Thursday, May 27, 2010

Things That Make Me Go AAARRRGGGHHH!!! (Vol. I)

Time to go on a rant. I've been banging my head against the wall so much lately, my friends are starting to call me Lumpy. (Actually, that's my new nickname for my seven-month-old, Skyler. If that boy keeps bonking his head, his main career vocabulary will be "You want fries with that?") Why, oh why is it getting so bad out there? I'm glad you asked, because, surprise, surprise, I have an answer.

Remember back in the day when there were only six stations on TV? (One of which was PBS so it didn't count once Sesame Street was over.) God forbid the President came on. Then your whole night was screwed. Nothing worse than Happy Days getting preempted. Anyway, back in the day, when there was only one TV in the house and (gasp!) no remote control, we were forced to watch Walter Cronkite every night at 6:30. (Unless you lived in the Central Time Zone. Then God only knows what time Uncle Walt came on.) (And remember Sunday night, watching Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, followed by The Wonderful World of Disney?) As kids, we were exposed regularly to intellectual dialogue, like "My assistant, Jim, will now attempt to circumcise a wildebeest while hanging upside down from the helicopter." (Thank you, Dad, for blasting NPRs All Things Considered in every room of the house. I hated it then. I really appreciate it now.)

And books. We actually read books. For FUN. With actual, correct PUNCTUATION edited by somebody who knew what they were doing. And we took English classes that actually taught GRAMMAR, instead of teaching us how to journal our feelings. (And since when is journal a verb?) This was back in the prehistoric, pre-spell checker days, when people still thought learning to spell was important. (If one more person says to me "it doesn't matter if they make mistakes as long as they express their emotions", I'm gonna poke them in the eye with a red pen.)

Today, it seems that most students' literary exposure is limited to random letters on a little screen, like "omg im rotflmao!!!!!!! wtf?". And their exposure to language on television is limited to what I so lovingly refer to as the newest English dialect, Reality Show Moron. (I actually heard a guy on the local NPR news today use the term condominiumize. At least he didn't abbreviate that to condomize.)

I got a big ol' knot on my forehead the other day when I read the following (almost verbatim) question from an ENGLISH TEACHER. "How do you teach students to use reflexive pronouns properly without all that subject/object stuff?" Well, first I would start with the following example sentence.
-- With the education you are being provided, you will never be able to support yourself.
(Yourself is the reflexive pronoun, by the way.)

Bottom line: The people who are supposed to provide models of proper, literate language are no longer being held to any sort of standard. God forbid we should expect eloquence anymore.

This all leads us back to today's topic. Things That Make Me Go AAARRRGGGHHH!!! (Vol. I)

If I didn't make that mistake on yesterday's test...

Traditionally, this is known as the subjunctive tense. (Or is it a voice?) In ESL, it is referred to as a conditional. No matter which way you slice it, the above statement is wrong.

It is true that the test was yesterday, so if you made a declarative statement, it would be "I made a stupid mistake on yesterday's test." (Probably related to the subjunctive is my guess.) However, when you switch to a conditional by adding if, it now becomes an unreal condition, of which there are two: present and past.

An unreal present condition can also be called a hypothetical. These are the what if's, as in:
-- What would happen if teachers were actually paid what they deserved? (Then the best and brightest would become teachers and once again, we would have the best education system in the world.)
-- Any girl appearing on MTV's My Super Sweet 16 probably couldn't spell CAT if you spotted them the C and the A.

In the first case, you just know that ain't never going to happen. In the second case, this is my hypothesis, which would be so much fun to test. (I smell a research grant.) In either case, there is no reality, especially on the MTV show. The verbs in both sentences are written in the past tense, with will becoming would.

Since the simple past tense is already used in the real present condition, you have to dive deeper into the past tense pool for unreal past conditions. For example:
-- If I had answered one more question on the SATs correctly, I would have gotten into Harvard. (Because we all know that one flawed test is much more important than the previous twelve years of hard work.)
-- Where would I have ended up if I hadn't made that left turn in Albuquerque. (Please pronounce that last word in your head as al-ba-koi-key. It's my homage to Bugs Bunny.)

