Category Archives: Punctuation

Proofing Your Own Writing

dental careAs a copyeditor, I receive manuscripts in various conditions. On occasion, I can tell that an author has gone back and read what he or she wrote, making some refinements. Such authors are like diligent dental patients, brushing and flossing before reclining in the hygienist’s chair—where torturous tools will be used to get those whites pearly. (I’m the ruthless dental hygienist in this scenario.) More often, I know I am in possession of a true first draft: the author has keyed the content and never looked at it again, perhaps assuming that a professional would follow behind, making the words shine. Such authors have done the equivalent of downing a bag of Cheetos in the dentist’s waiting room. But at least they’re in the right place to get the help they need.

Think of all the writing you do that isn’t reviewed by an editor—e-mails, letters, agendas, reports, blog posts, social media posts, etc. These communications reflect on you, and possibly your company, yet how carefully do you check them? Admittedly, seeing mistakes in your own writing can be difficult—and, while spell-check is a handy tool, it misses things. Comparing your compositions against this brief checklist can save you from a good number of linguistic missteps:

  1. Read what you have written. Make sure you have conveyed your points clearly and succinctly.
  2. Eliminate erroneous capitalization. Generally speaking, capitals are used for the first word after a period and for proper nouns. If you aren’t sure whether a word is a proper noun, consult Merriam-Webster. Here’s a cheat sheet of items that should be lowercase, unless they contain a proper noun: animals, foods, medical conditions, seasons, compass points, and general academic subjects. Capital letters are not used for emphasis. See my earlier post for additional capitalization errors.
  3. Ensure the proper use of tricky homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. You know the ones I mean: your and you’re; their, there, and they’re; to, too, and two. I think it’s easy for your fingers, poised on the keyboard, to “hear” the wrong word as they take dictation from your brain. Here are some additional examples to watch out for: cite, sight, and site; for, fore, and four; rain, reign, and rein; palate, palette, and pallet; peak, peek, and pique; and right, rite, wright, and write.
  4. Delete apostrophes in plurals. Most nouns form their plural by adding or—if they end in chjsshx, or z—by adding es. I know of only one case in which the plural of a noun is formed by adding an apostrophe before the s: for single lowercase letters. For example: “There are two c’s in cupcake.” See my earlier post for more on the subject.
  5. Change two spaces between sentences to a single space. Double-spacing between sentences suggests that you came of age in the era of the manual typewriter. Breaking this lifelong habit can be hard, especially as the life has been so long.

There’s one more thing, and I would consider it a personal favor: in your e-mails, after “Hi,” always use a comma to set off the recipient’s name (for example, “Hi, Thomas.”).

The use of commas to set off nouns of direct address is a sign of a truly refined character.

Winky Face: Rebirth of the Semicolon

mixed signalWhile walking in Manhattan, I encountered a literal mixed signal: a traffic light showing an orange hand and a white walking figure, both illuminated. Should I stop? Go? Of course, in New York City, pedestrians cross at a (reasonably) safe opportunity, regardless of the indicated right of way. Punctuation marks are like traffic lights for written words, directing and controlling their flow. A period says, “Stop.” A comma says, “Pause.” A semicolon, the mixed signal of the punctuation world, says, “Pause slightly longer than you would for a comma, but don’t stop like you would for a period. Thank you, and have a nice day.” (I imagine the semicolon to be civilized and well-mannered.)

sun_orangeAuthor Kurt Vonnegut was not an admirer of semicolons. He said, “All they do is show you’ve been to college.” I tend to align more with Abraham Lincoln, who stated, “I have a great respect for the semi-colon; it’s a useful little chap.” (See what he did there? He used a semicolon to illustrate his point.) Still, when I pondered the idea of devoting an entire post to this period-comma hybrid, I was concerned that no one would be able to relate. I mean, who uses semicolons aside from making winky faces? Over 90 percent of my Facebook friends, based on a sample of 35. If the vast majority of us are using semicolons, we should probably make sure we’re doing it right.

Here are some basic guidelines from The Chicago Manual of Style, accompanied by examples. If you are already a semicolon savant, skip ahead to the quiz that follows.

A semicolon is most commonly used between two independent clauses not joined by a conjunction to signal a closer connection between them than a period would. (Recall from seventh grade that an independent clause contains a subject and a verb, and can stand on its own.)

  • Example: “The sun was setting; Timmy wouldn’t make it home before dark.”
  • Example: “Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets; my favorite is 30.”
  • Example: “Carmen pondered becoming a chef; she would have to go to culinary school.”

Certain adverbs, when they are used to join two independent clauses, should be preceded by a semicolon rather than a comma. These transitional adverbs include however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, therefore, and sometimes then.

