Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Spacing out on grammar rules

About six years ago, I had an editor from Chicago send me an email asking me to stop using two spaces after my periods when submitting my columns to his professional journal. In a “voice” dripping with superiority, I sent him a reply that said I was following the grammar rule for proper spacing after a period, which is to put two spaces, thank you very much.

He responded (smugly I might add) that no, in fact I was wrong. It turned out that somewhere between the time that I had finished college up until that very moment the rules had changed. I grabbed my copy of the Associated Press Stylebook, the bible of sorts for word geeks like myself, and looked it up. And the world as I knew it came crashing down around my keyboard.

All that I had been taught and held true was called into question. Do I still capitalize the first word in each sentence? Are double negatives now okay? Is grammar as we know it going to H-E-DOUBLE HOCKEY STICKS in a handbasket? And is handbasket one word or two?

Somewhere my 9th grade English teacher Sister Clair is rolling her eyes (or in her grave, depending on her current location – I haven’t kept up with her). I envisioned grammarians running amok through the university halls, gnashing their teeth at the senselessness of it all.

But then the editor graciously pointed out that it wasn’t that big of a deal. He just wanted me to know so I could make it a little easier on him. Turns out he had been deleting spaces after every sentence I had sent him for months. Of course I made the change and have adopted the single space rule, to the point that two spaces look weird to me now. As one writer friend put it, “It looks like you could sail a boat between those two sentences.” Yeah, we tend to exaggerate a bit, but I get his point.

I have friends (mostly my age or older) who still swear by the double space rule, and really, if their livelihood doesn’t depend on it who am I to judge? But the hard, cold truth is that it really is only one space.

Exhibit A: Associated Press Stylebook is as direct and simple as possible: “Use a single space after a period at the end of a sentence.”

Exhibit B: Grammar Girl. For a writer, what’s the next-best thing to a hard and fast grammar rule? A woman who writes, blogs and creates podcasts about grammar rules, complete with a cool superhero name – Grammar Girl. I’m not sure if she wears a cape, but I like to imagine that she does. For me and my word nerd friends, she’s the bomb. And Grammar Girl’s verdict echoes the AP Stylebook: One space after a period. She goes on to say, “I know it's a hard habit to break if you were trained to use two spaces, but if you can, give one space a try.”

Exhibit C: A little background from Wikipedia: “Double space (English Spacing). This convention stems from the use of the monospaced font on typewriters. If the ribbon were too dry the visibility of the period would be reduced significantly. Adding two spaces after the period ensured that the reader would know where the end of the sentence was if the period didn’t strike properly. This historical convention was carried on by tradition until it was replaced by the single space convention in published print and digital media today.”

So, let me get this straight. It all boils down to the fact that I’m … old? And I used to write my college term papers on a typewriter? With correction tape?

Oh, I am not liking this. Not one little bit. But it doesn’t really matter what I think about it, because like this grammar rule, it is what it is. Besides, check this out. Doesn’t it look like you could sail a boat through that last space?

Eileen Burmeister lives, works and single spaces in Roseburg. She can be reached at burmeistereileen@gmail.com.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Signs of the times: Bad speller untie!

We all have hobbies. Some people scrapbook. Others spend all day on the river in pursuit of one elusive fish. Still others dress up like cowboys and shoot guns at targets, reenacting the Wild West. Then there’s me. I actually enjoy looking for spelling and grammar errors in the world around me, and apparently, I’m forming a posse.

I love how my friends have taken to sending me snapshots of signs they see that are grammatically incorrect, or so badly formed that they leave you asking, “What the heck?”

A few months ago, my friend Raellen sent me a picture from her cell phone that she took during her trip to Chicago. She passed a store that had a sandwich board sign that read “Check out our amaizing deals in the front window.” Unless these deals are ears of corn, I’m not buying.

Most recently, Dave in Utah sent me a sign from the Adelaide Airport that read “Adelaide Airport uses recycled water for toilet flushing. DO NOT DRINK.”

Whodawa? How many people were drinking from the toilet that made this sign even necessary?

You don’t have to travel far, however, to find these ridiculous, confusing signs.

A few weeks ago, my friend Paul sent me a cell phone picture of a sign in front of the Roseburg Albertson’s store that read, “Cheep Chicken.” I sincerely hope they were trying to be cute.

Drive south out of Roseburg on I-5 and you’ll see a sign that reads “Talent ½ mile.” Of course, we locals know that it means the town of Talent, Ore., is a half mile ahead, but others are wondering what exactly they’ll find a half mile up the road. The next American Idol?

Further down I-5 into California is the town of Weed with its famous sign combination. The top sign says “College” with an arrow pointing left, and the sign below says, “Weed” with an arrow pointing right. It’s a conundrum alright, leading many college students to pose for a picture underneath with a quizzical look on their faces.

Drive east of Roseburg to Crater Lake and you are greeted with a sign that reads, “Danger: Falling will cause injury or death. Stay back from cliff edges.” Fair enough … maybe I need to be reminded to stay back from the edge, but I’m pretty clear that falling into Crater Lake would not end well for me.

Then there are those signs that simply leave you wondering what this world is coming to.

I came across one website with photos from a protest and one rally-goer holding a sign that read “Make English America’s offical language. “ Nearby, a man held another sign that said “Get a brain moran.” Can you say pot … kettle … black?
And I love this one from a zoo: “Please be safe. Do not stand, sit, climb or lean on zoo fences. If you fall, animals could eat you and that might make them sick. Thank you.” Heaven forbid the animals get sick from EATING A ZOO VISITOR. Really?

There are also signs that hide the real warning below a lot of other useless text. Exhibit B: “Caution - This sign has sharp edges. Do not touch the edges of this sign. Also, the bridge is out ahead.” So here’s a thought … maybe just tell me that the bridge is out FIRST and leave me to find out (or not) how sharp the edges of the sign are on my own.

But apparently, the creators of these signs don’t think anyone can figure out anything on his own. One grocery store had a double door entry. On the left door there was a hand-written sign that read “Please use other door.” On the right door, another hand-written sign read, “This is the other door. Pull to open.” Um, yeah, thanks for that.

It’s quite depressing, actually, to think how low we’ve sunk in intellect that these signs are necessary. And just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, someone comes by and steals letters off your sign, leaving you, like one coffee shop, to post “QU!T 5T3AL!N6 OUR LETT3R$”

I’ve got one better. “$T0P MAK!N6 5TUP!D Si6N$.”

Eileen Burmeister lives, works and critiques signs in Roseburg. She can be reached at burmeistereileen@gmail.com.

Going cold turkey on National Punctuation Day

I know it’s wrong to use it in such a way, and I know that’s it’s become a crutch, but I must admit that I’ve been having an illegitimate love affair with the ellipsis for years now. Surely, I thought, I could find a support group among the many writers who have been similarly led down this particular primrose path of pauses, but alas … none existed.

Not to be dissuaded, I set out and started my own support group called “Ellipsis … Anonymous.” I invited everyone to my house at 2000 W. Maple … a place, I must confess, I bought for the address alone … and I served M&Ms in batches of three.

However the people who showed up tended to trail off midway through their stories, or stopped abruptly before staring off into space, which seemed appropriate but really stymied the healing process. It was … daunting.

I found myself wandering the streets that night, talking to myself, binging on one story after another without end, drinking deep from the nectar of incomplete thoughts until … I hit rock bottom.

It had gotten to the point where I couldn’t pause for breath in my prose without automatically hitting dot-dot-dot. I was ravenous … a wild animal on the prowl for a pregnant pause, a thoughtful moment or a half-baked idea so I could swoop in and get my fix. I was putting ellipses where commas would suffice … ellipses when em dashes would do the trick … ellipses when a yadayadayada would convey the same idea. It was all too much and I collapsed under the pressure.

I woke up the next morning in the gutter outside of a Barnes and Nobles, gripping my beat-up copy of “Love is…” poems and staring in the face of one harsh reality … I needed help.

I got up out of the gutter, flipped open my laptop and started writing … hair of the dog and all that jazz. What I was after was a mantra to get me through the tough spots, those times where it’s just so … tempting to use that one, single punctuation, albeit incorrectly. I needed a higher power to see me through, and … amazingly … this little beauty fell out of the sky like a penny … or coin … from Heaven:

God grant me the serenity
To accept the proper uses for the ellipsis;
Courage to use it when I should and deny myself when I shouldn’t;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

Doesn’t it seem appropriate, then, that today, National Punctuation Day, would be my quit day? I have decided to go cold turkey. No more ellipses for me. I’m clean and sober starting now of course that means I can’t use any punctuation for fear that the pause in and of itself would throw me headlong into a full blown relapse from which I might never recover until I could once again use my beloved and reliable ellipsis just saying the word makes this all the more harder until I simply … break … down.

They say that admitting the problem is half the battle, and I’m counting on that to be true. But right now, I have an inexplicable desire to learn Morse code and eat M&Ms. And besides, as my friend Scarlett once said … “Tomorrow is another day.”

BFF added to the dictionary? Oh no they didn't!

If you’re a regular reader you know I’m not a big fan of acronyms, or abbreviations, or WYCT (whatever you call them). So you can imagine my dismay when I recently read a headline that said the New Oxford American Dictionary added “BFF” to this year’s edition of the dictionary.

For those of you old-schoolers who actually speak using complete words, BFF stands for “best friend forever.” Kind of feels like the writing staff of “Hannah Montana” just picked up and moved their sparkly markers over to the New Oxford American Dictionary to work if you ask me.

Also on the list of new additions to this year’s edition (confusing, no?) is TTYL, which stands for “talk to you later.” And this is necessary and relevant why? People today are rushing by so quickly that they can’t stop long enough to SAY “talk to you later”? It’s enough to make me crazy, but whatev. (I was starting to type out whatever but frankly ran out of time. Oxford, I’m looking at you. I expect “whatev” to be in your book by next year.)

One word I actually thought deserved an entry was “double dip.” Any “Seinfeld” fan knows that there should be a word to describe what the bozo at the party does when he dips the same chip into the salsa twice without turning the chip so as not to offend the entire party with his germs.

Then I realized that wasn’t the kind of “double dip” they meant. Instead they were referring to an adjective related to the economy, as in “higher food and energy prices could increase the risk of a double-dip recession.”

(Frankly, I’d kind of prefer to talk about tortilla chips than the recession, but okay, I’ll give Oxford that one.)

Also from the economic world, the word “zombie bank” has been added. It’s an informal noun that describes “a financial institution that is insolvent but that continues to operate through government support.” In my day we used to describe those banks as “closed for business,” but apparently adding the word “zombie” softens the realistic blow?

Another word that landed a spot in the “n” section of the dictionary is “nimrod.” Now here’s an example of an old word with a new meaning. The existing literal meaning of the word is “skillful hunter,” and the new definition is used to describe “an inept person.” Say what? I’d say a nimrod came up with that contradictory definition, and I DON’T mean a skillful hunter.

And just when you thought it was safe to read your new dictionary, they went and added “nom nom.” The entry reads: “Nom nom is an expression of delight when eating.” According to Oxford, the origin is the noises Cookie Monster makes when eating a cookie.

Hear that sound? That’s me banging my head on my desk and weeping for the future.
When we are including the Cookie Monster’s guttural utterances to the dictionary what’s next? “Ruh roh” from Scooby Doo? “Wawawawawa” from Charlie Brown’s teacher? “Doh” from Bart Simpson?

Speaking of characters, another addition to this year’s edition is “refudiate,” a non-existent word made popular by Sarah Palin. I’m not even going to touch that one with a ten-foot pole in this county.

The definition of refudiate from the Oxford Dictionary is “verb used loosely to mean ‘reject.’” Which is exactly what I do to these new “words,” Oxford.
We are no longer BFFs. TTYL.

Eileen Burmeister lives, writes and bangs her head in frustration when it’s called for in Roseburg. She can be reached at burmeistereileen@gmail.com

The cost of Christmas

Before I even knew what was happening, it happened. Lily found the WalMart toy insert in the Sunday newspaper before I had a chance to scoop it up and toss it in the trash.

I hate commercialized holidays, especially Christmas.

Wait, that didn’t come out right. I don’t hate Christmas. That’s crazy…who hates Christmas? (Well, the Grinch does, or did, until Cindy Lou Who got a hold of him.)
No, I hate the commercialization that comes with Christmas.

As a result, we get very few catalogs in the mail, we only use Netflix so we don’t have to deal with commercials on television, and I keep the kids chained to their desks doing homework from the time they get home until bedtime. Okay, that last part is not true.

Yet in spite of my best efforts, Commercialism has a way of weaseling its way into our home. And quicker than you can say “Rudolph with your nose so bright” Commercialism set its sights on Lily.

She came into the kitchen and handed me the catalog. “I circled all the things I wanted for you to make it easier on you, Mom,” she said, smiling sweetly.

Thanks, Lily. She’s a smart one, that girl.

I got to page three of the insert before I had already added up to $424 in my head. After all was said and done, her circled items had totaled $1,250. I showed Craig and we laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

“Hey Lily, remember that calculator you wanted me to buy?” I yelled from the kitchen.

“Yes!” she said excitedly, remembering that I did, indeed, buy her something once that she had asked for.

“Well, bring that in here and sit down to add up all of these things you’ve circled.”

Shoulders slumped, she padded her way to the kitchen table and started punching away. Before she even got halfway through the catalog, she had headed outside to play volleyball with neighbor kids who were not her Grinch of a mother.
Can you say “killjoy?”

But really, why does she need a motorized jeep, a pizzeria for her Zhu Zhu pets (they don’t even have hands, so I’m not seeing how pizza enters the picture), and a special Christmas Barbie doll for $29.99 (which we all know cost $1.23 to make).
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not just the kids who are at fault. Adults are even worse. I was looking through another insert and saw these candles with fake flames that are battery operated AND have a remote control. So let me get this straight, not only are we too lazy to strike a match, but we also don’t want to get up and walk across the room to light the thing?

And really, I need another remote control in my house like I need another WalMart Christmas insert, that is to say not so much. And if your family is anything like my family, that remote control will sprout legs, get up and walk away to a far corner of the house in less than 24 hours of being unwrapped, leaving you with one lifeless and dark candle mocking your ridiculous purchase from the corner bookshelf.
My friend Brenda grew up in Honduras where the tradition was to give each child three gifts since that’s what the three wise men brought the baby Jesus. I liked that idea until I remembered how expensive gold is, and when I Googled frankincense and myrrh I discovered that those little “gifts” will run you $20 for .5 fluid ounces. Of course it’s quite possible I’m missing the point.

I think it will all work out in the end. In fact, Lily came into my bedroom last night with the same WalMart insert and said, “If you can’t afford all of these things, I’ve circled an item on page 12 that I REALLY want.” When I turned to the page, it was an oversized plastic horse with a cowgirl doll, priced at $35.
Yes, Lily, there very well might be a Santa after all.

Eileen Burmeister is a writer who lives and works in Roseburg. She can be reached at burmeistereileen@gmail.com.