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I’ve been noticing another wave of incorrectly used semicolons. I joined another writing forum to see if I could meet any interesting writers, concepts or tips, and to provide advice. It seems a lot of amateur writers are caught in that transition phase between simplistic writing and using linguistic features (such as punctuation, and in this case semicolons) to spruce up their narrative. Unfortunately, this transition phase tends to see a lot of errors.

So let’s lay down some quick terminology. You should all know what a semicolon is. A comma splice is when two sections of a sentence are joined together by a comma when they can be standalone sentences by themselves (known as a main clause/independent clause). By the way, if you omit the comma altogether (so it’s just two sentences stuck on the ends of one another with no punctuation in between) it’s known as a fused sentence.

I’m still learning about punctuation, today I learned how to use semicolons.

That’s an example of a comma splice. Now there’s a number of ways to fix it.

  1. Separate it into two sentences. I’m still learning about punctuation. Today I learned how to use semicolons.
  2. Use a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but or, yet, so). I’m still learning about punctuation, and today I learned how to use semicolons.
  3. Use a subordinate conjunction (because, since, once, as, if, unless, though, etc.). Because I’m still learning about punctuation, today I learned how to used semi colons.
  4. Use a semicolon. I’m still learning about punctuation; today I learned how to use semicolons.

Let’s just solidify what those examples should have taught you (if you didn’t already know) and refocus on semicolons. The two clauses separated by the semicolon have to be independent clauses. They have to be sentences by themselves. It’s very easy to remember but oddly hard to follow.

On an ending note, I’d like to point out that sometimes rules can be broken. I’m a big advocate of bending the rules for stylistic effect but I’m tired of seeing people use this as an excuse. If you break a rule to create rhetorical effect, fair enough. Just make sure there’s a distinct purpose for you breaking the rule, and that even an idiot can tell you did it on purpose. And don’t overdo it. It’s only special if it’s rare.

While I’m on the topic, here’s another excuse that really ticks me off. Using cummings as an excuse to ignore rules of English. For those that don’t know, cummings was a poet famous for (among other things) ignoring capitalisation in his poems. That’s why people often don’t capitalise his name; it’s sort of like a weird little tribute to him. However, let’s get this straight. First, he wrote poetry, which already bends a lot of rules. Second, he became famous. It’s very difficult to criticise the successful. Third, you are not cummings. There are literally tens of thousands of other writers competing with you (in any sense of the word) and not many people have even heard of your name. You will not be excused for breaking rules. At least not until you become famous first.

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With the advent of the computer, more and more writers are using word programs to write. The convenience and speed are incredibly helpful, but it’s come at the cost of knowledge about spelling, grammar and punctuation.

This time, I’d just like to draw attention to the three types of dashes.

Hyphen:

This is a form of punctuation used to separate compound words, such as water-powered or heat-seeking. This is the minus key on standard keyboards and is noticeably shorter in length. Originally, I believe hyphens were meant to be slightly diagonal as we can see above, but now they’ve been mixed up and confused so much that it’s become interchangeable with a dash. Hyphens are appropriate from most word breaks and compounding (including hyphenating telephone numbers).

En Dash:

In typography, “en” is a unit of length around the width of the letter “N”. The En Dash gets its name from this by being roughly that wide. It is used to describe a range of values or distance. For example, the range: people between ages 18 – 30 would use an En Dash. This blog doesn’t actually auto-correct the length of dashes so my dash up there is the same size as a hyphen, which is wrong. I could copy and paste one to be correct but I thought that it would be a good example of how this typographical standard remains ignorant to most. In terms of distances, the En Dash sort of replaces the word “to”, such as: the Sydney-Tokyo flight was delayed.

Em Dash:

Similar to the En Dash, this gets its name from it’s length being that of the letter “M”, which is roughly twice the length of an “N”. The Em Dash is used to denote parenthetical elements to a sentence, similar to using commas as a parenthetical marker. As the word parenthetical comes from parenthesis, some of you may already know what I mean by this. For those that don’t, I’ll have to use an example.

The building, still burning from the attack, began to crumble.

The two commas are used to describe some attribute of the subject that may not be directly a part of the sentence. Similarly, the Em Dash can be used for the same purpose, but is often used to denote abrupt parenthetical elements.

The building – a burning and crumbling mess of shattered stone and woodwork – was no longer the proud fortress it had once been.

Due to its abrupt nature, the Em Dash is also used in fiction to denote interruption in dialogue, such as: “Hey Bob, what was that sou-“. Again, wordpress doesn’t correct it to the proper length dash so just take note that even though I used a hyphen, it should be an Em Dash.

So just remember guys, not all dashes are the same! Make sure you’re using the right one, or at least understand the difference.

Too often do I get carried away championing the Grammar Nazi cause that I forget to educate in a less scathing way. This is an odd habit of mine considering I used to be an English tutor – a patient and encouraging one too (I’d like to think).  I blame the impersonal nature of the internet for my blunt, borderline-mockery of those that commit errors relating to English syntax, although I’ve mentioned before that I generally don’t bother correcting people unless they’re trying to correct someone else – and getting it wrong. I’d like to think this absolves me of some of the gravity of my crime – I leave the oblivious alone and hunt the self-proclaimed Grammar Nazis who obviously need a bit of a lesson themselves.

