"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.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Punctuating life, correctly, a Gospel

"Broadcasters pronounce better, but newspaper people punctuate correctly," joked a newsman  at one of the Journalism Hall of Fame ceremonies. 
After looking at some of my students' stories, and other things I see in print, and on the air, I'm not sure I agree.
One class will hand in its first story tomorrow, and when I'm grading them, I'll be marking a lot off for incorrect punctuation, grammar and sentence structure. It's not necessarily the students' fault, since high schools don't teach grammar any more, and just "teach to the test." The last grammar these people had was likely in Eighth Grade.
So you're going to have to put up with a two-part rant on punctuation from this old English teacher (I repented and turned to journalism, but, still, accurate punctuation is an essential  tools in accurate writing.)  I know the Gospel of Correct Punctuation may have been amended some for us heretics, but the basics are the same.
So here is the Revised Version of the Gospel of Punctuation, also known as "Clark's Easy Reference Punctuation Guide for Writers."
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.
  • 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.
  • With plurals:
    1. With regular singular nouns ending in "s," "John Jones's job is to speak."
    2. With regular plural nouns, add only an apostrophe, "The Joneses' children…."
    3. With irregular plural nouns, add an apostrophe s,  "The children's....""
    4. Never add to a noun that ends in s if there is no possessive. Wrong: "These word’s…" Correct: "The Clarks ate fish."
    5. If it's a compound noun, only the last word gets an apostrophe: The editor-in-chief's job…..
    6. 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—Periods, question marks, virgules, dashes, ellipses and parentheses. 

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