NOTE: I don't post to this blog super-duper often anymore, because I'm busy writing, well, books. (Read more about that here.) For more up-to-date, day-to-day ramblings, visit my Facebook page.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Comma's Dirty Little Secret

The comma is arguably the most misused, least understood member of our punctuation family. People feel free to throw them into their sentences willy-nilly without much regard for the rules. What gives?

Here’s the dirty little secret grammar nazis the world over don’t want you to know: The rules are—well—bendy.

Oh, don’t get me wrong. Commas come with a nice set of firm rules that someday we’ll talk and no doubt argue about. But remember what a comma is for in the first place.

It’s a pause.

No matter what rule I come up with, someone will certainly find it violated in writing—good writing, in fact. Because good writers do break grammar and punctuation rules, usually deliberately, and many see the comma as the poetic pause that it is. For example:

The way to a man’s heart is certainly through his stomach.

That's a perfectly fine sentence just the way it is. But is this wrong?

The way to a man’s heart is, certainly, through his stomach.

Actually, it isn't. We don’t need the commas to make the sentence correct, but they don’t hurt it, either. The reason has to do with the Reader Voice.

You probably don't know what I'm talking about since I just made that phrase up. The Reader Voice is that soothing voice in your head that you hear as you read. (Mine sounds a lot like Gregory Peck. To each her own.) In lieu of moving our lips or reciting aloud, many of us hear the words in our head as we peruse the page (screen). In the example above, the writer stuck in those commas so that your Reader Voice will pause and consider the word certainly. You’ll hear the sentence differently with the commas than without.

So why bother with comma rules at all? Commas do enhance understanding. And in some cases, putting them in the wrong spot will result in miscommunication. As writers, we have to know how the mechanics of our sentences work so that they do the job we’re asking them to do.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pet Peeve: “Literally”

Okay, class. Who knows what the word literally means? Agnes?

“Really. Truly. Actually.”

Lovely. Well done, Agnes. As for the rest of you, who might blithely write, “Whenever Jeremy talks to me, I literally have butterflies in my stomach,” I’m sorry to hear you’ve ingested insects. But that’s no excuse for misusing this word.

If Candace feels like she has butterflies in her tummy when Jeremy talks to her, then that’s what she should say. To say she literally has them means she “really, truly, actually” does. The opposite of literally is metaphorically—i.e., “what I’m saying is just an expression, a metaphor.”

Here are some other examples:

The thief literally tore the mattress apart looking for the hundred dollars.
(Correct. The thief took a knife and slashed the mattress open.)

The thief literally turned the room upside down looking for the hundred dollars.
(Really? The floor is now the ceiling? Huh.)

When Romeo asked Juliet to the prom, she literally stared speechless at him for two full minutes.
(Lame, but possible. She stood there, agog, until her vocal cords remembered how to work.)

When Romeo asked Juliet to the prom, she was literally struck dumb.
(Ummm ... did he somehow confer laryngitis? Is she permanently mute?)

Get the idea?

One final note: It would be unfair not to mention that Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11/e, revered by writers and editors alike, claims a meaning (2) for literally:

2. in effect : VIRTUALLY

Venerable Webby goes on to quote Norman Cousins: “...will literally turn the world upside down to combat cruelty ...” and adds this note:

usage Since some people take sense 2 to be the
opposite of sense 1 [“actually”], it has been frequently criticized as a misuse.
Instead, the use is pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis, but it often
appears in contexts where no additional emphasis is necessary.
For shame, Webby! Bowing to the masses! Well, grammar hounds, I say stand up to this shameful pandering. The hyperbole is in the metaphor; it never needs the addition of literally, which only confuses the matter. I don’t care who you quote. Cousins should have said, “ ... will turn the world upside down to combat cruelty.” Why stick literally in there and make yourself look like a baboon?


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Passive vs. Active Voice

What is passive voice and why do writing teachers cringe whenever they see it? These are the questions of the week.

You might wonder what this topic has to do with grammar. Passive voice isn’t incorrect grammar, strictly speaking. But in this space we also address clarity, precision, even beauty in the written word. Besides, passive voice is a term some kid taking an English comp class might need to know. Her Google search has led her to us; let’s not disappoint her.

Voice, as we’re discussing it here, has to do with how a subject and verb work together in a sentence. First let’s look at active voice, which is a straightforward, subject-verb-object construction:

Babe hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth.
Who’s our actor in this scene? Babe. What did he do? He hit. What did he hit? A home run.

