Unfriendly grammar tips

How do you know whether to use “which” or “that”?
“Which” and “that” are known as relative pronouns because they are like cousins, the kind of cousins who look nothing alike but both do this creepy hand-rubbing thing, which makes you go, “Oh, now I see it, but please get away from me.”

Both “which” and “that” are used to extract additional information from the sentence, sometimes against its will, but these are the times we live in. Sacrifices must be made. Preferably not by me.

Whether to use “which” or “that” depends on whether the sentence can make sense without this additional information. For example, in the sentence, “I went to the door that led to the torture chamber,” the door is defined as the one leading to the torture chamber, as opposed to some other door that leads to sweet, sweet freedom.

By contrast: “I went to the door, which had a sign that read, ‘No Torture In Here! C’mon Inside,’ and that is the last time I trust those cousins, believe you me, with all that hand-rubbing, which, again, really weirds me out!” Unfortunately, it turns out I have used both types of relative pronouns in a poorly constructed sentence, which was a run-on sentence to boot. Oops! There’s another one! Look: if you want a hint, there’s usually a comma before “which” but not before “that.” I swear that’s all I know!

When do I use “its” versus “it’s”?
Is this a joke? Marvin, is that you? You know I don’t appreciate your monkeyshines. I’m trying to work here. You don’t see me coming down to the suspender factory and asking you whether belts are the devil’s tool, do you? Nobody has time for such obvious questions. Especially with our pants falling down all the time.

But if you must know – and, quite frankly, I’m a bit appalled you don’t – the trick is to replace the “big, puzzling three-letter word” (yes, that’s sarcasm, Marvin!) with “it is.” If the phrase still makes sense, use “it’s”; if not, use “its.” For example, “It’s [it is] high time people got this straight because this mistake has been causing language to lose its [not it is] mojo for far too long, and, speaking of long, someone should tell this guy he would do a better job explaining these concepts if he were to make the sample sentences shorter.”

Ooo! Ooo! Do subjunctive mood next!
Really? We’re struggling with “its” and “it’s” and you want to jump to subjunctive? Ready you are not, young Skywalker…

No, really, we got this.

Ah, 1997: it was a very good hair.

Ah, 1997: it was a very good hair.

Fine. The subjunctive mood is used when something is wishful thinking or not factual, like my passport photo, the one that looks uncannily like Hugh Grant circa 1997, because it is. You’ll often see the word “if” at the start of a subjunctive sentence, i.e. “If I were Hugh Grant, I would make another movie with that adorable Sandra Bullock, especially now that I (Hugh) am prettier.” You’ll note that the verb is “were” instead of “was,” which is a clue to the subjunctive, because I am not Hugh Grant, though your confusion delights me. But later in the sentence, we say “I (Hugh) am prettier,” using the indicative mood, because my (Hugh’s) prettiness is indisputable.

Here’s another example, “I would recommend that Hugh Grant get Botox, because, even though Hollywood is especially cruel to older actresses, he’s certainly no Paul Rudd.” See? “Get” instead of “gets” because it’s something hoped for, a potential reality, and an expensive proposition given the cost of Botox these days.

No prepositions at the end of sentences, right?
Really? We’re still struggling with this? In a world where suddenly it’s okay to wear socks with sandals, we’re worried about what should or should not end a sentence? Some random rule that someone invented hundreds of years ago and we still cower before it? They might as well have said, “Never end a sentence with the word ‘toad’ because toads are ugly.” This is like the “rule” that if you mix red wine and white you’ll get a hangover. No! If you mix red wine and white, it probably means you drank all the red wine in the house but you want to keep on drinkin’ on, so bring on the white, and in the end you’ve simply drunk too much, dummy! Trust me. If your sentence sounds good ending in a preposition, go for it. And that’s all I’m going to talk about.

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Your Summer Jam: Emily King’s The Switch

the switchPeople — this people, anyway — tend to feel proprietary about the music and musicians they “discover.” More folks should know about this, we think. I’m going to champion this singer, we say. I’m going to write a music review on my humour blog even though this isn’t even the type of music I would normally get behind.

New York soul artist Emily King is one such singer who deserves greater exposure. Last week the Grammy-nominated musician released her second full-length album in 10 years, interrupted only by her excellent EP Seven. It’s a beautifully written and produced summer groove of warm sun and city cool.

