Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Does This Belong to You?

Whose hair is this?

You are correct. It’s Justin Bieber’s hair.
To show that the hair belongs to Justin Bieber, as you can see, we add an ’s to the end of his name.

Whose head is this?

Wrong! It's not Bruce Willis's; it's Britney Spears's head.

To show that the head belongs to Ms. Spears, we also add an ’s. But because her name ends in an s, if we feel like the pronunciation would be too awkward with the extra s, we have the option to simply add the without the s:

Britney Spears’ head

Whose black coats are melding together?

You are correct. Those are the Olsen twins coats.

Because the coats belong to both twins, we place the apostrophe after the s, which shows that the coats belong to both twins. If we wrote the Olsen twin’s coats, it would incorrectly imply that the coats only belonged to one of the twins.

To illustrate why apostrophe placement is so important, let’s take a walk down Olsen twin lane.

Remember a few years ago when Mary Kate’s struggle with anorexia was all over the tabloids? Imagine that this was a US Weekly magazine headline:

Olsen Twins’ Struggle with Anorexia Intensifies

The apostrophe’s placement suggests that both Olsen twins struggled with anorexia. Because of the tabloid’s strict policy on the integrity of their material, US Weekly would simply be mortified to discover that their tiny punctuation faux pas incorrectly implied Ashley had an eating disorder too.

Well, that’s it for apostrophes. I’m off to read about where Brad and Jennifer are secretly meeting this week.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Waistline by the Wayside

When I got home from teaching Wednesday night, I curled up on my bed in fetal position for a good twenty minutes. That’s how wrecked I was after trying to teach three hours of capitalization rules and the value of concise sentences to students who had visions of turkey dancing in their heads.

After unsuccessfully trying to win my students over with promises of knowledge and better writing skills, I resorted to bribery: if they merely pretended to be interested in the next lesson, I promised to let them out fifteen minutes early. Even that only kind of worked. Midway through the next lesson, a student randomly asked me, “What are you doing for Thanksgiving, Ms. Baranick?”

It was even obvious from the typos in their most recent essays that they had Thanksgiving on the mind.

One student, when writing about three changes she plans on making in her life, was obviously subconsciously contemplating the effects of the delicious food she would be consuming the next day:

I plan on letting the trivial things in my life fall by the waistline.

I like how this one thinks. I’m all for letting my waistline fall by the wayside on Thanksgiving too.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Pilgrims and Plumbers

Last night, I watched a show on the History channel about Thanksgiving, which reminded me why I should just stick to HBO series and America’s Next Top Model. I found out a lot of things about my favorite holiday that I would rather not have known.

First of all- and most disturbing- did you know that on the day after Thanksgiving plumbers receive the most emergency calls? Eeeeeew!

Another disappointment: Pilgrims didn’t actually wear black hats and buckled shoes. Next, someone’s going to ruin my St. Patrick’s Day by telling me that Leprechauns don’t actually wear green top hats and knickers.

And check this out: historians are not even sure that turkey was consumed at the original Thanksgiving feast. And my favorite, pumpkin pie, definitely was not.

Oh, and that whole lovely story about the Pilgrims inviting the Native Americans to celebrate with them in thanks of the good harvest- bullshit. The Native Americans did what I had to do in high school when I wasn’t invited to the popular crowd’s parties: they crashed. And I just read that days before the feast the Pilgrims tried to chop off the local chief’s head.

So much for the colonial Woodstock I had in mind.

But, I’ve been thinking about it, and despite Thanksgiving’s origin, I think it’s important to celebrate. It’s not just a holiday dedicated to eating delicious food; it’s about gathering with family and friends, and, most importantly, being grateful for what we have. In fact, although it’s a couple of days early, I am going to start being grateful right now:

I am grateful for my students. Without their overflowing cornucopia of errors, I wouldn’t have been inspired to start this blog, nor would I have the fuel to keep it going.

I am grateful to spell check and grammar check. If they did their jobs perfectly, I would be unemployed.

For similar reasons, I am grateful to the English language for being so crazy and convoluted.

I am grateful that I can eke out a grammar lesson about thank you:

Did you know that when thank you is used as an expression it doesn’t have a hyphen, but when it’s used as a noun or an adjective it does:

Expression: Thank you for saving me a piece of pumpkin pie.
Adjective: I deserve a thank-you note.
Noun: You at least owe me a thank-you.

Speaking of owing thank-yous, I owe Emily a gigantic thank-you for proofreading my posts.

And I owe all of you who are reading this blog millions of thank-yous. You could be on the TMZ website right now reading about Lindsay Lohan, but you are here. Reading about grammar. (What’s wrong with you?)I am eternally grateful for your lovely comments, the wonderful content on your blogs, and the supportive community.

