Talking About Family: Merry Commamas!

Grammar Cat loves the holidays.

Our favorite part is visiting family. Unfortunately, some people aren’t so good with writing about their family afterward. So let’s do a quick review on how to talk about people, both individually and in groups.

Setting Off Nonessential Information

When information in a sentence doesn’t need to be there for the meaning of the sentence to stay the same, it’s called “nonessential.” This sort of information is set off by commas on either side (unless it ends a sentence, in which case it’s preceded by a comma and followed by your terminal punctuation of choice).  For example:

The cat rolled onto its back, like it always does, and tried to scratch my arm.

Can you spot the nonessential information? I’ll give you a hint: it’s set off by commas. The sentence describes the exact same thing if the nonessential information is removed:

The cat rolled onto its back and tried to scratch my arm.

Now let’s consider nonessential information in respect to your family, because goodness knows holidays spent with the family can easily become a verbal onslaught of nonessential information.

When talking about or introducing people, there is usually the component of nonessential information. Say you come from a large Italian family and you have a handful of Aunt Marias. How do you successfully relate to your mother which one of them has had too much eggnog and is hitting on the neighbor? Well, you could say, “Mom, Aunt Maria who has the drinking problem is hitting on the neighbor again,” assuming that there is only one Aunt Maria with a drinking problem. Because the “who has a drinking problem” is essential information to identify the exact Aunt Maria who is going to be a hot topic at the next HOA meeting, it doesn’t need to be set off by commas.

But the situation can change in a way where a comma after “Maria” does become necessary. “Mom, Aunt Maria, who I already told you was a bad idea to invite, is passed out on the lawn.” This example assumes that Mom knows exactly which Maria is pulling the shenanigans, and the “who” clause is just a bit of rubbing in her face that you totally called Aunt Maria’s behavior. While gloating is nice, it’s nonessential information in that situation.

So what about introductions? There’s essential and nonessential information in those, too. Please consider:

“This is my brother, Will, and his wife, who came all the way from New Jersey.” 

This first example asserts that the speaker has only one brother, making the name of Will nonessential to identifying who this is (in this case, it’s also an appositive). It also allows for the cultural norm of Will only having one wife, and that wife is from New Jersey.

Now consider:

“This is my brother Will and his wife who came all the way from New Jersey.”

This introduction implies a slightly different thing. First, it says that the name Will is essential to identifying which brother of the speaker’s is being referenced, meaning the speaker has more than one brother. Secondly, and most importantly, it implies that, while this wife of Will’s has made the journey from NJ, his other wives weren’t able to make it for the holidays.

“You think the other wives know?”

Now say you bring your unsuspecting significant other into a room full of your relatives and it’s time for rapid-fire introductions. First let’s establish a few things about your family, giving insight to what the heck is about to happen:

You have two cousin Freds, but one is in Iraq.

Uncle Jerry spent three years in prison.

You only have one sister and her name is Sally.

You have a nephew whose name you can never remember.

You only have one living grandma and she made your significant other the hideous sweater he or she is currently wearing.

Ready? Here goes the awkward introduction:

“This is my uncle Fred who isn’t in Iraq. This is Uncle Jerry, who spent three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.” You wink at Uncle Jerry and hope it’s enough to guarantee your safety for another year. “And this is my sister, Sally, and her son”—is it Jayden? Braydon? Caedon?—”and this is my grandma, who sent you that lovely sweater you’re wearing right now.”

Capitalizing Family Titles

Let’s talk about capitalization for a minute. We all know that proper nouns are capitalized: Sally, Jerry, Fred, etc. When it comes to titles like uncle, aunt, cousin, niece, and nephew, things get a little trickier. A few things to know:

If the familial title is used in place of the person’s actual name, then it is capitalized.

Why won’t Grandma stop petting her cat for one second?

If Dad would just stop pestering Mom, we might have a pleasant meal for once.

When the familial title appears before the name, it is capitalized.

You see what Uncle Jim is doing over there? What a weirdo.

I wish Grandpa Smith would stop spouting off racist things.

When the familial title follows a possessive pronoun, do not capitalize.

My dad says to take off the dress and stop your crying.

Your aunt Maria sure does love eggnog.

To celebrate the holidays, Grammar Cat will leave you with a slew of holiday cat pictures.

Sorry there aren’t more Kwanzaa cats. Blame the internet.

