The thud rattled my apartment, causing two pots – each containing a cactus – to fall from the counter and shatter on the floor.
I dashed to the window and looked, expecting to see a meteorite in place of where Mrs. Thigglethorpe’s home had once been. Mrs. Thigglethorpe’s home was still there, and, in fact, Mrs. Thigglethorpe was on the front lawn with her pet hippopotamus. There were no signs of a natural disaster outside.
“Excuse me,” said a voice behind me.
“Ay!” I screamed, startled. I whipped around only to find Bill the Grammar Consultant lying in a heap on the floor.
“Calm down, calm down, it was I who crashed,” said Bill.
I did calm down. “Bill, what are you doing here?”
“You got any pastrami?”
“A thick, tangy pimento cheese spread, and a nice loaf of pumpernickel?”
“Yep. The pumpernickel came out of the oven just an hour ago, and a container of pimento cheese spread is on the bottom shelf in the fridge, next to an unidentified container that I’m afraid to open.”
“Now you’re talking,” said Bill. “Thanks. I’ll be right back. Oh, and sorry about the cacti.”
“Cacti – the plural of cactus.”
“It’s not cactuses?”
“Well, actually, both are used. In Arizona, they just use the word ‘cactus’ to be both singular and plural. Using ‘i’ for plurals is common with words pulled into English (or Anglicized) from the Latin.”
“Okay, then. Let me go clean up the cacti mess.”
“Cool. See ya,” remarked Bill as he darted into the kitchen and out of sight.
I began whistling that old favorite tune about whistling while you work. “I love having Bill around,” I thought to myself. “He adds such clarity to my grammar life.” I quickly put the pieces of cactus onto a tray and set it on the dining chair that was near the window, just to get it out of the way so that I could sweep the dirt and broken chards of pottery. In a moment, I had the floor as clean as a whistle.
As I turned to remove the cacti from the chair, I heard Bill’s voice call out, “You got any mustard?”
“Uh, no. Sorry,” I apologized.
The doorbell rang. I stood there for a second, debating whether to remove the cacti from the chair or open the door.
Bill stepped out of the kitchen. “Nauseating nephew?” he asked.
“The doorbell rang. Shouldn’t you answer it?”
“Uh, yes. Good idea,” I said, moving toward the door.
“I’ll just, uh, you know, go finish the pimento cheese spread. You weren’t going to use that tonight for anything, were you?”
“Uh, no,” I answered. Bill darted back into the kitchen.
“Come in, come in, dear birthday aunt,” I said, opening the door and motioning for her to enter.
She smiled. “Why, thank you.”
“Now, let’s get down to business. Food is ready,” I said, gleaming with pride. With a flourish, I lit the candles on the table. After all, I wanted this to be a nice birthday dinner for Aunt Ruth.
“Food is ready? Oh my, you’re so efficient. May I sit down?”
“Yes, please do,” I said.
She plopped into the chair next to the window before I could stop her. For a moment, her eyes were as big as saucers and her cheeks turned beet read, and then she let out a scream and exploded off the chair, knocking over my table along with the flaming candles. Her dress instantly caught fire.
“Water! Water!” I yelled, not quite sure to whom but hoping somebody would hear.
Bill ran into the room with a pitcher of water and instantly poured it on Aunt Ruth, drenching her. Wisps of smoke curled from her head and dissipated into the room.
“Hi Bill,” sighed Aunt Ruth, “and thanks. I’m glad you were here!”
“Oh, you know me. I was just minding my own business quietly in the kitchen, but then I heard the call for water and I smelled the acrid odor of burnt underwear. I figured something was awry. Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled programming. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me for anything.”
Aunt Ruth and I sat down and commenced eating.
“Mmmm, this is delicious, darling nephew,” remarked Aunt Ruth as she swallowed the first bite of my new culinary creation. “What did you say this was called?”
“I’m glad you like it, Aunt Ruth. This is my Jules Verne Special.”
