Tag Archives: Sentence (linguistics)

Marvel Presents: Sentence Fragments vs. The Avengers

28 Oct

Some things just belong together.  Just ask Jake Johnson, a guy who thinks he is parody-ing Jack Johnson by changing the words to his songs slightly.

I experienced the ultimate coming-together movie (that is, if you don’t count Human Centipede) last night: The Avengers.  This has been a long time coming.  I myself am not a big fan of superhero movies.  For me, the real heroes are those Greek sandwiches.  Oh, and those guys who star in the Cialias commercials.

Evan, on the other hand, is … how do I put this nicely? …. a huge nerd.  [Note: Evan just read this and said, “I’m really more of a geek.”  So … I rest my case.]  He didn’t get to watch all of the movies leading up to The Avengers when they were in theaters, so he’s been watching them lately, and mostly in secret, away from my judging eyes and judging words (like, “I’m judging you!” and “Order in the court!”).  Because he is being sneaky about it, he has had to watch these movies in installments, and that means that it took me a few days to figure out that the “documentary on Norse mythology” that he was watching was actually Thor, starring Chris Hemsworth (or, as his fellow Mermen like to call him, “The L’Oreal Sand King”).

The Avengers basically goes like this: an evil Rubix cube is threatening to release enough energy to destroy earth.  Thor’s (and, based on the hair line, also Paul Ryan’s) half-brother “Loco Loki the Dirty River Eel King” steals Moses’ staff and sneers a lot, so you know he’s bad.  Nick Fury is apparently a good guy, but it’s hard to tell because he didn’t have his own movie before, and also, he never says that line about the snakes on the plane, so it’s a bit of a let down.  Regardless, the universe is in trouble because of the Tesla-glowbox, so obviously, all of the greatest superheroes in American folklore must assemble.  You know … Superman … Spiderman … Batman … wait.

Instead of superheroes I KNOW, we get … Hawkeye?  The Black Widow?  Folks, the only superpower Scarlett Johansson has is the ability to inspire hatred in all women.  And I’ll let you in on a little secret: Dr. Bruce Banner’s degree is actually an honorary DFA from Strayer University.  So.

Anyway, they all meet up, and, as you would expect, all of the sudden I’m a part of the movie, only I can’t move my legs, so I have to army crawl out of a Victoria’s Secret without letting the displays (which are disguised as chalkboards) catch me, which is a real bummer, because an army of red ants (who I just kind of understand  are actually my former elementary school teachers, but they’re still ants, but I just kind of get it) has kidnapped my sister and they keep saying that they’ll give her back if I can “throttle the moment.”

Full disclosure: I may have slept through most of this movie.

But there’s one thing that The Avengers did teach me, I think: you’ve got to have all superpower cylinders firing if you’re going to destroy the Blacklight Tetris Square.  Without just one of them (unless one died while I was asleep), I imagine, the film’s (I’m assuming positive?) ending (I’m assuming the movie did end?) would not have worked (I’m assuming it all worked out and audiences were pleased with its conclusion?).  Look, throw me a bone.  I’m trying to move from The Avengers to sentence fragments.  You need all the pieces, blah blah blah.

Sentence fragments.

Most simply, a sentence fragment is a group of words who are trying to be a sentence, but who lack the ingredients necessary to make a sentence: namely, a subject and a verb.

Let’s get imperatives out of the way.  An imperative is a verb that commands someone to do something.  “Stop!” or “Duck!” are imperatives.  They don’t have to follow sentence rules: “Stop!” (as a command) is a full sentence, because the “you” is implied when an imperative is used.  However, unless you are a writer on an old-timey cop show, you generally skip out on saying things like, “Stop, you!” or “You there, stop!”  Writers on modern police shows have much less actual dialogue to worry about, in part because they can drop the implied “you,” and in part because Stage Direction: (Pulls out Taser) really puts a leash on the creative process.

[Little known fact: “Taser?  I hardly KNOW her!” is a hilarious joke that is not appreciated by a policemen in pursuit of a female subject.]