Here’s how to spell it out in grammarese:

Subject = Babe
Verb = hit
Object = a home run

(In case you’re wondering, in the bottom of the ninth is frosting on the cake. It’s not part of the discussion here.)

Active voice charges out and fights dragons. Subject! Verb! Object! What could be easier?
Pat stepped on her birthday cake!
Buffy dusted ten vampires!
Katie Anne threw a tantrum in the grocery store!
But here's what happens when we change these sentences to passive voice, that namby-pamby way of writing:
A home run was hit by Babe.
The birthday cake was stepped on by Pat.
Ten vampires were dusted by Buffy.
A tantrum was thrown by Katie Anne in the grocery store.
Look what’s happened here. Suddenly the home run, not Babe, is in charge. Babe has gone hiding under the bleachers. We trudge to the very end of the sentence before we even find out who hit the home run. We’ve stripped the vibrancy from the sentence. It’s lukewarm.

The grammatical breakdown looks like this:

Subject = a home run
Verb = was hit
Object = none; by Babe is a prepositional phrase

It’s sad to reduce a great like Babe Ruth to the status of a prepositional phrase, folks. And can we in good conscience relegate the vampire slayer, or even bratty Katie Anne, to the same position? This is why we call this construction passive voice: Our strong, brave subjects—the people doing the hard work in the sentences—are no longer subjects. The objects have taken their place. And, as we learned last week, there’s the rub.

Passive voice is weak. English teachers hate it. In fact, readers hate it. Strong, active verbs rule the day.

Attention spans being what they are, I’ll continue this lesson on Wednesday, when we’ll discuss when, if ever, passive voice is appropriate. Stay tuned.

Another Word Puzzler to stretch those brain muscles on Tuesday! And yes, what would be the fun of grammar without a test on Friday?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pet Peeve: !?!?!!!

Why does everyone feel the need to exclaim and question with such ferocity? An exclamation point means I’m shouting! Or, at the very least, I’m saying something very strongly! Question marks mean I’m confused. Maybe I’m not very bright.

The other day I walked into the coffee shop and saw a jar on the counter. The note taped to the jar read:

Tips Are Appreciated—THANK YOU!!!!

Guess what? I didn’t leave a nickel.

I don’t need anyone screaming THANK YOU!!!! in my ear. In fact, a sign like that doesn’t need any punctuation at all. It doesn’t even need a smiley face, though I guess I’d prefer that to my eardrums shattering. How much nicer if the sign read:

Tips Are Appreciated—Thanks

Or even:

Thanks for Tipping

Or, God forbid, forget the sign. Just let the blasted jar sit on the counter with a few coins in it. We’d get the idea.

And that’s another thing: Multiple exclamation points (or question marks) are insulting. It looks very much like you’ve had to tie yourself in knots to avoid adding “YOU IDIOT” to the end of your thought. If you e-mail a friend and say:

Got your message. What does it mean???

What you’re really saying is:

You fool, can’t you write a coherent e-mail? I haven’t got time to sift through your garbage. Jeez.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not likely to clarify myself to this clown.

Okay, rant over. Just calm down, okay, everyone??? That’s all I ask!!!

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Pet Peeve: I Could Care Less

No, the title doesn’t mean I don’t care about this week’s peeve. Actually, it drives me up a tree.

In fact, consider this sentence:

Lloyd could care less if Bill is dating Diane.

Okay ... Right now Lloyd cares a certain amount (but we aren’t saying how much). This is obvious because Lloyd could care less.

What’s the problem? Here’s what we mean to say:

Lloyd couldn’t care less if Bill is dating Diane.

The point is, Lloyd doesn’t care at all. There’s no way he could care less about Bill’s dating habits. You couldn’t pay Lloyd to care about it.

So why do we say “Lloyd could care less”? Because of the big grammar boogeyman: laziness.

When I was a kid, I used to hear this phrase all the time: “So what? I couldn’t care less.”

I thought it was very clever at the time (well, I was a kid). But then I got puzzled because as time passed, the “n’t” disappeared. People got tired of saying the word “couldn’t.” It just had too many syllables. Oh well, they thought; we’ll just knock off one. People will still get the idea.

Sadly, when you play to the lowest common denominator, everyone follows. Together we sink into the muck of grammar confusion.

But you know what I’d say to that—I could care less. (A whole lot less.)