Punctuation Check-up: The Doctor Will See You Now!

Punctuation Check-up: The Doctor Will See You Now!

Terminal Punctuation Disease

Fortunately, there’s help for terminal punctuation disease – it needn’t be fatal, after all. You won’t find it in an online pharmacy, but you don’t have to cross the border. Just sit back and pay attention.

Ending, or terminal, punctuation marks always go inside quotation marks. For example:

“John said he’d do that on Tuesday,” said Mary.

The quoted line of dialogue ends in a comma, since the sentence isn’t really finished until the period after Mary. The word said is not capitalized.

“Where are you going?” asked Jane.

Jane is asking a question; therefore, you can’t substitute a comma for the quesiton mark without losing meaning. You still don’t capitalize the word asked.

“I’m going to check up on him.” Mary grabbed her keys. “I want to be sure he’s done it.”

Here, the word Mary starts a new sentence. The periods in the quoted lines of dialogue go inside the quotation marks.

Like every other rule in English, there are exceptions:

Have you ever seen a “jackalope”?
I’ve never seen a “jackalope.”

In American English (because of fairly archaic typographical conventions), a period always goes inside all quotation marks. Cultural norms vary, so don’t be telling the Brits they’re wrong about this, just nod and go along with them. They think they invented the language. But a question mark that is not part of the phrase or sentence inside the quotation marks rightfully belongs on the outside, even if you’re a Yank.

Get Your Annual Semicolon Checkup Here!

I’m not sure why the poor semicolon gets such a bad rap, and is so underused, overused, and generally abused by writers. It’s simple, really.

First, we’ll look at different ways to join two independent clauses. Independent clauses are basically phrases that could stand alone as sentences in their own right, but are so closely joined in thought that they ought to be married, or at least shacking up. For example:

Mary loved her red shoes. They made her feet look dainty.

There is nothing at all wrong with leaving these individual sentences alone, except that one completes the other, and apart, they look choppy.

Next, you decide how you want to join them:

  • with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so);
  • with a semicolon by itself;
  • with a semicolon, a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, nevertheless, finally), and a comma; or,
  • with a semicolon, a transitional phrase (as a result, in other words, for example, in fact), and a comma

Joining them with a comma, by itself, creates the dreaded comma splice.

“And what is so awful about that?” you ask.

A comma splice is awkward, because the reader gets halfway into the second sentence before it dawns on them that the first sentence is completed. A comma, alone, isn’t designed to signal the transition from one completed thought to the next.

So, you could write either of the following:

Mary loved her red shoes, and they made her feet look dainty.
Mary loved her red shoes; they made her feet look dainty.

There are other uses for the semicolon, of course. You can use it to separate complex list items. Perhaps you have the following on your grocery list: a pat of butter; two pounds of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream; three pounds of chopped walnuts, lightly glazed; and so on. This is very useful when the list items, themselves, contain commas. Try writing the previous list, using commas instead of the semicolons, and you’ll see what I mean. Do I want two pounds of chocolate? A bottle of vanilla extract? How much strawberry ice cream? Or do I want two pounds of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream?

Semicolons do have their detractors. It’s only fair to warn you that some writers could happily live their entire lives without employing the hard-working semicolon.

Better a Colon than a Fleet Enema

Did you notice that I introduced that grocery list, above, with a colon? Slipped that in on you, didn’t I? Might as well cover the colon while we’re at it because it’s even simpler than the semicolon, and it’s quite useful at times. Think of the colon as the ambassador of punctuation, introducing the reader to a word, a phrase, a whole sentence, a quotation, or a list. For example:

Joe said he only wants three things for Christmas: world peace, a healthy baby, and a new MP3 player.

Jayne said it best: “My friends will always come first, for without them, there’s no joy in life.”

He excels in only one thing: procrastination.

Note this carefully: you must never use a colon right after a verb. If you say “My favorite TV shows are ER, C.S.I., and Little House on the Prairie,” the verb are is performing the introduction, so the semicolon would be redundant. Try saying “namely” in place of the colon. If the sentence reads fairly smoothly, then chances are, you’re using it right. If it reads as smoothly as a pig walks on stilts, try eliminating the colon or rephrasing the sentence.

Dieresis

If you read “dieresis” and thought I was going to discuss kidney ailments, just close the browser and back away slowly… If you know what a dieresis is, you’re good to go – you can take off the little paper gown and pay the receptionist on your way out.

The dieresis is a diacritical mark (two dots) placed over the second vowel in a pair of vowels to indicate that it is pronounced as a separate and distinct sound, rather than as a diphthong (two vowels blended together like sour cream and onion) or a silent vowel; for example, coördinate. This isn’t critical knowledge for the modern writer of English, and people will no doubt look at you oddly if you make a habit of using the dieresis, which looks a lot like the umlaut (for you German speakers) but serves a completely different function. It does, however, aid in pronunciation, and I think The New Yorker is right to continue using it.

