Thursday, September 24, 2009

You've Been Punc'd


In observance of National Punctuation Day, I present seven punctuation mistakes that make you look stupid.

1. Being outsmarted by "smart quotes."

I'll look a little dumb right off the bat because I'm following the Web convention of using hash marks instead of "smart" quotation marks and apostrophes. Not all browsers and mobile devices can "read" the smart characters, as demonstrated by the strings of gobbledygook you'll sometimes see in forwarded e-mails. But let's assume you're working in an environment more friendly to these characters. The illustration above demonstrates some very common errors. Microsoft Word assumes that a single or double quotation mark immediately before another character is opening a quotation, and so class-reunion planners and political-campaign-sign makers everywhere blindly type in the apostrophe expecting it to show up as an apostrophe but instead it gets reversed and they look -- you guessed it.

Even worse, the less-educated among us have gotten used to seeing characters that look vaguely like quotation marks, perhaps in some examples of the above error, and somehow absorbed the idea that that's exactly what they are. Greetings, Class of "80"!

2. Using a hyphen as a dash or colon.

We're talking about the em-dash here, not the esoteric little critter that is the en-dash. An em-dash can be "tight" (no spaces around it) or "loose" (a space on each side). It can consist of two hyphens, when technology makes a long character of that size problematic (as with smart quotes, not all Web browsers can display the real character). What a dash can't be is simply a hyphen. It isn't surprising, given that most ordinary Americans use the word "dash" to mean "hyphen," that these rogue hyphens appear on many a resume and curriculum vitae:
GOAL- To optimize my potential using dynamic communications strategies.

3. Using ellipses as a toy.

Ellipses, of course, are used primarily to indicate the omission of material from a quotation. (In general they should not be used to indicate omission at the beginning or end of a quotation, as people tend to say and write things before and after the snippet we choose to pick out, but check out the advanced lesson before automatically following that advice.) Ellipses also may be used to indicate a trailing-off of speech or thought, or to separate thoughts in a piece of writing that consists of a series of unrelated thoughts, such as Larry King's old USA Today column.

Less-educated people simply know that they sometimes see a bunch of pretty dots, and they imitate this with two or three or four or six or 12 dots randomly placed in or between sentences for no particular reason.

An ellipsis consists of three dots (the word can refer either to one of the dots or to the whole unit). Because those three dots are often preceded by a dot that is a period, many educated people mistakenly think there are "four-dot ellipses." This has typographical implications. You should keep the three dots from breaking at the end of the line, either by simply keeping an eye on the line breaks; by making the spaces that separate the dots in a properly constructed set of ellipses "non-breaking spaces" or "thin spaces" or whatever your coding language, word-processing software or typesetting system allows; or by simplifying matters and dispensing with those spaces. But you should not extend that courtesy to the "fourth dot," the period that accompanies the ellipsis only coincidentally. Whatever solution you come up with for keeping the three dots of an ellipsis together, you should separate the first of them from any period that happens to precede it with a full, legitimate space-bar space.

4. The old half-a-paren trick.

Parentheses come in pairs. Their usefulness for encasing the letters or numbers used to letter or number a list within running text has migrated into the odd but very common use of a single parenthesis after a letter or number used to letter or number a more formally presented list. A properly formatted list uses full sets of parentheses in the former case and periods in the latter case. Got that? Probably not. Allow me to illustrate.

WRONG:
The ATP rankings at the end of 1977 stood as follows: 1) Connors, 2) Vilas, 3) Borg.
WRONG:
The ATP rankings at the end of 1977 stood as follows:
1) Connors.
2) Vilas.
3) Borg.
RIGHT:
The ATP rankings at the end of 1977 stood as follows: (1) Connors, (2) Vilas, (3) Borg.
RIGHT:
The ATP rankings at the end of 1977 stood as follows:
1. Connors.
2. Vilas.
3. Borg.

5. Using a comma between a label and a labelee.

Pick up a yearbook from high school or college and you'll probably find this one in more than one photo caption.
Sophomore quarterback, Tom Tunnicliffe, scrambles for a gain.

Tennis player, Paul Chamberlin, returns a serve.
He's just sophomore quarterback Tom Tunnicliffe. He's just tennis player Paul Chamberlin. These are labels being stuck before names; the names are not what you would call in apposition to the descriptions. For that you'd need some articles, at the very least:
A tennis player, Paul Chamberlin, returns a serve.

The sophomore quarterback, Tom Tunnicliffe, scrambles for a gain.
It's not likely that anybody would want to write such sentences, but they're at least technically correct (the second one could be incorrect if the team had more than one sophomore quarterback that season, but that's a different lesson). You'd probably want a little more description if you're using apposition rather than just labels:
The star of the men's tennis team, Paul Chamberlin, returns a serve.

The Wildcats' record-setting sophomore quarterback, Tom Tunnicliffe, scrambles for a gain.
Note again, the distinction between with article and without article when a caption lapses into labeling to save space:

RIGHT: Mikael Pernfors and his wife, Kristina.
WRONG: Mikael Pernfors and wife, Kristina.
RIGHT: Mikael Pernfors and wife Kristina.

