Tag Archives: comma

Punctuation: It’s not just for emoticons

PunctuationToday is National Punctuation Day, on which we celebrate the useful tools around the edges of our keyboards. Some — such as , and . —  we use all the time so they are closest at hand and do not even require using “shift.” Some, such as ; , have enjoyed a renaissance through emoticons. And some, such as , are so rare that a writer must consciously choose to use them and jump through some typing hoops (or creatively copy-and-paste) to get them.

But all of the marks have their functions, and good writers know how and when to use them. Punctuation guides the reader and provides clarity. It doesn’t do all the work in terms of making writing clear, but it certainly helps.

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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:

Don’t sweat it: Serial comma

Without a serial comma, and with.

Want to start an argument in a group of editors? Bring up the serial comma. The serial (also called Oxford) comma is the comma that comes right before the conjunction in a list of items. For some reason, word people tend to get really worked up about this one little mark. (There’s even a song called “Oxford Comma,” but it should be noted that the song’s refrain wonders who really cares about it.)

The serial comma is not strictly necessary in many sentences, but other sentences do need it to clear up potential ambiguity. The Associated Press Stylebook, among others, says to omit it in simple series (note that this is not an outright ban), while other guides, including Strunk and White and the Chicago Manual of Style, say to always include it. Continue reading

What is an appositive, anyway?

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Dec. 13, 2010.

So we’ve done participles and gerunds, and because @glamAtude asked whether we could talk about appositives, here we go:

An appositive is a word or phrase that follows a noun and gives more information about it.

It can be a single noun:
Her new puppy, Paperboy, came home yesterday.puppy

It can be a noun phrase:
Paperboy, her new puppy, came home yesterday.

It can be a noun phrase plus a prepositional phrase:
Her new puppy, a black-and-white ball of energy, came home yesterday.
Her new puppy, a mutt from the pound, came home yesterday.

And so on. You can take out the appositive and you’ll still have a complete sentence.

Relative clauses are not the same as appositives, though they may convey the same information. Relative clauses begin with a relative pronoun and have a verb in the clause. Appositives are simple phrases, no verb.
Relative clause:
Betty, who is my neighbor, said …
Appositive:
Betty, my neighbor, said …

Usually appositives are set off with commas (one before and one after), because they’re adding extra information about the noun. These are called “non-essential” or “non-restrictive” appositives.

But sometimes an appositive is necessary to set apart or distinguish the noun:
Paul Simon the senator (as opposed to Paul Simon the singer)
Her dog Paperboy (as opposed to her dog Scout)

These are called “essential” or “restrictive” appositives, and are not set off with commas.

A note on agreement: The verb agrees with the main noun, not the appositive.
Truffles (plural), a luxury food (singular), are (plural) …
Paperboy (singular), one of the nicest dogs (plural) at the pound, is (singular) …