Five Lessons in Punctuation

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, 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.

These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years

Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.


Rosé Wine Glass

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon


Nerf SurgeFire

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop



Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon


Doughnut float

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon


American flag spatula

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon


MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon


metal fire pit

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon


Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon


Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon


Vintage Snow Cone Maker

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon


Dog Corn Holders

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon


Ice Cream Sandwich Maker

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon


Bluetooth speaker

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon


Rollors Backyard Game

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174


Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon


Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon


More from mental floss studios