© Judi Birnberg
In Just My Typo, edited by Drummond Moir (gotta love his name), he cites a 19th century example of carelessness:
A New Orleans cotton broker sent a telegraph to New York, asking if he should buy cotton at the current prices. He received an answer of “No price too high.” Naturally, he bought as much as he could, only to discover that the answer should have been punctuated as follows: “No. Price too high.”
One tiny dot on paper can make a world of difference.
To my consternation, I have noticed that many people and advertising companies, perhaps the majority, omit a comma when a person’s or team’s name is in the sentence. I’ll add an X where commas belong in the sentences below. Pay particular attention to sentences that directly address a person.
Good for youX Henry!
NoX Sam, you are wrong about who started the argument.
Good morningX everyone.
In the last example, if you use the comma you are springing a surprise on Marlena. Without the comma, you are ordering someone to surprise Marlena as opposed to surprising someone else.
Adverbs are having their celebrity moment. The problem is that they are usually time and space wasters. How many times have you seen (or written) sentences containing the following?
Instead, use a verb that carries precise meaning; then you’ll have no need to add a superfluous adverb. If a television is blaring, no need to say that it’s blaring loudly. When someone shouts, it won’t be done quietly.
A friend’s young granddaughter was fond of starting most sentences with “actually.” When her grandma asked her what “actually” meant, Nicole gave it serious thought and finally answered, “Actually, I don’t know.”
Which choice is correct? Check your answers at the end of the quiz.
- (a) Smith referred to her as, “that useless cow.” (b) Smith referred to her as “that useless cow.”
- Eyewitnesses fled the scene in (a) a brown, 2002 Ford (b) a brown 2002 Ford.
- (a) Dr. Allen told her to: do whatever it takes to get the consent signed. (b) Dr. Allen told her to do whatever it takes to get the consent signed.
- Exxon is a (a) publicly traded company (b) publicly-traded company.
- The defendants seek to (a) run out the clock (b) run-out the clock.
Answers: 1. (b) 2. (b) 3. (b) 4. (a) 5. (a)
How did you do?
This quiz is modified from Bryan Garner’s Law Prose lessons. He is a consultant who leads continuing legal education seminars. The answers are correct whether you are a lawyer or a third grader.
In the following examples, I’m going to put an X where a comma belongs.
I’ve noticed that a use for commas I learned as a child has been disappearing (see above):
Thanks for everythingX Laura.
Both of those sentences should take a comma before the official names. This may be a battle I’ve lost, but I’m still using this rule in my own writing.
Some commas are needed for clarity:
When I was about to enter the houseX my cousin showed up.
Don’t forget a comma when your sentence ends with a confirming question:
You finished the report yesterdayX didn’t you?
© Judi Birnberg There must be a comma and quotation marks somewhere.
Did you know periods and commas always go inside quotation marks? Would I lie to you? (The Brits do the opposite, however.)
Here are a couple of examples:
Our teacher assigned us to read Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw.”
“The Turn of the Screw,” a short novel by Henry James, is considered a type of ghost story.
Sometimes you need to use both double and single quotation marks in one sentence. Remember, this is the American manner of punctuating. The British system is the opposite of ours: they use single quotes where we use doubles.
Here is an American example: Joginder stated, “My classics professor assigned the first 40 pages of ‘The Odyssey’ for our next meeting.”
Normally, you would put “The Odyssey” in double quotes, but because it is within a statement that needs double quotes, you use single quotes for the “inside” one.
Joginder may ask, “Did Seema really say, ‘Why would I date him after the rude comment he made to me?’ “
That is a quoted question within another quoted question. Both sets of quotation marks come at the end of the sentence. It’s important to leave a space between the single and double quotes. Singles always come inside doubles (in America).
You may quote me.