I recently announced to friends and family on Facebook the following:
“Ready to start this next chapter of my career with a new company and a whole new set of goals and challenges! Excited for a change! Whoaaaaa Monday!”
I meant every word of it. However, when I re-read the message, I worried about the phrasing of “Excited for a change” and how my Facebook friends received the message. I meant it as “I’m excited for this change in my life.” I worried that it came across as “I’m excited and that is a change from my normal feelings” which isn’t the case because I get excited often—and it doesn’t take much!
Had I written “I am excited for this change!” I would have left no room for doubt. As is, the message is ambiguous. Given the context and format, it didn’t warrant me offering some long explanation to my friends and family, but it did get me thinking about how careful we must be when we communicate.
One of favorite examples of how punctuation (or the lack of punctuation) can alter the meaning of a sentence is:
“Let’s eat, grandpa.”
“Let’s eat grandpa.”
Good grammar is important (extremely important to the Nitpickers out there), however, the risk of causing misunderstandings goes beyond punctuation. When we write, we can’t rely on our tone, facial expressions or body gestures to help convey our message, and it is all too easy for our readers to miscontrue our points.
That’s why you must take two steps before you share your writing with others:
Proof. It’s pretty common knowledge that proofing is neccessary. Run your spell and grammar check, but don’t rely on it totally. Read each line carefully, looking for correctly spelled words used incorrectly. Examples: contractions such as we’re and were; homophones such as billed and build; or letter omissions such as dropping the r from your.
Read every message with an eye toward finding language that could be misconstrued or misunderstood. If you are unsure, rewrite or omit the copy. Better to be overly cautious than risk offending or confusing someone. Step 2 is harder and takes some work, but it is worth it if people receive the message you intend.
What editing tips can you offer the rest of the Nitpickers’ Nook readers?
It was the type of moment that can bring a tear to nitpicking mom’s eyes.
Glancing at the movie title Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who, my daughter asked about the placement of the apostrophe. I praised her attentiveness, but I didn’t pause for a grammar lesson. I think that how to use an apostrophe with a word ending in an “S” is one of the most difficult lessons to master, and it was close to her bed time.
The Associated Press Stylebook devotes nearly two pages in its punctuation section on how to form possessives. The movie title is in line with its guidelines for singular proper names ending in “S.”
The Chicago Manual of Style, however, says that the same general rule for forming possessives “covers most proper nouns, including names ending in s, x, or z.” The examples it offers include Strauss’sVienna. That style guide does note that “Since feelings on these matters sometimes run high, users of this manual may wish to modify or add to the exceptions,” plus it adds an alternative practice of always omitting the possessive “S” on words that end in “S,” so that would allow Dr. Seuss’.
If I were the editor, however, it would have been Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who.
How do you write possessives of proper names ending with “S”?
Last month it was easier to spot a misplaced apostrophe than a snowflake in my town. Two signs in particular irked me.
I know that the teachers don’t put up the sign outside the school, but I hoped that at least one of them would point out the error in “Thank you veteran’s!!” I waited all month for the school to fix the sign, but it never did. The sign stood for weeks as a painful smear on the school’s reputation and a poor example for the students.
The other sign wasn’t something handwritten in a mom-and-pop store but a preprinted sign in a regional grocery store chain. I wonder how many people missed that mistake before it was printed and delivered to about 100 stores.
It baffles me when people make the mistake of trying to form a plural with an apostrophe. Some possessive uses of an apostrophe can be confusing, but rarely is an apostrophe used to form a plural. For example, you might need it for clarity if you’re talking about minding your p’s and q’s.
So before you stick an apostrophe in a word willy-nilly, ask yourself whether it is forming a possessive or substituting for omitted letters or figures.
I was so surprised and happy to see that my colleague Mary Schrack used a semicolon in a Communication Briefings article that I stopped and smiled. This punctuation mark seems to be almost extinct in writing.
For those of you who are using the semicolon these days only to wink online ;) here’s a reminder from your school days: A semicolon shows a greater separation in thought than a comma but a greater link than a period.
While many people still use semicolons in series that contain commas, I rarely see its other use: linking independent clauses.
I must not be alone in my admiration for the semicolon, because I noticed that Café Press is offering “I ♥ semicolons” mugs and bumper stickers. It’s a good thing that I haven’t seen one of those stickers in traffic. I might be so surprised that I would fail to come to a complete stop and have an accident.
“If you take hyphens seriously, you will surely go mad.”
A friend and mentor—also an editor—gave me a tote bag with that quote long ago. Usually hyphens don’t trouble me, but recently they caused me some consternation.
I was editing a speech transcript about NASA for our American Speaker website, when I came across this section:
Solving those mysteries has long been the domain of lab coat wearing scientists and government agencies and universities. And for good reason. It’s really hard sometimes to just grasp the galaxies and the size of it all. The galaxies being born, black holes colliding. We can’t see this with our eyes. It kind of seems like fiction. Hubble’s gorgeous images of distant galaxies are fairy tale like.
A proofreader suggested “lab coat-wearing scientists” and “fairy tale-like.” However, I decided on “lab-coat-wearing scientists” and “fairy-tale-like.”
I found comfort in this guidance from The Chicago Manual of Style: “Although two or more hyphens are standard in such phrases as a matter-of-fact approach or an over-the-counter drug, there is no consensus—nor need there be—on the need for more than one hyphen in longer and less common adjectival compounds. Readability and semantic logic are sometimes judged differently by equally literate writers or editors.”
Of course, I wouldn’t have had a problem if “lab coat” and “fairy tale” were written as single words: “labcoat” and fairytale.”
I was relieved when The Associated Press Stylebook finally made fundraising and fundraiser one word in all cases. Before that I seemed to have a mental block against remembering when they were one word, when they were hyphenated and when they were two words.
I’m still adjusting to a recent AP change, writing email without a hyphen.