You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘punctuation’ category.

Let’s kick off the review session by addressing a confusion that will get you relentlessly and uninterestingly mocked: homophonic pairs. These are pairs like your and you’re or affect and effect, which are pronounced the same but spelled differently. Even if you know the difference between them, you’re still going to screw them up occasionally, especially in quick emails or when you’re writing with your attention wandering. (I probably type the wrong one about 1% of the time, which doesn’t sound like too much until you think about how often one of these words gets used.)

I’m going to look at a subset of these homophonic pairs here, the ones where one member of the pair is a contraction. These are the aforementioned your/you’re, as well as their/there/they’re, its/it’s, and whose/who’s.

In all four of these cases, the word with the apostrophe is the one that can be written as two words. You’re is the contraction for you are, they’re is they are, it’s is it is, and who’s is who is. Thus:

(1a) Do you mind if I dance with your date?
(1b) It seems you’re [you are] offended for some reason.

(2a) I think those tourists left their suitcases behind.
(2b) Yup, those suitcases over there.
(2c) Let’s see if they’re [they are] full of money.

(3a) I couldn’t open the suitcase because its lock was too strong.
(3b) I know, it’s [it is] a shame.

(4a) Do you know anyone whose skill set includes lock-picking?
(4b) Wait, who’s [who is] a cop?

Pretty straightforward, right? The words with the apostrophes are always contractions of two words, a pronoun and a form of the verb be. The words without apostrophes are possessives (and also the locative there). It seems like you ought to just remember apostrophes = two words, no apostrophes = possessives. Easy peasy.

But if it’s so easy, why is it so hard? The trouble is that these homophones don’t exist in a vacuum, and the rest of English exists to sow confusion. When you think of forming a possessive, no doubt your first thought is of the apostrophe-s. That’s because most (singular) nouns are made possessive with apostrophe-s: rabbit’s foot, someone else’s fault, etc. As a result, it’s and who’s look possessive even though they’re not.

The trick is that (personal) pronouns never use apostrophe-s in their possessive forms; in fact, many of them don’t even use an s.* They have their own special forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, their. If you remember that pronouns don’t take apostrophe-s, then its/it’s and whose/who’s are a lot easier to decide between.

Another way to think about it is that only one member of the pair can have the apostrophe (otherwise there’d be no confusion). And connecting two contracted words needs an apostrophe more than signalling possession does. Since there’s only one apostrophe to go around, the contraction gets it over the possessive.**

Summary: If your and you’re or it’s and its are confusing you, remember that contractions always have an apostrophe, and possessive pronouns never do.

*: Never say never. Impersonal (one) and indefinite (e.g., everybody) pronouns do take apostrophe-s. Luckily, these ones don’t have as prominent of homophones and don’t cause many problems for writers.

**: Of course, that’s merely a mnemonic. There is no rule of English that says this, and the historical development that led to pronomial possessives not having apostrophes was not a result of this.


I’ve been noticing a lot of aspersions being cast against against the comma splice recently. A quick sampling:

The dreaded comma splice rears its ugly head again.”

Splices are the worst, namely because there are probably over a hundred other ways to combine the clauses correctly”*

My senior English teacher marked down any paper with even a single comma splice by two letter grades [… It] gave me a terror-loathing of comma splices that has never left me.”

A comma splice, also known more judgmentally as a comma fault, error, or blunder, occurs when a writer joins two independent clauses with only a comma. One might write, for instance:

(1) I'm going to the store, I'll be back soon.

Sure, there are lots of other ways to join the clauses above (I suspect less than 100), such as a semi-colon, a dash, or a comma with a conjunction. The trouble is that each of the options carries with it a certain feel: the semicolon feels a bit formal, the dash a bit distant, the conjunction a bit unnecessary. The comma splice is light and airy, a gentle joining that fits the breezy style I wanted in that sentence.

