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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