Tag Archives: punctuation

About the serial comma

People have opinions about the serial comma (also called the Oxford comma). Sometimes very strong opinions. So I sat down with my lunch, some Cheerios, and a Martini to tell you the truth.

naked text

its international punctuation day so ive given punctuation the day off after all on mothers day were supposed to give mothers the day off right im also giving capital letters the day off because why not they can go and have a nice lunch with the punctuation marks

i have recently talked about how much less useful the apostrophe is than we generally believe it is i would not say the same about other punctuation marks nor capital letters although people often have a very hard time getting capitalization rules straight

to celebrate id like to present another poem from my book songs of love and grammar please buy it or ill think you dont like me

getting naked

i met a woman young and fair
who liked her skin to feel the air
now im not wedded to convention
but i felt some apprehension
when i got to know her better
and she sent me this short letter
it is time that i should tell
i keep my text au naturel
i know that this will sound uncouth
but i believe in naked truth
in every place and situation
shed the chains of punctuation
doff the clothes of upper case
and stand revealed on white space
now i dont mind it being nude
but naked text at first seemed crude
however now its plain to see
that form and sense are both more free
and so we read our morning papers
sprawled in bed we serve up capers
in the kitchen we grow flowers
in the garden we take showers
in the bathroom we go hiking
on the mountains its our liking
to go swimming every day
in the pond in a cafe
sip a coffee or just run
on the trail our life is fun
my only cause for consternation
is some miscommunication
if my lover should insist
on writing on the shopping list
get some mustard greens and tea
do i buy two things or three
and now i have this little note
that concerns me and i quote
darling i think love is great
with others i would hesitate
to give my all to none but you
i feel open can you too
as i read it twice im guessing
if shes offering her blessing
to monogamous relation
or some other situation
its one thing when going shopping
now im faced with chamber hopping
in this textual revolution
can i find a real solution

Semicolons are recess periods

The semicolon is one of the most confusing punctuation marks, and many people are really unsure what to do with it. Some use it in place of a colon; others use it where a comma would be correct.

In fact, a semicolon is really a period that’s wearing a comma costume. It’s a full stop, but it’s pretending not to be. In French it’s a “point-virgule”: a period-comma. I think I would prefer to call them recess periods; they’re really periods, but they’re like a short recess between classes, rather than the full stop at the end of the day – you have a class on one side and a class on the other, or, in this case, an independent clause on one side and an independent clause on the other.

Semicolons are not like colons, and they’re not like commas either. Commas are multipurpose things, but one of the things you can’t do is use them to join two syntactically independent clauses; that’s called a comma splice. A colon is like a pair of eyes, looking expectantly. What is on one side of a colon depends on what is on the other side in some way – syntactically and/or thematically.

A semicolon, on the other hand, is like a tightrope walker – you can see the head on top and the one leg carefully balancing (the other is directly behind and not visible). For the tightrope walker to stay balanced, what is on either side must have equal weight: they must be either syntactically independent clauses or complex list items (by complex list items I mean things in a list that have internal punctuation: We went to see some movies: I, Claudius; Dawg, the Bounty Hunter; and Unforgiven).

To know whether a clause is syntactically independent, look for a subject and conjugated verb; you need one of each (unless it’s an imperative) on either side of the recess period.

Bad: He likes going to the races; usually on Sunday.

Good: He likes going to the races; he usually goes on Sunday.

Also look for conjunctions, which make it not syntactically independent.

Bad: He likes going to the races; which he does on Sunday.

Good: He likes going to the races, which he does on Sunday.

Unless you’re using the semicolons to separate complex list items, the rule is that it would still be grammatically correct if you replaced the semicolon with a period – because, really, it is a period, and when you whip off the comma mask, it will reveal itself. Like in a Mozart opera.

Two spaces and authority

Something I have to tell people about every so often, and would probably have gotten around to doing a blog post on, is that the rule so many people learned about putting two spaces after a period was a rule invented for typewriters and never appropriate for proportional type, such as we use now on computers. However, Farhad Manjoo of Slate has just given such a nice explication/rant on the topic (even if a little too harsh at times) that all I really need to do here is link to it. Which I have just done.

But if you’ll look at the comments, you’ll see not everyone agrees with him. And their reasons for disagreeing with him are for the most part not based on rational argumentation focusing on the points he’s made. They’re generally in the line of “You’re wrong because you’re wrong,” “Lots of people do it so you’re wrong,” “Who cares?” and “That’s not what we were taught, so you’re wrong.”

The first two kinds of response – “You’re wrong because you’re wrong” and “Lots of people do it so you’re wrong” – are easily waved off. Circularity is obvious and juvenile, and popularity is not always a proper basis for correctness. (In typography, the design aims for maximum readability and minimum unbidden distraction, and double spacing defeats that when the type was designed to have proper kerning after a period. So it’s not like language usage, which in the long run is decided by mass opinion.)

The third, which is exemplified by the comment “You know what’s even more outdated than using double spaces at the end of a sentence? Typographers,” is the argument from and for ignorance. The truth, of course, is that typographers are not outdated; perhaps that commenter thinks that God or magic makes everything look pretty and readable on the page, and that all letter forms are sent straight down from heaven. But if there were no typographers, he and others would discover the true meaning of text looking like shit.

It’s the final category of comment, though, that touches on a point that comes up quite often when language professionals talk with their clients and other people who might think they know what they’re talking about but don’t really. An exemplary comment is “Hey jackass. Us two spacers didn’t invent this practice. It was taught to us somewhere, more than likely in a typing class. So despite your assurances, I assure you that it is correct.”

Oh! It was taught to you somewhere! Ohhhh. I see. So it must be right then! Because teachers are always right. And yet there are other commenters in the same thread who say they were taught not to use two spaces. So they were taught somewhere that double-spacing was wrong! So that makes them both right! But they can’t both be right! Oh noooooooes! Mai hed hurtz.

So I’ll say it, just to be clear: Just because you were taught it doesn’t mean it’s right.

And here’s an even more important fact: School teachers are not subject matter experts. They teach what is in the curriculum, which has been determined by school boards and politicians, and most of the time it’s right, and of course in order to teach it they need to know enough about it to teach it. Certainly most of what they will teach you is true (whether you remember it correctly is another matter). But they are not always right about everything.

And some of the things you are taught in school are not entirely right, either. Usually this is because you aren’t quite at a level to understand the matter exactly correctly; you will find this in university, too – linguistics students are constantly being told that what they learned in a previous-level course was actually a bit oversimplified. Sometimes the school curriculum hasn’t caught up with reality. In some places, due to politics, the curricula are impervious to established reality on some important points. But also, students are sometimes taught things that aren’t in the curriculum but that the teacher just happens to believe. This is how many mistaken beliefs about grammar have been spread. (See When an “error” isn’t about those.)

But let’s just get this right down clear and straight: you probably know that your high school biology teacher knows less about the human body than a surgeon does. You may know that your high school physics teacher knows less about physics than one of the physics professors at MIT, Cal Tech, or Stanford, and less about engineering than a professional engineer who builds bridges for a living. So why do so many people believe that what their high school English teacher taught them about grammar and writing is the highest, most expert level of fact, handed down as though from God? Here, I’ll put it in bold so people can see it when skimming: Your high school English teacher was not an English language expert. He or she probably acted like one. But if you really want to understand English grammar and how it works and why it is the way it is, you’re going to need to get much farther than the rather basic understandings you came out of high school with.

Now, those who read this blog regularly will know I take a pragmatic approach, and generally dislike inflexible thou-shalt-not rules. So what’s with me saying thou shalt not use two spaces after a period? Well, it’s like this: you can use two spaces if you want to, but it’s probably not going to look as good. The type was not designed for it. If you submit it for publication, the designer will convert double spaces to single spaces pretty much immediately, and in fact will probably run that replacement without even looking to see if there are any to replace. So you’re making either a little extra work or not really any extra work at all for the designer, but you are wasting your energy with every unneeded space. Hey, it’s your energy…

But if you double-space, at least don’t insist that single-spacing after periods is wrong. It’s not. It’s actually preferable in proportional type. And it doesn’t matter that you learned it in school. The fact that you learned it in school doesn’t mean it’s right. You have a brain, right? I’m sure you’ve questioned other things you were taught. Well, question this too! Find out!

Why the second comma?

The Editors’ Association of Canada email list has lately had a discussion on the topic of sentences such as “Victoria, BC is a pretty place” – or should that be “Victoria, BC, is a pretty place”?

It’s quite common not to use the second comma. And in fact in most cases one is not too likely to misunderstand the sentence without it. But does it belong there, strictly speaking? And if so, why? Continue reading

Fulford fulminates – pfui.

The National Post‘s Robert Fulford has gone on a grammar gripe to mark the unofficial but much-bruited National Punctuation Day.


More “language as gotcha game” thinking. While standards are important in language, they exist to serve communication, not vice-versa. We certainly want children to learn consistency and discipline in their usage, but we should also want them to think about why they do what they do and to focus on language as something enjoyable and to put their main emphasis on effectiveness of communication. Punctuation ranting leads to truly a**hole-ish behaviour like this: languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=522. Come on, perspective, please! Language exists for connecting people; if in our focus on language we disrespect people, we have lost the thread entirely.

And to address the apostrophe issue that Fulford fulminates on, I need to point out again that apostrophes on possessives are neither necessary (we get by fine without hearing them in speech) nor historically appropriate. They were forced into the language during the Renaissance by people who mistakenly believed that our possessive was contracted from “has” and who thought the written forms of words should manifest their origins (but only to some extent… for instance, a b was reinserted in debt to make it look more like debitum; why not add the i and the um while you’re sticking in silent letters?). “Ancient tradition” my ass. Fulford should take a short course in the history of the English language and study some Old English inflections. (See faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/courses/handouts/magic.html to see what our possessives used to be – they’re in the G. row, for “genitive.”)

The comments on Fulford’s article give further evidence to my contention that most people who go on about other people’s grammar don’t know grammar as well as they think they do. One fellow attempts to maintain a strict distinction between literal “farther” and figurative “further” when there is only a general trend, not a lexicalized difference. In response, another fellow, trying to sound authoritative, writes “written by whomever feels the urge,” which is altogether nonstandard; the relative pronoun here is the subject of a subordinate clause, and as such should be in the nominative, if we’re going to be insisting on the rules. Another one corrects someone on a supposed misplaced comma that’s not actually misplaced. And so on.

English is fun because it’s crazy. But it’s also frustrating for the same reason if you’re trying to be a stickler about it. Three points of advice:

a) remember why you’re using it;

b) know your stuff, and know what you don’t know;

c) enjoy it, please, and let others do the same.