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As this is the first day of school in many places, the inner grammar teacher in me emerges. What does it mean to "like" someone? Have you noticed that when people or organizations ask you to "like" them on Facebook, the word "like" is always in quotation marks? In this posting, the word "like" is in quotation marks because I am referencing something someone else has mentioned and I am attributing that. However, "Like us on Facebook", listed as itself, is an imperative statement; that is, it is telling the reader to do something, to wit, to show approval of some statement or page on Facebook. Whatever the merits of "like" (offset to indicate separate identity) as a verb or "liking" as a participle, the quotation marks in "'Like' us on Facebook" are terribly misused.

We are often told that the United States is a democracy. This simply isn't true. In a democracy, everyone votes for everything. This is a completely unworkable system, except in small towns. We are, rather, a republic. This word comes from the Latin "Res Publica", which means "Public Thing", that is, the public has the say in determining who its decision makers are. We elect congressmen and senators to develop laws for us, for example, and we also have a say in deciding who our president is. Please understand that we have only a say. We do not elect our president directly. Our constitution established something called the "Electoral College". On election day, as the constitution is written, we elect "Electors" who will then go to Washington DC and cast ballots on our behalf. In most states there is a "winner take all" system, under which the person who receives the most votes in a state receives all of the electors pledged... read more

There are many works of art that are considered “classic”. What makes a book or play a “classic”? There seem to be no real set criteria, except to identify certain things that works of literature have in common. A “classic” play, for example, tells a great story and tells it well. We look at Shakespeare’s plays, for example, and they tell stories of love excitement, betrayal, and comedy. They tell them extraordinarily well, and include beautiful language as well as some of the most outrageous puns ever written. Mercutio’s line, in Romeo and Juliet, is a case in point. When asked how badly he is wounded, he replies, “...not as wide as a barn nor as deep as a well, but ‘twill suffice, ‘twill do...”, and on realizing that he is dying says, “…seek me tomorrow and you will find a grave man...” It is a terribly sad scene, but it is hilarious, too. Even if a work is popular in its own time, it is not necessarily a classic. A gentleman named Edward George Bulwer-Lytton was a very... read more

Saudi Arabia is not exactly a plain; it is rather a plateau. It rises from sea level on the Gulf coast, near Jubail and the oil-producing areas, continues to rise gently until it reaches an area just before the coast near the Red Sea. On the mountains are the two holy cities: Meccah and Medinah. Somewhat between them is the vacation city of Taif. By law, non-Muslims are not allowed in either holy city, and there are armed checkpoints that ensure only Muslims get through. The roads were strange. We would drive along a well-paved highway that would suddenly no longer exist as a highway, but would instead become a city street. More than once we had to ask for directions, which was an interesting trick when you don't speak Arabic. Usually some kind person would make gestures for us to follow him and he would lead us to where the highway began again. It is a tenet of Islam that a good Muslim helps people in need. There is no question that many Muslims received much helping... read more

I was driving down Tidewater Drive in Norfolk and spotted an Ohio license plate. The plate read "Birthplace of Aviation". Being so close to North Carolina, we can see many license plates that read, "First in Flight". OK, who is correct? It's really quite simple: the Wright brothers assembled the parts for their flyer, if not the flyer itself in Dayton, Ohio. The first mechanical flight took place in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on the plane built in Ohio. I submit that there is plenty of glory to go around. Why do we care about who was first in these things anyway? It's just one more way that we can get angry with each other, and we have enough of those to go around, too. Remember, I said it first.

