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A Few Little Improvements on My Blog September 29, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in Personal.
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So, I’ve been busy figuring out how to make my blog easier to use and navigate. Here’s a list of the little updates I’ve made recently:

  • I added a little “Welcome!” box on the top of my sidebar, including a tiny introduction and my email address. I’ve yet to recieve an email from anyone, so I’d just like to point out that I’d be more than happy to chat with you. I do have the time to answer every email — for now. So, send me a hello before I get too busy!
  • I signed up on FeedBurner, so I now have a shiny orange button at the top of my sidebar. Please click on it. :)
  • I got a Creative Commons license, which doesn’t seem to work properly on WordPress.com blogs. So, I just got rid of the picture — you’ll see the text at the bottom of my sidebar.
  • Instead of using a cluttered list of categories in my sidebar, I’ll be making a table of contents page for every subject. On each page, you’ll find a list of all of my relevant posts organized by category. You’ll be able to view each category’s most recent posts in order by clicking on the category name.
  • I updated my about page to include information about using this blog (purpose, navigation, etc.).
  • So far I’ve been posting every other day, but I’m thinking about designating a certain day of the week to each major category. Math on Mondays, language on Fridays — something like that. The only problem is that I’ll eventually have too many subjects to keep up with! So, I have some thinking to do. I might even want to make an RSS feed for each major section (like math/science, language, arts, etc.) to let you subscribe to the separate topics that I’d post about on certain days. Hmm. I could really use your feedback on this!

Thanks for reading, thanks in advance for your feedback, and have a nice day!

Nine Ways to Commit to Any Goal September 28, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in Teaching and Learning.

You want to accomplish something. You know you want it, you know why you want it, and you’re willing to do the work — whatever it takes. Now you just need to make it happen. So, how do you really commit to a goal?


A project isn’t serious until you’ve invested in it. Now, when I say “investment”, I don’t necessarily mean money; you can also invest time and effort. Nobody likes to waste any of those, which is why an investment helps ensure that you won’t give up on your goal.

For best results, use a few of the following methods:

1. Announce it to the world! Tell everybody you know about your goal. Whenever somebody asks you what’s new, say, “I’m going to [insert goal here]! What about you?” This method doesn’t require much time or effort, but it’s an investment of personal pride, which can be even more important.

2. Write it down. Add it to your list of goals, paint it on your ceiling, or write it on a sticky note and stick it to your forehead. The act of writing something on paper helps many people remember and commit to doing things.

3. Blog about it. Make a blog to track your progress! That’s what I’m doing right here. (How else would I commit myself to learning everything?) I highly recommend this method; it’s an excellent motivator, and it helps others working towards the same goal.

4. Set a deadline. Some people work best under pressure. I’m not one of those people, but even I find a deadline helpful sometimes.

5. Make a gameplan. Break up your goal into smaller goals, and break up those smaller goals into even smaller goals. Then figure out how you can work on your goal every day (or every week or month) and add your mini-goals to your to-do list. Check out Do More: Online To Do Lists Compared for a review of five great to-do list services. You could also use a PDA for this, but I prefer a cheaper alternative: PocketMod.

6. Research it. Pretend you’re writing a research paper and gather every resource you can. Not only will you commit to your goal, but all those resources will help you accomplish it!

7. Get people to join you. Nothing works better than community support. Join a group, start a group, or just get one good friend to work with you. A great place for this is 43 Things, an online community based around goal achievement. (Be sure to send me a hello!)

8. Invest money. Nobody likes to waste money. So, who knows? Paying for that gym membership might also get you to go to the gym!

9. Make a bet. Bet someone five bucks that you can accomplish your goal. The larger the bet, the more committed you’ll be.

Please share your own techniques; I’d love to make this list longer!

Everything You Need to Improve Your English Grammar September 26, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Grammar, Language.

Good grammar helps with almost every job and every endeavor. Why the Bad Grammar?, an interesting article in The Washington Times, points out that grammatical errors have become more common, even in published work. So give yourself a pat on the back for wanting to improve; with all the bad writers out there, you’ll stand out even more!

