Not a Comma; Not Yet a Period


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The semicolon is a polarizing punctuation mark. Consider these disparate points of view:

  • “Do not use semicolons….All they do is show you’ve been to college.” —Kurt Vonnegut
  • “I must say I have a great respect for the semicolon; it’s a useful little chap.” —Abraham Lincoln

Well said, Mr. Lincoln. The semicolon is a useful little chap; it’s also commonly misunderstood. (And for the record, I’ve loved the semicolon since middle school. In fact, it’s my second-favorite punctuation mark.)

So what are its correct uses? Let’s start with a quick definition. A semicolon is a punctuation mark indicating a pause, typically between two sentences, that’s more pronounced than that indicated by a comma yet not as definitive as indicated by a period. Here’s an example: There are few foods more delicious than Cheetos; they truly are “dangerously cheesy.”

Could a period work here? Sure. If you really wanted to emphasize their dangerous cheesiness, you could write it like so: There are few foods more delicious than Cheetos. (Take a pause and a breath.)They truly are “dangerously cheesy.” But I don’t see the point of an extended pause between these clauses—unless, of course, I’m writing a poem about Cheetos and wish to be more dramatic. Then I’d just throw punctuation out the window altogether and create something like this (to be read in the voice of Christopher Walken): There are few foods. More delicious. Than Cheetos. They. Truly are. “Dangerously Cheesy.”

Before we move on, I have a question: who out there would rather use a comma between the clauses? Anyone? Bueller? That would look like this: There are few foods more delicious than Cheetos, they truly are “dangerously cheesy.” And it would be 100 percent, unequivocally, no-two-ways-about-it wrong. That, my friends, is called a comma splice, and comma splices are evil.

Here are a two additional uses for the semicolon:

  • Use a semicolon if there’s a conjunctive adverb (words like however, moreover, consequently, and nevertheless) joining two main clauses. Example: Pulp Fiction was the best movie of 1994; nevertheless, Forrest Gump won the “Best Picture” Oscar. Opting for a comma would put you back into that dreaded comma splice territory (something even more irritating than Tom Hanks going on and on about “Gin-nay” for two hours).
  • Use a semicolon to separate items in a series if one or more of those items includes a comma. Example: I’ve gotten lost in many cities, including Detroit, Michigan; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Columbus, Ohio. This promotes readability.

So what are your feelings on the semicolon? Do you agree that it’s a “useful little chap?” And Pulp Fiction was robbed, am I right?

Word of the Week: Chap
Song of the Week: Let’s Stay Together, by Al Green

#octothorpe


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For the past several years, I’ve participated in a weekly trivia league. It’s a lot of fun, and my team does reasonably well, enough to earn a gift card now and then.

This year we did better than most. In fact, we made the league finals. 50+ of the top teams in Michigan convened in Woodhaven to compete, and we held our own. Then came the category “Words.”

Perfect, right? Not so fast. I both love it and hate it when we get a “Words” category. I love it because I know lots of words; I hate it because, if I’m wrong, I never hear the end of it. Being the finals, I expected something reasonably difficult. I got this: “In writing, the word ‘octothorpe’ is the technical term for what grammar mark?”

As is typical for this particular category, all heads at the table turned to me expectantly. *crickets*

“Well,” I speculated, “Maybe the @ symbol is also known as an ‘octothorpe.’” That seemed like a good guess; after all, it has to have a name beyond “at symbol.” And it does (see below)—but I regret to inform you that it’s not “octothorpe.”

Nope. An octothorpe is—drumroll, please—the pound sign or hash symbol. (#really?) After drawing it out and staring at the nine squares encompassing it, I realized that the “octo” actually comes from the eight lines that stick out around the character—which actually makes a lot of sense.

It made me wonder, though—are there other characters that have technical terms I’m unaware of? I did a quick Google search and found that:

  • @ is also referred to as an “ampersat,” an “arobase,” and an “asperand.”
  • ^, or “caret,” is also called a “circumflex.”
  • &, which we all know as the “ampersand,” is also called an “epershand.”
  • /, the forward slash, is also called a “virgule” or a “whack.”
  • \, the back slash, is also called a “reverse solidus.”

Interesting, right? So be honest—how many of you knew what an “octothorpe” was before reading this post? Perhaps you should join our trivia team…

What Do You Mean You’re Resigning?


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A month or so ago, I had the following email exchange with a good friend of mine who is also a Plante Moran vendor and fellow grammar enthusiast:

Foxylocks*: Evidently, you guys are resigning for 2015. I’ll be there next Thursday at 1 to do the horse and pony show.
Me: Really? I hadn’t heard that. I wonder why?
Foxylocks: At least I hope you’re resigning for 2015. Maybe I’m jumping the gun.
Me: Why do you hope we’re resigning?
Foxylocks: Because it’s business for next year! Wait. Did you think I meant resigning? I should have typed re-signing. Meaning, we have you for another year. Clearly I need more coffee.

And of course, “resign” is exactly what I thought she meant. I was completely confused. Why would she no longer want Plante Moran’s business? That’s crazy talk.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s blog: the hyphen. This tiny mark is the Rodney Dangerfield of punctuation. Winston Churchill called it a “blemish, to be avoided wherever possible.” As far back as 1930, Fowler’s “Modern English Usage” advised that, wherever reasonable, the hyphen be dropped, and the 2003 edition of “Oxford Dictionary of English” proclaimed that it was headed for extinction. And that certainly seems to be the case. It seems that, almost overnight, “on-line” became “online” and “e-mail” became “email.” Even words like “nonnegotiable” and “preeminent” no longer require hyphens. (Apparently the prefix/suffix line is drawn at three consonants in a row, however, as “shell-like” still demands a hyphen.)

But there are instances where a hyphen’s removal results in a different meaning altogether. A re-formed rock band is completely different than a reformed one. “Reserving” a table isn’t the same as “re-serving” one. And we can’t forget compound modifiers where eliminating a hyphen results in instances of little used cars, pickled herring merchants, and Plante Moran’s 2,000 odd employees. (Sure, some of us might be a little eccentric, but not all 2,000+ of us.)

There’s a lot more where that came from. If you’d like a more extensive overview of hyphen usage, here’s a quick reference. Otherwise, I’ll be back in two weeks with my most controversial topic to date. Any guesses on what it will be?

Word of the Week: Pickled

Song of the Week: “Give Judy My Notice,” by Ben Folds

*She asked that I use an alias and that it include the word “foxy.” Happy to oblige.

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas!


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Recently, I was talking to a friend about what I should write about over the holidays. She told me about an Anton Chekhov short story called “The Exclamation Mark” in which Perekladin, a civil servant, is insulted after someone questions his ability to punctuate correctly. Affronted, he heads home and goes to sleep. All of this occurs on Christmas Eve. Can you guess what happens next?

In a parody of “A Christmas Story,” he’s visited by a series of ghostly punctuation marks—commas, colons, semicolons, question marks—all of which he banishes by thinking of appropriate uses for them. But then he’s’ confronted by the exclamation mark. He realizes, to his horror, that he’s never used one. He has no idea what it’s for.

Apparently this sets off an existential crisis for our troubled protagonist as he realizes nothing of any emotional significance has ever happened to him. But that’s not the point of this blog. The point is that, unlike Perekladin, most of us use the exclamation point far too often.  So if one punctuation mark has to go, let the exclamation point be that mark.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.” And that was at some point before his death in 1940, back when the norm was to use the mark sparingly. Today, it’s all over the place, in headlines, text messages, emails. “I’ll see you at the restaurant at 6!” “Your order has shipped!” “See you at the conference!” Those are just a few examples of sentences with unnecessary exclamation marks that have come my way recently. But the worst—the absolute worst—is the person for whom one exclamation point simply isn’t enough. “I can’t wait to see you!!!!!!!!!!!!” “That’s great!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” “I’m going to pick up some bread at the store!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (That person also finds it difficult to stop with a single question mark: “Are you coming to dinner tonight???????????????????????”) It reminds me of when colleagues accidentally hit the “caps lock” button before typing an instant message—IT FEELS LIKE THEY’RE SHOUTING AT ME!!!

That’s not to say there aren’t occasions where an exclamation mark is warranted. Did you get your picture taken with Slash? Let someone in on a gridlocked expressway who failed to give you a courtesy wave? Realize that someone finished off that last bag of dangerously cheesy Cheetos? Then, by all means, express that joy, anger, or sadness appropriately. Otherwise, maybe stick with a period.

If you were going to be visited by the specter of a punctuation mark, what would it be, and why?

Word of the Week: Emote

Song of the Week: Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, by Judy Garland