I. Rules That Even Foreigners Should Know
1. Possession is more than a rap on the knuckles.
These rules are all pretty fucking simple. Most people learned these rules in the first or second grade, and as a result, most have forgotten them and look like idiots because of it.
Form the possessive form of nouns by adding ’s.
You add an ’s to the end of the word, no matter what the last consonant is. Consonants, in case you’re unaware, are letters other than a, e, i, o, u, and sometimes y.
Charles’s bong is fucking enormous.
Jimmy’s sex tape represented the low point in a lifetime of porn viewing.
Kelly’s vagina is completely shaved.
If brevity is your shtick, you can kill the second s and just leave the apostrophe when the noun already ends in s. This works wonders on Twitter.
Chris’ girlfriend lets him fuck her in the ass.
Obviously there are exceptions to the rule—things like ancient proper names, etc. Forget about that. This book’s purpose is to keep you from looking like an idiot, and if you find yourself debating whether to add an ’s to the end of Jesus, you can Google it.
The next topic is pronominal possessives, which is the fancy term for hers, its, theirs, yours, and ours. If you’re using any of these words to replace a name—
That dildo is Kelly’s.
That dildo is hers.
—then it doesn’t take an apostrophe. This is a simple enough rule, but where most people screw up is deciding whether to use its or it’s. Its should be used when you can substitute in a name or a different possessive and still understand what’s going on. Example:
It’s a lucky dog that is able to lick its own genitals, and the best I can do is the occasional stranger.
It’s a lucky dog that is able to lick his own genitals, and the best I can do is the occasional stranger.
As you can see, replacing its with his still makes sense—so its should be used. Generally speaking, because this is a politically correct society we live in, its should be preferred to his when you don’t know the sex of whomever you’re referring to. In the example above the dog could be a male or a female, so its should be used.
It’s, on the other hand, is a contraction of it is. When you can replace it’s with it is, it’s is appropriate to use:
It’s a fucking miracle anything gets done in this place with all the Madden you people play.
It is a fucking miracle anything gets done in this place with all the Madden you people play.
So now you know.
2. Commas are fucking fun.
In a series of three or more terms, use a comma after each term except the last. For example:
She’s got fake tits, nails, and hair.
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, and laughers.
—HUNTER THOMPSON, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
3. Use commas to parenthesize shit.
This is the rule discussed in the introduction. When you’re introducing information that qualifies or is otherwise an aside to the main topic, it should be placed between commas.
The easiest way to roll a joint, assuming you don’t have a rolling machine, is to roll the paper around a Bic pen.
Admittedly, this rule can sometimes be difficult to apply—there’s some debate, for instance, over whether to put a single word in between commas:
Jason was a real prick, however, he seemed okay when he took uppers.
Now it is important to realize that if you’re going to use commas in this way, they have to come in pairs. The pair of commas is like deciding whether to wear a tie to a meeting—if you go with the tie, you have to wear a jacket as well or you’ll look like a tool. Same goes with commas.
Jim’s sister, little slut that she was, spent half the night prancing around in her underwear.
My AIDS test, you’ll be happy to know, came back negative.
Those sentences illustrate the correct usage of the parenthetical comma. If you take away one of the commas, however, the whole structure falls apart:
My brother little prick that he is, told my dad I was the one that downloaded a virus on the computer.
Clearly a comma should be placed after “brother” because the phrase “little prick that he is” qualifies the statement. Likewise whenever you’re looking to add additional information, a parenthetical comma should be used:
My date, who had seemed listless and uninterested through dinner, perked up as soon as I broke out the cocaine.
Until a month ago, when the swelling from my nose job disappeared, I couldn’t give this pussy away.
This adding of information is called, in fancy terms, a nonrestrictive clause. Often the information could be presented in two separate sentences, if a person so desired, and in that case a pair of commas would be necessary:
My date began the evening quite listlessly. Upon introduction of the cocaine she immediately perked up.
A name or title, if you’re using it in direct address, is also placed between a pair of commas:
If, sir, you won’t bring me to climax, I can’t guarantee I’ll field your calls anymore.