Note: this guide is aimed at native English speakers and advanced ESL learners. There are many helpful websites for those just starting to learn English, like English as a Second Language, EnglishClub.com, and BBC Learning English, just to name a few.

Step 1: Know the Rules

I wrote a number of posts reviewing the basics of English grammar. Here they are in order:

You might also like to see the words category for more useful posts like Improve Your Vocabulary.

Online Style Manuals

I can’t cover every minor detail of the English language. So, here’s a list of free references:

Step 2: Immerse Yourself in the Grammar Community

Aside from all the free reference materials, the internet offers one invaluable tool: community. Yes, there’s even a community based on English grammar. Take advantage of it! You’ll find many helpful people out there who will happily answer your questions. And remember: you can learn a lot just by reading other people’s questions and trying to answer them.

English forums and groups:

Grammar blogs:

  • Pain in the English – an excellent blog that explores the “gray areas of the English language” and promotes discussion.
  • “Language Rules!” – “directed at the preservation of the correct use of the English language through brief lessons, random thoughts, and occasional rants.”
  • Better at English – “free English lessons for busy people”, including podcasts.

You might also like to join me (and about 70 other people) on the Improve My Grammar goal on 43 Things, where you can write about your progress, ask questions, and discuss grammar with other learners.

Step 3: Practice

The rules of grammar are fairly simple, but you need practice and patience to get a feel for all the minor quirks and nuances of the language. The communities and blogs listed above offer great practice, but you should also work on your own:

Get in the habit. Try to use correct grammar in your emails, instant messages, and wherever else you usually slack off. If you use bad grammar in your everyday writing, how can you expect to improve?

Read consciously. Read (a lot!) and pay attention to how others use grammar. Read online articles, blogs, challenging books, magazines — anything with words.

Write. This is why you’re improving your grammar in the first place: to communicate better! So, write more often and your grammar will surely improve over time.

Diagram sentences. Many grammarians believe that sentence diagramming helps students better understand the structure of a sentence. I’ve never really studied this, but I found these examples interesting to glance at:

Step 4: Study Another Language

As a buddy from 43 Things pointed out here, learning a new language forces you to think about grammar in a new way, which will help you better understand English grammar, as well. Studying linguistics will also help; I mean, have you ever met a linguist who uses incorrect grammar? I didn’t think so.

English Punctuation: Italics, Capitalization, and Other Odds and Ends September 24, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Series index: English Punctuation Overview.


These miscellaneous aspects of writing aren’t technically considered punctuation, but most websites include them with punctuation marks (probably because they don’t know where else to put them). This post covers the following: italics, underlining, boldface, capitalization, accent marks, numbers, and other symbols (like the ampersand and the interrobang).

Italics, Underlining, and Boldface

Both italics and underlining are used to emphasize titles and other words, but italics are used much more often (underlining is used when italics aren’t possible). Boldface is also sometimes used for emphasis, especially for headings and new terms.

  • Boldface – covers the main uses of boldface.


Capital letters are used to distinguish proper nouns, to emphasize the beginning of a new sentence, and in some other situations.

Accents (Diacritics)

Also called accent marks or diacritical marks, accents are mainly used to clarify the pronunciation of certain letters in words borrowed from other languages.

  • Diacritics – explains when to use them and includes a short list of them at the bottom.
  • Diacritic – Wikipedia – includes a list of accent marks (with links to separate entries on each one) and information about their usage in many languages.


English has a number of conventions governing how numbers should be used in writing.


For more about other miscellaneous symbols, look them up on Wikipedia (also see the list of symbols in the box on the right side of the Punctuation page).

English Punctuation: Dashes, Parentheses, Quotation Marks, and Ellipses September 22, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Series index: English Punctuation Overview.



The dash is famous (or infamous) for its informal and flexible use; you can place one just about anywhere.

  • The Dash – overview of the dash’s main uses, including the difference between the en dash and the em dash.
  • Armchair Punctuator – a longer overview covering several uses
  • The King’s English – a lengthy discussion of the use and misuse of dashes (published in 1908).