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If You Want Me to Understand the Sentence, Maybe You Could Put the Words in the Right Order.

We have our first requested topic:

My cat is fascinated with dangling modifiers, and pretty much anything else dangling, but my professor, who is normally very much like a cat, is not a fan at all. What are they and who should I believe?

-Osten

Osten makes a good point: dangling modifiers, like other dangling things, are highly attractive to cats. But Grammar Cats know better than the fall for the ploy.

cat with string

WHAT IS THIS MAGICAL BEING?

Dangling modifiers come in many flavors:

Stepping out through the cat door, the bird hit the cat in the face.

The bird clamped in his mouth, all his friends were jealous of the cat’s hunting skills.

The cat looked at the bird, chasing its tail.

Tall, dark, and handsome, the bird was very impressed by the cat.

You will notice these sentences have one thing in common: each contains a phrase that should be connected to a particular word in the sentence, but is instead connected to something else. That phrase is the dangling modifier. Why dangling? Maybe because it’s not attached to the word it’s supposed to be attached to. Or maybe because that’s kind of how it feels to read it, like you’re dangling.

cat

Like this, but less comfortable.

On the off chance that you see nothing wrong with those example sentences, let me break this down.

First example: Stepping out through the cat door, the bird hit the cat in the face.

Stepping out through the cat door must refer to the cat, because birds do not go through cat doors (the very idea!). But as soon as your eyes slide from the participle phrase, where do they land? On the bird. A reader ignorant in the ways of cats would assume the bird is the one stepping out through the cat door, which is preposterous.

Second example: The bird clamped in his mouth, all his friends were jealous of the cat’s hunting skills.

The friends don’t have a bird clamped in their mouths; otherwise why would they be jealous? But even once readers work out that the phrase must refer to the cat, there’s no noun to which we can attach the bird clamped in his mouth. “The cat’s hunting skills” aren’t holding a bird in its (their?) mouth either.

Third example: The cat looked at the bird, chasing its tail.

Either the cat or the bird could be chasing its tail. Birds don’t really chase their tails, but how would you know from the sentence?

Fourth example: Tall, dark, and handsome, the bird was very impressed by the cat.

Tall, dark, and handsome appears to be grammatically attached to the bird. In fact, those ignorant readers might float along, believing it does refer to the bird. This is obviously incorrect, as cats alone can be tall, dark, and handsome, but the sentence doesn’t point the reader in that direction.

cat

Wait! But what if the introductory phrase can only refer to one noun in the sentence, just not the nearest noun?

That’s a good question, cat that’s making a face at me. Let’s say we have a sentence like:

With his furry tail and long whiskers, Mrs. Bird knew Mr. Cat was a fine specimen of god’s greatest creature.

Obviously “furry tail and long whiskers” does not refer to the bird. Furthermore, the “his” in the prepositional phrase tells us that this must refer to the male creature in the sentence, which would be Mr. Cat. Though the phrase is grammatically attached to the bird, deduction can tell us it describes the cat.

So sure, readers can figure it out. But why make them work any harder? If you are an author, your readers’ poor, feeble brains are overtaxed by the broad reach of your vocabulary. If you’re Osten, your professor is annoyed to have been woken from his extensive napping regimen in order to grade a paper. Don’t make them struggle to figure out what you’re talking about.

cat

F minus.

To avoid angering a cat/your professor, restructure the sentence to place the offending phrase closer to what it’s intended to modify. Here are our original examples with the former dangling modifier in bold:

As the cat stepped out through the cat door, he was hit in the face by a bird. (The cat, not the bird, steps through the cat door.)

While chasing his tail, the cat looked at the bird. (Now it’s clearly the cat’s tail, not the bird’s.)

With his tail held high, the cat impressed all the ladies. (The cat’s tail is held high.)

The bird was very impressed by the cat, who was tall, dark, and handsome. (Damn straight.)

cat

Tall, Dark, and Handsome Cat is pleased to meet you.

As these examples illustrate, restructuring a sentence is sometimes either necessary or expedient to avoid other problems. The first example, for instance, could have been revised by simply switching “bird” and “cat,” like so: Stepping out through the cat door, the cat was hit in the face by a bird. But now we have passive voice, and guess what? Cat professors don’t like that either.

cat

Do you have a topic for the Grammar Cat? Send us your questions here.

Aside

Simple Tenses: They Don’t Have to Make You Tense

Events tend to happen in a linear fashion, unless you’re from Tralfamadore. We mere Earthlings have to tell stories with some semblance of respect for chronology. It’s because of this that learning how and when to use each tense is to your advantage.  Here’s a visual aid that I most definitely didn’t spend an hour slaving over in Paintbrush.

Tense Timeline

If the timeline tells us one thing, it is that cats always want what they can’t have. If it tells us two things, it should be that cats always want what they can’t have and that time works in a linear fashion and can be broken down into a specific sequence of events that we can naturally identify based on auxiliary verbs and verb forms.

Behold. The greediest of God’s creatures.

Let’s talk about the tenses individually so that we don’t confuse a cat. For fear of this blog repeating itself, let’s be brief on past perfect, since Julia has already eloquently explained it here.

The following explanations use examples of simple tenses, not continuous tenses, which will eventually get their own post.

Past Perfect Tense

When you’re talking about something that has happened, like a kitten’s watery eyes boring into your soul because it just wants that cookie so bad, you may encounter a situation where you need to provide some background for why the kitten is in your kitchen, because you don’t own a kitten. So you have your simple past: “This kitten stared at me with watery eyes.” But then your friends are staring at you openmouthed because you don’t own a kitten and they suspect you may have started stealing again, you klepto. Well, guess what? The past perfect is about to save your social reputation. “I had left the door open that morning to let in some fresh air, and a kitten walked in.” Your friends might be skeptical, but at least you gave them an explanation.

Late-20s-break-up-live-in-Scared-kitten

“I was just sitting in my front yard when the human ran up and snatched me…”

Past Tense

When you tell a story, your basic tense—the one where the majority of the action happens—will be past tense. There are a few exceptions to this, like:

  1. If you’re clairvoyant and are telling someone their future: My spirit guide wants me to tell you that a cat will pee on your shoe when the next full moon rises.
  2. If you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book: You walk down the empty corridor and look to your left. Down the hall are identical twin kittens staring at you…but there haven’t been kittens in this building for eighteen years. If you want to run, turn to page…
  3. If you’re prefacing your story with a previous action (see the section on past perfect that you just read and should understand by now).

The narrator’s norm should be past tense, basically. So on the timeline above, the You Are Here for a narrator will generally be not at the present tense, but at the past tense and shift in either direction from there.

Cats don’t understand the You Are Here on a map.

Present Tense

This is the most happening of tenses.

Right. Sorry. No more puns.

The present tense is pretty handy. It can point out things that are happening right now. The most important use may be the warning.

“Watch out! There is a guard cat flying at your head!”

“Ach! Thwarted again by the present tense!”

We live in the present tense. Crazy, right? The present tense is, like, now. Don’t let it blow your mind. We tend to talk in the present tense when we talk about ourselves, which is most of the time. “I think,” “I like,” and “I want” are useful present tense tools. There’s not much more to say about it. I feel like it’s pretty easy to grasp. If you’re confused…sorry?

Present Perfect Tense

This tense, like all of the other perfect tenses, can generally fall anywhere during a particular range of time. For the present perfect, the event described will fall anywhere between the past tense and the present tense. It’s like the shortstop of tenses because it covers the the space in between those two points. The beginning of the verb could have started anywhere in the past, but the action or effects of that verb last until the present. Here is how it works versus the past tense.

Past tense: The kitten ate the cookie.

Present perfect tense: The kitten has eaten the cookie.

The difference between these two is that, while the present perfect talks about something that is in the past, it points toward the present. Imagine, if you will, that the present perfect event is a magic trick where the magician is making a cat disappear. There’s a process involved in that—put the cat in a box, rotate the box, allow magic to take place—but at some point between when the box is closed and when it’s opened, disappearing takes place. Now imagine the magician presenting this amazing feat: “Ladies and gentleman, the cat has vanished.” Any time you have trouble remembering what the present perfect is, ask yourself if a magician would use it to announce what has happened. Hopefully present perfect tense will seem wildly more entertaining to you with this new magic-related association.

Cats love purr-esent purr-fect. And magic.

Future Perfect Tense

The placement of future perfect on the timeline can be tricky, because you can’t go straight to it from present tense. Future perfect can only be used if it’s paired with the future tense (similar to how past perfect relates to past). For this reason, let’s skip over it, move onto future tense, and then come back.

Future Tense

Travel into the future with me for a second.

“I’m already there…here…in the future.”

