Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Day I Become the Tense Mistress

There are many grammatical “things” that bother me (coincidentally enough, the use of the word things is not one of them), but sometimes…certain aspects of grammar just bother me more than others.

Through one of my classes, I have learned a lot about myself, as far as grammatical pet peeves go. Some of them are trivial. Once, I got excited because someone properly used the word coincidentally in a fiction story where many people would have improperly used the word ironically.

For anyone who’s interested:

Coincidentally is the same as coincidently. The former version was first used in 1837, while the latter was first used in 1629. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, they mean “in a coincident manner; concurrently, at the same time.”

Ironically, on the other hand, means “in an ironical manner, by way of irony,” and was first used in this sense in 1576. The OED also lists two alternative meanings—the first “with dissimulation or personation,” which the OED considers obsolete, dating around 1682. The second alternative meaning is a little bit saddening. Labeled a “draft addition” from 2001, the OED says: “in weakened, typically parenthetical use, often opening a sentence: paradoxically, curiously, unexpectedly, coincidentally,” a definition that dates back to 1907 and has documentation as recently as 1997. According to this definition, it seems as though the two words – ironically and coincidentally – could be used as synonyms.

However, by the accepted, prescriptive* definition, they cannot be.

But the ironically vs. coincidentally debate is just one little tick mark in my life. The real thing that bugs me, more than anything, is improper use of tense.

I say “bugs” lightly because it’s completely possible for me to read through an entire story/paper/article and not be absolutely turned off by a weird or awkward tense shift. I can, as well, write articles and stories in which tenses shift appropriately. I can even write paragraphs in which there are multiple tenses. The prescriptivist side of me should really hate this, but for some reason it doesn’t.

And so it is very ironic that I should be christened The Tense Mistress by a good friend.

You see, I recently took to highlighting tense shifts in my creative writing workshop class. Oh sure, I bet it’s a little annoying to get a manuscript back with pink and green highlighting on every verb on the last two or three pages….or the entire story. But the moral is to pick one. And pick the best one. Discussion of this quickly prompted my friends and me to discuss the varying tenses, which I will share with you now.

I’m sure you know the basic past and present…and the debated future tense. But did you know that it went much further than that? That not all past tense verbs were created equal? That there is something called aspect that can totally throw off the flow of your writing? Oh, I’m sure once upon a blue moon you did, but you might have forgotten… or never quite grasped the concept – and that is why I’m here.

The present tense is just as it seems—the here and now. I read, I write, I speak, I type, I dream.

The present progressive shows that an action is going on. Right now, I’m typing this blog about grammar. The present progressive is formed by a present-tense, conjugated verb and the progressive participle (also known as the –ing form) of a verb. Here, present is your tense and progressive is your aspect.

The present perfect shows that an action happened in the past and is, now, affecting the present. I have read a few papers with erratic tense shifts. The present perfect is formed by a present-tense, conjugated verb and the past participle a verb. Let’s keep in mind that a past participle is not the -ed form of a verb. Again, this has present tense and perfect aspect.

To make it even more complicated, you also have simple past, past perfect and past progressive. The simple past is the most basic past tense, often remembered as the -ed form of a verb. I read a book and wrote my paper over it. It happened already—it’s done and over.

The past progressive shows that one action was happening when another happened. I was walking my dog when it started raining. The past progressive, similar to the present progressive, is formed by a past-tense, conjugated verb and the progressive participle of another verb. Notice here that started is in the simple past. You will have used those two together. Can you guess what this is? Past tense and progressive aspect.

Past perfect shows that one action in the past is affected by something that happened even further in the past. I had gone to the store when the power went out. Similar to the present perfect, it is formed with a past-tense, conjugated verb and the past participle of a verb. Again, notice how went is in the simple past. How about now? What? Past tense and perfect aspect? Right you are, dear reader!

While you may not think about how important it actually is, tense is one of those things that can make-or-break your paper—any paper. Tense affects more than just creative writing; it’s an integral aspect to research or other documented papers for any subject matter. Let’s all jump on the appropriate-tense bandwagon and get it right, people!

*Note: Prescriptivism is a school of grammatical thought in which usage is judged as correct or incorrect, typically based on rules stemming from Latin grammar.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

When Grammar Goes Too Far

You may not know it, but grammar can affect the personal lives of many individuals. Some friends and I were recently talking about a creative writing call for submissions focused on obsession-aversion when I mentioned I wasn’t really obsessed with anything, and thus had nothing to write about.

Being two of my best friends, they quickly pointed out how wrong I was, for I am obsessed with grammar.

According to, obsession can be defined as:
1. Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety.
2. A compulsive, often unreasonable idea or emotion.

However, the OED’s definitions are a bit more fun:
(Note: I’m only listing the applicable definitions)
2. The control, actuation, or tormenting of a person from without by an evil spirit; the fact of being so controlled or affected; an instance of this. Now rare.
3. a. An idea, image, or influence which continually fills or troubles the mind; a compulsive interest or preoccupation; the fact or state of being troubled or preoccupied in this way.

You might not believe it, but poor grammar really can make me anxious. To me, it truly is a tormenting, evil spirit. It would get along quite well with Peeves the Poltergeist.

