Friday, February 29, 2008

Putting on my anal-retentive English teacher hat

I try very hard not to be a prissy know-it-all (really I do), but tonight I'm putting on my anal-retentive-English-teacher hat and giving my readers some lessons in usage and punctuation. In the last two days, I've seen several well-educated people make 4th-grade errors, and I just can't keep quiet any longer. So here we go:

Don't abuse the apostrophe!

Use an apostrophe before an "s" in a contraction, to replace the missing letter(s). Use an apostrophe for most possessives, but not possessive pronouns. Do not use an apostrophe for plurals!!!
  • It's a wonderful life... till the zombies come. "It's" is short for "It is," so you use the apostrophe in place of the missing letter.
  • The zombies chased Karen's boyfriend into an alley and ate his brain. The apostrophe in "Karen's" indicates a possessive; the soon-to-be-brainless boyfriend belongs to Karen.
  • The zombie devoured its prey. "Its" is a possessive pronoun. That's English teacher jargon, but it means that you don't need the apostrophe, because "its" is possessive enough all by itself (kind of like that crazy guy you dated in college who followed you around and read your e-mail and stalked you... but I digress).
  • The check's in the mail. In this classic lie, "check's" is a contraction for "check is."
  • Now pay close attention to this one, lest I come through your computer and slap you silly for getting it wrong: No checks accepted. "Checks" is the plural of "check" (that means more than one check for those of you who, like me, graduated from Tracy High), NOT a contraction, so you do NOT need an apostrophe! Got it? Now, back to the zombies...
  • Here's a tricky one: The zombies crashed the Smiths' party, leaving behind twelve brainless corpses and a bloodstained tablecloth. Here we have that bane of the punctuation student's existence, the brainless corpse... uh, I mean the plural possessive. Note that the apostrophe belongs at the end of "Smiths'" and is there only because "Smiths'" is a possessive. If it's only plural, you don't need the apostrophe: The party was crashed by three Smiths, all of whom were zombies.
If you can master these basic concepts, you'll be ahead of about 80% of the US population, including quite a few people with graduate degrees. Apostrophe abuse has become so common that someone in the U.K. formed a society to prevent it: the Apostrophe Protection Society. Please do your part to end these senseless crimes against innocent punctuation marks.

A few usage lessons

Now that I've bored everyone silly with my dissertation on apostrophes, I'll keep this part brief. If you want a thorough list of English usage errors, see Paul Brian's Common Errors in English Usage page. I bow in his general direction.

Here are two errors I've encountered recently:
  • affect vs. effect: "affect" is a verb; "effect" is a noun.
    • The sight of all those zombies eating my co-workers affected me deeply.
    • Though the massacre was a tragedy, one positive effect of the zombie slaughter was a significant reduction in the number of meetings I have to attend.
    • And, for you psychiatrists and psychologists in the crowd, "affect" can also be a noun when referring to one's mood or emotional state: Many of the people who witnessed the zombie attack exhibited flat affect for many weeks afterward... or maybe they had become zombies. It's hard to tell with some people.
  • principal vs. principle: "Principal" can be either an adjective or a noun. In either case, it refers to the major, important, or high-ranking part of something:
    • The principal reason Harold was eaten by zombies was that he tripped over an air pocket while running down a dead-end hallway.
    • After he became a zombie, the principal feasted on the brains of students and teachers alike.
    • "Principle," on the other hand, refers to a matter of law or belief: A zombie's guiding principle is the pursuit of brains.
As I encounter more usage errors, I'll post them here, relating them to zombies whenever possible.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Lunar eclipse

As I left work tonight, I had a great view of the lunar eclipse -- and I had my camera with me. I don't have a tripod, so my closeup pic is a little blurry, but it's better than nothing.

Here's the moon over Doernbecher Children's Hospital. If you look closely, you can see the eclipse in progress.
Lunar eclipse over Doernbecher

And here's the closeup:
Closeup of lunar eclipse

Both of these were taken at about 6:45 PM.

Usually we miss astronomical displays like this, because it's usually cloudy. Tonight, though, it's perfectly clear, and the view is amazing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Hearts, flowers, and severed heads

The annual invasion of pink hearts, candy, and flowers is nearly over. Tomorrow is Valentine's Day, which means that in a couple days all the pink will disappear from supermarkets, drugstores, and Hallmark, to be replaced with shamrocks and leprechauns. And I'll be able to go into a store without wrinkling my nose in disgust.

Yeah, I know, as a woman I'm supposed to get all mushy this time of year, slip jewelry ads under my husband's bowl of b'fast cereal, and drop not-so-subtle hints about romantic dinners and bouquets of roses. Instead I mutter darkly about fake holidays concocted by the floral and greeting card industry and come up with creative new ways to mark the occasion, all of which are a bit unconventional. My best idea this year: Have an 80's horror film fest! A little Jason, a little Freddie, and cap the evening with (what else) My Bloody Valentine. After all, nothing says romance like a good ol' slasher flick. These were the date movies of my youth. The first date I ever went on (well, it was sort of a date... one could argue about definitions, but never mind) was a double feature: Firestarter and Nightmares. I loved it. A couple years later, when hubby and I started dating, our romantic Friday nights usually involved Jason disemboweling teenagers in Technicolor and surround sound. Quite the mood-setter, that. Maybe I should market my own line of Valentine's Day cards based on the romances of my youth. I'm picturing a masked man with a box of chocolates in one hand and a machete in the other. I can't understand why Hallmark doesn't return my calls.

Some years I find V-Day genuinely depressing, but this year I've hardly noticed the profusion of pink. I'm in too good a mood to care. The days are getting longer, I've been able to do some gardening, and spring is in the air. What's a cheesy holiday and a few bad memories compared to that?

Monday, February 11, 2008


I posted this on my gardening blog, but I thought I'd post it here too, since a) it puts to rest those rumors of my untimely death, and b) it explains why I'm not writing anything that requires thought.

Every year about this time, I get an entire day to work in the yard--the first full gardening day since about October. And every year on that day, I get very ambitious, hoeing everything in sight and completing some big project that involves shoveling and moving heavy objects. On that day, I get a bad case of Almost-Spring-Fever and forget that I'm not 20 anymore, with nearly limitless stamina and a nearly-invincible back. Today was that day.

I built a new bed to house what was formerly a crabgrass patch decorated with a few rosebushes, hoed out the crabgrass, shoveled out a whole pickup load of compost onto the new bed, dumped wheelbarrow loads of the (rather wet) compost, emptied a very large (and very heavy) terracotta pot, planted a bed of strawberries, carted a heavy planter uphill from one end of the yard to the other, pruned all my roses, and dragged a yard waste bin around. I'm basking in the warm glow of accomplishment, while my lower back is basking in... pain. What the !@#$% was I thinking? I'm a 40-year-old librarian! But the new bed looks really nice. I'd take a picture of it, but that would require getting up and walking.