No, astronaut grammar cat, not actually traveling into the future, because if we spoke about things in the future while we were in the future, then we would just be speaking about the present.

The future tense is handy because talking about things to come helps prepare us for things to come. For example,

  1. That kitten will grow up to be a cat.
  2. Your litter box will smell terrible when you get home.
  3. The Catfather will set you straight.

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Good point, Catfather. While “will” is often used as the auxiliary verb to indicate that an event takes place in the future, there are other words that indicate the same thing. For example, “going to” (or “gonna” if you’re a lazy typist).

Here are a few other forms for talking about the future, using the subject “I” and the phrase “bathe the cat”:

  1. I shall bathe the cat.
  2. I am to bathe the cat.
  3. I am about to bathe the cat.
  4. I must go bathe the cat.
  5. I should go bathe the cat.
  6. I can go bathe the cat.
  7. I might go bathe the cat.

“You shall NOT bathe the cat.”

Future Perfect Tense (second attempt)

Now that we’ve ventured into the future tense, we can travel back from the future into the future perfect. This one works a lot like the past perfect. It’s used for talking about something that has happened between the present and the future. Yes, technically it is in the future itself, but it’s the present’s future, and the future’s past. This is something that will [indicating the future] have happened [notice the past tense verb]. Referring back to the timeline, we have the future of the kitten wanting milk, but before that, it will eat a cookie.

So, Before you know it, the kitten will have eaten its cookie and it will want some milk.

Putting it All Together

So it should all be clear, right?

Here’s the timeline again:

Tense Timeline

Now working off the examples of that timeline, we can create a short story (I used the word “story” loosely here, because nothing interesting actually happens). The story:

The kitten wants a cookie [present]. In fact, it has wanted [present perfect] one for quite some time. Before the kitten wanted a cookie [simple past], it had wanted a brownie [past perfect]. Before you know it, the kitten will have eaten the cookie [future perfect] and it will want some milk [simple future].

“Enough of your yapping. Give me a damn cookie already.”

Official Endorsement: Our Style Guide

hell yes CMoS
Grammar Cat is too broke for the 16th edition.

If you were wondering, we here at Grammar Cat have sworn blood oaths to the Chicago Manual of Style, namely because it is a thing of such beauty that even cats are wonderstruck in its presence.

If, however, you see us refer to CMoS, we are speaking of the Cat Manual of Style. Obviously.

Exclamation Point Etiquette: Please Stop Yelling at Me

Have you ever been at a party and there’s that one girl who is constantly yelling things like, “Oh my god! Shut up!” and “She is such a slut!”? If you despise that girl as much as we at Grammar Cat do, then this is a post you’re going to want to pay attention to, because the written world has “that girl,” too. Only, when it comes to print, it’s not the harpy’s piercing voice that does the damage; it’s the exclamation point.

Don’t be this cat.

The whole “indoor voices” thing we’re taught in elementary school never actually stops being relevant. People who yell all the time will inevitably find themselves alone at some point. In a similar vein, people who use exclamation points all the time will eventually stop being read.

Obviously there’s a reason this punctuation mark was created, but like any good tool, it can be used against its handler fairly easily.

Let’s start off with why it’s useful. The exclamation point is a way for a writer to tell a reader that something is being said emphatically or in a high volume.

Here are some examples of things worth shouting about:

“Either the cat goes or I want a divorce!”

“That kitten is driving a car!”

“Everyone watch out! That cat has a gun!”

These are all things where you would probably be pretty understanding about all the yelling (if not yelling yourself, in the case of the third example). Notice this is all dialogue. Also notice that if this list went on for too much longer, you would probably tire of all the yelling, regardless of if it seemed warranted or not.

Let’s talk about exclamation points in narration. Here’s a good rule of thumb: don’t freaking use them.

BUT WHAT IF THE NARRATOR IS YELLING?!

The narrator shouldn’t be yelling. That’s not the narrator’s job. The narrative voice isn’t some sort of warm-up act for the conflict and characters. It doesn’t need to point out things like, The characters’ actions were so zany, guys! If your narrator is doing that, your characters aren’t doing their jobs.

But what if it’s first-cat narration?

If you’re writing first-person narration, you’re probably facing a litter-box load of other challenges, so it may be best to avoid making your narrator “that girl” by having her yell all the time. It doesn’t matter if your narrator is a little unstable, either. Take, for example, the infamous unreliable narrator Holden Caulfield. His narration doesn’t use exclamation points, proving that even a horny sixteen-year-old boy has sense enough to take it easy with the stabbiest of punctuation.

