Monthly Archives: June 2008

Grammar Wednesday

I owe California Teacher Guy an apology.

CTG is one of the most ardent supporters of Grammar Wednesday (along with Kizz, who also sends me great material and ideas for this feature).  A few weeks ago, he sent me a great GW post, but in the hustle of the last weeks of school – both for my college and for my daughters – I forgot about the email and posted something else last week.

Here’s what I missed:

My Dear Mrs. Chili,

Today we had to take a defective reverse osmosis system back to the
store where we had purchased it. That’s when I noticed the printing on
the box–and thought immediately of you. Knowing when to use “its” or
“it’s” is something a lot of people still need help with. Perhaps
you’ll help them–again!

It occurs to me that this could also be a good candidate for The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks, as well.

Okay – once more;

ITS –  no apostrophe – is possessive.  In this case, “best” is a quality that belongs to drinking water, so we need a possessive pronoun; drinking water at its best.

IT’Swith the apostrophe – is a contraction that means it is or it hasIt’s best if you only drink water that has been properly treated.

Sorry, CTG.  Please don’t stop sending me stuff.


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Blast From the Past

A few days ago, I was alerted to a comment to this post from last year.  The commenter gave me a lot to think about, so I emailed back with my response.  I’ve decided to post it here, because I think this is an important conversation to have.  The commenter’s remarks are in italics.

I realize I’m about one year late weighing in, but maybe you still get alerted to late comments when they’re posted.
I recently had my “wrist slapped” by a proofreader, for starting a sentence with the word “and.”  I fixed it in my next version — however, I still very much preferred the original, so I did some research.  After Googling terms such as “grammar rules” and “beginning a sentence with a conjunction,” I found several grammarians who insisted that there is nothing wrong with the practice; you were the only one insisting it is improper.

I can assure you that I’m not the ONLY one – your mention of the proofreader makes that point –  and I do make mention of the fact that it is a personal preference; for many reasons, I prefer that my students not start sentences with coordinating conjunctions in writing submitted for grades in my classes.  I haven’t referred back to the post on which you commented, so I don’t know for sure if I said as much there, but I do know for sure that I’ve mentioned this before.  I should also mention that I point out to my students that this is a standard of mine – I hand out quite a few stories, articles, and speeches which use “and” and “but” to begin sentences.  We have a conversation about WHY I feel that the practice is incorrect for formal writing, and I encourage my students to exercise my standards in the writing they do for my class.

I don’t understand this.  Conjunctions are merely words that join; who made the rule that the joined thoughts must be in the same sentence?  Sure, words such as “furthermore” and “also” can work, but sometimes simpler words such as “and” or “but” are the most straightforward way to get the point across.
You mention that you were reading a book by an author who violated these rules: “there are several grammatical structures that he uses that are problematic for me (his refusal to use quotation marks and his penchant for starting sentences with ‘but’ and ‘and’ chief among them). I’m making it through the story, but I’m finding that the delivery system – the writing – is taking up more of my attention than the plot. That, in my mind, is the mark of a poor writer.”
I’ve never read that author, but I did wonder, is he really a bad writer?  Or do you simply perceive him to be one, because he breaks your “rules?”

My point is that if the structure is detracting from the story, then the writing is poor.  Good writing, I think, is very much like a movie; once we see the supports for the sets, or the odd microphone falls into the frame, or anything else that is awkwardly out of place, we’re reminded that we’re watching something artificial.  I prefer to lose myself in writing (as I think most people do) and if I’m getting hung up on the structure, then, for me, the writing is poor.  This may or may not be the criteria upon which others judge the same writer – what works for one reader doesn’t have to work for another.

I’ve read several well-written essays and news articles that use “and” or “but” to join thoughts together, either as two adjoining sentences, or even (*gasp!*) as the first word of a paragraph, to tie it to the previous one.  Examples abound, not in crappy local journalism, but in places such as The Smithsonian, The Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic.  Shakespeare, too.
Read on:
H.W. Fowler called this rule an “ungrammatical piece of nonsense.” There is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction as long as the sentence is a complete thought. The rule against starting a sentence with a conjunction is old and pervasive; it is primarily intended to prevent children from writing fragments. You would not want to write: “I have a cat. And a dog.” Basically, it comes down to a stylistic choice.  A sentence that begins with a conjunction will draw attention to itself. Unfortunately, most teachers will enforce the rule, so if you are a student, it is probably best not to start sentences with conjunctions.  (
There is no historical or grammatical foundation that you should not begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction.  I could find no substantiated evidence that beginning a sentence with a conjunction is an error and is mainly taught to avoid writing fragmented sentences.

