Stop using comma splices

I teach English as a Second Language, and naturally, I often see students use comma splices. That is totally understandable because writing in another language is difficult; I totally messed up pretty much every sentence I wrote in Swedish class, and I'm currently having trouble writing even super-simple sentences in my online French class (I'll blog about that at another time).

So anyone who is learning English is excused. This is for the native speakers who presumably got enough schooling to know enough grammar. (And this is also a continuation of my previous post about "However.")

I don't know why so many people use comma splices. I can understand if someone has trouble applying rules, etc., and maybe writing isn't their strong suit, but even very educated people use them.

And I'm not talking about people who are writing English creatively. Sometimes people text or write in a certain way to convey a feeling, or to sound casual. I myself (shocker) have used comma splices to express myself in a less-constrained way. But I know the rules, so I can break them to vary my writing style. And other people can break them, too. But there are those people who are not purposely doing anything; they are just messing up, and their writing has to be corrected. (See, I just successfully avoided some comma splices by using a semicolon after the first independent clause and a conjunction to connect the second and third.)

I could link to many articles or blog posts that I've read where there were numerous comma splices, but I wasn't nerdy enough to keep a list of them all (or even some of them). But that's fine, because I'm not the only one who's annoyed; in addition to the several grammarians who are complaining online, there's a nerdy guy who gets paid to write such commentary at the illustrious Financial Times, saying he's also annoyed with the situation, and mentions British Airways as one of the offenders.

Basically, here is a type of comma splice that I often see:
Please take a number, someone will be with you shortly.

"Please take a number" is a complete sentence. "Someone will be with you shortly" is another complete sentence. They each can stand alone, so they cannot be separated by a mere comma.

That is an example of businesses that are speaking to customers. So perhaps using a semicolon would seem stuffy:
Please take a number; someone will be with you shortly.

One way to get around it and still be friendly and creative would be to use a dash (which I use when I want to be in the ballpark of correctness, but not so stiff):
Please take a number--someone will be with you shortly.

Another way, which someone (a reader) recommended, is to combine them:
Please take a number and someone will be with you shortly.

But using a comma just seems wrong, and perpetuates the problem we have (at least what we uptight language folks see as a problem). It is especially egregious in academic papers, which I see if the writers haven't gotten a professional to look over their work.

Are texting and quick social media causing the decline? I can understand people who use writing to communicate with their friends or whatever, but professionals with degrees or people who make a living from communicating shouldn't violate the rule. Or they should get someone else to check their work.

But my concern will eventually seem anachronistic, because there is no governing body for English that puts forth linguistic decrees, and the language will inevitably change over time...Oxford comma, anyone?


I am sick of millennials

Wait, maybe I should title this post: "I am tired of hearing about millennials all the time" or "I am sick of the obsession with millennials" because that's what this really is about: our culture's obsession and fascination, and even disgust, with millennials. I've been thinking about this for a while, and have even told people in that age group what I think. So let me be clear: I am not against millennials (who I will refer to as "that age group" or "M's" because the "millennial" label is way overused), but I am sick of people salivating over them.

There are so many examples...where should I begin? How about all the whining we encounter about them. As someone who has probably experienced age discrimination when applying to jobs (but can't prove it), I am disgusted when I read articles online lamenting the horrible work ethic that these supposedly entitled people have. If those in power are so horrified by their attitude, why hire them? If you feel you have to constantly figure out ways to entertain them and motivate them, why hire them? Are the M's really that bad, or are you people in power hiring the wrong people? Newsflash: there are many people in that glorified and reviled generation, so maybe your screening process is awful. Maybe you're one of those people who is so enamored with what you perceive as their tech savviness (yes, I created a noun out of a legitimate adjective) that you choose whoever seems the cutest and most "current" to the point that you don't look beyond the gadgets that they're playing with.

Or better yet, why don't you just look past the age of a person and hire people who would be good for the organization. I know, it's shocking to suggest that people not worship M's, but seriously, if you're going to complain that much, just be open-minded. But I'm not here to bash the M's or their opportunities, because they're doing what anyone would: applying for jobs and enjoying the fruits of their labor (or just the fruits of being in the right age group).

