Writing Good, Part 5

November 20, 2008

I have a few thoughts on punctuation.

Punctuation’s a tricky thing, and can actually affect things in a big way. You may have heard the story of the million-dollar comma, and there are many, many more like that.

I deal with punctuation as part of my work as a newspaper editor. I work in a room full of language professionals, people with diplomas and degrees (and in one case, a Master’s) who can’t figure out the difference between a hyphen and a dash, a comma and a semi-colon.

This is not to say that I’m any kind of expert. Just browse through any of the Weather Stations and you’ll find me making all kinds of errors. I’m particularly prone, for instance, to forgetting the period at the end of a sentence

But here are some easy quick fixes for you. Let’s start with the apostrophe. This really messes people up. You probably think you don’t have to add an extra s to the end of a noun if it ends in s. Let’s go with the city of Memphis, home of The King: You may think it’s proper to write “Memphis’ music scene is thriving,” but you would be wrong. It’s actually “Memphis’s music scene is thriving.”

Why? Because you pronounce the apostrophized s. Say it out loud. You’re saying “Memphis-es,” right? So it takes an extra s.

But if you aren’t pronouncing the extra s, you don’t add it: “New Orleans’ music scene is still thriving.” See how that works? It can be tricky. But I subscribe to the idea of speaking what you write aloud (unless you’re, like, on a bus or something) to see how it flows. This is crucial.

I’ll toss one more at you tonight. It has to do with semi-colons. You may have noticed that I’m a big semi-colon user; this is because I like longer sentences but prefer a mid-sentence break that goes beyond the comma. See how that worked right there? Again, this comes from speaking sentences aloud.

When I was a reporter, I was often told my copy flowed better than other reporters. My only actual problem was issues of fact, but that’s another story. But I think people said that because I wrote like a conversation, and still do. I want my copy to read like I’m saying it to you aloud (unlike Weather Station 3, where I sound like a third-string CBC rookie with a pillowcase over his head).

I’ve always thought that’s the secret to smooth writing. The punctuation will come later.


  1. You got that picture from the FAIL blog, didn’t you? 😉

  2. Mais oui.

  3. I would tend to write “The Memphis music scene…” because “Memphis’s” is needlessly sibilant, even in reading

  4. I’m a huge proponent of “Read it out loud, and it it doesn’t sound right in conversation, it needs work.”

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