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by Peter Moskos

January 23, 2015

Why Yes...

...Occasionally a man does put on his papou's (grandfather's) 1930s AHEPA fez while giving a Greek Americans talk at New York's Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.

January 20, 2015

Is this what Prohibition was like?

So there's something very odd about this:
According to the [New York City] Department of Health, New York University students were dispatched to gather shisha from of 13 hookah bars; after samples were analyzed, it was found that all 13 samples contained tobacco.
Well I should hope so! You might find the same if you analyzed a pack of Marlboro Lights. The article goes on:
"To know that tobacco was smoked inside these establishments, exposing hundreds to the dangers of secondhand smoke, is troubling," Merle Myerson, the director of the Mount Sinai Roosevelt and St. Luke’s Cardiovascular Disease Prevention Program, said in a statement.
"To know that tobacco was smoked inside these establishments..."? These places are tobacco smoking bars. You might not like it. It might not be legal. But don't be shocked. It's not even like these places are even speakeasies. They're shisha joints. That's what you do: smoke tobacco.

"Shisha" is tobacco smoked from a water pipe. Always has been. Always will be. (And hookah is just another word for shisha, though linguists and Arab-snobs like to look down on the more western childish word "hookah". The brits sometimes call it "hubbly bubbly". The Greeks call it "nargilé," but gave up on it a while back, a few hipsters notwithstanding).

There is a strip of shisha (and other middle-eastern) joins a few blocks from me, on Steinway Street. At least one of these shisha places has been here since long before me. Interestingly, though, most of the shisha joints appeared after the smoking ban took effect in NYC circa 2003. Most are still probably legal because smoking is permitted if (at least as I understand it) most of their income (80%?) comes from tobacco sales (an exception that was really meant for rich cigar bars). So yeah, if they also sell beer or dinner, it's probably not allowed. But what shouldn't be an issue is what "those people" are smoking. It's not Soylent Green. It's tobacco!

January 14, 2015

Bringing a gun to a gun fight

It does seem pretty stupid to rob a gun store. But it also calls into question the deterrent effect of guns. A good man with a gun was not enough to stop four bad people with guns. There was a gunfight. The store owner was killed. His wife believes her life was saved because of his gun. I wonder.

January 13, 2015

311 is a Joke

When 311 is introduced for non-emergency calls, there's always talk about how the new 311 system will ease pressure on the 911 system. That never happens (but "hope springs eternal...").

I can't actually find the 911 numbers, but I know there are more 911 calls now than in 2003, when 311 was introduced here in NYC. (I know because 911 calls always go up).

But what's amazing is how much 311 calls have gone up. Whether this is good or bad is debatable. But it's certainly noteworthy and does cost money.

The 311 system in NYC went live in March 2003. There were 8,383 calls a day average: "As many as 32,023 callers a day"! (Plus $25 million in start up costs plus $27 million-a-year operation.)

Six year later (2010) the system was taking 68,000 calls a day (more than twice as much as the maximum load when the system was introduced).

In 2014, New Yorkers used the 311 system 28 million times! (16% higher than 2011) I had to do the math, but that's 77,000 times a day.

311 call volume will increase. As will 911 call volume. It is written. And maybe increased call volume can increase forever -- or maybe it's a good thing -- but let's not fool ourselves into thinking anything will decrease 911 calls but going back on the promise of unlimited free supply of police services

And kind of related -- and certainly amusing -- in 2012 38% of 911 calls in NYC (not 311) were inadvertent. 10.4 million 911 calls in 2010. Of those, 4 million were "butt calls." I have to assume that these were not handed to patrol officers. But when I was a cop in 2000 (cell phones were just up and coming), 6% of all calls were "911 no voice." And we had to respond to all of them.

From the [not so] sharp minds at ProPublica

I've written before about their foolish and inaccurate claim that the black-to-white racial disparity among those shot by police is 21 to 1. I said, given the group they look at, the number is 9 to 1. But without any slight-of-hand or misleading highlighting of statistical outliers, the actually black-to-white racial disparity, the take-home stat, is 4 to 1.

More than two months passed. The inaccurate 21-to-1 figure was bandied about by the NPR, the New York Times, and The Economist.

Then, on a quiet Christmas Eve, ProPublica's Ryan Gabrielson and Ryann Grochowski Jones posted an article to address criticism (mainly brought by me and David Klinger) of their initial study.

I don't want to waste much more time on this; I've wasted too much already (see 1, 2, 3, and 4). But I do find it funny, in their piece, after many paragraphs focusing on the red herring non-issue of hispanic undercount, there it is -- buried in the 11th paragraph -- they kind of admit I'm right: the ratio might be 9 to 1!

Maybe I should just stop there and say, "you're welcome."

But, but, I can't! Because then there it is -- a revisionist gem -- they say the actual number doesn't really matter: "And whether 9 times as great, 17 times or 21 times, the racial disparity remains vast, and demands deeper investigation."

What the fuck?!

The 21-times ratio is the only real point of your original article (which is still up and unapologetic)! And the only real point of my bitching was that 21-times is wrong. Now even 4:1 or 9:1 may be too large. And it does demand deeper investigation. So why not investigate deeper (Or at least crib from those who have)?

According to ProPublica: "the data is far too limited to point to a cause for the disparity." Actually, no. The disparity can be explained pretty well, without too much "deep" digging. What I'm about to tell isn't the "deepest" investigation, mind you, but it's a start. And it's on me, guys. Gratis.

The black to white racial disparity (all ages) of those killed by cops since 2000 (and reported to the UCR, which is big caveat) is 4 to 1. The racial disparity among those who kill cops is 5 to 1 (the rate is per capita, mind you, not the absolute number). I'd bet $20 it holds for teens, too.

Now one could say, as does Prof. Klinger, that the data on police-involved homicides are simply too limited to make any point at all. But if one is willing to play with bad data (and I'm game, if they're the best we got), then you can't say your conclusion is fine but... other conclusions? ...well, "the data is far too limited."

Finally -- and it goes back to my point about outliers and cherry-picked bullshit data -- ProPublica has the chutzpah to say they can't go back further in time -- thus including more data, increasing statistical validity, and decreasing the magnitude of their conclusion -- because, get this: they can't get accurate population numbers.