I’ve run into a lot of students who think that a sentence fragment is just a really short sentence.  This is not necessarily true.  I ate, while quite short, is a complete sentence.  I am is also a complete sentence.  I was eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch is a complete sentence, and as long as you have a banana, an apple, a slice of toast, a bowl of oatmeal, a glass of milk, a multi-vitamin, protein shake and a mineral enema along with it, it’s also part of this complete breakfast.

Sometimes, fragments get lost in proofreading.  I happy is obviously a fragment, because it is missing a verb.  You could fix this by adding a verb: I was happy or I became happy would complete the sentence.  You could also say I hate Happy if you believe that that smug dog on 7th Heaven needs to be knocked down a few levels.  You look like what my dryer leaves behind after a load of whites, Happy.  No one cares that you’re starring as yourself.

The same goes if you forget a subject.  Running away is a fragment because there is no subject.  In the fields, at dusk is a sentence fragment that, though it has nouns, does not have a subject OR a verb.

But sentence fragments can be more than sentences you just forgot to finish writing, or sentences you were writing while pretending to listen to a friend on the phone.  (“Uh huh … uh huh … no, I’m listening … right, you’re so right, it’s ridiculous that the Gregorian chant is a form of monophonic liturgical music … no, of course, you deserve better”).

So let me open up a can of worms and only let a worm or two escape: a sentence can have nouns and (what appear to be) verbs and STILL NOT HAVE A SUBJECT OR A VERB.  What?!  This is crazier than [that plot twist in The Avengers] when [Thor was Norse the whole time? Hawkeye is Keyser Soze?)!

If you write a sentence that is a dependent clause only, then you have written a sentence fragment.  Dependent clauses often start with words like because, although, however, or if (to name a few).  You can’t get away with writing “Because she was tired.”  That is a sentence fragment, even though it looks like it has a subject (she) and a verb (was).  Those are objects of a dependent clause and are not strong enough to be the subject and the verb.  Plus, you can almost hear it: Because she was tired sounds weak.  It leads you to think–almost subconsciously–she did WHAT because she was tired?  Or she’s feeling WHAT because she was tired?

That’s because a dependent clause needs a strong independent clause on which to rely.  You might write something as simple as “She fell asleep because she was tired,” and boom, your problem is solved.  You’ve got a subject (she) and a verb (fell asleep).  You’ve got the important ingredients for a sentence, and you’ve defeated the dreaded sentence fragment.

Just like (I imagine!) the heroes defeated the villain in that movie I definitely watched in its entirety, The Avengers!  The one thing that I know after totally watching all of that movie is that I’m looking forward to more spin-offs.  From what I gathered from the part of the movie I was awake for, the premise is basically to get as many random match-ups as possible in two hours.  I imagine that the script to The Avengers pretty much just reads: Whoa, what would happen if The Hulk and Thor got in a fight?!  What about Ironman and Captain America?!  What about Ironman and HIS OWN EGO?!

Let’s get real, guys.  The last time I saw that many unnecessary combinations I was at a family photo shoot at a wedding.

“Okay, okay.  Now, for this one, we’re gonna want to get all of the cousins on the bride’s side who have HAD ORTHODONTIC WORK DONE.  One more time, cousins on the bride’s side who have HAD BRACES.  Cousins without braces, stand to the side, you’re gonna go ahead and hop in on the next one.  It’s going to be you guys plus bridesmaids who tried to hem their own dresses and are hoping the bride won’t notice.  You’re going to put these pictures in frames.”

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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!

vs.

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.

Incorrect:

“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.)

Correct:

“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?

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?

Subject:

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.

Adjective:

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.

Adverb:

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.

Questions! Questions?

16 Sep

When I first met my boyfriend, we were 13 years old, and his favorite hobby was coming up with pick-up lines.

One day, after church, he purchased a can of Crush from a vending machine and placed it on my head, declaring, “I have a Crush on you.”

That same year, he found (I say “found” to try to ignore the fact that I am almost certain that he probably owned this) a trading card of the alien life-force “The Thing,” and handed it to me, saying, “I’ve got a Thing for you.”

His favorite pick-up line, though, which I have had the pleasure over the years of hearing him deliver to many women, went like this:

“I’m going to ask you a question, and I want a yes or no answer. If I asked you to kiss me, would you answer me with the same answer to this question?”

