The ‘teach me’ series is all about learning how to do things I can’t from clever clog wearers who can. I’m learning so much as we go and I hope you are too! Today we are lucky to score Emily from Emhawkerblog to teach us how to use punctuation correctly. Now, I confess to being a fellow word nerd who just so happens to have asked Em here today to help writers everywhere get loved-up with things like apostrophes and commas. It’s hard enough to cement meaning through the interwebs without these darling friends! Lucky for us, if anyone can teach us about punctuation, it’s Emily…
Hi! I’m Emily, and I’m a word nerd. I’m a writer, editor and proofreader. I’m also a linguist. Words words words!
The wonderful Bron, owner of this here wonderful blog, has asked me to teach you about grammar. That’s a huge topic! So I’ve narrowed it down to punctuation. And I’ve narrowed it down even more from there.
I’m going to start this post with my writer, editor and proofreader hat on. (It comes with a built-in magnifying glass, the better to spot grammatical foibles.) And I’m going to start with the easy stuff. Are you ready? Me neither. Let’s do this anyway.
See that there? It’s a full stop. You put it at the end of sentences. (See? Easy! It’s like a warm-up stretch.)
That one right there is a comma. This one can be a little trickier for some people. Commas shouldn’t be used in place of full stops, you shouldn’t join two independent clauses with a comma. (Grammar nerds will have winced at my previous sentence, because I just did what I told you not to do.) There’s more to the comma, but that’s the most common mistake, and we’ve got a lot to get through.
That there’s an apostrophe. And that there’s an apostrophe in ‘there’s’, too. The apostrophe in there’s points to a missing letter (the ‘i’ from ‘is’). Apostrophes can also be used to indicate possession. And that’s all apostrophes are used for. Missing letters (contractions) and possession. They’re not needed in plural’s. (Cue more wincing.)
Quick note on possession: pronouns are the exception to the apostrophes for possession rule. So in the land of possession, it’s not ‘it’s’, it’s ‘its’. It’s not ‘you’re’, it’s ‘your’. It’s not ‘they’re’, but ‘their’. But if it belongs to Penny, it’s Penny’s. If it belongs to Mrs Jones, it’s Mrs Jones’ or Mrs Jones’s (either are currently acceptable, although preference is shifting towards the second). If it belongs to all the kids, it’s the kids’ (although each will argue that it’s just the one kid’s).
That is a slash. You use it when listing alternatives. It’s essentially a substitute for ‘or’, and shouldn’t generally be used for ‘and’. If your party invitation says “Bring food/drinks to the party,” don’t get upset if everyone turns up with a six pack and there isn’t enough food. Generally speaking, you don’t need spaces before and after the slash, but some style guides may ask for them.
That one there? A colon. Things you might use a colon for: separating two independent clauses, where the second directly relates to the first; and, to kick off lists like this one.
The semi-colon. If my Facebook queries into your grammatical trip-ups are to be believed, this little symbol is your arch-nemesis. Here’s the good news: you probably don’t need to use it. For every accepted use of the semi-colon, there is generally a way around it. Want to write a list like I did in the colon section? Use bullet points. These days, most style guides have ditched the messy-looking semi-colons and rely on the bullets themselves to separate elements of a list. And using a semi-colon to separate two indirectly related independent clauses? You can also use a full stop. It may play down the relationship between the clauses, but it still works.
Remember to keep it simple.
Don’t get fancy-schmancy with punctuation if you’re not sure what you’re fancy-schmancying with.
General tip for your writing
And now that I’ve given you a (very) brief overview of common punctuation concerns, I’m going to take my writer, editor and proofreader hat off and put my linguist hat on. Ahhh, that’s so much more comfortable!
A quick note for the grammatical pedants out there: if you see a grammatical error somewhere that’s not that important (perhaps in a friend’s Facebook status update or an email), think before you point it out.
Unless you’ve been asked, or it actually confuses the message, why bother? The main point of language is mutual comprehension. If you have understood someone, mission accomplished.
And things change. If you’d told me as recently as six years ago that it would be okay to write ‘because’ without a preposition following it, I’d have literally died. (Yes, literally.) Because why? Because BAD. But it doesn’t look so bad these days. Because language evolution.
And that’s all we have time for today! Luckily, Bron is a very supportive host who suggested I use this post to kick off a series on my own blog. You can come and visit me today for quick tips on writing with more of our punctuation friends.
All right. Now I’m going to climb off the soapbox, take my linguist hat off, and put my parent hat on.
Good luck on your punctuating endeavours!
What punctuation symbol trips you up the most?