Subtle Use of a Comma

Normally, a comma indicates a small pause of some kind in a sentence. And using a “from-to” construction indicates a range. I just ran into a usage where a comma changed the type of range in a from-to construction. It’s a headline to an article about a hockey team:

From underdogs, to National Champions

Without the comma, the headline might be above an article listing teams starting with low skill and ending with the top-of-the line team. But with the comma, the meaning changes to a passage of time for one team.


A Writer’s In Joke

Mark Anderson of Andertoons does a pretty good job of creating cartoons with an intellectual bent (as opposed to. say, scatological), and he even sells them for use in business and school presentations and the like. Check out his website.

Anyway, maybe today’s comic has two points. Do you get them both?

I’m pretty sure everybody can get the obvious joke; P.M. Roget wrote the Thesaurus, used by generations of writers to make their writing more lively, hence the list of synonyms for “peace.”

The second punchline isn’t exactly funny, perhaps. I haven’t opened my copy of his book for years. It’s too easy to go online, including here. And here. And here. And here. Where, ahem, I can also find Roget’s version.  Not to mention typing “synonym for [word]” in the address line of my browser.

So it’s a fitting epitaph, eh?

What is Metadata?

You’ve probably seen the word “metadata” in articles about computer security, such as references to the government collecting only metadata from phone calls.

Metadata is a description of something, a title, if you will, but not the actual data itself.

Clickbait is mainly metadata. Here’s a Bizarro comic with a lot of metadata bumper stickers. The comic has enough of them that it should give you a good feel for what metadata is. [Side note: “clickbait” has become so common a word that it’s no longer written as “click bait.” But my spell checker hasn’t caught up yet. It still says I should use “click bait.”]

Today’s rule of thumb: The place for metadata in expository writing is in headings, not in the content.

The Kid Gets One Thing Right

I saw the misuse of “your” and “you’re” when I read this JumpStart comic and began to wonder to myself how I might use the errors in a Writing Rag post. Then I read the last panel. Problem solved.

You do know the difference, right?

A Joke that’s a Lesson

My first rule of expository writing is to be clear. The humor in this joke plays on that.

So this couple were driving north following the Lake Superior shoreline, and a ways northwest of Milwaukee, they passed a sign that read, “Oconomowoc City Limits.” A discussion ensued about how to pronounce the name of the town. Soon they came upon a fast food place and they pulled in. They went inside, and the lady said to the clerk behind the counter, fairly jumping with eagerness, “First, tell me where we are, and say it slow so we can get it!” The clerk got a puzzled expression on her face, but she leaned forward and said, “bur, ger, king!”

Har har. Oconomowoc is a real place, too:

Here’s the lesson:

When you write, think of how you might be misunderstood, and prevent that.

An Infrequently-used Punctuation Mark

—in English, anyway.

First, Pearls Before Swine will illustrate:

We don’t call it an umlaut in English, either. We call it a dieresis. The dieresis serves a different function than an umlaut does, too.

The umlaut changes the pronunciation of a letter. For example, you pronounce Ü and ü by shaping your lips to say “ooo” but shape your tongue to say “eee.”

The dieresis changes a diphthong (two vowels pronounced as one) into two separate vowel sounds. For example, coop (think chicken coop) changes to coe-op when you spell it “coöp” (think co-operative). And “naive” technically would be pronounced almost like “knife” and “naïve” is the two-syllable word for someone without experience.

Yeah, yeah, I know—we usually leave off the dieresis in English. Mainly, I think, because we don’t have easy access to the punctuated  letters on our keyboards. But at least now you know how they work when you see one.

In case you want to use a letter with a dieresis, here’s a handy little chart. Position the cursor where you want the letter to go, then hold down the Alt key while you type the numbers on the numeric keypad, then release the Alt key.

Why You Need to Hyphenate Compound Adjectives

The hyphen tells you that both parts of the compound refer to the same noun. Take a look at the first panel of today’s Grizzwells:

Ever hear of a time rut, especially a big one? Me neither. It’s a big-time rut.

Now if the phrase isn’t a compound adjective, you don’t need the hyphen; in fact, the hyphen would be wrong. So you might say, “I’m ready for the big time!” and you’d be correct.

Here’s another, longer example:

We got an up-to-the-minute weather report.
The weather report was right up to the minute.

Both of those are correct.

Another Word English Doesn’t Have

Last two words in the first panel of this Flo and Friends:

We don’t have a contraction for “am not.”

The word would be something like “amn’t.” I clearly remember my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Clemens telling us that the correct form is “am I not,” and I do hear that sometimes. (I use it myself). Of course, there’s “ain’t,” but that word ain’t got no couth! I don’t know why, but using “ain’t” is something like picking your nose in public, or having your shirt on inside out.

So I guess we’re stuck with “am I not,” are we not?

Getting the Subjunctive Right

The key to the subjunctive is that the subjunctive is contrary to reality. This is not about lies (lies pretend to be reality), but about correctly describing something that isn’t. The gradeschooler in the first panel of  this Frazz gets it right:

She even says it’s a wish. Don’t say something like, “I wish there was…” when you aren’t referring to something that doesn’t exist.

On a side note, I’ll add that the Greeks had a mood even stronger than the subjunctive, used only for wishes. It’s called the optative. We have to make the subjunctive work for both wishes and contrary-to-fact things.

Need a non-wish subjunctive: How about “He would go on vacation, but he’s too busy.”

An Old Joke

It’s bad, too. Not only unhistorical, but probably sexist, maybe even racist.

Know why the Israelites spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness?
Because Moses wouldn’t ask for directions!

Here’s another take on this reputation we poor men have. Never heard the term, myself, until I saw the comic.

Maybe that’s why there’s so much bad writing out there—people won’t ask for an editor!