From the opening bass of “Good Friend,” which recalls the theme to “Barney Miller” — in a good seventies NYC way — you can tell this is going to be classic R&B. King’s voice is confidently sexy, even as she purrs about her friends. If I had a friend like this, it would be very confusing…

King is not a belter, and in this “America’s Got Shouters” age, that’s a good thing. The daughter of two jazz singers, she recognizes that there is power in restraint. She knows how to let things build, rising and falling like moods. It’s an intimate party on your balcony without disturbing the neighbours, ice cubes clinking, the light breeze flirting with hair and hemlines, one thing maybe leading to another …

The whole album is streaming right now on the WSJ site. Or have a sip of these cool drinks. Don’t spill on your freshly pressed linen.

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Simply all the outrage

These things I know are true: you cannot convince someone who doesn’t like Steely Dan to like Steely Dan; there’s no point in buying expensive coffee beans if you have a crappy coffee maker; and motion-sensor faucets should be vandalized with impunity or, even better, with heavy mallets.

Let me back up. For a while now, I’ve felt I must be missing the outrage gene. At very least, I suffer from indignation deficiency. This isn’t the same as intolerance. Things certainly annoy me. Why, just the other day, I pulled the flimsy plastic cheese-slice wrapper out of the recycling bin, and to be clear, it’s the wrappers that are plastic, not the cheese slice, although I can understand your confusion.

I flaunted the wrappers in the air and said to my wife, “You can’t recycle these!”

“And why not?” she asked defiantly.

“They’re too thin,” I replied. I was cool about it, reasonable, because in truth I have no idea what you can recycle, and no one really does.

But I wasn’t outraged. I’m not about to take to take to the streets or, more rashly, to Twitter to vent about how cheese flaps are not recyclable and, for that matter, why aren’t they, dagnabbit? We must all recycle vigilantly or the vaccination-deniers win! Or some such logic. It’s hard to think straight when you’re so filled with bile and processed dairy product.

When I see how people get so upset about things, I start to feel not quite normal. Why do I step so tentatively off the handle where others fly? What made all those NPR listeners, for example, get their tote bags in such a twist simply because the program “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” – a game show! – had Kim Kardashian as a guest?

I happened to catch that show when it aired, and all I could think was that I don’t recall ever hearing KK speak before, which means I live a sheltered and, it turns out, blessed life. But I never considered complaining to NPR that I would never donate again, mainly because I’ve never donated in the first place.

Is it that I can’t be bothered? Or is it that we don’t actually live in the Age of Outrage that I think we do? Maybe it’s only a small number of cranks who get in a froth about, say, dried parsley, but this outrage is then amplified via social media, which turns into the sense that everybody is really upset about grass-flavoured garnish.

Maybe I’m the only guy who wants to rip motion-sensor faucets off the commode. If so, I’m happy to see this blown out of proportion.

Looks like a pump; not a pump. image: www.bathselect.com

Looks like a pump; not a pump.
image: http://www.bathselect.com

Here’s why: I’m standing at some knob-less sink, the faucet arched over the basin so you can’t see where the nearly invisible sensor wafer is nestled. I wave my hands underneath. I wave them again. I vogue them like a hand model. I abracadabra and jazz-hand. Finally, the water splashes on. Oops, it’s off again. I cup my hands and nudge them like I’m coaxing a lady up a ladder. AAAAH! Why won’t you come on!

It’s my thin wrists, isn’t it? Motion-sensor faucets discriminate against the slight-wristed. Wait, make that the slight-but-still-undeniably-manly-in-a-sinewy-way-wristed.

And then I have to repeat the same interpretive hand dance with the paper towel dispenser. I feel like a ghost, invisible, and not just socially!

I understand that this is a technology that is supposed to make our lives better by eliminating the transfer of germs to the taps. But germs and bacteria are everywhere. So we eliminate taps. People are still touching door handles and salt shakers and grocery carts and each other and themselves, which is a whole other gross problem. Hasn’t anyone seen War of the Worlds? Bacteria and Tom Cruise will always win!

Plus, because of these fussy faucets, how many people simply won’t bother to wash their hands? Let me correct that: how many more people won’t bother, because the number of non-washers in public bathrooms is already disgustingly high. It’s an outrage!

And the water from these taps is so tepid. What if I want to get a drink of water for my dog? Must the dog drink warm water? Shouldn’t the pet fanatics share my outrage as only pet fanatics can?

Death to motion-sensor faucets!

So it turns out I do have outrage.

I feel so normal now.


