Haldeman Grammar

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Grammar: High Crimes and Misdemeanors - From Joe Haldeman

I can't give you a low grade because of poor grammar -- but the world can. Most of the real world will regard you as undereducated if you misuse your language, no matter where your degrees are from or how many of them you have.

"We're all ignorant," Mark Twain said; "only in different subjects." It's not your fault if you grew up in a school system that shortchanged you on basic skills. But the time to correct those deficiencies is now. Next year or ten years from now, you're going to have a job application or a grant proposal buried in a stack of twenty, all of approximately equal merit. The person evaluating them might be a scoundrel like me, who grinds his teeth at "alright" and growls audibly when "which" is misused. Wouldn't it be pleasant if yours could be the only application or proposal that didn't make him or her mad?

Consider this a guide to not shooting yourself in the foot. Over the past 18 years I've been noting the most common errors in usage that trip up MIT students. I've divided them into things that might be all right (TWO WORDS!) technically, but are inelegant enough to bother me a lot (also TWO WORDS!) anyhow.

(I know you may have had, and may yet have in the future, teachers who feel that "rules" such as these are, like, retro, you know what I mean? When those god damned New Age anarchist disciplines of progressive education have control of the grade book, hey. Do your thing. Here, do my thing.)

High Crimes

1. "All right" and "a lot" are pairs of words. Writing "alright" and "alot" does not affect the logic of a sentence, but it's the verbal equivalent of snapping gum audibly.

2. "It's" is only used as a contraction for "it is." The possessive of "it" is "its." Example: It's too bad that robot lost its bits.

3. Eschew neologisms and jargon. You don't "prioritize" things; you order them in terms of importance. When listing things, don't say "Firstly ... secondly ... ." First and second will do. ("Primarily" and "secondarily" are proper, but stuffy.) (I'll grit my teeth and admit that dialogue is dialogue: you could have a character saying "Firstly, we prioritize the papers; secondly, we critique them." But he'd better die a horrible death by the end of the story.)

4. "Hopefully" is almost always wrong. Example: We hope to make a profit next quarter rather than Hopefully, we'll make a profit next quarter. The only proper use of the word is when you describe something done in a hopeful manner: He prayed hopefully that he would not suffer death by Mongo. "Disinterested," for God's sake, mean objective. Example: They could trust his testimony because he was a disinterested observer. You could describe a lack of interest by "uninterested." Example: He was uninterested in the rules of grammar until the teacher began cursing and hurling heavy books at him.

5. Never use multiple exclamation points or combinations of exclamation points and question marks.

6. "Which" is not a fancy synonym for "that." The technical rule is that you use "which" to introduce nonrestrictive clauses and "that" to introduce restrictive ones. Example: The planets, which are relatively cool, go around the Sun. You need a spacesuit to survive on planets that don't have any air. A good rule of thumb is to consider whether the clause would make sense in parentheses; then you can use "which": The planets (which are relatively cool) ... There's an annoying exception to this, which you may never encounter. If you're writing a complex sentence where the subordinate clause is introduced by "that," and the subordinate clause would normally use "that" as well, change the second use to "which": There are very few robots that will obey when confronted with instructions which are ambiguous. (That's a clumsy sentence, of course. It should be Few robots obey ambiguous instructions. But you get the idea.)

7. In American usage, periods and commas go inside quotation marks. (The British way makes more sense, but who says grammar is logical?) The same goes for question marks and exclamation points, except when a quote is used at the end of a larger phase, as in Did he say "turn left at the light"? or Don't you dare call him a "man"! (You still write He said "turn left at the light.") Do not perpetuate the barbarism of using quotation marks for emphasis, as some illiterate merchants do: ON "SALE" TODAY! You will die young, strangled in front of your stunned classmates. Use single quotation marks only for quotes within quotes. Example: "Tell me," she whispered, "do you know the words to 'Louie Louie'?"

8. Don't use passive voice unless you have to. Example: The writer obliterated the blank-eyed zompies rather than The blank-eyed zombies were obliterated by the writer. The usual formal exception is when you don't know the identity of the sentence's subject: My room was broken into last night is equivalent to Someone broke into my room last night. Another legitimate use is when you want to save a surprise for the end of the sentence: The classroom was populated by blank-eyed zombies. Sometimes it's a weapon against the other kinds of inelegance, as below:

9. Don't wreck the logic of elegance of a sentence in order to be politically correct. I've actually seen barbarisms like A person should check their breasts for lumps every month. Half those people would be better advised to check their testicles. Don't use "their" as a supposedly gender-free pronoun for a single person; it's always plural;. Never use the lazy he/she, him/her, etc., either. Think for a second and you'll always come up with a better way. Example: If a person experiences sexual harrassment in the workplace, he/she should report it to his/her supervisor could be rephrased Sexual harrassment in the workplace should be brought to the attention of your supervisor.

