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Five Lessons in Punctuation

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This week we're joined by a special guest blogger. Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, as well as other books about language. She is a regular monthly guest on public radio station WNYC in New York. Learn more at her website, grammarphobia.com. Make her feel welcome!

For sheer readability, few things make as much difference as proper punctuation. These examples from You Send Me, a book I wrote with my husband, show how much difference punctuation can make:

"Who got fired, Stacey?" said the director.

Who got fired? Stacey, said the director.

Who got fired? Stacey said the director.

See what I mean? Now I can't tell you in a few paragraphs all you need to know about punctuation. But I can hit the high spots, the problems that come up most often.

1. The Indispensable Comma

The word "comma" comes from a Greek word meaning "to cut off," and that's what commas do. They cut sentences into pieces, organizing words into meaningful groups. Sometimes, the organization can make a big difference! Check out these sentences: (1) Jack said Harry wrecked the car. (2) Jack, said Harry, wrecked the car.

Here's some comma-sense advice:

"¢ Use commas and a connecting word (like and or but) to separate clauses—groups of words with both a subject and a verb. John had forgotten her birthday five times in a row, but Gloria thought this year would be different.

"¢ Use commas between items in a list: Gloria was hoping for dinner, dancing, and flowers. She was furious that John hadn't made a dinner reservation, called the florist, or even bought a card.

"¢ Use commas before or after a quotation: Gloria said, "I might have known." "I'll make it up to you," John promised. But don't use a comma after a quotation that's a question or exclamation: "Why not kiss and make up?" John asked.

"¢ Use commas before or after the name of someone you're addressing: "Gloria, you're over-reacting," he said. "Maybe you're right, John," she answered.

"¢ Use a comma after an introductory remark if you want to emphasize the pause: Fortunately, the argument was soon over. Before long, they were cuddling on the couch.

"¢ Use commas around an aside, as you might use dashes or parentheses: He dialed Chez Panisse, their favorite restaurant, and managed to wangle a reservation.

"¢ Use commas around a clause that interrupts a sentence to insert a thought. These interruptions often begin with which, where, who, or when: They arrived at Chez Panisse, which was half an hour away, at ten. The waiter, who knew John and Gloria, joined them in a toast. (But don't use a comma if there's no interruption: John knew which wine was which. Gloria knew when she was ahead.)

2. The Underused Semicolon

The semicolon may be the most unappreciated and underused punctuation mark. If you find semicolons intimidating, relax. They're great for tidying up a series of items with commas inside them. Imagine how hard it would be to read this sentence if only commas were used: Jack willed his house to Jill, his best friend; his collection of lederhosen to his neighbors, Hans and Franz; and his dog, Tige, to a friend, Buster.

Semicolons are also handy for joining chunks of a sentence that could stand alone. A comma by itself isn't enough to hold together clauses like these: Jack broke his crown, Jill wasn't seriously injured. (This is sometimes called a run-on sentence.) Unless you want to add a connecting word, use a semicolon: Jack broke his crown; Jill wasn't seriously injured.

3. Chatty Quotation Marks

The trick with quotation marks is at the end of the quote. Does punctuation that follows the quoted material (period, comma, question mark, or whatever) go inside or outside the closing quotation marks? Here are the ins and the outs.

"¢ Periods go inside. "I think I'm getting the flu."
"¢ Commas go inside. "I probably caught it at work," he added.
"¢ Colons go outside. Elizabeth didn't like being called "Liz": it was so predictable.
"¢ Semicolons go outside. Don't play "My Funny Valentine"; she hates it.
"¢ Question marks and exclamation points are sometimes inside and sometimes outside. In most cases, they go inside the quotation marks: "What's your name, sweetie?" said the cashier. "It's not sweetie!" shouted the child. But question marks and exclamation points must go outside if they're not part of the actual quotation. Have you seen the film version of Gray's "Elegy"? Good heavens, I didn't even know they'd filmed Gray's "Elegy"!

"¢ Parentheses go outside quotation marks if the entire quote is parenthetical: Mom had the deciding vote ("I said no"). Parentheses go inside the quotation marks if only part of the quote is parenthetical. She added, "Next time, ask me first (if there is a next time)."

4. The Much-Abused Apostrophe

As someone with an apostrophe in her name, I hate to see this punctuation mark mistreated. Here's how it ought to be used.

Possessives. Apostrophes help show who owns what. To make a noun possessive, add either an apostrophe with the letter s ('s ) or just the apostrophe alone, depending on the circumstances. The rules come in threes:

1. Add 's to a singular word or name, regardless of its ending. (Yes, even if it ends in s or x or z—whether sounded or silent.) Ms. Jones's favorite pastime is reading Camus's essays and collecting Degas's etchings. Her dog's name is Rex, and Rex's meals come from Paris's finest restaurants. Her dress's fabric is bamboo and her husband's shirts are Egyptian cotton. "It was Jacques's idea to live in France," she said, "after we declared bankruptcy in the States."

2. Add 's to a plural word that doesn't end in s. The children's shoes cost almost as much as the men's and the women's. My feet's bunions are killing me.

3. Add just the apostrophe to a plural word or name that ends in s. The Joneses' and the Smiths' and the Gonzalezes' houses were vandalized, and their cars' tires were slashed as well. The houses' windows were broken too. NOTE: When you need a comma or a period after a possessive word that ends with an apostrophe, the comma or period goes after the apostrophe and not in front of it: The idea was the girls', or maybe the boys', but at any rate the responsibility was their parents'.

Contractions. An apostrophe shows where letters have been dropped in a shortened word or phrase. For example, shouldn't is short for "should not"; the apostrophe replaces the o in "not." And I'll is short for "I will"; the apostrophe is a polite nod to the dropped letters. You can't say I didn't warn you.

Some unusual plurals. No, you DON'T add 's to a word or a name to make it plural! You can, however, add 's to form the plural of an individual letter. This makes for easier reading, and many stylebooks recommend it. At Swarthmore, Libbi got B's and C's and started spelling her name with two i's.

5. The Helpful Hyphen

Look what a difference a hyphen can make: The stolen sofa was recovered. Or, The stolen sofa was re-covered. Don't underestimate this handy punctuation mark. If in doubt about using a hyphen with a prefix, look it up.

When two words are combined to describe a noun, we sometimes use a hyphen between them. Generally if the compound follows the noun, it doesn't get a hyphen: That duck is water resistant. But if the compound comes before the noun, it usually gets a hyphen: That's a water-resistant duck. (And don't ask why a duck.)

Yesterday: Five Lessons in Grammar. Tuesday: Debunking Etymological Myths. Monday: Debunking Grammar Myths. Coming tomorrow: Pat will be answering your grammar questions. You can ask said questions in the comments.

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Pop Culture
The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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