Tag Archives: grammar

Punctuation botanica: thoughts on interrobangs and fresh tattoos

I’ve been mildly obsessed with punctuation since college. Learning about what to use, and when, took time (and I still go to the guides when a heated debate of dash use erupts at the office…).  How often–as with most forms of professional communication at least–less is so much more. For beginning writers, use of punctuation can be the textual equivalent to a child getting into Mommy’s makeup. But creative work? Go freaking bananas– in fact I love when I see writers and poets do cool things with astrisks and em dashes and ellipses.

Here’s my favorite scene involving the discussion of the “dot dot dot”, from one of my all-time favorite movies.

I could go on right now, about how punctuation is either a visual cue for the eye or a timing mechanism for the brain, but frankly that sounds pretty boring and not really what I wanted to talk about.  Fluidity, syntax, style… got it? Moving on.

I want to talk about tattoos.

I’ve been researching my most favorite punctuation for my next ink session and came across a super cool article on rarely-used marks.

This article has a few especially cool ones… which had me saying “interrobang” repeatedly just because it’s fun to say. Naturally I had to learn more so I went to my most favorite dubious source of information, and found a fine list of punctuation and usage.

My favorites so far:

The irony mark

The astrisk… although it seems a bit fashionable at the moment.

The one I really think is cool is the hedera… Latin for “ivy”.  It’s pretty and rarely seen today. Back when people actually wrote Latin, the hedera was used to block off large sections of text or long paragraphs. I studied Latin in college, but personally never came across this mark.

It’s pretty, timeless, less pedantic, and less obvious than the irony or other admittedly cool marks. There are lots of different variations too, from clean to frilly. I want one.

Now the question is… where does it go?


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Filed under The English Department, Writers on Writing

Punctuation… A Tragic Love Story

Oh Punctuation, how you baffle us! Your vexing ways make us say the silliest things. Sometimes coy, often confusing… you leave us sitting in from of our monitors with knitted brows, wondering what in the hell we did wrong.

Unpopular Punctuation: The Marks You Probably Avoid

Now in creative work, anything goes. Poems, short fiction… do what you like. This poem by J.P. Dancing Bear uses colons in an especially cool way. Punctuation is usually about timing… about when a reader receives an idea. “Not Persephone” uses colons to parse out moments of thought, but show how they all pull out from the first line. The effect is pretty and rather brilliant.

But in business writing the enterprise requires more thought. Proper and consistent use of punctuation affords strong, crisp writing. So for those of us who are not poets: Lisa Kusko has a super-popular blog for business writing. Her tips apply to just about anyone trying to hone their craft, or simply not sound ridiculous. Knowing what to use where and when helps, so check it out!

Unpopular Punctuation: The Marks You Probably Avoid.

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Filed under The English Department, Writers on Writing

top five cliches that drive me insane

Overused expressions make me feral-cat crazy. They represent muddled, default thinking, and really don’t say anything important. When I read a cliche, my attention span automatically shuts down on that writer. If she doesn’t care enough to write something in an specific, clear, or original way, why should I care about the message? Perhaps at one time these phrases meant something, but in the interest of inspired communication, I hereby request that these blurbs be strip mined from the English-speaking world, stuffed into a biohazard barrel, and buried somewhere out in the Nevada desert.

1) “nip it in the bud”

I don’t like the word nip…  who nips? Unless you’re a 19th century dandy boy holding a brandy snifter this phrase should be prohibited.

2) “on the same page”

As Twitter artist Kelly Oxford points out, you never want to be on the same page as someone who says “we’re on the same page.” Over-assuming and annoying.

3) “fell through the cracks”

Screams either lack of accountability or a laziness to describe what actually happened. Why not just shrug and stare at the floor instead?

4) “spinning your wheels”

Tired, and for some reason reminds me of the Flintstones. 

5) “pushing the envelope”

I never understood this one so I looked it up. Turns out it has nothing to do with stationery, but is a math allusion. Math! How many times have you heard this and knew, albeit vaguely, what the person meant, even though the expression itself made no sense to you?

Dammit. Math has no place in writing. Everyone knows that…


Filed under The English Department, Writers on Writing

Waiting for Superman: The Human Cost of Bad Education

Holidays, travel, blah blah blah… I’m back. I missed you. We’re getting ready to go back to work, and kids are gearing up to return to school. But when these kids get dropped off, where are they going, really? Where do they spend most of their days?

So I’ve been meaning to watch this movie for a while. I knew our public school system was in peril, and I knew that schools were keeping bad teachers because of union contracts, but I didn’t know just how bad bad was.

If you haven’t seem this film or aren’t an educator, let me tell you: it’s beyond bad. Overwhelmingly shameful, staggeringly inept, purposefully broken, this system is in ruins and has little chances of turning around.

Here are some statistics from the film:

Of the 30 most developed countries on the planet, American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science… that’s out of 30.

But when these same students were asked how they felt they performed in math and science, American students ranked number one in confidence.

