Category Archives: * Punctuation

Kingston Harbour is Carved into a Hockey Puck? Who Knew?

Do we really need fewer commas, as current writing trends suggest? I can see cutting back on some of them (some people get very comma-happy if they’re not careful). But commas were invented for a reason, you know. And few of those reasons have vanished. Let me show you an example of a product blurb that needs both a comma insertion and a sentence rewrite.

These examples are taken from a blurb on the International Hockey Hall of Fame page for a replica of a square puck, used in a particular game. Here are the first two sentences:

Hockey’s most unique souvenir! A replica of the square puck used in the first organized hockey game played in Kingston, Ontario in 1886 between Queen’s University and Royal Military College of Canada.

First question: Is this blurb speaking of the “first organized hockey game” ever? Or just the first one played in Kingston, Ontario? You can’t tell, just from reading this blurb. BUT. Insert a comma after “game,” so you say, “used in the first organized hockey game, played in Kingston…,” and you’ve got the answer. It’s the first organized hockey game. Period. Without that comma, it’s the first ever in Kingston. Yet I have a feeling the IHHOF doesn’t mean that.

Kingston Harbour: May 19, 2010

A bit large for the side of a puck. (Photo courtesy Flickr user Marcus Jeffrey)

Now look at the next sentence in the blurb:

This carefully crafted rubber square puck includes a scene from hockey’s first game played on the historic Kingston harbour that is carved directly into one side of the puck.

Oh dear. Kingston harbour is carved directly into this puck? How can even the smallest ships fit in there?

In fact, using the word “that,” the IHHOF is even more explicit. It’s not just any old Kingston harbour (is there one in Jamaica too? England?). It’s the “Kingston harbour that is carved directly…” It’s that one, not a different one.

So how should the two offending sentences be written, to be absolutely clear? Taking the IHHOF to mean that this was the first organized hockey game ever, you would write these sentences like this:

A replica of the square puck used in the first organized hockey game, [note the comma] played in Kingston, Ontario, in 1886, between Queen’s University and Royal Military College of Canada. This carefully crafted rubber square puck includes a scene, carved directly into one side of the puck, from hockey’s first game played on the historic Kingston harbour that is carved directly into one side of the puck.

Now it’s clear. Now we know. So yes — properly used commas help make our meaning clearer. And it really does matter how we organize the parts of our sentences. We may know what we mean (as the IHHOF writer did), but unless we make the sentence absolutely clear, our readers may not.

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A Tip About “It’s” and “Its” to Make Your Life Easier

An image of a comma or apostropheIf you’ve been in the writing and publishing world for even five minutes, you’ll probably have heard the one complaint that unites editors and grammar geeks everywhere, in a red cloud of linguistic and punctuational rage: nobody seems to know when to add an apostrophe to “Its!” For sign makers, “It’s” with the apostrophe appears to be ubiquitous (and is almost always used incorrectly), and even seasoned writers seem to be vague about when to use the apostrophe and when not to.

But if this is something you’re unsure of, I will tell you a secret now that will change your writing life forever: it is extremely easy to know which form to use. Believe me about that. It is easier than you have ever imagined.

Take this sentence:

“The snowball hit the car on it’s windshield.”

Now apply this simple, easy rule: If you can substitute “it is” (or “it has”) in place of “it’s,” then you can use the apostrophe.

That’s the only rule you ever need to know, to tell whether you should write “its” or “it’s.” So let’s apply it to our sentence:

“The snowball hit the car on it is/it has windshield.”

Um…no? That sounds awful, and is clearly incorrect. So you don’t need the apostrophe there. Use “its” instead of “it’s.”

And this sentence?

“Its a bright, sunny day.”

Applying our substitution rule:

It is a bright, sunny day.”

And this means that yes, you do use the apostrophe. So be sure to stick it in.

Let’s repeat the rule: If you can substitute “it is” (or “it has”) in place of “it’s,” then you can use the apostrophe.

Isn’t that easy? That’s the only rule you will ever need to know, to decide whether to use “its” or “it’s.” Because the only time you ever use the apostrophe is when you really mean “it is.” Knowing that, you should never make an error with that word again. Simple!

(Thanks so much to Christopher for pointing out that you can use “it has” as well as “it is.” I’ve added that set of words into the rule too. Picture me slapping my forehead. 🙂 )

(And by the way, if you’re vague about the apostrophe in general, and would like a little guide on how and when to use it, you can download my free PDF, That Darned Apostrophe! It covers contractions, possessives, and plurals as well as the its/it’s confusion.)

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Elements of Style vs. Eats, Shoots & Leaves

When you’re looking for writing resources, often the first thing people mention is a little book called The Elements of Style by William Strong & E.B. White. (The book is frequently referred to not with its title, but simply as “Strunk & White.”) It’s a collection of a few grammatical rules and some style rules that Strong, and his later editor White thought everyone should follow if they wanted to write properly.

I’m not the only voice in the wilderness that speaks against this book, but those of us who don’t like it much are certainly in a minority.

It’s not that I think it doesn’t matter that you write grammatically or with proper style — I do. I just don’t think this book is that great at teaching what good style is. There are a few useful tidbits in there, so I still think the book is worth reading. I’m in general agreement, for example, about trying not to overuse the passive voice (e.g. instead of the passive “the field was covered by now,” I’d prefer the more active “snow covered the field”).

But other style books, in my opinion, are more useful. And when it comes to a quick-yet-entertaining summary of good grammar, in my opinion nothing beats Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynn Truss. I have never seen a book that helps you understand commas, apostrophes, other punctuation, and general grammar so thoroughly, while still making it interesting and fun.

Truss and I don’t agree completely; few grammarians do. If you saw my earlier post on the Oxford Comma, you know my opinion about that. Truss’s very book title demonstrates why it’s needed — at least sometimes. As an illustration of how she handles even thorny topics like this with great humour, notice how she remarks,

There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken.

So I’d suggest looking in other places for style suggestions, but as a quick resource you want on your desk, Truss’s book is the best.

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How NOT to use quotation marks

To learn the wrong ways of using quotation marks, go to this blog: The “blog” of “unnecessary” quotation marks.

Please note: quotation marks are what you use to indicate dialogue, or  actually to quote what someone else said. They can also be used to set apart a word or a phrase, and show that it isn’t part of the sentence structure, but is what the sentence is talking about.

For example, the following sentence:

If you use quotation marks for something that is not recording what someone actually said, or to set apart a phrase whose meaning you’re discussing inside that sentence, then those quotation marks mean, “This is fake.”

When you use quotation marks in any other way than the ways described above, you’re telling your reader that the thing inside the quotes isn’t actually what it says, but is something that is faking it, or hinting at the opposite of what the word itself means.

So if you write something like this —

The office is not for play, but for “work.”

— you’re actually telling the reader that whatever you do in that office, it’s not actual work. You’re doing a winky-winky thing, cluing in the reader that there’s a joke here somewhere. You’re giving the name “work” to what you do there, because it camouflages what you really do.

On the other hand, if you were trying to emphasize that you really do work in that place, and that you’re very serious about it and would never play around, you would write it like this:

The office is not for play, but for work.

That’s how you emphasize a word. You do NOT USE QUOTATION MARKS, because an intelligent reader will recognize that they indicate that the words inside the quotes mean something other than what they say. In fact, the quotation marks usually make the word mean the opposite of what it normally means. Which, of course, is also the exact opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.

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