“What’s in it, if I may ask?”
“The key ingredient is octopus,” I said rather nonchalantly.
Aunt Ruth turned all the colors of the rainbow in less than a second, going from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to indigo to violet faster than you can say, “Roy G. Biv.”
She began coughing violently. “Quick!” she gasped, “get me (cough) some (cough cough) water!”
“Water!” I yelled, feeling a sudden sense of deja vous.
Bill ran back into the room carrying another pitcher of water, and before I could stop him he poured it on Aunt Ruth, drenching her for the second time in less than five minutes. I’m not sure how it worked, but it did stop Aunt Ruth from coughing.
Dripping, Aunt Ruth sat there and stared at the large tray that I had used to serve the Jules Verne Special. “How many, may I ask, octopuses did you use for this recipe?”
“Hold it right there,” said Bill.
“Don’t tell me that octopuses isn’t the right word,” muttered Aunt Ruth.
“Okay, I won’t tell you that,” said Bill. There was a large pause.
“Well, is it or isn’t it?” sighed a flustered Aunt Ruth.
“It can be either octopuses or octopi,” said Bill quietly.
“How can it be either?”
“It has to do with its Latin roots and whether it’s a second declension or fourth declension noun.”
“Never mind. Just know that we have a lot of unusual plural nouns in English and it behooves us to learn them.”
At that moment, I heard the roar of animals outside my window. A quick investigation revealed that Mr. Ledbottom had brought his pet hippopotamus over to play with Mrs. Thigglethorpe’s pet hippopotamus.
“What’s the noise?” asked Aunt Ruth.
“Just a pair of hippopotamuses out on the grass.”
“That’s hippopotami,” said Bill, “just as it’s rhinoceri.”
“Rhinoceri?” I asked. “That sounds like a room where a baby rhinocerous might live.”
“Listen,” said Bill, “if you’re going to use a noun, you’ve got to know the plural for that noun. That’s called Plurality Responsibility, or Pluronsibility.”
“Is it really?” I asked.
“No, not really,” responded Bill. “I do like that word though.”
“Well,” sniffed Aunt Ruth with an air of superiority, “I think we should continue to keep our focuses on real words, not pretend words.”
“Focii,” corrected Bill.
“Beg your (cough) pardon?” said Aunt Ruth.
“You’re still coughing, Aunt Ruth,” I said.
“Tell me about it. I think some of the octopuses – octopi, excuse me – accidentally went down my sarcophagus.”
“That’s esophagus,” said Bill with a smile.
“Oh yeah, that’s right. I had forgotten that word. I should remember esophagus. It’ll come in handy some day. Mommy said you never know when we might need to talk about esophaguses.”
“Esophagi,” said Bill.
“No way,” said Aunt Ruth.
“Yes way,” he responded. “And just in case you’re wondering, it’s sarcophagi.”
“Mommy never told me about sarcophagi.”
“No,” said Bill, “but I’ll bet your mummy did.”
Last week I saw a headline that read, “Irene Menaces East Coast.” I have to admit that the first thought that crossed my mind was, “Aha, I gotcha!” Then I (naturally) thought, “How on earth did that one make it past the editors?”
Now, contrary to my household’s general belief, I am not the Grammar Police. My goal in life, though, is to assist anyone who needs help so that an unhappy encounter with said Grammar Police can be avoided.
I made a mental note to double-check and confirm my suspicion, though I was already nearly positive that I was right. In fact, I was close enough to being certain of my correctness that I even announced during lunch to the adoring crowd (my children) that I had found a faux pas in the morning news. They too were aghast. I shook my head and sighed. They shook their heads and sighed. Together, we shook our heads and sighed.
Ring ring ring!
“Hello?” I responded. “Oh, hello Aunt Ruth.”
“Hello, my nauseating nephew,” she replied in her usual jovial way. “Do you remember the World Series of 1972?”
“Sure I do. That was the beginning of the dynasty.”