I would love to link to a company that I saw online, which I unsuccessfully applied to (luckily, since something way better and more prestigious came along, where age does not matter), but I obviously can't, because what I'm about to say is not complimentary: the company posted lots of pictures of the employees having fun and working together, which attracted me to it. After I experienced the rejection (for a vague reason, but as I said, I got something much better), I went back to the website. Then it dawned on me: the gray-haired owners *only* hired M's, and I wondered if they wanted to be surrounded by young, attractive, energetic people so the owners would be surrounded by eye candy all day. I wouldn't put it past them, because the obsession that I often see in blogs and other media is so shallow. I even know of large, successful companies that openly prefer to hire recent grads or those who are younger than Christmas cakes. There are a few "older" people there, because someone has to know what's going on, but when I pass by a building and see thousands of M's walk out, I wonder if the eye-candy motivation is present, or if they simply think "older" people don't understand tech or much of anything else that they perceive as important.

Another newsflash: guess who got online way before Fakebook and other entities spoiled it? It wasn't your precious M's. Who got educated, hustled, made due with changing times, and have plenty of years of proof of victories and overcoming obstacles? Yup, not recent grads or almost-recent grads. Yet we are inundated with information and advice and woes of dealing with such a spoiled generation.

If they're so spoiled, who do you think raised them? Who do you think didn't make them do chores, didn't make them get part-time jobs, didn't force them to apply to jobs on their own, allowed them to be boomerangs, bought them fancy phones that are more powerful than computers have been? And better yet, who do you think invented all the technology that has saturated our culture, separating people from one another, creating walls, promulgating misconceptions? It wasn't your beloved M's. That generation is a product of what the older folks created. They are simply living in the environment that was set up by others, so I don't assign them much guilt (I say "much" because at a certain age anybody from any generation should be able to eventually mature).

When the "millennial" label first emerged, and at the dawn of the non-stop analysis of them, I told folks that I think the baby boomers are envious, because for years people talked about BB's, wrote about them, the media shone its light on them, often turning it on themselves because they were the media, and they had plenty of opportunities to wax poetic about how wonderful and change-agentish (a noun that I purposely adjectified) they were. After all, they protested the Vietnam War, grew up in suburbia, duck-and-covered, rebelled against their staid parents, listened to thoughtful and daring music, and were being rewarded for all their hard work with good jobs, sanitized memories, and human potentiality. Then...the millennials. Uh oh, they're a large generation, they use technology, they post on social media. Who is this group, and why do they have control now? Waaa, the BB's cried, and they proceeded to work against the M's, causing people to deride them and praise them, yet fear them. They were coming up in the world...such a mysterious bunch, pushing buttons and smiling into screens on their phones. Why aren't they paying attention to us, the war protesters and popular-culture warriors? Now the M's were getting all the glory...where does that leave us?

Unfortunately, it left the rest of us with BB's who control the market and look away from non-M's. Somehow, they don't believe that it is possible for "older" people to...understand strategy, technology, complicated English, complex thoughts. One time, someone was commenting on my technical knowledge and activity, and said, "Well that's how people in your generation are," implying that I am part of the M generation. When I told the person I was not, that I was actually the same age as them, they were stunned.

But now that the doors have been opened to the M's, they are also running the market, and probably want to hire their own. That's expected, since that's what the culture has established. Back when the economy was more stable and wasn't so top-heavy, it was loyalty and hard work that could open and maintain doors. Now it's flash and misconceptions, promoted in the bubble that the M-obsessed populace echoes as it continues to keep discussing and praising and wondering about their precious bunch.

Even if I talk to someone of that generation, they'll preface a statement with "Well, as a millennial..." or "I'm not a typical millennial because..." which I find really self-absorbing. I'm not saying the person is arrogant or spoiled; I'm saying they're self-absorbed because instead of referring to him-or-herself as an individual, they're lumping in with the rest of their generation, because everybody talks about them. If people didn't always talk about them, it probably wouldn't occur to them that they are part of a group, and would speak not as a label, but as a human, which is really what American society is about. Our culture is about rugged individualism, not collective identification that looks twee in a marketing campaign.

Thanks to the taste-makers and powers-that-be, we have moved away from American ideals of what we actually fought for (as we approach Independence Day) and instead are grouping people together to pursue mediocrity, conformity, and control.

So if you're a millennial, don't buy into the hype. Just do what you're doing, and don't worry about what other people think. Not that you should be rude or anything, but don't believe the hype. Don't react to labels you hear, complaints of being less than what you really are. You're just a person who has different influences and societal conditions, and you have a right to pursue your dreams. You may have paid a lot for an education, studied hard to get good grades and improve your prospects, and been hit with an economy that hasn't responded in the same way previous generations experienced. Schools have promised you a future, but that was also a marketing ploy, and what you're encountered is not what they held out in front of you. So go a better way, and don't pay attention to the whiners on the sidelines.


I am tired of seeing "however" with a comma

How many times do I read an article or blog post or email or whatever, and I see the word "however" punctuated incorrectly? Enough to finally do a post about it, after years of tolerating the mistake! And yes, I just created a fragment on purpose...it was a deliberate style decision.

