Thursday, January 28, 2010

Dear Abby

I hate hate hate when my students fold the upper-left-hand corner of their essays. Instead of walking the one minute to the nearest stapler, they engage in some intricate origami, probably use their saliva, and the papers end up staying together for as long as one of Pamela Anderson's marriages.

My other pet peeve is when women wear an empire waist that is too small so the seam cuts their boobs in half.

Breasts should be cradled, not bisected.

With such a sensitivity to the pet peeve, I agreed to temporarily abandon my comma campaign to address a pet peeve my dear friend shared with me: when people confuse advice and advise.

It's understandable why people confuse these words: they look almost identical and are very closely related. Check out their definitions:

Advice: an opinion or recommendation offered as a guide to action

Advise: to offer an opinion or suggestion as worth following

Basically, advice is the actual opinion and advise is the act of sharing the opinion.

For example,

I advise you to ignore any relationship advice Pamela gives you.

But, how do we remember which one is which?

To do this, we must focus on what makes them different, and that would be the c and the s.

So, let's start with the c in advice. To remember that advice is the actual opinion, let the c stand for crap, because most of the advice we get is just that, right? For example,

* You should just tell him the truth; he'll understand.

* Guys don't like girls who put out on the first date.

* You should totally wear that dress; it looks great.

Now, to remember that advise is the act of sharing the opinion, the s in advise stands for sharing. It can also stand for suggesting. It can also stand for shut up, stop talking, ssssh!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Who Gives a F##K?

Remember that poor kid who would get called on to read aloud in class and the class would collectively cringe? It would take him like fifteen minutes to make it through one tiny paragraph because he paused after every single word. Imagine if that guy inserted a comma every time he paused: his, sentences, would, look, like, this.

Yes, I’m officially on a rampage about the comma-when-you-pause theory. I mentioned in my last post that it’s a dangerous theory because sometimes when we pause we should be using different punctuation marks, but I was thinking about this last night (because that’s what I do while everyone else is watching American Idol auditions), and I realized that there’s so much more to the story.

As per my example above, one of my issues with blanketly (that might not be a word) stating that we insert a comma when we pause is that we don’t all pause in the same place- some of us may pause too much and some may pause too little. But, it’s even more than that.

I had this epiphany last night: the comma is not as much about creating a pause as it is about creating a separation. I know- it’s a lot to take in after associating the comma with a pause for so long. It’s like after having associated Daniel Radcliffe with innocent Harry Potter for so long, he ups and takes a role in a play as a dude with a weird thing for horses.

But, I realized that a comma is less like a rest stop and more like that rubber divider we put between our stuff and the stuff that belongs to the person behind us at the supermarket so, god forbid, we don’t end up paying for their gouda.

For example, we insert a comma between items in a list of three or more, not because we are so terribly exhausted after the first item, but because we need to separate the items so we know where one item begins and the next one ends.

For example, without commas, this sentence is very confusing:

I need to buy a leather whip cream silk sheets milk and cat food.

It’s difficult to tell where one item ends and the other begins. And, I’m not sure whether she wants to buy silk and sheets or silk sheets. So, Vanna, please get those commas for me:
I need to buy a leather whip, cream, silk, sheets, milk, and cat food.


That's interesting… I really thought it was going to be silk sheets.

But, we’re all pretty good at applying that rule. If there’s one place we confidently insert a comma, it’s between items in a series.

The only question that comes up is whether or not to put the comma before the and that separates the last two items (in this case, the one between cat and milk), which is referred to in the industry as the Oxford comma.

Because there are such compelling arguments on both sides, it’s still optional. Oxford comma opponents claim it creates confusion while proponents argue it reduces confusion, and they’re both right depending on the sentence. Proponents say it maintains the sentence’s cadence while opponents find it useless because the and already creates the necessary pause.

I say please never put me in a room with two people who are debating this issue. It seems as silly as discussing the future of Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart when there are far more important issues in the world- like I hear Brad and Angelina are really through this time.

The Oxford comma is really the least of our comma issues. If you want to put it there, great; if you don’t, fantastic.

I’m with Vampire Weekend on this one: Who gives a F@#% about an Oxford comma?

Sunday, January 24, 2010

American Libel

Commas are to punctuation what Ryan Seacrest is to entertainment: used for everything.

The other punctuation marks have two to three gigs, but the comma has landed a ton- probably because, like Seacrest, it’s small and cute.

But, as we know, popularity and success inspire rumors: gay rumors, gerbil rumors, cryogenically frozen rumors, insured body part rumors. Well, the comma has not escaped scandal. The biggest rumor spread about the comma (probably cooked up by some lazy grammar teacher who didn’t want to teach all the rules) is that we insert a comma whenever we pause. And, like all the rumors we want to believe (I’m still waiting for Tupac’s big comeback), everyone embraced it. But, unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

I wish it were that simple; it would make my job a hell of a lot easier. But, although we do pause when we see a comma, we shouldn’t use a comma every time we pause.