6. Leaving the apposition door open.

Speaking of apposition, this is perhaps the most common error I correct in reporters' copy. Observe:
When voters in Appalachia, Va. went to the polls on Nov. 2, 2006 they found no functioning machines.
Where, again, is the town I'm reading about? It's in Va., of course, but this sentence says it's in Va.-went-to-the-polls-on-Nov.-2-2006-they-found-no-functioning machines. Which Nov. 2 am I reading about? It's 2006, of course, but this sentence says it's 2006-they-found-no-functioning-machines. You indicate the beginning of a bit of apposition with a comma, but then you have to indicate the end of it as well. It's a Washington, D.C., man, not a Washington, D.C. man.

7. Using a semicolon where a comma would do.

If you're looking to graft two complete sentences together, you can reach for a semicolon or you can reach for a comma and the word "and." If you have the "and," you don't need the semicolon.

RIGHT: We arrived at the airport early, and we made our flight easily.
RIGHT: We arrived at the airport early; we made our flight easily.
WRONG: We arrived at the airport early; and we made our flight easily.

Sentences that are rather long but are essentially "a, b and c" series also tend to get unnecessary semicolons. My theory is that newspaper copy editors who have been trained not to use serial commas never stuck around for Day 2 of that lesson, in which they would have learned that it's no style violation to stick that comma in before "and" when a sentence gets unwieldy:

WRONG (WELL, AT LEAST UNADVISABLE): The barriers to entry in this sector include higher-than-typical personnel costs, the need for thousands of square feet of space and a sea of well-established firms to compete with.

WRONG: The barriers to entry in this sector include higher-than-typical personnel costs; the need for thousands of square feet of space; and a sea of well-established firms to compete with.

RIGHT: The barriers to entry in this sector include higher-than-typical personnel costs, the need for thousands of square feet of space, and a sea of well-established firms to compete with.

You'd also want to use the serial comma if one of the items in your series of sorts contains "and," "or" or "but":

WRONG: She has worked at the departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services.

WRONG: She has worked at the departments of Labor; Education; and Health and Human Services.

RIGHT: She has worked at the departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services.

Think of the semicolon as the supervisor you ask for when you've done all you can with a hard-working but ultimately ineffectual comma. Semicolons are quite appropriate in these "a, b and c" sentences when a or b or c already includes a comma:

RIGHT: The bathrooms feature stylish glass tile; deep, luxurious tubs; and heated towel racks.

RIGHT: In the early 1970s, she worked at the departments of Labor; Health, Education and Welfare; and Housing and Urban Development.

Note, however, that two items do not a series make. Our language can't solve all ambiguities, and its punctuation system doesn't provide a good solution when such an unwieldy sentence essentially presents a pair rather than a series:

WRONG: She worked at the departments of Health, Education and Welfare; and Housing and Urban Development.

RIGHT BUT AMBIGUOUS: She worked at the departments of Health, Education and Welfare and Housing and Urban Development.

A GOOD KLUDGE: She worked at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

While I'm on the semicolon, allow me to point out that it should never, ever be the last character before an ending quotation mark -- the rules for quote-ending placement in American English call for periods and commas always inside and semicolons and colons always outside. Also, the semicolon is in no sense a sentence-ending punctuation mark; whereas there are instances in which you would capitalize the first word after a colon, you would never capitalize an otherwise lowercase word after a semicolon.

(I have more than seven, but I'm a lazy, procrastinating bastard and National Punctuation Day is half over.)

11 comments:

Becky said...

Enjoy the holiday!

Claire M. Caterer said...

You'd think Punc Day would be some kind of paid holiday for word folk. Should I write my senator?

WordzGuy said...

Something else that can look kinda dumb is improper leading in heading text, like in "Being outsmarted by smart quotes"

Kenneth Walsh said...

But I love using ellipses as toys ...

bob said...

Thank you. I wish you posted more often. I always learn something.

News Commonsense

Rose - The Center of My Self said...

Such great information and examples. Always helpful. I'm just bummed I missed the actual holiday celebration. But I'm posting to facebook nonetheless.

Pilot said...

Great post - right up until you forgot the comma before the "and" preceding the independent clause in your closing parenthetical. ;)

Jonathan said...

Isn't the period in the first header supposed to be out side the quotation mark?
Jonathan Moore

Bill said...

Periods always go inside, at least in American English.

Bill said...

That last missing comma could go either way, but I didn't intend that as independent; it's dependent on the "but."

noneemac said...

Punc Day coincides ("Awesome, Dude!") with my birthday, so don't blame me for taking a week to chime in.

First, thank you, Bill. Thank you for being your vintage curmudgeonly self, and thank you for making this a single post. I plan to forward this page to all my "writerly" coworkers (the more they gain, the easier my job). I wish we could somehow push this page to ALL of corporate America.

I agree with Bill and disagree with Pilot. The comma Pilot seeks would be wrong in this case. It's "I have seven, but A and B."

I would write more, but I have to go now and my computer is about to crash.