Friday, July 9, 2010

If Only I Had Known

It seems to have become commonplace to hear the following construction:

“If I would have known, then I would have…”

What is the problem with this, you say?  There are too many conditions, that’s what.  It should be, “If I HAD known, then I would have…”

There is a cause and effect relationship between the two events in an “if/then” statement.  The knowing leads to the second thing, which didn’t happen because the speaker didn’t know.  The condition of knowing was not met, so the second thing, say, baking a cake, could not be fulfilled.  If such and such had happened, then this other thing would have also happened.

Bert and Ernie used to sing, “If I knew you were coming, I’d have baked a cake.”  That could also be stated, “If I had known you were coming, then I would have baked a cake.”

Bottom line, there should only be one “would” per statement.  You may say, “I wish I had gone,” “If I had been there,” “If I had seen it,” etc. before your “would” clause, describing the unmet condition that would have caused you to do something else.

If I had known this rule, then I would have said it correctly!

If I had remembered the sandwiches, then you would not have gone hungry.

The order of your if/then clauses can also be reversed, leading to sentences like the following:

It would have been nice if you had told me not to wear red to the game.

I would have worn my raincoat if I had watched the weather report.

In these cases, the effect is described before giving the cause.

Unfortunately for grammar police like me, a wide range of fairly well-educated people like MBAs, school administrators, and members of Congress make such general use of the “would have/would have” syntax, that my trying to change the habit is akin to holding back the ocean with a spoon (which is probably true for most of my pet peeves having to do with the spoken word).  However, I have to try!

Note:  This rule still applies even if you think you're only using one "would have" in your sentence; it could still be wrong.  If you're lamenting things that were or were not done in the past, you still need "had" rather than "would have."

I wish I had gone to that movie with you.

I wish you had told me you were going.

I wish we hadn't bought the big box of popcorn.

In these cases, the "would" clause is implied as the second part of those thoughts ("because it would have been better if I had").  The cause needs “had,” while the effect gets “would have.”

I wish we had bought shares of Apple a few years ago (because now we would have been rich).

I suppose I'm still going to see or hear my friends write or say it incorrectly now and then, but it's starting to give me a facial tic!

To End With a Preposition or Not

Most grammarians nowadays seem to agree that it is acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition, if you have to.  There are just so many expressions (like “have to”) that we use in English, it would be awkward always to avoid putting them at the end of a phrase.  There are usually ways to rewrite or restate a sentence, but it’s not necessary to knock yourself out for informal situations.

However, what I would like to address is going out of your way to end your phrase with a preposition, when there is a much better place to put it: close to the verb.  For example:

Put your chairs up.

Put up your chairs.

Why separate the put and the up?  The preposition in this case tells you exactly where your action is going, so why wait until after saying what the object is to add that information?

Take the trash out.

Take out the trash.

I think some people might say it the first way just to put extra emphasis on where the trash should go (especially if you’ve had to ask your teenager three or four times to do this).  But, I suspect it would be just as effective to put all the weight on the first two words together, unless you think he might mistakenly take in the trash.  [I think it’s actually harder to say it the first way because you’re waiting until the end of the sentence to lift your vocal inflection (like the French), and you tend to run out of air.]

This is different from using a whole prepositional phrase.  You would say, “Put your homework in the basket,” not “Put in the basket your homework.”  I’m not trying to make you crazy!

So, that’s really all I had to say about that.  I advocate folks thinking about their word choice and placement.  I try to say “with whom” or “with which,” rather than putting a dangling “with” at the end of a phrase, but sometimes it can’t be helped.  All I ask is that you try to be aware of what you’re saying (or writing) and see if there isn’t a better way, especially one that keeps prepositions close to the words they’re modifying.

By the way, it’s only a matter of time before I make some grammatical error myself in these posts (I’ve found a few while proofreading), so go easy on the gloating if you catch me!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Comma On Over

To continue with punctuation issues, I thought I might tackle comma usage.  However, that is quite a large subject, so let’s just look at commas in direct address.  That means, when one person is talking to another and calls that person by name (or nickname or whatever).  In order to differentiate the person (or animal) from the rest of the sentence, you should separate the name with a comma.  That’s all there is to it.

