Archive | May, 2012

Run On, Sentences!

21 May

The amount of money I have is directly proportional to how seriously I take expiration dates.

If I have a lot of money, I pay a lot of attention to expiration dates.  Well, I imagine that I would.  As this has never been the case, I’m going to have to imagine.  So, in this imaginary scenario where I have lots of money, if the carton is telling me that the milk expires on May 21st, then on May 21st, why, I throw out the remaining milk and go to the store and buy milk that is fresh.  And then I ride home on my jetpack and read people’s minds.  Again, this scenario is imaginary.

In real life, where I do not have very much money, I treat expiration dates with–what’s the right word here?–skepticism.  I don’t consider myself much of a conspiracy theorist (what if the Lone Gunman fired at Tupac from the moon?!) , but when I’m out of money, my thoughts about expiration dates tend to get … creative.

What IS time?!  Who decides when milk goes “bad”?  Is milk from the wrong side of town?  Did milk lack the appropriate role models growing up, and now he’s acting out?  Who are THEY to tell me when I can and can’t drink my milk?  Who are THEY to tell me that I didn’t WANT my milk to have a certain level of … density?  Nanny state!  I want my country back!  USA! USA! USA! I have to go to the hospital.

So when the most adequate descriptor for most of the food in your fridge is “congealed,” then maybe it’s time for new groceries.  My food has been around too long.

You know what else is around too long?  Run-on sentences!  As an MC Hammer impersonator with a weird speech impediment once said: “Stop. Grammar time.”

There’s a popular misconception that a run-on sentence is just a really long sentence.  That’s simply not true.  A really long sentence that is properly punctuated is perfectly acceptable.  Here is an example of a very long–but grammatically correct–sentence from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway:

“It was not to them (not to Hugh, or Richard, or even to devoted Miss Brush) the liberator of the pent egotism, which is a strong martial woman, well nourished, well descended, of direct impulses, downright feelings, and little introspective power (broad and simple–why could not every one be broad and simple? she asked) feels rise within her, once youth is past, and must eject upon some object–it may be Emigration, it may be Emancipation; but whatever it be, this object round which the essence of her soul is daily secreted, becomes inevitably prismatic, lustrous, half looking glass, half precious stone; now carefully hidden in case people should sneer at it; now proudly displayed.”

I’m not going to opine on the benefits or pit-falls of long sentences such as that.  But it’s important to note that the length of a sentence does not denote whether a sentence is a run-on or not.

Run-on sentences consist of two or more  complete sentences that have been fused together without the proper punctuation, and because of this, need to be either properly punctuated or turned into two (or more) sentences.  Here are some examples of run-on sentences:

He was a doctor he was also a father.

Sarah is a nice girl, she bakes me cookies.

Notice that while both of these sentences are rather short, they are both run-on sentences.  This is because they both contain two complete sentences that do not have the proper internal punctuation.  A complete sentence (also known as an “independent clause”) has a subject and a verb and can stand by itself–hence the term “independent.”  A little known fact is that “Miss Independent,” an early hit by Kelly Clarkson, is an homage to a clause who always swore she would be independent, but soon found herself head over heels and, next thing you know, part of a committed compound sentence.  Another little known fact: this situation was also the reason that Facebook added the “It’s Complicated” to its relationship option.  This was a compromise from the original suggestion to have the option read, “It’s Compound-Complex.”

Okay.  Back to independent clauses.  Remember: it needs a subject and a verb and to be able to make sense by itself.  If you look at the first example, you can see that it contains two independent clauses that meet these requirements:

1. He was a doctor.

2. He was also a father.

Both of these have a subject (“he”) and a verb (“was”).  They make sense by themselves.  They are independent clauses.  The same goes for the second example sentence.  Here’s how it breaks down:

1. Sarah is a nice girl.

2. She bakes me cookies.

So how do we make these sentences not be run-ons anymore?  There are several options:

1. Make them separate sentences by ending them with periods.  That option looks like this:

He was a doctor.  He was also a father.

Sarah is a nice girl.  She bakes me cookies.

2. Connect them with a comma AND a conjunction.  Conjunctions include words like and, but, so, etc.  A comma by itself does not work.  A conjunction by itself does not work.  You must have BOTH.  That option looks like this:

He was a doctor, but he was also a father.

Sarah is a nice girl, and she bakes me cookies.

3. Connect them with a semicolon.  You can read more about semicolons here, but for our current purposes, know that a semicolon is a strong as a period to hold two independent clauses together.  That option looks like this:

He was a doctor; he was also a father.

Sarah is a nice girl; she bakes me cookies.

These options work no matter how long your sentences are.  As long as you’ve treated each independent clause appropriately (making sure that it is connected to the next independent clause in one of those ways), you’ll be fine.  As far as choosing HOW to fix your run-ons: that all depends on your writing style and what makes sense/sounds the best for that specific sentence.

Also, based on reader feedback on my shocking reveal about “Miss Independent,” my assistant has been trying to reach a representative for Destiny’s Child to confirm whether their 2000 hit “Independent Women, Pt. 1” was also an homage to independent clauses, but so far, the only information my assistant has been able to bring back is, “Destiny’s Child is not a band anymore; also, I’m not your assistant, I’m the assistant manager at this Subway.  Do you want white or wheat?”  We have such a rapport, my assistant and I!

This Post Needs (To Be) Read

4 May

I received a late-night text message from a friend last week.  It said something like, “Is it grammatically incorrect to say something ‘needs done’?  Shouldn’t it actually says something ‘needs to be done’?”

I didn’t respond to the text immediately because I had an epiphany.

“Oh my dog,” I thought, dyslexically.  “I might not be cool.”

Let’s review the facts: I’m young, unmarried, and childless.  I have a Mac.  I can wear ironic sweatshirts that say things like “Born to Bingo,” and it’s still almost okay. I live just 650 miles outside of New York City (the rent is much cheaper out here in what I choose to believe are the NYC ‘burbs.  Boy, look at me, just pushing my opinions on you.  I am such a New Yorker!  Aren’t the Knicks such a skilled basketball club?).

So when I get a late night text message, it should say something like, “Hey, want to go hit up that new rave club and smoke on glow sticks?” or “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas … except the diseases I got.  Those are coming with me!  Hashtag Instagram!”

But instead, I get late night text messages with grammar questions.  And a few days after that text message, I found myself in another shameful situation: it was around midnight on Friday, and I was at a friend’s apartment.  We were trying to decide whether we should stay up and watch another episode of Grey’s Anatomy, or if we should just go to bed.  We starting hashing out the pros and cons of each decision, until my friend’s mom (who was also there, if that adds to the cool, hip factor) looked at us with what I think was disgust, and said, “Oh my gosh.  It’s Friday night.  Watch an episode of your show.”

When you’ve gotten to the point that your “crazy Friday night” option–that you have to be talked into by somebody’s mother–is watching an old episode of Grey’s Anatomy in your pajamas, then you’re in a very sad state.  And I’m not talking about New Jersey!

So what do you do when you realize you may not be cool?  You prove the haters wrong!  You see that late night grammar text message, you digest its implications, and you decide to react in the coolest way possible: you put on sunglasses and a backwards visor, open your computer, and start typing on your grammar blog.

As a reminder, the question at hand deals with sentences that say things like, “These dishes need washed” or “The dog needs walked.”  I’d never heard that kind of sentence construction in Illinois, but it’s rampant in Indiana and Ohio.  The first time I heard someone talk like that–an intelligent person, just saying stupid stuff like it was fine–I threw up all over them.  Just all over their body.

After we cleaned up the mess, I laughed, and said, “Do you realize what you said?  Didn’t you mean that it ‘needs to be done’?  Don’t you feel so dumb?”  The person looked at me in total confusion.  She saw nothing wrong with what she had said, and said that everyone talked like that.

I started noticing it everywhere after that.  Generally, folks from Illinois on west don’t use that sentence construction.  Linguists theorize over its origin; Barbara Johnstone of Carnegie Mellon calls it “infinitive copula deletion.”  Basically, people who talk like this are deleting the “to be” from sentences that use the verbs needs, wants, and likes.  Instead of, “The room needs to be cleaned,” people who speak like this say, “The room needs cleaned.”  Instead of “The cat wants to be fed,” they say, “The cat wants fed.”

To people in the Indiana to Pennsylvania region (especially), this construction sounds completely normal.  To people outside of that region, it sounds insane.

Unfortunately, while there’s a lot of postulating and theorizing about the nature of this construction, there isn’t a hard and fast rule about it.  The “needs + past participle” construction (and that’s what this is) comes from the Scots-Irish, and it’s just a dialectical oddity.

The practical rule is this: if you’re in a region (say, writing a cover letter or interviewing for a job) that doesn’t use this strange sentence construction, avoid it.  You do need to know that when people who have never heard somebody say something “needs washed,” they react very poorly to it.  I’ve heard it so often over the past 7 years in Indiana and Ohio that I’ve even caught myself saying it.  The first time I said it–with complete nonchalance–around Evan, he looked at me in horror and then, just like he ought to have, stabbed me in the stomach with a sword.  I deserved it.

If you’re from a region where you hear this kind of construction used all the time, I’m not going to stop you.  You might not even realize that this is a dialectical pattern that most of the United States doesn’t use.  I would just caution you that if you’re ever in a position where you’re trying to impress anybody–and you don’t know their views on infinitive copula deletion (though I don’t know why you wouldn’t; it’s always the first question I ask at dinner parties, and that is why I am a popular person)–use your infinitives.  Adding that little “to be” in there will make all the difference to a non-Midwesterner.

But look at me, prattling on and on like a New Yorker.  If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go take public transportation (along with an aggrandized sense of geographical self-importance) into the city I call my home.

I do have an 11 1/2 hour commute, so if you want to call me or text me about the latest young people parties, please do.  I’ve been looking to go to one of those Project X get-togethers and to take some pudding shots, but only if there will be DJs spinning hip-hop records and sporting ears with multiple piercings.

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