“Dynasty? You mean like the Ming Dynasty?”
“Did the Mings win the World Series?”
“Uh, no, but I’m not sure what dynasty you mean,” she said, clearly exasperated.
“The Oakland A’s won the World Series in 1972, 1973, and 1974, behind the slugging of Reggie Jackson, the pitching of Catfish Hunter, and the fielding exploits of Joe Rudi.”
“Right. They had a catcher, too, who had a great series in ’72.”
“That would be Tenace.”
“Right. Tenace menaced the Reds in 1972.”
“Yes he did. He hit three home runs in that series.”
“What was Tenace’s first name? Was it Dennis? Dennis Tenace menaced the Reds.”
“It wasn’t Dennis. It was Gene.”
“I like Dennis better. Saying, ‘Gene Tenace menaced the Reds,’ just doesn’t have that ring to it.”
“Word play isn’t solid justification for changing somebody’s name, Aunt Ruth. Oh, and hey, better look up the word menace. You don’t want to be arrested by the Grammar Police for verbizing.”
“Wrongo, my nephew. Look it up yourself.” Though I couldn’t see her, I knew she was smiling a victorious sort of smile.
“Really,” she replied. “Say, what are you doing the rest of the day?”
“I’m hoping to have a ruthless afternoon,” I said, sighing and hanging up the phone.
Verbification, the act of verbizing – taking a word that is not a verb and using it as such – is a fun but scary thing and should not be taken lightly.
When done correctly, verbizing can be effective and humorous. A favorite word coined by our church youth group is “Robligate,” which comes from a combination of the word “Rob” (the first name of the director of our church’s youth ministries) and the word “delegate.” When Rob assigns a task to a youth, the youth has been Robligated to do something.
When done incorrectly, verbizing can be ambiguous and confusing, or even just simply annoying. Text as a verb is a verbized creation, and though it has become more accepted, I suspect that the majority of people out there who care about English are aghast at the use of the word. The problem with text is that a few of those who text tend to be so rude … sending or reading text messages while talking face-to-face with someone else. It’s almost like being on the phone with somebody and he receives another call. “Excuse me, but I’m waiting for an important call.” Sigh.
So anyway, I eventually looked up menace and discovered that it CAN be properly used as a verb. It is perfectly fine for something to menace something else. I was actually pleased to discover that – my vocabulary space just grew a couple of sizes and I have a new word I can use. Yeah!
Be careful with verbizing though. Verbizing can cause one to be aghast. And I don’t like it when someone aghasts me.
“Where to this time, my lovely aunt?”
Aunt Ruth turned and looked side to side. Then she looked behind her. There was no one else in the immediate vicinity other than the two of us.
“Oh, moi?” she asked, smiling with a bit of modesty. “You’re asking me where I’d like to go?”
“Yes, I’m asking you, and when did you start speaking German?” I knew that inquiring minds would want to know.
“German? Darling nephew, everyone knows that ‘moi’ is a French word meaning ‘me.’”
Feeling impatient, I knew I didn’t have time for leisurely banter. “French, Schmench, tell me where you’d like to go. I need to be back in time for dinner with my friends Mr. and Mrs. Murphy.”
“What time is dinner with the Murphy’s?” she asked, checking her wristwatch.
“Dinner is at 6pm, and it’s not with the Murphy’s, it’s with the Murphys.”
“Wait,” argued Aunt Ruth, “you just said the same thing. It’s like saying, ‘We’re not eating chicken, we’re eating chicken.”
“No, look carefully. You used an apostrophe.”
“Doesn’t using an apostrophe make it sound different?”
“There’s no difference in sound,” I replied.
“Then how did –”
“The author whispered in my ear,” I interrupted.
“Um, how can … oh never mind. I don’t even want to go there,” she sighed. “So anyway, the apostrophe doesn’t alter the sound. Humph. Who would have thought?”