Say what you will, but I maintain that the real reason that it took me about ten years to actually start dating this guy was because I spent the entire time trying to figure out that stupid pick-up line, and, once I *did* figure it out, trying to figure out why he would use it.

So today, we’re going to talk about questions, question marks, and why your accidental overuse of them in your writing sometimes makes you sound like a high school girl.

A basic sentence that ends with a question mark is called an interrogative sentence.  We’re used to these.

Why did Stephenie Meyer write so many bad books? is an example of an interrogative sentence.  It asks a question and ends with a question mark.

A tag question takes a statement (or a declarative sentence) and turns it into an interrogative sentence.  Again, pretty simple.

Riane, you read all the Twilight books, though, didn’t you? is an example where the question tag “didn’t you” makes the entire sentence interrogative.  Therefore, it ends with a question mark.  Won’t he? Shouldn’t she? Don’t they? are other common examples of tags you might see at the end of tagged sentences.

Tags can also come in the middle of a sentence, and when they do, the sentence should still end with a question mark.

It’s a little ridiculous, isn’t it, that you won’t leave me alone about this whole Twilight thing? is an example where the tag (isn’t it) comes in the middle of the sentence, and therefore makes the whole sentence interrogative.

An indirect question is probably where I see the most mistakes made, even with good writers.  The following are examples of indirect questions:

I wonder if everyone reading this blog has caught on to the intense shame I feel about reading Twilight.

I asked respected friends if they could ever trust me again.

I wonder if Stephenie Meyer knows that Bella Swan is one of the most simpering, lip-biting, literarily narrow-minded characters in the history of–and I use this term loosely–literature.

These sentences all start with phrases that indicate a question–I wonder, I asked.  These sentences, however, DO NOT END WITH QUESTION MARKS.  Even though a question is implied, the sentences themselves are straightforward and declarative.  “I wonder ____.”  “I asked ____.”  These are statements.  End sentences like them with periods.

The last tricky area comes when quotation marks or titles of books, songs, movies, etc., are involved.

The primary thing to remember here is that you should NEVER add a question mark inside quotation marks if it is not part of the title.  Never.  “The Road Less Traveled” is a poem by Robert Frost.

An interrogative sentence about that poem would read:

Have you read “The Road Less Traveled”?

Since it is an interrogative sentence, we know a question mark is necessary.  But the space inside of the quotation marks is sacred.  Leave it alone.  Hey–I said leave it alone.

The same goes when a statement in quotation marks takes place inside of an interrogative sentence.  Quotation marks preserve whatever is inside them in its original form.  They are like the Cling Wrap (TM) of punctuation.

So, say you said to me, “Riane, I think you should seek counseling about your Twilight bitterness.”

If I put that into my own sentence, it might read:

How dare you say, “Riane, I think you should seek counseling about your Twilight bitterness”?

Note that the question mark is NOT inside the quotation marks.  Your original sentence was a statement.  I leave it alone.  It’s MY sentence that’s the question, and so the question mark goes outside.

And that, dudes and girl dudes, is a brief reflection on the question mark.  A related fun fact I learned recently is that the punctuation mark ?! (which, by the way, should never be used in formal writing) is called the interrobang.

Part of me thinks that this is an awesome name.  The other part of me just feels like it’s something that happens in detective agencies that could get you fired.

All the Whoms Down in Whomville

6 Sep

The first time that I called someone who answered her phone correctly, I thought I had dialed the wrong number.

Hello?

Hi. This is Riane. Is Kelly there?

This is she.

[long pause]

What?

This is she.

[long pause]

There are so many long pauses in this conversation because I kept waiting for her to finish the sentence: This is She … ila.  You have the wrong number.  Please try calling Kelly again; she will answer and say, “This is her” and not sound like she has a stick up her asterisk.  

Kelly was correct, though.  No matter how dated or overly proper “This is she” may sound, it is the correct choice.  To understand why, refer back to last week’s posting on subjective and objective pronouns. The she vs. her/he vs. him discussion (which we began last week) provides the perfect transition into this week’s more difficult pronoun problem: who vs. whom.

