Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Writerly Wednesday: Being punctual

Thanks to everyone who left encouraging messages yesterday. They were like a bright light in a dark room. I appreciate it.
In keeping with Elana's advice -- focusing on the stuff in life that doesn't suck -- I'm turning my focus back to writing. More specifically, grammar and punctuation.
(Wait a minute. That's the sucky part about writing. Isn't it? Oh well.)
I've been writing for a newspaper for more than a decade, and I still wouldn't claim to be an expert when it comes to the English language or punctuation.
This is, after all, an incredibly complicated language, but as writers, we need to know the proper way to cross our Is, dot our Ts and mind our Qs and Ps. (Did you catch that? Hope you giggled a little.)
When I first started blogging, I posted some tips for writers that included some points on this. They included:
1. Exclamation! Points! Are! Rarely! Ever! Necessary!
Let your writing portray the emotion.

2. Use a comma when you have an dependent clause followed by an independent clause.

3. While I'm playing comma nazi, I will also add a reminder to use commas before a conjunction (and, or, but, for, yet, nor, so) in compound sentences.

4. Avoid ending your sentence with prepositions. (A preposition is anywhere a rat can go --above, beyond, below, between -- plus the word of.)
Funny story. My coworkers once gave me a birthday card with a picture of one high schooler asking, "So, where's your birthday party at?" The other friend responds by telling her not to end a sentence with a preposition. Inside the card, the question had been rephrased as: "Where's your birthday party at b***h?"
This isn't the best example of how not to end a sentence with a preposition, but it definitely makes a point.

5. If you can replace the word "who" with the words him or her, you should use the word "whom."

Since posting those tips, however, I've unearthed some other stumbling blocks that always seem to trip up writers (ahem, me).
For instance, the words "towards" and "backwards." Guess what? While it isn't wrong to put an "s" at the end of those words, it isn't necessary. If you're doing it, you're making more work for yourself. (Actually, the difference is in dialect. Toward is American English; Towards in British.)
Hyphenated modifiers. Permanent compound phrases -- like high school dropout, health care reform, day care provider (you know, common phrases) -- don't need a hyphen. Temporary compound phrases -- like half-baked idea or ill-timed remark -- need a hyphen UNLESS the modifier is used after the noun. (e.g. His idea was half baked.) Also, when using an adverb (think -ly) as a modifier, you do not need a hyphen.
Punctuation with quotation marks. This particular one drives me nuts because in all of the press releases I receive, I rarely see correct usage. And that is as a general rule writers should place commas and periods inside the quotation almost all of the time, making exceptions only for parenthetical citation and cases in which the addition of a period or comma would create confusion, such as when quoting a keyboard entry or a web address. However, there are exceptions. does a great job explaining those exceptions.
Irregular verbs. Yes. I'm talking about "to lay." Guess what? I have a grammarbook link to that, too. (And it's awesome.)
OK. That's enough for one day. Maybe one of these days I'll get into split infinitives, other danglers and why "said" is a good word.
But not today.
Do you have any writerly stumbling blocks or pet peeves? Were you taught differently on any of the tips offered here?


Annie Louden said...

Thank you for posting this. I have started going insane recently while reading too many blogs and comments and catching errors, especially the one where people put the punctuation outside of the quotation marks. I hate that!

When I was in 7th grade, we learned The Preposition Song. I know them all. We sang them to the tune of Yankee Doodle Dandee.

Eva Gallant said...

Once again a helpful blog, Kat. I'm so glad I started following you. (I resisted the urge to use an exlamation point there.)

Kat Harris said...

Tee hee...these rules do not apply to casual e-mail messages or comments. Feel free to misuse quotation marks and hyphens and overuse exclamation points all you want here.


KM Wilsher said...

whoo hoo. Great reference. Thank you, Kat -- I 'm going to write them down, where is my book at? ;)

B.J. Anderson said...

Thanks for this lesson! I hate grammar, and I'm always look for an easy way to get some more tips.

christine said...

I LOVE this post - seriously. I bookmarked it and everything. And on #1, had to laugh, and laugh. My father likes to say the same thing.

Great post Kat, glad to hear you are feeling better.

ElanaJ said...

Thanks for the sweet link about "lay". I suck at that one.

Question: What about anyway vs. anyways? I HATE anyways, but people use it and say it all the time. The Grammar Queen says...?

And I'm glad you're feeling a bit better, even if it is about grammar and punctuation. :) *hugs*

Kat Harris said...

Grammar Queen. . . hehe. I'd consider myself a grammar squire (only chickier cuz I'm not a dude). :-)

Anyways is regional, colloquial, slang. In my neck of the woods, I rarely hear anyways, but I hear anyway all the time.

Stephanie Faris said...

Great tips. Thank you! I needed the refresher course.

Crimogenic said...


Those were quick and easy to understand tips. Thanks. Can't wait to your post about those split infinitives.

Michelle McLean said...

Hey there :) I left a little award for you on my blog :D Happy Weekend!

Kris said...

These are great. One can always use a refresher.

Shelli said...

thanks for the recap!!!! (oops)

jules said...

These are very helpful! I always have a hard time with prepositions, but I will remember your "rat" trick! hee hee!

Time to start following you! Thanks again! Keep 'em coming!