There now. I’ll bet your writing is feeling better already! Now head on over to the Grammar Mood Doc and let’s deal with that Past Perfect, Perfectly Passive-Aggressive Voice

Past Perfect, Perfectly Passive-Aggressive Voice

Past Perfect, Perfectly Passive-Aggressive Voice

How to Start a Flamewar Between Writers

Once upon a time, I ran an online writing forum on what is now a defunct, pre-Internet, online service no one remembers. I hired a woman to run a beginners’ writing workshop covering the basics: grammar, punctuation, and general style. In exchange for once-weekly lessons, she got a free VIP account that gave her access to the entire service.

The first night, no one but the instructor, two of my professional writer friends, and I showed up. It was just as well — this gave us a good, relaxing opportunity to do a practice run-through without real students. For some reason, the instructor decided to tackle the age old issue of “Active vs. Passive Voice” for the first lesson. Well, bravo. I’d have started with commas. Simple, declarative sentences in present or simple past tense. But sure — let’s dive in with one of the most controversial and hostility-inducing topics you can throw, like a grenade, into a cocktail party full of writers.

The only thing worse would have been: “Semicolons: Pro or Con?”

The instructor launched into an authoritative lecture on how to construct a passive sentence, typing into the chat window: “Any sentence where ‘to be’ or ‘to have’ are used as ‘helper verbs’ is said to be ‘passive voice.’ For example, ‘The detectives had moved to the city — ”

“Hang on a sec,” I typed.

“Am I going too fast?” she typed back.

I have a degree in English — Rhetoric & Writing, if I want to sound snotty about it — but I obsessively fact-check myself before fact-checking others. “No,” I said, stalling while I combed the pages of several grammar books I had sitting on my bookshelf. There. “No, just… are you sure about this? Isn’t that just past perfect tense?”

“No, it’s passive voice.”

“Mmm, I think it’s past perfect tense. The detectives had moved — they moved themselves. If you’d said, ‘The detectives had been moved,’ it would have been past, um, perfect and passive voice.”

“No, you see the ‘had’ there? That’s what makes it passive.”

“No, you need to add ‘been’ — had been moved — by some implied other person or entity.”

“No, you’re wrong.”

“I’m sorry, but you are incorrect. Please double check this before giving a class on it.”
The next thing the instructor typed had us all sitting there open-mouthed. “FUCK YOU!” She disconnected from the network. I pictured her ripping the modem cord from her own wall in a fit of pique.

“Did she just — ”

“Yep.” The three of us who were left all typed ROFL, LOL, and LMAO simultaneously. I quickly composed a note to send her, as I shut down her VIP account: “Your resignation has been accepted.”

Now there’s an example of the past perfect, passive aggressive voice.

Is Passive Voice a Vice?

There’s nothing inherently evil about passive voice. However, when it is used to shirk responsibility for an action, or to absolve a known actor of responsibility, then it is shoddy writing. It can be wordy, too.

  • Active: Margie fed us sandwiches.
  • Passive: We were fed sandwiches [by Margie].
  • Passive: We were given sandwiches and shooed out the door.

That last example may have reasons for being. Who gave us sandwiches and shooed us out the door may be less important than the fact that we were fed and shoved outside.

Active and passive: Mom believed that children should play outside, in the fresh air, so we were given sandwiches and shooed out the door to roam the neighborhood on sunny days.

In this last example, it’s clear who is doing the giving and the shooing. The focus isn’t on Mom, but on us. That said, we could write the same sentence without passive voice at all: Mom believed that children should play outside, in the fresh air, so she gave us sandwiches and shooed us out the door to roam the neighborhood on sunny days.

Either is correct, but there is a subtle shift of focus — in the latter example, Mom gets most of the focus. If the story is about us, then passive voice may work a little bit better. It’s a choice. Either works; neither is spawn of the writing devil.

The real problem with passive voice is in reporting facts:

Active: “Joe Smith raped the woman” vs. Passive: “The woman was raped”

Active: “Mr. Carter stole $30,000 from the bank” vs. Passive: “$30,000 was embezzled”

When it is used to obscure and deflect, passive voice gets a well-deserved bad reputation.

Want to start a flamewar? Go to a writing conference and ask, “But really, what’s wrong with passive voice?” Once the brawl starts, say, “You have been HAD. Peace out!” and leave.

Follow It (for Readers)

Follow It (for Readers)

If you have already subscribed to this blog, and are happy with what you’re getting in your email or news reader, you can skip this post. A few readers had questions, here and on Marian Allen‘s blog, so I said I’d try to answer them. If you want a better idea of what it means to subscribe, what a “feed” and “feed reader” are, and how to control what you read in one, please read on!

What is a “Feed”?

Since this post is for readers, primarily, let’s start with “what is a ‘feed’?” A “feed,” or “web feed,” is created by any site that has regularly updated content – like a blog or ezine or newspaper – and is delivered to readers in a variety of ways, by subscription. For example, you can get updates from this blog in your favorite “feed reader” or “news reader” or “news aggregator” such as WordPress Reader, Flipboard, Feedly, Feedspot – which I use, myself – and others. Calling it a “news aggregator” makes it sound like something exclusive to traditional news media, but it is not. It is simply a way for you to subscribe to updates from sites you like.