So let me get this right: they're fine using fucked-up UCR data on justified police-involved homicide, they're fine cherry picking an outlier three-year sample with an "n" (total cases) of 62, but they wouldn't dare look at more years because we can't estimate the US population between 2001 and 2007? Are they on crack? Are they stupid? Or are they simply blinded by ideologically bias. I honestly do not know. But it's a nonsensical line of statistical integrity for them to draw.

Here is it in their words:
Using Census 2000 and Census 2010 data for baselines assumes that the ratio of populations remain static, and that a snapshot of population rates for a subset of time can be assumed to be accurate for an entire period. We know that's not true.... To test the critics' argument, we calculated risk ratios for as far back as the American Community Survey data goes (2008) [ed note: the ACS actually goes back to 2005, but whatever]. From 2006 to 2008, the risk ratio was 9.1 to 1 (with a 95 percent confidence interval 6.19, 13.39).
First of all, stop the fancy talk about "risk ratio" and "confidence interval." You either don't know what you're talking about or you're knowingly trying to mislead.

Speaking above your reader's head is a dirty rhetorical trick to hoodwink gentle reades into trusting your statistical acumen (which is pretty crappy). As my grand pappy used to say, "Ain't no need to use a 25-cent word when a 5-cent one will do." (See, now I'm usin' the reverse rhetorical trick by affectin' an aww-sucks-I'm-just-a-common-guy style of speech here.) For what it's worth, my papou was an immigrant who spoke with a Greek accent.

"Risk ratio" here means nothing more than "more likely." "Confidence interval," well, if you're going to use it, explain it. Better yet, explain it accurately* or at least point out that it supports 9:1 more than 21:1.

More to the point, it's pointless to discuss statistical nuances of irrelevancy! Of all the problems in your analysis, you're going to draw the line at estimating population in Census off-years? Really?! It's like we're sitting in your rusted jalopy and you tell me you can't drive me home because the windshield wipers aren't working. But you failed to mention the fact that the whole thing is up on cinder blocks!

Of course we can estimate population figures, you fools! The US population grew 9.7% between 2000 and 2010. Talk about easy math! Go on, be bold, you dirty devil: assume a linear population growth for all categories. Divide 10% by 10. It comes out to 1% a year. I know it's not perfect, but it'll be close enough; trust me. (Actually population growth of 9.7% over 10-years comes out 0.925% compounded continuously.)

Will this population estimate be perfect? No. Is it good enough? Yes. Will it tell you far more about what you claim to show? Of course. Is that why you won't do it? Probably. Would this population estimate be the single most accurate number in your entire analysis? Abso-fucking-lutely.

Confidence Intervals

* This is a footnote to the above post. (and the third in a series on basic math concepts)

The ProPublica people don't explain confidence intervals at all in this piece, but in their original they say, "a 95 percent confidence interval indicates that black teenagers are at between 10 and 40 times greater risk of being killed by a police officer." Er... actually, no.

A "95 percent confidence interval" doesn't indicate anything about the real word. What a 95 percent confidence interval "indicates" is that there is statistically a 19 in 20 chance that the "real" number they're looking for is somewhere between 10 and 40. (And a not-insignificant 1 in 20 chance that it's not!) A wide confidence interval may sound dramatic, but it's a red flag which means there isn't enough data.

Compare these two statements:

A) "a 95% confidence interval indicates that black teenagers are at between 5 and 80 times greater risk of being killed by a police officer."

B) "a 95% confidence interval indicates that black teenagers are 10 to 11 times greater risk of being killed by a police officer."

The first may sound more damning, but the large number (80 times!) just comes from ambiguity because there's not enough data). The second statement actually tells us much more, and with much greater accuracy.

January 9, 2015

I am Ahmed Merabet

Let's not forget the French police officers who were killed. Particularly Ahmed Merabet, who died protecting other people's right to make fun of his religion.

David Brooks has an interesting take on the matter. While deliberate provocation is best left at the kids' table, let's not get too on our high-horse about our own dedication to free speech:
Let’s face it: If they had tried to publish their satirical newspaper on any American university campus over the last two decades it wouldn’t have lasted 30 seconds. Student and faculty groups would have accused them of hate speech. The administration would have cut financing and shut them down.
Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.
It’s a good time to come up with a less hypocritical approach to our own controversial figures, provocateurs and satirists.
In most societies, there’s the adults’ table and there’s the kids’ table. The people who read Le Monde or the establishment organs are at the adults’ table. The jesters, the holy fools and people like Ann Coulter and Bill Maher are at the kids’ table. They’re not granted complete respectability, but they are heard because in their unguided missile manner, they sometimes say necessary things that no one else is saying.

Healthy societies, in other words, don’t suppress speech, but they do grant different standing to different sorts of people. Wise and considerate scholars are heard with high respect. Satirists are heard with bemused semirespect. Racists and anti-Semites are heard through a filter of opprobrium and disrespect. People who want to be heard attentively have to earn it through their conduct.

The massacre at Charlie Hebdo should be an occasion to end speech codes. And it should remind us to be legally tolerant toward offensive voices, even as we are socially discriminating.

Your friendly neighborhood police officer

Courtesy of Pearls Before Swine:

January 8, 2015

Draw Mohammed Day (II)

I suppose today is just as good as any day to link to my post from 2010: Draw Mohammed Day. This is the cartoon that started it all (though this was Norway, I think, and not France). But click through for more.

Meanwhile it's worth posting this article from the Onion in 2012: "No One Murdered Because Of This Image"

WASHINGTON—Following the publication of the image above, in which the most cherished figures from multiple religious faiths were depicted engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity, no one was murdered, beaten, or had their lives threatened, sources reported Thursday. The image of the Hebrew prophet Moses high-fiving Jesus Christ as both are having their erect penises vigorously masturbated by Ganesha, all while the Hindu deity anally penetrates Buddha with his fist, reportedly went online at 6:45 p.m. EDT, after which not a single bomb threat was made against the organization responsible, nor did the person who created the cartoon go home fearing for his life in any way. Though some members of the Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths were reportedly offended by the image, sources confirmed that upon seeing it, they simply shook their heads, rolled their eyes, and continued on with their day.