10. Use semicolons properly. There are two ways. Use them in a list if one of the elements of the list has a comma. Example: She had brothels in Paris, Texas; Bethesda, Maryland; and Moose Groin, Minnesota. Use them in sentences where independent clauses are not joined by connectives. Examples: His dog had rabies and it died in the spring is correct, and so is His dog had rabies; it died in the spring. If you write His dog had rabies, it died in the spring you have committed a comma splice, and his dog will come back from the grave and bite you.

11. Don't use comparative modifiers with absolute adjectives. Phrases like "almost infinite" and "pretty unique" are meaningless: a thing is finite or it is not; a thing is either unique or there is something else like it. (Some people think this is unneccesarily formal, because everybody knows that when you say something is "pretty unique," you're just saying it's unusual. Some people wear stripes with plaids, too.)

12. Don't use the comic-book "^%#@*" convention for cussing. If your character hits her thumb with a hammer, have her say whatever the fuck she would naturally say. (I suppose you could have her say "^%#@*" if you can tell me how she pronounces it.)

Misdemeanors -- I am in the minority on some of these, but hey. Humor me.

1. "Data" is a plural noun. If you don't want to use the high-falutin' "datum" for the singular, then say something like "a data point" or "a piece of data." "Media is also plural, although "the media" has come to be treated as a collective singular noun. (I'll admit I've lost the battle on both of these.)

2. The possessive of any nonplural proper noun, even if it ends in "s," is formed with apostrophe-S. The possessive of a plural proper noun is formed with an apostrophe alone. Example: Tess's tresses; the Hemingways' popinjays. Some people allow an exception to the S rule for names from antiquity or mythology or religion: Isis' ices, Jesus' sneezes, Socrates' bended knees. (The first part is a spongy rules, broken constantly by journalists. Whichever way you do it will look wrong to some readers. Be smart and don't give any of your main characters a name that ends in S.)

3. Don't emphasize manuscript text with typographical oddities like boldface type, different type styles or sizes, or even italics. Underline, and do it sparingly. You can break this rule if your story really requires you to do so for some science-fictional reason -- telepathy, for example, or text being read off a screen. But editors like underlining. (It's typeset as italics.)

4. Refer to humans with human pronouns. Example: People who have Y-chromosomes rarely wear dresses rather than People that have ...

5. Please double-space manuscripts and don't put an extra space between paragraphs. (You may single-space your workshop story to save photocopying costs, though, and in that case you may wish to insert extra spaces between paragraphs, for clarity.)

6. Don't be wordy. Use plain English unless your subject matter requires odd or elevated diction. It's a mark of real intellectual power to state complicated things clearly, simply. It's a symptom of intellectual laziness to ramble on and on and expect your reader to decode your message.

7. Don't overuse the weak verbs "to be" and "to get." Instead of He was obviously bored say He checked his watch and hid a yawn. Instead of She was getting really thirsty say She checked her canteen and let it drop onto the sand. "How much farther?" she asked, her voice cracking.

8. Save the best for the last. This is a vague principle, but often applies to sentences, paragraphs, scenes, and whole stories. This is a so-called "periodic" sentence: We were sitting around talking about movies, and in walked a guy with a gun. Compare with the antiperiodic: A guy with a gun walked in while we were sitting around talking about movies. Both sentences work, but you wouldn't find them in the same story. The first is straightforward composition. The second is either a mistake or a deliberately weird, ironic statement. It's a rule you'll probably break frequently. That's all right so long as the deviation is deliberate.

Word Things

I don't know why people with IQ's over the boiling point of water, Fahrenheit, can't spell "lose" without two O's or "breath" without putting an E on the end. There is no GH in "straitjacket." The words orientate and irregardless do not exist on planet Haldeman.

I personally despise "critique" used as a verb. But I seem to be the last holdout. I use a fountain pen, too. If you use "critique" too often, I may use the fountain pen on you.

"Discreet" means prudent. "Discrete" means separate. You don't want to be discrete about sex. It's lonely and makes you go blind.

"Which leads to "lay" and "lie." "Lay" always takes an object -- you lay down the wench. If a person is becoming horizontal, he, she, or it lies down. To complicate matters, the past tense of "lie" is also "lay" -- so "John lay himself down" in the past. But the past tense of "lay" is "laid" -- so "John laid down the wrench" when he was done fixing the sentence.

Three exceptions: You can lay bricks. You can lay a ghost -- put it to rest or banish it to wherever it came from -- and, if you're rude and crude, you can lay a person. But it sounds silly and sexist. Be nice and grammatical and lie with a person instead.

Someone asked an eminent speaker (I think Winston Churchill) when you should use "different from" and when you use "different than." His answer: "Always use 'different than' when you're illiterate."

There used to be seven words you couldn't say on television: shit, fuck, piss, cunt, asshole, motherfucker, and cocksucker. Nowadays all you can't say on television is "I think we'll skip this commerical," but those seven words are still kind of special when we see them in print. Be sensitive to context. "Oedipus was a motherfucker" is accurate but inappropriate in any reasonable context. If a nice little old lady says "shit" in a conversation, she's either an odd nice little old lady, or something extraordinary has just happened.

It's true that the first four words on that list are venerable and accurate. But they're usually loaded with connotations. Be careful. Be fucking careful.