For one reason or another, the topic for this week’s blog caused me great consternation. Before putting pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard, as the case may be) I ummed and ahhed for much longer than necessary. Caught in the vice-like grip of indecision, I battled with myself.
Should I really continue with my foray into grammar geekery? Is it boring or baffling my (modest) readership? Should I pen a post focused on tips for small businesses and start-ups instead? After all, that Facebook pic (all about start-up advice) I shared this week went bananas. Or could I get away with a creative piece, a story with a new spin on an old fairy-tale?
Luckily, no one was home to witness my internal struggle, or its physical manifestations, including (but in no way limited to) warbling completely self-invented tunes while deliriously pounding out the backing drumbeat on my desk. I’m certain I resembled something akin to a crazy cat lady, fighting off rabid kittens.
In the end, I decided to finish what I started. That’s right lucky readers…the grammar check continues.
I came to the conclusion that any kind of blog post would be impossible without a wee bit of grammar geekery. I couldn’t possibly pen a post on tips for start-ups without knowing where or how to use a full stop. And there’s certainly no way I could scribe a fairy-tale fantasy without a basic understanding of apostrophes and colons and hyphens (oh my!).
After all, what sort of grammar geekery critique would be complete without a review of basic punctuation?
Punctuation is essential. It shows your reader where sentences start and finish. If used properly, punctuation makes your writing flow better, makes your writing easier to understand, and imbues your writing with force, emotion, humour, impact. With whatever it is that you so desire.
So, here are my top tips to help you ensure that your punctuation is practically perfect in every way.
Grammar Check: The Full Stop
The award for the most popular piece of punctuation goes to the humble full stop. Everyone uses the full stop. Regularly.
The full stop is most commonly used to mark the end of a sentence that encapsulates a complete statement.
- Example: My name is Sally and I am a wordsmith.
However, it can also be used to mark the end of a group of words that aren’t a complete statement, in order to emphasise that statement.
- Example: I kept replaying the moment in my head. Over and over again.
The other common use for a full stop is in abbreviations.
- Example: The shop has a range of shirts, pants, shoes, etc. at a discounted price.
Grammar Check: The Comma
The humble comma is a little more complicated than its cousin, the full stop. A comma marks a break between the different sections of a sentence. When used correctly, commas make the meaning of sentences much clearer; they separate words, clauses and phrases. The most common uses of commas are:
In a List
You should include a comma between each item within a list.
- Example: For dinner we had steak, potatoes, carrots, peas, and beans.
The last comma in the list above is called a ‘serial comma’. Not every author, publishing house or publication uses this type of comma. But, given that Oxford Dictionaries uses it, and in some instances it can make your writing clearer, I thought it was worth a mention.
- Example: My favourite jumpers are black, white and red and grey.
It’s not 100% clear in the sentence above whether I am referring to three jumpers (black, white, and red and grey) or four jumpers (black, white, red, and grey). If you add a serial comma, the meaning becomes clearer: My favourite jumpers are black, white, and red and grey.
In Direct Speech
Direct speech is when you quote a person’s words exactly as they were spoken. If you include the direct speech after details about the speaker, then you need to use a comma to introduce the speech.
- Example: Fred replied, “I need a holiday.”
Note that the comma is placed before the opening quotation mark, and the full stop is placed before the closing quotation mark.
On the other hand, if the speech comes before the details about the speaker, then you will need to include a comma after the speech.
- Example: “I agree,” Ginger replied.
There are a couple of exceptions to this rule though. If the direct speech is either an exclamation or a question, then there is no need for the comma at all.
- Example: “Should we go to New York?” Ginger asked. “No way!” Fred exclaimed.
To Separate Clauses
Next up on the comma’s To Do List is separating clauses. Commas should be used to separate clauses (or parts) of a complex or long sentence. In this instance, commas give the reader a second to take a pause before they continue reading. If the comma(s) were removed from the sentence, the meaning of the sentence would still be the same, although the sentence would not be as clear.
- Example: Having finished our coffee, we started back to work.
One type of subordinate clause is a relative clause. A relative clause always begins with who, whom, which, that, or where. There are two types of relative clauses: restrictive (for which commas should never be used) and non-restrictive (for which commas should always be used).
Commas and Restrictive Clauses
A restrictive relative clause is vital to explaining the meaning of a sentence. If this clause was removed, the sentence simply wouldn’t make sense, or the whole meaning of the sentence would be altered.
- Example: Patrons who have young children may board the plane first.
In this example, if ‘who have young children’ is removed, then all the reader is left with is ‘Passengers may board the plane first’. Doesn’t really make sense does it?
In the case of restrictive clauses, commas should never be used.
Commas and Non-Restrictive Clauses
A non-restrictive relative clause includes information that is not considered to be essential to the meaning of the sentence. If removed, the meaning of the sentence would not be dramatically altered.
- Example: Fred, who has a lovely son and daughter, works in an office.
In this example, if the non-restrictive clause is removed, then the sentence still makes perfect sense. All that has happened is that we have lost some additional information about Fred and his children.
In the case of non-restrictive clauses, commas should always be used before and after the clause.
Grammar Check: The Apostrophe
The award of the most commonly misused punctuation mark goes to the apostrophe. So, let’s keep it simple. There are two main uses for the humble apostrophe: to show possession, and to show omission.
Apostrophes and Possession
Apostrophes can be used to show that a thing or a person belongs to something or someone. For singular nouns are names, just add an apostrophe and an ‘s’.
- Example: We met at Fred’s party.
The cat’s tail flicked impatiently.
Yesterday’s weather was glorious.
If the plural noun already ends in a ‘s’, then simple add the apostrophe after the s.
- Example: The girls’ school taught history and English.
Fred will go on holiday in two weeks’ time.
If the plural noun doesn’t end in ‘s’ then just add the apostrophe and the ‘s’.
- Example: The children’s school taught history and English.
There are over 200 dresses at the women’s clothing store.
Apostrophes and Omission
An apostrophe can also be used where a letter has been omitted. The easiest way to think about it is that the apostrophe replaced the letter, or letters, that has been deleted:
- Example: It’s cold: short for ‘it is cold.
Didn’t: short for ‘did not’.
I’m: short for ‘I am’.
She’d: short for ‘she would’ or ‘she had’.
Its Versus It’s
The most common mistake when it comes to the apostrophe is in the case of its versus it’s. Just remember:
Its means belonging to.
- Example: The cat flicked its tail.
It’s means it is or it has.
- Example: It’s hot outside.
I think that might be enough grammar geekery for one day. I might even have to continue this next week…cue crazy cat lady desk-drum riffing…
P. S. If you’re wondering what this sparkling lake-scape have to do with a grammar check, let me enlighten you…not a thing! Rather than relying on boring stock imagery, we’ve decided to go with beautiful photos. Photos that inspire. Photos that make us smile. Fingers crossed; they make you smile too!