“That’s right. It only makes it incorrect.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can’t say you’re going to have dinner with the Murphy’s, because Murphy’s is possessive. Maybe you’re going to have dinner at the Murphy’s house or at the Murphy’s farm, or maybe you’re going to eat one of the Murphy’s pet rhinoceroses for dinner. You, however, are not having dinner with the Murphy’s.”
“You’re not,” I replied. “When you have a proper noun that ends in ‘y’ and you want to make the word plural, you simply add an ‘s’.”
“Whoa there, big fella,” Aunt Ruth remarked. “What’s the plural of monkey?”
“Monkies,” I replied.
“What’s the plural of fantasy?”
“What’s the plural of luxury?”
“Name or object?”
“Fannies,” I replied.
“Okay. So what’s the plural of Murphy?” she asked.
“Murphys,” I stated.
“Kids!” shouted the author from somewhere up above. Aunt Ruth and the Nauseating Nephew paused their bickering to look around. Trumpets sounded. Banners unfurled from on high. The voice continued.
“This discussion has been going on for years. Some are adamant that the ‘y’ will always change to ‘ie’ before adding the ‘s’. I tell you, though, that the more widely accepted plural form of a name ending in ‘y’ is simply with an ‘s’ on the end. It’s not the Kennedies, it’s the Kennedys. And now we pause for a word from our sponsor.”
Men dressed up in fruit costumes appeared on stage for an underwear commercial. We’ll leave a more detailed description of this event for another time.
After a few seconds of silence, Aunt Ruth and I resumed the discussion.
“Anyway, do you understand the ‘y’ and plural word examples?” I asked.
“Yep, I think so,” sighed Aunt Ruth in relief. “So, basically, I’m going to have dinner with the Murphys.”
“No, you’re not,” I said with a hidden smile that went undetected by my grammatically challenged aunt.
“And why not?” said Aunt Ruth, as exasperated as I’ve ever seen her.
“You are not having dinner with the Murphys because the Murphys didn’t invite you.”
From somewhere in the background, “Ride of the Valkyries” blared.
“Oh! My cell phone!” said Aunt Ruth with glee.
“Hello?” she responded. “Yes? Yes? What time? Oh, that would be wonderful. See you then.”
She smiled smugly at me. “You can have dinner with the Murphys. That’s fine with me.”
“What are you doing for dinner?” I asked.
“They invited me over.”
“The Jones’s. And don’t tell me to not use an apostrophe.”
“Don’t use an apostrophe. Just add ‘es’ instead.”
WHAM! Aunt Ruth’s umbrella came crashing down upon my skull.
“I told you not to tell me that!” she said with a frown.
Sigh. Like many other English grammatical lessons, I realized this wasn’t as easy and straight-forward as it seemed.
“Hey Aunt Ruth, I think we should postpone our trip in the time machine. We don’t have time for it today.”
“I believe you’re right. Besides, we’re not sitting in the time machine.”
“We’re not? Why?”
“Herman took it in for repairs. This is an old refrigerator box. It used to belong to my good friends the Chavez’s.”
“Aunt Ruth …”
I was recently sitting in the mountains on a bridge. No, the mountains were not on the bridge. I guess I was sitting on a bridge in the mountains. Or was I standing? Anyway, I was there on the bridge, and I was thinking deep thoughts. I might have been replaying the Johnny Rodgers punt return that he had in Nebraska’s win over Oklahoma in 1971 (still, in my opinion, the greatest game ever played). Or maybe I was trying to remember if I had had my coffee that morning.
Then, out of the blue, the question was asked me by a good friend who was also sitting or standing on the bridge, “What’s the difference between a homonym and a homophone?”
With the gentle wisdom that I’ve learned in my half-century of life here on this great planet, I answered with the confidence of a man who has heard it all. “It depends,” I responded. There was a pause, and I realized that my friend was waiting for the complete answer. So I decided to continue.
“It depends on what a homophone is,” I triumphantly stated, nodding wisely.