Have a lovely Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Cheap Thrills

Yesterday, I was trying to purchase a drink from a vending machine. I slid my relatively crisp dollar bill into the slot, and, as I am sure we have all experienced, it spit the dollar right back out at me. I smoothed the dollar out and tried it again, but again the machine spit it back out. After the second rejection, this thought actually went through my mind: “In this economy, the vending machine shouldn’t be so picky.”

Although the bad economy has affected some of us far more severely than others, I think it’s safe to say that the economy has had an effect on most of our psyches.

To cope, we’ve been embracing relatively cheap diversions that make us feel good. According to the Huffington Post, the following industries have experienced a spike: family movies, donuts, fireworks and gum.

It makes sense. Nothing on the list costs too much (especially if you sneak the donuts into the theater instead of buying a $10.00 bag of popcorn), and each product either makes us feel good or gives us a little spark of excitement.

Well, I would like to propose an addition to the list of cheap thrills: exclamation points.

Every time I read about exclamation points in a grammar book, the author warns us not overuse them. And, under healthy economic conditions, I totally agree with that. But, while everything else is so dreary, why not make writing feel more exciting?

Exclamation marks are like punctuation fireworks.

They’re fun! They’re cute!! They’re exciting!!! They’re free!!!!!!!!

And I promise that when the economy has recovered, I will do my part in reinstating exclamation point limitations. After I have returned from my Mediterranean holiday on my yacht, of course.

What cheap thrills have helped you through the recession?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Nobody's Perfect, but...

Remember when Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder broke up? That was sad. In my opinion, sadder than the Brad and Jennifer split and the Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins split combined. Johnny and Winona were so beautiful together in that early 90s brooding brunette sort of way. And the tattoo. Oh, the tattoo!

Can you imagine having your name followed by the word forever on Johnny Depp’s arm? He must have been really into her. And I totally get it; I was really into her too. During the late 80s/early 90s, I pretty much wanted to be her- especially in Heathers and Reality Bites. If tattoo transfusions were an option, I would have signed up.

As you can imagine, I was pretty disappointed when I heard about the whole shoplifting scandal. Considering the number of times I rented Heathers, Winona should have had plenty of money to buy whatever she wanted.

And I don’t know how I feel about the excuse she gave to the security guard who caught her: that she was shoplifting to research for a role.

On the one hand, it sounds as lame as Lindsay Lohan telling the police that the pants she was wearing with cocaine in the pockets were not hers.

But, on the other hand, maybe she did actually think it was okay. Celebrities have their asses kissed all day. They get sent to rehab instead of jail. They are sex addicts rather than cheaters. They suffer from exhaustion rather than coming down from drugs. So, it is possible that she actually didn’t know any better; maybe she thought that if she needed to research for a role it would be totally cool because she was Winona ‘Effin Ryder.

Which of those scenarios is worse: ignoring the rules or ignorance?

I often ask myself the same question regarding the errors found in my students’ essays.

Is it worse when they actually know better but don’t proofread their work as carefully as they should and end up making silly errors (e.g., writing pubic instead of public)?

Or is it worse when they make errors because they don’t know the rules (e.g., sticking commas all over the place so that reading it gives you whiplash)?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Grammar Fashion

I admit it. I have clipped a picture of Jennifer Aniston from a magazine and handed it to a hairdresser hoping it would change my life. I know I’m not the only one; the Rachel haircut even has its own Wikipedia page.

“The Rachel” phenomenon is just one of the many examples of how incredibly influenced we are by celebrities. Of course, it shouldn’t be that way. We should be inspired by our nurses, our teachers, our artists and our caretakers. But the reality is most of us would probably aspire to be more like George Clooney than George Washington.

This is why I appreciate when celebrities, like George Clooney, are outspoken about humanitarian causes. I know that some people get annoyed with the likes of George and Angelina and Bono for appearing a little holier than thou, but the truth is that people copy celebs.

One of the aspects people copy most from celebrities is the way they dress, so I’d like to thank the following celebrities for trying to promote grammar awareness through their fashion:

Heidi Klum is promoting an issue that is very dear to my own heart: she would like to remind everyone not to miss their periods.

Can you spot Rhianna's punctuation mark of choice? Hint: it's very close to her heart.

Her left breast is covered by a comma.

In a surprising move, Jennifer Lopez, never one to hide from the spotlight, promotes punctuation that whispers subtlety. With her breasts cradled by parentheses, she is conveying that her cleavage is by no means the focal point of this ensemble; it is merely an aside.

On second thought, maybe those are quotation marks, not parantheses, and she's trying to express that her breasts are speaking to us.

