Monday, September 23, 2013

Punctuation – when to use a semi-colon

While discussing punctuation isn’t a sexy topic, knowing how to apply commas, exclamation points (hint: rarely), single quotes or double quotes, and the ever challenging semi-colon can make your copy read better. It also lends a halo effect to your topic. The wrong punctuation casts a shadow over your writing and confuses readers.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t know all the proper grammar - it is easy to learn. As a journalism student, I got my wake-up call while working as an intern at the former Dearborn Press and Guide newspaper. The society editor (Remember those ladies who liked to lunch and knew everyone in town?) told me that my copy was full of errors. Being a young, impetuous writer, I thought that correcting poor grammar was the job of an editor. But from that point forward, I started to pay more attention to the nuances of the English language – learning how to spell words correctly and how to punctuate. My guides were “The Associated Press Stylebook” and “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.
Correct punctuation isn't as riveting as spring flowers
on a cactus, but it still makes a great impression. (Photo: Liz Cezat)
The best way to learn how to punctuate a sentence correctly is to read books or esteemed news magazines: “The Economist,” “Time,” and the “New York Times” to cite some of the best. You can no longer rely on newspaper articles since they cut the editing staff. I hate to call them out, but The Huffington Post has “shake your head” poor editing. Often times, when reading an article in HP or another online news source, you may need to change a “by” to a “my” because it appeared correct in spell-check (good technical cross-check) but neither the writer nor the editor bothered to proofread and correct the error.
Mistakes will be made; no doubt about it. But learning from your grammatical errors will build your knowledge base. I was working on editing the resume of a University of Michigan graduate and she didn’t know some basic grammar. I said to her, “Look, you need to commit this to memory. You can’t keep making the same mistakes.” Smart, educated people need to learn the basic grammar rules and apply them. 
After all this harping about getting it right, I’m going to provide five tips to keep you as sharp as an exclamation point.
1.     Commas – use them in a series (Example: She needed bananas, walnuts and flour for the bread recipe.) A comma is needed before “and” if the sequence of items is followed by  another sequence. (Example: He wanted to buy an umbrella, boots and a raincoat, and he also needed to get books, pencils and a calculator for his daughter.) Also use a comma if the sentence could be confusing without it or you want readers to pause. (Example: It was a fun, tasteful and successful event, and one that our supporters will surely remember.)
2.     Use of single quotes – Consider them to be interior quotes that are used within a quoted sentence. Example: Sue said, “I am so excited about the new iPhone that I told my father, ‘I would pay $1,000 for it.’” (Here, I ended with the standard quote mark after the single quote so it actually looks like three quote marks. If it was an indirect quote, it could be stated: “I am so excited about the new iPhone that I told my father I would pay $1,000 for it.”)
3.     The apostrophe (‘) – Use this for all contractions: they are= they’re; it is=it’s; we are=we’re; you have=you’ve; you are=you’re (… there are many more examples)
4.     Semi-colon – When two sentences are closely linked together, you can either make it two sentences or one sentence, joined by a semi-colon. It also signals the end of a series of items or a sequence of name/title attributions. (Example: He gave written copies of the report to Michael Mulligan, VP of Finance; Carol Spasek, Chief Information Officer; and Dick Black, VP of Human Resources.) (Example: The audits were impeccably completed; not a decimal point was out of place. It could also read: The audits were impeccably completed. Not a decimal point was out of place.)
5.   Exclamation point – Typically let the words do the talking (Joy. Peace. Love. These values are all that we need to be happy.) Compare that to: (Joy! Peace! Love! These values are all that we need to be happy.) It sounds hyper, doesn’t it? If you feel like you must use an exclamation point, use it only when it adds emphasis. (Example: Lucy’s gift of a trip around the world made her parents so excited!) Basically, it’s a once in a lifetime event to use an exclamation point. Only slightly kidding.
This blog post is only intended to cover the most common errors and bring some levity to the topic.
There are many online grammar sites that address the thousands of usage questions in more detail. Here is a sampling:

Commonly confused words (great guide, with examples of usage too):

When to use commas:
I welcome your stories about how improving your grammar has made a difference in your career.