The rules are ALMOST the same for deciding between who and whom as they are for deciding between him and he (or she and her).  There is a slight difference, which I’ll explain later.

The backbone of this discussion goes like this:

1. Who is the subjective pronoun, just like she and he are.

2. Whom is the objective pronoun, just like him and her.

Here are some example sentences where the subjective pronoun–who–is needed.

1. Who is this?

Remember, the root of subjective is subject.  Is who the subject (the acting pronoun) of the sentence?  It doesn’t matter if it’s a statement or if it’s a question, like the example is.  If you rearrange the sentence (rearranging sentences makes it much easier to determine whether you’re dealing with a subject or an object), it reads “This is who.”  Who is the subject.  Case closed.

2. My brother, who is running for President, can eat ten pounds of jelly beans in one sitting.

This time, we’ve got a who clause in the middle of the sentence.  Deal with these clauses by themselves.  That means ignoring the rest of the sentence–we are only looking at who is running for President.  This is an example where replacing who with he or him to test our hypothesis helps.  He/she and who always go together (they are all subjects), and him/her and whom always go together (they are all objects).  Often, just subbing in him or he will help you decide if you should choose who or whom.

So in our example sentence, using substitution, you would ask yourself if  he is running for President or him is running for president makes more sense.  The obvious answer is he, and since we’ve already decided that he and who go together (just like whom and him go together), the answer is who.

It sometimes helps me to think of Who as an actual person; in the example sentence, then, I think of Who as a little stick figure with a winning smile.  He is a real guy, with feelings and hopes and aspirations.  Who, which is the name of our stick figure friend, is running for president.

Whom

So far, I’ve probably just provided grammatical justification for what you’re already doing: using who no matter what, because whom sounds less like a real word that real people use, and more like a sound you make when you get punched in the stomach.  (The first rule of Grammar Club is that we don’t talk about Grammar Club; also, if you are Brad Pitt, no shirts allowed.)

But sometimes, the right answer is whom.  Here are some examples.

1. You are the one whom I despise.

Remember, take the phrase by itself and ignore the rest of the sentence.  Here, we’re just looking at whom I despise.  As before, flip it around: I despise whom.  I is the subject–it is doing the despising; whom is the object–it is receiving the despising.

Try replacing it with he or him, and see which makes sense: I despise he or I despise him.  If him is the answer (and it is), then whom is the answer.

2. For whom is the letter intended?

Flip the sentence around.  The letter is intended for … whom.  For is the preposition (again, we discussed these briefly last week), and whom is the object of that preposition.  Again, the he/him trick would work here.

A Tricky Reminder

Now here’s an example that may throw you off.

Everybody knows who/whom was responsible for the mural of Charlie from The Mighty Ducks painted on the ice arena’s wall.

If you looked quickly at this sentence, you might guess that whom is the correct answer here.  At first, it looks correct: Everybody is the subject, knows is the verb, and therefore, whom must be the object, you might think.  Whom would appear to be receiving the knowing action that comes from the subject Everybody.

But if you’ll remember, you must look at who/whom clauses and phrases INDEPENDENT of the rest of the sentence.  Pull it out, and ignore everything else.  In this example, we’re looking only at who/whom was responsible.  We don’t care what comes before it, and we don’t care what comes after it.  In this case, now we’ve got a short, simple clause: who is responsible.  Subject, verb, predicate adjective.  Test it out with the substitution trick: is it he is responsible or him is responsible?

The correct sentence therefore reads:

Everybody knows who was responsible for the mural of Charlie from The Mighty Ducks painted on the ice arena’s wall.

The three things you should take from this:

1. Always isolate the who/whom clause.

2. Rearrange the clause if necessary.

3. Substitute he/him to test your hypothesis.

3a. Do you think that the mural was from The Mighty Ducks 1, 2, or 3?  I really feel like the one of most cinematic importance was D2, because that film truly contained all the aspects of an important sports movie: musical training montages, difficult to come by but ultimately beautiful team togetherness, campfire victory sing-a-longs, come from behind finishes, costume changes, but most importantly, the intangible theme that carries the movie: the idea that no matter who we are, or where we come from, or what obstacles stand in our way, we must never, ever trust anyone with an Eastern European accent.  They are going to cut us.