Okay, it’s time to get to the point. Somewhere in my elementary education I was either:
- A) misinformed
- B) not paying attention
- C) victim of a government plot by Communists somewhere to lead all American children astray in an attempt to hinder national productivity and intelligence
I suspect it was (C) but I cannot prove it. C, incidentally, is also responsible for Sesame Street, video games, and text messaging.
I did some research and here’s what I determined.
First, my concept of what constitutes a homonym was all wrong. I have spent the first fifty years of my life believing that homonyms are any words that sound alike. They DO sound alike, that is true. But that’s not the end of the story.
Homophones are words that sound alike. Two, to, and too are homophones.
Homographs are words that are written alike. Lead (to be in front) and lead (the metal used to make fishing weights) are homographs.
Homonyms are words that are homophones AND homographs.
In other words, all homonyms are homophones, but not all homophones are homonyms. All chihuahuas are dogs, but not all dogs are chihuahuas. So … a chihuahua is a metaphor for a homonym.
Stalk and stalk — the former being the base of a corn plant and the latter being the action of following somebody (or is it the other way around, and how do you know?) — are examples of homonyms.
Wow, talk about having your world turned upside down. This is akin to thinking for years that it was Neil Armstrong who first set foot on the moon, only to find (when you’re 50) that it was really Jimi Hendrix.
Why didn’t anyone tell me?
Not that I’m paranoid, but what other facts out there have I gotten wrong all my life? It makes one wonder …
I’ll be the first to admit that my knees wobbled as my partner and I warmed up in preparation for taking the dance floor. After all, it had been years since my last competition — back in fifth grade, when Mary Jo Sue Bobby Bootenshaker and I won the Hokey Pokey Championship — and I still wasn’t completely sold on the idea of performing on Dancing with the Grammar Stars.
“You’ll do fine,” whispered my dance partner during the pause between contestants. “Remember the scene in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ where Fred Astaire dances on the walls? That’s all you have to do.”
“Thanks, Aunt Ruth. Now I feel really confident,” I said with a slight smile. “By the way, you look marvelous in that dress. How, uh, how did you manage to squeeze into it?”
She was wearing a size two something or other — the local paper would describe this as a lovely chiffon chantilly lace with a dollop of meringue — that was perhaps ten sizes too small. Envision trying to squeeze a Sherman tank into the bag of peanuts that the airline generously gives you on the short hop from Frankfurt, Germany to Wichita, Kansas, and you’ll be pretty close.
“It took a lot of grease and I had to borrow a high-powered vacuum from Jim Bob’s Vacuum and Automobile Deodorizer Store (‘Not Only Do We Suck, But We Smell Too’). I don’t think it’s ever coming off. I may as well have just had it body-painted on me.”
“Uh, no,” I gasped, suddenly feeling dizzy.
“What’s wrong, nephew, are you nauseous?” Aunt Ruth exclaimed.
“No, I’m nauseated,” I replied.
“You are nauseous … you are making me nauseated.”
“Oh don’t start that again, Aunt Ruth. Besides, we have bigger fish to fry.”
“Fish? How did you know?”
“I went surf fishing the other day and brought home a nice assortment of fish that I thought I would grill for you. If you was to come over tomorrow afternoon …”
“If you were,” I corrected.
“No, I’m not. I’m asking you,” replied a flustered Aunt Ruth.
“You said, ‘If you was,’ but you clearly meant, ‘If you were,’” I remarked.
“And why would that be, oh Graceful Gorgon of Grammar?”
“Because you are using the subjunctive.”
“I think you’ve got subjunctivitis of the brain or something, Nauseating Nephew.”
“We can’t neglect the subjunctive form, Aunt Ruth. It’s going out of style, but it’s still important.”
“And why is that?” Aunt Ruth was tapping her foot impatiently.
“Because we need a way in our glorious language to express conditions contrary to fact, or requests, or wishes.”
“Oh, obviously,” she sighed. “Well as long as we’re here, tell me, precious nephew, how one should use the subjunctive?”
