A Curmudgeonly Pun

Not much content in today’s post, especially since this doesn’t apply to me: I have no trouble correcting grammar. When asked.


Hmm. You might say that it should be “peoples’ grammar,” but I suspect he talks to one person at a time; justifying use of the singular. Maybe. What do you think?

Why Hyphens Matter

I mention compound adjectives occasionally; here’s a good example of the difference in meaning when you hyphenate or don’t hyphenate.

Sometimes you have two or more modifiers before a noun. If the first word refers to the next one, you hyphenate them and they function as one word. If they separately refer to the noun, don’t hyphenate. 

I think this lake is in Minnesota someplace

She is correct! To have “big” refer to the mosquitoes, it should be “big-mosquito lake.”

PS—yes, “mosquito” is a noun, not an adjective. But it’s being used as an adjective. We call this using the noun attributively.

Direct Address

The comic is about grammar, so go ahead; read it and chuckle. My lesson, though, is in the last panel. 


We call it direct address when you name the person (or persons—or readers, shall we say) whom you are writing to. Sometimes I start a post with, “Our lesson for today, class, is…” That’s direct address.

Here’s the rule, in case the rule isn’t already obvious:

Separate direct address from the rest of the sentence with commas.

Of course, the plural, “commas,” applies only if the direct address is inside the sentence. If it’s the first or last word, you need only one comma. duh.

PS—wouldn’t you know, the comic repeated the same joke a week later:


Subject or Object?

I just ran into a comic that is similar to the “like or as” mistake I mentioned the other day. Should the kid in the first panel use “us” or “we”?

He should use “we”! The sentence is easier to get right if you say “…dogs can smell better than we can smell.” It’s the verb he’s comparing, so “we” is a subject.

And here’s another comic with the same mistake. Of course, I don’t really expect kids in pre-K to get this right.


The last sentence in the second panel. It should be “…knows you better than I do.” The way it’s written, it means “…knows you better than they know me.”

Is it Poetry if it Doesn’t Rhyme?

Not a lot of content today. You have to supply the rhyme.


Reminds me of a poem we used to recite when I was a kid:

Mary had a little lamb
It fell into a well.
Mary threw some dynamite in
And blew it all to little pieces about so big.

Another poetry question: Is this a limerick?

A limerick writer named Drew
always ended his poems on line two.

How about this one?

A limerick writer, a Hun,

Enough! I’ll go to my room now.

A Dieresis Gets Used!

A little more than a month ago I wrote about the dieresis, two dots over a vowel that you very occasionally see in English (though more often in other languages). 

The New Yorker is a high-class magazine, so I’m not entirely surprised that they had occasion to use a dieresis. Here it is:

SpaceShipTwo needed to be supple enough to break the sound barrier, light enough to reach space, strong enough to avoid breaking up on reëntry, and tough enough to make the journey once a week for years.


Stucky hadn’t heard from Dillon in almost a year, and had been desperate to reëstablish contact. 

Notice how you pronounce the two “e’s” separately? That’s the function of a dieresis. 

Pictures are good, so here’s a picture of SpaceShipTwo:

Another “Like” and “As” lesson

It’s been almost a year since I last mentioned this, so maybe it’s time for a refresher. 

Like many folks, this cat gets it wrong; first panel:


“Like” goes with nouns,
“As” goes with verbs.

So he should say “…as scientists have just concluded…”

For “like,” think of the book title, Black Like Me. Or maybe “My love is like a red red rose,” or what my wife says sometimes, “Beer tastes like dog piss.”

A Battle We’re Going to Lose

Sigh. They do it twice, panels 1 and 2


“Snuck” is too common; everybody uses it (except my spell checker!) The correct word is “sneaked.” 

In conversation, go ahead and say “snuck” if you want, but when you write nonfiction adult material, go with “sneaked.” No one will notice that you didn’t use “snuck,” but you’ll sound more mature.

Sigh. Here’s another one. 

A Newark woman taking a curve on Salem Church Road Sunday morning left the road, crashed through a fenced yard and sunk with her car into Becks Pond.

The Newark (DE) News Journal, no less. C’mon, guys—you’re professionals. It’s “sank”!

But this guy gets it right! Last panel.

A Correct Adverb

I generally recommend against using adverbs (use a good verb instead) but here’s one where the guy got it right:

Looks like he even used an M-dash, though the spaces around it weren’t necessary.

Speaking of adverbs, I ran into a comic that I can’t find now that had the theme of using multiple adverbs. The punch line ran something like

Are you really absolutely positively utterly sure you turned off the oven?

The point being that the more adverbs, the greater the degree of certainty about something.

Okay, I ran into another string of adverbs, including a compound adverb!


A Word about Magnetism

Remember in grade school or high school science class when you put a magnet under a piece of paper and sprinkled iron filings on the paper to see the lines of force?

Magnetic fields ain’t got lines of force! Magnetism is a field, and fields are smooth. Those lines you saw are a result of smearing the iron particles around, and they’re a handy (and artificial) way to visualize the direction of the magnetism. If you were to draw lines showing equal strength (analogous to contour lines on a topographical map), they’d be perpendicular to those lines everybody mentions. Here are a few examples of someone using both terms interchangeably. He’s being imprecise.

Jets of hot plasma, propelled by a bunch of magnetic field lines, rise from a small sunspot roughly the size of China.

If all goes well, the spacecraft—safe in the shadow of the shield—will beam back a record of the corona’s plasma and the tangled net of magnetic fields that shape it.

Earth’s magnetic field deflects most solar wind particles

Researchers have proposed two mechanisms by which magnetic fields could turn kinetic energy from the sun’s roiling surface into coronal heat

Quotes from an article emailed to me by a friend. The writer is Joshua Sokol, a journalist based in Boston

You’re not likely to write expositorily about magnetism very often, but be sure you get it right when you do.