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Tag Archives | Punctuation

The French consider getting rid of the semicolon

In her blog, Maitresse, fellow Gridskipper contributor Lauren Elkin details the possibility of France banishing the semicolon (no word on where it would go, although the obvious guess is the island of Elba).

I don’t speak French (and I have the report cards from high school and college to prove it, although I am about to study it again). But in English the semicolon, while often misunderstood and misused, serves a unique purpose (joining two independent phrases without a conjunction).

It’s also useful when writing a comma-separated list and some of the items themselves contain commas. (For example, “I have lived in Washington, DC; Boston, MA; and Winston-Salem, NC.”) So it’s interesting to contemplate what English would be like without the semicolon.

Also, before reading Lauren’s post, I had no idea that languages might treat the same piece of punctuation differently.

Ok, you understand the plural and you understand the possessive, but what about the plural possessive?

While most writers have mastered how to make a noun plural and how to make it possessive, doing both often causes confusion. Here then is a simple primer (although as with most rules in English, numerous exceptions apply).

  • Add an apostrophe followed by “s” (‘s) to the end of a noun to make it possessive if the noun is singular—it does not matter if the noun already ends in “s.” For example, “Dr. Seuss’s books are popular.”
  • Add just an apostrophe and no “s” if the noun is plural, possessive, and already ends in “s.” For example, “Telecenters’ services are vital in many communities in developing countries.”

How to use quotation marks without “putting on airs”

The main use for quotation marks, of course, is to differentiate quotations and previously published material from an author’s original text. (When citing text that is three lines or longer, however, the standard convention is to offset and indent the excerpt without using quotation marks.)

Quotation marks also are used when referring to a word or phrase as the word or phrase itself and not what it means. For example:

USAID does not like its contractors to use the title “commercial sex workers” when referring to women who have sex for money because it believes the phrase destigmatizes the profession.

As for punctuation, periods and commas go inside the closing quotation mark regardless of whether or not they are part of the original quote. Unless they are in the text being quoted, however, colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points belong outside of the closing quotation mark.

(Those rules for punctuation are for American English; in British style only punctuation that is part of the original quote goes inside the quotation marks. Yes, British style makes a lot more sense. But my website stats show that you probably aren’t British, so you’re stuck having to abide by the confusing and illogical American way.)

If a footnote or endnote accompanies the text, the reference number goes outside of the closing quotation mark.

And only use single quotation marks if text within a quotation needs a quotation mark.

Steve started to get jittery. He had just overheard his mom tell his dad, “And then Danny ran in and told me ‘Steve said a word you shouldn’t say.’”

Finally, do not use quotation marks for colloquialisms or buzzwords. According to The Elements of Style, “To do so is to put on airs, as though you were inviting the reader to join you in a select society of those who know better.” And no one wants to be thought of as “putting on airs.”

This list goes to 11: Suggestions for editing your own writing

Continuing with with the same theme as my post on Friday, here is Jeff Chapman’s How to Edit Your Own Writing (Self-Editing). Chapman’s list goes beyond most suggestions in that it won’t just make your writing correct, it will make it better.

I. Synonyms
Buy the best thesaurus you can find. It helps if it has a “category” section that allows you to browse by large ideas. Read your creation and look up synonyms wherever you feel a better word might more accurately describe your ideas. Be careful though: keep in mind that your audience has a certain level of sophistication and might be turned away from words that are overly complex.

II. Similes and Metaphors
Add them where you can, but try to be appropriate within the context of your descriptions. Sometimes too broad a metaphor (or too flashy a simile) can distract from the actual thoughts of your storyline. Don’t mix metaphors by comparing something to a teapot only to compare it later to an automobile.

III. Dictionary Check
Go through your document and look up in a dictionary any words where you aren’t 101 percent sure of their meaning. I’ve surprised myself a couple of times when I have used a word repeatedly only to look it up and find it has another meaning entirely.

IV. Read Aloud
You don’t have to do this in front of other people. Surprisingly enough, even reclining on your sofa all alone you can immediately catch awkward phrasings and words that you are using too frequently.