George Kelling on Broken Windows

In the LA Times:
Q: Do people confuse and conflate broken windows with “zero-tolerance policing” or “stop, question and frisk” practices?

A: Yes. The other day I read that a Delaware police chief said his department was going to do broken windows with steroids. I find that pretty scary because that smacks of zealotry.

Broken windows is a tactic, an essential part of community policing that works with the community to identify problems and set priorities. It doesn't matter what problems police are up against, they need partners to resolve them, whether it's squeegee men or homeless in the subway. Broken windows is a tactic within community policing strategy.

Broken Windows in question

This article in the Times is worth reading. Of note: the most discretionary arrest in NYC, Dis Con, down 91 percent. Meanwhile the courts are close to empty.
“This proves to us is what we all knew as defenders: You can end broken-windows policing without ending public safety,” said Justine M. Luongo, the deputy attorney-in-charge of criminal practice for the Legal Aid Society.
I love how it took the police union and police (in)action for police officers to prove what Legal Aid lawyers have been saying along. But are they correct?

Stupid arrests are not part of Broken Windows. And they have been part of NYC policing. And by "stupid" I mean giving tickets or summonses to non-criminals using a park at night, riding the subway, riding a bike on a bike path/sidewalk, and walking through a park at night to get home (p 207 of Cop in the Hood). Now I don't think those BS things were the majority of arrests and summonses, but they did happen. And they happened because pressure from compstat and community meetings got passed down through the chain of command. And there didn't seem to be any way to stop these abuses from happening. Until now!

Any time discretionary arrests go down 90 percent without crime going up, it's noteworthy. First it was stop and frisk going down and now it is arrests. Maybe this is good. There have always been too many arrests in American policing because policing in American has for too long been defined by making arrests. And that's a shame (see p 144 of Cop in the Hood). You don't need to arrest people to use Broken Windows. Indeed, you shouldn't need to. That's been the disconnect here in NYC. This takes a major shift in police mentality. One that is hopefully happening right now. The optimist in me likes to think of this as a clean slate, where a police department and can get its priorities in order and police officers can be left to use discretion and do their job. The realist in me knows better.

January 2, 2015

Stop lying! (and free Doug Williams)

"You're a fool if you go into a lie detector test thinking that telling the truth is good enough."

- Peter Moskos, John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
I've written about this before. Here I am saying much of the same... but this time it's on NPR.

What I find crazy is that the defenders of the test, the American Polygraph Association, is thrilled simply to find a study that says the test is "better than chance." Well, I should hope so!

But tell that to the 20 percent of applicants who get rejected while telling the truth.

It's a Dirty Job...

I've always been a big fan of Mike Rowe and his TV show, "Dirty Jobs" (now on a different channel and called, "Somebody's Gotta Do It").

Here Rowe talks about recent police events. As always, he approaches issues with a certain degree of kindness and empathy. Also, he's nobody's fool. (I suspect he would make a very good police officer.) Read the full version. But here's a part:
Within moments, everyone was talking about Garner and Brown, and the conversation got very political very quickly. A liberal guest said, 'Look, I wasn't there, but it seems pretty clear that both men would still be alive had they been white.' A conservative guest replied, 'I wasn't there either, but it seems pretty clear that both men would still be alive if they hadn't resisted arrest.'

This annoyed the liberal, who asked the conservative why Republicans wanted a 'police state.' This annoyed the conservative, who asked the liberal why Democrats wanted 'total anarchy.' Things continued to escalate, and within moments, fingers were pointing, veins were bulging, and logical fallacies were filling the air. Ho! ho! ho!

For once, I kept my mouth shut and listened as a roomful of decent people tore each others throats out. It was remarkable, because no one disagreed on the big points. No one disagreed that black lives mattered just as much as white lives. No one disputed that racial bias in law enforcement should be exposed and eliminated. In fact, no one disagreed about the basic facts surrounding each case. The breakdown happened over relevance and context.
The one thing I'll add is that I do think there's great disagreement about the basic facts. Either Michael Brown was fighting to get Officer Wilson's gun and then charged the cop or Brown had his hands up in surrender and was executed in cold blood. Either Eric Garner was murdered by a cop using a chokehold while Garner was trying to surrender or Garner resisting arrest and died after after physical struggle.

And the other one thing I'll add is that I'm often in situations where everybody wants to talk to me about recent events. I've been forced to say, "Can we please talk about something else?" Maybe I can just hand out Rowe's article and get another drink.

And the final one thing I have to say is that it's actually not often that I or you will be in room with divergent views. Holiday parties are one of the few events that bring together people of different political persuasions.

Happy New Year!

January 1, 2015

What's your C.O.P. score?

You know, "Crimes prevented Over rePlacement." (Or maybe just "C-POR.") Like WAR, wins above replacement, but for cops.

The idea is to break crime down by beat/post and looking at it over time (a long time, like years). Wouldn't it be nice to know if there actually was less crime on your post while you were policing. Of course would give incentive to under report crime. Still, it would be nice to know. And it's not like we have anything better.

Policing protests

There's never a guarantee in policing that a tactic will always work, but if the goal is to let people protest, not have people hurt, and end things peacefully, two cities serve as useful case studies.

In Hong Kong, protesters blocked major roadways for months (OMG, traffic was blocked!). Rather than cracking down and perhaps igniting a major revolt, the government waited it out. Police torn down the last camps a few weeks ago. In the end: "The Hong Kong government gave no substantial concessions, and the protest movement increasingly succumbed to exhaustion and internal fractures." This is actually somewhat similar to how the NYPD dealt with Occupy in 2011.

Had the law-and-order police come in and busted heads, who knows? We might have democracy in Hong Kong (and angry people in America). But my point isn't whether the protests are for a good cause or not, my point is there's a right way to handle protests if you don't want people to get hurt (or hand political capital over to the protesters).

Meanwhile in Nashville, Tennessee, the chief turned over a highway to Ferguson protesters and served hot chocolate. Of course a lot of people got pissed off at such treatment when he could have used tear gas and arrests. (And the freeway! What about the free flow of vehicle traffic?!)