I’m going to use an excerpt from when Larry King interviewed Ryan Seacrest back in 2004 to show you how we incorrectly use a comma for pausing purposes. For this to work, we have to pretend that Ryan and Larry were writing notes back and forth to each other instead of speaking, and we also have to pretend that Ryan used the wrong punctuation (although, in what kind of sick world would a person achieve multi-millionaire status without a mastery of punctuation?).

So, anyway, someone called into the Larry King Show and asked Ryan (in writing…wink wink), “ In light of these gay rumors, are you dating anybody?”

And, Ryan responded

I am, I do have a girlfriend.

Now, Ryan was wrong to use a comma because it’s incorrect to use a comma between two complete sentences, and he wrote these two complete sentences:

1. I am. (It’s a short sentence, but it’s still complete: it has a subject, verb and completes a thought).

2. I do have a girlfriend.

Most of the time we insert a period after one complete sentence and then start the next one, and Ryan could have done that, but I can see why he didn’t want to. A period is so strong, so final. It cuts the sentences off from one another, and Ryan didn’t want to do that. He wanted to connect the fact that he was dating someone with the fact that that somebody was a female- immediately. Therefore, he used a comma, which doesn’t create quite as strong of a pause as a period.

But, he could have dispelled the rumors without resorting to grammatical incorrectness.

He could have used the semi-colon. Most of us have seen the ; but don’t really know when to use it.

Well, it comes in handy during times like these when we have written two sentences that we want to keep together, like these:

I am; I do have a girlfriend.

My partner’s name is Willy; it’s short for Willimina.

Of course I'm gay; gay means happy.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


There are some recent trends I wholeheartedly support.

For example, I love the scarf:

It adds that je ne sais quoi to an otherwise basic outfit.

And the boots over the skinny jeans…

Both slimming and sleek, right?

But, on the other hand, there are some trends that make me want to quote Mugatu and scream,

Like gladiator sandals:

When I first saw them- I think attacking the feet/ankles/calves of an Olsen Twin- I assumed they'd soon be extinct due to their undeniable hideousness. But no, they became so popular I figured it was just a matter of time before I caved and bought a pair. But, I didn’t cave- that’s how much I loathe them.

There’s also this other confounding trend. It looks like this:
That's right: people are no longer capitalizing the word I. I'm not sure why this trend is so popular, but I’ve got some theories:

Theory one: We have been brainwashed by iPhone, iPod, and iMac.

Theory two: Self-esteem is at an all-time low.

If theory one is correct, just remember: Neo fought too hard for us to let the machines win.
And, if theory two is correct, simply repeat this daily affirmation:

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.”

And then capitalize your doggone I’s.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


While driving the other day, I saw a motto for a handyman service scrawled across a pick-up truck's rear window that said, “Call us to finish the work your husband started.” Well, that’s a bit sexist, I thought to myself. Who’s to say that the men do all the work around the house? And, in this economy, is it really smart business to limit their customer base to married women with inept and/or lazy husbands? But, after I got all that out of my system, I had to admit to myself that I actually thought their motto was pretty clever because, you know, you always hear about the husband who tries to fix the sink himself but ends up mangling it beyond repair- at least Tim Allen always did on Home Improvement. Sometimes spell check can be like Tim Allen.

So, you know how it goes with spell check: most of the time spell check will simply underline a misspelled word and then we click on the underlined word and it gives us the correct spelling. But, there are those times when spell check is just like the DIY husband that says, “I got this one, Babe,” and it corrects the word itself. I’m sure it means well, but like hubby, sometimes spell check does more harm than good.

For example, take the word definitely. Definitely makes the most commonly misspelled words list as consistently as Paula Abdul makes the worst-dressed list

because we love to spell it like this: definately. Well, when we use an a instead of the i , spell check automatically changes it to defiantly, and we don’t notice because spell check didn’t alert us. And then even if we belong to the tiny minority that does proofread, we don’t notice the error because we tend to see what we want to see instead of what’s there (you know, like we did with that ex all of our friends hated). Therefore, the email to our boss says,” I will defiantly be at the meeting on Tuesday,” like we’ll be staging a sit-in or something.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010


The conditions have to be just right, but when Jupiter is rising in Saturn, the Dow Jones is up 10 points, there’s no traffic on the 405, and Tori Spelling isn't working on a project that is a pun of her name (Wikipedia claims that unchartered terriTori will soon follow in So NoTORIous and sTORI Telling's footsteps), a miracle happens: my students express a genuine interest in improving their writing skills. On this rare and special occasion, the number one question they ask me is how to become better spellers. Unfortunately, I have to give them the same answer I would give Brad Pitt if he asked me how he could get the tabloids to stop talking about his personal life: you’re better off spending your time on a more realistic goal (For Brad, maybe one that includes a razor.)

