"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Songs of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding watercolor, metaphors and journalism, for readers in more than 150 countries.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Punctuation Day?

Yes, that's what the post from the Bremner Editing Center at the University of Kansas J-School said today. This struck me as important for two reasons.
I'm a Bremnerite. He taught the editing class I took at the University of Iowa years ago. He was not long out of the priesthood and on his way to becoming the editing terror and guru of the English speaking world. We loved him, and he influenced my method of teaching as much as he did my passion for editing and effective writing. He taught me how much words matter, and the way we write them. The editing center offered these free punctu-icon sets.
Here's the link:  http://www.facebook.com/BremnerCenter
There's another reason. One of the pleasures of my life is writing a monthly column for the Oklahoma Publisher, for the Oklahoma Press Association. It goes to all the newspapers in the state. This helps me keep in touch with "my people," Oklahoma journalists. It also keeps me "published," and working as a journalist. The column, "Clark's critique," has two parts--the first about general journalism subjects of interests, and the second, a quick review of what the state newspapers are doing in term of content, ideas, etc.
Just this month, guess what I wrote about? Punctuation. Since it's already in print, and on the web for The Publisher, here's the first half of my column this month. I know, this just shows my anal side, but this stuff matters when you deal in words.

"Broadcasters pronounce better, but newspaper people punctuate correctly," joked Mark Thomas at one the Journalism Hall of Fame ceremonies. 
After looking at some of our stories, I'd have to add, "Sometimes." I also know that many of my students have not had grammar since they were in eighth grade. As an old English major who repented and turned to journalism, I know the Gospel of Correct Punctuation may have been amended some for us heretics, but the basics are the same. Correct punctuation is essential for accurate writing. 
So here is the Revised Version of the Gospel of Punctuation, also known as Clark's Easy Reference Punctuation Guide for Journalists.
Let’s start with our “problem children,” the ones we have the most trouble with. Clip and put it near your computer. 
The apostrophe--We have an apostrophe catastrophe in this country.
1. Contractions, possessives. It's and its are the most misused in the country. Its is comparable to his and hers (a pronoun). It's is a contraction for it is. There is no its'. I saw a sign once that read "Deliciou's Apple's.
2. With plurals:
  • With regular singular nouns ending in s, "Mark Thomas's job is to lead the  OPA.
  • With regular plural nouns, add only an apostrophe, "The Thomases' children…."
  • With irregular plural nouns, add an apostrophe s,  "The children's
  • Never add to a noun that ends in s if there is no possessive. Wrong: "These word’s…"
  • If it's a compound noun, only the last word gets an apostrophe: The editor-in-chief's job…..
  • Compound possessives, only on the second noun, Lewis and Clark’s journey…

   Colons--Avoid. They stop the reader's flow in the sentence. They always come at the end of a complete sentence: He bought five vegetables: cukes, tomatoes, corn, okra and radishes.  Do not use it in the following manner (as in this sentence): He bought the following: cukes, tomatoes, corn. Rewrite both. He bought cukes, corn and radishes.
   Exclamation marks--Avoid! Especially more than one at a time!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! They show you don't know how to write for emphasis, and cheapen your writing like all those ads in the inserts that put exclamation marks after every item: "Hair Dyer”! Two speeds! Black or brown! Wall mount!  Etc. You should use it in a quote only when clearly called for. “Don’t use exclamation marks!” Clark yelled.
   Quotation marks--In America quote marks always, always, always go outside the period and comma. Question marks and exclamation marks depend on context.  This includes single quotes: “I told you he said 'I quit,'" Clark yelled. With question marks, quotes go inside if the quote is a question as in "Are you cold?" he asked. But outside like this, Did Clark say, “Question marks go inside quotes”?
   Commas--the most debatable. Best rule--Always use for clarity, and according to AP style on addresses, etc.  Other than that, try omitting or rewriting to avoid as many as possible. 
1. Use with a non-restrictive clause or appositive (one that's not essential). Clark, who grew up in New Mexico, lives in Oklahoma. vs. The man who was bleeding from the wound died in 20 minutes. Try to write around it and cut the words. Clark grew up in New Mexico and lives in Oklahoma. 
2. In a series, omit the comma before the last item: He loves tomatoes, iced tea and jalapenos. Your English teacher and others would insert a comma after iced tea. That's called the "Oxford comma." Oxford is in England. This is America. Journalists don't use it except in rare cases where needed for clarity.
3. Setting off introductory clauses and phrases, In the beginning, God created….  Or Although the city council met for five hours, it took no action. It's usually better for us to rewrite it and get to the point first. After five hours the council accomplished nothing. No comma because it's essential to the meaning, it's shorter, and easier to read. Get to the point.
Always ask yourself if you have a question about punctuation, “Why do I need this?” or “Why am I using this?” Most grammatical problems can be cured with short sentences. (Lots of periods) Next month—Periods, question marks, virgules, dashes, ellipses and parentheses.

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