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Five Lessons in Punctuation

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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, Make her feel welcome!

For sheer readability, few things make as much difference as proper punctuation. These examples from You Send Me, a book I wrote with my husband, show how much difference punctuation can make:

"Who got fired, Stacey?" said the director.

Who got fired? Stacey, said the director.

Who got fired? Stacey said the director.

See what I mean? Now I can't tell you in a few paragraphs all you need to know about punctuation. But I can hit the high spots, the problems that come up most often.

1. The Indispensable Comma

The word "comma" comes from a Greek word meaning "to cut off," and that's what commas do. They cut sentences into pieces, organizing words into meaningful groups. Sometimes, the organization can make a big difference! Check out these sentences: (1) Jack said Harry wrecked the car. (2) Jack, said Harry, wrecked the car.

Here's some comma-sense advice:

"¢ Use commas and a connecting word (like and or but) to separate clauses—groups of words with both a subject and a verb. John had forgotten her birthday five times in a row, but Gloria thought this year would be different.

"¢ Use commas between items in a list: Gloria was hoping for dinner, dancing, and flowers. She was furious that John hadn't made a dinner reservation, called the florist, or even bought a card.

"¢ Use commas before or after a quotation: Gloria said, "I might have known." "I'll make it up to you," John promised. But don't use a comma after a quotation that's a question or exclamation: "Why not kiss and make up?" John asked.

"¢ Use commas before or after the name of someone you're addressing: "Gloria, you're over-reacting," he said. "Maybe you're right, John," she answered.

"¢ Use a comma after an introductory remark if you want to emphasize the pause: Fortunately, the argument was soon over. Before long, they were cuddling on the couch.

"¢ Use commas around an aside, as you might use dashes or parentheses: He dialed Chez Panisse, their favorite restaurant, and managed to wangle a reservation.

"¢ Use commas around a clause that interrupts a sentence to insert a thought. These interruptions often begin with which, where, who, or when: They arrived at Chez Panisse, which was half an hour away, at ten. The waiter, who knew John and Gloria, joined them in a toast. (But don't use a comma if there's no interruption: John knew which wine was which. Gloria knew when she was ahead.)

2. The Underused Semicolon

The semicolon may be the most unappreciated and underused punctuation mark. If you find semicolons intimidating, relax. They're great for tidying up a series of items with commas inside them. Imagine how hard it would be to read this sentence if only commas were used: Jack willed his house to Jill, his best friend; his collection of lederhosen to his neighbors, Hans and Franz; and his dog, Tige, to a friend, Buster.

Semicolons are also handy for joining chunks of a sentence that could stand alone. A comma by itself isn't enough to hold together clauses like these: Jack broke his crown, Jill wasn't seriously injured. (This is sometimes called a run-on sentence.) Unless you want to add a connecting word, use a semicolon: Jack broke his crown; Jill wasn't seriously injured.

3. Chatty Quotation Marks

The trick with quotation marks is at the end of the quote. Does punctuation that follows the quoted material (period, comma, question mark, or whatever) go inside or outside the closing quotation marks? Here are the ins and the outs.

"¢ Periods go inside. "I think I'm getting the flu."
"¢ Commas go inside. "I probably caught it at work," he added.
"¢ Colons go outside. Elizabeth didn't like being called "Liz": it was so predictable.
"¢ Semicolons go outside. Don't play "My Funny Valentine"; she hates it.
"¢ Question marks and exclamation points are sometimes inside and sometimes outside. In most cases, they go inside the quotation marks: "What's your name, sweetie?" said the cashier. "It's not sweetie!" shouted the child. But question marks and exclamation points must go outside if they're not part of the actual quotation. Have you seen the film version of Gray's "Elegy"? Good heavens, I didn't even know they'd filmed Gray's "Elegy"!

"¢ Parentheses go outside quotation marks if the entire quote is parenthetical: Mom had the deciding vote ("I said no"). Parentheses go inside the quotation marks if only part of the quote is parenthetical. She added, "Next time, ask me first (if there is a next time)."

4. The Much-Abused Apostrophe

As someone with an apostrophe in her name, I hate to see this punctuation mark mistreated. Here's how it ought to be used.

Possessives. Apostrophes help show who owns what. To make a noun possessive, add either an apostrophe with the letter s ('s ) or just the apostrophe alone, depending on the circumstances. The rules come in threes:

1. Add 's to a singular word or name, regardless of its ending. (Yes, even if it ends in s or x or z—whether sounded or silent.) Ms. Jones's favorite pastime is reading Camus's essays and collecting Degas's etchings. Her dog's name is Rex, and Rex's meals come from Paris's finest restaurants. Her dress's fabric is bamboo and her husband's shirts are Egyptian cotton. "It was Jacques's idea to live in France," she said, "after we declared bankruptcy in the States."

2. Add 's to a plural word that doesn't end in s. The children's shoes cost almost as much as the men's and the women's. My feet's bunions are killing me.

3. Add just the apostrophe to a plural word or name that ends in s. The Joneses' and the Smiths' and the Gonzalezes' houses were vandalized, and their cars' tires were slashed as well. The houses' windows were broken too. NOTE: When you need a comma or a period after a possessive word that ends with an apostrophe, the comma or period goes after the apostrophe and not in front of it: The idea was the girls', or maybe the boys', but at any rate the responsibility was their parents'.

Contractions. An apostrophe shows where letters have been dropped in a shortened word or phrase. For example, shouldn't is short for "should not"; the apostrophe replaces the o in "not." And I'll is short for "I will"; the apostrophe is a polite nod to the dropped letters. You can't say I didn't warn you.

Some unusual plurals. No, you DON'T add 's to a word or a name to make it plural! You can, however, add 's to form the plural of an individual letter. This makes for easier reading, and many stylebooks recommend it. At Swarthmore, Libbi got B's and C's and started spelling her name with two i's.

5. The Helpful Hyphen

Look what a difference a hyphen can make: The stolen sofa was recovered. Or, The stolen sofa was re-covered. Don't underestimate this handy punctuation mark. If in doubt about using a hyphen with a prefix, look it up.

When two words are combined to describe a noun, we sometimes use a hyphen between them. Generally if the compound follows the noun, it doesn't get a hyphen: That duck is water resistant. But if the compound comes before the noun, it usually gets a hyphen: That's a water-resistant duck. (And don't ask why a duck.)

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

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.