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Five Lessons in Grammar

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This week we're joined by a special guest blogger. Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, as well as other books about language. She is a regular monthly guest on public radio station WNYC in New York. Learn more at her website, grammarphobia.com. Make her feel welcome!

1. I or Me?

The most common grammatical mistake in English is probably using I when we should use me. We hear this mistake all the time: "Thanks for inviting Bob and I to your anniversary bash." Or, "This was such a treat for the children and I." Or, "To your mother and I, your happiness means everything." Nice thoughts, but the right pronoun is me, me, me!

Luckily, there's an easy way to help decide whether to use I or me. Just mentally eliminate the other guy and the correct word becomes obvious: "Thanks for inviting ["¦] me to your anniversary bash." Or, "This was such a treat for ["¦] me." Or, "To ["¦] me, your happiness means everything."

And by the way, when you can't decide between I and me, the answer is not to resort to myself! That's not only a cop-out but also wrong. Words like myself (they're called reflexive pronouns) are used for only two things: to emphasize something ("I did it myself"), and to refer to a person already mentioned ("I saw myself in the mirror").

2. Who or Whom?

It's a good thing to remember that who does something (it's a subject, like he), while whom has something done to it (it's an object, like him). You might even try moving the words around mentally and putting he or him where who or whom should go: if him fits, you want whom (both end in m); if he fits, you want who (both end in a vowel).

Example: "Who [or He] threw the first punch at whom [or him]?" asked the judge.

See? Who does it to whom. But don't be fooled by prepositions—words that direct other words, like to, at, by, for, from, in, on, toward, with, and so on). A preposition isn't automatically followed by whom. It can be followed by a clause (a group of words with both a subject and a verb) that has who as its subject.

Consider this sentence: Hermione gives help to [whoever or whomever] needs advice. Don't be misled by the preposition to. It's followed by a clause: whoever or whomever needs advice. Since the mystery word does something (needs advice), it's a subject, so the answer is whoever needs advice.

OK, now that you know the rules, here's how to bend them. On more relaxed occasions, you can sometimes get away with using who where whom is technically correct. Who is often less stuffy-sounding at the beginning of a sentence or a clause. Examples: Who's the email from? Did I tell you who I saw? Who are you waiting for? No matter who you invite, I can't come. Good English would call for whom in those cases, but you can use who in casual conversation or informal writing.

But beware: Who sounds grating if used for whom right after a preposition. You can get around this by putting who in front: From whom? becomes Who from?

3. That or Which?

See if you can guess the answer: Nobody likes a kid [that or which] whines. I'll end the suspense: it's that.

If you want to satisfy Miss Grundy, here's how to figure out whether a clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb) should start with that or which. When the clause (that or which whines) isn't essential to the point of the sentence, choose which. But if the clause is essential, choose that. In this case, if we dropped the clause we'd end up with Nobody likes a kid. Not quite the point, is it?

Another handy rule to remember is that a which clause is separated from the rest of the sentence by commas: Someone tripped over the kid's stroller, which was in the aisle. Or: The kid's stroller, which was in the aisle, was a safety hazard. So if a clause makes you pause, it probably calls for which.

By the way, some of you may think the word that can't refer to a person, only who. Wrong. This is another popular myth. If you need convincing, take a look at this entry in my blog.

4. "If I was" or "If I were"?

When you express a wish, or when you use an "if" statement to talk about a something that's not true, use "were" instead of "was." Why? Because those situations call for what grammarians refer to as the subjunctive mood, and not the usual indicative.

For example, you'd say, "Last week I was on vacation" [indicative], but "This week I wish I were on vacation" [subjunctive], and "If I were on vacation [subjunctive] I wouldn't be here at work."

Note, however, that not every "if" statement calls for the subjunctive, only those that are undeniably contrary to fact. In cases where the statement may actually be true, was remains was. Examples: If I was wrong, I apologize. (I may have been wrong.) If she was there, I guess I missed her. (She may have been there.) If it was Tuesday, I must have been at the gym. (It may have been Tuesday.)

5. Collective Nouns: Singular or Plural?

Should we say, "couple is" or "couple are"? "Majority was" or "majority were"? "Number is" or "number are"? The answer: It all depends.

Many words that mean a collection of things—like couple, group, total, number, majority—can be either singular or plural, depending on whether you mean the group as a whole or the individuals in the group. So ask yourself whether you're talking about the whole or the parts. Sometimes this can be a close judgment call.

Let's look at couple first. Here are two examples from my grammar book Woe Is I: "A couple of tenants own geckos. The couple in 5G owns a family of mongooses." Both sentences are acceptable, one plural and the other singular. In the first one, you're talking about two separate tenants who own geckos. In the second, you mean one couple that owns mongooses.

Here's a hint: Think of the expression "The majority rules." It should remind you that if the word in front of a collective noun is the, then the noun is usually singular. If the word in front is a, especially when the noun is followed by of, then it's usually plural. So you'd say, "A majority of the residents were polled" (plural), but "The majority was significant" (singular). And you'd write, "A group of Dutch investors are building 25 homes" (plural), but "The Dutch investment group is building 25 homes" (singular).

Yesterday: Debunking Etymological Myths. Monday: Debunking Grammar Myths. Coming tomorrow: Five Lessons in Punctuation. And on Friday, Pat will be answering your grammar questions. You can ask said questions in the comments.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Opening Ceremony
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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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