September 24, 2013
Celebrate With A !!!
If you are a writing nerd like me, then you will be thrilled to know that today is National Punctuation Day, the day to celebrate proper use of punctuation. This is pretty exciting to a little writer and English prof like me, but other people and professions appreciate proper use of punctuation.
So just how should one celebrate a day like this? Well, Jeff Rubin, the founder of National Punctuation Day, lists just what to do on the National Punctuation Day website:
- Sleep late.
- Take a long shower or bath.
- Go out for coffee and a bagel (or two).
- Read a newspaper and circle all of the punctuation errors you find (or think you find, but aren’t sure) with a red pen.
- Take a leisurely stroll, paying close attention to store signs with incorrectly punctuated words.
- Stop in those stores to correct the owners.
- If the owners are not there, leave notes.
- Visit a bookstore and purchase a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.
- Look up all the words you circled.
- Congratulate yourself on becoming a better written communicator.
- Go home.
- Sit down.
- Write an error-free letter to a friend.
- Take a nap. It has been a long day.
While all that sounds fine and good, I thought I would celebrate by discussing one of my favorite punctuations marks and one of the most misunderstood and misused. Here goes:
The hyphen—and by extension (Ha! I’m so clever) the dash—is quite possibly my favorite punctuation mark. Really, it is the dash that I love, but the hyphen is pretty good too. Let me focus on the dash, though. So just how does one use the dash? As the Grammar Girl Blog—one of my favorites to send students to when struggling with grammar and punctuation—states, “A dash interrupts the flow of the sentence and tells the reader to get ready for some important or dramatic statement… Normally, you don’t want to follow a dash with something boring or mundane.”
In a different blog discussing dashes, Grammar Girl writes, “At the other end of the spectrum, we have dashes. If you want to hang a spotlight on your words, decorate them with dashes. You can use dashes the same way we just talked about using parentheses, to enclose fragments or whole sentences, but you’d better be sure your words are worthy of dashes.”
What is important to note about the dash is that it is dramatic, an attention grabber. What follows needs to be important or exciting. And one can use two dashes, one at either end of a phrase, or just one dash when something important or exciting ends a sentence.
Yeah, the dash is pretty cool.
Poor semicolon. Really, it is so misused and misunderstood. In fact, a commonly known saying (at least in the discipline of English) about semicolons comes from famed writer Kurt Vonnegut who said, “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” Transvestite hermaphrodites. Wow. That’s intense. Yet there is truth to this because most people neither understand how to use a semicolon nor actually ever use them correctly. So, just when should a writer use the transvestite hermaphrodite of a punctuation mark, to borrow Vonnegut’s words? Let me show you:
- Use a semicolon when connecting two independent clauses (that is, two complete sentences) that are related in thought or theme. Typically, I use a semicolon to connect sentences when they are stronger together than apart.
Example: I loved that veggie burger; it had so much flavor and nutrients.
- When using a conjunctive adverb (i.e. however) or transitional phrase (i.e. that is), the rule is to put a semicolon before the conjunctive adverb or transitional phrase.
Example: She wanted to go to the movies; however, she could not find a babysitter.
Example: They worked long hours; that is, they worked more than the normal shift.
- Semicolons are helpful with complex lists that have their own punctuation.
Example: The travelers spent time in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Denver, Colorado; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Moab, Utah; and Reno, Nevada.
Sometimes the best advice about semicolons is to avoid using them because they are not easy. Grammar Girl has a pretty thorough blog about the semicolons that breaks these three reasons down even more, yet people still struggle with using them.
Make your mark this National Punctuation Day…your punctuation mark!