22 September 2009

Punctuate Properly? Er, Properly.

This will probably be the least popular blog entry i've written. Not even due to something cool like controversy. Instead, this will be the blog people read halfway through and don't want to finish. Why?

Nobody cares about punctuation.

Or should i say: Nobody cares about punctuation!

In school we first learn about end punctuation: the period (.), the question mark (?) and the exclamation point/mark (!). (The Brits call it a mark, which makes more sense to me since the point is the smallest part of the symbol.) Then we talk about middle punctuation like the comma (,) or the colon (:) or the semi-colon (;), but we got so bored during the first section, we didn't pay attention to the second.

We know how to use periods, question marks and exclamation points pretty effectively, even if we do tend to abuse the power of the exclamation. The rest of them we just do our best and hope we're right.

Sometimes, that's not good enough.

It wasn't until 1963 that the Michigan constitution corrected a punctuation error that drastically affected the meaning of the law, and slavery. For over 100 years it read 'Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, unless for the punishment of crime, shall ever be tolerated in this state.'

It's easy to miss unless you look more closely. It says that both slavery and involuntary servitude are illegal, unless it's acted out as punishment for criminal activity. In 1963 they corrected the error, simply by moving the comma after 'law' to fit in after 'slavery.' That correction outright rejects slavery in all forms, but allows for involuntary servitude as long as it's an act of punishment for a crime.

A misplaced comma hijacked the sentence and changed the meaning of it, drastically.

Even a simple piece of punctuation that that isn't as complicated as a comma can throw things off course.

A shop in Dublin, Ireland was recently seen with a sign that read 'Were Open.' Imagine what a prospective hire would think if they walked by a similar sign that read 'Were Hiring.' Obviously they should have moved more quickly; they've missed out on the job!

The missing apostrophe changed a present action to something that has passed.

It's understandable that people don't know or use colons or semi-colons; they are confusing and you can get by without using them. They get more use in smileys than sentences. However, we can't get away with avoiding commas or apostrophes.

Here are some guidelines with both.

Likely Page Break

* Used to break up thoughts, like in this sentence. I can get away with cutting off everything after the comma without affecting the core meaning of the sentence.
* Sometimes that non-essential clause, the idea separated from the rest of the sentence by commas, lands in the middle of the sentence instead of the beginning or end. These two sentences, as well as the Michigan state constitution, are prime examples.
* Also, use them when listing items. If you have a comma phobia, you can lose the last comma (the one that goes before the word 'and') without confusing the reader or getting funny looks from people.
* Don't listen to people who say put a comma where you breathe. Those people are stupid.


* Show where a word is missing a few letters, either due to a contraction (don't comes from 'do not') or just due to the removal of one or more letters (pot o' gold, rock 'n' roll).
* Also shows possession (Bill's home). Remember, if you can flip it around to say 'home of Bill' it should be a possessive apostrophe.
* There is a distinct difference between its and it's. This is the one possessive that doesn't have an apostrophe. Read it's as 'it is' in your head to keep the two separate.
* Single apostrophes can also be used as quote marks in place of the American English standard of quotation marks (or double apostrophes). In England, the single quote is the standard. (I use the single because i think it helps the page look cleaner.)
* Not to be used when making an acronym plural (DVDs is correct; DVD's is not; remember, they aren't owning anything and there are no letters missing).

Now that you have a few guidelines for the comma and the apostrophe, maybe it's finally time to figure out when to use that semi-colon; or not.

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