In the end nobody got hurt and everybody went home. Chief Anderson wrote a nice letter in response to one complainer. Worth reading. Good on 'im! Chief Anderson seems to understand that protesters are not an existential threat to American values as much as heavy handed policing of protesters.

Happy 2015!

Choose your own adventure! The sick prisoner. (page 9)

You're back on the way to booking when the prisoner starts to act like he's sick. Again! He moans and says he's not well.

What do you do?

Ignore him. Good God. You just came from the hospital! Now he must be faking it. If you keep driving, turn to page 8.

You took this job to help people. Sure he might be faking it, but what if he really needs help? If you stop immediately to check on his well being, turn to page 26.

Don't ask any questions. Maybe he fine 30 minutes ago. But right now this man is in need of aid! Best to see a real doctor. If you change course, put on the lights and siren, and head straight to the hospital, turn to page 4.

Choose your own adventure! The sick prisoner. (page 4)

Boy, with those lights and sirens on, nobody still gets out of your way. And though you want to get really fast for this medical emergency, you know General Orders prohibit any speed in excess of 10 miles over the speed limit. A few cars even pass you. But soon enough, you arrive at the hospital, safe and sound.

You rush the prisoner into the hospital, where the triage nurse doesn't seem as concerned about his condition as you are. Actually, the prisoner doesn't seem so sick now, either.

But better safe than sorry. You go to the waiting room and handcuff your prisoner to a chair. Your sergeant is pissed off when you request a second officer to escort the prisoner to the bathroom, per General Orders. Many hours pass. General Orders say you shouldn't be on hospital detail for more than two yours. But you inform your sergeant, she tells you to go fuck yourself.

Why isn't there a doctor in Central Booking?

Mike shows up and you ask if he's going to take over the detail. He laughs and says, "on view, on you." But at least he brings you a cup of coffee. He even asks your prisoner how he's feeling and sounds sincere. But you don't think he is.

You wish you had brought something to read.

An hour later, a guy comes in with a gunshot wound. He gets rushed right in. You know his admittance means at least another hour-plus wait for you. It was on your post, you're told. It probably would have happened regardless, you figure.

After five hours of waiting, a nurse finally enters through the magic automatic doors and calls the name of your prisoner. Behind the doors, your prisoner is inspected briefly by a nurse practitioner, who asks a few question. He doesn't seem too after prisoner can't be more specific than saying his stomach "don't feel good." You don't appreciate the disrespectful way the nurse looks at him, and you. He says the prisoner if fine. After another 30 minutes, you have the paperwork, the doctor's note you need, and head back to booking.

Sure, in hindsight it was a waste of time. But hindsight is 20/20. You never know for sure. Better safe than sorry.

Turns to page 9.

Choose your own adventure! The sick prisoner. (page 26)

You're a good officer. You stop the car and go to check on your prisoner.

As soon as you open the rear door, the prisoners jumps out and runs away!

Somehow he must have managed to get himself free from your handcuffs! Maybe next time you should double lock them. Or make them tighter. But then prisoners always complaint he handcuffs are too tight.

It doesn't seem like a big deal. And a few hours later he's caught. No harm, no foul!

But when you get back to the station, you're told the commanding officer wants to see you. He says to hand over your badge and gun. You're on modified duty and suspended for 30 days.

The episode makes the papers and prompts harsh criticism from police officials and the mayor. The police chief himself says publicly, like he needed to say anything, "You are totally off the streets!"

People make jokes behind your back.

Your career is ruined.


(start over?)

Choose your own adventure! The sick prisoner. (page 8)

You're a good officer. But these assholes are always lying. Who knows why they always fake it, but they always do.

You get to Central Booking and the woman at the gate asks if your prisoner is OK. You look in the back and see the prisoner slumped over in the seat. You immediate call for an ambulance. But it's too late.

Your prisoner is dead.

After public protests, you are criminally charged with 2nd degree depraved heart murder, misconduct in officer, second degree assault, involuntary manslaughter, manslaughter be vehicles, and reckless engagement.

Even if you get off on the charges, which seem rather harsh for an honest mistake, your career is over.


(start over?)

Grammar 101

Grammar 101: For students who should know, but don't.
© 2015 by Professor Peter Moskos

Here's a PDF version. If you want this in a nice little printed booklet you can read on the subway, buy it on Amazon (just $6.95).

Order of Contents
Introduction: Is Grammar 101 right for you?
Rule #1: Write in complete sentences
Rule #2: The subject and verb will agree
Rule #3: Use commas correctly
Everything else:
The misunderstood apostrophe
Who and whom
Less and fewer
Capitalization: Stop doing it for no reason, damn it!
Periods and commas go inside quotation marks
Stop using the dastardly semicolon!
The unloved hyphen
Adjectives and adverbs
Avoid passive verbs
Infinitives and gerunds: Verbs without shame!
“Rules” to know before ignoring them
Homonyms: same same, but different
Ten sexy writing tips to drive your partner wild

Introduction: Is Grammar 101 right for you?

Are you in college and still fumbling with basic grammar? Are you getting bad grades on writing assignments even though you know what you’re trying to say? If you’re not clear about the difference between a subject, a verb, and an object, this little booklet is for you.
      Grammar 101 is for smart students who should know the basics of grammar but do not. If it makes you feel better, you’re not alone. Maybe English isn’t your first language. Maybe you never had a teacher who taught grammar. Perhaps you’ve only had teachers who circle what is wrong without ever teaching you what is right. Some professors are afraid to edit in red because they may hurt your tender self-esteem. But my goal isn’t to make you feel better. I want you to write better. At some point you need to learn basic grammar.
      Besides, maybe it is your fault you can’t write correctly. Maybe you goofed off in high school. Maybe you didn’t give a damn what made a sentence “complete.” Maybe you thought you didn’t need to learn this crap. And now you know you were wrong. No problem. There’s no shame in learning. Better late than never.
      This guide is not an advanced guide to writing or style. My goal is simply to bring your writing up to a level where whoever grades your paper doesn’t think, “Is this person an idiot?” I want to make sure your future employers don’t toss your résumé while snickering, “Another proud product of New York City public schools!” (And I have nothing against public schools. I am a product of them myself.)
      Writing is more formal than speaking. You need to learn the basics of Standard English grammar. Sure, some of these rules don’t necessarily make sense. They can even be culturally and racially biased. But while there’s nothing inherently better about one kind of English over another, in mainstream America you need to write correctly in Standard English. If you don’t, many people — including those who grade college papers and read job applications — will look down on you. But you probably already know that, or else you wouldn’t be reading this.
      So where should you start? A good first step is to buy a dictionary. Sure, you can look up words online. But a real dictionary on your desk is a tool of the trade. A dictionary by your side says you’re serious about school and writing. Plus, they’re cheap. My favorite is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. You can probably find one used or at a stoop sale for $2. If you won’t buy a dictionary, bookmark merriam-webster.com.
      The second step is not to be overwhelmed. You can go quite far in life without knowing what exactly constitutes, say, a participial phrase. I mention this because, honestly, I’m not 100 percent sure what it means. You can learn basic writing and grammar without knowing all the terms, but some nomenclature (use your dictionary whenever you don’t know a word) is essential.
      The good news is that grammar comes naturally. Even if you don’t know what complete sentences are, you probably use them when you speak. Now let’s get going!

