The Art of Language

9273935_sWhether you loved your English studies or not, you’ll find the following a wonderful refresher. Kim is my publishing assistant, proof-reader and our resident expert on everything English. Creative license aside, Kim gives you lots to ponder. And next time you go to write or type a personal email, business letter or pen a book, I’m sure you will appreciate these tips on what to put in your punctuation tool kit. It might make you think twice on how best to deliver your message…

We’ve probably all heard that using the right tool for the job makes the world of difference in the creation of the project and in the end result. For a writer, the tool kit is packed with options.

The top tray of the tool kit contains the most widely used elements: the periods, commas, semicolons, colons and question marks.

Of these, the comma is the most misunderstood. The tendency is to over-use commas. We often see pages peppered with commas as if the writer were afraid the reader would forget to breathe unless the comma was there. Professional editors today use commas much more sparingly than even a few years ago. On the other hand, it is important to put a comma in the correct spot:

Suzy walked on her head a little higher than usual.

Suzy walked on, her head a little higher than usual.

Semicolons are used to separate two independent clauses in a single sentence: “She felt she had worked enough; it was quitting time anyway.” Colons introduce a list or series: words, colours, numbers, etc.

The second tray in our kit contains lesser used but equally important tools: the exclamation points, parentheses and brackets, and hyphens and dashes.

When do you use an exclamation point? As little as possible—only if the statement really does mark an outcry or emphatic comment.

When do you use parentheses? As little as possible; while stronger than commas and similar to the dash, they are used to include words with no grammatical relationship to the text: “She thought the balloons at the party (gold and silver) were just the right touch.”

Hyphens and dashes are often used interchangeably but in reality there are distinct differences. Hyphens are used for compound words and as separators: my name is Kim; that’s k-i-m. There are two types of dashes: En dashes are connectors, replacing the word “to”.  He lived from 1931–2011. Em dashes are used sparingly instead of commas or parentheses and are also used to bridge sudden breaks: Will he—can he—get there in time?

The little pull-out tray in our tool kit is small, but very important. This is where the apostrophes and quotation marks live. The Greek word for apostrophe means “turned away; omission”. Here is a quick primer on apostrophes:

  • Contractions: I’ve, couldn’t, it’s
  • Speaking of “it’s”, let’s put this question to rest. Here is the definitive answer on the use of an apostrophe with the letters i-t-s:
  • It’s your turn (contraction of “it is” or “it has”, and the only time it’s used with an apostrophe.)
  • Its snout was rooting up truffles (possessive for any use other than “it is” or “it has”.)
  • Possessive plural: The boy’s hats (one boy, many hats)
  • Regular plural: The boys’ hats (multiple boys)

Quotations could take up a book by themselves, but here are a few notes:

To surround a direct quote. The period goes inside the end quote. In multi-paragraphs, the end quote is only at the end of the last paragraph while there is a beginning quote at each paragraph.

To accentuate; sometimes called “scare” quotes: slang, ironic or other nonstandard use: “Child protection” sometimes fails to protect. Scare quotes should be used very sparingly. Consider whether the word really is unique or you are just trying to set it apart from the rest of the text. Italics may be the answer but don’t overdo these either.

Single quotes are used to denote a quote within a quote. “I told them all that John said, ‘I am always right’.”

Two of my favourite books are: Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss, and The Chicago Manual of Style, The University of Chicago Press. While some of the points above may be obvious, in our age of email, abbreviations and instant messaging, we sometimes overlook the importance of creating a properly written message, letter or book.

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Happy writing!

Kim Leitch