It has been pointed out to me by my linguist friends that the convention of not starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions has been ignored for millennia and that, indeed, it’s likely that no such “rule” ever actually existed.  It’s also been pointed out to me by those same linguists, however, that despite the communal nature of the beast, language is often a very personal thing – the standards to which one holds him- or herself, as long as they don’t cause confusion, are perfectly acceptable.  The arguments against starting structures with coordinating conjunctions are just as valid as those which see no issue with the practice.

If you decide to begin a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, keep these points in mind:

– Be sure that a main clause follows the coordinating conjunction.
– Use a coordinating conjunction only when it makes the flow of your ideas more effective.
– Do not use a comma after the coordinating conjunction. Coordinating conjunctions are not considered transitional expressions like “in addition” or “for instance.”

As a parent, this is frustrating.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to help with my child’s schoolwork, only to be admonished that my edits would be breaking her teacher’s rules.  (The worst example is when ALL paragraphs of an essay must be at least X sentences long.  Examples such as these are what prompted that one writer to wonder “whether those who teach such a monstrous doctine ever read any English themselves!”)

I can assure you that I read quite a lot of English.

Here’s the thing; different instructors are going to make points of different lessons.  Where I may admonish my students to never begin their sentences with coordinating conjunctions, another may harp on the splitting of infinitives (which is something I do all the time – I just did it, as a matter of fact).  The point of an education, in my view, is to take in as much as can be taken from a variety of different sources, to keep what works or makes sense, and to discard the rest.  While I understand your frustration at having different teachers hold your child to different standards, I think that the fact that our students get such a wide variety of information is important; it requires them to learn to conform to a variety of standards (which, I hope you’ll agree, is a vital skill in the “real world”) and to do some critical thinking on their own.  I may not like that my professor requires me to cite all my papers in APA format, for example – I’m most comfortable and experienced with MLA – but I’ll do it because that’s what’s required of me.  As long as my instructors are clear about what they expect, I don’t think it’s unreasonable of them to expect it; it’s all part of learning.  Learning to be academically nimble is an important skill, and learning to address different standards in different situations is valuable.

I am VERY clear about what I expect – and I welcome, both on my blog and in my classrooms – reasoned debate and discussion about anything that I put forth.  My students do occasionally argue with me about this point, and I engage them in those arguments.  Eventually, though, the conversation comes back to my asking them to be mindful of their audience – me – and of crafting the writing they do for my class in such a way as meets the standards I ask them to achieve.  So far, I’ve never been let down.

For another great discussion about this topic, see:
I wish that more teachers would be less dogmatic, and instead taught young minds how to think!  Let them know the difference between a hard and fast rule, and rules that may be broken with care.

I’m sorry if you got the impression that I’m dogmatic; I think, if you continue to read, you’ll find that I’m perhaps the least dogmatic person you’ll find.  I DO teach my students how to think; however, if they aren’t able to articulate that thinking in a way that will encourage others to listen to them and to take them seriously, then what good is the skill?


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Book Suggestions?

A friend of mine sent me this email this morning:

Good morning.

Read any good books lately? I am looking for something to read. I’m all “hobbited out” for the moment.

I’d love to find something in the vein of 1984, but that provides commentary on our current slide towards an authoritarian state.

At least the Supreme Court seems willing to occasionally show some backbone.


I responded by saying that most of my reading energy is going to be spent in trying to get through the literally 12 pounds of books I was sent as preparation for my summer fellowship for teaching the Holocaust in July.  Does anyone have any suggestions for Eric that might meet his criteria?


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Grammar Wednesday

Sorry, you guys; I’ve got nothing for you today (remember that Mrs. Chili takes Grammar Wednesday requests!!). I had to resort to my old standby material trick; I grabbed a style guide, set it upright on its spine, and let it fall open where it may. Today, I’m going to write a little bit about how to use the words good and better properly.

Good is an adjective. Adjectives modify nouns. Good should be used to describe the positive quality of SOMETHING – an actual thing, not an action or a behavior. For example; she is a good swimmer is correct. She swims good is not. If you’re describing the positive quality of a behavior or action, you need an adverb; well will do just nicely.

It’s gotten to be quite common to hear the answer to “how are you” as “I’m good, thanks.” While this is certainly clear – I don’t think anyone would be confused by the structure – it’s not, strictly speaking, correct. “How are you” is a question about your state of being, your condition. State of being is a verb and, as such, should be answered with an adverb.

I’m going to talk about better by clarifying the difference between then and than. Then is an adverb that generally modifies time. I was a lot younger then or let me finish this sentence, then I can help you move the couch. Than is a conjunction that is generally used to indicate a choice, an exception, or a preference. She is prettier than I am, but I have more friends than she does. Something is never better then something else – it is always better than something else. I like hot fudge better than I like butterscotch, for example, or she is a better swimmer than I am.

Finally, let’s look at some words that don’t have degrees. Something is never more better than anything else; it’s either better or it isn’t – there aren’t degrees of better. The same is true of unique, though I hear people use modifiers – fairly, very, most – with unique all the time. Perfect can be modified in the approach to perfection – he has a nearly perfect attendance record – but one can’t be extremely perfect.

Happy Wednesday, Everyone!


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Ten Things Tuesday

Reflections on this past semester:

1. I didn’t show nearly enough speeches to my public speaking class. In the future, I’m going to play more to my strengths as a literary analyst and give my students a lot more historic speeches to read and watch. It’s important that they be given good examples to emulate.

2. I need to not lower my bar to accommodate students who just don’t give a damn. I keep telling myself I won’t do it, but I keep doing it, anyway. Perhaps the need to do creative lesson planning will be a little less intense at L.U., but even if it’s not, I’d like to be able to hold myself up to my own standards of integrity.

3. I don’t think it’s bad for me to feel a certain sense of maternal affection for my students. Some of them are just young enough that they COULD be my children (I had my own babies pretty late – I was 19 when my mother was my age), and I think it’s important that there be a connection between teacher and student. I remember working harder for teachers I felt actually cared about me as a person, and I am the kind of person who operates better within compassionate relationships than strictly professional ones (which feel stuffy and distant to me).

4. I need to learn to stand up for myself better than I did this term. I’m still kicking myself a little about how I dealt with Jon, and I’m trying to synthesize this experience so that I can make different choices if (when) something like that happens again.

5. I did a MUCH better job keeping up with grading and entering those grades in my computer this semester than I’ve ever done before, and I’m pleased by how much stress that reduced for me during the past 11 weeks. I always knew where everyone stood, and I never worried that I was missing something important. I’m totally taking that lesson with me into next semester and beyond.

6. Taking the time to do an assignment that I task my kids with is a useful exercise. It shows them that I think that the work is worth it, it keeps me honest (I’m not going to assign bullshit work just for the sake of assigning something) and it helps me exercise and maintain my own critical thinking skills. Besides, some of my assignments are FUN (at least, for dorky English teacher-type people).

7. The GSA has essentially fallen by the wayside at TCC. There was exactly zero student interest this term; literally no one emailed me or stopped me in the hall to ask about meetings or to talk about diversity issues. I’m going to keep my proverbial door open next term, certainly, but I’m betting that my work there is pretty much done as the college closes and more and more students transfer out. I’m going to look into getting involved at L.U.’s GSA, though – THAT’S an exciting prospect for me. There’s a MUCH more active community over there.

8. While I truly believe that it’s important that everyone – regardless of WHAT they plan to do with their lives – has some level of literacy, it’s also important for me to remember that not everyone needs to have MY level of literacy. The kid who’s going to be an auto mechanic or a lab tech doesn’t need to be able to write eloquently about Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetorical strategies. S/he needs to be able to effectively express him or herself, certainly, but I can take them for who they are and encourage their growth from wherever they start. That’s not lowering the bar, I don’t think, but honoring my students’ places in their worlds.

9. Like I told Michellina yesterday at lunch; it’s not always the “smart” kids who get ahead. It’s not always how much you’re able to hold in your head, but how you use what IS in there that matters. I’m not terribly smart on my own, but I’ve got lots of friends who know stuff I don’t know, and I can call on them to fill in my gaps. I’m also smart enough to know what I DON’T know; I know how to ask for help and I try to never go too far out on my proverbial limbs. Hard work will often get you farther than “smart” will – why not strive for both?

10. I love my job. Despite the stresses and frustrations, there are ALWAYS rewards that outweigh whatever crap I’ve got to put up with. Usually, those rewards come from places we least expect to have gifts for us, but it never fails that I leave a semester happy that I’ve taken the trip.

Happy Tuesday, Everyone!

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What Have You Learned?

This is always the time of the year, metaphorically speaking, that I do a lot of self-analysis (as if I don’t do enough already, but you know what I mean).  The end of the semester is a time for me to look back on the last few months, to assess what I’ve done and what I’ve not done, to look at where I’ve succeeded and where I could have worked a little harder to succeed, and to take a general temperature of how I feel about the job that I’ve just completed.

This term was a challenging one for me, but the challenges were all surmountable and productive.  I’ve laughed as hard as I ever laughed in a class (during a student’s hysterical visual aid speech about duct tape) and have been as scared as I’ve ever been in a class (immediately following Jon’s outburst.  More on him later this week).  I’ve been profoundly proud of my students and profoundly disappointed in them.  I’ve seen some students grow and seen a few who ardently refused to.  All in all, it’s been a good semester.

I held my last M/W public speaking class in a local pizza joint this afternoon, and as we chomped on garlic buns and really great slices, I asked them each in turn what they learned this term, and what, if anything, they’d do differently.  One student said she learned that it’s important to do the homework (she was profoundly disappointed with her D+ grade, I think) and I pointed out that it’s not always the “smart” folks who get ahead, but the diligent ones.  One student was disappointed that he didn’t take chances on his speech topics and, were he to do it over again, he’d have branched out a bit and spoken about things that interested him that he didn’t already know a great deal about.  Another student told the group that she learned that she actually has something worthwhile to say.

Then someone asked me what *I* learned, and I was pleased to be prepared with an answer.  I learned that I can form a community with a disparate group of people, and that this community can become a safe and supportive place for people to discover their voices.  I learned that I still have a lot to learn about the art of debate and persuasion, but that I’m a decent hand at formulating a strong and logical argument.  I learned that I can have my best and worst classes with the same group of kids (them!), and I learned that I’m never satisfied when I lower my bar to accommodate people who aren’t invested in their own education.

I’m off to a new adventure soon.  I’ll not teach another public speaking class for TCC, and I’m alternately relieved and saddened by that prospect.  The entire experience of being an adjunct in this place, with these students, has been entirely enriching for me, though, and I wouldn’t have traded this time for anything.

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Grammar Wednesday

Inspired by Kizz.

Yesterday, I wrote a post on my personal blog where I spoke of offering “one-of” specialty yoga classes at my health club. Kizz left this as a comment:

This is utterly off topic but I learned it as “one-off” and this is the second time I’ve seen you write “one-of”, where do we find out the origins of these colloquialisms?

I responded by saying that I’ve always said “one-of” because “one-off” doesn’t make ANY sense to me. One-OF something is just that – a one OF a kind; the “off” part never worked for me, so I always used “of.” She piqued my interest in this idea, though, so I went and looked it up. It turns out that it IS “one-off,”: and here’s what I found:

This began as a British expression but is now widely known in the US and elsewhere, I am told.

It comes out of manufacturing, in which off has long been used to mark a number of items to be produced of one kind: 20-off, 500-off. This seems to have begun in foundry work, or a similar trade, in which items were cast off a mould or from a pattern (“We’ll have 20 off that pattern and 500 off that other one”.) An example is in a book of 1947 by James Crowther and Richard Whiddington, Science at War: “Manufacturers found it very difficult to give up mass production, in order to make the 200 or so sets ‘off’.”

A one-off was just a single item, used in particular to refer to a prototype. The first known example appeared in the Proceedings of the Institute of British Foundrymen in 1934: “A splendid one-off pattern can be swept up in very little time.” (The reference is to a casting mould formed in sand.)

Out of this came our current figurative sense of something that is done, made, or happens only once — as you say, one of a kind. An example appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph in February 2006: “Anyone who would like to donate in Mo’s memory is welcome to make a one-off donation or more long-term contributions.”

It can also be used of a special person, someone for whom it might be said “After they made him, they broke the mould”. Here’s an example from the Daily Telegraph of 13 April 2006, about Michael Eavis, who runs the Glastonbury Festival: “I have great respect for him. He’s a fantastic eccentric, really, a one-off.”

Would it be wrong of me to continue using “one-of”? (See, Linguist Buddies! I CAN be descriptionist… when it serves me!)


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