Before I belabor this point too much (TOO LATE), please for the love of all that's holey (like the moon and the Detroit Lions defense), please use had done when you are grumbling about the past. It's what Jesus would have done. (Assuming Aramaic had an unreal past conditional.)

"His First Homerun of His Career"

For me, this one ranks below fingernails on a blackboard and Courtney Love's singing in the Please God Make It Stop category. It's a little thing, but it's not.

This is redundant repetition. Never, ever repeat a pronoun (or different form of the same pronoun) in a chunk of words that go together, especially of or adjective clauses with that. These would include:
-- their first year of their marriage
-- her car that she bought
-- his students in his fifth period English class
-- my worst day of my life

In all of these cases, the first word of the entire phrase should be the.
-- the history book in my locker
(The one that still has that "new book" smell six weeks into the second semester.)
-- the worst job I have ever had
(That ridiculous eikaiwa in Ginza, if you must know. Pushing a lawn mower forty hours a week in a Pennsylvania summer was better.)
-- the stupidest thing I have ever said
("I just want to be friends" to the girl who came back from summer vacation three months later an uber-hottie.)
-- the students in my fifth period English class
(The ones who sparked the need for that intervention a few years back.)

A little love and a little respect for this most expressive and creative of languages is all I'm asking. Unfortunately, most of the dogs in the Humane Society were treated better BEFORE they were rescued. (And I hope there is a special level of hell for those dog owners. They should spend eternity being treated the same way they treated their dogs.)

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Death of the Countable Noun

I'm calling it. On May 12, 2010 at whatever time it aired wherever you live, the countable noun issued its last gasp and faded into linguistic oblivion. I expect it from teenagers, who can't even be bothered to put the "y" and the "o" on "ur". I can even choke it down on CNN, which is so busy "asking what we think" on a particular story that they forgot to tell us what the story is in the first place. But STEPHEN COLBERT? Why, Stephen, why? The king of truthiness and the creator of wikiality? You of all people.

In his segment "Stephen Colbert's Sound Advice", he reported on an MIT study that found longer essays got higher scores on the SAT than shorter ones, regardless of errors. This doesn't surprise me because Educational Testing Service has been doing its best to screw up education for years. (Don't get me started on standardized testing. I'll save that for later.) Accompanying his monologue was this wonderful caption. "More Words - Less Errors" You could have knocked me over with a feather. I felt like the Native American in the 70s "Stop Littering" campaign with a single tear trickling down my face at what had been done to my beloved language.

If you don't see a problem with that, we need to talk. What he meant to say (or write, actually) was, of course, "More Words - Fewer Errors". Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people know this. The issue is the difference between countable and uncountable nouns.

A countable noun is a noun that can be pluralized, usually by adding ~s to the end of the word, like dogs and geeks. (Thank God I can't be pluralized, huh?) You can put simple counting words in front, like one child / two children or one bankruptcy / two bankruptcies. (Usually the former precedes the latter.)

Uncountable nouns, on the other hand, cannot be pluralized. You cannot add an ~s to the end and you cannot precede them with numbers. You cannot say informations and you cannot count ice. (You can only say one ice / two ices if you are Italian, referring of course to the wonderful summer treat that is an Italian ice.) Furthermore, if you try to count uncountable nouns, you have to use a phrase with of, as in a loaf of bread or an ear of corn. (How weird is that one, by the way? Who thought of that? Van Gogh?)

When you ask about the number of a certain countable thing, you ask how many, as in "How many more minutes am I going to waste reading this damn blog?" However, when you ask about the amount of an uncountable thing, you ask how much, as in "How much time does this dork waste writing this damn blog?" (Don't get me started on how many times I've wanted to give demerits to students who I've overheard asking "How much pages did you read last night?")

This is exactly the same rule to follow with less and fewer. Less goes with much and can only be used with uncountable nouns. Similarly, if a noun is countable, you must use fewer, which goes with many.
  • How much money do you have?
  • I have a lot less money than I used to. Stupid Colts.
  • How many times have people thanked you for correcting their grammar?
  • A lot fewer than you would think.
So let's try to come up with a simple device to help people remember. Something to do with the plural ~s and the esses at the end of less.
  • Use less esses. (Maybe too hard to say, especially with a lisp. However, it might be perfect for a speech therapist.)
  • Less and an ~s make a mess. (Nah. My wife would yell at me for not cleaning it up.)
  • If it ends with ~s, don't use less.
Ooo. I like that last one. Let's use that.


(If you would like more perspective on uncountable nouns, I have added the explanations that I give my English as a Second Language students, but hopefully in a more entertaining way.)

Here are the rules of thumb I teach my students. As far as I know, I made some of this up, but it seems to work most of the time. In order for them to work, please try to avoid the typical teenage behavior of always trying to disprove everything an old fuht like me says. (Fuht is a lovely Hawaiian word for air biscuit or the elementary school favorite SBD.) Keep an open mind and an even broader definition.

1. Liquids: All liquids are uncountable, even really thick ones, like toothpaste or grandma's oatmeal. (The lumps, however, are countable.) I include chocolate on the list because it is a liquid when it is made and is thickened by other agents. (I should know. I grew up close to Hershey, Pennsylvania and even went on the factory tour a couple of times before they closed it down. The factory definitely smelled better than the paper mill that was also nearby.)

"But wait!" I hear you think. "I can order two waters at a restaurant." Actually, what you are ordering is two glasses of water. Conversational conventions allow for this, but the original grammatical form is still uncountable. (Hey. I like a few beers as much, probably more, than the next guy, be they in cans or bottles or coming straight out of the tap. Give it up for keg-stands, ya'll.)

2. Things that are too small to count: These would be things like salt, sugar and sand. I suppose it would be possible to count every grain of sand on the beach, but then they'd have to get Dustin Hoffman to play you in the movie.

3. Things that cannot be touched or held: You cannot hold information. You can hold the newspaper or book that contains the information, or the iPad by which you are reading this blog. (I really, really want one of those.) However, the information itself is ethereal. (How's that for an SAT word, Mr. SAT-writer guy?) However, ideas for some reason are countable. I guess if you can steal it, you can count it. (See the "cock-a-roaching" reference in the previous blog.) Please add to this list my future teenaged daughter, you hormone-filled high school boys.

4. Categories or group nouns: Close your eyes and imagine fruit. Some of you may picture a luscious, ripe peach. Others might think of a tart cherry. Because it describes a whole plethora of fruit (again with the SAT words), fruit is an uncountable category noun. On the other hand, if I asked you to imagine an apple, everyone would imagine roughly the same thing.

5. Things that are countable when you buy or make them, but uncountable when you eat or use them: This list would include pizza, ham and pineapple, which, when put together, make a lovely Hawaiian pizza. When you order pizza you ask for two large pizzas. However, when the pizza is eaten, few people can eat the whole thing, so they eat slices of pizza. (Unless you are Big Ralphie, who impressed us all with his downing of two large pan pizzas at an all-you-can-eat Pizza Hut near G-burg. And then played a pick-up game of basketball. You da man!)

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Did I "used to" do it or am I "used to doing it"? (Part I)

I came across a question on a Facebook page that shall remain nameless (although it was started by a Girl who likes Grammar) and thought I'd cock-a-roach it. For those of you not lucky enough to live in Hawaii, to "cock-a-roach" something means to "surreptitiously steal" something while the other person is not looking, like one of those little buggahs that my wife found in the cereal box a couple of days ago. (You should've heard the cussing. It was so cute.) For example: "Some knucklehead cock-a-roached my seat at the bar while I was in the Little Boys room."