Parentheses (Brackets)

A type of bracket, the parenthesis is sometimes called a bracket or round bracket. Parentheses surround parenthetical elements just as commas(link) and dashes sometimes do.

Brackets or Square Brackets

Square brackets have more specialized uses, like inserting information into quotes and surrounding parenthetical information inside parentheses.

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks (or speech marks) are used mainly to indicate dialogue. The quotation mark has only a couple simple rules, but many still manage to misuse it (see The Gallery of “Misused” Quotation Marks for proof).


The ellipsis (lovingly called “dot-dot-dot”) usually represents words omitted from a quote, but it can also indicate trailing off in speech.

English Punctuation: Commas, Semicolons, and Colons September 20, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.

Series index: English Punctuation Overview.



Commas separate words, phrases and clauses to clarify meaning. They often indicate pauses in speech, but not always. This Guide to Using Commas covers the basics, and this guide to The Comma refers to AP style guidelines. Here’s a more detailed look at comma usage:

To join two independent clauses – “I spent all day cooking this dinner, and the family ate it in three seconds.” Always use the comma before the coordinating conjunction (like and), but only use a comma if both clauses are independent. If the second clause doesn’t have its own subject, don’t use a comma (as in “I made dinner and set the table”). See The Joining Comma for more. Note: many find it acceptable to leave out the comma if both independent clauses are short (“I made dinner and they ate it”).

To show omitted words – “I like white chocolate; Bob, dark chocolate.” See The Gapping Comma. This applies to more specific uses as well (see also The Listing Comma), where the comma could be replaced with a word like and or or:

  • In a series of three or more – “I like white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate.” The comma stands for an omitted and or or. Many writers prefer not to use a comma before the conjunction: “I like white chocolate, milk chocolate and dark chocolate.” This optional comma, often called the serial comma or Oxford comma, has inspired lots of debate. See Wikipedia’s entry on the Serial Comma for more.
  • With two coordinate adjectives – “She loves the cute, fuzzy kittens.” When you can’t insert the word and between the adjectives, don’t use a comma (“She is a nice old lady”, not “She is a nice and old lady”). See Commas with Paired Adjectives for more on the difference between coordinate and cumulative adjectives.
  • With contrasting statements – “I like apples, not oranges.” I remember this rule by thinking of the comma as a replacement for and, as in “I like apples and not oranges.”

To set off elements that aren’t part of the main clause – “Of course, I agree.” If you can remove the extra element and still have a complete sentence with a complete meaning, then you should surround the extra words with commas. See Bracketing Commas for an overview. These extra elements include:

  • Nonrestrictive Elements – “My best friend, who I met at college, moved to England.” Nonrestrictive clauses and nonrestrictive appositives (Bob, my best friend, moved to England) are always set off with commas, just like all parenthetical elements.
  • Introductory Phrases – “Somewhere in my messy closet, my old clothes are gathering dust.” With adverbial phrases (like prepositional and infinitive phrases), only use a comma if the phrase begins the sentence; if it follows the independent clause, don’t use a comma: “My old clothes are gathering dust somewhere in my messy closet.” See Commas After Introductory Phrases for more. Short prepositional phrases (and some other adverbial phrases) don’t require a comma — unless, of course, the meaning would be unclear (see Adding Commas for Clarity).
  • Participial and Absolute Phrases – “Happily munching on popcorn, I watched my favorite movie.” When acting as adjectives, adverbs, or disjuncts, these types of phrases always require a comma, even if they follow the independent clause: “I watched my favorite movie, happily munching on popcorn.”
  • Dependent Clauses – “If you help me, I’ll help you.” As with introductory phrases, if the dependent clause follows the independent clause, don’t use a comma: “I’ll help you if you help me.”

Other Conventional Uses – Used for clarity and convenience, commas also appear in names, addresses, numbers, and more:


The semicolon is sort of like a cross between a comma and a period. Its main function is to connect two independent clauses that are closely related. It also prevents confusion in sentences (especially lists) with lots of commas. These websites explain everything you need to know:

  • The Semicolon – an excellent overview, complete with lots of examples.


