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where you @?

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The glamour preposition of the last two decades, without question, is not a word but a symbol—specifically, the @ sign. It is the one common component of every e-mail address on earth. . .Of course, @ predates e-mail.. . .It eventually became a commonly understood symbol meaning “at the price of”—so common that it was included on the first typewriter keyboard in the late 1800s.

Fast-forward a hundred years or so, to 1972. Ray Tomlinson, an engineer at the Cambridge, Massachusetts, consulting firm of Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, was working on a project in which staff members at the company would transfer files and send messages among a series of networked computers around the country: in other words, e-mail. To indicate where the sender was “at,” Tomlinson decided to use the @ sign to precede the name of the host computer.

In an interview not long ago, he said the decision was pretty much a no-brainer.

“If you look at the keyboard, there really aren’t a whole lot of choices. the one that really stands out is the at sign, because it indicates where a user might be. It’s the only preposition on the keyboard.”

—ben yagoda, when you catch an adjective, kill it (2007)

Written by Gabrielle

October 31, 2010 at 9:37 am

Posted in grammar

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Something about and—probably its utter indispensability—has made it prone to being expressed by other means than just the standard three letters. The plus sign is a favorite of instant messengers, note takers, hip hop songwriters, conglomerates (Gulf + Western), and people demonstrating eternal love by carving their initials into trees. A little more elegant is the ampersand (&), which dates from the first century and is a ligature, or combination, of the letters e and t (and in Latin) into a single symbol. It was included in systems of typography starting in the fifteenth century, and ever since has been the character into which a type designer can inject the most artistic flair. the word “ampersand” didn’t come into being until the nineteenth century. At that time & was customarily taught as the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet and pronounced “and.” When school children recited their ABCs, they concluded with the words, “and, per se [i.e., by itself], ‘and.’ ” This eventually became corrupted to “ampersand.”

—ben yagoda, when you catch an adjective, kill it (2007)

[soundtrack] :: matmos // exciter lamp and variable band // supreme balloon (2008)

Written by Gabrielle

October 24, 2010 at 7:15 pm

Posted in grammar

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the drama that is the em dash

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emily dickinson: poet, em dash lover

when you understand something, it becomes less frightening: less esoteric. grammar illustrates this point perfectly.

my first active encounter with grammar was Strunk & White’s Elements of Style–the widely-read, much-loved, and sometimes contested style and grammar guide. i flipped through the slim 4th edition a few times but didnt have enough experience to know how to use it, or reason enough to use it for that matter. when i first picked it up, i felt i should read it cover to cover–like a novel. i was writing at the time but was only in the early stages; i hadn’t developed a “bigger picture,” a sophisticated understanding of the art, and was trying to cram years-worth of information that i should’ve learned in grade school into a few sittings. while i wasn’t quite ready to use the guide for tips, tricks, and inspiration,  i knew i was missing an important piece of information indispensable to an educated class.

zadie smith: em dash user

as early as 10th grade i came across writers who used punctuation–or refused to–boldly. The Beats, mainly jack kerouac, were my informal introduction to these grammatical demarcations. kerouac’s experimental approach to fiction, memoir, travel writing, and journalism was exactly what i needed in my anarchic and angsty teen years. milan kundera, possibly to be placed on the opposite end of the spectrum, used grammar elegantly–like a school boy fearing a ruler across the knuckles–and through him, i viewed punctuation as precise, as if it were a road map–guiding readers through a terrain of words.

when it comes down to it, regardless of how the masters use it–or don’t use it–punctuation is an art: commas, colons, periods, and dashes. they all mean different things; they all set the tone, pace, and beauty of a work.

i asked around to some literary friends what their favorite punctuation mark was and was surprised by how many of them, without pause, mentioned the em dash. it’s one of my favorites too, especially when writing informal emails.

Here is what a few of my fellow grammar-nerds had to say about this versatile mark:

[rebecca discusses her affinity for the em dash, how she uses it, and the way emily dickinson did]

[mariam talks about her use of the em dash and zadie smith’s perfect placement]

in the spirit of my favorite grammarian, Roy Peter Clark, who always gives his readers great exercises at the ends of the chapters in his books, i offer some of my own for em dash usage:
1. find examples in your daily paper and see why the journalist chose that mark of punctuation as opposed to a comma or a colon.
2. find an example of comma usage that could be more effective if an em dash were used.
3. write a sentence where an em dash at the end is used for dramatic effect.

Written by Gabrielle

October 5, 2010 at 5:06 am

Posted in grammar, podcasts

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writing tools

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Writing Tools by, Roy Peter Clark  i’m one of those lucky people who loves their job. most of the time, it doesnt feel like work. what i do is creative and, within reason, i’m given a lot of freedom to explore new ways of doing things. i spend a lot of time thinking of ways to improve on what it is i do, which happens to be book publicity. increasingly, my job, and most of the jobs that take place in an office, rely on the written word; every day i’m writing press releases and emails and every day someone is receiving those press releases and emails, along with hundreds of others, all vying for the same space. the way i see it, i have about a paragraph to capture someone’s attention so that paragraph better be good. in my case, i’m publicizing professional writers through people who also work with professional writers, and who might be professional writers as well. a daunting situation if you think about it. so, one must be just as good, if not better, than the professional writers.

this is why i decided to pick up Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark, the Vice President of Poynter Institute, a well-regarded school for journalists. many writing reference books can take on a self-helpy air so when i saw Roy’s credentials i knew he’d skip the fluff. he hasnt let me down yet.

Writing Tools is an amazing collection of useful writing tips and lessons on analysis. the book is split into four parts: Nuts and Bolts, where you get the rundown on basics such as grammar and sentence structure, Special Effects, which digs a bit deeper into how to liven up your work, the third section is Blueprints, which offers some thoughts on structure, and finally, Useful Habits, which, as the name implies, will help you form some good practices.

from that last section, i really liked Clark’s tips on how to read other people’s work:

  • read to listen to the voice of the writer.
  • read entire books when they compel you; but also taste bits of books.
  • read on topics outside your discipline. . .
  • read with a pen nearby. write in the margins. talk back to the author. . .
  • pg. 212

    at the end of every short chapter is something called a ‘workshop’, a collection of 4 or 5 assignments geared to help the reader implement the previous pages. from the same chapter on how to read other’s work, Clark says:

  • find an author to admire. read several works by this writer with a pen in hand. mark passages that work in special ways. show these to a friend and x-ray them together. what writing tools did you find?
    pg. 213

    Aside from this book being chock full of writing techniques that many of us who didnt go to school for English or writing have never before been privy to, Clark peppers his tips with some really great examples from fiction, essays, and news reporting. if you’re like me, always looking for more reading recommendations, you’ll be writing down names and titles every chapter.

    a must read for today’s writing-heavy generation of workers.

    other links:
    a recent review of Clark’s latest book, The Glamour of Grammar
    and a q&a on the Paper Cuts blog

  • Written by Gabrielle

    September 1, 2010 at 5:53 am

    Posted in books, grammar, reviews

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