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): http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/