The Past Form Isn’t Present

lead-led meme

It was mid afternoon as Grammar Smith walked into the Hunt and Peck after an extended shift at the Department of English Language Offenses. She just wanted a quick glass of Chardonnay to unwind before heading home.

The bar was pretty much deserted. Grammar sat down a couple of seats away from Led and Paid, and ordered her drink.

“Hello.”

“Hiya, Lieutenant,” Paid replied.

Led just grunted and stared into his beer.

“Rough night?” Paid asked Grammar.

“Not sure I’d say it was rough, more like complicated. We had to track some subject-verb agreement offenses over at Fustian University. It took way too much time. What about you two? What are you doing here in the middle of the afternoon?”

Led snorted, looked up at Rocky, the bartender, and said, “Again.”

She brought him a shot and a beer.

“Whoa there, Led. Hope you’re not driving anywhere,” Grammar said.

“No, I’m driving him home later,” Paid explained. She didn’t look too happy as she nursed her drink.

“What’s going on?”

“Led’s in a bad way,” Paid said. “Both of us have been pushed out by incorrect verb forms. ‘Payed’ has been butting in more often for me, but Led has it worse. Seems like everyone, including writers who should know better, are using ‘lead’ for the past tense of ‘to lead.’”

“It’s just too heavy!” Led downed the shot and gulped the beer.

“C’mon. How bad could it be?”

Paid shot a quick glance at Led, who had his head cradled in his arms on the bar.

“It’s everywhere, Lieutenant. I’m almost thinking the DELO should get involved. It’s killing Led, literally if he keeps drinking like this.”

Grammar sighed. She never seemed to be able to get away from her work.

“I’ll put it on the department’s investigation list,” she promised sipping the last of her wine and heading for home.

Collective Nouns — a Singular (or Plural) Puzzle

jury as unit vs. jury as individuals

“Lieutenant Smith, I think you should see this.”

Sargeant Metaphor placed a copy of The Pencil Post on Grammar’s desk. It had this paragraph circled in red:

The jury in the En Dash identity theft case is expected to reach a verdict today.

Dash is accused of thousands of counts of masquerading as a hyphen. After a long trial and verdict, the jury will be able to return to their families.

“Yes, it’s been a long and exhausting trial, but there’s no doubt in my mind that she’ll be found guilty.”

Dis Connect, looking over Grammar’s shoulder, agreed, “She’ll get what she deserves.”

“That’s not why I’m showing you this. Look at the first and last sentences. How can ‘jury’ be singular and plural? Should I send a couple of officers over to The Pencil Post to see about it?”

“Actually, there’s nothing wrong with that paragraph, ” Grammar said. “‘Jury’ is a collective noun and can take either singular or plural verbs and pronouns depending on how it is being used.”

“I dunno, Boss. That doesn’t sound right,” Dis said.

“Collective nouns — like ‘family,’ ‘team,’ ‘flock,’ ‘class,’ and ‘crowd’ — are singular when the members work as a unit and plural when individuals take separate action. In this case, the jury will be acting as a unit in providing a verdict but as individuals when returning home.”

“Oh, you mean like ‘deer’ which could be a buck standing in the woods or a whole herd,” Dis said.

“No, that’s just the same word for the singular and plural form a noun,” Grammar explained.

“What about corporations. Can a corporation be a singular and plural noun?” Sgt. Methaphor asked.

“Well, most of the time a corporation is singular since it usually acts in a unified manner. Plus, corporations like Kraft take ‘it’ as the pronoun despite what so many writers do,” Grammar said.

“Well, it still seems fishy to me,” Sgt. Metaphor said as she walked back to her desk.

Hotel Incognito: Where Nobody Knows Your Name

Hotel Incognito

“Welcome to the Hotel Incognito,” a bored, shabby, elderly question mark intoned. “How can I help you?”

The hotel unsuccessfully tried to project the grandeur and luxury it once had.

Grammar Smith scrutinized the question mark. There was something vaguely familiar about him.

“We’re looking for En Dash,” Dis Connect said flashing his badge. “Have you seen her?’

The question mark turned his back on the two and started sorting mail into pigeonholes.

“I’m sure I don’t know who you mean,” he said.

“We have good reason to believe she’s staying here,” Dis got stern. “Look at this picture. She may be going by the name ‘Henrietta Hyphen.’”

“Our guests are entitled to some discretion,” the question mark ignored the outstretched picture.