“I’m glad you asked.”
An announcement blared over the speakers. “Aunt Ruth and Nauseating Nephew, it is requested that you be ready to dance.”
“Oh that’s weird,” said Aunt Ruth. “Shouldn’t he have said ‘that you are ready to dance’?”
“Nope,” I replied. “That’s the beauty of the subjunctive. Present tense verbs do not change to indicate the subject’s number or person. The subjunctive always uses the base form of the verb (be, jump, sing) with all subjects.”
“Wow, that’s cool,” replied Aunt Ruth. “Could you give me more examples please?”
“Sure, Aunt Ruth. Take a look at the following.”
It is important that you be well-rested.
It is vital that she drink her orange juice each morning.
We asked that he eat less before tomorrow’s test.
“Now, note that there’s only one past tense form of be, and that is were.”
If I were you, I’d have picked a dress about twenty sizes larger.
“Hey, it’s almost time to dance. Here’s your mango,” she said, handing me a fruit.
“Mango? What’s this for?”
“That’s the dance we’re doing, silly.”
“Aunt Ruth, it’s not the mango, it’s the tango.”
She turned pale. “If I were to suddenly disappear, don’t be too surprised. I’ve been practicing the wrong dance.”
“Don’t worry, Aunt Ruth — and good use of the subjunctive, by the way.”
“Uh, thanks. Now, tell me once again when we use the subjunctive?”
At that moment, our dance routine began. I wrapped my arm around Aunt Ruth’s waist — no small feat — and began. As we made our way across the dance floor, we wowed the judges with our own special version of the tango. Using our Nebraska roots, it was actually a combination tango and square dance.
“So … Aunt Ruth … first of all, you use the subjunctive in contrary-to-fact clauses beginning with if. For example, if I were to be a judge, I’d give us a 10. Since I’m not a judge, I use were instead of was.”
“Second, Aunt Ruth, do not use the subjunctive mood when the condition exists or may exist. For example, if she wins the dance contest, she’s going to take a month off. Here you use the normal wins instead of the subjunctive win.”
“Third, use the subjunctive mood when expressing a contrary-to-fact wish. I wish that she weren’t stepping on my feet. I wish that my dance partner weren’t smelling so …”
Aunt Ruth hit me over the head with an umbrella. I guess I deserved that.
“Use the subjunctive mood for that clauses that are requests or suggestions. Aunt Ruth asks that all her dance partners be graceful. Here, use be instead of are.”
“And finally, there are some expressions that use the subjunctive mood because they are remnants from days of old when the subjunctive mood was much more commonly used. The phrase as it were comes to mind.”
We finished our routine to an uproar of applause.
“If I were to have paid money to be in the audience, I’d be happy with our performance.”
“Exactly, Aunt Ruth. Exactly.”
My dearest Ruth,
It is with great remoras that I am swimming on the beach. Really, those suckerfish are huge. I am still looking for my porpoise in life, at least hoping to find a ray of meaning. “Live each day to the fullest” — that’s always been my manta. Sometimes I flounder, but other days I have a whale of a time.
Oh, I’m such a kidder. Enough with the puns already. Anyway, just dropping you a line to say howdy. I’m doing laundry today and I hung my clothes outside on the line. It’s humid though. I was hoping my clothes would be dryer than they are by now.
Dear Aunt Iquity,
Why would your clothes become an appliance?
What are you talking about?
Dear Aunt Iquity,
You said you wished your clothes were a dryer. A dryer is something that makes things more dry than they were. You want your clothes to be drier. A dryer makes clothes drier.
I’m glad you set my mind at ease on that point. I’ve been worrying about it all week. I can breath more easily now.
Dear Aunt Iquity,
If can is a helper, why did you put a noun after it? You said, “I can breath” … that’s like saying, “I can porcupine” or “I can chihuahua.”
I believe you wanted to say, “I can breathe,” not, “I can breath.”