But back to the important topic at hand: many people, educated and not, do not understand the role of "however" in a sentence. I know people who are sticklers about language, and they use "however" in such a way because they're quickly texting and want to loosen the rules. That's acceptable, and I've probably done that myself. I'm not talking about those people who know the rules enough to break them; I'm talking about people who don't even know the rule, and think it's acceptable to not use a semicolon or to start a new sentence. In fact, that previous sentence is an example of what I'm talking about: I was joining two independent clauses, thus needed a semicolon, not a comma, which is what a lot of people use even when "however" isn't in the picture.

People usually throw independent clauses together with a comma like it's no big deal (btw--an independent clause has a subject, verb, object, complement...basically, it's a complete sentence, not a fragment, not a dependent clause that serves an introductory purpose, etc.).

So back to "however"...here's an example of how people usually treat it:

I want to go to the store, however I have to work.

That is a comma splice! The comma is separating two independent clauses. It should be:

I want to go to the store; however, I have to work.


I want to go to the store. However, I have to work.

Someone just told me that they hate it when people start sentences with "however." However, that's correct, unless it's a fragment. And that sentence I just typed is correct. This is not correct:

Someone just told me that they don't like sentences that start with "however," however it's fine to do that even though it's not stylistically preferable.

So when is it okay to use "however" with a comma? When it's a side comment...example: (I just created another fragment for emphasis, on purpose, in case you wanted to point it out.)

She wanted to organize a trip for 50 people. What she was planning, however, was not feasible.

Commas around "however"?! That's correct, because it's an aside, a break, instead of starting the sentence with "however" or continuing the previous sentence with "but." For instance, I could write the previous two sentences like this:
She wanted to organize a trip for 50 people, but what she was planning was not feasible.

Those are two independent clauses being separated by a conjunction (with a comma before that, because independent clauses require it).

I can understand why students may not know these rules, but professional writers or people who call themselves "experts" and are writing articles or newsletters to promote themselves really should know better. If they don't know, they should have someone check what they're submitting to stem the flow of bad punctuation.


Is McDonald's okay?

I always assume large, multinational corporations have a lot of money, but apparently McDonald's doesn't seem to be able to afford a proofreader for something as simple as a temporary sign. I was walking by the torn-down Rock 'N' Roll McDonald's and saw this sign: do you see the mistake?

Answer: "its only a short time away," which should be "it's [as in "it is"] only a short time away." It's incredible that people from a company where the CEO has a compensation package of over $15 million can't afford to peel off less than $100 to hire someone to proofread their signage. Yes, I make mistakes at work, and even here (about which comments have been made), but I'm usually writing well over three sentences, which is all this sign has. It probably would've taken 15 minutes to check this sign before it went to the printer, yet they didn't bother to do such work. 

So I guess McD's still needs some help, even though their profits went up. I wonder if I'm the only one who noticed this.


My first Swedish translation

As I've said before, I'm studying Swedish. My Swedish is honestly awful because I haven't followed my own advice which I usually give my ESL students and which I myself followed when I was studying Japanese: memorize a sample sentence for the grammar point you are learning. And there are other reasons, too, such as not watching many videos, not putting a lot of time into it, etc.

But that's not what this post is about, even though I could write many words about why my Swedish is so horrible. This is to announce to the world that I managed to translate a simple Swedish article because our teacher gave us such an assignment for homework (and another aside: Colloquial Swedish, which we're using in class, is not an appropriate book for total beginners like me who have no clue what's going on. It progresses too quickly and there aren't enough chances to practice grammar, etc. I really think I have to take the class again. But what's great about the book is that they offer free audio--enjoy!)

The teacher told us about Ikea's super-rich and alleged cheapskate founder, who died a couple months ago. At that time, she told us to read an article about him at the excellent site 8 Sidor. Basically, that wonderful site has simplified news stories that you can read and also listen to. I love it! (NHK has a similar one for Japanese news, btw.)

So we read it, and instead of translating some clunky sentences and offering a stilted translation (which we had to do for class to create a close approximation of the original), I decided to attempt to make it smoother. So here's the result...I know he died back in January, but I'm posting it now because I've overcome my hesitation to share it with the world and I now had time to look it over.

From 8 Sidor's Ikeas grundare är död:

Ikea's Founder is Dead

News has spread throughout the world that the famous business owner, Ingvar Kamprad, has died. He was 91.

His company, Ikea, is known for inexpensive furniture that we buy in flat packages. Then we put it together in our home.

