The redhead’s red pen: Furthering your back-to-school readiness

One of my faithful readers responded to last week’s call for grammar questions with this challenge: farther vs. further. That can be deceptively tough to answer.

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Some sticky grammar problems lead me to the OED.

After consulting the Web and two of the trustiest dictionaries I could get my hands on (OED and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary), I’m not surprised this one stumps many of us.

Popular usage rules dictate that you would use farther for measurable distances and further for anything else. Notice I say popular usage rules. You see, as with many English grammar rules, further vs. farther is more—or possibly less—complicated than I realized.

Here are some examples of the correct way to use these two words in popular usage:

Barbara ran farther than she did yesterday, while Hope did not run far at all.

Further, Barbara runs every day, while Hope takes some days off.

Barbara’s running is further aided by good genes and no injuries.

I’ll note that as I type this post, WordPress’ spell checker has flagged farther in the example above.

Keep reading for more examples—complete with pretty pictures—and a brief tour of the rabbit hole I fell into when I cracked open my parents’ OED (the version that fits into two volumes of microscopic text and comes with its own magnifying glass.) Continue reading

The redhead’s red pen: It’s back-to-school time

Have you started seeing signs of the season? It’s definitely nearing the start of a new school year. Mall store fronts are swapping out summer neons for autumn’s more subdued colors. Shoe stores have tucked sandals away in the sale section and put kids’ sneakers right up front. Even my inbox is showing signs of school just around the corner.

I know this is not my usual kind of post, but as I’m editing my first book, I’m thinking way too much about my days as a teacher and some of the common grammar and spelling mistakes I corrected time and again on students’ papers.

I know those of you who read my blog are already smarty pants (and I mean that in a good way), but we can all benefit from a review of some common rules occasionally. When I was teaching, I saw some mistakes so often that I still have to stop and think about certain words before I write them, words that used to come to me with ease. So don’t feel too badly about yourself if you make mistakes every now and then. You have probably seen them wrong in plenty enough places to make you question what you thought you knew.

So let’s get ready for school together over the next few weeks and review some common writing mistakes. Today’s lesson focuses on it’s and its.

It’s = It is, as in It’s hot and humid today.

Its = possessive, as in Even the dog gave up its usual spot in the sun because its brown fur made it too warm.

If you’re a texter, you may fight this one daily, as Apple has decided to try to wipe out its from the face of the earth by auto-correcting all cases of it to it’s. In the case of these two words, Apple chose the more common way texters would mean it: the contraction of it is. You’ve got it made if you’re texting a friend about a new restaurant and want to say, “It’s on the corner.” But you have to go on the defensive if you want to text, “Its vegan coconut pie is 2 die 4.” Apple will make you go out of your way to be correct with that one. And then you’ve lost all the time you saved by typing 2 and 4 instead of their words.

Contractions take out a letter or letters and combine two words, and the apostrophe’s job with contractions is to mark where the missing letter(s) would go. In a sense, the apostrophe bandages the two combined words together. That’s why the contraction of it is needs an apostrophe. It might otherwise fall apart.

Trouble enters into the equation, though, because the apostrophe does double duty, also denoting possession: the redhead’s red pen, the dog’s tennis ball, the store’s back-to-school sale. So using it’s to show a possessive may seem to make sense. But a long, long time ago some committee somewhere had to decide whether the contraction or the possessive had a stronger case for claiming the apostrophe. The possessive its can hold together as a word on its own without the apostrophe, but the contraction for it is needed that bandage or it might fall apart. Thus:

It is → it’s had a greater need for the apostrophe to bandage it together, and therefore it’s > its.

If it helps, think of it this way: the possessive its is so busy possessing whatever word follows it that it can let go of the need to have an apostrophe. So it’s can have the apostrophe to hold itself together.

Now, I’m not one to go around in the world with a red pen (well, maybe inside my head) or a black sharpie or even a bottle of white-out, but I know some word lovers who do. When I saw this card in the bathroom of my very lovely hotel room on a recent stay, I confess. I contemplated getting out a pen to cross out the rogue apostrophe:

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This inn gets kudos for its conservation efforts but earns a demerit for its abuse of the apostrophe. It’s an easy mistake, but it’s worth correcting.

In Lynne Truss’ preface to her fabulous book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, she writes:

I discovered to my horror that most British people do not know their apostrophe from their elbow. “I’m an Oxbridge intellectual,” slurred a chap in Brighton, where we were asking passers-by to “pin the apostrophe on the sentence” for a harmless afternoon chat show. He immediately placed the apostrophe (oh no!) in a possessive “its”. The high-profile editor of a national newspaper made the same mistake on a morning show …

My American correspondents, however, have made it pretty clear that the US is not immune to similar levels of public illiteracy. Carved in stone (in stone, mind you) in a Florida shopping mall one may see the splendidly apt quotation from Euripides, “Judge a tree from it’s fruit: not the leaves”—and it is all too easy to imagine the stone-mason dithering momentarily over that monumental apostrophe, mallet in hand, chisel poised. Can an apostrophe ever be wrong, he asks himself, as he answers “Nah!” and decisively strikes home and the chips fly out. (xx, xxv)

We all make mistakes. Fortunately, most of our mistakes aren’t ones we’ve carved in stone. So go out there armed with knowledge of when to use it’s and when to leave out the apostrophe. Because, yes, sometimes an apostrophe can be wrong.