(Parentheses)

14 Aug

It was a long time before I understood dimples.

I was very young the first time they were described to me, and I walked away from the conversation thinking that the dimples were ill-named.  Face scars.  That was how I understood them.  A permanent skin divot?  Don’t tell me that’s a dimple.  Don’t tell me that’s cute.  That’s a scar.  You’re telling me that little girl has adorable matching face scars.  I’ll compromise and call them half-moon gauges, but you’re not talking me any lower than that.

Then a few years later, in 4th grade, I met a boy upon whom I had a tremendous crush.  And everything changed, because he had dimples, and when he smiled at me, all of the sudden, I got dimples.  When he smiled at me, I didn’t want to make fun of his face mutation; I wanted to say, “Those dimples on your face are tiny hammocks in which the lightest parts of my soul were meant to sleep.”

I still think dimples are funny.  People who have them are essentially walking around with a pair of parentheses on their faces.  And the same thing is always between those parentheses: their mouth.  So no matter where you are or what you are doing, if you have dimples, every conversation you have–whether you like it or not–silently ends with your face parentheses saying, basically, “Oh, by the way … my mouth.”

This brings me to the first rule of using parentheses:

1. The information contained within your parentheses should be disposable.  Information in parentheses is usually of minor importance: you might use parentheses to add a small, clarifying detail or an afterthought.  Your sentence must still be able to maintain function and meaning without whatever is written in the parentheses.  The main part of your sentence should be outside (and you can sneak little fun tidbits inside).

2. There should be one space (like the one after space) before the first parenthesis mark.  There should not, however, be any spaces between the parenthesis mark itself and the first word within (see how there is no space before see?).

3. IN MOST CASES: end punctuation goes OUTSIDE of the parentheses.  Remember that the parentheses contain optional information.  This means that you need to punctuate your sentence as if the parentheses are not there.  Here are a couple of examples.

Example 1:

In this sentence (you know, the one you’re reading right now), the parenthetical remark is in the middle.

Always remember: information within the parentheses is optional information.  That means you should be able to lift it out at any time, and the sentence will still make grammatical and logical sense.  This includes punctuation.  In Example 1, if we lifted the parenthetical remark out, we would be left with, “In this sentence, the parenthetical remark is in the middle.”

We put a comma after the end parenthesis in the example because if we took the parentheses OUT, we would still need a comma after the introductory phrase In this sentence.  The only difference is that with the parentheses in, we put the comma outside of the parentheses themselves.

Example 2:

This is a sentence where the parentheses are at the end (right here).

The period goes OUTSIDE OF THE PARENTHESES.  I cannot emphasize that enough.  A period always goes at the end of the sentence, even if some dimply punctuation marks get in the way first.

Example 3:

This is an example (see what I’m doing?) where there is punctuation inside of AND outside of the parentheses.

Like I said, you must always punctuate your sentence the exact same way you would if you weren’t including whatever you have in parentheses.  This almost always means punctuation outside of the parentheses.  However, that doesn’t mean that there is never a place for punctuation INSIDE the parentheses as well.  In Example 3, a question is asked within the parentheses.  Therefore, the logical thing to do is to use a question mark.  The sentence that is going on outside of the parentheses is still punctuated normally; since a question was asked within the parentheses, though, it should be indicated with the proper punctuation.  The same would go for a parenthetical exclamation (like this!).  And you’ll notice I still put a period outside of the parentheses, because I need that period to end the outside sentence.

There is more to be said about parentheses, but now is not the time.  Now is the time to continue brainstorming ways to bring those with dimples back down to Earth.  They’ve spent too much of their lives being praised for their face parentheses.  I consider it my mission to give them far less adorable names, like Twin Baby Banana Face.

And no, most celebrities: that’s not a viable option for a baby name.

Although Twin Baby Banana Face Danza does sort of have a ring to it.

Girls Want to Have Just Fun

16 Jul

There is an epidemic sweeping America, and it is not just.

It does involve the word just, though; now you know that I made a hilarious joke in the first sentence.  As I always say, the best cure for any epidemic is a healthy dose of punicillin.

