Monthly Archives: April 2017

Similar Sentences, Different Outcomes

I’ve had a book for eons, Questions You Always Wanted to Ask About English (but were afraid to raise your hand), by Maxwell Nurnberg. Many of the exercises make you think. Look at these pairs of very similar sentences and answer the questions:

A. Which sounds more conspiratorial?

  1. We’d like to invite you to dessert with us tomorrow evening.
  2. We’d like to invite you to desert with us tomorrow evening.

B. Which draft board’s needs were the greatest?

  1. The medical board accepted men with perforated eardrums.
  2. The medical board excepted men with perforated eardrums.

C. Which question would an investigator ask about a specific group?

  1. Were there voices raised in protest?
  2. Were their voices raised in protest?

D. Which Joe is the eager beaver?

  1. Joe submitted to many orders.
  2. Joe submitted too many orders.

E. Which statement is concerned with ethical standards?

  1. The principles in the case are well known.
  2. The principals in the case are well known.

Remember, if you write an actual word, even if it’s wrong, your spellchecker won’t pick it up. Proofread meticulously.

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A Quick Punctuation Quiz

Which choice is correct? Check your answers at the end of the quiz.

  1. (a) Smith referred to her as, “that useless cow.”  (b) Smith referred to her as “that useless cow.”
  2. Eyewitnesses fled the scene in (a) a brown, 2002 Ford  (b) a brown 2002 Ford.
  3. (a) Dr. Allen told her to: do whatever it takes to get the consent signed. (b) Dr. Allen told her to do whatever it takes to get the consent signed.
  4. Exxon is a (a) publicly traded company (b) publicly-traded company.
  5. The defendants seek to (a) run out the clock (b) run-out the clock.

 

Answers: 1. (b)  2. (b)  3. (b)  4. (a)  5. (a)

How did you do?

This quiz is modified from Bryan Garner’s Law Prose lessons. He is a consultant who leads continuing legal education seminars. The answers are correct whether you are a lawyer or a third grader.

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There’s a Name for It

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Have you noticed how so many politicians drone on and on and on and on, frequently using the conjunction and, as I just did, to connect clauses, phrases, and complete (and sometimes incomplete) sentences? Trust me, they do it:

“And just let me add, Ms. Reporter, that we are going to have a budget by next week, and some people have said we won’t have one until September, and I know they are skeptical, and I want to reassure you that the American people won’t be willing to wait that long, and you’ll see how efficiently Congress can work.”

Wake up, please, just long enough for me to tell you that using a conjunction repetitively is a figure of speech called polysyndeton.  You will probably forget that Greek word in about 15 seconds, as will I, but we can at least recognize that poly means many, as in many, many ands, ors, buts, fors, and yets.

Sloppy speech and writing result from lazy thinking. It really is a good idea to choose your words carefully before committing them to the screen or the airwaves.

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than speak and remove all doubt.”

This quotation is variously attributed to Lincoln, Voltaire, Mark Twain, Samuel Johnson, and that most prolific of authors, Anonymous.

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Some Random Comma Rules

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In the following examples, I’m going to put an X where a comma belongs.

I’ve noticed that a use for commas I learned as a child has been disappearing (see above):

Thanks for everythingX Laura.

GoX Bears!

Both of those sentences should take a comma before the official names. This may be a battle I’ve lost, but I’m still using this rule in my own writing.

Some commas are needed for clarity:

When I was about to enter the houseX my cousin showed up.

Don’t forget a comma when your sentence ends with a confirming question:

You finished the report yesterdayX didn’t you?

 

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Quotation Marks, Part 7 (!)

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We don’t know who made up all these punctuation rules; they are merely for convenience and ease of reading. So here goes with one more on the use of quotation marks.

You remember that periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, right? Here’s another “always” rule:

Colons and semicolons always go outside quotation marks:

The English teacher told us that tomorrow we will read “Mending Wall”; no one in the class knew the poem’s author was Robert Frost.

I needed only one thing before reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”: a thesaurus.

 

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Quotation Marks, Part 6

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© Judi Birnberg   There must be a comma and quotation marks somewhere.

Did you know periods and commas always go inside quotation marks? Would I lie to you? (The Brits do the opposite, however.)

Here are a couple of examples:

Our teacher assigned us to read Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”

“The Turn of the Screw,” a short novel by Henry James, is considered a type of ghost story.

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Quotation Marks, Part 4: Quotes Within Quotes

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Sometimes you need to use both double and single quotation marks in one sentence. Remember, this is the American manner of punctuating. The British system is the opposite of ours: they use single quotes where we use doubles.

Here is an American example: Joginder stated, “My classics professor assigned the first 40 pages of ‘The Odyssey’ for our next meeting.”

Normally, you would put “The Odyssey” in double quotes, but because it is within a statement that needs double quotes, you use single quotes for the “inside” one.

Joginder may ask, “Did Seema really say, ‘Why would I date him after the rude comment he made to me?’ “

That is a quoted question within another quoted question. Both sets of quotation marks come at the end of the sentence. It’s important to leave a space between the single and double quotes. Singles always come inside doubles (in America).

You may quote me.

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