Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Happy National Punctuation Day!

Bet you didn't know you had a reason to celebrate today, right? And of all things, punctuation.

Well, dang it, why not? After all, where would we be without. punctuation; to Keep us, straight!?

Okay, so grab a celebratory cup of hot tea and chunk of chocolate. Then take this little test to see if you're truly a Punct Punk.

Can you find the errors in each sentence? (That is, if there are any.) *Spoiler alert: answers at bottom.

1. Joe's favorite era of music was 1960's Motown back when he was 15. He loves to share his CD's with his BFF's.

2. Watch out for the quicksand; it's enough ... to make you desert your dessert ... in the desert.

3. Andrea yelled, 'I'm leaving', as she slammed the door. 'I hate it when people use "quotations" incorrectly'.

4. Listen gordo if I'd wanted to see lisa in Vermont; I would have called her.

5. I'd like to thank my parents the Pope and Mother Teresa.

6. "Hello John;" she said. "Do you have all your 'ducks in a row'?"

7. I hate it when you think you "own" my opinion.

8. It's beginning to snow. I'd better bring the potted plant inside before it freezes it's new leaves off.

9. Whoa doggies! What a hoot! I can't believe you said that!

10. Oh no. How many times have I told you not to... it's been at least three-thousand-fourteen ...

1. Apostrophes denote possession (Joe's) but are not needed for dates or acronyms (1960s, CDs, BFFs). Also, according to the Chicago Manual of Style, numbers under 100 within dialogue should be spelled out (fifteen) because we don't speak in numerals; always spell out numbers that start a sentence.

2. Ellipses denote pauses longer than a period (and are not appropriate in this sentence), em dashes denote interruptions. Semicolons go between two independent but connected clauses and the one here is used correctly. (A little word fun at the end there - sort of like polishing the Polish furniture.)

3. Double quotation marks (") are used at the beginning and end of quoted phrases; single quotation marks (') are used for a quote within the quote. Commas and periods should be inside the quotation marks (unless you're writing in England, where it's the opposite). Use italics instead of quotation marks around single words to emphasize them (don't capitalize or bold them either - stick to italics unless you're a billboard painter).

4. Names and proper nouns are capitalized and set aside by commas: Listen, Gordo, if I ... (in other words, put commas around the name of the person spoken to). The semicolon in this sentence should be a comma.

5. Speaking of commas, if used incorrectly, they can scandalously alter the meaning of a sentence. Like this one versus "I'd like to thank my parents, the Pope, and Mother Teresa."

6. There should be a comma after addressing a name/noun (Hello, John). The use of single quotation marks for 'ducks in a row' is appropriate here (a quote within a quote) and the question mark is correctly placed between the single quotation mark and the double. However, semicolons go outside quotation marks (although in this case a comma would be in order).

7. Again, better to italicize own for emphasis than to place it in quotes.

8. It's (with an apostrophe as a contraction for it is) is correct in the beginning of this sentence, but toward the end of the sentence its little leaves is appropriate (no apostrophe for a possessive pronoun).

9. Three exclamation marks in a row is overkill. Overuse of any stylistic device (especially exclamation marks!) dilutes the emphasis you're hoping to achieve. Plus it appears that you're trying too hard to elicit emotion from your reader.

10. Oh, no should have a comma. One set of ellipses (the first) is appropriate here (three dots only with one space before and after). Numerals (3,014) should be used for numbers over 100 for better reading flow.

So how'd you do, my friend? How punct-savvy are you?

Hey, don't let it ruin your day if you're not a Punct Punk ... even professional writers depend on editors (who are paid to be Punct Punks) to catch all the riffraff.

So tell me - what's your most common punctuation mistake?

Friday, September 19, 2014

Put Down the Donkey

Feel like you're carrying around a few burdens?
I walked into the elevator as two southern belles exited, deep in drawled conversation.

The elevator doors had no sooner closed behind them when the gal in the corner with the distinctive New Jersey twang rolled her eyes at her slick chick chum. "Who says dhat? 'Can you carry me to da store tamarra?' Like you're a sack o' patatas. Whey'd dey learn English - in a baan?"

It took me a moment to yankee-translate then another long moment pondering what was wrong with asking someone to carry you to the store. I am and always have been, after all, a hick from the Florida-Georgia border sticks long before it was a smash band.

Oh. I finally got it. Carry me.

The proper verb should have probably been "take me" or "drive me" to the store, but I've heard "carry me somewhere" my whole backwoods life, so at first it seemed perfectly normal to me. Like mashing the light switch or saying, "I used to not" or "Quit that directly or I'm gonna slap you upside your punkin' head ... bless your little heart." (Southern etiquette demands that you add that final disclaimer whenever you say something bad to or about somebody.)

It wasn't until college that I was enlightened about the ... um, shall we say charming eloquence of regional colloquialisms and realized that carrying someone to the store taken literally would pretty much be the end of most of us. Carrying around ANYTHING for very long would get plum exhausting. If you don't believe that, just try holding a cotton ball over your head for ten minutes.

Since I've felt kind of droopy lately (both physically and emotionally), I stopped and thought about what I might be carrying around with me that would drag me down so. Didn't take long. Unforgiveness. For sure. I've been wearing it this week like a 50-pound sack of manure strapped to my back. Got so used to it, I hadn't really noticed it. Til now.

I know that by not forgiving, we carry people and wounds around with us, weighing us down with our invisible burdens. I forget sometimes that my outsides may look normal to you, but my insides look a lot like the poor dude in the picture above. I'm even heaving around the donkey that's supposed to be carrying me, for pity's sake.

I came home and looked up my chapter on forgiveness in my book Fear, Faith, and a Fistful of Chocolate. (Yep, I actually do re-read my own books. I find them very helpful, actually, because I'm the kind of pigheaded person whom Papa God has to teach the same lessons to over and over.) Here's what I found:

"Harboring resentment is like chugging down strychnine and expecting the other person to die. Your anger doesn't hurt your offender. It hurts you. It wounds you and those who care about you, those who feel helpless and hopeless watching bitterness gnaw away like ravenous sewer rats at the you they love. Rats that will never be satiated."

"I've heard it said that apologizing doesn't necessarily mean you're wrong and the other person is right. It just means you value relationships more than your ego. And isn't that the way Papa wants us to prioritize?"

Yep. Just the elbow in the gut I needed to jar my need-to-forgive muscle. It gets stuck sometimes in all the fat and needs a little jolt to pop out and get some exercise.

So that's my job for this weekend. Exercise that poor flabby forgiveness muscle, unload the fertilizer and put down the dang donkey. How about you? Got any invisible burdens weighing you down?

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jonah's in the Bag

Not the best hiding place
In my role as the preschool Bible Story Lady at our church, I was telling the story of Jonah and the Big Fish a few Sundays ago to the three and four-year-olds.

The hard part wasn't bringing the bit about Jonah deliberately running away from God down to the level of little people who still get their fannies smacked every time they run from someone in charge. Same principle, Jonah's story, but how to tell it so they'd understand that some grown-ups are silly enough to think they can hide from an all-knowing, all-seeing, all-powerful God without being caught eventually. 

It would be like Mama never coming to look for you and leaving you in your hiding place forever. Unfathomable.  

Even the wee-est ones get how ridiculous that is.  

So I simply said, "Jonah was afraid to do what God said (go to Ninevah and tell the people there they were being so naughty they would have to be punished). So he decided to disobey. Yep. He decided to hide from God." 

I then asked the children who liked to play hide-and-seek. All hands went up. 

"Have you ever picked a really bad hiding place? Like maybe this one." I put my hands over my eyes and said, "Okay, I'm hidden. I can't see you so you can't see me either."

The kids laughed hysterically.

"Or how about this one?" I walked over to an itty bitty kiddy chair and crouched down, trying desperately to squeeze my entire jumbo adult body behind it. "Can you see me now?" The kids howled.

"Or maybe you've been here." I returned to center stage, carefully unfolded a paper bag, plopped it over my head and reached out with both hands, searching, groping, even becoming a little panicky and tearful as I fell to my knees. "Are you gone? Did you leave me? I can't find anybody so I must be all alone in this cold, dark, horrible place. Nobody's here but me. And I'm feeling lonely and scared all by myself. I wish ... I wish someone would help me."

Silence. To my surprise, there was no laughter this time. Not even one snicker. Something about being scared and lonely in a dark place had resonated with those 30 little people. 

I hadn't expected this. Silence. So thick you could cut it with a meat cleaver. Maybe my acting was a little too good. As I continued waving my hands helplessly in the air, I wasn't sure what to do next. The kids were apparently identifying with me in my aloneness. With Jonah in his disobedience. With all humankind when we choose to dig a hole of disrespect to our Creator, then lie in it and cover ourselves up like a grave. Isolated. Frightened. Confused. 

Then out of the unforeseen stillness, a little voice piped up. A warm little voice heavy with sympathy. 

"It's okay, Miss Debbie. We're still here. Don't be afraid. You're not alone." 

And then I heard footsteps mounting the small stage and felt a tiny hand take mine, and another and another reaching out to comfort me as dozens of little hands found my arms, my shoulders, my waist, surrounding me with comfort and hope. 

So there I was, kneeling on a stage with a bag over my head and a huge lump in my throat, swarmed by a hoard of uninhibited children who even at an extremely young age, understood what it felt like to be alone in disobedience and separated from God and didn't want it to happen to me. 

I was incredibly moved. It was one of those rare teachable moments that knock your well ordered world off its axis and crack open the door for a peep into a completely different spiritual realm. 

So from now on, I suspect Jonah's story will hold new meaning for me. Maybe I should carry a head bag around with me all the time.