Category Archives: grammar

Because I cannot stop global warming

            In the fall of 2001, I taught back-to-back Freshman Comp classes, keeping me pretty much out of contact with the outside world from 8:00 to 11:00 on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.  As a graduate student, my job was to teach 44 reluctant eighteen-year-olds how to express a few coherent thoughts and perhaps to occasionally make a persuasive argument.

            One Tuesday at 9:25, as one class shuffled out and the next shuffled in, one young man remarked to his classmates, “Did you hear that a plane crashed into the World Trade Center?”  Like so many others that morning, we all pictured a little plane piloted by a flight student with a tragically bad sense of direction.  Students handed forward the papers that were do, and we proceeded with the day’s lesson on paragraphing.

            An hour and forty-five minutes later, I grumbled to myself as I rifled through the department teaching supply cabinet.  “Are you OK?” a fellow grad student asked as she walked past with a professor.

            “I can’t find any chalk around here,” I complained, and they both shot me disgusted looks before moving on.  Then the grad student turned back, suddenly realizing something.

            “Have you heard what happened?” she asked. 

            And that was how I heard.  I ran up three flights of stairs to my office and brought up my email, which was already flooded with messages from friends in New York, all of which said the same basic thing: “I am alive.”

            As the morning lapsed into afternoon, I could only spend so long staring at CNN.com or refreshing my email.  Eventually, I realized I had to occupy my mind with something.  And so I began to grade papers.

            All that evening and the following day, I graded one set of papers.  I did it with passion and a thoroughness no student papers had heretofore seen.  The sky was falling, but I would make all well with the world by making damned sure these kids knew how to write a topic sentence.

            In that spirit, and because I cannot do a damned thing about the fact that the stock market has gotten off its Prozac, retirees may suddenly find they need to return to work, people are losing their homes, and my children are likely to find themselves in a world war over water, I offer the following lesson in apostrophe usage.

            With regular nouns, if you wish to indicate more than one, all you need to do is add an S.  For example: “Many stores are going out of business.”  Stores is plural, not possessive, and does not require an apostrophe.

            If, however, you wish to indicate possession, you will need one of those nifty little doohickies that hang between an S and the rest of the word.  For example: “The woman’s portfolio has lost half of its value.”  As the unfortunate woman owns the portfolio, we indicate ownership with apostrophe + S.  (The lone exception is “its,” which gets an apostrophe only to indicate the contraction of “it is.”)  This formula works with both singular nouns and irregular plurals, such as: “The people’s dismay at discovering that there is such a thing as global warming…”

            Should you wish to indicate both plural and possessive with a regular noun, you will need to move that snazzy little apostrophe to after the S.  For example: “In my sons’ time, we will likely face a global food and water crisis.”  I have two sons, yet I also wish to indicate their time, so the apostrophe goes after the S, showing that the S is doing double-duty.

            Should you have any questions about this relatively simple punctuation mark, please email me instead of making up your own grammar.  Seriously.  I am tired of signs indicating that on Tuesdays the bar has “Two margarita’s for the price of one.”  The sky is falling here, people, and we need to prop it up one apostrophe at a time.

            And while we’re at it, “a lot” is two words.

Expertise

           A Thursday night.  The boys finally in bed, after the fateful coffee-table-removal incident.  8:07 finds me unloading the dishwasher, having finished looking up “concussion – signs and symptoms” on the web.  My cell rings, and I know it is my husband, calling to check in before the last few hours of his work day.

            Except it is not.  The name that comes up on my phone is the only other person I always answer for.  I pick up the phone and skip over the formalities.  “I have moved the coffee table onto the balcony.”

            “Oh, no!” she says.  “What happened?”

            “Zachary gets his brother all riled up, then can’t understand why he gets hurt or Benjamin bites him.  If that table is going to keep attacking Zach, it will need to stay outside.”  She laughs.  “What’s up?” I ask.

            “I know it’s probably a bad time.  I know you’re probably putting the boys to bed.”

            “Nope.  Boys are in bed, and Zach is already asleep, now that I have determined he has no signs of a concussion.”

            “Oh, then good.  Can I ask you a grammatical question?”  This, you must understand, is mostly why people call me.  I taught high school for three years, college for four.  I have three advanced degrees in things like education and English.  And I read a lot.  Actually, I used to read a lot.  Now I wipe poopy bottoms a lot and read on alternate Tuesdays when the moon is full.  People seem to trust me when it comes to grammar.

            “Sure.  In fact, there is nothing I would like better tonight.”  That may sound weird, but grammar makes me happy.  It is my comfort zone.  I know the answers here, and I can assert a certain order on the world that is pretty absent from the rest of life.  After a tough day, straightening out someone’s sentences is oddly relaxing.

            She is editing a document on U.S. torture methods at certain detention centers that will remain nameless so that this blog does not come up on someone’s search.  She wanted to know whether the quotes in which the prisoners quoted the guards needed double and single quotes if there were no actual words of the prisoners included in the quote.  In other words, if you are quoting a prisoner quoting a guard, but the guard’s quote is the only one included, do you still need single quotes?

            She read me a quote as an example, and, knowing me, she chose one of the milder ones.  “I’ll answer your question,” I responded.  “But please don’t read me any more quotes from the report.”

            As usual, her grammatical instincts were on target, and the single quotes were jettisoned.  Unfortunately, someone had been pushing her to use single and double quotes, insisting that she would know this if she were familiar with a style guide.  “Well,” I responded, “I am familiar with several style guides, and I can tell you that grammar tries to be streamlined whenever possible.”

            We chatted for a few more minutes, talking about a bridal shower she would be attending that weekend, and then we hung up the phone.  She returned to her report detailing the ways my government acts in my name to torture detainees.  I settled in to peanut butter ice cream and some blog reading to recover from the coffee table catastrophe.  No one sends me reports of international importance to edit; no one asks me to monitor elections; nothing I do gets dictatorial regimes to accept aid for their dying populace after a natural disaster.  I am the girl who knows about apostrophes and never misuses the semi-colon.

            Another day when my total contribution to the planet involved keeping my children alive, some carbon emissions, and the elimination of a couple of quotation marks.

Wordy

 

I sent the lovely Julie an email, suggesting a topic for an upcoming Hump Day Hmmm.  I did this not out of the goodness of my heart but out of laziness.  You see, I had just written a post on the topic.  I suggested to Julie that we write about the impact music has had on our lives.

 

“Cool,” Julie replied.  “Except I can’t use the word impact unless describing the crash of an asteroid.”

Leave it to an editor…

She’s right, you know.  Of course, she is.  “Impact” is indeed used to describe the act of collision.  Over the years, however, it has taken on a more metaphorical meaning.  People now use it not just to describe the actual collision but to describe the effect something has upon them.  In other words, if I use the word “impact,” I am calling on your mental image of a collision and asking you to apply the effect of a collision to the present situation.  I am trusting you to translate that metaphor.

It has become such common parlance that we do not even think about the metaphorical connection to a physical state (much like how I just used the word “connection”).  The word “impact,” in other words, carries with it all the times it has been used previously, and listeners apply all the past meanings to the present use.

We rely on these metaphors all the time in language.  No one actually “weaves” a tale, but we sort of figure people know that.  When you hear someone speak of weaving a tale, you may not even think about actual weaving anymore, but the metaphor is hard at work, and your busy little mind is applying the physical act of weaving to the tale-telling at hand.

I like metaphors.  They are comfortable to me.  I like words that work hard to describe exactly what they are saying.  “Impact” works for me because it is a specific reference and it is precise.

What is dislike are cheap metaphors.  Especially cheap, imprecise metaphors.  Ones that rely on hyperbole.

“I was robbed.”  Well, you weren’t, really.  In this case, the word “robbed” only works if you apply it with a conscious acknowledgement that you are using inappropriate hyperbole.  In other words, you might get away with it if you get rejected by Mensa because you are applying a certain amount of self-mocking acknowledgement that the metaphor is inappropriate.  If you claim to have been robbed when you pay too much for something, the two things you are comparing are pretty similar.  You’re just exaggerating.

Where’s the grace in that?

There’s no crime in being imprecise.  There are no language police who will hunt you down if you claim to be “starving” three hours after eating a large cheese pizza, although it does reflect a certain disregard for the fact that real people are actually starving.  It is, however, undignified to continually ratchet up the English language.  It is much like giving antibiotics all the time.  Sooner or later, they lose their efficacy.  Every now and then, let’s understate things a little.

There are times when our use of words can reflect a tremendous insensitivity.  An undershirt with no sleeves is not a “wife beater.”  It is an undershirt with no sleeves.  Perhaps you do believe that a certain economic and geographic demographic is filled with fat men sitting around in sleeveless undershirts calling “B-tch, bring me another beer.”  I, however, do not.  And to call an undershirt a “wife beater” is to take the real power away from those words.

We need those words to have power because they describe something terrible.  They describe something that traumatizes families (across economic and geographic lines, by the way).  Leave those words alone.  Find another inaccurate and inappropriate metaphor.

And, if you want to use the word “r@pe” to describe anything short of horrific sexu@l violence, go read Flutter’s post.

Words do real work.  I try hard to respect the work they do because I know they can hurt people.  When we taught Zachary to say “I don’t like that” instead of “I don’t like you,” we were teaching him more than a pronoun swap.  We were teaching him to be sensitive to other people’s feelings.  Flutter’s co-worker could use a little help in that department.

It is not about political correctness.  WORDS DO REAL WORK.  Words are beautiful and strong and precise.  You can really use words to hurt someone else.

But it says a lot more about you if you try not to.

A sign you might care too much about grammar

The other day, three-year-old Zachary said to me: “My Taggie needs to be picked up.”

It was all I could do to restrain myself from including the words “passive voice” in my response.

********************

Slouching Mom (a woman I really wish lived next door to me) gave me this:

Isn’t it cute?  Here are the rules on this one:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to five blogs that make you think;
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme;
3. (Optional) Proudly display the “Thinking Blogger Award” with a link to the post that you wrote.

I pass this along to

Stephanie, who is a thoughtful thinker (yes, I just modified a noun with its adjectival form)

Melody, because those photographs show such depth of thought

Kevin, with whom I do not always agree, but whose dialogue is always thought-provoking

Liz, who wrote an incredibly intelligent comment on yesterday’s post that inspired me to check out her fantastic blog

and Catherine, who probably thinks too much.

Now, if I can figure out how, I’ll work on displaying the bling.  Stay tuned for tomorrow, when I demonstrate that I might also care a bit too much about word choice…