Well, Jimmy, this is another fucked-up situation you’ve gotten us into.
On the other hand, a comma shouldn’t be used to separate a noun from a restrictive identifier:
Billy the Kid
Simon the fag
Kawal the Sikh
A further bit of illustration for all you (a) rich kids or (b) poor white-trash kids who have been named after your fathers: Junior, or the abbreviation Jr., is said by some people to require a comma. These people are idiots. Junior, like “the sikh” or “the fag,” is restrictive and doesn’t take a comma.
Before moving on to the next rule, let’s recap: Restrictive clauses do not take commas, while nonrestrictive clauses do. For example:
Chris, being a complete lush, continued shotgunning cans of Four Loko, even after vomiting all over his shirt. (nonrestrictive)
The girl I had anal sex with freshman year has a great set of tits. (restrictive)
One of my sisters, Lauren is a complete slut. (restrictive)
My youngest brother, Max, is a complete stoner. (nonrestrictive)
4. Independence does more than embarrass the British.
Place a comma before and or but introducing an independent clause. This usage of commas can be helpful if you want to make your sentences more complex, whether to avoid writing like a fifth-grader or to impress your English professor. It’s important to keep in mind that this use of commas is applicable only if you’re using a conjunction:and, but, or, for, as, while, etc. If there isn’t a conjunction, no comma is necessary.
Her tits drooped much more than they had prior to childbirth, and her vagina looked like a collapsed termite mound.
This night has been a complete disaster, but a blow job would probably salvage things.
Likewise when you’re joining two independent clauses through the use of a dependent clause, no third comma is necessary:
Her tits drooped much more than they had prior to childbirth, and as I regrettably discovered, her vagina looked like a collapsed termite mound.
When the subject is the same for both clauses and is written only once, use a comma when using the conjunction but though not when using and.
I saw the post she left on his Facebook wall, but I’m still not convinced they’ve actually fucked.
He has three DUIs and a few assault charges still pending.
5. Don’t join independent clauses with a comma. It’s fucking lame-o.
This is a great way to use the semicolon, a piece of punctuation that is woefully underappreciated. If you’re confused as to where it is on the keyboard, look under your right pinky finger; that fancy symbol which can be used to make a winking face on AIM can also improve your writing.
It’s nearly midnight already; there’s no way we’re getting home before curfew.
Nate’s stories are complete bullshit; they’re nothing but regurgitations of stories he read in Penthouse Letters.
It’s not grammatically incorrect to just write these as separate sentences:
It’s nearly midnight already. There’s no way we’re getting home before curfew.
Nate’s stories are complete bullshit. They’re nothing but regurgitations of stories he read in Penthouse Letters.
But it makes your writing seem rather elementary and disjointed. From a style standpoint, while it’s good to keep your sentences easy to understand, going too remedial isn’t desirable.
If you chose to add a conjunction to these independent clauses, you would drop the semicolon and substitute in a comma:
It’s nearly midnight already, and there’s no way we’re getting home before curfew.
Nate’s stories are complete bullshit, as they’re nothing but regurgitations of stories he read in Penthouse Letters.
Reading the three options together should make clear why the first is preferable—not only does it give your composition a more intelligent and natural flow, but there are grammatical reasons as well. The first option is superior to the second choice because it makes clear to the reader that the clauses are closely related; the second does no such thing. In comparison to the third option, the first is more straightforward and brief. Because the semicolon avoids the introduction of unnecessary extra words, it makes the statement more forceful and striking.
A final reason that the semicolon option is better is this: when the second clause is preceded by an adverb—which can sometimes look deceptively like a conjunction—then a comma is inappropriate. This would be in the case of words such as therefore, then, thus, besides, or accordingly.
I’d never been inside her bedroom before that night; besides, I was drunk as a skunk.
6. “All I’ve got in this world are my sentences and my balls, and I don’t break ’em for nobody.”