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Are you in the zone?

wombRemember floating in your mother’s womb? Remember how warm and cozy you were? Remember how you didn’t have a care in the world, no nagging doubts, no taxes to pay, no arrest warrants?

Of course you don’t remember. You were in the womb!

But that, my friends, is the comfort zone. Our lives begin in this carefree state and we spend the rest of our lives striving to regain that bliss.

I’m here today to tell you that it’s possible. You, too, can Step Inside Your Comfort Zone.

Other self-help gurus urge you to “step outside your comfort zone.” What a mistake. Stupid, gurus, stupid!

Let’s think about it for a moment. What’s outside your comfort zone? By definition, there is discomfort. There is pain. There is failure. There be dragons.

So many unpredictable things can happen when you step outside your comfort zone. Let’s say, for instance, you gather up the courage to talk to a stranger. Well, that stranger could end up being boring, he could be a psychopath, or worse, could ask to borrow money.

Or say you decide to try out for the cheerleading team. Despite your strangely deformed appendage, you make the squad. In fact, you quite literally leap to the top of the cheerleading elite, performing flips, quadra-steps, and the legendary Flying Archangel before adoring fans. But it’s not enough.

Next thing you know, you’re asked to form a human pyramid on the top girders of a construction site. Your footing slips and… oh! don’t you wish you’d stayed in your comfort zone?

You know who else stepped outside his comfort zone? A little Austrian fellow who decided to take a stab at painting, a little fellow named… Hitler!

Clearly, stepping outside your comfort zone is fraught with misery and heartbreak. Your comfort zone, on the other hand, isn’t fraught with anything. It’s completely fraught-free.

The comfort zone is a natural state — like Idaho. Look around you. Look at the trees. Trees are trees. You don’t see trees deciding to play the violin, right? They stay in their comfort zone. You know what happens to animals that step outside their comfort zone? They get eaten.

You don’t want to be eaten, do you?

So stay in your comfort zone!

Staying inside your comfort zone doesn’t mean you won’t be successful. In fact, you can harness your ambition in your comfort zone, as long as your ambition is aligned with your natural inclination and not something you have to force yourself to do. Colonel Sanders, for instance, took his natural hatred for chickens and translated it into one of the world’s most successful fast-food chains.

He stayed in his chicken-slaughtering comfort zone.

In your own comfort zone you might mastermind a political coup or you might take a nap. If that’s your natural inclination, go for it. Or not. Whatever you’re comfortable with.

That’s the beauty of staying inside your comfort zone — you do exactly what you want to do. That’s empowerment!

But what if you’ve already stepped outside your comfort zone? How do you get back in? And can you drive there?

To find your comfort zone, you first need to prepare some comfort food, settle into a comfy chair, and cover up with a warm comforter. A great place to do this is at the Comfort Inn.

Now that you’re comfortable, visualize a place where you’re most happy and relaxed. Can you see it? Can you smell it? It smells like cinnamon buns, doesn’t it? Welcome to your comfort zone. Come on in. Help yourself to the mini-bar.

Now the trick is to stay there. First, make sure nothing challenges your belief system. Don’t read newspapers. Watch only television entertainment “news” and listen exclusively to commercial radio.

Avoid mirrors, especially in the morning when you might have to look yourself in the eye.

Follow these simple steps and you can spend your full life inside your comfort zone.

Your Comfort Zone: Be All That You Are Being.


This is a piece I wrote several years ago. As I am currently proofreading report cards and listening to year-end school speeches, I thought I would resurrect it.

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With my luck I’d only be maimed

Writing tip: Nothing draws readers quite like writing about insurance!  (Image: http://yourinsurancegirl.com/)

Writing tip: Nothing draws readers quite like writing about insurance!
(Image: http://yourinsurancegirl.com/)

Knowing how you’re going to die would be terrible – for the insurance companies. If people knew for sure they were going to slip away in their sleep, for example, why would anyone bother taking out accidental death protection? But if you knew your fate was to die, say, in a Cuisinart explosion, you’d likely take out a whopping accidental death policy, which, of course, would make it all worthwhile. Either way, the insurance companies would lose money, and we can’t have that.

As it stands, we go through life without an exit strategy, so the insurance companies prey on the statistical possibility, however slight, that we will end our days in a horrid manner – and I don’t just mean under another Stephen Harper government.

Last week, I received a letter from my insurer offering me the chance to double my accidental death benefit for only $10.44 a month. Double! That seemed a pretty sweet deal considering that so far in life I have not died accidentally, meaning the odds increase daily that I will. In short, I’m due.

