Hyphens and dashes

Use sparingly.

Oh, great, you think to yourself. Punctuation. Fascinating stuff. Who cares?

Well, um, duh, I do. And as long as I’m alive, I will be beating you over the head with my Strunk & White. Okay?

This article was inspired by a friend of mine who recently made the pronouncement that comma usage in our modern age is kind of up for grabs. It’s a Ted Nugent free-for-all. Sprinkle those commas like Bac-Os all over your prose. All paths lead to punctuational correctness! Continue reading

Affect vs. effect

Dear Conan:

Maybe this is one you can write about in your newsletter—when to use effect or affect. I am usually good at this rule but am unsure of my usage here:

The brand of your company also effects first impressions.

Since I am writing an article on first impressions, I don’t want to appear stupid.

~Beth

Dear Beth:

Amen, sis. That’s a sentiment I mutter on a continual basis, so I can relate. There’s an easy way to remember which is which, however, to cut down on the embarrassment factor (in this area, anyway). Thanks for the suggestion.

~Conan Continue reading

Hey! My cable guy’s a proofreader too!

I once edited a charming memoir written by a gentleman whose mother grew up in a North Dakota sod house. He wrote his book as a gift to his brothers and sisters, and he had it professionally published and bound. The final product will look great and is grammatically correct, so his family can concentrate on the content and not on the misuse of commas or the confusion of the words “then” and “than.” Continue reading

Indefinite articles: a or an?

Let’s talk about indefinite articles, shall we? Specifically, I’d like to address some apparent confusion about when and where to use “a” versus “an.” Think you know this one already? We’ll just see about that. Continue reading

Double negatives

Don't make me use these.

Hey there Conan

Can you do a bit on double negatives?  It bugs the crap out of me when people say stuff like

I didn’t go nowhere
I don’t got nothing
I didn’t do nothing

~Cheryl


Dearest Cheryl: I am happy, naturally, to correct others’ speech as well as their writing. Nothing gives me more pleasure.

Your ally in correctness,

~Conan

So you out there — when you use double negatives, you’re saying the opposite of what you meant to say: I didn’t go nowhere means I went somewhere. Now, don’t make me get out my ruler and rap your knuckles. Cut it out and do your bit to lower Cheryl’s blood pressure. I thank you.

Comma tally voo?

In just a few short years, I'll be starring in "Westworld."

Obviously, I can’t tackle the entire subject of comma usage in one Conan, so we’ll take it a bit at a time.  I swore I’d never do this to you, but I can’t think of any other way to get my point across. I’m going to have to get a little technical this time.  Nothing to be done but suck it up and dive right in.

What does a comma represent in speech? Yes, you, in the front row with the bow tie? Right…a pause. Unfortunately, most people don’t talk no more betterer than they write. Most writers toss commas into their writing like rednecks toss Uncle Ben’s at a trailer park wedding. This will not do!

Comma rule number one: Joining independent clauses and verb phrases with a coordinating conjunction. Hey, wake up! This is important!

An independent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and verb and expresses a complete thought. This is commonly called a sentence.

Example: Eddie wore a pair of white pumps.

A verb phrase is a group of related words that does not include a subject.

Example: sported a rhinestone necklace.

A verb phrase usually follows an independent clause and “borrows” the clause’s subject, like so:

Eddie wore a pair of white pumps and sported a rhinestone necklace.

Here’s the common mistake: Most writers drop a comma in between “pumps” and “and.” WRONG! If whatever follows a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, yet, so, etc.) has no subject, do not use a comma before the conjunction. Let it be written. Let it be done.

Now: if you turned the verb phrase into an independent clause by adding a subject, THEN you separate with a comma, like so:

Eddie wore a pair of white pumps, and he sported a rhinestone necklace.

Think of it like this: your verb phrase depends on the independent clause for life support (i.e., its subject). The comma cuts off the phrase from that life support, and it dies a writhing, painful death.

Conversely, when you’ve got two independent clauses, each having its very own subject and verb, imagine yourself as the bartender in a biker bar — the conjunction, if you will. Now imagine your independent clauses as two very large, very angry bikers, one a Hell’s Angel, the other a Son of Silence. Now, the comma is the tire iron you keep stowed behind the bar. You’ve got to insert that comma between the first independent clause (the Hell’s Angel) and the conjunction (you), because that little comma is the only thing that stands between you and a full-tilt-boogie tavern brawl.

Can you see it? Remember it as if your life depended on it, because someday, it just might. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

More plurals

You are getting vee-e-ery sleeeeeepy....

Before we can move on, I need to amend the post concerning the pluralization of proper nouns (i.e., names) that end in the letter “y.” I got questions like “But Conan, what about words that end in ‘i’ or ‘o’? What about a noun that ain’t so proper, like ‘attorney’? What then, o Great Grammar Genie?”

Okay, folks, listen up. Same rule we discussed last month applies — apostrophe  s renders the noun, proper or otherwise, possessive. So it’s not “two attorney’s walked into a bar” but “two attorneys.”

It’s not “I had two Eggo’s for breakfast” but “two Eggos.”

Not “Dave drank ten chocolate martini’s” but “martinis.”

It’s the same thing we talked about before — placing an “s” after an “i” makes you want to pronounce it with a short “i” — mar – tin – is. In the case of both “i” and “o,” you desperately want to prop up these lonely, meek vowels with an “e,” don’t you? Now, I know your motives are pure — because that’s what you do with many nouns ending in “o” to make them plural:

potato(es)
echo(es)
hero(es)
tomato(es)

But plenty of others you don’t:

pianos
solos
cellos
studios
stereos

And in the case of words ending in “i,” you never add an “e”:

broccoli
zucchini
spaghetti
salami
safari
tsunami
ski
alibi

(Interesting, isn’t it? I can’t come up with any English nouns that end in “i” –all of the above are in languages other than Limey.)

As a special bonus, below is a list of other things people get confused about when it comes to plurals:

1900s (not 1900’s)
’70s (not 70’s)
PDAs (not PDA’s)
PCs (not PC’s)
ISPs (not ISP’s)
CDs (not CD’s)
DVDs (not DVD’s)

When in doubt, dear friends, consult your dictionary (no, really!) But never, NEVER use apostrophe  s. Or I will hunt you down with my Red Pen of Wrath and make you pay, do you hear me?