V. Action and Active Voice
Your writing will be clearer if you structure your sentences as subject-verb-object; tell action rather than describing situations. Use your word processor to search for words ending in “-ed” — if you preceded this word by “is” or “was” (or similar verbs) the phrase would be better rewritten. Also check for the word “there” followed by “is” or “are” (or similar verbs).

VI. Be Positive
Occasionally the word “not” is useful for emphasis. Most of the time though a sentence is stronger when positive; use your word processor to search for the word “not” and recast the sentence using other descriptives.

VII. Kill Commas
A comma followed by the word “but” is okay. Commas separating a list of things are okay. Commas setting off parenthetic expressions are okay. Other commas, however, need careful scrutiny — should it be a semicolon, a colon, an em-dash, or parentheses?

VIII. Drown Your Darlings
If something sticks in your mind as being “ever so clever” you probably should remove it.

IX. Re-order Your Words and Sentences
Keep related words together — adjectives next to their nouns. The important words go at the end of the sentence; the important sentences go at the end of the paragraph.

X. Words Have Rhythm
Sometimes reading can be awkward due to the “bumpiness” of the accented syllables. Mark up your document with the accented syllables and reword singsong passages (101010) or places that have too many accented syllables in close proximity.

XI. Spell and Grammar Check
Finally give the document the good old spell and grammar check with Microsoft Word. This will catch any remaining flaws, however use your own discretion to violate some grammar suggestions if you are achieving special effects. Trust your ear.

In addition to his suggestion about using synonyms to find the word that best expresses your thoughts, also use them to vary your verbiage. A document that contains the same word eight times in two paragraphs is boring.

Previously: I’m giving my most difficult client to my future mother-in-law, Avoid typos and grammatical mistakes my listening to your writing

I’m giving my most difficult client to my future mother-in-law

The hardest person to edit is yourself. People often read text they wrote as it is in their head, not how it appears on the paper. To overcome that barrier, I’ve suggested having the computer read back your text to you. That trick helps, but it doesn’t catch every mistake.

That’s what a mother-in-law is for—or, in my case, a soon-to-be mother-in-law. My fiancée’s parents were in town last weekend. We had a lovely time perusing wedding-related facilities. At one point, however, Margaret’s mom pulled me aside and said, “I’ve been reading your website.” Ut-oh. “In one post you used a semicolon where you should have used a comma.”

Now, in the long history of conversations between guys with websites and their future mothers-in-law, this exchange was an innocuous one. Nevertheless I was bothered because (to paraphrase Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby) everyone suspects himself of having mastered at least one piece of punctuation, and this is mine: I am one of the few people I have ever known that know how to use a semicolon. (And, yes, it should say “who know,” not “that know.” The mistake is Fitzgerald’s, not mine.)

Later on, when we were back at our apartment, my soon-to-be mother-in-law and I reviewed several entries on this site but, alas, could not find the incorrect semicolon. So now I have a mother-in-law who probably questions both my punctuatory prowess and ability to provide for her daughter and a website that has an erroneous semicolon.

Some guidance on bullets with help from Britney, Bridget and Brady, and Anna Nicole’s baby daddies

Do not capitalize the first letter of each bulleted item or use punctuation at the end of an entry in a list unless the introduction to the list ends with a colon or period and each entry in it is a complete and independent sentence. And if one bulleted item requires punctuation, they all do.

(For a refresher on whether a colon is required, please read my post on that subject.)

Also, unless the list is a sequence, begin each entry with a bullet, not a number.

In this example, punctuation is not needed at the end of the introduction or each entry, as the list and all of the bulleted items read like one complete sentence.

As Britney Spears, Anna Nicole Smith, and Bridget Moynahan were the three most searched for people on Yahoo! last week, it’s a fair assumption that American culture is most interested in women who

  • shave their heads and enter rehab
  • die in a casino’s hotel and then have a slew of men claiming to be their baby daddy
  • carry Tom Brady’s love child

Often writers want to punctuate each entry with a semicolon or comma and add “and” to the end of the penultimate item. Doing so is wrong.

Again, this advice is based on The Chicago Manual of Style. The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, for example, mandates colons (or a period) before every bulleted list, that each item in a list begins with a capital letter, and usually that each entry ends with a period.