Don’t substitute periods for commas. The only time it’s appropriate to do this is when you’re trying to put extra emphasis on something
I smoked bowl after bowl searching for a high. Nothing. (right)
I met him at Conifer Park a few summers ago. During my first stint in rehab. (wrong)
She was a tremendous lay. A woman with supple breasts, a silver tongue, and legs that could wrap around my hips with ease. (wrong)
The second example would be much better grammatically if a comma were substituted in for the period:
I met him at Conifer Park a few summers ago, during my first stint in rehab.
On the other hand, the third example can be improved by using a colon:
She was a tremendous lay: a woman with supple breasts, a silver tongue, and legs that could wrap around my hips with ease.
7. A colon is more than an organ that gets cancer.
A colon tells you that what follows it is closely related to the preceding clause: it can introduce a list, an illustrative quotation, or an amplification. Think of the colon as a fence between neighbors in a trailer park in the South. Real close.
He cared about only one thing in life: pussy.
You must be careful not to use a colon to separate a verb (“drinking”) from its complement (“delicious, sophisticated, and healthy…”):
Drinking Scotch is: delicious, sophisticated, and healthy for my liver. (wrong)
Drinking Scotch is delicious, sophisticated, and healthy for my liver. (right)
Also, don’t use a colon to split a preposition from its object:
A decent homemade sex tape requires: good lighting, attractive participants, and a tripod. (wrong)
A decent homemade sex tape requires three things: good lighting, attractive participants, and a tripod. (right)
A colon can be used to join two otherwise independent sentences when the second highlights or amplifies an element of the first:
Even through the haze of smoke she could see why she adored him: his long fingers deftly manipulated the joint as the lighter momentarily illuminated his blue eyes.
Additionally you can use a colon to introduce an illustrative quotation:
All at once Hunter Thompson’s warning came rushing back to mind: “You can turn your back on a person, but never turn your back on a drug. Especially when it’s waving a razor-sharp hunting knife in your eye.”
—Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The colon also has uses within the realm of formal writing such as when quoting scripture, which obviously isn’t something we’ll be discussing in this book.
8. A dash is more useful than a fucking Swiss Army Knife.
The dash is, as the heading suggests, a useful piece of punctuation. It can introduce an abrupt introduction or a summary, or be used as a less formal substitute for the colon. The key word to remember when using a dash is informal—you’ll notice, for example, that we use the dash quite often in this book. We do this not because we’re taking your grammar lightly, but rather as a testament to the kinship that we already have with you, faithful readers. Think of the use of the dash like the tú form in Spanish—we’re using it to let you know we care.
The dash has other uses as well, uses which fit more neatly within the confines of traditional grammar and style. The dash implies a separation more forceful than a comma, and more relaxed than a colon:
The cocktail was a thick, foul-smelling concoction—a mix of tequila, ouzo, sour mix, and lime.
The first thing that came to mind—though the notion was quickly replaced by lust—was whether her boyfriend would decide to come home early from work.
It’s important not to go overboard with your dashes, though. The grammatically correct choice is not to use a dash when another form of punctuation will work:
Her concerns about my debauchery were well founded. It was not from a public urinal that I caught chlamydia; it was from a common whore. (right)
Her concerns about my debauchery were well founded—it was not from a public urinal that I caught chlamydia—it was from a common whore. (wrong)
Random sex, the type depicted in most porno movies, is rather unrealistic. There lies its weakness. (right)
Random sex—the type depicted in most porno movies—is rather unrealistic—there lies its weakness. (wrong)
9. Don’t fuck up the coordination of number between subject and verb.
This is a common mistake and it reeks of amateurism. The words that separate a subject and a verb do not affect the number.
The effect of the acid tab—heightened awareness to sound, visual hallucinations, overt feelings of paranoia—were already taking hold. (wrong)
The effect of the acid tab—heightened awareness to sound, visual hallucinations, overt feelings of paranoia—was already taking hold. (right)
The easiest way to be sure that your verb and subject are coordinated is to remove the words between them and ensure that things still make sense.