Rule #1: Write in complete sentences

Sentences need one subject, one verb, and usually one object. Grasp this and everything else will start to fall into place. To repeat, a sentence is nothing more than a subject, a verb, and (probably) an object. Let’s break this baby down.
      The subject is a noun: a person, place, or thing. It is what does something. House, subway, the Bronx, and DJ are all nouns. You can usually put the in front of a noun.
      The verb is the action word: go, stay, eat, drink, or kiss. In a sentence, the verb is what the subject does.
      The object is also a noun (a person, place, or thing). The object (also known as a direct object) is what something is done to.
      Take this sentence: The DJ spins the records. Try to identify the three parts of speech. The subject is the DJ (he or she on the wheels of steel), the verb is spins (what the DJ is doing), and the object (what something is being done to) is records. If you have a subject, a verb, and an object, you have a complete sentence. End that shit with a period and you’re done.
      Congratulations! That’s half the battle. If the sentence were The DJ is spinning the records, then the verb would be is spinning. A verb can be two words. No worries.
      Take this gem of a sentence: She slapped her two-timing man. It’s a perfectly fine sentence. Let’s break it down backward. What’s the object? Ask yourself, “Who got slapped?” The man. The verb, what happened, is slapped. She is the subject, the one who did the slapping.
      By the way, not that you asked, but I, you, he, she, it, we, you, and they are called pronouns. In writing, try to keep pronouns to a minimum because they’re vague. August Vollmer, Robert Peel, and Bill Bratton walked into a bar. He told a joke. Who? Which one? Or: There is a mess in the precinct. It is nasty. Is the precinct nasty? Or the mess? We can’t be certain. Use the specific noun whenever possible.
      Once you have a subject, verb, and object, end the sentence with a period. You could go on … but why? Keep things short and simple.
      Some verbs do not need an object to make a complete sentence. The subway screeches, The man talks, and Jesus rises. These are all perfectly fine sentences. Verbs that need objects are called transitive. Verbs that don’t need objects are called intransitive. Dictionaries will tell you if a verb is one or the other or can be either.
      This might be a good time to mention that sometimes sentences don’t need subjects. If you order somebody to do something, it’s called an imperative. Go to the store. Get off that baby. Put out that fire. Fuck me! None of these actually have an explicit subject, but “you” is there in spirit.
      If you do not have a complete sentence, you have a phrase (or clause). A phrase can be a lot of things, but it’s less than a sentence. Watch me turn the previous sentence into two: A phrase can be a lot of things. It’s less than a sentence. Instead of , but, I used a period and started a new sentence. Both are grammatically correct. As a general rule, shorter sentences are better. If you insist on combining two complete sentences into one, do so by placing a comma before an and or but (and also sometimes or or because).
      If you have a sentence like this, then you need to separate the two parts of that sentence with a comma. That preceding underlined part could be a complete sentence (in the context here, it is called an independent clause because it can stand alone).
      The if in the sentence above — and it could be another word like while, as, because, although, or when — makes the first part of the sentence a phrase called a dependent clause. It is dependent on something else to make it complete.
      You can also put phrases in sentences to modify things, to make things more complicated, and even to add maudlin poetic beauty to your writing. But a phrase such as maudlin poetic beauty doesn’t stand alone as a sentence. You would need to say: Maudlin poetic beauty is probably not what you’re going for.
      Take the phrase Wherever she goes. It can’t stand alone. It doesn’t make sense standing alone. It lacks a subject. It’s begging for completion.
      Of course you could use Wherever she goes to answer a question like Where do you follow her? Then the subject, verb, and object (I follow her) are all implied in your answer. You could also say She goes wherever, and this would be a complete sentence because wherever just got changed into the object (and the meaning changed, too). But let’s stick with the original.
      Wherever she goes, she leaves the men talking. Now there’s a sentence! The core sentence? The subject, verb, and object: She leaves men. Everything else — even if essential to the meaning — is just icing on the tasty cake of basic grammar. A phrase may be essential to the meaning of a sentence, but it’s not vital to the core grammar of the sentence.
      Here’s a quick summary quiz. There are just three words in the following sentence. She eats food. Identify the subject, verb, and object. Assuming the answer is now obvious, read on.

Rule #2: The subject and verb will agree
The subject and verb must agree in two ways: 1) singular or plural, and 2) person. Ah, yes, but what does “agree” mean? Or “person,” for that matter? “Agree” means that if the subject is singular, the verb must be singular. If the subject is plural the verb must be plural. Singular means just one. Plural is more than one. It really is that simple.
      A singular subject could be I, she, or a 40-ounce bottle of King Cobra. Even a case of 40-ounce bottles of King Cobra is singular. Why? Because there’s just one case. This is why you need to identify the subject. Everything after the of is adjective fluff, in this case describing case. A word that describes a noun is called an adjective. In the case of this case, everything after the of describes the case.
      If the subject is plural, the verb has to be plural. The only thing you have to watch out for is the third-person singular of the verb. It usually ends in s. They drink whiskey. She drinks wine.
      If the subject is anyone, everyone, someone, no one, nobody, the verb is singular. That’s just a rule. It’s the same with neither and either. Either Zora or Peter needs to clean up this mess (one of them, hence singular). Similarly, Neither she nor he has cleaned up the mess (singular). And means it is plural: Zora and Peter need to clean up this mess. That is to say, They need to clean it up.
      In a sentence, the verb always agrees with the subject. It doesn’t matter what comes between the subject and verb. And this is true even when it sounds funny. For instance: The cop who arrested the thugs wants you. That sounds weird because in a different sentence you might say The thugs want you (want without an s). But the subject of the first sentence is one cop, not many thugs. And the verb always agrees with the subject.
      Here’s another example: One of the professors is a crook. Yes, you could say The professors are crooks. But in the first sentence, one is the subject (singular), not professors (plural). If something comes right after a preposition like of, you know it isn’t the subject.
      The verb also has to agree in person. This is simple. The first person is I (or we in the plural), the second person is you (same in the plural), and the third person is he, she, or it (they in the plural). That’s it. Really. For instance: I go to the store; he goes to the store. Even though go and goes are both singular, go is first person [I or we], and goes is third person singular [he, she, or it]. When you hear, “Avoid the first person in academic writing,” your professor just means don’t use “I” in your papers.
      English verbs don’t change much, but they do change a little. Like many verbs, to go doesn’t change except for the third-person singular present tense (I go, you go, we go, they go, but he/she/it goes). Usually the change is as simple as adding an s. Easy-peasy. Not adding this s is stereotyped as uneducated ghetto talk. Is that fair? No. Is it racist? Probably. But if you don’t want educated people (of all races) snickering, get this right.
      Now let’s do a real old-fashioned grammar exercise and conjugate a verb. To understand what “conjugate” means, it helps to have taken a foreign-language class. You conjugate verbs all the time in Spanish class. Just list all the forms of the verb in first, second, and third person, singular first and then plural.
      Take the verb to have. Conjugating goes like this: I have, you (singular) have, he/she/it has, we have, you (plural) have, they have.
      Subjects and verbs also have to agree in past, present or future tense. The past tense of go is went. The future adds will.
      Now let’s consider the conditional tense. This is when something is either hypothetical or contrary to fact, as if you were talking about what you wish had happened: Had I gone to the club, I so would have scored. The conditional kicks in anytime something starts with if. The conditional of to be is were, as in If I were a rich man.... “If I was” is commonly used, but wrong.
      There are also things called cases. These can have fancy names like “past conditional” (for example: I would have seen) and “pluperfect” (whatever that means). Feel free to ponder the subtle distinctions between I see, I saw, I will see, I have seen, I had seen, I will have seen, I would see, and I would have seen. See?

Rule #3: Use commas correctly

The little comma is amazing. Seriously. It’s so small and does so much. Commas can be a kind of a breather, a helpful hint so your readers don’t get confused. But there are times you need a comma.
      Think of the book titled Eats shoots and leaves. Add two commas and the meaning changes: Eats, shoots, and leaves. Without commas we’re talking about a hungry panda bear that eats shoots and leaves. With commas we’re talking about a hungry, gun-slinging badass who, considering cold fries a mad show of disrespect, shoots the fry cook and leaves. A panda eats shoots and leaves; a gangsta eats, shoots, and leaves.
      Let’s say you wrote this, a mistake I see way too often: Vybz Kartel used a meat grinder and he made a tasty meat patty. This is your basic run-on sentence. (Vybz Kartel is an imprisoned reggae artist who had an unfortunate fondness for grinding meat.) With a comma (, and) you can make the sentence grammatically correct (albeit needlessly long). The comma is there for your reader. It shows where the pause is and tells the reader a new subject is coming up.    
1)   Vybz Kartel used a grinder. He made a tasty meat patty. Two good sentences that, like Vybz himself, probably shouldn’t be messed with.
2)   You could make it one sentence: Vybz Kartel used a meat grinder, and he made a tasty meat patty.
3)   If the latter part of a sentence doesn’t have a subject, if it’s just made a tasty meat patty, then use and without a comma: Vybz Kartel used a grinder and made a tasty meat patty.
      This is important: If the second part of the sentence — the part after the and or but — can stand alone as a complete sentence, then you need a comma before the and or but. That’s the rule! So zip it, and quit your bitching. Use one of the three methods above. They’re all correct. Which you use is a matter of taste, style, and context.
      There’s also an important rule about setting phrases off with commas: If an adjective phrase is essential to a sentence, you don’t use commas. If the phrase isn’t essential to the sentence, set it off with commas. They serve a purpose, these commas around phrases do, to keep things clear.
      Consider these two sentences: The man, who was fat, mugged me. And The man who was fat mugged me. In the first sentence you got mugged by one man, who happened to be fat. In the second sentence there may have been two men, one fat and one skinny, and you’re saying the fat man mugged you.
      Here are more examples where commas matter:
·         Students who don’t know basic grammar won’t graduate.
·         Students, who don’t know basic grammar, won’t graduate.
      The first sentence says that if you don’t know basic grammar, then you won’t graduate. But the students who don’t know basic grammar are not all students. Since who don’t know basic grammar is essential to the meaning of the first sentence, you don’t use commas.
      The second sentence says that all students don’t know basic grammar. Students won’t graduate. The phrase who don’t know basic grammar modifies or describes students, but it’s not essential. You could delete who don’t know basic grammar and the sentence would mean the same thing. Since the phrase is not essential, you do use commas.
      You can test your sentences by taking out the text between the commas. If the sentence still means what you’re trying to say, then keep the commas.
      Here’s another place to use commas. If, before the subject in a sentence, you start a sentence with a phrase or two, set these phrases off with commas. Here’s an example: Signing the bill, the president trembled. If the phrase does not start the sentence, the comma isn’t needed: The president trembled as he signed the bill. Now I’m going to keep adding phrases (and commas): Signing the bill, the president, recently elected by a corrupt union, trembled with fear. I could just keep going: Signing the bill, the president, recently elected by a corrupt union, knowing that mob would knock on his door, afraid his mistress would kill him, trembled with fear. Stylistically this lengthy sentence is a mess. But grammatically it’s OK as long as you keep setting off these phrases with commas. The subject and verb — president and trembled — have not changed. (And since trembled is an intransitive verb, it doesn’t need an object.)
      While you can and must use commas where they’re needed, it’s best to keep your sentences short and simple: Recently elected by a corrupt union, the president signed the bill. He trembled with fear. The mob would soon knock on his door. And the president knew his mistress was out to kill him. This could be the start of what could be an A+ thriller!
      Also, commas always go between cities and states (Albuquerque, New Mexico) and between cities and countries (Athens, Greece). A comma separates the year when you list something in month-day-year format: After September 11, 2001, Katie hated that September 11 was also her birthday.
      Commas in a series are called, not surprisingly, “serial commas.” Include the last comma before and in a series of three of more things. For some historical reason that I do not know, newspapers don’t follow this rule. But assuming your last name isn’t Times, News, or Post, you should use that serial comma before the final and or or in a series.
      That’s it. Just three things to learn: complete sentences, subject verb agreement, and comma usage. Learn those and you’ll get better grades on your papers. Guaranteed or your money back. Well done. End of story.

      But wait … of course there’s more! If you’ve read this far, why not read more? Own this. Learn a bit more. You’ll look great and write even better. And everybody loves a good writer.

The Misunderstood Apostrophe

The apostrophe () is used for two unrelated purposes. First, it shows possession, when something belongs to someone. Second, the apostrophe makes up for missing letters, as in a contraction.
      Possession: The driver’s uniform is dirty. The uniform belongs to one driver (singular): ’s. More than one driver (plural): s’. That’s the rule. The drivers’ uniforms are dirty. And if the word already ends in s? Still add ’s for the singular possessive (and just an after the s for the plural possessive). The species’s extinction meant the end of the passenger pigeon. The species’ extinction marked the end of the world!
      Contractions are the other use for apostrophes. Doesn’t stands for does not. It’s stands for it is. You know this already. But get ready to have your mind blown: The possessive form of its does not use an apostrophe. The bodega has cold beer. Its beer is cold. Did that blow your mind? Well, goddamnit, it should. I mean, why is there one single case where you leave out an apostrophe to indicate possession? I don’t know. But that’s the way it is.
      If you don’t think apostrophes matter, consider this: Many readers mind small print (because their vision isn’t good). This is different from Many readers’ minds are filled with marbles. The word mind can be either a verb or a noun. And what mind means depends on which part of speech it is. And how do we know? Because of a little apostrophe! Duuude.…

Who and whom
Who is a subject used when I, he, or she could be used. Whom is an object where you might use me, him, or her. In common spoken usage, people use who all the time. No big deal. You’ll rarely get serious stink eye for using who, but why not get it right? And using whom incorrectly is both pretentious and wrong. Did you know the guy who was naked? You might think you could use a whom there. Nope.

Less and fewer
It makes me sad that the difference between less and fewer is disappearing. Sometimes it matters! If you’re talking about things that are or can be made plural, use fewer. Fewer is used for things you can count. I’m going to have fewer racist friends means I’m going to dump my racist friends. I want less racist friends means I’m going to keep my friends. But I want them to be less racist.

Capitalization: Stop doing it for no reason, damn it!

I don’t know what else to say. Kids these days! I don’t know why they never use capitals when texting and then capitalize words in papers willy-nilly. It makes the old man in me grumpy. (And get off my lawn!)
      If in doubt, I say don’t capitalize. Only because ninety percent of the capitalization errors I see are words that are capitalized when they should not be.
      Do capitalize the first word of sentences. I is always capitalized. So are proper nouns. And abbreviations. That’s it (more or less). A proper noun is a specific, named person or place: New York City, Central Park, Brooklyn, and Hades.
      Titles are only capitalized when specific names follow. Officer Moskos is capitalized. But police officer with no name after it is not capitalized even when it refers to a specific officer: Police Officer Moskos was a very handsome police officer. New York Police Department is capitalized because it’s one specific police department. But police department is not, even when you’re talking about the NYPD. Similarly, president is not capitalized unless you name a specific president: President Obama was a better president than President Ronald Reagan.
      Some concepts like “reform era of policing” or “broken windows” can go either way. If in doubt, follow the source or just decide (and then be consistent). And God is always capitalized. Why? Because He says so.

Periods and commas go inside quotation marks

“This is wrong”, even though you probably do it. “This is right,” I say. I just wish I saw it more. Your professor says, “Commas and periods go inside the closing quotation marks.” Always. (At least in American English. The rule is different in British English.)
      Your professor also says, “Somebody once told me, and I quote, ‘If you have a quotation inside another quote, the double quotes change to single quotes.’ ” A quote in a quote is the only time you should ever use the single quote. And yes, a single close-quote looks just like an apostrophe, but technically it’s different.

Stop using the dastardly semicolon!

You’re not impressing anybody. Seriously. Here’s God’s honest truth: You never have to use the semicolon. Ever. And misused semicolons stand out like the illiterate bit of pretension they are. Just skip it. But if something deep down inside you screams, “Oh my God, I need a semicolon here because these two complete sentences won’t make perfect sense until they’re more closely linked by something between the comma and period,” well, I can’t stop you. But don’t.
      Personally, I use semicolons only when a period would distort the meaning of two complete sentences and those two sentences could be switched in order. That’s a pretty high standard. Since you shouldn’t use semicolons, I’m hesitant to give even one example of proper usage. A good writer avoids using semicolons; a bad writer uses too many.
      But no matter what I say, some of you are still going to use semicolons. So let me add this: Semicolons function more like periods than commas. If you can’t replace a semicolon with a period and have things be grammatically correct, you’re doing it wrong. And sometimes, particularly in academic papers, you might see a semicolon as a sort of super comma in a long descriptive series in which commas are also used. This is correct usage. But it’s both rare and a bit old-fashioned.