"Used to" is a lovely little word that I find myself using more and more as my beard gets grayer and grayer. As in:
  • I used to be able to touch my toes.
  • I didn't use to have to wake up three times a night to pee. (Which is why the guy was able to cock-a-roach my bar stool.)
  • I used to have a 401-k. Now my kid has braces.
I call it the helping verb for when "that ship has sailed". It is a helping verb like can or will, so it is always followed by the base form of a verb. (The base form is the form that you find in the dictionary.) However, it has a couple of unique features. First, it is always used in the past form to express things that were done in the past. It does not have a present form. Second, in the question and negative forms, you must use did.
  • What sports did you use to play?
  • I didn't use to like mushrooms.
Notice that in the question and negative forms, used to becomes didn't use to and Did you use to? The past tense ~ed disappears, just like had to becomes Did you have to and didn't have to. Because this is primarily a conversational device, the weird written pattern is not well-known (or needed, for that matter). However, it is one more piece of trivial information that keeps pushing that million-dollar idea out of my head and keeps me beholden to the credit card companies.

Now that the truly geeky information is out of the way, let's get to the still-geeky but much-more-important nuts and bolts: The two main uses of used to.

1. To show something that happened in the past, but no longer does

This is the most common usage, especially for those longer in the tooth than others. It expresses the idea that we no longer participate in that activity or can successfully accomplish the same feat.
  • I used to be able to do a double-twisting front 1 1/2 from the three-meter board, but all the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't drag that out of me again.
If you use used to, you should not include another time expression, like when I was in college or twenty years ago. It's redundant because used to already carries the idea of in the past. If you want to say when, just use the simple past tense.
  • When I was in college, I could do a double-twisting front 1 1/2 from the three-meter board.
You should also not use used to with length-of-time expressions (for ten years) or for the recent past (last month). In this form, used to is often followed by a big ol' but. (Not the badonk-a-donk kind. This is a family blog.) This is to explain why the action no longer occurs or why the situation no longer exists. One common error is to say "but I don't anymore." Well, duuuuuhhhhhhhh. That's what used to means. Tell me something I don't know.
  • I used to enjoy a quiet Sunday afternoon of football watching, but then I got married. (The guys know what I'm talking about.)
  • I used to be a normal football fan, but then I discovered Fantasy Football.
2. To show a past habit

This is very similar to the first usage except that you add some sort of frequency, like twice a week or every summer. This expresses the idea that the frequency has decreased, but the activity still continues. (There is an obvious example about marital relations pre- and post-children, but again, this is a family blog. And it assumes that frequency still applies.) For example:
  • I used to go to the gym every day after work, but now I only get there once or twice a week. (Don't mock me. For all you know, this could be true.)
I hope you've enjoyed our little journey through the wonderland that is helping verbs. However, the explanation for be used to will have to wait for another day. The dog won't walk himself and that diaper ain't gettin' any fresher.

(Something to ponder: I used to have a social life. Now I have a blog.)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Did you "bring it" or "take it"?

Yay! The Grammar Geek has his first opportunity to help with an age-old conundrum. Did you bring something to the party or take something to the party?

Before I try to answer this question (and probably make things worse), let me explain how I come up with my answers. I believe in native-speaker intuition. If the little voice in your head is saying "that sounds right", then it's probably right. However, if that little voice is saying "that sounds weird", it probably is. The more you test your little voice with standard reference books, the more confident you will become in trusting your intuition. (I call my little voice "Tater" because my wife wouldn't let me name our son "Tater". Let's face it, the potato is the wonder food. We need to celebrate it.)

But I digress. One of the reasons I left academia (I was a tenured professor at a university in Japan for four years) is because I got tired of having to defend every little utterance against "Where's your data?" "Show me your research?" "What does the literature say?" Take a pill. I believe common sense and experience are equally valid tools in the decision-making process. (It's also much easier and I'll never be accused of being a workaholic.) My point is - trust your gut. I trust mine. And I have more to trust than most these days.