And reading skills aren’t any better… just twenty to thirty percent of American public school students are reading at their grade levels.

So we look to the teachers. What’s going on?

In Illinois,

one is 57 doctors will lose their medical license for being a “bad physician”

one in 97 lawyers will lose their law license for being a “bad lawyer”

but only one in 2500 teachers will lose their job if they are deemed a “bad teacher”*

Public school teachers enjoy the same tenure that college professors earn, only at the university level a professor must be on a tenure track for years, contributing to her field of study through teaching, research, and active participation. Public school teachers must simply show up for work for two years… and they have guaranteed jobs for life. Teachers don’t have to teach, they simply have to show up.

Now reform has been attempted. What about performance-based salary increases for excellent teachers? What about removing tenure in favor of incentivizing? The teachers’ unions won’t even discuss the matter, and given their multi-million dollar contributions to political parties, they won’t be asked to anytime soon.

So this antiquated, ruinous public policy continues to push ill-prepared students through “dropout factory” schools, and sure enough, these kids don’t make it to graduation.

A high school dropout is eight times more likely to end up in prison.

By the year 2020, 123 million jobs will be available, but require a college degree. America will only produce about 20 million qualified candidates.

So it’s no wonder companies are going overseas to recruit engineers and scientists.

It’s a complicated problem. Often parents are unaccountable, and drop their kids off at school, rolling the dice, because really, they have no choice. Private school is not an option, and with disengaged public school teachers providing less than the full amount of required education for those kids to move forward, students are pushed through and cannot test up to their levels. Frustrated and uninspired, those kids check out.

7000 students drop out every day.

As a teacher for a college preparatory company I’m in an interesting position because I get kids from both public and private schools. And there’s a difference in how these kids perform. I hate to say it out loud. A couple of personal  and general observations… this isn’t true for every single student but:

  • Private school students are more likely to participate in class. They ask more questions. They have a greater tendency to show me what they can do… they push harder.
  • Public school students are more likely to “hide” from me. They’d rather try to push through half-efforts or misunderstood assignments in the hopes that I’ll simply accept the work they’ve produced.
  • When a private school kid doesn’t understand, they ask for clarification.
  • When a public school kid doesn’t understand, they say nothing and hope I don’t notice.
  • Private school kids tend to read more for fun. As a result, these students comprehend assigned reading in a more profound way, and have better diction and syntax in their writing.

Having students of drastically varying levels is challenging for any teacher, and I’m not talking about a single underperforming student, or a”star” achiever. I’m talking about a gaping chasm in attitude towards school and cognitive development between public and private school kids.

So what is the solution? Charter schools are a start. These new public schools are not governed by the same rules as traditional public school, and have given the system dire resuscitation. They are funded through both public and private means but are held to standards as set forth in their charters. These schools are accountable, they hire engaging teachers, and consistently work hard to ensure that every student is keeping up, not simply being passed on. Charter schools are working, but because they are still a relatively nascent development, the space available is limited. So parents scramble and again, roll the dice, entering their children in charter lotteries for one of the very few and coveted spots. A heartbreaking moment in the film, to literally watch a child’s future path be determined by a bingo ball.

Want to fix the economy? Our kids need to be educated to contribute. Want to decrease crime? Our kids need to feel successful every day in school. Want to keep America employed?

Watch this film now. Today.

* The statistics in the film have been widely disputed. Some sources claim they’re inaccurate and that the film scapegoats teachers. I’m not suggesting that all public school teachers are milking tenure, but the numbers (and the film) as a whole prove a point: public school tenure can be abused and while adults are protecting their jobs they are damaging kids every day.

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Filed under Arts and Letters, The English Department

Five Revision Tips for the Non-Writer

So you need to write better copy, right this minute? Here are five writer basics to pretty up your business writing today.

1) Just Say It

You don’t have to get fancy with diction to sound smart. A reader becomes suspicious of an idea or message if the word choice seems out of context, especially in product descriptions or sales correspondence. Use words you know. If it makes sense to up the lexical ante, let an editor or at least another set of eyes take a pass at it.

2) Stop Clearing Your Throat

Writing means rewriting. It means cutting out redundant sentences, excess phrases,and wordy descriptions. Industry letters don’t need to begin with “from the dawn of civilization” introductions. If your audience speaks your lingo, these kinds of openings will fatigue your reader. It’s okay (and welcome!) to just get to your point. Do you really need to say “due to the fact that” when “that” or “because” usually mean the same thing? And in most cases, double descriptors are usually unnecessary: people understand that ice is cold, night is dark, and clowns are scary.

Make no mistake... Bobo will cut you.

3) Less is Still More

Getting your message out is the easy part; social media outlets mean you can tweet, post, blog, and e-blast everyone, all the time, telling all how great your product is and why they must have it. Don’t.

