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!

This Has to be a Typo

I can’t believe a professional writer would make this mistake:

University of Delaware marine scientist Danielle Dixson has the next five years of research pretty well covered: She recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) award of $750,000 to study climate change’s affect on the symbiotic relationship between clownfish and sea anemones.

I made the offending word bold to make the solecism easy to spot. This error is most common among folks who didn’t pay a whole lot of attention in English class. Professionals know better.

Affect is a verb (okay, except in the field of psychology, where it’s pronounced “æfekt,” accent on the first syllable, not “uhfekt,” accent on the second syllable)
Effect is a noun that means a result (and as with many nouns in English, you can use it as a verb meaning “to cause.”)

Here affect is misused. The sentence wants a noun in that spot, so it should be effect. Harrumpf.

PS—I ran into another article getting this wrong. Here’s the quote:

“2018 has unfortunately been a prime example of global warming’s effect on the jet stream,” Humphrey writes. He predicts that warm temperatures will continue to melt sea ice, and could eventually effect permafrost, or ground that stays frozen permanently (as it’s name suggests).

The first sentence quotes Humphrey, the source, who correctly uses “effect” as a noun. The second sentence uses “effect” as a verb, which means the warm temperatures could cause the permafrost. This is the opposite of what the writer means.

Come on, professionals. Get your act together.



The definition on the board in this Andertoons comic is mostly correct.

Idioms aren’t limited to phrases, however. Idioms can be anything from a single word to several sentences. In fact, small variations in spelling can be idiomatic. Think of writing in a southern accent, or should I say suhthun acksayent?

However, the point of this post is a heads up. If you’re a native speaker of English, you most likely don’t have much trouble understanding idioms, and often don’t even think about them. Here’s the heads up:

When you write something that might be translated, avoid idioms!

You want your readers to understand what you mean without having to puzzle over what you wrote. Idioms don’t lend themselves to effective translation in expository writing, so avoid them.

Here, I’ll give you an example, a German idiom. What does it mean in English? (I’ll translate it literally for you)

That’s like a Bohemian village!

How would you say that in English?

Well, I’m going to almost give away the answer because I found a comic with the answer in it. Which one is it?

Simple Truth and Great Truth

This comic reminded me of an aphorism I heard a while back.

The opposite of a simple truth is false. The opposite of a great truth is also true!

So this guy doesn’t realize that his parents told great truths.