Lincoln Didn’t Need Four Hours to Sharpen an Ax

I’m getting really tired of seeing this quote attributed to President Abraham Lincoln:

If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the ax.

Young Abe Lincoln was hired out to other farms by his father. He became handy with an ax, splitting logs into rails for fences. I’m pretty sure that he never spent more than a few minutes sharpening his ax, because that’s all it takes for me to sharpen any of my axes. If the bit has a chip in it, you use a mill bastard file (when talking about files, bastard means medium-rough) to smooth the edge; otherwise, a simple whetstone is sufficient. I use a round stone called a puck that I can grip with one hand while I hold the ax head in the other hand. It took me less than five minutes to return an old, battered Estwing hatchet to service after my wife found it at a yard sale, and we still use it when camping at the beach.

So why am I ranting about axes? I’m not—I’m ranting about attribution.

A good idea stands on its own. If there is a well-known expert who has weighed in with a pithy quote that applies to the subject, then inserting it into an expository article is perfectly reasonable; I do it all the time. But first, I research the quote to confirm that it is accurate and was actually said by the person I’m going to attribute it to. To do less not only risks my credibility, it shows disrespect to the reader and calls the otherwise good idea into question.

It is indisputable that preparation is key to efficiency. No one will argue otherwise. Yet, someone—several someones, in fact—introduced their article on that indisputable maxim with that faux quote which Lincoln never said. I can say definitively that he never said it, because The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln is available on line, and nothing like that line comes up in various searches. Moreover, I suspect that Lincoln would find the assertion ludicrous if he heard it.

So when another article popped up in my Feedly list today and I saw that silly quote about sharpening Lincoln’s ax, I closed my browser and I composed this rant. Maybe I should thank him.

Commas for Zombies: A Punctuation Guide

Eats, Won't Leave, So Shoot!

Eats, Won’t Leave, So Shoot!

I’ve previously written about my inner eighth grade English teacher. While I’m generally pretty easy going, he gets cranky when people whose first language is English use it poorly. Typically, it’s improper phrasing, mixed metaphors, or odd colloquialisms that set him off. Lately, he’s become annoyed by improper punctuation. The two most commonly used punctuation marks are the period and the comma. Hardly anyone gets the period wrong, but comma errors are … well, common. In this short post, I’ll summarize a few guidelines for proper use of the comma.

Commas For The Zombie Apocalypse

Consider the following sentence:

As the zombies closed in, Emily realized, to her horror, that she had left her grandmother’s teakettle on the stove, with the burner at medium-high.

In this example, “As the zombies closed in,” is an introductory clause, which is set apart by a comma. Common starter words for introductory clauses include after, although, as, because, if, since, when, and while. Similarly, commas should follow introductory words, like well, however, yes, and even similarly.

Non-essential phrases, such as “to her horror,” are also set apart with commas, before and after. If you could remove the phrase without changing the essential meaning of the sentence, then it is a non-essential phrase. A clause that begins with that is always essential.

Use a comma to separate free modifiers, which describe attributes of some element at the beginning or middle of a sentence. “With the burner at medium-high,” modifies the teakettle on the stove. If it isn’t clear what is being modified, re-structure the sentence.

Rob fired a warning shot, but the zombies continued to advance.

In this example, the comma separates two independent clauses, joined by the coordinating conjunction but. The other coordinating conjunctions are and, for, or, not, so, and yet. The comma always precedes the conjunction.

Greta backed away from the lumbering, rotting zombie.

If two adjectives modify the same noun, and the meaning would be the same if the order of the adjectives were reversed, then separate them with a comma.

The zombies were merely hungry, not sadistic.

Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasting elements. In this example, not is our cue. Other contrast cues include versus and as opposed to.

Emily, Rob, and Greta fought the zombies with guns, knives, and axes.

Use commas to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses written in a series. The comma before the and is referred to as an Oxford comma. Some sources say to always use it, while others say it should only be used to avoid confusion. Like neckties and Dos Equis, it’s a style choice.

Additional Thoughts

A comma is not an indicator of when to pause. Never put a comma between a subject and its verb, even if you’d read it aloud that way. Also, a comma is not the only choice for joining two sentence parts; consider using the semi-colon. If you imbed a quote in the middle of a sentence, place a comma before both the opening and the closing quotation marks. Finally, remember Will Strunk’s advice, “Omit needless words.” Brevity requires little punctuation.

I’ve included a barrel-full of commas in this short article, in both the examples and the explanations, to illustrate proper usage. If you think I’ve omitted or misused one or more of them, leave a comment.

Zombie image courtesy of AMC, “The Walking Dead”