Anyway, to amend my sins I’ll quickly throw together some of the most common errors that I see so that this can be used as a reference for those trying to fix up their English (to whom I give my utmost respect – props for your effort). I don’t believe absolutely perfect grammar is necessary, and I have many well-educated, intellectual peers who have problems with English syntax themselves, but a good degree of English writing is necessary for professional credibility, and also for its own sake. What I find hilarious are people who attempt to be deep and meaningful with incorrect grammar – it sort of undermines your credibility when you don’t know what you’re saying. I think it would be plagiarism for me to go linking funny grammar fail photos, so I’ll let you guys Google them yourselves. I also don’t want to offend my Facebook friends by using theirs. Suffice to say, in a world comprised mostly of idiots, it’s nice to be able to stand out by using proper English. By the way, for those who don’t know, in linguistics, syntax is the study of the principles and processes of constructing sentences. I use the word syntax because I don’t want to be incorrect by calling something a grammar mistake when it’s actually spelling, punctuation or diction, for example (so yes, the term Grammar Nazi is actually a misnomer, which I find ironic). Syntax sort of encompasses all of that.

Ok, I ramble a lot; my posts are way too long. If you avoid all of these errors, your English is passable and you should be left alone by all but the most seasoned of Grammar Nazis. These are off the top of my head so I may miss some conditions. Here’s the list:

10 Common English mistakes:

  1. You’re means “you are”. Your means something belongs to or is associated with you. (You’re always late to your classes.)
  2. An apostrophe followed by the letter “s” ( ‘s ) is used to indicate possession, except for the word “it’s” which means “it is”. I find this one particularly amusing because people often say “Grammar Nazi’s” to indicate plural, which is incorrect. To indicate the possessive of a plural, you put the apostrophe after the “s”. However, if it’s a name ending with “s”, you still put an apostrophe with an “s” after the name. (Jess’s grammar is horrible. It’s quite obvious that she never paid attention in school; the teacher claims that she always got on the other students’ nerves.) Edit: Actually, there’s some debate over whether you need to add the apostrophe “s” after a name ending with “s”. My academic view is that you should, but it would take up too much space to support that argument here. Suffice to say, just make sure you’re consistent in your own writing.
  3. To indicate the plural of a word, generally you add an “s” to the end. If the word ends with the letter “y”, you change the “y” into an “ie” and then put the “s” on the end (-ies). Some exceptions include the plural form of “he” and “she”, “that” and “this” (they, those and these, respectively). (The baby’s eyes glared sinisterly at the other babies. They stared back with equal menace.)
  4. Words should be capitalised at the beginning of every sentence and after ever period/full-stop. Names and significant terms should also be capitalised (which is why Grammar Nazi should be capitalised, as it is an established term used to name somebody who corrects other peoples’ grammar). This should be pretty obvious so I’m not going to give an example. If you can’t do this correctly, I honestly think you need to go back to primary school – and I say that without any hint of insult intended. Also, capitalising randomly in the middle of your words and sentences makes you look like a douche.
  5. Then is used to indicate the next event after a certain time. Than is used to compare things. (He read the poorly constructed comment, then realised that he was far more educated than the other guy.)
  6. A liar is somebody who lies. I have no freaking clue what a lier or a lyer is. The act of committing a lie is lying. 
  7. Affect is a verb; it is the action of causing an effect, which is a noun. (His atrocious grammar affected the Grammar Nazis’ sensibilities to good effect.)
  8. Farther is used to indicate a measurable distance. Further is used for abstract distances, such as time or events. (He ran farther ahead but could predict no further catastrophes).
  9. Multiple negatives can be used for dramatic effect, but most of the time people use them incorrectly. If you use more than one negative in a sentence, you’re complicating things and you’re cancelling out the effect of your negatives. “He hasn’t never done nothing wrong” actually means he always does things wrong. See how confusing and stupid that is? If you want to say “He’s never done anything wrong” then just freaking say it normally.
  10. I’m not actually sure what the proper name for this error is but please, never say “more better” or anything along those lines. More is an adjective. Adjectives are used to describe nouns and pronouns only. Better is an adverb. You do not use adjectives in front of adverbs. Just say “better”, it already has the meaning of “more” incorporated into it.

Obviously, there’s many more mistakes that people make, but if you can manage to avoid these then congratulations! You are now the top 10% (a statistic that I can’t back up with any sources, but seriously, you’re now special because you’re no longer just another incoherent writer whose comments speak poorly of your education).

As a reward, here are some cool words (in my opinion) that you can try using to make yourself sound even more awesome.

  1. Ubiquitous – Omnipresent; found everywhere
  2. Pulchritudinous – Physically pretty; appealing to look at
  3. Paradigm – A set of forms and processes that is used as a model or example
  4. Paramount – Of great importance or impact
  5. Tantamount – Equivalent; equal to
  6. Guile – Cunning; deceitful
  7. Machiavellian – Characterised by the traits of deceit, manipulation and cunning
  8. Effervescent – Bubbly; lively
  9. Comeuppance – A consequence that one has earned, usually negative
  10. Enthrall – To captivate; to hold power over

With great grammar comes great responsibility. Enjoy your newfound power and may it help you in your social life, academic life and professional life (and it probably will if you used to tork lyke dis).

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