Odds and ends

As the semester winds down, the quality of English I’m seeing in student writing is way up. No wonder: by now, you’ve been living in New York for the better part of a year, and there’s only one better way to pick up a language: have a significant other who’s a native speaker. You may want to work on that over the summer.

So this post will tie up some loose ends. (That’s an idiom meaning to complete a task by dealing with the small details.) That is, it will answer some of the questions from this semester that didn’t get a post of their own.

Read this, everybody

From Elena Popina: “If I say, ‘Hello Diane,’ do I need a comma?”

Yes, you do. Grammatically speaking, it’s called the vocative case, from the Latin root vocare, to call. When you address someone directly using his/her name or  a substitute for the name, set it off from the rest of thee sentence with commas:

Hello, Diane.

Thanks, Mom.

Hey, dude!

It’s the same principle as parenthetical phrases, those you could lift right out of the sentence (or put in parentheses, hence the name) without doing any damage to its meaning:

By the way, registration has been postponed until next week.

The class schedule, however, has not changed.

Thanks, Lena.



I had hoped to write a full post on danglers, but I haven’t seen enough of them this semester — great! Just be on the lookout for them in your writing.

Dangle means “to hang loosely,” according to merriamwebster.com. In English, a dangling modifier (dangler for short) is an adjective or a phrase that hangs loosely on a sentence, generally because it’s misplaced. Remember last fall’s post fall on pronouns and antecedents, which stressed that the link between them must always be clear? The same applies to danglers.

An example from student work:

New York lawmakers recently proposed to raise the smoking age. If passed, New York will become the first state where tobacco products can be sold only to adults.

If New York passed? That’s what the sentence says — and that’s a dangler.  If passed, in this sentence, modifies New York, when the writer meant the proposal. So:

If the proposal (or bill) passes, New York will become . . .

If a new smoking age is passed, New York will become . . .

This one is technically not quite a dangler, but close:

By contracting as a corporate user, Uniqlo employees will be able to use the app without buying it.  

The employees won’t contract as a corporate user; Uniqlo, the corporation will. Better:

By contracting as a corporate user, Uniqlo will enable its employees to use the app without buying it.


If Uniqlo contracts as a corporate user, its employees will be able to use the app without buying through markets. 

I have high hopes of finding more danglers when the class of  ’14 starts turning in copy. Stay tuned.


Seems what?
“He seems haven’t been doing well,”  a student wrote last semester. But then he had second thoughts and asked me about how use seem when talking about the past.
The past of seem is. of course, seemed: He seemed happy yesterday.  But that assumes seems is followed by an adjective. When a verb form follows, seem takes an infinitive, i.e., to + verb:
He seems to be doing well.
He seems not to be doing well.
If the seeming and the doing are both past:
He seemed (in the past) to be doing well.
He seemed not to be doing well. 
And now, the tricky one, mixing past and present:
He seems to be doing well.
He seems not to be doing well.
Fewer is more
“I want to take less classes next semester,” a student wrote some time ago. Actually, she wanted to take fewer classes. What’s the difference?
If you can count whatever the noun is, use fewer. If you can’t, use less:
I want to take fewer classes so I’ll be under less pressure.
Classes are countable, you take a number of classes. Pressure can’t be counted, so there’s a certain amount of pressure on you.  You’d never say the number of pressure, and don’t say amount of classes, either.
* * *
Next Friday, May 17, will be my last regular office hours of spring semester. Come by to say hello before you go off for the summer. And bear in mind that I’ll be available over the summer, in person or by e-mail, to help with any questions about English that may arise during your internship. Good luck!


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