An “infinitive” is a verb without tense. By this, we mean there is no time attached to the verb. “Walk”, for example, is present tense, that is, “I walk”, “You walk”, and “He/She/It walks”. “Walked” would be the past tense: “I walked”, “You walked”, “He/She/It walked”. The present perfect tense would be “I have walked”, “You have walked”, “He/She/It has walked”. Infinitives, however, have no real tense, not even pup tense (sorry). They exist outside of time. The infinitive form of “walk” is “to walk”, and when a person is speaking formally and explaining a verb, he will refer to the infinitive. An example of this is the following sentence: “’Walked’ is the past tense of the verb ‘to walk’.” A split infinitive occurs when a word, usually an adverb, comes between “to” and the verb. “To quickly run” is an example of a split infinitive. Split infinitives are considered grammatically incorrect. “To run quickly” is the correct usage. One of the most famous split infinitives... read more

One of the most wonderful things about Microsoft applications is that they can do so many marvelous things. Conversely, one of the most awful things about Microsoft applications is that they can do so many marvelous things. The reason behind this paradox is that the person using the application becomes so caught up in what the application can do that he forgets why he was using the application in the first place. PowerPoint is a classic example. It is easy to use and it can provide great visual aides. The best live presentations are where the speaker addresses the point and uses PowerPoint to reinforce the point. In teaching geography, for example, the speaker might say, "There are three great mountain ranges along the Eastern United States: The Alleghany Mountains, which are to the north, the Appalacians, which are more central, and the Great Smokeys, which extend from the Appalacian range to the south." The PowerPoint slide would put up, in order (1) Alleghany,... read more

I can't believe what I just read. This week's Parade magazine (8/12/2012) gave a series of questions about "how we learn". This one caught my eye: "Next week your daughter has to give a big speech. The best way for her to prepare is to: (a) Look over her notes a few times. (b) Quiz herself, trying to recall the material from memory. or (c) Read outloud from her presentation outline. The answer they gave was (b), Quizzing herself. What unmitigated and absolute rot! The best way to prepare for a speech is to (here's a big surprise!) practice delivering the speech. It is not enough to know things, as this article asserts; it is important to be able to present what you know. This means that you must not only summon information up from memory; you must also know how to present it. Professor Harold Hill may have presented "Thinkology", but it truly is not enough to think the minuet. You must also practice. Parade has done everyone a disservice....

We are told that language evolves, but it is probably more accurate to say that we actively change language. One example is the word "contact". "Contact" began life as a simple noun, meaning "touch" or "in close proximity". An example is "I had contact with him." We were accustomed to say "make contact" when we wanted to discuss proximity or some form of touch. Over time, people began to simply to say "contact", such as "I will contact you later." The usage is so common now that very few people seem to care and those who do come across as pedantic. A more recent evolution is "disrespect". "Disrespect" has functioned as a noun that means "lack of courtesy" or rudeness". It, too, is evolving into a verb, such as "He disrespected me, " as opposed to "He showed me disrespect." Its shortened form is "diss". The luddite in me cringes... read more

The apostrophe must be the most abused piece of punctuation in all of English Grammar. I was walking along a strip-mall and saw this amazing sight: "DVD's on sale". "DVD's" what? This is a terrible misuse of a very valuable piece of punctuation. There are two uses for the apostrophe: 1) To denote a contraction, and 2) To denote possession (usually). First, the contraction: We use the apostrophe to mash two words into a contraction; "I have" becomes "I've" or "He would" becomes "He'd". In each case, the apostrophe indicates a missing set of letters. Less commonly, it appears at the beginning of a word, such as "It was" becoming "'twas". The apostrophe is also used to indicate possession. You might say "John's bicycle" or "The cat's meow". This is a singular possession. If the possessive word is plural, the apostrophe appears outside of the room, such as "Three year's... read more

Percy Ross, the millionaire who gave away his entire fortune, was once asked how someone could become a successful commercial speaker. Mr. Ross' answer was short, sweet, and to the point: "Have something to say." As obvious as this advice is, it is often ignored. We all have something to say, certainly, but we don't always know how to say it. One serious problem is that the speaker tries to say too much in a single speech. This is a mistake, because the hearer gets lost in the verbal barrage. A good speaker makes no more than three serious points in a ten-minute speech. Crucially, it is not what is said, but how it is said that matters the most.

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