While shopping at the Covered Bridge Festival in October, I came across a table of fun, decorative glass items made out of wine bottles. My parents recently redecorated the kitchen with a wine motif, and I thought something from the table would be a nice Christmas gift for them. However, I quickly noticed a grammatical error in their sign. I had to walk away from the table. The error in question? An apostrophe used when the word should have been plural, such as “bottle’s” rather than “bottles.”

It may seem minor…but that was just one example in my grammar-obsessed life.

Today, I was looking through tons of brochures, pamphlets, and price lists I received at a recent bridal expo. On one, I found myself circling every grammatical error (again, it was the use of an apostrophe to make a word plural). One I can maybe let slide. However, I prefer my strawberry cake made with “bits” of strawberries, rather than “bit’s” of them. This particular cake baker is now at the bottom of my list.

My friends sometimes have to tell me to stop agonizing over the errors and just “let it go.” Or sometimes they ask me not to correct them, like this sentence (with no errors) that came at the end of a rushed, not-grammatically-concise Facebook message from a friend:
“PS don't be mentally correcting my misplaced apostrophes...or spelling,” to which I humorously replied “Too late!”

But for some reason, this passion has been engrained in me since I was a young child. I once got in trouble for correcting the way my grandma pronounced her words. I was maybe six and informed her that she was not, in fact, “warshing” some laundry. Trust me; it did not go over well.

While I’m sure the world thinks it’s odd that I’m picking my wedding vendors based on the linguistic abilities, I pride myself in not contributing to poor use of the English language.

I can actually admit that I am obsessed with grammar. To some, grammar is no big deal, but to me, it is the most evil spirit of them all. But hey – they say admitting the problem is the first step to help.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

You're not using "your" right; write it again

Katie asked if I’d gone to the mall lately. I told her I was there yesterday.


I gave them there coffee.


I gave them their coffee.


I’m meeting Katie and George at the show. Their coming from class.


I’m meeting Katie and George at the show. They’re coming from class.

Your and You’re

You’re is the contraction for you are.

Your is the possessive form for you.

Some examples:


Mark, you’re textspeak is starting to drive me bonkers!


Mark, your textspeak is starting to drive my bonkers!


Your really bad about sending unnecessary messages, like “K.”


You’re really bad about sending unnecessary messages, like “K.”

To, Two, and Too

To is a preposition. It shows the relationship between two things. It also signals the definitive, or unconjugated, form of a verb.

Two is the number 2 in word form.

Too is an adverb.


I had way to much to drink last night!


I had way too much to drink last night!


I have to tickets to paradise.


I have two tickets to paradise.


I, two, went to the Homecoming game.


I, too, went to the Homecoming game.

These three sets of homophones are the ones that bother me, and a lot of other people, the most. However, there are a lot of others that can really trip you up. To end, here are few more examples of homophones:

Allowed (something is permitted)/Aloud (audible)

Ant (picnic-oriented insect)/Aunt (mom or dad’s sister)

Aye (yes, sometimes associated with pirates!)/eye (the seeing organ)/I (first person singular pronoun)

Beat (what a drummer typically keeps)/Beet (the vegetable)

Board (a piece of wood, or a board game)/Bored (not excited)

Brake (what makes the car stop, or the verb to press the brakes)/Break (the verb, to break something)

Ducked (past tense of the verb)/Duct (like a heating duct, or duct tape)

Where (the location question)/Wear (the action, to wear something)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Dear Microsoft: Please leave grammar for the snobs.

Microsoft Word should never check your grammar. Ever. Ever.

With all the advances in technology, it’s easy to believe that it’s smarter than us. But for some reason, Word just didn’t get on the money with their grammar check.

Instead of just whining about it, here are some concrete examples of Word being wrong, all of which are taken from my own writing.

“The grandmother is still hostile at the funeral, but Sam’s “battle buddy” and other platoon members stick up for her.”

Microsoft word is giving “members” a green squiggly in my original document. When I write click on it, both member’s and members’ are suggested. Using the “explain” feature, I learn that the problem is possessive use. Word is assuming that “members” own the stick, when in reality, “stick up” is a phrasal verb.

“For Lily Owens, the only thing worse than kneeling on grits is the thought that her mother left her.”

Here, my whole sentence is underlined for being a fragment. For those of you who don’t know, a fragment is just “piece of a sentence” – not a complete one. However, this IS a full sentence.

Subject: the only thing worse than kneeling on grits

Verb: is

Object: the thought that her mother left her.

Last time I checked, you needed these three things to be a sentence. The sad thing is, I’m not even sure how Word is construing this sentence as an imposter.

“I am not a religious person and had not read any of the Bible prior to the class.”

For this sentence, Word is suggesting that I change Bible to Bibles because of number agreement. Using the rule that “many,” “few,” and “one of” must modify plural verbs. Word is essentially trying to make my sentence say that I had not read any of the Bibles in existence, rather than that I had not read one single page of the Bible until I took that class.

Sure, sometimes Word gets it right, but here are three separate instances when the program goofed, and I was just lucky enough to know that what I was writing was correct. When in doubt, just click “ignore.”

