Category Archives: punctuation

Weekend Photo: Genki Sushi Express is back!  Sorry for the short break.  Hope you didn’t have to do any serious writing over the past seven months!

Genki Sushi

I love love love the new Genki Sushi Express in Honolulu (it’s across Aloha Stadium, in the space between Starbucks and Office Max), and have even been offered free items during the express hour (for being a regular customer, said the manager), but not even Genki Sushi is let off the hook for a bad apostrophe.  I might manage to look away from the multiple exclamation points, but not the bad apostrophe, not even for free rainbow roll.

End-Marks: On the Other Hand

Yesterday, I made a big deal out of the fact that an end-mark goes at the end of a sentence.  There is one notable exception in American English: Sentences ending with quotations.

If your sentence ends with a quotation, the end-mark is placed inside the closing quotation marks, whether or not the punctuation is part of the quotation.

She repeated her assertion, saying that the typesetters were “completely wrong.”

According to a rather clearly written article at Wikipedia, the reason for this preference has more to do with typesetting preferences than with grammar.  Apparently, smaller pieces of type, such as commas and periods, were more easily damaged, so putting them inside the quotation marks protected them.

In England, the more grammatical guideline is followed, and the end-mark is included only when it is part of the quote.  This makes a lot more sense, so you’d think that I’d favor the English style.

However, I do not, and all I can say in my own defense is that I think it looks nicer the American way.  I know; that’s a lame reason.

It’s especially lame when you consider the fact that one must go to great, ridiculous lengths sometimes to avoid ambiguity or confusion when following the American guidelines.  For example, when I give reading quizzes to my students, I ask them to identify important quotes from the text.  What I want to write would look like this:

In Romeo and Juliet, which character says, “A curse o’ both your houses!”?

The exclamation point is part of the quote and I think it’s important to include it in this case, because a student not remembering the exact quote might remember the sentiment when it is expressed this way.  Mercutio is quite annoyed (to say the least!) with the Montagues and Capulets when he screams this in the town square.  However, because I’m asking a question here (Which character says…), I need a question mark at the end of the sentence, and I can’t very well put it inside the quotation marks, can I?

 In Romeo and Juliet, which character says, “A curse o’ both your houses!?”

Even if I didn’t think the exclamation point was necessary, I’d still have to put the question mark inside the quotation marks if I wanted to follow the American standard.

In Romeo and Juliet, which character says, “A curse o’ both your houses?”

As you can see, this could really confuse a student who might be racking his or her brain to remember which character would ask a question like this!

This has led to my having to reword the instructions.  Instead of asking a question in this manner, I have to give an instruction at the top of the page:  Identify the speaker of each of these quotes from Romeo and Juliet.  This allows me to quote passages exactly with no ambiguity of meaning.

In situations where I am not expected to model good, American English, I might not be so rigid.  The example in the Wikipedia article is a good one: If you’re quoting something that includes a URL, you don’t want your audience thinking an end-mark is part of the URL.  Athough I wonder who would think that in this Web-saturated culture, the point must be reiterated that good writing is clear first and elegant second.  If there’s a chance someone might misunderstand you, find a way to follow the established conventions of whatever language you’re writing in (as in my re-wording of the reading quiz questions) without compromising clarity.

End-Marks Go at the End (after Parentheses, Even).

Well, the title really says it all. If a parenthetical statement ends your sentence, close the parentheses and put the period outside. There is no need to put a period inside, even if your parenthetical statement is a complete sentence:

The band’s new drummer was welcomed enthusiastically by long-time fans (the original drummer died last year).

If your parenthetical statement is made up of more than once sentence, then of course you need a period after each sentence, but at the end, close the parentheses and then put your end-mark.

The one exception to this guideline is when you need a question mark or exclamation point for the parenthetical statement. In this case, go ahead and use the end-mark inside the parentheses, but don’t forget to put one outside the parentheses as well.

We incidentally touched hands when we both reached for the maple-syrup pitcher at the same time (Oh my goodness, what soft hands!).

She had the short stack; I ordered the Monte Cristo (much too fattening, but who cares?).

Now everyone get out there and parenthesize correctly (yes, I really mean it).

Getting Your Money’s Worth

Most people would not forget the apostrophe in getting your money’s worth.  This is an appropriate apostrophe, because the phrase means to get one thing in exchange for an (at least) equal value of money, literally or figuratively.  The worth of your money is your money’s worth, just as the car of your friend is your friend’s car.

However, you frequently see sentences like these.

I was out of town on a trip, so when I finally got together with Shelby, she had a weeks worth of gossip saved up to share with me.

When my roomie moved out unexpectedly for the summer, I had to cover three months rent all by myself.

In both cases, we’re talking about a sort of possession: The gossip worth of three weeks and the rent of three months.  In both cases, apostrophes are needed.  I hope you have received your money’s worth from today’s quick tip!

Hyphens Again

You should probably avoid this kind of thing as much as possible, but once in a while, you find yourself writing a sentence like this.

I was looking forward to a weekend of fun with my sisters- and brothers-in-law.
Someone will have to leave him- or herself a note as a reminder.

In the first example, we’re dealing with a compound phrase that’s properly hyphenated: sisters-in-law. In the second, it’s a compound word that’s not hyphenated: himself. In both cases, because we split them up to include them with the item that follows, we use a hyphen to indicate that the word or phrase is really incomplete, and it should be paired with the end of the word or phrase that follows. This construction works MUCH better in spoken language than in written language, but whatever. If you’re going to write it like this (which I don’t wholeheartedly object to, by the way; sometimes it’s stylistically appropriate), don’t forget those hyphens!

