February 14, 2014
by Ellen

Valentine’s Day!

There are three kinds of Valentine’s Day, all of which you will likely experience at some point:

1) The SAD (single awareness day) — sitting on the couch, eating chocolates your mother sent you (“you’ll find Mr./Mrs. Right one day, sweetie, don’t worry”…), watching romantic comedies or worse, dramas, convinced you will inevitably become the weird cat lady who never leaves the house or the creepy old guy who acts like he’s still in his 20s. Stay strong. Your mom’s right.

2) The Cliché — the expected level of romance to assure your special person that they are, in fact, special. Must haves: cheesy card, chocolates, roses, jewelry or some other token of your affection, and a “surprise” evening (which is actually not a surprise, since you are only fulfilling expectations, but whatevs). Enjoy.

3) The Oops — this one is bad, very, very bad. You were so busy cramming for exams, writing papers, staying on top of assignments, etc., that you completely forgot that Valentine’s Day was a thing and now it’s too late. If you’re lucky, your partner forgot, too, but don’t count on it.  Your failure to provide The Cliché will mean “I don’t care enough about you to remember” or “I’m just not that in to you” and will result in “the talk.” Your night will turn into The SAD. But maybe it doesn’t have to…

As a future accountant, you can use an excuse that would be too translucent coming from the rest of us: you didn’t forget – you just found a way to get more bang for your Valentine’s Day buck. How? By celebrating on a different day, when it is a buyer’s market. “Honey, that romantic getaway you’ve always talked about will cost half what it would this weekend when we go next weekend…” (Of course, the getaway costs more than you would’ve spent on a special evening, but hey, now you won’t have “the talk.”)

For the points you will need to support your position, read Brett Arends’s “Dodging the Valentine’s Day Hordes” in the Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304027204579334713402920906).

And do still run to Walgreens for a card and some Russell Stover’s (though the pickin’s will be slim) — they will maximize your credibility when you say you didn’t actually forget…

February 7, 2014
by Ellen

Colons and Dashes: When you learn them — and you WILL learn them — you’ll love them.

S&W Rule 7: “Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.” (p. 7)

  • Ah, the colon. Most misuses of the colon result from placing it within a single independent clause, rather than after one.
    • Easy test: Could the phrase before the colon be a sentence by itself?
    • Example:
      • Wrong: “In order to get a job, you will need: a resume, a suit, and a certain amount of luck.”
        • The phrase, “In order to get a job, you will need,” could not be a sentence by itself, so the colon is inappropriate.
      • Right:
        • Option 1: Remove the colon altogether
          • “In order to get a job, you will need a resume, a suit, and a certain amount of luck.”
        • Option 2: Turn the initial phrase into an independent clause
          • “In order to get a job, you will need three things: a resume, a suit, and a certain amount of luck.”
  • The other important thing to remember about the colon is that the phrase that follows the colon must be directly related to what comes before.
    • Easy Test: Is it a list, an example, or an explanation?
    • Example:
      • Wrong: “The man had an ironic name: he was odd and always wore a leather jacket.”
        • While both parts of the sentence describe the man, they are not directly related – being odd and wearing a leather jacket does not explain why his name is ironic.
      • Right: “The man had an ironic name: they called him ‘Tiny,’ but he was six-feet tall and weighed nearly 300 pounds.”

S&W Rule 8: “Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary.” (p. 9)

  • The dash has a more informal, relaxed, and conversational tone than the colon. Dashes are not appropriate in formal writing and should always be used sparingly.
  • Example:
    • When he went to class – if he went at all – he sat in the back row and took a nap.
    • The state of his apartment – empty beer bottles on the floor, half-eaten pizza and dirty cereal bowls on the coffee table, and a strange slime coating the sink – suggested that he was no ladies’ man.

 Again, Strunk & White have managed to simplify rules that most grammar books spend entire chapters explaining. Good writing is within reach! Next time we’ll master subject/verb agreement.

January 30, 2014
by Ellen

Public Enemy #1: The Comma (Part II. The hunt continues…)

We’ve almost got it. Just a few more rules to go and you’re on your way to comma mastery!

S&W Rule 4: “Place a comma before a conjunction introducing an independent clause.” (p. 5)

  • Here’s an easy way to remember it: When you are combining two complete sentences with a conjunction, use a comma.
  • The test: Would the phrases on either side of the conjunction be sentences by themselves? If so, use a comma before the conjunction. If not, the conjunction is fine by itself.
  • Examples:
    • Mrs. Mufflebuttons brought Mittens home from the doctor, and then she made them both a snack.
      • Is this a sentence? “Mrs. Mufflebuttons brought Mittens home from the doctor.” Yes, it is.
      • Is this a sentence? “Then she made them both a snack.” Yes, it is.
      • Ah-hah! We have two independent clauses, so we combine them using a comma and the conjunction “and.”
    • Mrs. Mufflebuttons brought Mittens home and made them both a snack.
      • Is this a sentence? “Mrs. Mufflebuttons brought Mittens home.” Yes, it is.
      • Is this a sentence? “Made them both a snack.” NO, it’s not.
      • We do not have two independent clauses, so there is no comma before the “and.”

S&W Rule 5: “Do not join independent clauses with a comma.” (p. 5)

  • This is also referred to as a “comma splice.”
  • An easy way to remember:  If both sides of the comma could be sentences by themselves, you should either 1) combine them with a comma and conjunction or 2) use a semicolon.
  • Example: Mittens grew even more resentful of Mrs. Mufflebuttons, she had subjected him to Dr. Catnip’s prodding.
    • Test:
      • Is this a sentence: “Mittens grew even more resentful of Mrs. Mufflebuttons.” Yes, it is.
      • Is this a sentence: “She had subjected him to Dr. Catnip’s prodding.” Yes, it is.
      • OK, we have two independent clauses, so we can’t use a comma by itself, but we have two choices:
        • Comma + conjunction: Mittens grew even more resentful of Mrs. Mufflebuttons, for she had subjected him to Dr. Catnip’s prodding.
        • Semicolon: Mittens grew even more resentful of Mrs. Mufflebuttons; she had subjected him to Dr. Catnip’s prodding.
  • A note on semicolons:
    • Yay, semicolons! The semicolon is that little piece of punctuation that most people gave up on in fourth grade… “I can get by just fine with commas and conjunctions, thank you”… Well, you can, but you can also get by just fine with Ramen noodles and frozen pizza. It’s time to branch out.
    • Here’s the rule: When you have two independent clauses that are closely related, you can combine them with a semicolon. The relationship between the two sentences is usually one of cause and effect or vice versa.
    • A good test for this: if could you use “because” or “so,” you can use a semicolon.
    • Examples:
      • In the above example, we could combine the two sentences with “because”: Mittens grew even more resentful of Mrs. Mufflebuttons because she had subjected him to Dr. Catnip’s prodding.
      • In this instance, we could use “so”: Dr. Catnip got too close; Mittens had to be more careful.

S&W Rule 6: Do not break sentences into two. (Do not use periods for commas.) (p. 7)

  • You will know that you have broken a sentence when you create a sentence fragment – something that isn’t a complete sentence by itself.
  • Wrong: He was cunning. A cat who knew what he wanted and how to get it.
  • Right: He was cunning, a cat who knew what he wanted and how to get it.

So there you have it – the comma revealed!

According to S&W, “Rules 3, 4, 5, and 6 cover the most important principles that govern punctuation. They should be so thoroughly mastered that their application becomes second nature” (p. 7). The best way to master them? Practice. Take the examples I’ve given you and create sentences of your own following the rules.

If you have any questions or would like to subject yourself to an even geekier explanation, stop by the center and I will be happy to oblige!   

Next week we’ll tackle colons and dashes.

January 22, 2014
by Ellen

Public Enemy #1: The Comma (Part I)

Part One: serial, parenthetic, and non-restrictive

 Let me preface our discussion with an important note: The rule is NOT that you use a comma wherever there is a pause. Many have fallen prey to this notion – it’s so easy, so obvious, of course it’s right. NO, it’s not right. Dump this idea immediately.

 Pause ≠ Comma. Comma ≠ Pause.

 With that out of the way, let’s begin. The comma is not as scary as it would lead you to believe. The comma’s power lies in its ability to remain ambiguous, like the wizard of Oz hiding behind a curtain. But it cannot hide from our heroes, Strunk & White, who, in a few simple rules, pull back the curtain and reveal the comma for the easily mastered piece of punctuation that it is.

 S&W Rule 2: “In a series of three or more terms with a single conjunction, use a comma after each term except the last” (p. 2).

  • This is called the “serial” comma – the comma used for lists.
  • Examples:
    • Mrs. Mufflebuttons bought cat food, cat litter, and a bullet-proof vest at the store today.
    • Mittens watched Mrs. Mufflebuttons walk up the drive, unlock the door, and step inside.

S&W Rule 3: “Enclose parenthetic expressions between commas” (p. 2).

  • Parenthetic information interrupts the flow of the sentence; if you were to take the information out of the sentence, the sentence would still make sense and would flow better. In fact, reading the sentence without the information is a good way to test whether the information is parenthetic.
    • Example:
      • Mittens, having vowed to never forget the slight, patiently waits for the opportunity to make Mrs. Mufflebuttons pay for her refusal to snuggle.
    • Test: Mittens patiently waits for the opportunity to make Mrs. Mufflebuttons pay for her refusal to snuggle.
      • The sentence still makes sense when we remove “having vowed to never forget the slight” – thus, the phrase is parenthetic.
  • Dates also contain parenthetic information:
    • Example: Today, January 22, is the day Mittens will finally have his revenge.
    • Test: Today is the day Mittens will finally have his revenge.
      • The sentence still makes sense without the date.
  • A name or title in a direct address is also parenthetic:
    • Examples:
      • Oh dear, Mrs. Mufflebuttons, you really are in trouble.
      • “No, Sir, you may not perch atop the refrigerator,” Mrs. Mufflebuttons scolded Mittens.
    • Test:
      • Oh dear, you really are in trouble.
      • “No, you may not perch atop the refrigerator,” Mrs. Mufflebuttons scolded Mittens.
  • The abbreviations etc., i.e., and e.g. are parenthetic:
    • Example:
      • Mittens deliberately arranged his ball of yarn, bell, toy mouse, etc., at the top of the stairs.
  • Academic degrees and official titles are also parenthetic:
    • Example:
      • Feeling that something was amiss, Mrs. Mufflebuttons scheduled an appointment for Mittens with Cornelius Catnip, Ph.D, the renowned cat whisperer who specializes in sociopathic felinitis.
  • Non-restrictive clauses are parenthetic:
    • A non-restrictive clause is a descriptive phrase that is unnecessary to meaning because it does not identify or define the noun.
      • Example:
        • Cornelius Catnip, whose methods have been questioned by the cat whisperer community, attempted to hypnotize Mittens.
        • We do not need to know that Dr. Catnip’s methods are questionable in order to know who Dr. Catnip is – the information provides added detail, but is unnecessary to the identification of Dr. Catnip.
    • A restrictive clause, on the other hand, is not parenthetic and does not require commas because it is information that is necessary to identifying and defining the noun.
      • Examples:
        • The cat that is named Mittens clawed the good doctor on the arm.
          • There are many, many cats, so we need to specify that we are talking specifically about Mittens. If we took “that is named Mittens” out of the sentence, it would no longer be clear which cat was doing the clawing.
        • Dr. Catnip’s brother Joe had warned him of the dangers of cat whispering.
          • If Dr. Catnip has more than one brother, we need to specify that we are talking about Joe, so the name is necessary and not set off by commas.
          • If Dr. Catnip only has one brother, however, then the name is unnecessary and placed within commas: “Dr. Catnip’s brother, Joe,…”

Easy enough, right? Your comma anxiety is slowly deflating…next time you will be cured! And that’s not all – you’ll get the added bonus of semicolon mastery!