Of course, this is only my opinion, but I think spelling is like chicken pox: it becomes more difficult to deal with as an adult. Either you read a lot as a kid and consequently picked it up through osmosis, you’re genetically predisposed to putting the right letters in the right places, or, like most of us, you can never remember whether it’s bananna, bannana or banana.

Now, if as an adult you really really want to improve your spelling you can, but I imagine that most people want to be good spellers in the same way I want to learn French, belly dancing and how to cook Thai food- not enough to sacrifice watching my shows after work. Let’s face it: the English language is tough. There are silent letters and exceptions to every rule. What kind of sadist decided that there were to be two m’s in accommodate, but only one m in accomplish, and only one c in acquire?

Now, having said all that, I don’t at all encourage or accept incorrect spelling. I just don’t think we need to become good spellers to spell correctly. I think we simply need to be a little resourceful.

Obviously, we should use spell check. However, I agree with Professor H. Zar’s perspective on it:
“Every semester I am amazed by the number of students who turn in papers full of typographical errors that would have been caught by spending a few minutes with a spell checker. On the other hand, one should not assume that the spell checker alone can guarantee perfect results...”

This excerpt from his poem shows spell check’s limitations:

I have a spelling checker,
It came with my PC.
It plane lee marks four my revue
Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye ran this poem threw it,
Your sure reel glad two no.
Its vary polished in it's weigh.
My checker tolled me sew.

A checker is a bless sing,
It freeze yew lodes of thyme.
It helps me right awl stiles two reed,
And aides me when eye rime.

So, if we can’t rely solely on spell check yet we don’t know how to spell a word, where do we turn? You probably think because I’m an English teacher I am going to say to whip out your dictionary, but I’d be a hypocrite. I have a giant dictionary on my desk and I can’t remember the last time I opened it.

That doesn’t mean I know how to spell every word. However, when I don’t know how to spell a word, I turn to the one thing that seems to know me better than I know myself: Google. For example, one time I typed Pirates of the Carribean into a Google search (I have this thing for Johnny Depp, not pirates) and Google asked me

Did you mean: Pirates of the Caribbean

“I never remember whether there are two b’s or two r’s in Caribbean,” I said to myself. Then, I clicked on the correct spelling, and I got my Johnny Depp pics.

Hello Lover.

So, now I always leave a Google window open when I’m writing anything, and when I come across a word I am not sure how to spell I just type it into Google and 90% of the time Google will show me how I meant to spell it. For the other 10%, I have to phone my smart friends.

But, for those of you who do truly want to learn how to be a better speller, a good place to start would be logging off of Facebook and picking up a book.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares

My students think I love grammar. For that, I deserve a Golden Globe nomination. I don’t love grammar. I love Shakespeare, I love Toni Morrison, I love language and imagery and symbolism. But, in front of my class, I embrace proper grammar and punctuation with the same zeal with which Jon Gosselin embraces Ed Hardy. I have to; if I don’t, my students will take grammar as seriously as drivers take the no-cell-phone-while-driving laws.

You see, my students insist they write best when they don’t have to worry about all the “stupid grammar rules.” I love that idea in theory- I really do. How could I not relish the idea of young, vibrant minds freely disseminating page after page of unfettered brilliance? But, that’s not quite how this “freedom” translates to the written page. This email written to me from one of my students illustrates their interpretation of the concept:

I was curious to on my grade report I got the letter F by Writing Skills.I'm guessing I didn't pass the class but what I'm curious about is how? Im hopping its a mistake, I know Im not the best at writing, but I did all my homework accept for two assignments and I did some extra credit.I thought I atleast did ok on the finals also.

(Let me guess: my student’s the only one who doesn’t understand why she failed college English.)

I’m not, however, interested in lamenting the current state of writing. That would be as obvious as lamenting the current state of the economy or of Lindsay Lohan. And, trust me, today’s writing skills- with all of the missing apostrophes, misplaced commas, randomly capitalized letters, and bizarre misspellings- are in as much need of help as this:

Instead, I am interested in offering the knowledge I have gleaned from grading thousands of essays and reading as many emails. I have found that most of us tend to make the same big, noticeable mistakes. These can easily be fixed to drastically improve our writing. I am not interested in perfecting punctuation and grammar, just with confronting the major issues that confuse people and make them laugh at us (Thus, for Ms. Lohan, I would probably have to advise starting with more sleep/less collagen.)

Welcome to Missed Periods and Other Grammar Scares.