“Turn around, and take a look!” Dis was miffed. “We have a warrant for her arrest. If you don’t tell us what room she’s in, I’ll haul you in for obstructing justice.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Grammar caught a figure stealthily creeping toward the lobby door.

“Hold it right there!” she commanded turning around.

Almost in mid-step, Then froze. It was almost as if he thought remaining motionless would make him invisible.

“Well, well,” Grammar sauntered over to him. “If it isn’t my old pal, Then. Have you been up to your old tricks popping into comparisons again?”

Then slumped. “C’mon, Lieutenant. You know I try to stay out of the racket. I can’t help it if writers keep dragging me in where I don’t belong.”

“I could haul you in on suspicion, but right now we’re here to track down En Dash. Have you seen her?”

“Well, uh…” Then stammered and glanced over toward the question mark whose total lack of energy was stonewalling Dis.

Leaning in, Then whispered, “I don’t know what room she’s in, but I’m sure she’s on the fifth floor. Can I go now?”

“You’d better not by lying to me or I’ll hunt you down,” Grammar warned.

Then slunk away as Grammar returned to Dis and the question mark.

“It’s okay Dis. She’s up on the fifth floor. Which room?” she grilled the question mark.

He sighed. “502”

Dis got the passkey from the crestfallen question mark, and Grammar had Sgt. Metaphor stay with him to keep him from warning En Dash.

As she turned to go, Grammar snapped her fingers as recognition dawned on her.

“Now I know where I’ve seen you before! Weren’t you the butler at Anthology Acres? I met you about three years ago when I was tracking down the missing Oxford Comma. What happened to Fiver and Paragraph Essay?”

The question mark grimaced. “Reading habits have changed, and the Paragraphs had to cut back. They let me go with a very small retirement.”

Grammar shook her head. “And here you are running the Hotel Incognito, a known den for words and punctuation marks masquerading as something they’re not.”

 


(Thanks, BERL! 🙂)

If you’re into some grammar giggles, check out the New Yorker’s “A Compiled List of Collective Nouns.”

Dash Masquerades as Hyphen — Criminally

mask-875534_1280

As she walked into the squad room, Grammar Smith glanced over at Dis Connect’s desk and saw Henrietta Hyphen slumped in a chair.

Henrietta was a “frequent flyer” at the Dept. of English Language Offenses.

“What have you done this time?” Grammar asked as she ambled up to Dis’s desk.

“I haven’t done anything!” Henrietta snapped. “I’m here filing a complaint against my cousin, En Dash.”

Grammar raised an eyebrow. Dis nodded his confirmation.

“What’s the problem?” Grammar asked.

“En has always been jealous of me, and now she’s stolen my identity! She keeps popping up in phrases where I should be. She’s stealing my thunder!” Henrietta fumed.

“There’s evidence.”

Dis showed Grammar the file:

Exhibit A: the 25 – year – old lawyer

Exhibit B:   The antique — book collector pounded upon the first edition.

Exhibit C:  She could be a full – or part – time worker.

“There are many more instances we’re still tracking down,” Dis said.

“Why is En doing this?” Grammar asked.

“It’s infuriating,” Henrietta ranted. “En hates that she’s not actively part of a phrase or sentence. She doesn’t accept that she’s used to set aside and emphasize ideas. I think she’s afraid of not being essential. That’s why she’s always butting in where she doesn’t belong.”

“Just because she appears where she shouldn’t doesn’t make it criminal,” Grammar explained.

“She’s not just showing up where she shouldn’t. She’s pretending to be me. She’s stealing my livelihood.”

“That is criminal – very tough,” Grammar admitted. “Good luck.”

Pursuing Pop-up Prepositions

Popup Preps

“I don’t know where to begin,” Dis Connect complained to Grammar Smith.

He pointed to a stack of warrants on his desk.

“What are those about?” Grammar asked.

“They’re Over Exposure Warrants for a bunch of prepositions. I’m supposed to get them out of the sentences they keep popping up in where they shouldn’t.”

“Well, tell me what you have.”

“There are tons, but there are a few prepositions that are frequent offenders. Take of for instance. It tags along with off. Then it’s always shoving have out of the picture to hook up with could and should.

“Yes, I’ve seen the trouble of can sometimes cause. What other problem prepositions do you have there?”

To is another one that keeps butting in where it doesn’t belong. It seems to dog near and go a lot.”

“Hmmm,” Grammar mused. “That’s a bit tricky since to has to appear in verb infinitives. Can you give me an example of its straying ways?”

