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.

The Progressive, Perfect, Perfect-Progressive Tense Crime

Simple-Tense-Crime

Grammar Smith and her team met Monday morning for a status report on an assault case reported Sunday night by Simple Verb Tense.

“Where do we stand?” Grammar asked.

“Bffnbb argghwng tiddycrmsc.”

What?

Sgt.  Metaphor tried not to snicker.

Dis Connect swallowed the last of his doughnut. “Biff and Bob are going to the crime scene to collect evidence.”

“So they’re on their way?” Grammar asked.

“No, they haven’t left yet.”

“But you used the progressive tense which means they are in the process of going.”

“They haven’t left yet.”

“Then just use the simple future: will go.”

Grammar always had gotten grumpy when people misused verb tenses. Today was no exception.

“Okay, let’s move on. What do we know about the assault?”

“The victim had been reporting the assault last night.”

“Did something happen?” Grammar was confused.

“When?”

“When the victim reported the crime.”

“Like what?”

“Good grief, Dis! You used the past perfect progressive which means something else happened. What was it?”

“Nothing.”

“Then just use the simple past: reported. How can you, a police officer, be so inaccurate in your verb tenses. Get the time right from now on.”

Dis was crushed. He thought he was being precise.

Inspector Nigel Honour, on loan from Scotland Yard’s Grammar Centre, put his arm around the shoulders of the disheartened detective.

“Don’t worry too much, old chap. Lots of people get their tenses mixed up. Here, use this.” Nigel handed Dis a chart. “The only difference is, we Brits use ‘continuous’ for the ‘progressive’ you Yanks use.”

Dis brightened up considerably. “Gee, thanks, Nigel. You’re a real pal.”

Who’s Organizing Team Pronoun-Antecedent?

Who's on first

“Grammar, have you heard about the new softball league?” Detective Dis Connect asked his partner.

“No, who’s organizing it?”

“Ralph told Norman he should be in charge, but Serena told Mabel she would be better at it.”

“What?” Grammar was confused.

Dis just prattled on, “They organized their own teams and just took over.”

“Who took over?”

“They did. They just started it up, but they need more teams since they only have two.”

“Whose teams are set?” Grammar asked.

“The Comma Comets and the Paragraph Panthers. But it needs a few more people for a full roster,” Dis explained.

“Which needs more players?”

“The team does. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“I thought I was, but now I’m just confused,” Grammar said. She felt a bubble deep in her memory hinting that she had heard this before.

“They have it all set. You just have to sign up for that team or organize your own.”

“If I start my own team, who gets the roster?” Grammar felt a migraine coming on.

“Just email it to them. They’ll get back to you. There are lots of officers who want to play. You should talk to her about being your pitcher.”

“Who?”

“Well, you just can’t have anyone pitch. You need someone with talent. I’d start with her then have him as a backup.”

“You know what, Dis?” Grammar sighed. “I think you’re the guy for the job. Let me know what position you want me to play when you get it all sorted out with them.”

Sports Fans Can Be Grammar Geeks, Too!

Blueshirt Banter Logo and comments

I constantly bemoan the deterioration of writing skills on the internet.  I have resigned myself to endure quick but careless writing.

Imagine my surprised pleasure when I found grammar proponents in the unlikeliest place – the comments section of a sports blog!

Let’s face it, as adherents to good grammar, sports writers and announcers are at the back of the line. They grab every opportunity to get “creative” with English using strange words and poor sentence structure. Subject-verb agreement is taboo.

I usually avoid the rampant ignorance of any comments section on news sites. I just don’t need the aggravation caused by the assault on my writing sensibilities.

On the other hand, I have been a New York Rangers fan for more than half a century. I can’t help it; I was born that way. I follow a couple of Rangers-focused blog sites, but my favorite is Blueshirt Banter.  The blogs are good and solid, but not overly spectacular. I like Blueshirt Banter because of the comments.

The commenters are witty, sometimes eliciting actual guffaws from me. The administrators make sure no one gets too nasty. Anyone who does, disappears like an informer at a mob wedding.  Sometimes I need a laugh after a Rangers game, you know?

But what’s best is the “grammar police” who have no problem correcting, in the most jovial manner, whoever wrote the blog.

On what other sports blog can you find a 50+ comment side thread arguing for and against an Oxford comma? How many times have you seen a sports blogger raked over the coals for using “phased” when he meant “fazed”?

Just like any Rangers fan, I’m by necessity a pessimist with a deep, secret hope for success. I am trying to tame my copy editor and writing instructor fanaticism, so I have just been lurking and not commenting.

But observing the Blueshirt Banter commenters pushing for good grammar brings joy to my heart and a tear to my eye.

Comma Wars Rage On

Just when you thought you were safely out of the Oxford (serial) comma melee, it comes back to bite with the force of legal precedence.