The unloved hyphen

A hyphen is a dash (-). You might want to use hyphens more. They tie words together and usually make things less ambiguous. Most often, hyphens involve adjectives (words that describe nouns).
      Let’s say there was a failed plot to bomb the subway. What we have is a failed subway bombing. Failed refers to bombing. But if we throw in a hyphen we can have a failed-subway bombing. With the hyphen, failed modifies subway. The subway failed, so we bombed it. And let’s consider a failed subway-bomb. Here the subway itself is a bomb. Craaazy! But at least it failed.

Adjectives and adverbs

An adjective modifies a noun. An adverb usually ends in ly and modifies a verb or an adjective. That’s it. A common mistake with adverbs and adjectives is the use of good and well. Good is an adjective; well is the adverb. I feel good means you are healthy. I feel well means (at least in theory) you’re really good at feeling. Maybe your hands are extra-sensitive? I feel good because I listen to James Brown. I feel well because I am blind and cannot see.
      Example: I hate the obnoxious young professor. Obnoxious and young are adjectives, so they must modify the noun, professor, who is a jerk. But what if we were to say, the obnoxiously young professor? Obnoxiously is an adverb, so it modifies the adjective young. The problem now is just that the professor is still a kid.
      Just so you know, adverbs are frowned upon in writing. They say you can always pick a better verb. I’m not sure who “they” are, but consider this: The man quickly left the scene of the crime. It’s a bit better to write: The men fled the scene of the crime. It reads with more action. And you should always strive to be more precise and concise in your writing.

Avoid passive verbs

A passive verb is simply the verb to be or to have combined with another verb. The lady’s phone was stolen by the man. I know it’s not grammatically wrong, but in terms of style? The shit is weak. Was stolen is passive. Use active verbs: The man stole the lady’s bag. Stole is active. You can almost always change the passive voice into the active voice by swapping the subject and the object. Try it.

Infinitives and gerunds: Verbs without shame!

So what’s an infinitive? Go on, ask me. I dare you! Because unlike prepositions, this I got down: An infinitive is the basic two-word form of a verb, with the first word being to. [mic drop]
      To go, to eat, to love, to screw, they’re all infinitives. And they let verbs do some crazy shit, like morph into objects. He wants to go. You might think to go is a verb, but here it’s an object. What does he want? He wants to go.
      If you add ing to a verb, you create a gerund. Running, talking, eating, and fucking are all gerunds. And gerunds do play, passing as nouns and even adjectives.
      Identify the subject of this sentence: Observing somebody is secret but exciting work. Hmm … secret and exciting are adjectives because they describe work, the object. The verb is is. If you think the subject is somebody … you’d be wrong. Think about it. The secret but exciting work isn’t somebody but observing.
      Watch this change: Observing, somebody got busted. Somebody is now the subject. Observing, the gerund, just shape-shifted into a kind of adjective describing that somebody. (And once again, our hero, the little comma, makes a big difference.)

“Rules” to know before ignoring them

Ever hear anybody say “don’t split infinitives” or “don’t start sentences with and or but”? Yeah? Well here’s my rule: Fuck ’em! People who worry about such rules aren’t getting enough action. These people tend to be the same prudes who say “never end a sentence with a preposition.” That is an absurd concept that sprang out of some 18th-century love of Latin. It has nothing to with English. The most famous quote on this matter is attributed to Winston Churchill (if you don’t know who he is, look him up): “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.” The joke here, you see, is how absurd it is to follow this so-called rule.
      What is a preposition? Er, I was afraid you would ask. I don’t really know. But a quick Google search tells me a preposition is “something that links subjects, verbs, and objects.” On, beneath, under, and up can all be prepositions. The cop locked his ass up both ends in a preposition (up) and splits up the verb (locked up). But it’s OK because there’s a certain flair and meaning that would be lost if you said, The police officer arrested the gentleman.
      Other things being equal, you can’t go wrong by keeping an infinitive together, but it really doesn’t matter. Is it better to say He wants to go quickly rather than He wants to quickly go? I don’t think so. And there’s actually a subtle difference in meaning: to go quickly implies the journey will be fast; to quickly go implies the departure is quick. Just be warned that some numskulls still say not to split infinitives.

Homonyms: same same, but different

To, Too,
& Two
To is the most common form of this word. Too with two o’s means “also.” Two is 2. You need to piss, too? Then go to the alley. Just don’t take a number-two!
Then with an e is used in the context of time. Jimmy made a mess. Then Rhonda had to clean it up. Than with an a is used as a comparative. Rhonda is smarter than Jimmy.
Their is possessive. They’re is a contraction of they are. Nothing else. There is used for everything else. Over there, their cat is dirty. They’re looking at you, hot mama.
Whether &
I’m going to Coney Island whether or not the weather is hot. You figure it out.
You’re right. This one is not hard. Right versus left. And you need to know how to write a complete sentence, right?
Usually affect is a verb and effect is a noun. The spliff affected him. The effect of the spliff was memorable. From my experience, odds are that you mean effect.
Where refers to a place or state of being. Where did I leave my weed? Were is the past (and also conditional) tense of are. We’re is an abbreviation of we are. Where rhymes with dare. Were rhymes with purr.

Ten sexy writing tips to drive your partner wild

1) Grammar matters. If you write well, you’ll seem smarter. If you write well, you may even be smarter.
2) Use short and complete sentences: a subject, a verb, and probably an object. Next sentence, please.
3) Every sentence in a paragraph needs to relate to the same concept. Keep paragraphs short (four or five sentences is good) and never a page long.
4) Use the active voice. Avoid passive verbs.
5) In academic writing, don’t use the first person.
6) A happy grader is an easy grader. Make things easy for your grader. Clearly state your main point in the title, the first sentence, or the first paragraph.
7) Edit for clarity and to be concise. Cut words and sentences mercilessly. Prune with glee. Don’t say in five words what you can say in three.
8) Writing isn’t easy. There’s no shortcut here. Take time to do it right. A rushed paper is a crappy paper.
9) Use a normal font (like Times New Roman 12 point) and normal margins (1.25 inches all around is good). Use page numbers after the first page.
10) Proofread. Don’t just use spell check! It’s good to print out an actual hard copy to edit and proofread. It’s even better to find somebody who can edit and proofread your work. Then, right before submitting your paper, proofread again. Write in corrections. Of all the time you spend working on a paper, the last 30 minutes spent rereading are the most beneficial.