Do you like this advice? Do you have questions? Are you yearning to learn more about grammar? Leave a question, example, or concept you want to know more about in the comments section.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A comma can make or break a sentence.

Let’s eat Mama!

Let’s eat, Mama!

In both sentences, the speaker is clearly hungry – in the first one, to eat “Mama,” which is wrong on about a million different levels.

Without the comma, Mama is a direct object, which means it receives the action, which, here is “eat.”
In the second sentence, however, the comma clears up this confusion, and it becomes apparent that they are addressing (or talking to) Mama, not planning on eating her.

Please notice that if you were to read this out loud, there would be no real difference between the two. A comma does not always denote a pause as many assume (or have been taught).

Here are some common – but not all of the – reasons you’ll need a comma:

1. A series of three or more.

I had kiwi, pineapple, and muss melon in my fruit salad.

There’s no doubt that the comma after kiwi belongs, but many would omit the one after pineapple. While it is not necessarily wrong to omit this comma (called a serial or Oxford comma), it can cause confusion to do so.

2. Joining two sentences with “and,” “but,” or “or.”

I love writing this blog, but tonight, I almost forgot about it!

On either side of the word “but” is a full sentence – subject, verb, and object.

I went to the store and I bought some ice cream.

Omitting the comma before “and” creates a fused sentence, sometimes also called a run-on sentence. Some others (creative writing) will leave out the comma to create a certain effect.

3. Showing that multiple adjectives are describing the same noun.

I love my cozy, yellow sweater.

The comma between “cozy” and “yellow” shows that both words are describing the sweater: it is both cozy and yellow.

I love my cozy yellow sweater.

Although most people would read this sentence the same way, it could also be interpreted to read the sweater is a cozy shade of yellow.

4. Setting off introductory phrases.

When I went to the store last night, I had the hardest time finding almonds.

This sentence could also be written “I had the hardest time finding almonds when I went to the store last night.” Notice that no comma is used when the sentence is inverted. When the dependent clause comes at the beginning of a sentence, you follow it with a comma.

5. Setting off names.

Always, always, always use commas to set off the name of someone you’re speaking to from the rest of the sentence. This little piece of punctuation can make all the difference, like it does for Mama in our opening example.

Need more help with the comma (or other grammatical) issues? Check out the Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab):

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Dear friends,
Today is a very special day for grammar snobs everywhere.
I was doing some research on my beloved Oxford comma when I stumbled across what could possibly be the best holiday ever created.
National Punctuation Day!
I know, I know, hold onto your hat though – things only get better.
National Punctuation Day (NPD) is September 24th…which is today (as I’m writing this) and yesterday (as you’re probably reading this).
So, instead of our normal grammar lesson (don’t worry – you’ll get to learn all about the Oxford comma next week), I would like to share with you some information about National Punctuation Day.
Its official Web site ( calls the holiday a “celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotes, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the ever-mysterious ellipsis.”
Founder Jeff Rubin, also known as Punctuation Man, worked as a reporter before creating a program to teach or review punctuation for elementary school students.
September 24, 2009 was the sixth annual NPD, and, this year, Punctuation Man is hosting an NPD Baking Contest. Photographs of all entries will be posted on the NPD website, so if you’re interested in have a comma cake for your next birthday, check the website soon for some awesome, punctuation inspiration!
For more information on National Punctuation Day, punctuation lessons, and pictures of punctuation mishaps, check out Jeff Rubin’s Web site:

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Advertising, these days, just really grinds my gears.

Oh, sure, I “get” being creative to attract attention. A creative license, however, does not give you the right to ignore English.
In fact, that “creative license” can really do a lot to screw up the next generation’s ability to use their native language.
In my hometown (and probably a lot of other towns across this great state), we have a gas station called The Kwik Stop.
Unfortunately, this is not a name change by the business to be hip and cool and use textspeak.
This place has been around a long time, much longer than the concept of the text message.
A second example, also from my hometown, is a now-closed car dealership’s “SALEABRATION.”
That’s right. It’s a “celebration of sales.”
The banner they proudly displayed with this exclamation must not have done any good; the dealership is now closed.
The best sign I’ve ever seen, though, is right here in Terre Haute.
“Worship is a verb.”
Of course it is. Just not in this sentence. Unfortunately for the creator behind this, “worship” is actually functioning as a noun.
This sign, however, is harmless. While amusing to an English major, this interesting fact is not going to “ruin” anyone for life.
It actually brings up one of the reasons it is so difficult to grasp the English language: words aren’t always what they (or you) think they are. But that itself is an entire other lesson.
Another, more damaging example?
I understand; it’s catchy – cellular becomes cingular. No harm done, right?
During Cingular’s reign as the best cell phone company around, at least half of my mom’s then-second-grade students misspelled the original “singular” on a spelling test.
Even Geico’s overdone cavemen commercials are more creative than intentionally misspelled/misused words.
This is not so much a lesson as it is a call for attention. These “creative liberties” are all around us, but it’s not doing us any good.
So take notice – and just say no to companies like “Muzik and Memories.”
Trust me; the world will thank us later.