Commas at the Beginning

rogersgeorge on December 26th, 2017

You might find this post boring. It’s a straight-out grammar lesson.

Here are the rules:

  • Separate interjections (such as “However, …”) and direct address (someone’s name or title) from the sentence with a comma.
  • Separate an introductory clause from the rest of the sentence with a comma.
  • Separate an introductory prepositional phrase from the rest of the sentence if it contains five or more words.
  • Some common shorter prepositional phrases, such as “for example,” get the comma, too. This rule is flexible. If you have a short prepositional phrase, and it feels as if it needs a comma, go for it.

Okay, take a look at this:

However, the Coppersmith’s algorithm allows quite a lot of flexibility. Tom, you can’t do that!

Easy enough. Now how about this one:

To speed up the prime number generation, smart card manufacturers implement various optimisations.

(British spelling. Ignore that). The sentence starts with “to.” Prepositional phrase, right? Well, no. It’s actually an infinitive. Infinitives are verbs. If it has a verb, it’s a clause. So I could rewrite this as:

To speed things up, smart card manufacturers implement various optimisations.

Fewer than five words, still gets the comma. If fact, look at a sentence I just wrote:

If it has a verb, it’s a clause.

“Has” is a verb, so you have a clause. A lot of introductory clauses start with words like “if” and “when.” We call them introductory adverbs. In fact, if you got rid of that introductory adverb, you’d have a complete sentence, which requires a period, not a comma. If you write:

It has a verb, it’s a clause.

Get rid of that comma! Use a period! Two independent sentences separated by a comma is called a comma splice, and that’s a no-no.

Sorry—it’s pretty hard to find a comic about commas.

PS—Wouldn’t you know! I ran into one at Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:

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The Second Most Common Mistake

rogersgeorge on December 8th, 2017

—in English! In English! I’m sure this is nowhere near the top of the list of mistakes humans make. This might not even be second on the English grammar list, but I think it comes right after the one where someone, trying deliberately to be high-class, says “between him and I.”

This error is using “whom” when “who” is actually correct (or in this case, “whomever” and “whoever.”). First, the rule: when you have a subordinate clause, work from the inside out. Here’s an example of the mistake, from Edge of Adventure. Look at the first panel in the bottom row. Can you tell why he should have said “whoever”?

Yes, “to” is a preposition, and the clause that comes after it is its object. But that clause has its own subject and verb! And since we work from the inside out, being the subject of that clause takes precedence over the whole clause being an object, so it’s “whoever did this.” If you really want a “whom” in that sentence you could say something like “…to whomever I find on the trail.” Now “I” is the subject, and “whomever” is the direct object of “I find.” Make sense?

So sometimes you have permission to use “who.” Be careful.

Poor Old Adverbs—They are so Misused

rogersgeorge on November 2nd, 2017

First, I see now that we’re using adjectives as verbs! “Harsh,” an adjective, is now in style as a verb: “Don’t harsh my, um whatever.” I suppose “criticize” has become too long a word for some folks to use. Harrumpf.

But now that I mentioned verbs and adjectives, that leads to adverbs, another word that adjectives frequently replace. Here’s a Pickles to illustrate:

I don’t often see the guy correctly correcting the gal’s grammar in the comics, but in this case, he’s right. This mistake is easy to make; adjectives are typically shorter than their adverbial counterpart. See the reference to “harsh” above.

Now, having defended the adverb, I have to add that you can usually skip adverbial constructions correct or incorrect altogether. That comic isn’t a good example of leaving out adverbs (they’re used substantively here, but I digress), but most of the time, you make your writing tighter and punchier when you leave out the adverbs and use a good verb, one better than “make” and “do.” And please, try never to use “very”!

Centering

rogersgeorge on December 5th, 2016

I mentioned separable verbs before, but I ran into two nice examples of correct and incorrect usage of the same verb, so here you go.

The verb is “to center on.” It’s transitive, so you have to have a direct object. You center on something. So:

The filter uses dual etalons in a double stack configuration (40mm external and 20mm internal) to provide a very narrow <0.5 Ångstrom passband, centered on the 6562.8 Ångstrom H-Alpha line.

It’s a telescope that you can look at the sun through. I have a similar one (with only the internal etalon). Stop by sometime during the day and I’ll get it out and let you look through it. You can see solar prominences around the edge of the sun. Pretty interesting. If you want to buy one like mine for yourself, go here. It’s a little less expensive than the one in the picture.

Now here’s now not to use that verb:

Virgin Galactic tests its new spacecraft<br />  

Virgin Galactic’s resurrected dreams of private spaceflight following the crash in 2014 centers around SpaceShipTwo.

That sentence was written about Virgin Galactic, not by them, so no discredit to VG. But the center is a point. You center on that point. If you want to go around, use rotate or revolve.

Using this verb correctly is one of those little things that not a lot of people notice, but doing so improves your writing.

Then there’s the verb “center” all by itself. Used that way, it’s some sort of new age thing meaning to concentrate on one idea, or something like that.

Verbing Nouns

rogersgeorge on October 11th, 2016

I mentioned this topic before, so this post is more a rant than an actual lesson. Look at the first cell in today’s Lola:

Lola

She said “loan” instead of “lend.”

Using a noun as a verb has a long and popular (notice I didn’t say “noble”) history in English. It’s so common that sometimes folks for whom English is a second (or third or more) language can get confused. This is a virtue of highly inflected languages—the inflectional endings make it easy to tell nouns from verbs. The trouble is, you have to memorize all those inflections.

My rant is this: don’t use a noun for a verb unless you can’t think of a good word that’s already a verb.