Category Archives: Punctuation

What I’m Editing Today: Uh, that’s really specific…

“Why,” I hear you ask, “should I hyphenate compound adjectives that precede a noun? Huh?”

(I know, you could not possibly care less. But just pretend, OK? For me?)

Well, I’m glad you asked!

Any number of people might need “an asbestos-exposure lawyer,” sad to say.

But “an asbestos exposure lawyer”?

Not unless you’ve been apprehended in flagrante on the sun.

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How to Get the Grammar Police Off Your Back, Part I: It’s vs Its

There’s a reason we language folk enjoy haranguing you about your grammar skills. And here it is.


We don’t enjoy it one little bit — we KNOW it’s unwelcome and persnickety and potentially flat-out impolite. So why do we do it? Because we are broken. Or extra fixed. Or booby trapped. Or something because believe it or don’t, NOT CORRECTING SIMPLE ERRORS IN GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION IS PSYCHOLOGICALLY PAINFUL.

OH, it sucks. Wanna know why I love Kindle? Because I can highlight and make inline comments. So I can correct the errors. I am not making this up. What, traditionally published books have errors? Oh, you bet your bippie they do. In fact, here is an offer for you: if a traditional publishing house has produced your book, send me an electronic copy of it and I will tell you how careful your proofreader was. #shamelessfishing forfreebooks #butI’lltotallydoit

In our defense: most of the time we do have your best interest at heart, in a well-meant-but-annoying-and-a-little-condescending way. It’s sort of like reminding you to floss. We floss, and we know that it’s a pain to get into the habit, but once you do it feels really great and there are many benefits aside from the obvious “keeping your teeth” ones. Wait, that doesn’t…  no, we’re not going to knock out your teeth if you don’t mend your egregious apostrophic ways. #althoughdeepinourhearts…nevermind

Also in our defense: as it turns out, a lot of people would really like to avoid these errors IF ONLY TO GET US TO SHUT UP ALREADY!! If you fall into this noble category, I have some tricks for you. I’ll start with an easy one. It’s vs its. And, by extension, you’re vs your and they’re vs their. (Sorry, this trick will not help you with their vs there. But please, for the love of all that is holy, please figure that one out on your own.)

First of all, here is why these constructions are so easily confused:

One of the uses of an apostrophe is to stand in for one or more dropped letters in a contraction such as “can’t” (a contraction of “cannot”,* which  can only be said by persons wearing starched collars. I think it’s a law.)

However, the most common use of an apostrophe is to signify possession, e.g.** “Lady Starchcollar’s hens cannot lay eggs.”

If we apply the more common use as a possessive marker, “it’s” should mean “belonging to it”, as in “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into it’s nest.” And in any sensible language it would. Ah, but this is English, and any sensibility it ever had was left behind long ago.

No, in English, personal pronouns are the exceptions that prove the rule… has exceptions. For personal pronouns, possession is marked by the absence of an apostrophe, isn’t that handy? Thus, instead of “your’s” (which is NEVER right, by the way) we have “yours”. We also have “theirs”, “ours”, and, most famously, “its”.

For personal pronouns, the apostrophe is used to signify a contraction. “It’s” is a contraction of “it is”. “You’re” is a contraction of “you are”, “they’re” is a contraction of “they are”. And herein lies your salvation.

To keep the Grammar Police off your back: never use contractions. On your first pass, that is; you can go back and contract anything you want. But if you start with “it is” and then contract, it’s easy to remember that you need the apostrophe to stand in for the letter you’re dropping.

The same works for “its”. Returning to our earlier example, imagine that you would like to write about poor Lady Starchcollar’s barren hens. (I said “imagine“.) You might start off thusly: “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into…” Gasp! What to write?! Well, try both options, sans contractions: “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into… its nest”? Well, possibly. Now try the other: “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into it is nest.” Oh, ho ho ho, certainly not! Thus we choose the former, “Lady Starchcollar’s hen settled into its nest… and floated into a peaceful slumber, secure in the knowledge that it had been described with admirable grammatical correctness.”

There you have it: When in doubt, un-contract and see which one is wrong. Then use the other one.


*YES, I follow UK rules governing placement of punctuation with quotation marks because US rules are baseless and silly.

**Psst: here’s a trick for remembering the difference between i.e. (“that is”) and e.g. (“for example”). “E.g.” is said as “ee gee”, but if you stick the letters together phonetically, they sound like “egg” as in “egg…zample”. You’re welcome.

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Filed under DfW Holds Forth!, Grammar, Handy Tips! You love those!, Punctuation, Usage

Word Nerd o’ The Day: Karen Conlin of GRAMMARGEDDON!

Today’s Propeller Beanie Award goes to our Word Nerd o’ The Day, Karen Conlin of GRAMMARGEDDON!  Because along with some very entertaining rants (you know we love those!) Karen and her co-conspirator Ray Vallese provide some extra-handy advice  for writers and editors, FOR EXAMPLE:

PSA: When choosing sites, Tweeters, Plussers, etc. from whom to gather writing and/or editing tips, make sure they’re using the same general rules you are at the start. That is to say: If you’re based in the US, and you begin using tips from someone in the UK, you’ll soon find that your editor (or supervising editor, perhaps) will be making wholesale changes because the style is incorrect for the country’s usage. US usage calls for double quotes when writing dialogue; UK style is single quotes. US usage puts punctuation before a closing quote (most of the time); UK usage puts it after. US usage calls for a period following an abbreviation like Dr. or Mr.; UK usage does not. (UK usage also refers to such abbreviations as contractions, a term that US usage reserves for words like “aren’t.”)

Tips about word usage tend to be far less problematic than those on punctuation. US and UK word usage isn’t all that different in most areas. (The immediate example I come up with is that US usage is “different from” [or “different than,” more casually]  while UK usage is “different to.”)

By all means, follow grammarians and wordsmiths and editors and writers–but If you are not already conversant with your country’s usage rules, I strongly suggest obtaining a copy of a style guide (mine is CMoS, but I also have APA and MLA to hand) against which to check any advice you consider taking. Failure to do so can lead you to writing perfectly well, yet also quite unacceptably.

via (1) Google+.

See? Very handy indeed. And here’s my +1 comment because I know my readers (all 14 of them) will be fascinated:

Huh — thanks for “different to” — I hadn’t noticed that one! I always have to switch gears for “-ise” (UK) and “-ize” (US). Not to mention the “u” vs “ou” thing. So where we would “glamorize”, in the UK one would “glamourise”. Except one wouldn’t. Because it’s the UK.

As the editors among us have doubtless already noticed, I use the “logical” UK quotation style (putting the periods and commas OUTSIDE the quotation marks when that’s where they belong) as opposed to the “why on earth would you want to do that?!” US style of imposing commas and periods upon the quoted material no matter what. I have done this defiantly (even though it still looks odd to me) since I found out why we do this silly thing, see this footnote from the Darling Guide to Grammar and Punctuation:

Don’t even get me started about the INFURIATING but perfectly correct (I guess) UK usage of “which” for “that”. I might have to point out all the UK grammar rules, which are stupid. (<– See what I did there?)

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Nerd Candy: How to punctuate dialog

A nifty guide to punctuating dialog. Clear, concise, and a bit cranky:

“There is NO space between the punctuation mark and the closing quote. There is a single space AFTER the closing quote. (According to current style guides, double-spaces ANYWHERE are merely a relic of old typesetting guidelines and should not be used.)”

But that’s exactly what I wanted: someone who would say “That? That thing you’re doing right there? That’s WRONG, my friend.”

>Dialog Punctuation.


Filed under Nerd Candy, Punctuation