But alas, that breeziness is abhorred by many English users, whether due to fear of punishment or their personal preferences. I can see where they're coming from, and surely you can too. Comma splices are often misused; the simplicity of their splice rarely sounds good with bulky clauses or ones that don't have an obvious connection. Continually using comma splices can make your writing sound like a bouquet of run-ons, and there's always the danger of confusion in using comma splices with clauses that look like lists.

But there's nothing inherently wrong, dreadful, or ungrammatical about a comma splice. In fact, if there's anything bad to be said about the comma splice, it's that it's old-fashioned.

Comma splices were unexceptional in the 18th century; the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage offers examples from Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Swift, and Benjamin Franklin. You might object that punctuation was in flux in those days. It’s a fair point, although I could rejoin that punctuation remains in flux through the present day. But also, we find that even as the punctuation system of English came together in the 19th century, comma splices remained common in letters. In fact, the earliest complaint against the comma splice found by the MWDEU staff only dates back to 1917.

That’s the historical side. So what about the informality? That 19th century shift mentioned above is an early indication of the emerging informality of the splice; its continued appearances in letters but drop-off in published works suggests a growing opinion that it was informal. Stan Carey’s post on comma splices serves in part as a repository for modern splices, and most of his examples feel informal as well.**

I really like this splice, as it softens the command.

So what caused the change in perception? The MWDEU offers a potential explanation that I find reasonable: the very idea of the comma splice is based on the brief pauses in speech that have no equivalent in formal writing. Older English punctuation systems were more a system of marking how long of pauses would be used if the passage were spoken than the mostly-semantic/syntactic punctuation system we now have. Informal writing also tends to be punctuated more like speech; many of the punctuation choices I make in writing this blog, for instance, are motivated by how I’d say what I’ve written. Formal writing in the modern English punctuation system asks for more explanatory punctuation, and so the comma splice fell by its wayside. Sounds like a plausible hypothesis to me, though I don’t know of a good way to test it.

And that brings up the crux of why comma splices are demonized. They are informal, which means that virtually all style guides will be against them. (An aside: why are there no style guides for informal writing? I’d say it’s because it’s easy and obvious to write informally, but looking at how people write emails and comments and blogs, it certainly seems a lot of people could use guidance in translating from the voice in their heads to words on a screen.)

Of course, it’s fair for style guides to oppose informal things, as far as it goes. The problem is that style guides tend to do a poor job of saying “you only need to worry about this in formal writing”, and their readers do an even worse job at stopping themselves from applying any piddling rule from their preferred stylebook to the whole of English.

Speaking of which: E. B. White, he of Strunk & White and The Elements of Style, illustrates the need to deviate from style guides in informal situations. The fifth Elementary Rule of Usage in their book is Do not join independent clauses with a comma. In a 1963 letter, White wrote:

“Tell Johnny to read Santayana for a little while, it will improve his sentence structure.”

Now there’s a man who knows not to be pushed around by style guides.

Summary: Comma splices were perfectly normal in 18th century punctuation. Starting the 19th century, as English punctuation codified, they were left somewhat on the outside, possibly due to their close connection to speech. They remain standard for informal writing, especially when short, closely connected clauses are being spliced. There is nothing inherently wrong with a comma splice, although when overused or used by a tin-eared writer, they can sound like run-ons.

*: I’m especially fond of this one, since it sounds like the problem with comma splices is just that there are other options, not that there are better options. I love the ambiguity in the scope of other, and whether it covers “correctly”.

**: Stan also has some good advice on how and when he’d use or avoid comma splices, though our opinions differ a bit.

Gizmodo ran an article last week by Sam Biddle, titled “How the Hashtag is Ruining the English Language”. And, as I’ve begun to realize articles titled “How X is doing Y” tend to do, it forgets to explain how exactly the hashtag* is ruining English; at best, it presents a mildly convincing case that the hashtag has become an overused catchphrase.

So what’s wrong with hashtagging? It’s not that Biddle’s against categorizing tweets; he’s against a recent semantic expansion of hashtagging. Many people have taken to what I’m going to refer to as meta-hashtagging, where hashes are used not as category labels but rather as paralinguistic markers. Biddle doesn’t care for it, largely because he thinks that “the hashtag is conceptually out of bounds, being used by computer conformists without rules, sense, or intelligence”.