When they are used as adverbs, the words just and only can often be used interchangeably.  There is little difference between saying “He’s just a kid!” and “He’s only a kid!”  The only error here would be if you were talking about Harry Potter.  He’s not just an anything.  He’s The Boy Who Lived.

There are shades of difference, of course.  Only and just can both be adjectives (meaning that they describe nouns or other adjectives) or adverbs.

Refresher: an adverb is a word that modifies a verb.  If I say, “He drew his wand slowly,” then the verb drew is being modified (or further described) by the adverb slowly.  How did he draw his wand?  Slowly.

Only and just are tricky adverbs because they sound like they can fit about anywhere in a sentence.  Because they sound right to us, we tend to toss them wherever we’d like to in a sentence without any concern about how we’ve altered the meaning.  They’re like the Katherine Heigls of romantic comedies: sure, go ahead, throw her in, wherever, it’ll make sense.  Editor for a sassy girl’s magazine who really just wants to write important political pieces?  Sure.  Sensitive lady hiding under tough girl exterior?  Sure.  Driven career woman who’s surprised by love?  Sure, sure, sure.

But in the same way that Katherine Heigl doesn’t belong everywhere, just and only also do not belong everywhere.  When using these words as adjectives or adverbs, you must put them DIRECTLY in front of the word they are modifying.  Placement determines everything.  I’ll point out the differences in a few example sentences.

1. Only I saw the tree shaped like a bush.

This placement indicates that I am the only one who saw this crazy tree.  Also, the tree I saw was probably just actually a bush.

2. I only saw the tree shaped like a bush.

This placement indicates that the only thing I did–among all of the millions of things I could have done–was see a tree.

3. I saw only the tree shaped like a bush.

This placement indicates that the only thing I saw was the tree; I may or may not have been doing other things, but I definitely saw only a tree.

It might seem a little picky, but where you place these words in a sentence really does alter what message you’re communicating with that sentence.  And the message is everything.

Even though there’s an argument that could be made for a better placement of “just” in the title, my primary problem with Cyndi Lauper’s hit “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” isn’t grammatical.  My problem is with the message:  I’m afraid it simplifies girls in a way that could cause men to think that dating and marrying us is much easier than it really is.  We just wanna have fun!  We’re that simple!

When I sing this into my hairbrush at the bathroom sink, teasing my bangs and smearing on my favorite baby blue eyeshadow, I like to sing an edited–and I believe, more realistic–version.  It goes something like this:

“I come home in the morning light,

My mother says, ‘When you gonna live your life right?’

Oh, mother dear, we’re not the fortunate ones,

And girls they want to have fun.

But also to do something nice sometimes–

not anything big, you don’t have to spend a lot of money, but it would be nice

to actually get dressed up sometimes; I just bought this dress and all we do is

stay in and watch Law and Order and I’d just like to be able to go somewhere nice and get

all fancy–what do you MEAN this dress looks good on me?  Do I not usually

look good?  Well, I’m sorry I can’t be Mrs. Cleaver every day, and make you coffee

and get dressed up and do my hair and be fancy; and now that I mention it,

I need some space sometimes, you know?  Stop being so clingy.  I need a

girl’s night, because I’m tired of talking

about sports, and why didn’t you call and check-in?  I’ve been gone two hours and

I haven’t heard from you, and just because I go out with some friends doesn’t mean

that you don’t have to call; and now that I mention it, I really wish you would

invite me to watch football games at your friend’s house, don’t

you care about my opinion?  Or are you embarrassed of me?  Please don’t

eat like that when we’re in public; I just want this to be simple

and casual; why don’t you say you love me? That’s all I want, and also,

girls, we want to have fun.”

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.

Sentence Variety/Food Poisoning

2 Mar

I have been food poisoned.

I’ve also decided against the typical innocuous “I have food poisoning” line.  No.  I have a cat.  I have a heated blanket.  I have the need to surreptitiously type in the air while people are talking.  I don’t HAVE food poisoning.

I have BEEN food poisoned.  I don’t know who did this to me, so I don’t want to make any hasty accusations, but I do know that whoever did this to me was trying to kill me.

