Search This Blog

Friday, December 13, 2013

All Cranked Up: The Trouble with Leaving Out Commas

Might as well accept it: this blog is my cranking place! Sigh! Well, it is what it is, so here are a couple of peevish items for December:

First, here’s a sentence quoted from an advance reader’s copy of a novel reviewers are asked not to quote (and I take the liberty because I am not reviewing the book, and it came out in 1996, anyway): “The olive-green river slid smoothly between the high ochre buildings and the soaked terracotta roofs seemed luminous.” And yes, I would have used a comma before the “and” that joins the two independent clauses of this compound sentence. Why?

A visiting writer-researcher in the midst of a book she intends to self-publish told me recently, very, very firmly, that a comma was not necessary in a compound sentence. Oh, really? Well, here’s my problem: I’m reading along and I see the subject-noun phrase “river slid,” the preposition “between,” and then along comes “buildings,” obviously an object of the preposition, and there’s that conjunction, and then there’s another noun, “roofs,” and without no comma between the two independent clauses, I’ve been set up to read “roofs” as a second object, i.e., “between the buildings and the roofs,” which doesn’t make much sense, but that’s where the punctuation leads me – and then along comes another verb, signaling a second independent clause, and I have to backtrack and re-read the sentence! Damn, that’s annoying!

Two paragraphs down the problem occurs again:

“It was the ideal time to walk about and look at the city and the Marshal and his wife were always saying....”

You see what I mean? “It was ... time to walk .. and look at the city and –.” Huh? Look at the city and the Marshal and his wife? No, not at all. Well, how much trouble would it have been to use a comma before “and the Marshal”?

Writers who omit the comma in the compound sentence are probably the same people who come to an intersection and fail to signal their turns. Even if you are “following the highway,” how are other drivers supposed to read your mind and know that? Which way are you going? Give me a clear indication! Don’t leave me standing here on the curb when I could have crossed safely, and don’t make me read every one of your brilliant sentences twice, please.

The woman determined not to use commas in her compound sentences was also planning to write a history book without an index. Need I say more?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Monday, June 10, 2013

Local Gossip - New Bookstore Income Stream?





(Payable in advance)

July and August rates: 5 minutes/$50

As always, book-buying customers
may ask questions free of charge.


Saturday, June 1, 2013

What Should Men Be Doing?

Yet another man is upset that women are not staying home with the kids. That’s where women belong, he tells us, not working outside the home to contribute financial support to the family.

Why isn’t this man out in the forest with a spear, hunting game? What is he doing all dressed up in front of a television camera? Is that the place Nature or God intended for a man? Mouth, mouth, mouth – where’s the muscle work?

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Wishing to Be Elsewhere

I’m not. I don't. That isn’t the point. It's something a Belgian friend said to me years ago.

She used to give dinner parties at which the guests -- who might be from France or Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, or any of the French-speaking African countries -- all spoke French. An American with only high school French but some experience living in Paris, I found it a rich opportunity, because besides the language of the conversation, there were the subjects, which always included much cross-cultural explanation and discussion, but also, for all of us, it was an escape from the surrounding prairie, flat land that stretched uninterrupted to the horizon in all directions, planted almost exclusively in corn.

At the end of one such evening, my hostess sighed happily and exclaimed, intending no humor or irony, “Champaign-Urbana is such a wonderful place! There are so many interesting people here who wish that they were elsewhere!”

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Always Pithy Mr. White --

“The names of great centuries and epochs in human history are always given to them by their remote descendants. Few men realized while they lived it that the age of Augustus was the high point in a thousand years of history. When XX Legio Valeria Victrix left Britain in A.D. 403, none of its men realized that the golden eagles of Rome would never return to the island, or that they were part of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Certainly no Renaissance man knew he was living in a century that other men would call the “rebirth,” just as his great-great-great-grandfather had no knowledge that he was part of the Middle Ages. Thus we do not know what to call our time, what label to give the remarkable and extraordinary events that we not only witness but live.” – Theodore H. White, FIRE IN THE ASHES: EUROPE IN MID-CENTURY (1953)

“A whisper of suspicion from on high, a gout of irritation . . . exaggerated and repeated by thousands of skilful and ambitious men until it reaches an echo that drums, deafens and freezes the thinking of the very men who started it.” – Ibid.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Again, Is This Just Me?

