Monthly Archives: September 2013

Happy National Punctuation Day!

semicolonToday, Sept. 24, is National Punctuation Day — admittedly, a created holiday, like National Donut Day, and, like National Donut Day, it’s a holiday that celebrates something worthy of celebration. (Yes, there are seven commas in that sentence. Plus a dash and an apostrophe, and the obligatory period.)

Punctuation is like road signs for writing. It tells us where to stop, where to slow down, when a turn is coming, and when rocks might be falling on us (well, not really). It helps readers get where they are going smoothly and safely.

But punctuation is a fairly recent development; in English it’s been around for a few centuries. Look at old manuscripts and you’ll see writing with no spaces, no punctuation and no capital letters. It’s hard to read. It’s slow. It’s confusing. Once punctuation arrived, though, it wasn’t set in stone: the rules have been changing over time. Read Victorian English literature and you’ll see semicolons sprinkled in places they aren’t seen today. Regardless, the reason for using punctuation is to make writing easier to read and easier to understand.

As M. Alderton Pink put it, “Bad punctuation is, in fact, a form of bad manners.” And, like many matters of etiquette, certain aspects of punctuation are open to debate: Oxford comma or not? Are semicolons elegant or awful? Should we get rid of apostrophes? (Read James Harbeck’s modest proposal “Kill the Apostrophe” and MedEditor’s response.)

Others, however, are not. Commas in the wrong places can confuse, mislead or even cost you a million dollars. Apostrophes in the wrong places make a writer look sloppy or ignorant, or can even affect your love life.

Properly used punctuation helps make writing clearer, and clarity is always good, so for that reason alone it’s worth a holiday.

To celebrate, you can:

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Mixed (or mangled) metaphors muddle writing

Metaphors — comparisons of one thing to another in a poetic sense — are not just for poetry: they are an integral part of language. Metaphors help us communicate an idea more clearly by making it more vivid, more relevant or less complicated. We use metaphors every day: whenever we compare sports to war, a corporate merger to a romance, a political campaign to a horse race.

Metaphors are a useful linguistic device, but sometimes they can go off the rails (a train metaphor). Writers sometimes get carried away (a nautical metaphor) and shift gears (an automotive metaphor) in the middle of a metaphor, which can befuddle readers instead of making an idea clearer to them.

A metaphor too far

A recent news story I saw said that my employer, the University of Kansas, “pushed ahead by a few nose lengths” in an annual college ranking. I’ll buy a horse-race comparison here (though this annual ratings scramble seems more aptly compared to a decathlon), but horses can win by a “nose,” or by a “length.” A “nose length” is not a distance used in horse racing, so instead of making the idea clearer, this metaphor confuses the issue. Plus, a ranking doesn’t really need a metaphor to make it more easily understood. “Moved up a few spots” would have been perfectly clear.

In my career as a copy editor, I’ve run across a lot of mixed or mangled metaphors. Some made me scratch my head (figuratively) and others made me laugh out loud (literally). Here are a few:

“When this critical column buckled due to lack of floor supports, it was the first domino in the chain.” Domino effect / links in a chain — pick one.

The rival teams “find themselves with their backs against the wall as if they were stuck in a linen closet.” The backs-against-the-wall part is clear (if a bit cliched), but how the heck does a linen closet enter into things?

“We’re just about ready to start putting the pieces of this puzzle together in a way we can put some real structure on this skeleton.” Is it a puzzle, or a building, or a skeleton?

“A lot of people think they were born on third base and hit a home run.” How this usually goes is “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” which is a sports metaphor applied to a person who comes from a privileged background but is oblivious to the fact he got a head start. How the home run connects here I can’t imagine.

“As you go in the belly of the beast, you will run into this brick wall every single time.” Since when are there brick walls inside beasts?

The reason to use a metaphor is to help readers understand something. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not working — and your best bet (a gambling metaphor) is to rewrite.

Lessons from the Associated Press

Goerge V. Higgins quoteThe Associated Press is “the best creative writing school in the world. They have branches in every major city on the globe. They will teach you something that no creative writing school at Stanford or Iowa or anyplace else will ever teach you: Write it down. Do it fast. Keep it simple. Keep it short.”

— George V. Higgins, author of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and other novels, as told to Chuck Potter in a 1987 interview