Trust me, I’ve seen Death lurking – several near misses backing out of parking spaces; almost slipping on gobs of shampoo that my daughter leaves on the bottom of the tub; tangling on the stairs with overfed cats wanting to be overfed some more. And I’ve been accidentally ingesting red meat and ice cream for nearly 50 years.

So I considered upping my policy. But then I noticed a card entitled “Additional Information for Residents of Quebec.” I thought perhaps this would be some linguistic thing, like maybe policy holders weren’t covered if they accidentally died in an English way (line-dancing; drinking wine spritzers; uncomplainingly; etc.).

Instead, it warned that the policy had restrictions and exclusions and that I should review the offer carefully. Apparently, Quebecers need specific reminders to read the small print, which explains why they’ve nearly fallen twice for cockamamie referendum questions.

Being a good Quebecer and English (obedient), I did read the small print and found that there were many situations under which the accidental death policy would not pay out.

For starters, I learned that the policy would end at age 70 – just when I’ll be more likely than ever to have a fatal accident. Seniors are aware of this, which is why they drive so slowly. Not me. When I’m 80, knowing I have only a limited number of days left, the last place I’m going to want to be is in my car. I’m going to get from A to B as quickly as damn possible. And if that means going out in a blazing fireball, I’m willing to take the risk.

But if I’m over 70, there would be no financial gain in my doing so.

There were other restrictions. There would be no payout if I were operating a vehicle while drunk, including any transportation put in motion by muscle power, moving or not. If I were standing in roller skates, drunk, and I slipped, fell and died, I would get no benefits, though probably a couple of laughs. If I were drunk in an office chair and I rolled down the stairs, however, I think I’d be covered. It’s always good to have a plan.

The insurer wouldn’t pay if I died accidentally while committing a crime or taking non-prescription drugs. What about if I were committing a crime and taking non-prescription drugs? Frowned upon.

These restrictions seemed fair enough. But I also would receive no benefit if I inhaled any type of gas, “whether voluntarily or involuntarily.” Let’s just say that if I “involuntarily” inhale gas, somebody better be asking some questions. But more than this, I’m disappointed that I wouldn’t be covered, because I think we all believed in our hearts that, when my death occurred, it would somehow involve gas.

If I die in a commercial plane crash, I would be covered. But I’m not covered if my private jet goes down, which is shamefully prejudiced against people with far too much money.

If my death is the result of civil disorder or war, “whether declared or not,” I’m not covered. This is where I start to worry that the insurers would go all philosopher in the event of any accidental death, for are we not all, ultimately, at war… with ourselves? And ISIS? And our brokers?

In the end, Instead of putting a wager on whether I’m going to die accidentally, I decided I could spend that $10.44 a month on something I could enjoy while breathing, like music or more ice cream. Besides, the way I behave, chances are I won’t be killed accidentally. More likely on purpose.

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Sometimes I answer questions

What is Shania Twain up to these days?
Sad to say, Shania and I have drifted apart ever since I wrote that tell-all article in Vogue (“Shania Twain Promised Me a Back Rub But So Far Bupkiss!”). We still get together for barbecues and the occasional exfoliating, of course, but things can never be the same between friends when one of you describes the other as having “garbanzo for brains.” Anyway, the last time I got a Christmas card from her, Shania said she was planning to open a new carpet store in Mississauga called “Man, I Feel Like A Broadloom.”

What advice do you have for the Class of 2015?
Walk through life like you’re carrying two cups of hot coffee.

There’s this fellow I like. The other day I ran into him at the checkout line of our local supermarket. I had a jumbo pack of toilet paper in my arms. Is all hope lost?
There’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Everybody shops. Although most of us don’t like to picture other people acquiring food and consumer goods, remember that the entire economic system is perfectly natural, even if it does kind of stink. So you shop. As long as you practice good hygiene and use the flyers, regular shopping is healthy and necessary. And guess what? This fellow you like shops too! Unless he’s a communist. Continue reading

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Desmond Who-Who?

My eldest daughter graduates from university this week, along with thousands and thousands of other young people ready to take on the world, which makes me glad I’m not looking for a job right now.

This will be the first university convocation I’ve sat through since my own, 27 years ago, when I graduated from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. My convocation address was given by none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a formidable champion of human rights, an inspiring orator and a great man of modern history.

I don’t recall a single word he said. Continue reading

Posted in It Really Did Happen!, Turn that radio on! | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments