The Marriage of Two Great Punctuation Marks: The Semi-Colon, Part One

When one is an English teacher, one gets asked a lot of questions by all kinds of people about punctuation, and I get asked most often for clarification on comma use, but I get asked almost as frequently about the use of the semi-colon. It can be a baffling punctuation mark, but only because people don’t use it enough. Today, I’ll focus on one use of the semi-colon, with more to come in the near future.

You know how a semi-colon looks like a period floating above a comma? That’s what a semi-colon is used for! It works like a comma, but it’s also like a period, and chances are very good that in your own writing, you’ve often used a comma when a semi-colon was called for. Take a look at these examples:

Please don’t feed the animals, they’re on a special diet.

Give it to me, I’ll put it away.

I told her not to try it, however, she tried it anyway.

In each of these examples, the comma separates two complete sentences. If you put a period there and capitalized the next word, you’d be grammatically correct. However, there are many times when a period seems too final or too abrupt. We want the thought of the second sentence to be linked quickly and smoothly to the thought before. In times like these, we use a semi-colon.

Please don’t feed the animals; they’re on a special diet.

Give it to me; I’ll put it away.

I told her not to try it; however, she tried it anyway.

You could go your whole life without using a semi-colon and never be wrong! Please understand that the decision to use a semi-colon is almost always a STYLISTIC decision. A semi-colon is not like a question mark or period, which MUST be used in certain situations. In the examples above, you could also just use a period, and in some cases, you can leave the comma and just add a conjunction. These sentences are also grammatically correct and avoid use of the semi-colon:

Please don’t feed the animals. They’re on a special diet.

Give it to me, and I’ll put it away.

I told her not to try it, but she tried it anyway.

You absolutely cannot leave the sentences as they are originally written! Two complete sentences joined only by a comma is a HUGE no-no, yet it is one of the errors I most often see in others’ writing. Practice using it and you’ll find that there are times when it’s exactly the right punctuation for your needs!

Friday Quiz from the Honolulu Advertiser

I try to cut newspaper reporters some slack, because they’re writing under a deadline and it’s easy to let a little mistake slip through once in a while when the pressure of time is weighing in on all sides. However, because this is an article on education in the state of Hawaii, it seemed especially sinful to commit a grammatical error of this sort. I’ll show you the section of the article that contains the error; you identify the error and suggest its correction! The answer is after the jump (click “Continue Reading”)!


Continue reading Friday Quiz from the Honolulu Advertiser

Two Redundancies

Here’s a quickie for Thursday.

  • Each and every child in the homeless shelter received a gift that Christmas.
  • He said a prayer for every single one of them.

We hear and say these phrases so often now that we don’t even think about the fact that these sentences both contain redundancies. Each and every is a redundancy because each means exactly the same thing as every. Rewrite the sentence with one or the other and you’ll see that the meaning is unchanged:

  • Each child in the homeless shelter received a gift that Christmas.
  • Every child in the homeless shelter received a gift that Christmas.

Neither of these sentences is distinguishable in meaning from the one in the example. Please don’t use each and every in your writing!

Similarly, single one is a redundancy because single means the same as one. Eliminate the single and you have a much better sentence: “He said a prayer for every one of them.”

If you look around, you’ll notice many other silly redundancies we hear every day. Tighten up your writing by recognizing them and not using them.

Keeping up with the Joneses, the Millers, the Murphys, and the Hos.

Let us talk today about the many ways people mess up the pluralizing of their own last names. Listen: It’s actually quite simple. You turn a name into a plural the same way you turn ANYTHING ELSE into a plural, with one small exception. As you know, the way you pluralize almost everything in the English language is to add an S to the end of the word. If the word already ends in S, you add ES. So PENCIL becomes PENCILS, and MESS becomes MESSES.

You do the same thing to last names! Miller doesn’t end with S, so you add an S to make it the whole family: Millers. Jones does end with S, so you add ES to make it the whole family: Joneses. One Au might bring her mom, so now you have two Aus at the party, and if they bring their cousins from the Ho family, you now have Aus and Hos. I know it looks funny to you, but that’s because people keep messing it up!

I am going to repeat myself just to emphasize the point: Add an S if the name doesn’t end with S. Add an ES if the name does end with an S.

Okay, are you ready for the one small exception? The rules of grammar don’t apply if applying them changes the name. One common rule in English says that words ending with Y are pluralized by removing Y and adding IES, so that fly becomes flies, jalopy becomes jalopies, and registry becomes registries. Applying this rule to a name is not allowed, because it changes the name: The Murphys are coming over for Christmas dinner, not the Murphies.

Similarly, if someone’s name is Mr. Goose, you do not refer to his family as the Geese (unless, of course, they are actually a family of waterfowl), and if your boss is Mr. Mouse, you don’t invite the Mice over for dinner. It might sound weird, but you’d call them the Gooses and the Mouses.

More on names (especially plural possessives!) later.

Usage Tuesday: Refuse to Loose

By special request of R.Suenaga of, let us take a look at the words loose and lose. Lose has many meanings, but they mostly have to do either with not winning or not finding something. Loose, as a verb, means to let go of.

  • You might believe you will win, but you will lose this game if you don’t adjust your strategy.
  • There is a trespasser on our premises: Loose the hounds!

Like Ryan, I have noticed with increasing frequency the use of loose where lose is appropriate, and I confess that this confusion baffles me. I don’t believe it’s merely a spelling error, but some kind of misconception either about the meanings or spellings of these words.

Several years ago, a lyric from a Bruce Cockburn song inspired quite a bit of discussion over the differences in these words’ meanings. The lyric, from a song called “Strange Waters,” is “If I loose my grip, will I take flight?” Bruce’s use of loose here, instead of lose, suggests that the song’s persona is considering the possibility of deliberately letting go, rather than perhaps slipping.

Whatever the cause for the confusion, I would like to recommend that people who get the two words confused pronounce them aloud, remembering that loose rhymes with goose. Perhaps hearing the difference in the words’ pronunciations will help people remember which word is which.

Whatever Floats Your Boat: Titles, Part 2

A week ago, we took a first look at two ways titles can be indicated.

We’ll now add to that one very specific use of italics. Did you know that the names of ships are considered titles? Because of this, names of ships (including space ships!) are always italicized:

: Today, the U.S.S. Missouri is tied up at Pearl Harbor and serves as a floating museum.

: Han Solo is the commander of the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars.

This brings up a very interesting conflict: What do we do with names of cars? It seems weird to italicize Herbie, Christine, and even Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, all cars with names, unless we’re referring to the titles of the films in which these cars appear. Yet the General Lee seems to ask for italics. At first I was going to suggest that the use of the word the in the name of a car indicates whether it is a title (as for the Bloomin’ Onion) or just a name. This distinction would make a lot of sense, because sometimes a car is a vehicle, like a boat or a train, and sometimes it is more of a friend, like The Lone Ranger’s Trigger.

In fact, I think the distinction is kind of cool. America is the birthplace of the automobile, and for many of us our wheels are more like trusty steeds (another American motif) than instruments of transport. And while Snoopy One is usually not written with the in front of it, it doesn’t sound at all weird to refer to it as the Snoopy One, just as we would say the Nina or the Santa Maria.

What, then, do we do with the Batmobile, which isn’t (and probably shouldn’t be) italicized? I am going to suggest that the Batmobile’s name is neither a name nor a title: It is simply what that specific machine is called. You see, Enterprise is the title given to a spaceship. Angela was the name of my red pickup truck when I was in college. The Batmobile is not really the name of anything: It’s just what it is, ‘though it happens to be unique. The starship, the pickup truck, the Batmobile.

I will summarize this way, then:

  • If it’s the name of a ship (or plane or bus or train or blimp), it’s a title and should be italicized.
  • If it’s the name of a car, determine whether it’s a formal (or formal-like) title or an affectionate name. Italicize the titles; simply capitalize the names.
  • For everything else, roll the dice and go with your best reasoning, or email me for advice!


Dot’s Quite Enough of Dot!

Today…I want to talk about…the use of ellipses…

There is one very, very good reason to use ellipses, which are usually represented as three periods.  Use them to indicate that you have removed something from a quote.  Sometimes, you want to remove some of the words in the middle of a quote only to focus on the part that’s relevant to your point.   Use … to replace the words you’ve taken out:

“Mary had a little lamb … and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.”

Many people use … to indicate a train of thought, a pause, or the inability to end one thought and begin a new one.  Don’t do this.  Even in your informal writing, such as in an online journal or a discussion forum, you will sound a million times more intelligent if you simply never use the ellipses! Instead, end one sentence and begin the next.

In formal writing, it’s a good idea never, ever to use … except to indicate removed text.  My advice is to give yourself perhaps three uses for your whole life, beginning today.  Once you use up your three, forbid yourself to use them ever again!  Hopefully, this will at the very least help you be more judicious in your use of the three dots.

I’m an Asian American Reading an Asian-American Magazine (hyphens, part one)

The hyphen is my second-favorite punctuation mark (behind the semicolon), and like my friend Blaine, I tend to overuse it and must always keep an eye out for it when I’m editing my own work. In a world that doesn’t use hyphens enough, I’ve overcompensated by using them too often.

At Blaine’s request, I’ll explore the hyphen and its many uses and misuses, beginning with what I consider its most important function: The connection of words in compound modifiers. A compound modifier is what you call two or more words that, together, describe one other word. Take the title of this post as an example:

I am an Asian American reading an Asian-American magazine.

In the first part of the sentence, Asian is describing American. I am an American. What kind of American am I? I am an Asian American.

In the second part of the sentence, the word magazine is being described by two words together, Asian and American. Look what happens when we leave the hyphen out:

…reading an Asian American magazine.

without the hyphen, it’s hard to tell whether the magazine is a magazine for Asian Americans or an American magazine published somewhere in Asia. Here are two more examples:

Kari Wuhrer battles Eight Legged Freaks in a 2002 action film.

National Novel Writing Month takes place every November.

These two examples appear here as they are officially titled, but both are wrong! In the first example, does lovely Kari fight eight freaks that have legs, or does she fight freaks that have eight legs each? In the second, is November the new month for writing, is it the month for writing the national novel, or is it the national month for writing novels? With hyphens, we have Eight-Legged Freaks and National Novel-Writing Month and everything is much clearer!