A few more quick examples:

We checked every bus- and shuttle-stop on his route.
Please tell all the car- and truck-owners you know about our car wash this weekend.
Cute advertising has made them the leading home- and office-cleaners on the market.

May you all have a pleasant week! I tried to think of something cute to hyphenate in this sentence, but I’m out of material!

Your Punctuational Traffic-Director: The Semi-Colon, part 2

We first took a look at the semi-colon here, where we saw that the semi-colon acts sorta like a period (coming at the end of a complete sentence) and sorta like a comma (continuing the thought into the next sentence). But my favorite punctuation mark has another very nice use, which we will examine here.

You already know that a comma is used to separate items in a series, as in I purchased new albums by Cream, Eric Clapton, and Traffic.

However, when the items in the series themselves contain commas, this can be confusing. Here are the names of three great rock bands whose names contain commas.

  • Emerson, Lake, and Palmer
  • Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
  • Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe

If we were fortunate enough to purchase albums by these three terrific band in one trip to the store and unfortunate enough to have to write about it, we could end up with a sentence like this.

I purchased new albums by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe.

I believe I speak for us all when I say BLECH. The sentence above actually works out okay if our audience is familiar enough with the musicians, but anyone NOT familiar with these three bands would never know where one band’s name ended and the next began. In times like this, when we have items in a series and some of the items contain commas, we can use a semi-colon to separate the items, like this.

I purchased new albums by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young; and Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe.

In fact, any time the items in the series can be confusing, a semi-colon can clear things up very quickly. For example, sometimes the items in the series are kind of long (and in this case, also contain commas).

I wrote thank you cards to my mother, who gave me a nickel; my father, who gave me a dime; and my sister, who gave me a boyfriend whose name was Frankenstein.

This is not the kind of thing you want to overuse, but keep it handy, because many of us tend to speak this way and have difficulty writing this way. There are times when a nice, long sentence is called for, and when you’ve got a bunch of different words all swarming around in your sentence, you want to keep your tools ready to keep things in line. Remember: Good writing is clear first and elegant second. As I wrote in our first look at the semi-colon, you could go your whole life and never use one and always be correct; however, this wonderful punctuation mark can help you with clarity AND elegance, and that’s why I love it so very much!

Hyphen Help

One of my online haunts is the language reference desk at Wikipedia, where people with questions about language put them forth, and wannabe smarties like me do our best to answer them.  It’s a fun exercise for me, because there is seldom one opinion about how to solve a sticky grammar issue, and the interplay of ideas and suggestions teaches me a lot about the complexity and beauty of the English language.

Someone recently posted this question under the heading Hyphen Help.

Being too lazy to slog through (the Wikipedia article on the) Hyphen, how do I handle “his second hand car salesman friend?”

I offered my suggestion first; others followed soon after.  If you haven’t already clicked over to the reference desk to see what I suggested, I’d love to hear how you would hyphenate this awkward phrase.  Leave a comment below with your suggestion keeping the phrasing as it is first, then also rephrasing it if you can think of a better way.

Any takers?  C’mon!


Darn it.  Four tildes don’t work here.

Now I Know My ABCs

I have a feeling this one bugs me more than it bugs most people.

Letters written as letters should not be pluralized with an apostrophe and an s. It makes no sense at all to say you got all A’s and B’s on your report card, or that your daughter had better learn to mind her P’s and Q’s. An apostrophe has two general uses: First, it indicates POSSESSION of something, as in Please put the ribbons in Team D’s box. Second, it indicates the REMOVAL OF LETTERS in a contraction, as in I don’t know where I put it (in this case, the apostrophe indicates the removal of the O in not) or ...o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave (in this case, the apostrophe indicates the removal of a v).

People want to use apostrophes when pluralizing letters written as letters because they’re worried others might try to READ the letters and get confused. For consonants, this is an unnecessary worry, because readers are quick to see that Cs is not a word, and therefore should be read as “more than one C.” For vowels, I’ll grant that a sentence can be confusing if an apostrophe is not used, as in “Students who got As are exempt from this assignment.” One solution to this problem is to use italics, which one sees quite often. If you do this, italicize the letter but not the S that pluralizes it. Another way to deal with this is to rewrite the sentence, so you have something like Any student who received an A is exempt from this assignment.

I must confess that I have a near-daily conflict with this issue, because my favorite Major League Baseball team is the one that plays in Oakland. Long known as the Athletics (which presents a completely different grammatical issue), the team was officially called the A’s in the 1970s, ‘though the nickname had been in use for decades. Since the logo on the baseball caps features the A with the apostrophe, I commit a major act of hypocrisy every time I wear the team’s clothing. In my written communication, though, I almost always insist on referring to the team as the Athletics in order to avoid this awful situation.

Since it makes no sense AT ALL to use an apostrophe this way, I often wonder how the apostrophe got chosen for this misuse. I mean, why not a period, as in straight A.s? I know that looks odd to you, but it looks just as odd to me to put an apostrophe there. Thankfully, with the prevalence of wordprocessors comes the ease of italicizing, so if you stick to italics for those odd situations and nothing at all for the consonants, you should be FINE. Please stop with the apostrophes!

I Saw You at: The Store, Buying a Gift for: Your Mom

A fellow English teacher and I were wondering a few years ago about the origin of the practice of putting a colon after to and from, as on gift tags at Christmas time or on the envelopes of greeting cards.  It’s worth considering, because it is so totally wrong and we have all done it.

To and from, when followed by a person’s name or by a place, as in to Myrna, from William or to California from Hawaii or even to sir, with love never need punctuation right after them, and they certainly don’t need a colon.  Let’s save some printer ink and leave the colon out, shall we?