I am allowed to eat two things right now: rice and applesauce.  I can’t express how boring this is.  I’m working on ways to make this diet seem more exciting, though.  One strategy that’s proven effective has been giving my rice or applesauce different names and then saying them aloud to myself as I eat.  As in, “Here it comes, Riane, that filet min-rice you’ve been dreaming of!”

I’ve also tinkered with lending a tribute to childhood by pretending that my spoon is an airplane, but then I realized that all that will accomplish is making it so my food is moving really fast, and quite honestly, that’s sort of already the problem.

So what does this have to do with sentence variety?  Well, everything.

Most of us aren’t still stuck in the “See Spot.  See Spot run” rut, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t guilty of repetitive and ineffective sentence structuring.  First of all, thanks to the influence of celebrities, I would die before naming my dog something as normal as Spot.  Now that I think about it, though, I do like the name “Spot” for a girl.  And then, as she got older, she could change it to “Splotch,” because that’s a bit more grown up sounding.

Writers make two primary mistakes when it comes to sentence variety: either they rely too much on the subject + verb sentence structure, or they’re afraid to use it at all.

I’ll say it here: if you take nothing else from this post, it should be that for sentence length and structure, VARIETY is the key.

At the most basic level, you should be using long, medium, and short sentences.  Too many short sentences can make your paper seem choppy and aggressive.  “These are facts.  Facts are great.  Read my facts.”  I picture you as a red-faced robot when I read sentences like that, and I don’t trust robots ever since I saw that terrifying robot movie, The Stepford Wives.

But if you use long sentence after long sentence, it doesn’t make you look smart, like you may think.  It makes you look like you’re afraid of a period.  You’re not a 14-year old boy, so don’t act like it.  (Unless you are a 14-year old boy.  Justin Bieber sure is annoying, huh?  Also, Gatorade and Cheetos and sports!)  Not only will your sentences trail on for too long, but an endless barrage of long sentences is also difficult to wade through, and important ideas can be lost in that mess of words.

So mix it up with short and long sentences.  If you have a powerful idea, build up to it with long and medium sentences, and then–bam!  Hit the reader with one short, straightforward sentence.  Contrast is your friend.

However, you can’t vary just sentence lengths.  You also need to vary sentence style.  One way to check for this in your own writing is to look at the beginnings of your sentences.  Do all of your sentences start with words like “I” or “It” or “The”?  If so, you’re probably writing most of your sentences in a very repetitive subject + verb pattern; on the one hand, this pattern is perfectly acceptable (in fact, the majority of your sentences may be structured this way).  However, if all of your sentences are structured that way, your writing will likely become redundant.

You can vary the structure of these sentences by opening them differently.  Try incorporating some introductory clauses, as the examples below show.

Original Sentence

I like to go to school when it is raining outside.

Restructured

When it is raining outside, I like to go to school.

Keep in mind, the first sentence is not WRONG.  The restructured example is simply to show you a way to change the order of the words in your sentences.  Here’s another example:

Original

We ended up going to the restaurant, even though I had heard that the food was awful.

Restructured

Even though I had heard that the food was awful, we ended up going to the restaurant.

By forcing yourself to edit the beginning of a few sentences, you are, in essence, forcing yourself to create new sentence patterns.  And there are plenty of other ways to restructure sentences: look for pieces in the middle you can move to the beginning, parts in the beginning you can move to the end, parts you can split into different sentences, parts that you can add or remove.  But don’t rely on fancy, twisty sentences either: this can get confusing.  Like I said before, the key is variety.

And don’t change the order of the words in your sentences just for kicks: make sure that, above all, the word order you choose conveys your point the most strongly.  Never sacrifice the meaning of your sentence for … well, anything.  On the one hand, you don’t want your sentences to be boring and repetitive spoonfuls of rice and applesauce after rice and applesauce.  On the other hand, there’s no sense in spicing up your rice and applesauce with, uh … bad spices.

I think that analogy may just have gotten out of control, which is okay, because I’m about to go eat some applesauce while pretending that my spoon is an airplane.  Sorry applesauce — this is going to be a crash landing, and Sully Sullenberger is nowhere in sight.

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