But it isn’t an exclamation point free-for-all when it comes to dialogue. Just like listening to a shouting match in real life is tiring, reading a shouting match in print—and all the !!! that goes along with it—can become stressful and irritating. If you find that your characters are shouting at each other a lot, there are a few things to consider:

  1. Could these characters possibly mix sarcasm or passive aggression into the interaction to avoid all the shouting?
  2. Why do these characters hate each other so much?
  3. Would there have been a wiser place to set the story besides an airplane runway?
  4. Do I, as the author, need too seek help for unresolved conflicts in my life?

But sometimes I get so ANGRY that one exclamation point ISN’T ENOUGH!!!!

If one exclamation point isn’t enough, then it’s time to reword; it’s not time to start tacking on more and more exclamation points. The person who benefits most from this suggestion isn’t the readers but the writer. Once the possibility of more exclamation points is presented, where does an author stop?

“Well, before, the character was angry, so I put one exclamation point, but then he got really angry, so I used two. But now he’s, like, super pissed, so I’m not sure if that’s four exclamation points or five.”

Before you know it, the readers have caught on, too, and are trying to keep track.

“This doesn’t make sense. When his stubbed his toe, he had three exclamation points, but when he told his cheating wife to go to hell, there was only one, even though he was clearly more pissed about his wife than his toe. Only one explanation: TYPO!”

Readers love finding typos.

The exclamation point should be treated like a knife. If you pull it out and start waving it around, people are going to take notice, which can be useful. But don’t pull it out too often or you’ll start to seem reckless and your friends will start avoiding you and having “other plans” every time you want to hit the town. And for god’s sake, don’t give a knife to “that girl.” She’s already had way too much to drink.

I’m so drunk!!!!!!!!!!

The “Perfect” in “Past Perfect” Does Not Refer To How You’ve Been Using It.

Hello, grammar kittens.

I’d like to start off our inaugural post with something that worries my editorial sensibilities deeply: verb tense abuse.

One verb tense in particular. One that drives me insane both when it is used incorrectly and when it’s used correctly but too much:

Past perfect.

cat

But it’s perfect! How can it be wrong for any situation?

And yet it usually is.

Let’s say you’re writing a story in simple past tense. The cats walked down the street, you might write. Walked is in past tense. You go on:

The white cat said, “Something strange happened to me yesterday.”

“What was it?” asked the black cat.

All of this is fine. Your editor is pleased that you have mastered dialogue tags. But then:

“Well,” said the white cat, “I had been walking down the street, just like we are now, and a big, ugly dog had leapt out of a doorway at me. I had puffed up to show it I was a mightier creature, but it had made a noise at me. Then the strange thing had happened: it had flapped its wings at me.”

Now your editor is getting emotional in the margins. She may raise any number of issues, among them:

  • reading a long passage in past perfect like wading through cold molasses*
  • this distances the reader from the action
  • no one talks this way, not even talking cats

also a cat

But wait. The narration is in past tense. The white cat is describing something that happened before that. Shouldn’t it be in past perfect?

While I admire your efforts at logic, no. If we imagine the cat to be a living, breathing (talking) creature, it is thinking present tense. It would say, I am walking down the street. And it would say, Yesterday I walked down the street. Odds are, simple past tense will serve you best. The only time you’d say, I had walked down the street would be to make a comparison (I had walked down the street, but now I prefer to skip) or to differentiate between two distinct periods of time (I had walked down the street weeks earlier, but only yesterday was there a dog).

Which brings me to the next problem:

The dog had actually been a bird, the black cat had said. The white cat’s reference to wings had told the black cat that it had not been a dog. The reference to strange noises, which the white cat had gone on to describe as “chirping,” had confirmed this suspicion.

Overuse past perfect obscures the sequence of events. The black cat’s “had said” takes place a day later than “the dog had been a bird,” but you can’t tell that from the verb tense.

As for the “like wading through cold molasses” part, if you find that you have no choice but to write a long anecdote into your story about events which took place long ago–let’s say you’re being held at gunpoint–you can introduce the anecdote with some past perfect and then fade gently into simple past tense. Do it skillfully enough and the reader will never know and your editor will never have to shank you.**

 

*Whether or not this passage would be readable in any other tense is beyond the scope of this post.

**Gently and with love.