Everything I loved about her—the pert breasts, the deviant sexuality, the incessant need to videotape our lovemaking—is everything that haunts me. (right)
Everything I loved about her … is everything that haunts me. (right)
Everything I loved about her—the pert breasts, the deviant sexuality, the incessant need to videotape our lovemaking—are everything that haunts me.(wrong)
Everything I loved about her … are everything that haunts me. (wrong)
It becomes obvious when viewing the sentences this way that the second example has a problem with subject/verb agreement. Likewise a subject remains singular even when other nouns are connected to it:
His mind as well as his body is shutting down from all the drinking.
My car as well as my house is paid for with drug money.
Another mistake people often make is choosing which number to go with when using one of in a sentence. To the ear the correct choice sounds incorrect, but there’s just no arguing with rules of grammar.
She’s one of the hottest women who has ever slept with me. (wrong)
She’s one of the hottest women who have ever slept with me. (right)
He’s one of those guys who is constantly stoned. (wrong)
He’s one of those guys who are constantly stoned. (right)
10. Pronouns are a real bitch.
Pronouns can be a real bitch, making good writers look stupid, and poor writers look like complete morons. When to use me, myself, or I? Who or whom? He or his? And so on. The reason that these rules are difficult to remember is that pronouns change form when they refer to different things, which means unfortunately that a little memorization is going to be required of you.
Chris and me got drunk and beat the shit out of a few freshmen. (wrong)
Chris and I got drunk and beat the shit out of a few freshmen. (right)
Grazi said she wanted to fuck Joe or I. (wrong)
Grazi said she wanted to fuck Joe or me. (right)
The easiest way to remember I versus me is to drop the other person from the sentence and see if it makes sense:
Lucy and me ate some mescaline and went swimming. (wrong)
Me ate some mescaline and went swimming. (wrong)
Lucy and I ate some mescaline and went swimming. (right)
I ate some mescaline and went swimming. (right)
My dad got my brother and I drunk last night. (wrong)
My dad got I drunk last night. (wrong)
My dad got my brother and me drunk last night. (right)
My dad got me drunk last night. (right)
Whom versus who, as mentioned in the intro to this topic, is another tricky question. The technical answer is that whom should be used only when referring to an object, and who should be used when referring to a subject. This is obviously not a book for technical answers, though, so here’s the real answer: If you can answer the question posed with him, then whom should be used. If the answer would be he, then who should be used.
With whom did I have sex? (right)
I had sex with him.
Who stole my fucking stereo? (right)
He stole your fucking stereo.
The last item to mention under this heading is using “understood” verbs. This refers to any situation where you could have an additional verb at the close of a sentence but you decide to drop it. Stylistically this can work—sometimes. Most of the time though it just serves to confuse the reader and create the problem of an indefinite article.
I think Creek probably masturbates more than I. (wrong)
I think Creek probably masturbates more than I do. (right)
Mitch loves smoking pot more than his mom. (wrong)
Mitch loves smoking pot more than he loves his mom. (right)
Mitch loves smoking pot more than his mom does. (right)
11. “You talkin’ to me?”
A participial phrase (think of this as foreplay in the sentence world) at the beginning of a sentence refers to the grammatical subject (who or what you’re talkin’ ’bout).
Fleeing from the liquor store, he saw the owner with a shotgun in his hands.
“Fleeing” refers to the subject of the sentence—in this case “he”—not to the owner of the liquor store. If you want to refer to the owner you have to rephrase the sentence as such:
He saw the owner with a shotgun in his hands, fleeing from the liquor store.
Participial phrases that are preceded by a conjunction or a preposition, adjectives, and adjective phrases all come under the same rule if they begin a sentence.
A woman of extreme beauty, they paid top dollar to photograph her nude body. (wrong)
A woman of extreme beauty, she was paid top dollar for photographs of her nude body. (right)
Drunk and horny, the man seemed attractive to me. (wrong)
Drunk and horny, I thought the man attractive. (right)
Without a financial planner to dissuade him, the Ponzi scheme seemed a wise investment. (wrong)
Without a financial planner to dissuade him, he thought the Ponzi scheme a wise investment. (right)
Copyright © 2011 by Chris Baker and Jacob Hansen