The colon introduces or restates something. Unlike the semicolon, the colon can connect an independent clause to a word or phrase.

  • The Colon – includes some usage guidelines, a discussion on when to capitalize the independent clause after a colon, and even a powerpoint presentation and a quiz at the bottom.

English Punctuation: Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Marks September 18, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.

Series index: English Punctuation Overview.


End marks are the punctuation marks used to end sentences, keeping thoughts separate and easy to read. More on using end marks with quotation marks later.


The period, also known as the full stop, ends declarative and imperative sentences. It’s also used in abbreviations and ellipses.

Question Marks

The question mark ends interrogative sentences, as well as any other sentences or sentence fragments posed as questions.

Exclamation Marks

The exclamation mark or exclamation point ends exclamatory sentences and strong interjections.

English Punctuation: Hyphens, Apostrophes, and Slashes September 16, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Series index: English Punctuation Overview.


Word-level punctuation marks clarify the meaning of words themselves. You’d think they’d be simpler than sentence-level punctuation, but even these small details cause controversy and confusion.


Hyphens connect words to avoid confusion, but since their usage varies so much, they can create more confusion than they prevent. Luckily, a number of sites have some guidelines:

  • The King’s English – includes a few basic rules and some example errors. I especially like the first rule: “Hyphens are regrettable necessities, and to be done without when they reasonably may.” Note: keep in mind that this book is from 1908.


Despite being one of the most simple punctuation marks, apostrophes are often misused (like the infamous Greengrocer’s Apostrophes). Do your part: know your apostrophe rules and support The Apostrophe Protection Society!

  • Contractions – includes notes on distinguishing contractions from clipped forms and abbreviations.

Note: single quotation marks look just like apostrophes, but they shouldn’t be called apostrophes. More on single quotation marks later.


The slash isn’t used nearly as often as other punctuation marks, but it can certainly come in handy.

  • The Slash – another look at its common uses, including examples.

English Punctuation Overview September 14, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Got grammar? See Everything You Need to Improve Your English Grammar.


Punctuation marks may be nothing but little dots and lines, but those little dots and lines can make a huge difference! We need punctuation to separate our ideas and clarify our meaning. Trivial as they can be, the rules of punctuation are worth knowing.

So, for my own personal reference (and for anyone else who might find it useful), I’m going to review the rules and conventions for every punctuation mark. Later (read “eventually”), I’ll address the nuances of punctuation’s effects on writing style.

By the way, remember to celebrate National Punctuation Day! (Their website has some useful punctuation tips, too.)

Posts in This Series:

English Grammar: Types of Sentences September 12, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Grammar, Language.

Got grammar? See Everything You Need to Improve Your English Grammar.


Sentences are categorized in two ways: by structure and by purpose.

Types of Sentences by Structure

  • Compound Sentence – “I love chocolate, and I love eating chocolate.” Two or more independent clauses.
  • Complex Sentence – “I love chocolate because it’s decadent.” One independent clause and one or more dependent clauses (italicized). Note: according to Wikipedia, a sentence like “The dog chewed up the shoes that I just bought” is a simple sentence, not a complex sentence, because the relative clausethat I just bought” simply modifies the noun without performing any other function. I’m not sure how accurate this is, however.
  • Complex-Compound Sentence – “I love chocolate because it’s decadent, and I love eating chocolate because it’s delicious.” Two or more independent clauses and one or more dependent clauses.

Those four categories apply to normal, grammatical sentences. However, some of our most common expressions are sentences that don’t follow the rules — see Major and Minor Sentences.

Note: obsessive syntacticians (is there any other kind?) have also named more specific types of sentences, which I’ll address when I start learning about the finer points of writing style.

Types of Sentences by Purpose

  • Declarative Sentence – “I love chocolate.” Used to make a simple statement. Most sentences are declarative.
  • Imperative Sentence – “Please buy me some chocolate.” Used for commands, with the pronoun you always implied.

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