Is it’s vs. its a word struggle of yours? Do you have another spelling or grammar puzzle you’d like the redhead with the red pen to weigh in on? Please add it to the comments below. It’s the section right below here. You can see its comment box outlined. (Smiles)

Sharing the road

This past Saturday, friends of ours ran a marathon in the mountains. My husband—complete with cow bell and safety vest—volunteered to direct runners (and traffic) at one of the turns in the race. I was in full spectator mode and watched the race from three different spots along the course.

Not all of what I saw thrilled me: for one, the driver of the SUV who blew past my husband and sped toward runners who were in the process of crossing the road to make a turn in the course.

While many races close their courses to vehicular traffic, this particular race does not. It begins on a track and ends on another track, but in between, on curvy mountain roads, there are few places where vehicles aren’t allowed. Signs alert drivers to be aware of runners on the road. And many drivers are more cautious, move over to give runners room, and/or drive slower as they pass the runners. There are a few, though, who don’t give a rip.

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The marathon course includes parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and because it cannot be closed during the race, park rangers step up patrols along the part where runners will be. Volunteers at the turns remind runners to run facing traffic, and for the most part, the runners heed these instructions. But there are some places along the course where the runners have to cross over, dodging cars that could be coming from either direction.

The SUV driver was coming from a direction where she would not yet have encountered runners in the road, but she would have passed caution signs warning of runners ahead. She had not been inconvenienced on her route up until the point where my husband stood in the middle of the road. She would have had to slow down for just four miles (a place where the speed limit is between 35 and 45 anyway), not an onerous amount of time to spend being decent to other human beings. She chose not to be inconvenienced, though. Who cared if these runners were tired? Who cared if they were in a zone and not as alert to their surroundings as they might usually be? Who cared if a car zipped by them too closely and too quickly? She clearly didn’t care.

As drivers, we may find it easy to ignore the fact that actual, live human beings are driving and riding in the cars around us. It’s too easy to dehumanize the other drivers around us. And I’m beginning to wonder if the same isn’t happening with some drivers’ (lack of) regard for cyclists and runners.

Other “objects” out on the road are simply obstacles to be dodged, like some great big real-world video game. Except that they’re not just objects, and you can’t earn more points by getting through the course faster or more recklessly. They’re humans. And the ones who aren’t in cars are more vulnerable.

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When my friend saw this picture, he told me he had no recollection of running by a tractor. The tractor driver was courteous and safe and, therefore, deserving of a gold star.

Running has changed the way I drive and the way I perceive others out on the road, especially runners and cyclists. I have experienced moments in my running when I was so tired I knew I had to be extra careful with traffic. My mental reaction time had slowed because my brain was so focused on the running. When I’m running, my rule is this: never assume the driver sees me. And now when I’m driving: never assume the runner sees me.

Humans have a great capacity for kindness. We have an equally great capacity for being jerks. I’ve seen runners stop during a race to help a fallen runner. I’ve seen runners treat other runners rudely in the way they hog a trail or cut others off at a turn. I’ve seen cyclists stop to let runners pass safely through an intersection, and I’ve seen cyclists completely ignore runners, cars, other cyclists and stop signs so they won’t have to slow down.

We’re free to drive/cycle/run recklessly, but we’re also free to drive/cycle/run considerately (and only one of those deserves a ticket from the park ranger). We’re free to be kind, or we’re free to be insensitive. It’s up to each individual. I just wish more would choose the path of kindness and common decency. Like it or not, we’re all in this together.

 

Gone fishin’

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I hope y’all won’t mind me taking a vacation day today. I’ll be back next week after some much-needed recharging of the batteries.

I haven’t literally gone fishin’. I went fishing once with my dad when I was little, and despite enjoying the boat ride and the time with him, I didn’t care much for hooking the bait or watching the fish writhe at the end of the hook. My husband also reminded me that I couldn’t literally go fishin’ because I don’t have a fishing license.

So I’ve gone fishin’ figuratively. What are the ways you go fishin’ when you need to unwind and recharge?

Star-struck

“USA! USA! USA!” Those chants filled my TV yesterday, as I watched the US team succumb to Belgium in the World Cup round of death. I’ve never been a soccer fan (can’t quite call it football yet), but for some reason, this year, I watched as many of USA’s matches as I could. Maybe it was because of the hilarious commentary from Men in Blazers—a British duo that made me laugh and comprehend and hope for a long Team USA run in this World Cup. They seemed more patriotic about American football than most Americans I know. They made me crave cupcakes, too. (Fortunately, I haven’t caved to that craving yet, as I’m still trying to shed pounds from that cheese-laden trip to Vermont.)

But y’all know by now that soccer isn’t likely to replace my favorite sport: track and field. My husband and I journeyed to Sacramento this past weekend to see the US Track and Field National Championships. This is considered an off year because there are no Olympics or World Championships later in the season. It’s the only year in a four-year cycle that this happens. Nonetheless, we enjoyed attending this championship meet.

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The women’s 10,000 meter race. Kim Conley (in the coral shorts, hip 17) won the race.

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The men’s 5,000 meters. Bernard Lagat (hip 8, 4th from right) went on to win the race.

Some of the races are harder to cheer for than others. I mean, how do you cheer for one runner when there are three or four you’d love to see win? The men’s 5,000 was like that for me Friday night. If we had stayed for the men’s 1500, that race would have been even harder for me to pick who to cheer for.

Continue reading