Here are some examples:

Mom, may I have a piece of pie?

Hey, you, what are you doing in my trashcans?

You know, Bob, you’re the third person today to offer me a slice of fruitcake.

I want to go to the store, Mary.

Yes, sweetie, you may leave the table.

Happy birthday, Phillip!

Of course, this may not seem like a very important element in your writing.  Surely the person being spoken to knows he or she is separate from the rest of the phrase?  Remember, though, that commas indicate when the reader should pause, and that can change the meaning of the sentence.

Consider the following distinction:

It’s time to eat Rover.

It’s time to eat, Rover.

In the first one, you have decided to eat the dog.  In the second, you are simply calling the dog to his dinner, a subtle but important difference, especially to the dog!

Now, if I have convinced you of the need for commas in direct address, let me describe the pattern.  Whether the name comes at the beginning, middle, or end of the sentence, it is set apart from the rest by commas, either before, after, or on both sides, as in my examples above.  Got it?

(Thanks to one of my teacher colleagues for the Rover example.  On Facebook I have seen “grandma” used in the same demonstration with the tagline, "Punctuation Saves Lives!")

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Apostrophes and the Plural Noun

I recently read a menu that offered salad’s and topping’s, among other atrocities.  I was inclined to gag, but my friend calmly stated that I was the only one who cared.

As I sincerely hope that isn’t true, I will try to clarify the rules here.  Simply raise your right hand and repeat after me, “I will not use an apostrophe to make a plural noun.”

Apostrophes are for contractions (I’ve, you’re, can’t, etc.) or possessives (Bob’s house, Mary’s dog, and so on).  We have gotten in the habit of using them to make plurals of acronyms, though, like CD’s and DVD’s, and that has messed up our understanding of spelling rules that we had probably mastered by the fourth grade.

I contend that the practice of using apostrophes with acronyms is not necessary, since the acronym in capitals is clearly differentiated from the lower case s (CDs and DVDs).  The only time the apostrophe lends clarity to a plural is when one is talking about a single letter, as in more than one a or iA’s are something different from as, so we need a way to show that.  However, that is no excuse to see things like shirt’s, when we are referring to more than one shirt and not to something that belongs to a shirt!

Adults who probably never made this mistake when they were children are now trying to stick apostrophes in all kinds of words just because they end in an s.  Why?  It’s crazy!

[And there’s another one:  it’s is the contraction of “it is,” its is the possessive pronoun.]

I also notice this issue when it comes to referring to more than one member of the same family.  If you just want the plural without the possessive, there is no apostrophe.

Harry Potter’s relatives are the Dursleys.

If you need the plural and the possessive both, then the apostrophe goes on the outside.

The Dursleys’ house is number four, Privet Drive.

If you’re just talking about one person and his belongings, then you can put the apostrophe before the s.

Vernon Dursley’s car is brand new.

If the family name happens to end with an s already, then it gets a little more complicated, but you still don’t need an apostrophe unless something belongs to them.  I have read more Harry Potter fans writing about the Dursley’s, when they mean the whole family, than I can count.  I just want it to stop!

To make a plural noun, there are a number of spelling rules you have to remember:  add s or es, change f to v, change y to i (if the y is preceded by a consonant), not to mention all those irregular plurals (men, sheep, children, etc.).  However, none of them (with the lone exception of single letters) requires the use of any apostrophes!  End of rant.

Now, Where to Put You?

A less critical but occasionally relevant literary concern is the location of prepositional phrases within a sentence.

As a reminder, a prepositional phrase starts with a preposition and ends with a noun or pronoun and gives extra information about where or when the action of the sentence is taking place.

For example: “on the moon,” “after the movies,” “over the river,” “through the woods,” “to Grandmother’s house,” “with my little sister,” and so on.