  • Example: “Lisa couldn’t be late for the hearing; therefore, she allowed ample time to get to the courthouse.”
  • Example: “I wanted the trout; however, the restaurant was out of it.” (This is a real-life example.)
  • Example: “The cat seemed hungry; indeed, he devoured the can of tuna we gave him.”

When items in a series themselves contain internal punctuation, separating the items with semicolons can aid clarity. If ambiguity seems unlikely, commas may be used instead.

  • Example: “In 2016, Colin Hay will perform in Clearwater, Florida; Franklin, Tennessee; and Bristol, New Hampshire.” (Check out his tour schedule. If he is playing in your area, go! Incredible show.)
  • Example: “The votes received by the candidates for class president were as follows: Jessica, 457; Emilio, 398; and Logan, 272.”
  • Example: “I visited the Tower of London, where I attended the Ceremony of the Keys; Westminster Abbey, the final resting place of Geoffrey Chaucer; and the British Museum, home of the Rosetta Stone.”

Want to test your semicolon skills? Determine whether each item below is punctuated correctly. (The answers appear at the end of this post.)

  1. The Chicago Manual of Style is my bible; it is full of important information.
  2. Danny disrupted the class; accordingly, he was sent to the principal’s office.
  3. The fireworks were loud; but the dog didn’t seem frightened.
  4. The bride’s bouquet consisted of three types of flowers; namely, roses, tulips, and dahlias.
  5. The car’s last three oil changes took place February 3, 2015; August 21, 2014; and December 14, 2013.

Thanks for reading! 😉

Answers: 1. Correct. 2. Correct. 3. Incorrect. 4. Incorrect. 5. Correct.

The Elusive En Dash


For several weeks, I have been wanting to dash off a post on this topic. So, what is an en dash?

a. a punctuation mark similar to a hyphen but the length of a lowercase n

b. a sprinting event in the ancient Olympic Games that was run from one end of the stadium to the other

c. a small quantity of a substance thrown into or mixed with something else, equivalent to approximately one thirty-second of a teaspoon

The Greek race was the “stadion,” and one thirty-second of a teaspoon is a “smidgen,” so an en dash must be that punctuation thing. (Sorry to dash your hopes that this post might have been about athletics or cooking.) I’m convinced that outside the worlds of publishing and printing, people have never heard of the en dash (highlighting a glaring gap in the Schoolhouse Rock library). And even then, it’s iffy: I have encountered professional editors who overlook en dashes.

At this point, I’m sure you’re dying to know exactly what the en dash does, but for context, I first want to distinguish it from its more crowd-pleasing cousins, the hyphen and the em dash. The hyphen has various functions, such as in compound adjectives (“dog-eat-dog world”), as a separator (“867-5309”), and for end-of-line word breaks. You may not know the em dash by name, but it’s the long, elegant line (technically, the length of an uppercase M) that sets off a parenthetical thought—such as this one.

The bible (a.k.a. The Chicago Manual of Style) says the following about hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes: “Though many readers may not notice the difference—especially dashesbetween an en dash and a hyphen—correct use of the different types is a sign of editorial precision and care.” I interpret this to mean that the proper utilization of these punctuation marks is essential to the maintenance of a civilized society.

The en dash is used to connect numbers and words, implying up to and including, through, or to. Here are some examples:

  • The years 1929–1939 were difficult ones for economies throughout the world.
  • For homework, read chapters 1–3 of The Great Gatsby.
  • The recipe for gluten-free brownies appears on pages 9–12.
  • Join us on Monday, 5:00–6:30 p.m., for a champagne reception.
  • The Paris–Vienna train leaves at ten o’clock.
  • St. Louis defeated San Francisco, 42–6.
  • The chess club voted 17–5 to make Wendy its president.

En dashes are also used with compound adjectives (adjectives consisting of more than one word) in which at least one element is an open compound (a compound word with spaces in it, such as ice cream). For instance:

  • the post–Cold War years
  • a romantic comedy–influenced script
  • the New York–New Jersey border
  • a Frank Gehry–designed museum
  • a White House–backed proposal

In these cases, the en dash is meant to indicate a more comprehensive link than a hyphen would. Think of it this way: if you replaced the en dash with a hyphen in any of these examples, only the words closest to the hyphen would appear to be part of the adjective. For instance, if a hyphen was substituted for the en dash in the second example, the meaning would change to a romantic, comedy-influenced script. Regarding this usage of the en dash, Chicago states, “This editorial nicety may go unnoticed by the majority of readers.” But I think it’s important to be nice.

Since you surely want to start using the en dash right away, it’s available now in the Symbol dialog box of your version of Word or Outlook. If nothing else, remember that en is an acceptable two-letter word when you get down to those last few letters in Words With Friends.

Thanks for reading. Gotta dash!