The national holiday Americans celebrated this past Monday: when the possessive, plural, and plural possessive are all wrong

The difference between punctuating the possessive and the plural possessive can confuse a lot of writers. But in “Too Many Chiefs” in the Feb. 19 & 26, 2007 issue of The New Yorker, Hendrik Hertzberg explains that it does not matter how one punctuates the federal holiday we celebrated in the United States last Monday.

According to some of the calendars and appointment books books floating around this office, Monday, February 19th, is Presidents’ Day. Others say it’s President’s Day. Still others opt for Presidents Day. Which is it? The bouncing apostrophe bespeaks a certain uncertainty. President’s Day suggests that only one holder of the nation’s supreme magistracy is being commemorated, presumably the first. Presidents’ Day hints at more than one, most likely the Sage of Mount Vernon plus Abraham Lincoln, generally agreed to be the greatest of them all. And Presidents Day, apostropheless, implies a promiscuous celebration of all forty-two: Jefferson but also Pierce, F.D.R. but also Buchanan, Truman but also Harding. To say nothing of the incumbent, of whom, perhaps, the less said the better.

So which is it? Trick question. The answer, strictly speaking, is none of the above. Ever since 1968, when, in one of the last gasps of Great Society reformism, holidays were rejiggered to create more three-day weekends, federal law has decreed the third Monday in February to be Washington’s Birthday. And Presidents’/’s/s Day? According to Prologue, the magazine of the National Archives, it was a local department-store promotion that went national when retailers discovered that, mysteriously, generic Presidents clear more inventory than particular ones, even the Father of His Country. Now everybody thinks it’s official, but it’s not.

So when is proper punctuation irrelevant? When the information it is punctuating is wrong.

When to introduce a list with a colon and when not to: A short primer

Colons are one of the most misused pieces of punctuation I encounter. In short, use a colon to introduce a list, but not if the list reads like a complete sentence (it does not matter if this sentence is broken down into bullet points).

  • When to use a colon (the introduction to the list is a complete sentence): Last week’s top news stories featured a diverse group of people: Barack Obama, Anna Nicole Smith, and three naughty astronauts.
  • When not to use a colon (many writers put one after “such as”): The top news stories from last week featured a diverse group of people, such as Barack Obama, Anna Nicole Smith, and three naughty astronauts.

As with all of the suggestions I provide on this website, some style manuals offer different guidance. Most of what I recommend is based on The Chicago Manual of Style. The Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications, for example, mandates colons (or a period) before every bulleted list.

Use serial commas

In a series of three or more items, a comma separates each item in the list. If the last two entries are connected by a conjunction—usually “and” or “o”—a comma usually comes before the conjunction as well. That comma is known as the serial comma.

Associated Press style, however, mostly used by newspapers and magazines, omits the comma before the conjunction, probably to save space. (Obviously, when I write or edit for a publication that uses AP style, I don’t use the serial comma.)

As I’ve written about previously, the serial comma is one of the most contentious pieces of punctuation. Yes, people do argue about such matters, and not just when they are drunk and have finished bickering about Iraq, the Tuck Rule, and whether the American Idol judges are too nasty this year. (Note the use of the serial comma in that last sentence.)

I am in favor of using the serial comma for the simple reason that it reduces ambiguity. Take this example that I heard in an editing class at EEI Communications:

A man died. His will said that his estate “should be split between his sons: Gordon, Andy and Stewart.” The executrix divided the man’s estate evenly between the three men. Gordon, however, sued. He argued that the lack of a comma before “and” meant that the estate should be divided so he got one half of it and his brothers split the other half.

The judge agreed with Gordon; his share went from one-third of the estate to one-half of it. Andy and Stewart went from getting one-third each to one-quarter each.

If the father wanted his estate to be split evenly between his three sons, a serial comma would have ensured that happened. And if he wanted Gordon to have a larger share, specifying that disbursement (“Gordon gets half of my estate; Andy and Stewart each get a quarter of it”) would have made his intentions clearer. (The instructor claimed the story was true.)

If you want more details about arguments for and against using serial commas, read Wikipedia’s entry on the subject.