But is that the case? The use of the meta-hashtag is certainly noisy; some people use it incompetently, and others idiosyncratically. But if we look at the general usage patterns, I think there’s actually substantial structure to it. The primary usage of the meta-hashtag is to make meta-commentary — that is, commentary on what you’re saying, often from a slightly different point of view. This is not something new; Susan Orlean discussed it on the New Yorker‘s site in June 2010.

For instance, @ourboldhero is the guy that I really learned the meta-hashtag from, when he posted things like:

Scare quotes on Wikipedia may be my new favorite thing: Smelting involves more than just “melting the metal out of its ore” #ohwikipedia

Morning Dan knew that if he threw out the last of the toothpaste I’d have to go shopping at some point tonight, and buy him milk #wellplayed

In both of these cases, if I were reading them aloud, I’d say the hashtagged material in a different voice from the rest of it, complete with hand gestures and overwrought facial expressions. These hashtagged phrases can function like a narrator or, as @EllieTr neatly put it, a chorus in a Greek play. They can offer the author’s opinion on someone else’s writing, as in the first tweet, or a just change the point-of-view from the tweeter to a more neutral, narrator-like view, as in the second. (Also, note that these hashtags double as reasonable category labels.)

There are many different applications of the meta-hashtag. I can’t put together an entire ontology of meta-hashtagging, but let me talk about two additional prominent uses that show there is more going on than just a confederacy of dunces misusing the pound sign because they think it makes them cool. (This is going to overlap a bit with Language Log’s post on hashtags.)

One use is to indicate a general sense of the preceding material. Biddle does this in his opening paragraph: “Unfortunately, the hashtag is ruining talking. #NotGonnaLie”. This type of usage was probably the spawn of the meta-hashtag — it’s category-like in that it classifies the tweet, but it’s also adding information about the tweet itself.

Another common use I’ve seen is to indicate irony, as discussed at some length by Ben Zimmer. Biddle’s article targets #winning, the meme that took off as everyone chuckled as Charlie Sheen’s mental health flew apart in front of our eyes. Biddle objects:

“#Winning. It took off as the lowbrow badge of choice across Twitterdom, signifying success without showing it. You could say the saddest heap of shit, add #winning, and that seven letter thumbs up would make it OK.”

But the truth is that it isn’t serious. #Winning has never been the same as winning. No one thought Charlie Sheen was really winning when he said he was; he was falling apart. When people tweet that they’re #winning, it generally doesn’t seem to be for something honestly great. It’s used ironically, for something falling somewhere on the spectrum between mildly good and actually embarrassing:

Just bought 75 glow sticks for $5 #winning. New Years is gonna be awesome. It’s the #simple things in life that make me happy.
my dad is cooking ribs tonight!! #winning.
My longest trip for the past week has been from my bed to my couch #winning

There are a variety of other uses I’ve seen, from adding emphasis to suggesting a pause between sentences. As a result, I disagree with Biddle’s classification of the meta-hashtag as “without rules, sense, or intelligence”. There is a pattern to it, and one that is, I suspect, increasing its clarity rather than decreasing it.

Biddle is right that meta-hashtagging is often used incompetently — but the same could be said of humor, of rhetorical devices, of all of language. Do we ban analogies because many writers offer bad ones? No, we grit through the bad and wait for the good.

Meta-hashtagging has been and will continue to be used infelicitously. No question there. But it’s also used cleverly, and I find that the good uses outweigh the bad. Even if you don’t share my opinion that the meta-hashtag is an interesting addition to language, surely you can agree that it’s a serious underestimation of the strength of language to suppose it could be ruined by something so insignificant as the pound sign.

And on that point, I have to ask why Biddle thinks that the meta-hashtag is going ruin English. Here are the five reasons I found in his article:

  1. It’s used without an obvious pattern
  2. People could just use regular words
  3. It’s an inside joke amongst Twitter users
  4. It’s a “lazy reach for substance”
  5. Noam Chomsky doesn’t use it

I don’t agree with these points, especially the first. But suppose we take them at face value. How do these five points lead to the conclusion that meta-hashtagging is ruining English? They’re limited little things that can’t do anything to the rest of the language. In fact, I suspect that Biddle knows this and that he’s just going in for a bit of cheap hyperbole — the exact same sort of cheap hyperbole that he’s accusing the users of #winning of doing. As Biddle himself might have said,

“You could complain about the tiniest bit of English, add ‘it’s ruining the English language’, and that five word thumbs down would make it unacceptable.”

*: For readers who aren’t familiar with hashtagging, it’s when someone writes a word prefaced by a pound sign (e.g., #eating). Hashtags arose on Twitter as a way of classifying tweets. Suppose you want to see what everyone’s saying about something really cool, like, let’s say, grammar. If you just search for “grammar”, you’ll get false positives from “grammar school” and junk like that. But if someone put #grammar in the tweet, they’re saying “this tweet is about grammar”, so searching for #grammar drops the false positives substantially. Hashtags function as categories within Twitter, but it’s a very ephemeral category structure, since the tags are generated by users. If you haven’t before, try searching for something in its hashtagged and nonhashtagged forms before continuing.

Google+, Google’s answer to Facebook, has been generating a ton of buzz in its brief invitation-only phase. That’s about all I know about it; I’ve intentionally been avoiding investigating further. It doesn’t have FarmVille, so what’s the point? But I’m on Twitter too much to avoid Google+ entirely. I’d been getting 140-character updates about its importance or awesomeness from a variety of sources, but what finally got me to look into it was an update from an unexpected quarter: Ben Zimmer, with a tweet about the morphology of +1.

The +1 button on Google and Google+ is basically a generalization of Facebook’s “Like” button, indicating “what you like, agree with, or recommend on the web.” The trouble is that users are going to want to use +1 in more general contexts, treating the word* +1 as a stand-alone noun, verb, and so on. This already happened with Facebook’s Like, and there it was a pretty seamless process, since the new meaning of like could piggy-back on the morphology of the existing word like, resulting in likes, liked, liking, etc.

+1 doesn’t have this same ability, at least in text. Plus-one exists as a word in English, referring to “A person who accompanies another to an event as that person’s nominated guest, but who has not been specifically invited” (OED) — e.g., your date for an event. This word has its morphology basically worked out (plus-ones is used in the OED’s first attestation, back in 1977, and here’s an example of “plus-oned the alloys”, whatever that means). The trouble, though, is that the word isn’t written plus-one; it’s written +1. The pronounced forms are all worked out, but the written form is unestablished.

Credit is due to Google for recognizing this and wanting to establish the conventions. In their +1 help, they explain their spelling conventions, in which the morphologically complex forms are formed with apostrophes — +1’s, +1’d, +1’ing — rather than the plain forms +1s, +1d, +1ing. In so doing, they raised the hackles of some grammarians, so let’s look at each of the forms individually to try to explain the choice.

+1’s. Apostrophe-s is a standard way to pluralize nouns with strange forms, such as letters, numerals, acronyms, or abbreviations. This introduces ambiguity with the possessive form, but it avoids other ambiguities (such as pluralized a looking like the word as) and often looks better (I think Ph.D.s looks weird). Thus we see mind your p’s and q’s, multiple Ph.D.’s, and Rolling 7’s and 11’s. +1 ends in a numeral, so it’s not unusual to write it as +1’s instead of +1s, although either is acceptable. (For more on apostrophes in plurals, see this old post.)

+1’d. Apostrophe-d for the past tense is not as common as apostrophe-s for the plural, but it’s certainly not unheard of. Fowler’s Modern English Usage favors it for words ending in a fully pronounced vowel — forming mustachio’d instead of mustachioed, for example — in order to avoid a strange collocation of vowels clogging the end of the word. However, this appears to be a minority position; mustachioed generates about 35 times more Google hits than mustachio’d.

"Wait, lads! Am I being shanghaied or shanghai'd?"

Apostrophe-d used to be a more general suffix, up until around the middle of the 19th century (judging by the Corpus of Historical American English). In Middle English, the -ed suffix was always pronounced with the vowel, and in Early Modern English, the vowel was optional in some words where today it is obligatorily omitted. If you’ve ever heard someone described as learned, pronounced /learn-ED/ instead of /learnd/, you’ve seen one of the few remaining vestiges of this alternation. With variation, it was useful to have different written forms to indicate whether the vowel was pronounced or not.

I first learned of this reading a Shakespeare play in which certain words were written as, for instance, blessèd, with an accent indicating that the second e was to be pronounced so that the meter of teh line was correct. To clarify cases where the vowel was not to be pronounced, poets and playwrights would sometimes vanish the e into an apostrophe. This edition of Hamlet, for instance, includes both drowned and drown’d on the same page when different characters are talking about the death of Ophelia:

Queen: Your sister’s drown’d, Laertes.
Clown: Argal, she drowned herself willingly.

But historical usage is dead, so perhaps the more relevant comparision is looking at other numerical verbs. The only one that’s coming to my mind is 86, meaning to eject or reject something. Looking around, I see both 86’d and 86ed used, with 86’d appearing to be a bit more common. The Wikipedia entry for 86 only has 86’d attested, and there’s also a book titled 86’d. At the very least, 86’d is an acceptable variant, and seemingly the more common as well. In that case, it’s not surprising that Google would choose +1’d over +1ed or +1d.

+1’ing. Lastly, we have the present participle. There isn’t a historical component to this usage like there was for the past tense. The apostrophe-ing form is attested for 86, appearing in the book Repeat Until Rich, but 86ing without the apostrophe looks to be a little bit more common on the web as a whole.** The trouble is that 86(‘)ing just isn’t well-attested in either form. Unlike the plural and past tense, there isn’t much of a precedent for apostrophe-ing, and in fact there doesn’t seem to be much of a precedent for the present participle of a numeral in general. I think that the choice to include the apostrophe in the present participle was made strictly for consistency’s sake; I doubt many people would prefer the paradigm +1’s, +1’d, +1ing to the more consistent one they chose.

The future. Of course, it doesn’t really matter what Google says, just as it doesn’t really matter what Strunk & White or Fowler or I or any other language commentator says. Language is what people do with it. Personally, I suspect that the apostrophes will disappear fairly quickly. Even in typing this, I kept on being annoyed that I had to send a finger out in search of an apostrophe. When you’re writing something often, you want to toss out unnecessary stuff — Facebook is a good example of this; when I first ended up on it back in 2004, you still had to type to get to it, but that unnecessary the was quickly lost. As people become more familiar and comfortable with +1 and its inflected forms, the need (and the desire) for the apostrophes will ebb, and I think we’ll see +1s dominate. In fact, even typing +1 is kind of a pain (I keep accidentally typing +!), so I wouldn’t be surprised to see plus-ones, or even pluses, eventually become the standard.

*: I’m going to call +1 a word in this post, though you may find it more of a phrase. The key point is that it has a specific meaning that is not a simple sum of its component morphemes (plus and one), and that makes it word-like for my purposes.

**: 86’ing doesn’t appear in the Google N-grams corpus, suggesting it appeared less than 40 times in a trillion words. 86ing appears there with 962 hits.

Post Categories

The Monthly Archives

About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently an assistant professor at San Diego State University, in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/Middle Eastern Languages, and a member of the Digital Humanities. Prior to that, I was a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. And before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

My research and teaching connects language, the mind, and society (in fact, I teach a 500-level class with that title!). I use probabilistic models to understand how people learn, represent, and comprehend language. These models have helped us understand the ways that parents tailor their speech to their child's needs, why sports fans say more or less informative things while watching a game, and why people who disagree politically fight over the meaning of "we".

@MGrammar on twitter

Recent Tweets

If you like email and you like grammar, feel free to subscribe to Motivated Grammar by email. Enter your address below.

Join 980 other followers

Top Rated

%d bloggers like this: