Category Archives: Grammar

One Sill A Bull: A Word Game

Thanks to CharNewcomb for the use of this photo @WANA Commons

Y’all know I love playing around with words, right?


I found this old writing prompt that I used to use when I was teaching English as a second language to 3rd graders.

It sounds easy, but it’s not as easy as you think.

Write the longest sentence you can in which each word is only one syllable.

For example:

He put his hand on his belt and said, “The lush, green berm on the side of the road would be a good place to take a leak — if I have to go real bad.”

See how long you can go.

If you know what I mean.

The person who goes the longest and creates something that is stunningly beautiful or hilariously funny is gonna get a special sumthin-sumthin from me. Go! I will accept comments until the end of the day, at which time I will start counting words.

tweet me @rasjacobson

Entrants may not use one single word repeatedly. Now that we have caught THAT little loophole, folks may continue. Thank you for making me laugh, Susie Lindau.

The winner of the contest is on thehomefrontandbeyond.Holy mad skills! Send me your snail mail address, and your sumthin-sumthin will be put in the mail immediately!

Sexy Semi-Colon Song

A while ago, I posted an email I received from a colleague about sexing up grammar so that people will use it more. I called it “Grammar is a Hussy.”

Since then we have even gotten into interrobanging. Can you imagine?!

Well, these cool kids seem to love them some semi-colons; I think that’s fantastic.

What’s your favorite punctuation mark and why? Or, for the love of Pete, show me that you know how to use a semi-colon properly. Go on; impress me!

Have You Ever Wanted To Interrobang?

Interrobang big

Image via Wikipedia

Recently, I learned about a new punctuation mark: the interrobang. Sounds naughty doesn’t it. Sure you can Google it, if you’d like. But you don’t have to, silly. That’s why I’m here.

Actually, the interrobang is a nonstandard punctuation mark used in various written languages and intended to combine the functions of the question mark (also called the “interrogative point”) and the exclamation mark or exclamation point (known in printers’ jargon as the “bang”).

When a sentence asks a question in an excited manner, expresses excitement or disbelief in the form of a question, or asks a rhetorical question.people layer two different punctuation marks one after the other.

For example: “Can you believe how awesomely delicious this piece of chocolate cyber-cake tastes?!”

See the “?” followed directly by the “!”

That’s the interrobang!

Some people even layer them on top of each other!

According to Wikipedia:

In 1966, Richard Isbell of American Type Founders issued the Americana typeface and included the interrobang as one of the characters, and in 1968, an interrobang key was available on some Remington typewriters.

That said, the interrobang failed to amount to much. It has not become recognized as a standard punctuation mark; although, it has not disappeared completely: Microsoft actually provides several versions of the interrobang character with Microsoft Office.

I don’t usually get into hardcore kinky punctuation, but I have to admit, I definitely enjoyed learning about it and I plan to use it. Not excessively. Just once in a while.

If you really want to lord a little insignificant piece of trivia over your English teacher this year, interrobang her. See what happens.

So go ahead, give me your best sentence using mixed punctuation. Interrobang me; you know you want to.

Much Disagreement About Agreement

About a week ago, everyone in my neighborhood received this green postcard from the newly opened Huntington Learning Center. Very eye-catching.

Truth be told, normal people probably tossed it right into the recycle bin. But because I read anything and everything of/or related to education, I flipped over the card.  And I proceeded to do a little dance. Because I knew I had a blog.

Here is the back of the card. Can you spot the error?

The scene of the crime!

What? What do you mean you don’t see it?

Don’t worry, you are not alone. Almost no-one catches this error. In fact, it has gotten so that this “error” isn’t really considered an error at all. So today’s “Who-Gives-A Crap” moment is brought to you courtesy of this twit.

For those of you who are still looking at the postcard going: “I still don’t see the problem,” don’t be ashamed.

The problem is in the sentence:

Help your child learn skills they’ll use all year.

The issue is that “child” is singular. How many kids? Unless you also have a secret love-child unbeknownst to your wife, the answer is one.

But the folks at Huntington linked that singular child to the pronoun “they.”

Whaaaat? Where did all those extra kids come from? I thought there was only one kid.

To be sure, a person can deploy the “singular-they” in his or her speech, and it will likely pass without objection. People do this all the time. Spoken language is more casual than written language because of the speed at which we speak. We can forgive our newscasters, our reality TV hosts, our Snookis.

(We can forgive Snooki, right?)

But careful writers try to avoid using the “singular-they” whenever possible.

Looking for linguistic affirmation, I went over to the folks at Let’s eat, Grandma’ or ‘Let’s eat Grandma’: Grammar Saves Lives’ on Facebook to see if I might get some help from the moderators there.

I asked someone – anyone – to show me a page from a Style Book that says it is correct – even acceptable – to use this construction. Mike Workman showed up at Grandma’s and declared:

I figured someone might say language is always changing and the non-gender specific use of the word “they” is just easier. It sounds more natural, and we don’t have to fuss with any of that “he/she” stuff. But I didn’t expect someone to tell me that “most style guides accept ‘they’ as a gender neutral collective noun that could also be used as a singular noun.”


Throughout the thread, Mike kept insisting that it was fine to use “singular-they.” He quoted famous authors who had done so from Shakespeare all the way up to the 1930’s. I gritted my teeth. To me, all that meant was that famous, dead authors made errors that, sadly, went into their books. (It seemed unfortunate that those great authors didn’t have better copy editors.)

Every time Mike said it was okay to use the “singular-they,” I kept thinking: Eating with our hands seemed more natural than using cutlery until someone taught us how to use forks and knives, no? I felt like I was getting linguistic advice from a Deadhead who had eaten way too many ‘shrooms. His message seemed to be: “Oh go ahead, it’s all right – nobody cares – do whatever you want, dude!”

So I went looking for these sources to which Mike was referring. (Because I am that geeky.)

And, frankly, because I was scared that I have been teaching it wrong.

And then, Charles Young showed up, my knight in shining armor. Or my Grammar Geek in white underpants. It didn’t matter. He swooped in to rescue me. He parried Mike Workman with his linguistic sword:

Okay, so I didn’t totally understand Charles, but I knew he was trying to agree with me. In a really fancy way.

Fifty comments later, Mike and Charles were having a serious cyber fist-fight. Each man was equally passionate about his (their?) love for me feelings about the use of “singular-they.” One man said, “Yea!” The other said, “Absolutely no friggin’ way.”

I figured things would die down at Grandma’s. I went to bed. And then I went away for the entire weekend. And when I came home, I saw the thread was still going strong!

At post 192, people were beginning to wonder if the thread would ever end. I thought I might be blocked from the group for causing such dissension among the ranks.

It was a runaway train. I had to try to stop it.

I left “Grandma’s” again, thinking: What is an English adjunct to do? I mean, I understand Mike’s point. The whole he/she thing is really cumbersome, and didn’t the lucky recipients of those shiny green postcards completely understand the intended meaning? I mean, we knew what we were being offered, right? So what’s the harm?

Well, here’s my issue. This place offers tutoring for SAT testing. And, as of today, if the following fill-in-the blank question showed up on the SATs —

Help your child learn skills ______ will use all year long.

— and the possible choices were:

(A) he

(B) they

(C) he or she

(D) who friggin’ cares?

as it stands right now, choice (A) would be considered sexist; (B) would be considered an example of  poor agreement, and (C) would be considered the correct answer. Although I recognize, at this point, most of you are leaning strongly toward choice (D).

I discussed this with two Advanced Placement high school English teachers and Most Excellent College Department Chairperson: a veritable holy trinity of English educators. And while Mike kept insisting the practice of using “they” is “widely accepted,” I was unable to find one single Style Book that stated it was “grammatically correct” to use this construction in formal essay writing.

I mean, some of us have to teach Comp-101. We have to explain the rules.

The nuances of language are complicated. It isn’t easy to master all these rules, especially the ones that feel archaic and forced. Come September, I am going to explain to my students that they need to have a speaking vocabulary and a writing vocabulary. I am going to try to convince them that we have to be poly-lingual. We need to know how to speak one way to friends and another way to teachers. We may write one way in texts, but (hopefully) that is different from the way we correspond to our parents and educators. On Twitter we have to Tweet it in under 140 characters, which requires a lot of creative abbreviation that would not be acceptable in a formal paper. Ever. The reality is, each of us needs to be literate in every one of these vocabularies (and others, too). We all need to be able to move between these worlds effortlessly and with expertise.

Call me old-fashioned, but until the folks at the Modern Language Association tell me otherwise, “singular-they” shall be considered sloppy usage.

Excited by my epiphany, I decided to pop in to “Grandma’s” and – to my horror – the thread was still going strong with over 400 comments! And even though I totally wanted some of the cookies that I knew were baking in the oven, I turned my back on “Grandma’s” house. It was getting ugly in there. I’m telling you, they were bringing out the Bazookas. And I don’t mean the bubble gum. Who’da thunk I’d get so much mileage outta dat ‘they’ question?

Do I need to tell the folks at The Huntington Learning Center about this? And seriously, what do you think they’ll say? Did anyone even make it to the bottom of this post?

Tweet this Twit @rasjacobson

Friday Quick Question: Should We Pet Dead Squeyls?

Google Images

The other day I saw a sign that read: “Free Babies Clinic.”

Which I thought was weird.

It was a warm day, and I imagined folks handing out babies like ice cream cones.

What exactly is going on? I wondered.

But as I got closer, I saw that the sign was actually advertising a “Free Rabies Clinic,” which made me wonder: Are we giving people rabies these days? And who would want that? Even for free?

I kind of remember A “very special” Little House on The Prairie episode where Mary or Half-Pint or Carrie (or maybe it was the Jack, the dog?) got bitten by something – a raccoon or a bat – and Ma and Pa and Doc were pretty freaked out, and Pa had to saddle up the horses and ride all the way to Mancato to get… um, I don’t know. Special shots? Pills? Now that I think about it, maybe Pa just had to shoot the dog.

I also might have completely fabricated that whole thing.

I’m not sure.

Anyway, I guess I really do need to wear my reading glasses all the time now.

A few days later, as the stars aligned in the universe, I stumbled across the following video which features a child fondling a freshly killed squirrel, and I wondered: Have we stopped completely worrying about rabies to the point that we are now allowing our children to carry glorified rats wild animals around and snuggle them?

Don’t get me wrong. The video is fabulously, adorably morbid.

And I’m guessing this dad just got caught up in the moment the way his daughter did.

It is also probably why the aforementioned father repeatedly stresses the need for his wee dead animal lover to come in and take a bath.

I’m thinking little Thea might grow up to be a fabulous doctor. Look how caring she is.

Other options include taxidermist or mortician.

It’s good to have options.

I don’t know where I’m going with this. It’s Friday. See where poor eyesight and bad signage leads me? Tell me something you saw this week. Or thought you saw.

What The Huh?

This one comes to me from a College-Instructor-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, for reasons that shall become obvious. It is hilarious and awful all at the same time.

To: My Professor
Subject: Droped

Dear Professor:

I appologiz for not being in class the last and past week. But there is alot of stress put on me by other classes i can’t find myself a way to get to school on time for ur class. I know the matirial and everything is starting to let up. So i ask u to plez let me bake into the class. i promis to show up for the rest of the classes 😦

Goin’ Nowhere Fast

Nice, huh.

In this horrendous wonderful day and age, where we can reach out and touch someone via text or email, college educators receive hellish quality correspondence like this all of the time.

All. Of. The. Time.

The lucky recipient of this email told me that this piece of correspondence – which arrived via email – was the first time he’d had contact with the student, and it came after his student had missed 12 out of 19 classes, two unit tests, and one quiz. 

So think about it? How would you respond to an email like this?

Is this what we have come to with all of our short-cuts and abbreviations? Do teachers at the college level have to respond to emails and texts filled with errors like this?

Do you feel sorry for the kid? I mean, he just wants “bake into the class.”

Or would you just say nothing? Because the student has already been withdrawn and, clearly, he is already fried.

I sometimes wonder if parents know that their kids are communicating with their college professors like this.  Seems we have to teach our children about how – sometimes – it is necessary to use different language to communicate to different audiences. About when it is appropriate to abbreviate and when it is necessary to use a more formal tone, proper grammar, and a spell checker. About when to use and refrain from using emoticons. According to Tim Elmore, today’s “screenagers” don’t get it. Or they get something else than us “old folks.”

Crosby, Stills and Nash sang: “Teach your children well.” Are we confusing our kids with all this “texting”? Or do teachers just need to loosen up and accept that the times  (and the language) are a-changing?

Words That Piss Me Off

Juxtaposition of circle and square cakes

Is it an English teacher thing or do normal other people have a collection of words that carry emotional weight for them?

By this I mean, do regular folks like certain words and dislike other words? Or do most people just walk about the earth caveman-style without worrying too much about things like this?

Let me give you a for example.

I was reading a blog the other day.

It mentioned the word “juxtaposition.”

Do you get it?

I have to tell you that I have a thing about the word “juxtaposition.”

That word pisses me off.

First of all, I missed it on my SAT’s over 20 years ago.

(Okay, fine, over 25 years ago – whatever!)

I totally remember coming out of the lunchroom after being made to sit next to a repetitive pencil-tapper for three consecutive hours on a gorgeous Saturday morning. (Let’s not even discuss the fact that I have a thing about repetitive noises. My closest friends know that if they tap something more than five times in a row, I will throw them to the ground.) Let’s just say, I was definitely a little twitchy.

Anyway, I came out of the cafeteria and went a little ape-shit.

Me (all indignant): Who even knows what juxtaposition means? Anyone? I mean who would know that word?

Everyone looked at me blankly.

And then one person defined it.


Mr. Smarty Pants: Juxtaposition is the act of placing close together or side by side, for comparison or contrast.

Me: Really, Mr. Smarty Pants. That’s awesome that you know that. Can you use it in a sentence?

Mr. Smarty Pants: ‘I like the construction of sentences and the juxtaposition of words – not just how they sound or what they mean, but even what they look like.’ That’s a quote by Don DeLillo.

Me: Who the hell is Don DeLillo?

Mr. Smarty Pants: Where did you say you want to go to college?

I was sooooo pissed.

But from that moment forward, i have never forgotten the dang word.

Do you get it now?

And the reality is, I love the juxtaposition of words and ideas!

Oh, the irony!

And guess what? Now I use the word “juxtaposition” all the time.

Almost daily.

Just because.

I will not tell you the other skillion words that drive me bonkers bother me because if I am ever taken hostage in a bizarre twist of events that would lead to the taking of hostages, I would rather be water-boarded than have people whisper my least favorite words in my ears.

Can you imagine if my captors juxtaposed the whispering of all those awful words with simultaneous, repetitive pencil tapping?

That, dear readers, would be hell.


What words drive you to pain and chaos, and why?

Grammar is a Hussy

I got this little gem from a colleague who was in the midst of grading three sections of English 101 mid-term papers. Upon completing one full section of essays, he decided to reward himself.

(I usually reward myself by eating a bag of Snickers.)

Anyway, he found this little gem and sent this around via department mail:

My colleague took pause to wonder:

Do you think if we “sexed it up” (as the British say), we could ever get everyone to use it?

Let me be the first to say that I am a Grammar Pimp and proud of it.

I use Grammar all the time.

And she has never failed me.


Grammar is slick.

She is tireless, and she never lets me down.

She has never asked me for anything, and I have only benefited from my relationship with her.

Seriously, who wouldn’t want in on that kind of action?

Grammar, you have a bag full of tricks, you dirty girl.

You aren’t afraid of anything: noun-pronoun agreement, misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers. Colons don’t scare you and –  Grammar, you little trollop – you love when people use their hyphens properly.

Don’t you?

Yes you do.

Knowing Grammar is great.

But using Grammar is excellent.

I’m telling you: Use Grammar.

She wants you to.

If we approached grammar as if it were a reality TV show, do you think it would make kids more psyched to learn their grammar rules? Or would a whole bunch of teachers just get fired?

An English Teacher’s “Happy Ending”

I went back to Massage Envy to get my April massage, which just so happened to fall on April Fool’s Day.

My regular readers will likely (possibly) remember the grammar issues with the signage at over the last two visits.

But if you are new here (or need a quick refresher) click here to read the back story:

So this month I bopped in, said hello, made my way to the room where the warm massage table was waiting. I quickly disrobed, slid between the heated sheets, and spent a fabulous relaxing hour with Dean. (That sounds kind of naughty, but it wasn’t.)

I was so relaxed that I almost missed it.

I almost peed in my pants!

How much did I love that sign?

Those folks at Massage Envy not only got the sign right, but they had such a great sense of humor about the whole thing!

Plus they patiently waited for me to notice the sign – which had to be killing them.

I’m sure the girls up-front (not to mention the manager) wanted to smash my nose against it!

But they didn’t. They were professional and waited for me to notice it in my own good time.

And afterwards, they still let me eat a few fabulous dark chocolates wrapped in purple foil at the end of my session.

Well, I said I tip for great grammar, right?

Guess who left the recommended Renee J. tip?

Correcting grammar, one sign at a time.

Even if it takes me to the poorhouse. 😉

Lessons From The Bathroom

Please enjoy this playful sign that was forwarded to me by one of my readers.

How much do I love Admiral Grammar?

The good Colonel seems to have forgotten about capitalization as well. 😉

There are so many things to love about this picture.

Personally, I enjoy the elbows.

What stands out to you? You know besides the grammar.