Picky, aren’t we? I think your girdle is too tight. Relax, girl. Losen up.
Your distant relative,
Dear Aunt Iquity,
Sticks and stones may break my bones, and names do hurt me sometimes. You meant loosen up, not losen up.
Can we talk about something else now? You’re driving me bonkers.
A distant relative whom you will never see again,
Dear Aunt Iquity,
Yes we may.
It’s quiz time. Below are sentences with misplaced modifiers and / or dangling participles. Take a stab at answering the questions.
I. Surprised that his remark about her inability to brew a proper pot of tea would stir such angst, the bullets whizzed past Horace’s ear as he hid behind Mrs. Ainsworth’s refrigerator.
1. According to this sentence, who (or what) was surprised?
2. Should Horace have been more prudent with his criticism?
3. What do you suppose happened to Horace after he mentioned that Mrs. Ainsworth had overcooked the cranberry scones?
II. Aghast that her guest would make such a blunder, the goldfish aquarium water — with the goldfish — was consumed before Mrs. Rutherford’s very eyes.
1. According to this sentence, who (or what) was aghast?
2. How do you think the goldfish felt about this whole ordeal?
3. One can only assume that the consumer was either pitcher Randy Johnson or slugger Dave Winfield, given their histories of animal destruction (look it up). Who was it, and why?
4. The word very is used as an adjective here. Can you think of two other examples using that word in this way?
III. Towering into the clouds, Aunt Ruth stared at the formidable mountain and decided to put on an extra pair of socks.
1. According to this sentence, who (or what) was towering?
2. If you answered “Aunt Ruth” to the first question, give an estimate of what Aunt Ruth’s mass would be, and attempt to explain why she of large mass wouldn’t throw the earth’s orbit out of whack.
3. What color socks would Aunt Ruth wear for this example?
IV. Stunned by the surprising blast of the cannon, the heavy artillery used in Robert’s graduation ceremony caused Mr. Entlewaithe’s dentures to fall out and land in Mrs. Jackson’s handbag.
1. According to this sentence, who (or what) was stunned?
2. Describe how Pachelbel’s canon might have had a different result.
3. What did Mrs. Jackson do when she returned home and found Mr. Entlewaithe’s dentures?
4. Should Mrs. Jackson have added the dentures to her collection of body parts that she kept in jars on the shelf in the den (including three wisdom teeth, a set of tonsils, and an appendix)?
I’ve never claimed to be a king of grammar, nor do I take pleasure in being a member of the Grammar Police (occasionally it’s fun, depending on the offender’s identity). Yesterday, in fact, I let two incorrect usages of hopefully just saunter on by without my uttering so much as a word. I also heard a like instead of an as, along with an object pronoun being used with a linking verb (ouch).
I am not harsh (am I?) for a couple reasons, namely:
1) Criticizing someone for incorrect grammar does nothing to encourage him/her. Keep harping on grammar, and the receiver of the criticism will hate it (and possibly you) for life.
2) I’m still learning this stuff myself, and I discovered today (well, it was pointed out to me by the Maternal One) that I have been using “couple” incorrectly all these years (not that I’m THAT old, but I’m old enough that “all these years” adds up to a boatload).
How did I use couple and how should I use it?
It appears that I’ve been leaving off the required of in the expression couple of. I’ve just been saying couple.
1) I see a couple chihuahuas walking down the street.
2) A couple hawks are overhead, spying a couple chihuahuas.
1) I see a couple of chihuahuas …
2) A couple of hawks …
It turns out that in every case where you use couple (as a noun) you need to also use of, except when using couple to refer to two of something (as in “they make a nice couple”).
Ring! Ring! Ring!
“Hi Aunt Ruth,” I remarked, watching the wisps of steam rise from my coffee in the shape of a tuba.
“How did you do that?” asked a befuddled Aunt Ruth, “and how did you know it was I?”
“How did I do what? I knew it was you because you’re the only one who calls me at this website.”
