjectives only, just, nearly, merely, and almost.  This post touches on that last topic (specifically with the words just and only, but the same principles apply to the other words).  Squinting and dangling modifiers will be the topic of another post.  This post is focused on the basics.  I’ll give a few more examples so you know what you should be looking for in your own writing.

Incorrect: On the way home, Jack found a leather man’s coat. (This sounds like Jack found the coat of a leather man.  Perhaps someone from The Jersey Shore.)

Correct: On the way home, Jack found a man’s leather coat. (Leather is modifying coat; therefore, it needs to be NEXT to the word coat!)

Incorrect: We ate the dinner that we had bought slowly.  (Unless this sentence is trying to say that we actually took a very long time to buy our dinner, it’s misleading.)

Correct: We slowly ate the dinner that we had bought. (Slowly is now next to the word it is supposed to modify: ate.)

Incorrect: They bought a fish for my sister they call Mr. Swimmy-pants. (This is incorrect, although I have heard it rumored that Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow are thinking of naming their next daughter Mr. Swimmy-pants.)

Correct: They bought a fish they call Mr. Swimmy-pants for my sister.

Incorrect: The teacher said on Monday that she would return our homework. (This is a problem sentence because it is unclear.  It could mean two different things.  Correct it to clarify.)

Possibility #1: On Monday, the teacher said that she would return our homework.  (This is what you would use if you wanted to say that it was on Monday that the teacher made this announcement.)

Possibility #2: The teacher said that she would return our homework on Monday. (This is what you would use if you meant that the teacher had told the class that homework would be returned to them on Monday.)

See?  It’s relatively simple.  But once sentences get longer and longer, the easier it is to misplace a modifier and cause massive confusion.  As with a lot of problems, there’s only one way to catch this: proofread.  And by that, I mean read your writing yourself, and then have a partner read it.  If a partner isn’t available, read your work out loud.  And then quit whining and find a partner anyway.  If misplaced modifiers turn out to be a big problem for you, highlight the prepositional phrases in your sentences, and go sentence by sentence making sure that your modifiers are next to the words they are supposed to be modifying.  If you don’t, then those misplaced modifiers will stick out like a black hood on a white car, or like a a sensible plot in a Nicolas Cage movie, whichever you prefer.

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