The importance of a comma

rogersgeorge on December 2nd, 2011

Lynn Margulis, a famous evolutionary biologist died recently. Here’s a sentence from an article about her.

 She was also a major contributor to the Gaia theory, which posits that Earth is a self-regulating complex system, and was once married to astronomer Carl Sagan.

I found the photo on

Lynn Margulis

The rule in English is that you never separate a subject from its verb with an odd number of commas. This sentence has a compound predicate, so you have a subject and verb before you get to the first comma. So the sentence is grammatical as it stands.

I’ll get into this more in a future post about the sin of pretentiousness in writing, but you need to have a comma before “which.” “Which” and what comes after it is really an aside, supplying extra information about the Gaia theory.

After the second comma you find a verb but no subject. What’s the subject? Normally you go back to the first suitable noun, in this case, Earth. Carl Sagan was an unusual person, but I doubt the earth was married to him! That second comma to the rescue—it ends the aside and makes you jump clear to the front of the sentence.She and Carl were married. Still a pretty interesting situation, but at least possible.

Editorial comment: That aside is so long, it somewhat separates the second verb from its subject, even with the comma. Maybe they should have changed that last comma to a period and made a second sentence starting with “She.”

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Case part three

rogersgeorge on November 28th, 2011

Nominative case—subject of a sentence and predicate nominatives

Objective case—Direct object and other things

That leaves possessive. Not very many people have trouble with this one, except for possessive pronouns and plurals. We’ll get to those in a moment.

Did you ever wonder where the apostrophe came from? English is a Germanic language, and the possessive form in German ends in -es. You can see this form in Old English. As time passed, we dropped the e and replaced it with an apostrophe, same as with contractions. So our possessive nouns are really contractions.

Here’s the rule for making correct possessive nouns:

  1. Look at the word you want to make possessive, plural or not.
  2. Does it end in “s”? Then add an apostrophe and you’re done. For example, my first name is Rogers. This blog is mine, so you could say that The Writing Rag is Rogers’ blog. If you pronounce it “Rogerses,” you are correct.
  3. No “s” at the end? Then add apostrophe-s and you’re done. My evil twin is Roger. He does not own this blog, so this is not Roger’s blog. You would pronounce this “Rogers.”

Why couldn’t you add apostrophe-s to Rogers? You could, but then you have a problem with words like waitress. Three of the same letter in a row is forbidden in English. (Can you think of the exception to this rule?)

On to the pronouns. Here’s the rule: Memorize them! His hers its. Not an apostrophe in sight. They are their own form. They are not nouns—don’t do the apostrophe! Harrumpf!

Hundredth Post

rogersgeorge on November 26th, 2011

We interrupt the scintillating discussion of grammatical case to celebrate writing on the hundredth post of this humble site. This post contains a sample of some marvelous writing.

Brooke McEldowney studied viola at the Julliard. He is also a cartoonist par excellence. He writes two strips, 9 Chickweed Lane, about a ballerina and her family and others, and Pibgorn, about a fairy and some other natural and non-natural people. Those descriptions do not begin to do justice to the long, complex, original, erudite, and enjoyable plot lines you will find in each comic, nor the interesting personalities he has created. I recommend you read them. Both are available on GoComics.

I’m not showing a picture in this post because I want you to go read the comic. The sample of writing below is part of what appears below the panel several days into a recently-begun story in Pibgorn titled Mozart and the Demon Lover. (The link goes to the first panel in the story.)

… Glancing one recent day at an online reference site that purports to be encyclopedic, I looked at this very cartoon on its Pibgorn entry. Originally, when the cartoon appeared on that page, the attached caption stated that it was a moment at the beginning of a Pibgorn story, showing the three principal characters. However, my recent fly-by screeched to a halt because the caption had changed. It now stated that they were discussing “the sexualization of music” (whatever that means).

I wrote to someone at the site in order to inform them that the caption was balderdash. A response arrived in due course, dispensing the effluvia that I cannot be a reliable source of information about my own writing because I am too close to it, have too much of a vested interest in it.

I informed the writer that the entire thrust of the first three panels derived from a New York Times music review in the 1980s by Harold Schonberg, in which he asserted that simply performing Mozart was not an adequate practice; that performers had to “sell” Mozart. When I wrote the dialogue to this cartoon, I was reflecting on Mr. Schonberg’s review. At no point during the composition of the panel, or since, have I ever entertained the mystifying codswallop that one can sexualize music (without the assistance of Gypsy Rose Lee, I mean).

The idea that the creator/writer/limner cannot be a reliable source of information on his own work because he is too close to it – that only tertiary sources of canards and crackpottery can be regarded as reliable – proceeds from an arrogance that beggars description. It could kindly be dismissed as moonshine, except that, whence it issues, the moon don’t shine.

Marvelous! Wonderful vocabulary. (Look up the words you don’t know.) Perfect grammar. Syntax at once clean and complex. This is the highest of high dudgeon. I love it.

What is case?

rogersgeorge on November 22nd, 2011

Grammatical case is a subject worth several posts. Perhaps the subject is best approached with a comic first.

The Alt text on the original is "The syntax is strong with this one"

I met the artist for this comic, John Wigger, recently on line, in a hang out on Google+. I had been thinking about doing a series on case, and this strip makes a good place to start. Here’s a link to the comic site, Zombie roomie.

Case is a way of telling you how a word is used in a sentence, usually by changing the letters at the end of the word. Every Indo-European language (far as I know) uses case, but many languages don’t. For example, Hebrew (Semitic language family) doesn’t have case.

My sixth-grade teacher taught us that English had three cases—Subjective, Objective, and Possessive. The guy in the comic is using nominative instead of subjective. (Frankly, I like this better. Nominative is the term used in other languages.) Since I’m giving you vocabulary here, I’ll tell you a few more: Objective is called accusative in other languages, and possessive is called genitive. Other cases exist, but not in English.

In future posts I’ll tell you how to get case correct, and warn you against common ways to get it wrong.

One last item. Why did your parents and teachers always correct you when you said “me and Tom” with “Tom and I”? The only reason to put yourself last is humility. It has nothing to do with grammar.

Compose or comprise?

rogersgeorge on November 18th, 2011

“Comprise” is a frequently misused word, a common accessory to the sin of pretentiousness. People want to sound high class, so they write “is comprised of” when they mean “is composed of” or even plain old “composes.”

I ran into an article in The New York Times online that presented them with a wonderful opportunity to be pretentious, and they didn’t take it! Hooray (for once) for The New York Times! here’s what they said, and it’s correct:

The project follows the successful effort by a group at the museum to replicate a far less complicated Babbage invention: the Difference Engine No. 2, a calculating machine composed of roughly 8,000 mechanical components assembled with a watchmaker’s precision.

The machine is composed of parts! Yesss!

Now that is a construction in the passive voice. What if they had wanted to use the active voice? Then they would have written:

The project follows the successful effort by a group at the museum to replicate a far less complicated Babbage invention: the Difference Engine No. 2, a calculating machine comprising roughly 8,000 mechanical components assembled with a watchmaker’s precision.

Now “comprise” is appropriate.

Never ever say “…is comprised of…” Ever! Unless you’re showing someone what not to do. Harrumpf.

Here’s a picture of the difference engine.

The machine is about eight feet tall. That's a picture of Charles Babbage on the wall.