Tag Archives: punctuation

Not just a comma problem

Much ink/bandwidth has been expended in discussion of the serial comma, with partisans on either side making their case through outrageous examples. You’ve probably seen the ones about “to my parents, Ayn Rand and God” and “the strippers, JFK and Stalin.” One can easily construct similar examples on the flip side: “my best friend, Oprah, and my mom” and so on.

Sleeping orange-and-white cat with lolcat-style superimposed words that say "Stop arguing about serial comma. I iz tryin to sleep"

The problem often isn’t strictly a punctuation problem, though – it’s a sentence-construction problem. Whether your style guide calls for omitting unnecessary serial commas (Associated Press) or always using them (pretty much everyone else), it’s the writer’s or editor’s responsibility to ensure the sentence is clear and unambiguous.

Continue reading Not just a comma problem

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.

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 Don’t sweat it: Serial comma

Why we need hyphens

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Feb. 25, 2011.

One of the regular features we do on Twitter is “Why we need hyphens”: phrases that have different meanings depending on whether there’s a hyphen. These usually occur when a noun has a compound modifier, that is, a modifier that is made up of more than one word.

The classic example of this is “small-business owner” vs. “small business owner.” Is the owner of a business diminutive, or is the business itself small? Depends on the hyphen.

Some other examples of why we need hyphens:

Because a heavy-equipment operator is not the same as a heavy equipment operator.

Because hazardous-materials training is not the same as hazardous materials training.

Continue reading Why we need hyphens

Why we need punctuation

Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Sept. 24, 2010.

Punctuation marks are like road signs for readers: they show you where you’re going and what’s ahead. If they’re missing or wrong, a reader can get lost.
So, in honor of National Punctuation Day today, here are a few examples of why we need punctuation:


Fresh fish
Doesn’t mean the same thing as
“Fresh” fish

Heavy equipment operators
Are not the same as
Heavy-equipment operators

Because semicolons make a list like this much easier to read:
Karl Swartz of Morris, Laing, Evans, Brock and Kennedy, Jason Bock of Fleeson, Gooing, Coulson and Kitch, and Paul McCausland of Young, Bogle, McCausland, Wells and Blanchard.

Sue’s sister, Sadie, sells satin shades.
Tells a reader something different from
Sue’s sister Sadie sells satin shades.

Because direct address
Let’s eat, people.
is not the same as direct object
Let’s eat people.

Beers for everyone!
Doesn’t mean the same thing as
Beer’s for everyone!

Who’s the man?
Doesn’t mean the same thing as
Who’s the man!

Because some questions need a punch
What the … ‽

Never fear the semicolon

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Feb. 23, 2010

The semicolon is a much-misused, often maligned, but elegant and useful piece of punctuation. Neither a period nor a comma, the semicolon links in some instances and divides in others. There’s no need to be afraid of it; there are only three main instances when you need to use a semicolon. Well, more like two and a half.

1. When you have two complete thoughts (independent clauses) that are closely enough related that they should be in the same sentence. How to tell if a semicolon is appropriate: You could put a period in and get two grammatically correct sentences. You can do this if you like, but if you want to indicate a closer relationship, put the two clauses in the same sentence with a semicolon between them. If you use a comma, you need to add a coordinating conjunction — and, but, or, etc. — or you’ll end up with the dreaded comma splice.

aliens-ate-my-buickFor example:
“I’m taking the bus to work this week; aliens ate my Buick.”
You could say “I’m taking the bus to work this week. Aliens ate my Buick.” and each of those two sentences is grammatically correct. But the fact that you’re riding the bus and giving the reason for that are connected, and best put in the same sentence. So you use a semicolon to do that.

Continue reading Never fear the semicolon