When you hear the phrase "to think outside the box," doesn't it sound to you as if the speaker is still inside the box? I mean, it's hardly an innovative phrase, is it?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Possessive Pronouns Do Not Contain Apostrophes

A noun, proper or common, when turned possessive requires an apostrophe. The book belonging to Mary becomes "Mary's book," and the cover of the book is referred to more succinctly as "the book's cover." This is the source of the confusion.

But possessive pronouns work differently. We might say (colloquially, allowing ourselves to end our sentence with a preposition) that possession is already what such pronouns are all about. The word my, for example, does not by itself indicate anyone (such as Mary) or anything (such as a book) but always accompanies a noun and is understood to refer to that noun. Thus no apostrophe is needed.

Here are some examples:

My book

Our hope

Your phone

His laptop

Her notebook

Its appearance

Their agenda

If we make the nouns plural, those plural forms do not contain apostrophes, either: books, hopes, phones, laptops, notebooks, appearances, agendas.

Subject-verb contractions are a different kettle of fish. When we contract (pull in together and make smaller) the following subjects and verbs, the results require -- guess what! -- apostrophes!

I + am = I'm
You + are = You're
It + is = It's


You're [You are] going to bring your agenda [the agenda belonging to you or made up by you] to the meeting.

It's [It is] going to run long if we don't respect its [the meeting's] time limit.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Book Review: VIRGIN SOUL (or, “What Were the Sixties Really Like?”)

“What were the Sixties really like?” When a younger friend asked me this question, in a moment I suddenly felt many years older, realizing that was “just yesterday” to me was a historical period to my youthful friend. But how to answer her question? I’ve been thinking about it for years now (haunted by the question still, obviously), as another two decades have slipped past. Here's an overview from Wikipedia to get you started, if you were "born too late" to be one of us, but --

There can be no single answer to what the Sixties were like, because they were different for everyone who lived through them, even if only American experience is considered. How old were you in the Sixties, for starters? A little child, a college student, part of the workforce, or someone “over 30,” one of those the young were told not to trust? Male or female, black or white or yellow or red or brown? Living in San Francisco or Chicago; Selma, Alabama; Aberdeen, South Dakota; or in the wilds of Maine? Rich or poor or in-between?

Student, lawyer, secretary, grocery store cashier, factory line worker, teacher, or Peace Corps volunteer? A draftee in Vietnam, conscientious objector in El Paso, refugee in Toronto, or a protestor at Berkeley? Singing and playing in a rock-and-roll band? Member of the Black Panthers or Students for a Democratic Society, or Young Republicans, or the Country Club?

There were peaceful demonstrations, and there was violence, and there was the undeclared war, and there were drugs, and there was also the continuation of American suburban life, with big weddings and brides in white. Towards the end of the Sixties there was the Pill, but all along there were pregnancies (planned and unplanned) abortions, and young families, some hippies, others mainstream. And for those in their ‘teens and 20s, there was exciting music, poetry everywhere, plenty of available sex and drugs, a lot of lofty ideals, and a minefield of dangerous pitfalls.

That's why I say there is no telling what the decade was “really like,” except in terms of individual lives, but if you weren't there and want a close-up view I just read a new novel that presents a convincing picture through one particular window.

Virgin Soul
by Judy Juanita
NY: Viking, 2013

We meet the novel's protagonist, Geniece Hightower, in Oakland, California, in the summer of 1964. Just out of high school, she enrolls in Oakland City College, “City,”
. . . a raggedy, in-the-flatlands, couldn’t-pass-the-earthquake-code, stimulating, politically popping repository of blacks who couldn’t get to college any other way, whites who had flunked out of the University of California, and anybody else shrewd enough to go for free for two years and transfer to Berkeley, prereqs zapped.
Geniece is a journalism major. Right away meets Huey Newton. Right away she loves sitting on the campus lawn, listening to the “black intellectuals and the white boys from the W.E.B. Du Bois Club talk.” Quickly she learns that light-skinned black students (“yellow, high yellow, sandy yellow, mellow yellow, sandy mariney, light brown, peach, or caramel skin; the line stopped there”) had one hangout, darker-skinned blacks like herself another. She lives at the Y (10 p.m. curfew) and works 20 hours a week at the county welfare department in Oakland. She’s launched into life but still has her aunt and uncle’s warning in her head:
“We want you to be a virgin until you graduate from college. If you’re not a virgin, you won’t graduate. Once you have sex, you can’t think about anything else.”
Judy Juanita’s novel is divided into four main sections, one for each of Geniece’s four years of college. Sophomore year she is introduced to Black Muslims and has her hair cut into a natural: “Sleek, short, very African.” She wonders what “being in love” feels like and if she is in love. No longer living at the Y, she allows a boyfriend to hold political education classes in her apartment, and she cleans and cooks for those who attend.
I knew I was becoming militant. I just didn’t know if I wanted to become a militant. Malcolm X, Betty Shabazz, the protesters, the sit-in demonstrators down south were my heroes. I loved them from a distance and on paper. But the militants I met, mostly the guys on the soapbox on Grove Street, were harsh and abrasive and condescending to everyone, not just white people. And they made people do things. . . . I didn’t want that kind of power over people. I just wanted it over myself.
Huey Newton isn’t the only real person readers encounter in the pages of this work of fiction. Bobby Seale is there, and Stokeley Carmichael, too. The war in Vietnam is audible always in the background.