Yes, that makes more sense.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Confessions of a Shopaholic

I am shocked when people tell me they hate grocery shopping. What’s not to love? It combines two of the best things in the world: shopping and food. And what’s even better is that it’s mandatory shopping, like if you don’t do it, you will starve to death. I try to make a similar argument about clothes- that my soul will starve to death if it isn’t fed a new top or pair of shoes weekly- but my husband doesn’t buy it.

The only thing that makes me uncomfortable about grocery shopping is what sometimes happens when I am in the check-out lane. When someone lines up behind me and starts unloading items on the counter, I get anxiety about whether or not to place that rubber stopper between my food and theirs. I don’t want them to feel like I don’t trust them or that I am so cheap I am terrified of paying for their watermelons.

But, then I remind myself, “Jenny, we use the rubber stopper like we use the comma, to separate items from one another so it’s easier on everyone.” And that makes me feel better about slapping it down.

Example: I bought chocolate pudding fruit juice rice milk and beer.

Without the commas, we don’t know if I bought chocolate pudding or chocolate and pudding, fruit juice or fruit and juice, rice milk or rice and milk.

So, we add the commas and it’s crystal clear:

I bought chocolate pudding, fruit, juice, rice milk, and beer.

That's right, I like rice milk.

However, here’s a trickier scenario. Say you are going to the market on your lunch break and your colleague hands you twenty dollars and asks you to buy her a Red Bull. And you think, “Shit, that girl talks enough as it is without an energy drink, and I don’t have any cash, so I am going to have to pay separately for my stuff and her stuff. This sucks!”

Wouldn’t it be nice if, for those rare occasions, the supermarket provided two sizes of rubber stoppers: one small one to divide your items from your colleague’s items and then a larger one to divide your and your colleague’s items from those belonging to the person behind you? Otherwise, don’t you kind of feel guilty, like you are taking two turns in line?

The punctuation world offers something akin to the two sizes of rubber stoppers. If the items we list in a series already contain commas, then we use semi-colons to separate those items:

Last weekend, I shopped at Whole Foods, where I bought my produce; Ralphs, where I bought household items; and Trader Joe’s, where I went because the cute check-out guys always starts up conversations with me.

I know it must be part of the Trader Joe's customer service training, but, what can I say, I’m a sucker for male attention. Now, you see why I need to buy more clothes: so I can wear them when I go grocery shopping.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Where's the E?


Have you ever wondered why grades jump from D to F and exclude E?

You haven’t? Really? I don’t understand. What do you spend your time thinking about?

Well, I have wondered. So I poked around a little bit on Google, and I found a pretty logical explanation:

It dates back to the 1690s, around the time of the Salem Witch Trials. People were very superstitious at the time, and during an outbreak of the ebola virus, the magistrates prohibited anyone from using the letter E because they thought it would summons the ebola virus from the spirit world.

Okay, that’s not really why. It’s because, as many of you may remember, back in elementary school, this scale was used:

E= Excellent
S= Satisfactory
N= Needs to improve
U- Unsatisfactory.

So, if they had started to use E to indicate a failing grade, the students may have mistakenly thought they did an excellent job. Therefore, they opted for the next letter in line, which worked out swimmingly because F is the first letter in FAIL.

I can see their point, but still, I think it’s weird to just skip the letter E completely, so I propose this compromise:


I like it because it sounds like F, but it doesn’t just neglect E all together.

I also like it because, as you will see momentarily, it will help me explain something that has always been very difficult for me in the past, something I have managed to avoid during my eleven months of blogging about common grammar errors, something I knew I’d have to address one of these days and now have to because somebody asked: affect versus effect.

To tackle this daunting task, let’s start with the definitions of affect and effect:

Affect is a verb that means "to influence.”
Effect is a noun that means "a result.”

In a sentence, affect can be replaced with influence:

The weather affects my grades.
The barometric pressure also influences my grades.

And effect can be replaced with result.

Rain has a negative effect on my grades.
Barometric pressures below thirty have a negative result on my grades.

So, how do we remember this?

One way we can remember that affect with an A means to influence is because Type A personalities are the ones who do the influencing.

Another trick we can use is that affect with an A is a verb, which is an action word. Affect starts with an A and action starts with an A.

Now, on to effect:

Effect with an E means a result. Grades are results, and if we remember that EF is the new F, then we can remember to use EFfect when writing about results.

Have an effin' great weekend!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

I Found My People

I mentioned in my last post that I was going to Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear. Well, I went. I red eye flighted (I know that’s not a word, but that’s how tired I am) my way there on Thursday and flew home at 7am on Sunday. But, even though I sacrificed all that sleep, I never did get close enough to tell Jon and Stephen the good news: that I had opted to go out with them over Clive and Johnny.

All of these people were in my way:

But, you know, it’s cool. The rally was awesome. The music was fantastic, the comedy was hilarious, Jon’s final speech was inspirational, and I was basically in grammar nerd heaven. Check out this awesomeness: