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Oh Me Oh My: Gerunds and Possessive Pronouns

Gerundimo

Gerundimo?

Does me dancing in the buff appall you? It should, because the correct construction is “my dancing in the buff.”

Like superheroes, participles (words that end in ing) sometimes have secret identities. In this case, dancing enters the phone booth a verb and leaves it a noun. An –ing verb that acts as a noun is a gerund. The gerund phrase “dancing in the buff” should be treated like any other noun, which is why my is correct and me is not:

  • Does my spatula appall you?
  • Does my dancing in the buff appall you?

Cheesy Irish accents aside, “Does me spatula appall you?” doesn’t work.

If you’ll pardon my getting technical for a moment, a pronoun that comes right before a gerund should be in its possessive form: my instead of me, your instead of you, their instead of them, etc.

  • Their lordships were not impressed by his spitting in the epergne.
  • Don’t expect me to be put off by your lining the driveway with explosive flamingos.
  • The other sheep were insistent on its not being a crime.
  • Our stealing from the shareholders was all in good fun.
  • Agent Cooper wasn’t fazed in the least by their talking backwards.

Proper names and nouns also step into their possessive boots when they come before a gerund:

  • Federico was charmed with Julia’s taking in fallen bats and nursing them back to health.
  • She was a little uneasy about her new husband’s making his living on the cabaret circuit.

(I should add that the Chicago Manual of Style thinks I’m an old stick-in-the-mud. According to the sixteenth edition, the possessive form is “usually” optional when the noun or pronoun follows a preposition, which is the case in most of the above examples. But what do they know?)

Gerund Hide-and-Seek

Nailing down a participle as a gerund or not a gerund is crucial to deciding whether or not to lock and load your possessives.

  • Husbands looking to start death metal bands are morally obligated to inform their wives.
  • Husbands’ looking to start death metal bands is a major cause of divorce.

In the first example, the phrase looking to start death metal bands is describing the subject husbands; it’s behaving like an adjective, not a noun, and is therefore not a gerund. In the second example, looking to start death metal bands is a gerund phrase, since here it’s acting as a noun: What is a major cause of divorce? Looking to start death metal bands.

  • We worried about his going up in that balloon.
  • We worried about him, going up in that balloon.

In the first sentence, going up in that balloon is a gerund phrase. If it walks like a noun and quacks like a noun, then use the possessive form his, just as you would in “We worried about his spatula.” (The Chicago Manual of Style would point out that, since about is a preposition, you could just as correctly—though not, in my opinion, as elegantly—write “We worried about him going up in that balloon.”) In the second sentence, going up in that balloon is describing him, and is therefore not a gerund. Nouns don’t describe; they just are.

Some participial phrases are deceptively gerund-like:

  • You don’t want to hear me trying to play the flugelhorn.

Here the participle trying is describing me:

  • You don’t want to hear me (trying to play the flugelhorn).
  • Torn between horror and fascination, his students watched him dancing the hoochie coochie.

The important question is whether dancing the hoochie coochie is behaving as a noun or describing the teacher.

  • Torn between horror and fascination, his students watched him (dancing the hoochie coochie).
  • The students disapproved of his dancing the hoochie coochie.

Just as you would write “The students disapproved of his spatula,” use the possessive form his before the gerund. (Shut up, Chicago Manual of Style.)

Let’s test ourselves with the following sentence:

  • Him dancing the hoochie coochie came as a shock to them.

Is the phrase dancing the hoochie coochie acting as a description?

  • Him (dancing the hoochie coochie) came as a shock to them. (Doesn’t work.)

Is it a gerund (acting as a noun)?

  • His spatula came as a shock to them. (Works grammatically.)
  • His dancing the hoochie coochie came as a shock to them. (Correct! The original sentence was wrong.)

Mating gerunds and possessives is an underrated skill, but one that all true grammar aficionados embrace. I can only hope my waving spatulas around has helped you understand gerunds a little better.

Buffy, Hamlet, and Italics

Buffy and Hamlet

I'm Italicized. Ask Me How!

What do Buffy and Hamlet have in common? They present the same problem to writers: to italicize or not to italicize? The answer depends on whether you’re talking about Hamlet the prince or Hamlet the play, Buffy the slayer or Buffy the show. Titles of plays and TV shows should always be written in italics, but names of characters should not:

  • Her thesis was titled “The Colour of Buffy’s Lip Gloss as an Indicator of Methods Employed in Subverting the Patriarchy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
  • Students reading up on Hamlet’s motivation may find themselves echoing Oscar Wilde: “Are the commentators on Hamlet mad, or only pretending to be?”

For more on titles and italics, go to this post.

Trooper or Trouper?

Super Trouper

Super Trooper?

Ever wonder why the ABBA song is called “Super Trouper”? Shouldn’t it be spelled “trooper”? Spellcheck won’t help you here, because we’re talking about two different words.

A trouper is someone who keeps going under difficult circumstances without complaint. The word comes from a theatre troupe and suggests a the-show-must-go-on attitude.

A trooper is a member of a military troop. You might look to such a person for inventive swear words, but not cheerful smiles and a can-do attitude. (The same word gives us a crowd of people trooping from one place to another; that is, moving together in the same direction, as in a military manoeuvre.)

  • Get enough sherry into Great Aunt Lavinia and she starts swearing like a trooper and poking people with her cane.
  • Everything that could go wrong during the balloon expedition, short of fatal accident, did; but Edith was a real trouper, helping the pilot spill the ballast and keeping the passengers’ spirits up with a rousing sing-along.

Dangling Whatsits: What To Do When You’ve Misplaced a Modifier

Harold Lloyd

Dangling Like a Participle

You’ve heard of dangling participles, maybe even dangling gerunds, and you know they’re bad, but just what the hell are they?

Danglers, or misplaced modifiers, are what happen when a description wanders too far from its subject, leaving part of your sentence dangling like an errant booger and just as unsightly. Your readers may apply your description to the wrong word, or find themselves at a loss to know what you’re describing at all.

Consider the following sentence:

  • Yelping and whining, an early-morning jogger rushed to the werewolf’s aid.

It may seem obvious it’s the werewolf, not the jogger, who’s yelping and whining, but according to the rules of grammar, the phrase yelping and whining (a participial phrase, if you’re curious) describes the closest subject, which is jogger. So your reader could be forgiven for assuming the jogger decided to get in touch with her inner canine. If that wasn’t the effect you were shooting for, you need to rearrange your sentence:

  • Hearing yelping and whining, an early-morning jogger rushed to the werewolf’s aid.

The descriptive phrase (led by the participle hearing) now correctly applies to the closest subject (jogger). Alternatively, you could move werewolf closer to its description:

  • Yelping and whining, the werewolf attracted the attention of an early-morning jogger, who rushed to its aid.

There are many ways to reattach a dangler to its subject; how you choose to do it is up to you.

  • A consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

This is another example of a confusing subject: who is the consummate high-wire artist, the man or the woman? As the sentence is written, it’s the man. A little rearrangement makes the meaning clear:

  • Knowing Nadia to be a consummate high-wire artist, he assumed her wobbles were feigned until she plummeted to the floor amid gasps from the audience.

He’s the one who knows, so he is the closest subject following the phrase that starts with knowing (another participle, for those of you keeping track).

  • Enjoying her new-found freedom, the Greyhound bus trip to Vegas was a short one.

The bus trip is apparently enjoying her freedom, until we rewrite the sentence:

  • Enjoying her new-found freedom, she found the Greyhound bus trip to Vegas a short one.

Some misplaced modifiers can be subtle and hard to spot:

  • Euphemia was not the only woman in the group of dandies wearing spats.

Are we talking about a group of spats-wearing dandies that includes more than one woman, or a group of dandies that contains more than one woman in spats? The participial phrase here is wearing spats, and it should be placed closest to the word it’s describing, woman or dandies:

  • Euphemia was not the only woman wearing spats in the group of dandies.
  • In the group of dandies wearing spats, Euphemia was not the only woman. (This is essentially the same as the original sentence, but less open to misinterpretation.)

Dangling Infinitives

Infinitive phrases, which start with the infinitive form of a verb (such as to tango, to simmer, to cogitate, etc.), are also at risk of dangling:

  • To be first-class, you must have giant-squid-fighting extensions on your submarine.

It is your submarine, not you, that is striving to be first-class:

  • To be first-class, your submarine must have giant-squid-fighting extensions.
  •  To throw a good birthday party, something must be encased in papier-mâché.

The implied subject of the phrase to throw a good birthday party is you; but then something muscles in and seems to want to take over the role of subject. A careful writer will avoid this confusion by making the real subject explicit:

  • To throw a good birthday party, you must encase something in papier-mâché.
  • A good birthday party must include something encased in papier-mâché. (Sometimes the best way to avoid a dangling infinitive is to scrap the infinitive phrase altogether.)

Dangling Gerunds

This is what a dangling gerund phrase looks like:

  • Upon entering the crypt, my hair stood on end.

In this sentence, entering is a gerund. Like a participle, it ends in -ing, but unlike a participle, it functions as a noun, not a modifier. The gerund phrase entering the crypt is the object of the preposition upon, but where is its subject? As the sentence is written, the subject is my hair, which admittedly did enter the crypt, but presumably not under its own steam.

If that last paragraph left you clutching your own hair in confusion, don’t worry. All you need to know is this: upon entering the crypt describes the closest subject, which at the moment is my hair.

  • Upon entering the crypt, I felt my hair stand on end.
  • My hair stood on end the moment I entered the crypt. (Again, sometimes avoiding a potential dangler is the best solution.)

Some dangling gerunds look innocent enough to pass unnoticed:

  • While donning his superhero mask, a sense of his own silliness came over him.

Technically, though, we’re claiming his sense is donning a superhero mask. Better to make the subject explicit and avoid the sneers of the grammar cognoscenti:

  • While donning his superhero mask, he was overcome by a sense of his own silliness.

Even without a gerund as its object, a preposition can still lead to dangling:

  • With hats of such size, large birds sometimes tried to mate with the heads of fashionable ladies out for a stroll.

It was not, of course, the birds who sported the oversized headgear:

  • With hats of such size, fashionable ladies out for a stroll sometimes found their heads under attack by large birds trying to mate.

The Inevitable Exceptions

Of course there are exceptions—this is English, after all. If you’re keeping an eye peeled for participles, be aware that -ing words acting as prepositions (a.k.a. participial prepositions) are dangle-proof. These include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • assuming
  • barring
  • concerning
  • considering
  • during
  • following
  • given
  • granted
  • owing to
  • provided
  • regarding
  • respecting
  • speaking

Phrases beginning with these words need a subject like a fish needs a bicycle.

  • Barring unusual weather, the balloon should reach Abyssinia by Thursday.
  • Concerning his wayward daughter, who had run off with a fallen seraph, he would only put a hand over his eyes and mutter about feathers.
  • Given his aversion to emotional displays, the effusiveness with which the general greeted his poodle’s return was surprising.
  • Regarding the proposed orgy, it was generally felt that dim lighting would be best for all concerned.

Whether or not you know a participle from your elbow, or a gerund from a hole in the ground, you can avoid danglers of all stripes by making sure your subject is always clear. In short, your readers should know what you’re talking about. It’s not too much for them to ask.

Grammar’s Hall of Shame: Common Errors

Adam and Eve expelled

The Shame of Bad Grammar

The following expressions pop up often, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re wrong, wrong, wrong! Learn their corrections and you’ll be able to float above the ignorant masses on a cloud of grammatical unimpeachableness.

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Many people don’t realize that lie and lay are two different verbs. Lying is something you do; laying is something you do to something (or someone). You can lie in bed all day, lie on the beach, or lie low; or you can lay a book on the desk, lay carpet, or lay an egg.

So why all the confusion? Because of the sheer ass-backwards nature of the English language, the past tense of lie is lay. Now you lie in the arms of your beloved; yesterday you lay in his arms. The past tense of the verb lay, on the other hand, is laid: now you lay down your burdens, but yesterday you laid them down. The past participle (that’s when the verb follows have, had, or will have) of lie is lain: I had just lain down for a nap when I noticed the smell. The past participle of lay is laid: I discovered my cat had laid a dead mouse on the pillow.

Got it? If not, you’re not alone. But these examples should help:

Lie (Something You Do)

  • Now: This is where we lie in wait for the politician, ready to discharge our cans of spray cheese when he comes around the corner.
  • Then: This was where we lay in wait for the politician, ready to discharge our cans of spray cheese when he came around the corner.
  • With have: We have lain in wait for him many times, but so far he has evaded our righteous rain of cheese.

Lay (Something You Do to Something or Someone)

  • Now: The vampire lays his unconscious victim on the divan and arranges her hair so it spills fetchingly across the cushions.
  • Then: The vampire laid his unconscious victim on the divan and arranged her hair so it spilled fetchingly across the cushions.
  • With have: This vampire has laid many a local lass on his divan. (I mean he put them down—get your minds out of the gutter!)

And please don’t say you’re going to lay low—you can lie low, but lay low is something you did in the past:

  • I’m going to lie low until the Apocalypse is over.
  • Last year I lay low until everyone had forgotten my embarrassing faux pas.

You may come across a reference to someone being laid low. In this case, the person has been laid low by something (an illness, say). Since the illness is doing the action to someone, the correct verb is lay:

  • She was laid low by a combination of alcohol and roller derby. (Alcohol and roller derby laid her low.)

Just Between You and I

People often use this construction when they want to sound posh, but the correct phrase is “just between you and me.” The test is to remove the other person and try the sentence with just I or me:

  • Jules and I are far too busy to attend your orgy. (I am far too busy.)
  • The instructions for infiltrating the cell were sent to Dmitri and me. (They were sent to me.)

This kind of mistake is called a hypercorrection. It’s what happens when you’re so anxious not to slip up, you overshoot the mark and end up mangling your grammar in an effort to sound clever.

Whom May I Say Is Calling?

The classic example of a hypercorrection is the well-known scene in which a butler picks up the phone and snootily asks, “Whom may I say is calling?” As any butler worth his bow tie knows, the correct question is “Who may I say is calling?” How can you tell? The simplest method is to rearrange the sentence, starting with the word after who/whom, then substitute he or him for the tricky whom. If he works better, the word you want is who; if him sounds right, you want whom. (If you want to get technical, he and who are subjects, while him and whom are objects—they receive the action of the verb.)

(Who/Whom) may I say is calling?

  1. Rearrange: May I say (who/whom) is calling?
  2. Swap: May I say (he/him) is calling?
  3. You would never ask, “May I say him is calling?” so who is the correct choice.

From among the many yodelling candidates, I chose the one (who/whom) I thought was most limber.

  1. Rearrange: I thought (who/whom) was most limber.
  2. Swap: I thought (he/him) was most limber. (He works best.)
  3. Answer: From among the many yodelling candidates, I chose the one who I thought was most limber.

(Who/Whom) did you choose to take to the herpetologists’ convention?

  1. Did you choose (who/whom) to take to the herpetologists’ convention?
  2. Did you choose (he/him) to take to the herpetologists’ convention?
  3. Answer: Whom did you choose to take to the herpetologists’ convention?

If you still feel uncomfortable with whom, don’t worry: it’s perfectly acceptable to jettison it altogether in favour of a universal who. These days the only people who persist in using whom are grammarians, anal-retentives, and butlers.

Would of, Could of, Should of

It may sound like “I should of known,” but this expression actually contains a contraction of should have—should’ve. Just as in can’t (cannot) and don’t (do not), the apostrophe is a reminder of absent letters that have moved on to better things:

Would’ve = would have

Could’ve = could have

Should’ve = should have

  • Wrong: I would of tackled the Daleks single-handedly, but my sonic screwdriver was running low on batteries.
  • Right: I would’ve tackled the Daleks single-handedly, but my sonic screwdriver was running low on batteries.

The same principle applies to the word y’all. You may for some mysterious reason feel the urge to write ya’ll, but remember that the word is a contraction of you all, so the apostrophe falls into the place of the missing letters:

  • Wrong: Do ya’ll serve grits here?
  • Right: Do y’all serve grits here?

You can find more about apostrophes and contractions in Apostrophes and How to Use ’Em.

Writing Titles

Pile of books

These Books Have Titles

How do you format a book or movie title? Italics or quotation marks? Here are the rules for any kind of title you might use, and some you probably never will.

Headline Style

Write all titles in headline style. That’s to say, capitalize most—but not all—of the words; see Headline Styling to learn which ones. Other languages, however, have their own rules about these things, so if your title is in a foreign language, don’t mess with it:

  • The French movie La cage aux folles was remade as The Birdcage, though where birds come into it I don’t know.

In bibliographies, some people write titles in regular sentence style instead of headline style. Feel free to do this if for some reason you wish to make your life more complicated.

Italics and Quotation Marks

Almost all titles are further set apart by either italics or quotation marks. During the age of the typewriter, underlining was an acceptable substitute for italics, but these days it’s likely to be mistaken for a Web link and is therefore best avoided. Underlining does come in handy when you’re writing longhand, but who does that anymore?

When you’re italicizing a title that already contains a word in italics, the two italics cancel each other out, like sound waves, and the word is written in regular (roman) font:

  • Her Aquanet-laced memoir was called Notes From the Girls’ Bathroom Circa 1987.

If you’re putting quotation marks around a title that already contains quotation marks, use single marks inside and double marks outside:

  • The Tragic Death of Joe ‘Train-Wrestler’ Johnson” is a famous 1930s folk song.

Now you know how to use italics and quotation marks, but the tricky question is when to use them.

Titles of Books (and Book-Type Stuff)

Write book titles in italics, even if you’re friendly enough with the book to refer to it by an abbreviation such as OED (that’s the Oxford English Dictionary for you non-language-geeks).

Enclose titles of short stories and essays in quotation marks. Also use quotation marks for the titles of book chapters or other book parts, but note that this only applies to titles—just mentioning chapter 3 or the introduction doesn’t require quotation marks or capital letters.

  • Kafka’s short story “Metamorphosis” is a favourite of depressives and entomologists.
  • The second chapter of A Room With a View is ominously titled “In Santa Croce With No Baedeker.”

Write the titles of book series and editions in headline style without either quotes or italics:

  • In Churchill, Manitoba, the His Dark Materials series has led to a rash of disappointed polar-bear tourists.

Movie and TV Titles

Write the titles of movies and television shows in italics. TV episodes, however, should be written with quotation marks. Should you ever find yourself writing the title of a radio show, treat it the same as a TV show.

  • One of the best—and longest—movie titles is Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.
  • Law and Disorder” is the infamous Brady Bunch episode in which the actor who played Greg was stoned during filming.

Titles of Web Sites

The titles of Web sites should be written in headline style without quotation marks or italics. For the titles of all other online materials, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends the same treatment as print materials: italicize titles of book-length items and use quotation marks with titles of article-length items.

  • I found the article “How to Remove Tapestries From Anthills” on the Useless Tips site.

Magazine and Newspaper Titles

Italicize the titles of magazines, periodicals, journals, and newspapers. If a title starts with the, write the word in lower case and don’t italicize it. Use quotation marks for the titles of articles, but italicize titles of newspaper sections that are published separately.

  • A precocious child, he liked his parents to read to him from the Economist at bedtime.
  • I photocopied “Tying Flies and Flying Ties: A Deconstruction of Masculinity” from last month’s Postmodern Angler.
  • Her latest novel was ruthlessly eviscerated in the New York Times Book Review.

Titles of Plays, Poems, and Music

Italicize the titles of plays:

  • In his opinion, the gay subtext of The Importance of Being Ernest is barely sub.

Write poem titles with quotation marks. Book-length poems are an exception; their titles should be italicized. Untitled poems use their first lines as titles. In these cases, use quotation marks but not headline style; that is, don’t add any capital letters beyond those already in the first line.

  • Memorizing “There Once Was a Girl From Nantucket” does not make you a connoisseur of poetry.
  • Most readers relish the torments of Dante’s Inferno but lose interest in the holier thrills of his Paradiso.
  • I love the unexpected imagery of e.e. cummings’s “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls.”

Treat music titles much the same as poems: italicize titles of operas and long compositions, but put titles of ordinary-length songs in quotation marks. Album titles should be italicized.

  • Die Fledermaus is an opera about a giant bat running amok in 19th-century Germany.
  • If you sing “The Piña Colada Song” one more time, I’m going to throttle you.
  • Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon and MGM’s The Wizard of Oz make an eerie combination.

Titles of Works of Art

Italicize the titles of paintings, statues, drawings, comic strips, and other works of art. The only exceptions are photograph titles, which you should put in quotation marks, and works of art from ancient times, which are so familiar they don’t need marks or italics.

  • Looking at Picasso’s Guernica gave the general indigestion.
  • Far from refreshing her, the family holiday made her feel like the subject of Dorothea Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother” photo.
  • The Venus de Milo is best known for what she lacks: arms.

These complicated and rather arbitrary rules may be tiresome, but they’re worth memorizing if you want to look intelligent. After all, there’s no point in pompously citing Foucault’s Madness and Civilization or Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory if you flub the delivery and undermine your intellectual street cred.

Quote Me: How to Use Quotation Marks

 

Quotation marks and naked ladies

The Strategic Placement of Quotation Marks

Quotation marks quarantine words from the rest of your sentence. They set words apart, and they usually have very good reasons for it. Here you’ll find some of these reasons, as well as tips on how to keep your quotation marks from becoming tangled up in your other punctuation.

Isn’t It Ironic?

Lots of people slap quotation marks around anything they want to emphasize, in the misguided belief that these marks exist to make words stand out. In fact, a single word in quotation marks usually means the opposite of what it says:

  • This member of the “weaker” sex routinely wrestled alligators before breakfast.

The words so-called express the same thing without quotation marks:

  • This member of the so-called weaker sex routinely wrestled alligators before breakfast.

So “fresh” apples suggests something wormy, while an “employment” opportunity probably involves a balaclava and a sawed-off shotgun.

Weird Words and Slang

Quotation marks set apart technical terms or obscure slang—anything the reader might find unfamiliar:

  • Upon achieving “satori,” or oneness with all beings, the monk ran to the pub and bought everyone drinks.

Don’t overdo it, though, as putting widely familiar terms in quotation marks will only make you look hopelessly out of touch:

  • As I “tweeted” on my phone and drank “chai” at my local cafe, I felt like quite the “hipster”! (Please avoid this, for everyone’s sake.)

When you’re writing about words, quotation marks clarify your subject:

  • “Antidisestablishmentarianism” is a word better known for its length than its meaning.

Or you can use italics instead:

  • The songwriter apparently plugged in baby whenever he found himself at a loss for words.

Speech, Speech!

Quotation marks, as we all know, show when someone is speaking:

  • “Don’t worry, darling,” she purred. “We’re all friends here.”

They also show when you’re repeating someone else’s words:

  • In The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

If you decide to set apart quoted text in some other way—by indenting it, for example—quotation marks become overkill and should be left out:

  • In The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote,

It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.

Put quotation marks around an expression to keep it from blundering confusingly through the rest of your sentence:

  • Even his dog gave him the old “It’s not you, it’s me” routine.
  • Her screenplay had the usual “Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets eaten by zombies” plotline.

Titles of articles, essays, short stories, poems, songs, book chapters, and television episodes should be enclosed in quotation marks (more on this here):

  • “Law and Disorder” is the infamous Brady Bunch episode in which the actor who played Greg was stoned during filming.

When Punctuation Collides

Using quotation marks with other punctuation can be tricky, and it doesn’t help that there are two sets of rules—US and British. When a comma or a period is not part of the quoted matter, British writers leave it outside the quotation marks. American writers, on the other hand, like to keep commas and periods inside the quotation marks under all circumstances. Canadians, of course, are free to be confused by both systems.

  • British rules: One teacher called her “impossible”, another “diabolical”.
  • US rules: One teacher called her “impossible,” another “diabolical.”
  • British & US: The aliens announced, “We’ve come for your poodles.”
  • British & US: “I’ve made more balloon animals than you’ve had hot dinners,” the clown said wearily.

In the third example, the final period is part of the aliens’ sentence, so even the Brits keep it inside the quotation marks. Similarly, in the fourth example the comma after dinners stands in for the final period of the clown’s speech.

Note that a comma goes before speech (as in the third example) but isn’t needed for quoted words that flow easily with the rest of the sentence (as in the first and second examples). If you’re not sure whether to use a comma or not, read the sentence out loud and put in a comma if you naturally pause:

  • He never would have told her to “keep the home fires burning” if he’d known her history of pyromania.
  • He told her, “Playing with matches is all very well, but a good insurance policy will keep you warm at night.”

Fortunately, all nationalities agree that exclamation points, question marks, colons, semicolons, and dashes should snuggle up to the words they’re attached to. That is, they belong inside quotation marks if they’re part of the quoted matter and outside if not:

  • Her essay in Comics Today, “Pow! Zap!”, was well received by fanboys.
  • I can’t believe they offered him a lifetime supply of chocolate and he said “no”!
  • How can you possibly forget the words to “Kumbayah”?
  • She asked wistfully, “Wherefore art thou Romeo?” though her boyfriend’s name was Bob.
  • For the next class read “From Weapon to Toy: A Concise History of the Yo-yo” in Modern Collector; the pamphlet “Walking the Dog and Other Tricks”; and “Yo-Yo Ma: American Cellist.”
  • Remember those touching words from Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody”: “Scaramouche! Scaramouche! Will you do the fandango?”
  • “Lice have certainly”—he paused and scratched his head—“never been a problem at this school.”

If you find yourself in a situation where you need two sets of quotation marks at once, use single marks for the inside pair:

  • “I just saw him giving his ‘sister’ a snog!” she snapped.

Quotation marks are pretty straightforward. Just remember to be consistent—pick a set of rules and stick to them like tar—and to save your punctuation for when you really need it.

Colon vs. Semicolon: Punctuation Smackdown

Colon Duels Semicolon

Colon and Semicolon Duel for Punctuation Supremacy

When a comma is too wimpy and a period is too severe, you need a colon or a semicolon—but which?

Jeeves the Colon

A colon is like a butler: it introduces things. It holds open the door and says, “Mrs. Herringbone to see you, Ma’am.” The sight of a colon raises expectations for what is to follow.

  • A spelunker must possess the following: a miner’s helmet, a sturdy rope, waterproof boots, and nerves of steel.
  • Only one creature in these woods burbles like that: the jabberwock.
  • Your plan failed, Count Svitavsky, because you forgot one thing: Fifi is allergic to jujubes.

A colon can introduce a list, an example, an explanation, or a conclusion, but what comes before the colon must be able to stand on its own as a sentence. If you find yourself putting a colon after a verb or a preposition, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

  • Wrong – Their big night consisted of: a hot dog, a walk on the beach, and some light larceny.
  • Right – Their big night consisted of a hot dog, a walk on the beach, and some light larceny.
  • Wrong – Over the course of the evening they stole: hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
  • Right – Over the course of the evening they stole hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.
  • Right – They stole only items beginning with an H: hip waders, hubcaps, and hairnets.

The colon can also be found after the salutation in formal letters, before a character’s dialogue in plays and scripts, after the Q’s and A’s in Q & A, between a title and subtitle, and before a long quotation.

  • To whom it may concern:
  • Rick: Here’s looking at you, kid.
  • Q: How do porcupines have sex? A: Very carefully.
  • “Margarine: Why It’s Wrong”
  • In a passage marked with two stars for being of particular literary merit, Stella Gibbons wrote:

Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice of this sluggish animal light that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.

It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Semicolon!

When you have two sentences that are so closely related they beg not to be separated, or that proceed in parallel like well-rehearsed synchronized swimmers, join them with a semicolon. But be sure the two clauses are independent (that is, able to stand on their own as sentences).

  • I looked in the mailbox; there was no squid.
  • Jonas chose the toasting fork as his weapon; Tariq selected the spatula.

Commas would be inadequate in the examples above, causing painful comma splices without an and or but to help them (more on this here), but a semicolon is made of stronger stuff. It’s a kind of Supercomma, able to accomplish feats mere commas cannot. When your sentences are long and complicated, especially if they’re already liberally sprinkled with commas, use a semicolon where you would normally use a comma. Commas can separate phrases and keep them from squabbling, but when your party gets out of hand, it’s time to call in the bouncers—semicolons.

  • Outside the agent’s door stood an astronaut, sweating under his helmet; a ballerina, patting her bun and fluffing her tutu; a nun, whose wimple was in danger of poking someone’s eye out; and a sasquatch, whose oversized footprints could be seen up and down the hall.
  • You could scale the wall with your grappling hook and creep through the mansion on silent feet, unnoticed by the sleeping baron, until you found the hidden room and, using your hard-won skills, opened its lock with your little picks; but you still wouldn’t have a clue how to get inside the safe.

A semicolon is often used before expressions like that is (or i.e.), for example (or e.g.), however, therefore, indeed, and namely.

  • You’ve eaten the last olive; however, I won’t hold it against you.
  • I am full of consideration for others; for example, I never practise the tuba after midnight.
  • Her new fairy wings were a great success; that is, they worked brilliantly until she hit the ground.

However, don’t bring in a semicolon if you don’t need the extra muscle.

  • The ranks of the fearsome Termagant Army were filled by former ladies of the evening, i.e., prostitutes.
  • The new lord had a phobia of porcelain figurines, therefore we hid all the bric-a-brac in the cellar.

A judicious use of colons and semicolons can separate elegant prose from mediocre muddle. Now that you know what each mark does, you can feel confident when pulling them out of your writer’s toolbox. Go forth and punctuate!

It’s Raining Homonyms

Hiroshige

Rain of Terror

The words rein and reign sometimes get swapped by mistake. Reins control a horse, so you want rein for expressions having to do with control or restraint: rein in, give free rein. To reign is to rule, so use reign when you’re talking about dominance: reign of terror, reign supreme.

  • Try to rein in your anarchist tendencies during the tea party.
  • She gave her decorator free rein and ended up with a rococo bathroom, complete with flushing cherubs.
  • Long after the sheep’s reign of terror had ended, the farmer still flinched at the faintest “baa.”

Straight and Narrow

Strait (a narrow channel between two bodies of water) is often wrongfully neglected in favour of its more familiar cousin, straight. But strait is the word you want for straitlaced, straitjacket, dire straits, and straitened circumstances. Just remember that strait relates to everything narrow or constrained: a corset laced very tightly, a garment used to restrain patients, or a tight spot.