Junior year is a turning point for Geniece, as one black group goes one way and the Black Panther Party (BPP) for Self-Defense another. She enrolls at State and lands a work-study job in Admissions, date-stamping application entries from all over the world.
Lives came out of the words: how little money one’s father made; the off-the-wall place one had traveled to; family crises; serious illness defeated; political activity noted like a badge of honor – “I belong to the W. E. B. Du Bois Club.” They weren’t afraid: “I participated in the freedom rides.” Stuff I never mentioned: “The protest changed my whole life.” State was a destination for radical students: “I’m a child of a union family.” Dissidents. The streets of Berkeley were the pull for people bucking the system. Nonconformists. State was pulling people like me. I was not an in-between. I was a junior facing a cast of thousands wanting to be right where I was, a part of something big, essential, swimming in the big ocean.
In the course of her college career, it is not until her junior year that Geniece sees herself at the center of social change taking place across the country. Before that she felt like “an in-between”; now she is, as people said in the Sixties, “where it’s at.” But she is not yet where she will be at the end of her senior year. . . .

I don’t want to give away too many details of this story, because it’s the details that make the central character’s life a real one and make that time period come alive. Her social and sexual and romantic relationships are important to her development as an adult. Her feelings for journalism wax and wane, but editing the Panthers’ newspaper is an important job she takes very seriously. Also with the BPP, she confronts the question of guns for self-defense, and a volunteer job through the Tutorial Center introduces her to two young, self-sufficient black girls neglected by their battered mother. Education is not limited to the classroom. (It never should be.)

But Geniece Hightower is determined to graduate in four years, so she wisely avoids serious involvement with drugs. While music is part of her life, it also remains, like Vietnam, in the background. Race, class, and gender relationships – politics within and beyond the university – the future she will have as a Black American woman – this young woman maintains ties to her family at the same time she is finding her own way in the world.

Personal, political – political, personal – yes, this was the Sixties. Judy Juanita gives readers a very real look at that exciting and turbulent time through the eyes of her strong, questing protagonist. There are pages when the prose lifts into lyricism, so it should be no surprise that the author’s writing has for years encompassed poetry as well as reporting. This is her first novel. I’m glad she wrote it and hope it won’t be her last.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Two Good, Super-Easy, Cold Weather Dishes

Day 2, more than half-gone

These recipes would make fall and winter suppers, too, but there are plenty of cold days in early spring, don’t forget (check that outdoor thermometer today!), so when you haven’t had time to shop and won’t have anything in the garden for weeks yet, here’s something you can throw together from what’s in the pantry.

Day One: Quick Turkey Stew on Rice
(Double or triple recipe for large family or crowd. I cook for two.)

1 lb. ground turkey
½ large onion, chopped

Brown turkey and onion in skillet. Transfer to large pot and add:

1 can black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can sweet corn (not creamed), drained
1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1 small can tomato sauce
chili powder to taste
salt to taste
Optional: sliced or chopped jalapeno peppers to taste (or these can be added later by individuals to their bowls).

Serve on hot rice, with sour cream and Tabasco sauce on the table as condiments.

Day Two: Turkey Pot Pie

Grease a pie pan (size will depend on amount of leftovers you have from Day One) and spread leftovers evenly in the pan. Mix ingredients below for topping. Note: The amounts given are half what would make a square pan of cornbread because you don’t want the topping too thick.

Cornbread Topping

½ C + 2 Tbsp. unbleached flour
¼ C + 2 Tbsp. yellow cornmeal
2 Tbsp. granulated sugar
¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking powder
1 egg
½ cup milk
2 Tbsp. oil

Spread cornbread batter over turkey stew to cover. Bake at 400 degrees, 20 -30 minutes, until cornbread topping is browned and crisp. Serve hot. Dig in!

True comfort food

Saturday, March 9, 2013

How Bad [sic] Do You Want It?

I have a saying over my desk–It’s not how good you are. It’s how bad you want it.
- mystery author Denise Swanson in interview with Diane Plumley

Performers, politicians – yes, I do believe that determination can count for more than talent in many of life’s endeavors. How determined are you? How hard are you willing to work? Are you stubborn enough?

There is another aspect to determination, and that is being determined not to go for what you want. Two years ago I decided to forgo coffee for the six-week period of Lent. Some of my friends thought I was crazy. “Why would you put yourself through it?” This year I raised the stakes: coffee, alcohol, and potato chips! Not a sip, not a chip! I’ve passed the halfway mark now and still in the race.

My husband asked the Why question, adding the obvious (to him) qualifier, “since you’re not religious.” I knew why I was doing it but had to think about how to articulate my reason to him. Okay, here goes: “It’s a way of demonstrating to myself that I’m not a slave to these things. I can live without them.” He nodded. He wouldn’t do it himself, but he could see what I meant.

Morning is the hardest time of day. I still get up first and still make coffee – for him. I just don’t have any.

The easiest aspect to this imposed self-denial is knowing that it’s only for a time-limited period. It’s like giving up doughnuts during pregnancy. Saying “No, thank you” for a set number of weeks or months really isn’t that hard.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Humans Lie; Hens Lay Eggs

The subject is not mendacity but “getting—or putting--horizontal.” The distinction is confusing in English, because the past tense of one verb is the present tense of the other. What a pickle!

“I think I’ll lie down for a while.” [Correct]

“Just lay the book over there on the table.” [Correct]

Two points need to be made about the simple sentences above. First, it isn’t a matter of humans versus the whole rest of the world (books and hens and such) but a matter of intransitive versus transitive verbs. (I heard those groans!) Unless there’s an object, you want the intransitive verb, in this case, to lie. That takes us to the second point, which is that dogs, when relaxing in front of the fire, are lying there, not laying, and the correct wording of the training command is “Lie down,” not “Lay down.” When, on the other hand, there’s an object following the verb, an egg or a book or whatever, you want the transitive verb, the one that can carry or transport its object.

It wouldn’t be so bad if that were the end of the story—but then along comes the pesky past tense.

“I lay down to rest and fell asleep for an hour.” [Correct}

“He laid the book carefully on the table, as if it were an egg.” [Correct: The addition of the egg was just to see if you were paying attention.]

Suddenly the spelling and sound of lay is correct for a human but only because it is the past tense of to lie, not to lay, the past tense of the latter being laid! We could take lie and lay into deeper waters, but why bother? Something tells me the distinction may vanish in my own lifetime.

Often, quite honestly, I almost wish I didn’t know the rules for using these verbs correctly, because the knowledge makes it so annoying to hear the incorrect usage. Embarrass my fellow human beings with public correction, I will not.

Okay, what about “Now I lay me down to sleep,” some of you are asking. Could it be that the confusion in English arises from this very source, the childhood prayer? It’s a tricky question, but note that ‘me’ in there. The speaker of this sentence takes himself or herself not only as subject (“I”) but also as object (“me”). Strictly speaking, it would be more proper to use a reflexive pronoun, i.e., “I lay myself down to sleep,” but of course the rhythm would then be entirely lost. Poetic license! Whether for rhythm or for rhyme, verse and song often depart from strict grammar, and there it’s just fine.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Question Re Bank Bailout

Okay, time goes by, and the country is still struggling to recover, and as review of the bank bailout continues, I have a question. I understand that it could have been disastrous (could have been--who knows if it would have been?) to fire all the experienced top people in the biz, but what would have been wrong with putting them on probation? Maybe for the remainder of their working lives but at least for 5-10 years? Instead of giving them bonuses, at taxpayer expense, rewarding them for lining their pockets while losing investors' money. Anyone have an explanation?