Grammar for some people can be intimidating, not knowing the correct instance to employ semicolons, while others punctuate with commas as if they’re going out of style. And there are even some who abuse the rules, whether they know it or not.
The city of Birmingham, England, banned apostrophes on public signs, saying that removing the punctuation mark would create consistency across city signage. City officials received a backlash of complaints as residents called the decision a “dumbing down,” especially as they’re teaching children proper grammar. City councilors said apostrophes were confusing and old fashioned, designating possessions that are no longer needed or no longer accurate.
Grammar debates have also been in the U.S. spotlight. Grammarians have argued that the title of the Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock romantic comedy “Two Weeks Notice” should have read “Two Weeks' Notice,” because it’s referring to a notice of two weeks.
If you’re questioning any syntax statutes, follow these simple guidelines from the Associated Press Stylebook for proper use of these grammatical staples that’ll keep your writing crisp.
- Apostrophe (’): There are multiple rules, including the following scenarios: Plural nouns not ending in s, add ’ s (women’s rights); Plural nouns ending in s, add only an apostrophe (the boys’ toys); Nouns plural in form, singular in meaning, add only an apostrophe (mathematics’ rules); Nouns the same in singular and plural, treat them the same as plurals, even if the meaning is singular (the moose’s prints); Singular nouns not ending in s, add ’ s (the church’s offerings); Singular proper names ending in s, use only an apostrophe (Socrates’ philosophy); Singular common nouns ending in s, add ’ s unless the next word begins with s (the witness’s answer; the witnesses’ story); Descriptive phrases, do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in s when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense (a writers guide)
- Comma (,): Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put commas before the conjunction in a simple series. My favorite foods are pizza, turkey and chocolate. For the record, AP votes no in the great Oxford comma debate.
- Colon (:): The most frequent use of a colon is at the end of a sentence to introduce lists, tabulations, texts, etc. Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it’s a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence. He was promised this: His parents would buy him a new toy for his birthday. Her favorite team: The New England Patriots. There were three exceptions for his consideration: time, space and flexibility.
- Semicolon (;): Use to separate elements of a series when the items in the series are long. He is survived by a brother in Boston; three cousins in Chicago; seven friends in Los Angeles. Place semicolons outside of quotation marks.
- Quotations (“, ‘; ’,”): When a full paragraph of quoted material is followed by a paragraph that continues the quotation, do not put close-quote marks at the end of the first paragraph. Put open-quote marks at the start of the second paragraph. Use single quotation marks when including a quote within a quote. The period and the comma always go within the quotation marks.
- Ellipsis (…): Use to indicate deletion of one or more words in condensing quotes, texts and documents. Use one space on both sides of the ellipsis. My name is Steve … and I enjoy sports and grammar.
- Hyphen (-): Known for joining words, hyphens are used to avoid ambiguity or to form a single idea from two or more words. Hyphens are optional and more a matter of style. They’re most used in compound modifiers – two or more words expressed as a single concept – that precede a noun. Hyphens aren’t used with the adverb very and all adverbs ending in –ly. The classroom-driven curriculum. The very large elephant is hungry. An eternally grateful grandmother.
What are some of your favorite punctuation marks, and what rules do you find intimidating or perhaps convoluted? To make sure your prose is shoe-spit shiny, be sure to follow AP style and tips for news writing. And of course, always proofread.