In a simple sentence, the prepositional phrase is usually right next to the verb or noun it modifies, so there is no confusion.  However, in longer sentences, especially where there is more than one prepositional phrase, there is potential to cloud up the author’s intent.

“Mrs. Smith put on her raincoat after the movie with the flowers.”

So, is it the raincoat or the movie that has the flowers?  In this case (I decided), the raincoat has flowers on it, so a better sentence would put that description right next to the appropriate noun.  “Mrs. Smith put on her raincoat with the flowers after the movie.”  Or, even better, “After the movie, Mrs. Smith put on her raincoat with the flowers.”

I recently heard an example of this on the radio.  The speaker said, “Why can’t I find a plumber who will tell me how much he charges to fix my pipes over the phone?”  My answer was, because he can’t fix your pipes over the phone!

Of course, the point of the advertisement was to emphasize the fact that this particular plumber gave estimates over the phone (the same price for everybody, in fact), hence the reason to put that phrase last.  But, it would have made a little more sense if the “over the phone” phrase had come right after the “tell me” part, since it relates directly to where the telling does or does not take place.

My corrected version would be, “Why can’t I find a plumber who will tell me over the phone how much he charges to fix my pipes?”  The actor speaking the line could always put a little vocal emphasis on the underlined part if desired.

I used to work in advertising, though, so I know final decisions on copy are not always based on anything your English teacher tried to impart with all that sentence diagramming.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Grammar Girl Knows Her Stuff

I want to point out that an excellent site for learning more grammar rules and writing tips is "Grammar Girl:  Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing."

I have been listening to her podcasts for years, and she has a great way of explaining concepts that makes them easy to understand.  Since she and I are both passionate about helping people speak and write correctly, I encourage you to use her as a reference.  She is my hero!

May 30, 2010

Don't Be Afraid of "Me!"

The personal pronouns “I,” “me,” and “myself” are not interchangeable. Each one has a particular purpose and should never be used in the place of another.

When I am the subject of the sentence, the one doing the action, I will refer to myself as “I,” whether or not there are any other persons doing the action with me.

I am going to the beach.

Mary-Sue and I are going to the beach.

Bob, Mary-Sue, and I are going to the beach.

I always refer to myself last in a list of people because it is more polite.

When I am the object of the sentence, the one to whom the action is being done, I will refer to myself as “me,” whether or not I am alone.

My mom is taking me to the beach.

My mom is taking Mary-Sue and me to the beach.

Would you take Mary-Sue and me to the beach?

This is just between you and me.

There is something you should know about Bob and me.

The important thing to remember is to use the same pronoun to refer to yourself as you would if there were no other people being mentioned. You would never say, “Would you take I to the beach?” so don’t say “Would you take Mary-Sue and I to the beach?”!!!

When I want to reflect the action back on myself or place extra emphasis on the fact that I have done something, I will use “myself.”

I had to cut my hair myself because no one was around to help.

I, myself, am responsible for my actions.

Let me tell you a story about myself.

I am learning more about myself everyday.

“Myself” cannot be used in place of “me,” although this is a common mistake. Don’t say, “Give that to Bob or myself.” It should be, “Give that to Bob or me.” You can’t do anything to “myself;” you can only do things to “yourself!”

Phrases that annoy Professor Tee

Anakin, don’t do anything without first consulting either myself or the council.

Please turn in your report to Charlene or myself.

Would you take Nancy and I to the airport?

I want to tell you a story about Dave and I.

All these atrocities are sentences I have heard in real life (or in movies) from apparently well-educated adults!

People are afraid of using “me” because of hick-sounding speech like, “Me and Mary-Sue are going to the beach.” However, that does not mean that “me” is always wrong! When in doubt, just remove the other person, and that should make it clear which pronoun to use.

Please consult me.

Please consult the council or me. (List yourself last, Obi Wan!)

Turn in your report to me.

Turn in your report to Charlene or me.

Take me to the airport.

Take Nancy and me to the airport.

I want to tell you a story about myself.

I want to tell you a story about Dave and myself.

(Or she could have said, “Something happened to Dave and me.”)

May 30, 2010