Today Ikea has more than 300 stores in 43 countries. 150,000 people work there.

Ingvar Kamprad was known for caring a lot about costs, including having factories in countries with low wages.

Ikea made Kamprad one of the richest people in the world. He liked to show that he lived a simple life, despite all his money. But to avoid paying taxes in Sweden, he lived in Switzerland for many years.

Over the years, Ingvar Kamprad got a lot of flak, including because he liked Nazism when he was young. He had said that he regretted it.

During the last few years, Ingvar Kamprad lived in Älmhult in Småland. That was where he started Ikea years ago in 1943.


A number of

This is interesting timing because, as I said in my last post, I wanted to discuss the issue of what seems like a collective noun, "a number of," and whether it should be "is" or "are." And this week, someone was writing something at work, and he asked me if he should say "a number of is or are." After we had a brief conversation about it, I told him it should be "a number is," but now I realized I was wrong (but maybe it was right for the context? I don't remember what the sentence was; it made sense at the time).

I encounter "number of" many times in my work (usually "the number of") and saw "a number of" recently in something I had to copy edit. I hesitated when I saw that because it's very tempting to use "is" due to focusing on the first part of the sentence, which is "a number." But the Oxford Living Dictionary says it's supposed to be are: "A number of people are waiting for the bus." But that makes sense to me, too, because "people" is close to "are" and it sounds right.

But it's not enough for something to just "sound right" when writing or editing, because it's more formal than speaking, and we can usually break the rules in spoken English.

According to Editage, "Do not be misled by the indefinite article a in that expression: the expression is always used to indicate more than one of something and therefore takes a plural noun and a plural verb."

They also discuss "the number of," and now that I'm thinking of it, I see it way more often, which pretty much everyone says should be singular, such as "the number of plants in each pot was 25." In that case I've been right, and I'm glad my instincts were correct.

After much thought and online searching, I think I found the best explanation for this phrase at ESL Library: "a number of means many...it is serving the same role in the sentence as a quantifier such as 'many,' 'a lot of,' 'lots of,' 'hundreds of,' etc."

So from now on, I won't think twice about making "a number of" plural! I feel like I've read the equivalent of a booklet on that topic!


A variety of is or are?

I've been proofreading and copy editing and just analyzing English for years, but sometimes I get stuck on collective nouns. For instance, I recently saw "A variety of methods was used." That seems correct because the focus on the sentence is "a variety." Just in case, though, I did a search online, and the conflicting information is worrisome. Many articles and books have "was used," so it seems legitimate. But when I did a search for "were used," there are many articles using that as well. So what's the correct usage?

Well, if I were to use "variety" related to the articles and books I found, I would say "a variety of articles and books show" instead of "a variety of articles and books shows" because I want to emphasize the plurality of "articles and books" instead of "variety," which is singular. I guess that falls in to the "proximity agreement" concept, because I'm "relying on the noun that is closest to the verb to determine whether the verb is singular or plural."

I ended up keeping "A variety of methods was used" because I felt that the emphasis was on "variety." But if it said "A variety of methods were used," I probably would've kept that as well, because it "sounds right" and a lot of people online seem to agree. Many sources say that if it's preceded by "the," then "variety of" would be singular. But if it's "a," then it's not.

So am I wrong? I don't think so, because I still think the emphasis is on "variety," plus "of..." is a preposition, and it seems like prepositions create subsets of the main subject. But according to language nerds discussing this stuff online, I'm wrong because it's "a." And what doesn't help is that the Oxford learner dictionary seems to contradict itself; they say (ha ha, I'm breaking the grammar rule here; I should say "it says") "There is a wide variety of..." but later on they say "A plural verb is needed after a/an (large, wide, etc.) variety of...A variety of reasons were given."

I like Grammar Girl's explanation; it seems more forgiving: "Some people get tripped up when a prepositional phrase comes after a collective noun that is the subject of a sentence. For example, if you're talking about 'a large group of students,' 'group' is the collective noun and the subject of the sentence; however, it's easy to get distracted by the prepositional phrase 'of students' because it sounds plural. The thing to remember is that the verb takes its cue from the subject of the sentence--'a large group'--and not from the prepositional phrase that modifies the subject. In cases like this, just ignore the prepositional phrase 'of students' and take your cue from the real subject: 'a large group'.”

So according to GG, I'm correct. Plus American English (which I'm a native speaker of [of which I'm a native speaker]) uses the singular, while Brits use plural. And just to make sure, I asked a writing group that I sometimes meet with what they think, and all of them agree with what I did.

Thus I think I made the right decision, though I'm still struggling with "a number of," which I'll discuss in another post.