Straight, on the other hand, suggests a lack of deviation: a straight line, straight to the point, straight-shooting, etc. Straight also implies honesty—no detours from the truth.

  • Straitlaced men were like catnip to the succubus.
  • The straitjacket was nothing to Houdini, but the bubble gum stymied him.
  • Give it to me straight, Joe: do I make you hungry?

Capital Letters in Titles: Headline Styling

 

Marquee

Headline Style May Be Used for Captions

Titles of books, movies, and TV shows are conspicuously full of capital letters, but not every word of a title should be capitalized (no matter what iTunes may think). So how do you know which words get the capital treatment and which are business as usual? There are rules, but they can be wobbly, and even the respected Chicago Manual of Style admits they’re arbitrary. Still, most people can agree on a few rules for writing titles, a.k.a. headline style:

1. Capitalize the first and last words.

2. Capitalize everything that isn’t

an article (the, a, an)
to or as
a coordinate conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor)
a preposition (to, from, on, out, of, at, with, into, up, across, after, beside, etc.)

Unfortunately, the preposition rule has a lot of exceptions. Some style guides pick a number of letters—say, three—and capitalize any preposition with more:

  • Truck-Stop Dining From Applesauce to Waffles

Others insist all prepositions should be lower case, though this can look weird with long prepositions like concerning.

Another problem with prepositions is their slipperiness. The same words can also be found playing adjectives, adverbs, and subordinate conjunctions, in which case they do need to be capitalized:

  • Canoeing up the Volga With Evgeni
  • But: Why You Should Never Look Up Old Friends on Facebook
  • The Day after Tomorrow
  • But: How to Move On After You’ve Had a Bad Perm

(If you decided to use the three-letter rule, after would be capitalized whether it was a preposition or not—a good reason to use this rule and keep your life simple.)

3. When a hyphen changes two words into one (called a hyphenated compound), you should capitalize both words. Or you should only capitalize the first. It’s your choice—pick a rule! And, of course, be consistent.

If you choose not to capitalize the word after the hyphen, there are a few exceptions you need to know. Obviously, words that would normally be capitalized should keep their capital letters, hyphen or no hyphen:

  • The Growth of Anti-Peruvianism in Post-Blair Britain

Also, compounds that start with prefixes too feeble to stand on their own as words (such as pre- and anti-) need two capital letters to be taken seriously:

  • My thesis is called “Anti-Establishmentarianism in Pre-Revolutionary France.”

4. Don’t tamper with foreign names. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little de should stay lower-case no matter where it may find itself.

Trust your instincts. If something looks weird, change it. Some expert, somewhere, will probably agree with you.

When to Use Headline Style

You’ve mastered headline style and you’re ready to wield it—but on what?

1. Use headline style for the titles of books, movies, TV shows, Web sites, magazines, articles, short stories, poems, plays, songs, paintings, and statues.

  • That week’s episode of Magnum, P.I. was called “No Such Thing as Too Hairy.”
  • You can learn how many paper clips it would take to circle the Earth on a Web site called Brain-Numbing Factoids.
  • Check out “Healing Your Cat With Crystals” in this month’s Feline Fanatic.
  • I read “Ode to a Nightingale” in John Keats: The Complete Poems, and it made my nose bleed.
  • The Burghers of Calais is Rodin’s heaviest sculpture.
  • My life is best illustrated by Edvard Munch’s The Scream.

2. Headings and sub-headings within a document are usually written in headline style (as in this blog), but regular sentence style is also acceptable.

3. Some people use headline style for the numbered parts of a book (e.g., Chapter 3, Appendix C), but sentence style (chapter 3, appendix C) is also correct. Be aware that parts of a book when discussed generally are always lower case:

  • The introduction was all right, but I found the third chapter confusing and the index useless.

4. Finally, signs and notices are often written in headline style, unless they’re so long as to look awkward. The same applies to mottoes.

  • She flaunted her nonconformity by ignoring the No Smoking signs.
  • The sign in the boutique read “Any children left unattended will be given free kittens.”
  • They say the state motto of Alabama is At Least We’re Not Mississippi.

It’s true that most grammarians are anal-retentive nitpickers, but capitalizing properly can save your readers from real confusion:

  • I can’t get Hair out of my head. (I watch too many musicals.)
  • I can’t get hair out of my head. (I will never be bald.)
  • I dig earth. (I’m a gardener.)
  • I dig Earth. (I grok this planet.)
  • I love Dick. (I’m a Nixon supporter.)
  • I love dick. (’Nuff said.)