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My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, January 10, 2014

More Grammar Questions I Have No Business Answering

One space or two after a sentence?  Do I use a hyphen between weight loss? Aren't since and because synonyms? Why is there sometimes a comma before a dependent clause?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And I really suck at grammar so you should ask people who know more than me.]    

More grammar questions? Seriously? Haven't you people realized I can barely achieve grammatical coherence within my own writing. You should be asking these questions of grammarians like Grammar Girl or Dr. Grammar. I'm just happy on days I manage to end a sentence with a period

Celina asks:

Should I be using two spaces or one after a sentence.

My reply:

One.

But, let me "teach the controversy."

Actually, I can't really do that because there IS no controversy. There are only gum-toothed old folks like me who learned it in a bygone era of different technology who can't let go, and the brave new world of of the computer literate who will usher in the new chapter of humanity with their single spaces and their Google Glass Singularity and their not having to pay a quarter for video games. Whatever aesthetic actually remains of people who like double spacing are the sad and dying remnants of an ancient species, slowly watching themselves go extinct in the new millennium, but with just enough spite to use their dying breath to tell the whipersnappers and smoochers to get off their lawns.

[I pause in this narrative to tell you about my ex-wife's sister who (god this can't be right!) is like a teenager at this point. When she was about five or six, she watched Steamboat Willie, and didn't get the part where Goofy was eating the corn by going from one end to the other and back with a DING!  "Well, it's like a typewriter, honey," her mother said. My sister in law (ex) cocked her head and said "What's a typewriter?"At that point I went to try to find an ice floe, but we were in central California.]

You see, once upon a time, back when dinosaurs used to roam the Earth, and your intrepid (but very cute and sexable despite his advanced age) blogger was learning how to type, there were these machines called typewriters. And due to typesetting in published works, the space after a sentence needed to be a little longer than the space after a word, so we hit the spacebar twice. Even in the early days of shitty 80's word processors like MacWrite and WordPerfect the space bar was just a certain space (because everyone was hitting two spaces at the end of sentences).

And people like me wrote for years--decades in many cases--using the two space system. But of course, a computer is exactly the sort of newfangled device that can handle automatically making the space a little bigger after a bit of sentence-ending punctuation. So one space is what most published venues demand. It is only a few hold outs who think that the single space looks a little too close that love the two spaces. Most people complain about the "rivers" of empty space running through the page they have to look at with two-spacers.

Those who try and fail like me are to be pitied (and possibly given pity sex). We are a dying breed and the unapologetic one-spacers are not the norm. We try. Give us some orthopedic shoes and a second chance, okay?

Dave asks:

Should I use a hyphen between "weight loss"? I've seen it both ways.

My reply:

If you want to be persnickety you should use a hyphen if "weight loss" is an adjective, but not if it's a noun.

My objective in exercising is weight loss.
Weight loss is a noble goal as long as health isn't sacrificed.

Would you like a weight-loss shake?
My weight-loss plan is to exercise ten hours a day.

I'm pretty sure this is one of those rules that was invented just to fuck with people who try to learn English. Two word adjectives (called compound adjectives) are supposed to have a hyphen. If you have any trouble with that, just leave it out. English is trending towards less and less non-essential punctuation as a general rule. It is only within the most formal writing (or the pedanticest of pedants) that you will see an absolute call for it.

Anonymous asks:

Why does my English professor keep marking me wrong for using "since" instead of "because"? Aren't they basically the same thing?

My reply: 

Technically, they are not. But your prof is also being a crusty old fossil to actually mark you off for it.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that they are about sixty years old or more. Most people younger than that would be using since and because pretty interchangeably, even in written English. But some of the old guard--especially with highly formal educations--still draw the distinction in the same way I had older English teachers when I was in school (many eons ago...when there were still typewriters) who would make a big deal over the difference between "like" and "as." The young teachers didn't care, but the older ones would mark us wrong.

We made dinosaur jokes about them at the bike racks.

Once upon a time "since" pretty much only had to do with time and as a preposition or an adverb that is still the case, but now when it is used as a subordinating conjunction, it also can also be a synonym of "because."  Strict grammarians do not like this recent shift. (And by "recent" I mean technically within the living memory of some humans.) They don't like their peas mixed with their porridge, and prefer to be restrictive about the meaning of "since" to keep it strictly about time.

My advice is to do what your teacher tells you until you're out of the class and then just make sure your meaning is clear when you use it from now on. English teachers can be a foul lot to argue with about grammar when their blood is up and they're sure they're right.

Trust me--I am one.

Munira asks:

Why do I sometimes see published English writing with an independent clause followed by a dependent clause separated by a comma?  I thought you only used the comma if the dependent clause comes first, but English is my third language.

My reply:

Isn't English just the most ridiculous train wreck of weird rules and exceptions you ever saw?

Munira is talking about the rule for subordinating clauses.  Normally you only use a comma when the subordinate (or dependent) clause comes first (After we ate the cheese, we felt sick.), but not if the main (or independent) clause comes first (We felt sick after we ate the cheese.)

HOWEVER.....

Certain style guides call for, and certain writers stylistically use a comma when the dependent clause is second if it shows contrast with the main clause.

Like this: Chris used a comma before the contrasting clause, even though the main clause was first. 
Or this: Chris ate too much cheese, although he knew it would make him sick.
Or this: You will eventually be bitten and become a zombie, unless you use this body armor while you're fighting.

Not everyone uses this rule, and not every guide calls for it, so be careful. Writers often use it only when they want to emphasize the contrast.  When I teach this rule to my ESL classes, I don't mention this exception because it's generally accepted as correct by more people if the comma is just not there--even in cases of an exception.

Also, like most grammar rules that could go either way in English, some people learned it pretty strictly one way or the other, so they may give you some grief if you use it the way they think is wrong.

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