I'll be the first to admit I've had it easy, following this gut-led charge on grammar, because I teach non-native speakers in a high school ESL program. Basically, I can tell them whatever I want and they have to believe me. "Go ahead. Prove that I'm wrong." And if they do, I ruin their chances at Harvard with a C-. (I'm kidding of course......or am I?) I guess what I'm saying is: listen to me at your own risk. You're not going to see a lot of works cited.

Back to the issue at hand, bring or take?

The simplest answer I can give is to use them like you use come and go. Imagine you are talking to a friend during lunch in the school cafeteria. When you are talking about moving away from your current location, you say "I'm going to the mall after school." If you are talking about moving towards your current location, you say "I came to school extra early this morning." Similarly, you would take your books with you to the mall and you would bring your computer with you to school. When you go somewhere, you take stuff with you. When you come to a place, you bring stuff with you.

However, it can get trickier. Imagine you will be attending a potluck supper after church on Sunday. (Man, I miss those.) On Friday, you talk with your friend Susan, who attends the same church.
You: Are you going to the potluck on Sunday?
Susan: Yes. I'm going to take my favorite tuna casserole.
You: We're going to take an apple cobbler.
On Sunday, both of you will be moving away from your homes so you go to church and take the dish when you leave the house.

Then later in the day, you bump into the minister.
Minister: Are you coming to the potluck after church on Sunday?
You: Yes. We're looking forward to it. We're bringing an apple cobbler and Susan is bringing her tuna casserole.

In this case, even though neither of you are at the church, you are talking about the minister's "home" and you will be moving towards that "home" on Sunday. Therefore, come and bring are appropriate.

To summarize: Remember the pairs: come/bring and go /take. Before deciding whether to use bring or take, ask yourself whether come or go would be appropriate. Then use its partner. However, before doing this, remember that I haven't eaten breakfast yet, so my gut might be grumpy and deliberately leading you in the wrong direction.


Because the Grammar Geek Said So!

Who the hell do I think I am?

I am an American whose first language is English. I speak the language of Thomas Jefferson who wrote that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." I speak the language of Mark Twain, who so sagely advised "The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money."

I am a veteran of 20 years in the ESL classroom. I have spent countless hours explaining the difference between "most people" and "most of the people". I explain to students why using an adjective clause weakens their intent and why a main clause would express their ideas more concisely. I have uncountable nouns for lunch and wash them down with adverb complements and appositives. I go to sleep mulling over the difference between "my book" and "my own book."

I am the geek who thinks language is sudoku on steroids. It is better than the most intricate video game. It is the one art that I actually excel at. (At least in my own mind.) A piece of paper is a blank canvas waiting for me to write a love letter to my wife or express my outrage at the latest political idiocy. I can tell Grandma about the latest, greatest thing that every child in history has done, yet never quite so spectacularly as her grandson just did. I can make a grammar lesson that might explain a tricky point just a little bit differently enough to make a student say "Aha!"

I stop in the middle of a paragraph to admire an especially well-crafted sentence.

I shake my head in disbelief when I see a spelling error on a menu.

I yell at the screen when the CNN crawl details Tiger Woods' latest exploits. (Please tell me you immediately realized the s was missing after the apostrophe.)

I am the self-annointed king of the Grammar Geeks who has inherited a magical language, the most difficult and complex on the planet. I am its steward. It is my job to draw the line in the sand and declare "Thou shalt not do anything on accident." It is my job to defend that line to my dying breath and pass it on to the next generation of stewards, hoping beyond hope that they will care for it as passionately as I have tried to.

Show me where it says in the Constitution that, along with the freedoms of speech, assembly and blowing off my sister's wedding so I can draft my Fantasy Football team live, I have the freedom to butcher the English language and bend it into any unnatural shape I want simply because OMG, I don't get it and Jersey Shore is on in five minutes.

Grammar is like the ocean. There is no need to fear it, and we should all enjoy it. However, we must respect it, because if we don't, a shark might come up and take a piece out of your hind parts.

I am the Great White in an ocean of grammar just waiting to take a bite. That's who the hell I think I am.