“How did you have coffee in the shape of a tuba?” she asked.
“Oh, the coffee wasn’t in that shape … I meant the wisps of steam were in that shape. I guess I should have said, ‘Wisps of steam in the shape of a tuba rose from my coffee.’ Would that have helped?”
“Yes, noteworthy nephew. Now, I have a question for you. I have to dash.”
“Oh, okay. Bye, Aunt Ruth.”
“No, I’m not leaving yet. I meant I have to use a dash.”
“A dash of salt?”
“No, a dash on the keyboard … you know, that letter just to the right of zero on the qwerty keyboard.”
“That would be a hyphen.” I heard nothing but silence on the other end. “Hello, Aunt Ruth?”
“Yes,” she responded meekly.
“So … what’s your question?”
“That thing to the right of the zero on the qwerty keyboard isn’t a dash?”
“It’s a hyphen.”
“What’s the difference, and how do you use a hyphen?”
“I’m glad you asked. Here are some ways it can be used.”
- Compound Words: Some words, like cross-examine, need hyphens because those words are really two words stuck together. There’s not a hard, fast rule on when to do this. Check the dictionary.
- When two or more words combine to function as an adjective before a noun, use a hyphen.
Examples: best-known song, long-lost dog, fire-roasted pizza crust
- Note that if you have an adverb modifying an adjective, do NOT hyphenate them together. Adverbs are allowed to modify adjectives, remember? That’s one of the things they do.
Examples: Slowly moving aunt, grossly underrated grammar book
- Hyphenate words when required to avoid ambiguity.
Examples: re-creation (the display was a re-creation of nineteenth century Iowa) versus recreation (for recreation, Aunt Ruth watches her lava lamp.)
- If you divide a word at the end of a line, divide it between syllables.
Example: When the dog ran into the fire hy-
drant, he needed to go to the doctor for stitches.
- When writing compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine, use a hyphen.
Examples: Uh, twenty-one and ninety-nine.
- When writing out fractions, use a hyphen between the numerator and the denominator.
Examples: one-fourth, two-thirds.
“Okay hot shot, how about dashes,” exclaimed Aunt Ruth. “I can’t find anything else on my qwerty keyboard that looks like a dash.”
“Well, Aunt Ruth, a dash is like a big hyphen, sort of. When typing, using two hyphens to make a dash. Do not put a space before or after the dash.”
“When do I use a dash?”
“Here ya go.”
- Use dashes like you would use parentheses.
Example: I took my dog–I’ve had him for 17 years–to the flea market yesterday, but he itched the whole time.
- Use dashes when using appositives that contain commas.
Example: My favorite baseball teams–Kansas City, Atlanta, and Boston–are all too far away from me.
“That looks odd, with no spaces before or after the dashes,” sighed Aunt Ruth.
“I know. Some guidelines say to have no spaces, but some say that spaces are allowed. Check whatever guidelines you are using for your writing, and if the guidelines don’t specify (or if you aren’t using guidelines) then just go with your personal preference.”
“So … is that it for dashes and hyphens?”
“Actually, there’s a little more. I want to talk about ranges.”
“Like the Rocky Mountains?”
“No, like number ranges, e.g., 5–7.”
“I’m getting one of my sick headaches.”
“Good, me too. We’ll do ranges later, and we’ll talk about em-dashes and en-dashes.”
“Say good night, Aunt Ruth.”
“Good night Aunt Ruth.”
The title of this post is a direct quote from Apex Reviews, who both reviewed the book (I Laid an Egg on Aunt Ruth’s Head) and interviewed me recently.
The thing is that learning is not only a good thing to do, but it is fun too. Becoming proficient at grammar can lead to mind-expanding word games, such as puns and other word play. It exercises the brain.
Certainly, not all of us like or enjoy hearing a well turned pun or a carefully crafted metaphor. That’s okay.
What? You haven’t read the Aunt Ruth book yet? It’s available from this web site. Order your author-signed edition today!