Users fatigue quickly, and if the message even whiffs of self-serving, sales-y woo ha, you’ll lose credibility faster than you can say “woo ha”. Keep your message subdued, talk about the other benefits your company offers (charities, global partnerships, your employees’ stories, your vendors’ missions) to engage your readership in an oblique way. Bludgeoning people with offers and urgency is not marketing, it’s spamming.

4) Cross and Dot

Grammar and punctuation matter—there’s no getting around it. Readers will trip over Fake Proper Nouns You’ve Made Up & ampersands when you should use the word “and” instead. Tripping means readers lose interest and you lose credibility. Also: spell-check doesn’t catch everything; “too bee ore knot two bee” is perfectly spelled and completely nonsensical. If you’re sending an important piece of news out to press or to the masses online, have a proofreader take a gander.

5) George is Right

Number six on George Orwell’s “Five Rules for Effective Writing” reads: “Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.” Kind of a non-rule rule (probably why it’s named number six out of five), but you get the point. If it sounds ridiculous then don’t write it. Despite what old-school grammar guides say, it’s okay to end a sentence with a preposition. I’d never say “Please hand me something with which to write,” but “Please give me a pen to write with.” Really… it’s cool. So are contractions.

Bottom line: reading is about the reader, not the writer. Keeping audience comfort at the forefront of your message will always produce better writing.

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Filed under The English Department, Writers on Writing

Free Me, Courtesy of Coffee & Power

No not free me as in “Free Winona” free me, but actually my services are free to you. Silly.

One of my favorite new social products (and yes… a stellar client of mine, I’m not going to lie), Coffee & Power is making you an offer you can’t refuse. (Sorry, I’ve had the Godfather on my mind all week for some reason. Just go with it.)

For those not in the know, Coffee & Power is this very cool work/exchange site where you can buy and sell services, (called Missions). You need cupcakes delivered for an office party? Coffee & Power has someone. Someone to build software? They have someone. Organization help? You get the idea.

Coffee & Power has started a program where certain members have Gift Missions. And guess who has two…count’em… two Gift Missions? That means you can get an hour of my services and Coffee & Power will pick up the tab.

Here’s what you do:

Send yours truly a note with your email. (Don’t worry I’m friendly. Hi! ).

I then send you a gift credit. Register at C&P (takes two seconds) and you’re good to go.

Besides my Missions, there’s a bunch of cool stuff up, so go on and check out their offerings. They change daily and there’s always something. Oh! And put your own Missions up too, so you can earn some moola.

Coffee, Power, and Free Stuff,


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Filed under Fun Stuff, Stellar Clients

Grammar Fails and Crowded Cubicles

Sad but true: As a writer, grammar fails always make me giggle. It’s lexical Schadenfreude and I’m super guilty of it. Now there are some considered moderately passable, given the general state of the English language in the U.S. (word choice or subject-verb agreement boo-boos). Yes I may wince, but I let it go because no one else will notice and I look like a prissy nerd. Okay okay. I get it.

For sports, clearly. English? Not so much.

But when high-ranking universities have advertisements soliciting M.B.A. students have these kinds of errors, I take photos. Blurry photos, but yes. Photos. I take them (sorry the BART was moving…).

Now I know it’s hard to see, so let me transcribe the last sentence for you:

“All business programs are part-time and designed for busy working professionals who seek the knowledge and skills to accelerate their career.”

I read this the other night and winced so hard. Really, Top-Ranking-University-Who-Shall-Remain-Nameless? Their career? All busy working professionals share a single career? That’s one crowded cubicle.

Um, excuse me. Have you seen my Swingline stapler?

Somebody over there needs a lesson in number agreement, and possibly, a proofreader.

I know what you’re thinking. “Cyn– no one is going to notice that. It’s a small error…  not a grammar fail. RELAX Popper.”

No. I will not relax. This is not victorious scribe plastered onto a windshield for a tailgate party by a Zima-infused* frat boy. This is an ad campaign–an expensive ad campaign– for a top-ranking M.B.A. program by a UNIVERSITY.  Big difference. I’ll write about grammar fails and context another time because that is a topic altogether different.

I know what your thinking. “Cyn– everyone makes typos. YOU make typos in this silly blog, and you’re a writer!”

Yes. That’s true. I do. Because  I’m fallible and this is a work/life blog. Mistakes get made. Commas, occasionally, get spliced.  But when a client is creating a thousands-of-dollars campaign, and I’m in charge of the copy, it’s a different story. If after a series of rewrites and revisions I’m not sure about a grammar bit or a style choice, I look it up or consult a fellow editor. For large projects I might even bring in a second proofreader. Whatever it takes to make sure that the client’s image is congruent with the branding. That might not even require a “carping grammarian”... but if it does, I become one. (Bonus geek points if you know who came up with “carping grammarian”).

Hint: It was this guy.


And for an academic client… really. What else can I say? Students pay a huge tuition to ensure they get a good education. Tee hee.

Okay I’m done. 😉

* Does Zima still exist?

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Filed under Fun Stuff, The English Department, Uncategorized