Dis frowned. “It mainly surfaces in questions. It shouldn’t be in ‘Where are you going to?’”

“Yes, that’s an offense that’s getting hard to overlook.”

“It’s when those prepositions slide in at the end for no good reason that gets me,” Dis said.

“Oh, yes! The worst is at,” Grammar agreed. “When I see or hear ‘Where are you at?’ I want to strangle someone. It’s worse than someone not turning their car alarm off all night.”

Dis nodded. “The best we can do is put them in handcuffs and keep them out of those sentences as much as possible.”

Just then, Wally Wordorder, head of the Fugitive Syntax Squad, ambled up to Dis’s desk.

“Ready to go?”

Dis stood up, gathering his equipment. “We’ll have to stop and get extra pairs of handcuffs.”

 

How to Begin?

pieces of puzzle

Getting started on a writing project, according to my anecdotal research, is the hardest step to take.

How do we get all the pieces to the writing jigsaw puzzle to coalesce into a masterpiece?

There are almost as many techniques as there are writers, but there are a few main approaches that center around how best to organize the material.

Knowing the purpose and audience makes organizing things much easier, but we still have to take that first step, write that first sentence.

There seem to be two camps of action: the “seat of my pants” scribes and the uber organization writers.

Just Write

Some people have to get the words out of their heads. For them, just plunging in is the best method to start.  Don’t worry about mistakes, transitions, or even clumping information logically.

This reminds me of when I took swimming lessons as a child. There was no slow progress into the cold pool. We just jumped in, making sure to get our heads underwater. After the initial shock, our bodies were accustomed to the temperature, and it was easier to concentrate on swimming.

This method requires vigorous revision, though. The writer must go back and clean up the content to make sure the reader can follow. (Most effective writing is not Finnegan’s Wake.)

Organize, Organize, Organize

Some writers are compelled to have everything laid out nice and neat before they type a single word.

This always reminds me of going on vacation with Clipboard People. They always have every minute scheduled and no time for just lounging around or winging it for an adventure.

While this approach can save a lot of time in revision, the danger is spending so much time organizing that you never get started.

Take a Pinch of This, a Pinch of That

I find the best approach to be a hybrid. Have a basic idea of where to place the pieces, then dive in.

I have a friend who will sit and stare out into space for a while, then start writing. She organizes the material in her head before she composes anything.

Many experienced writers will do this. They look like they’re goofing off, but they are processing things. Even jotting down a few phrases in a rough outline helps give a writer a path to follow.

Whichever approach you take, never forget that you need to take the time to revise. There is no “first time is always right” shortcut in writing.

Finding the most comfortable method to begin makes a writer’s life so much easier.

An End-of-Semester Wish List

dodo-in-tophatMEME

The other night, I graded my last paper of the semester and cracked open the bottle of wine that had been calling out to me all week. As I sipped my single glass of victory, I reflected on the state of my students’ writing.

I couldn’t help but long for them to enter my classes with a better foundation in grammar and syntax, so I came up with a wish list I would like elementary and secondary school teachers to try and fulfill.

  • Properly teach comma use. I want to put a thumbtack,point up, on the chair of every teacher who takes the lazy way out and proclaims, “Put a comma in whenever you pause or take a breath.” They set their students up for a lifetime of comma confusion.
  • Teach other punctuation. I know K-12 teachers are doing this, but I’d appreciate it if they explained that exclamation points shouldn’t end every sentence and question marks should only show up at the end of direct questions. (Oh, and please explain that colons and semicolons are not interchangeable with each other or commas.)
  • Ditch the absolute prohibition of beginning sentences with “because” and replace it with “being that.” Yes, I understand students often end up with sentence fragments if they start sentences with “because.” However, this should not become a lifelong ban. Why not prohibit “being that” instead? Honestly, I can’t think of any good reason for it.
  • Help end creative capitalization. I understand that, in an age of texting and microblogging (Tweeting for the uninitiated), this could be tough. Trying to convince adult learners that the pronoun “I” should always be capitalized is frustrating. Modern texting apps may automatically capitalize it, but students don’t notice. The concept of proper nouns versus common nouns seems to escape them, too.
  • Show students how parts of speech are building blocks to proper sentences. Like parts of an engine or rooms in a building, each part of speech has a role to play to build solid, effective sentences.

The good news, at least for me and my future students, is that the Common Core Standards being implemented in states across America cover these things.

It gives me hope that good grammar, unlike cursive writing, will not follow the path of the dodo.