Grammar Basics: You had something important to say. You said it. People should be reading it. But they’re not. Something is putting them off. Is it your punctuation?
You have a great article. You have a fantastic headline, a strong key message, plenty of supporting evidence, and a sound structure.
But people just aren’t reading it. They’re clicking through; with a headline like that, why wouldn’t they? But they’re not hanging around.
If your punctuation isn’t working, it doesn’t matter how good everything else is. Readers won’t stick around if the marks in and around your words don’t match the ebb and flow of their reading.
GROAN, right? You’re not in primary school. You don’t need a refresher on grammar basics.
But maybe you do. We can all use one from time to time. So, in this post, I’m going right back to the basics. No exaggeration. I’m starting with a warm-up stretch (the full stop), and working my way up through the punctuation degree of difficulty chart to the downward-facing-dog-slash-Karate-Kid-crane-kick (the semi-colon).
Who’s with me? Let’s do this!
See that there? It’s a full stop. You put it at the end of sentences. (And STRE-E-E-E-ETCH!)
That one right there is a comma. This one can be a little trickier for some people. Commas shouldn’t be used in place of full stops, you shouldn’t join two independent clauses with a comma. (Fellow grammar nerds will have winced at my previous sentence, because I just did what I told you not to do.)
There’s more to the comma – enough for a dedicated post, in fact. But the ‘using it to join two independent clauses’ thing is the most common mistake, and we’ve got a lot to get through.
That there’s an apostrophe. And that there’s an apostrophe in there’s, too. The apostrophe in there’s points to a missing letter (the ‘i’ from ‘is’).
Apostrophes can also be used to indicate possession.
And that’s all apostrophes are used for (missing letters (contractions) and to indicate possession).
They’re definitely not needed in plural’s. (Cue more wincing.)
Quick note on possession: pronouns are the exception to the apostrophes for possession rule. So in the land of possession, it’s not it’s, it’s its. It’s not you’re, it’s your. It’s not they’re, it’s their. But if it belongs to Penny, it’s Penny’s. If it belongs to Mrs Jones, it’s Mrs Jones’ or Mrs Jones’s (either are currently acceptable, although preference is shifting towards the second). If it belongs to the kids, it’s the kids’.
That is a slash. You use it when listing alternatives. It’s essentially a substitute for ‘or’, and shouldn’t generally be used for ‘and’.
Which means if your party invitation says “Bring food/drinks to the party,” don’t get upset if everyone turns up with a six pack and there isn’t enough food.
That one there? It’s a colon. Things you might use a colon for: separating two independent clauses, where the second directly relates to the first; and, to kick off lists like this one.
The semi-colon. The arch-nemesis of so many people. Begin the contorting: it’s time for the downward-facing-dog-slash-Karate-Kid-crane-kick.
Here’s the good news: if you don’t want to use it, you don’t have to. For every accepted use of the semi-colon, there is generally a way around it.
Want to write a list like I did in the colon section? Use bullet points. These days, most style guides have ditched the messy-looking semi-colons and rely on the bullets themselves to separate elements of a list. And using a semi-colon to separate two indirectly related independent clauses? You can also use a full stop. It may play down the relationship between the clauses, but it still works.
The bottom line? Keep it simple. Don’t get fancy-schmancy with punctuation if you’re not sure what you’re fancy-schmancying with.
Even if you’re a fancy-schmancier of the highest order, think before you fancy-schmancy. If you’re trying to get a point across clearly, dressing it up in big words, elaborate clauses and punctuation with off-the-charts difficulty ratings won’t help. In fact, it’ll distract.
Just say what you want to say. Clear words. Simple sentences.
And don’t be afraid to give a powerful sentence its own paragraph.
I’ll be back next month to discuss the use (and misuse) of some more of our punctuation friends. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your grammatical trip-ups.
Do you have any writing questions or grammar basics I can address in future columns? I’m all ears! And red pens.