Lack of Oxford Comma Could Cost Maine Company Millions in Overtime Dispute”* is the headline for a recent New York Times article.

Folks on either side of this comma issue are firmly (and vocally) supportive. Most news agencies omit the last comma in a series. Most academic style guides require it to be there.

I’m not an advocate of putting commas in all over the place. (Just because you tend to pause doesn’t mean a comma belongs there.) However, I feel the consistent use of the Oxford comma prevents confusion.  Really, in an age of electronic writing, what’s the reason for leaving it out?

No matter what side you are on, this law needed to be written more clearly.  Here is the piece of legislation:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing,
packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

The argument (successful as it turns out) is that “distribution” is part of the “packing for” phrase.  In my not-so-legal mind, that would require a conjunction to appear after “storing.” On the other hand, putting the comma after “shipment” would have saved everyone a whole bunch of time, effort, and money.

This just goes to prove that commas can have a huge impact on life.


*This link might not work if you’ve gone over your free limit of news stories.

A Comma’s Job Security?

bewilderd commaThe comma stood on the corner, bleating, “Please, can someone help me? I know I belong somewhere, but I can’t quite remember where.”

Devon Taylor, copy editor, sat at the counter of the diner across the street and watched as passers-by skittered around the pitiful punctuation mark. They looked away determined to not notice it.

Devon (destined to become The Nib) couldn’t really blame them. Commas were notoriously slippery creatures. But there was something about this comma that made Devon think it was truly in trouble.

The editor set down the empty coffee cup and wandered across the street.

“What brings you to Conjunctionville?” Devon asked the punctuation mark.

“Oh! Thank you for helping,” the comma was practically hopping. “I think I’m supposed to meet a couple of independent clauses for a job, but I can’t remember all the details. It was supposed to be set up by the FANBOYS.  I read over a couple of news stories, but they don’t seem to want commas hanging out with conjunctions that link independent clauses. I just don’t know what to do.”

“I’m a copy editor, and I’ve noticed more and more news sites (like our competition, the Pencil Post) have been leaving you guys out between independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. I thought it was some sort of cost-cutting move.”

The comma, dejected, said, “I was convinced I’d always have a job. Sure, those Oxford commas have it rough what with some people using them and some not. Who thought anyone would eliminate commas in compound sentences?”

“Well, the Associated Press Stylebook sure doesn’t,” Devon said. “It specifically states you should be in there, and most news organizations follow AP – or at least say they do.”

Devon’s heart went out to the comma which was, by now, in tears.

“Look, I have a connection at the Department of English Language Offenses. It’s just two blocks down the street on your right. When you get there, ask for Detective Dis Connect. Maybe he can help you. Tell him Devon Taylor sent you.”

The comma confidently strode toward the DELO. Devon wasn’t so sure it could be helped. The world was changing, and writers seemed to be getting lazier.

An Age-Old Problem

Hunt and peck

“This is it, the Hunt & Peck,” Sgt. Dis Connect said.

He opened the door and let Grammar Smith walk in before him.

Grammar peered across the dim barroom. There wasn’t much going on. A few Oxford commas were in the corner, hunched over their drinks, commiserating over their lot. Slumped at the bar, nursing a cocktail, was Grammar’s prey.

“Henrietta Hyphen?” Grammar asked as she and Dis approached the bar.

“Who wants to know?”

“I’m Inspector Grammar Smith of the Department of English Language Offenses. This is Sgt. Dis Connect.” They flashed their badges.

“We’d like you to come down to the station to have a chat,” Grammar continued.

“Why?” Ms. Hyphen wasn’t exactly belligerent; she was just strongly uncooperative.

“We’ve had a complaint that you assaulted a news reporter.”

“Are you kidding me?! She actually filed a complaint? That idiot was making my life miserable. She couldn’t decide when she wanted me and when she didn’t. What an airhead!”

“What do you mean?” Grammar asked.

“She kept tryingt to throw me in places where I didn’t belong. She’d write someone was ‘24-years-old’ or, even worse, ‘18-years old.’ Then she’d write ‘the 4 year old boy’ which is totally wrong. Yeah, I got huffy and gave her a shove, but that’s not assault.”

“Hold on a second,” Grammar said. She consulted the AP Stylebook site on her tablet. (She’d been tricked before by “backyard,” which the AP says should always be one word.)

Under “ages,” she found that hyphens should only be used when an age is being used as an adjective before a noun or as a noun: the 25-year-old scotch, the 5-year-old, or the 105-year-old square dancer.

However, it should be The United States is 241 years old.

“Well, the reporter was wrong and doesn’t seem to understand how to properly punctuate compound adjectives. However, you still shouldn’t have put your hands on her,” Grammar said. “I’ll  put this down as unfounded, but stay out of trouble.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Henrietta turned back to her drink.