Click here to see what a “feed” looks like in its raw and unformatted form: https://jahangiri.us/2020/feed

What on Earth Am I Supposed to Do with THAT?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that’s the best reading experience I can offer. Still, you can plug that URL into any feed reader or news aggregator you like, and it will “pretty it up” for you. It will transform whatever that is into something readable.

You can learn the feed URL for any web site using an extension like Get RSS Feed URL. This is what you’d see if you used that on my blog:

From there, you click Copy URL and go configure your favorite feed reader to pick it up.

Or you can just click the big green Follow this blog button. Follow.it is a feed reader/news aggregator. Free, lightweight, easy to use. It does have a few features I have not seen on some of the others, like the ability for readers to filter their feed by keywords or tags.

To filter by keywords, click the Keyword(s) box. Enter keyword (this does not appear to support phrases in quotation marks or wildcard searches, so use single, whole words only). To exclude a keyword, use the minus sign (hyphen) right in front of the word, with no spaces: -keyword. Choose title only or title and body of the post.

To filter the feed by tags, click the tags box. This will display tags that were used by the creator of the feed, as shown below.

Hover your cursor over any of the keywords displayed (they are shown in order of frequency of use). Move your cursor up and down the pop-up menu and click to select Must, Must not, or Neutral (clear any previous selection).

At the bottom left of the keywords, you can click Set all to neutral if you want to remove the keyword filtering altogether. At the bottom right, you can display more keywords by clicking Next > or < Prev.

Also, you have the ability on multi-author sites to follow just one author, or several. I do not recommend using this option on my site, because on the rare occasion I invite others to write for this blog, I know and trust them, and I really hope you’ll read what they have to say. If you only want to read what they have to say, you may never receive updates from this blog. It may be useful, though, on a large news site with hundreds of contributors, if you only want to follow a few of them. Using the New York Times as an example:

To filter by author, click the names of any authors you want to follow. Click again to unfollow them.

As new tags or authors are added by the feed’s creators, they will be “neutral” or possibly ignored, so use these filtering features judiciously, or you may miss updates you want to see.

Follow.it also makes it easy for you to choose from a variety of ways to read (and each feed can be customized differently). Maybe you just want to check on the dashboard – or “News page” – on Follow.it. Maybe you want a single daily newspaper (also known as a “digest”) of selected feeds. Maybe you want “breaking news” – updates delivered to your inbox within hours or minutes of when they’re posted! Or maybe you use Telegram, and want to be notified of new posts there. You can customize each feed using the Output channels to send you just what you want, when you want it.

Phone (SMS), WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and other delivery methods are teased as “coming soon.” I don’t know how soon, so let’s just say that this is it – for now.

To get back to the Filters and Output channels page, just click the Follow.it logo at the upper left corner of the screen:

That will toggle between your personal news/settings and the Follow.it Directory. Click to expand the Reading section in the left sidebar, then click All to display All news:

Hover over the lower right corner of an article to display the icons shown above: Bookmark, Mark as read, Hide story, Share (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Email, Buffer, Telegram, or Link), and Settings. Select Settings to modify your filtering and delivery options.

Discover More Stuff to Read!

Another nice feature of Follow.it is a Member Directory. Only paid members are included – it’s a nice perk. I’ve already picked up half a dozen new subscribers this way, and I’ve only been using it a week!

You can filter the directory by Category, Location, Language, and Keywords.

Tip: Don’t use the Give me a tip what to follow link unless you’re just interested in local news. It will attempt to use your location (or network location) if you allow it. It does not appear to be customizable by interests and the location filtering is only as good as sites that provide their locations. It may be better to enter your location (city, state, country) as a keyword.

The list of suggested sites appears to be sorted by most recently updated.

Still Have Questions?

If you are a blogger, sign up here. Then look for the Help Center (for Publishers).

If you are a reader, see their Help Center (for Readers).

 

 

 

An Engraved Invitation to Follow.it and Follow Me

An Engraved Invitation to Follow.it and Follow Me

Follow Me!

Google Feedburner is finally going into “maintenance mode,” after nearly 8 years of rumored obsolescence, abandonment, or other funky defunctiveness when Goggle terminated their popular Google Reader in 2013.

Marina, at Follow.it*, was kind enough to alert me to the fact that this was, finally, really and truly, happening on July 1, 2021. I think maybe she assumed I had more than 64 subscribers over the past 8 years, but she kindly offered to help me migrate them. She didn’t need to – it was pretty easy to do it myself. If you have fewer than 100, you can – if you have more, you’ll have to get Support to help you. They’re very helpful!

Some of you may be very, very surprised to get fresh emails from me in your inbox! If your first thought is, “Who is this? I never signed up for this!” you did, in fact – but you probably didn’t notice you weren’t getting emails from me for a while when I started a new blog. Or, two new blogs. I hope the emails will be welcome, but if they’re not, it’s just as easy to unsubscribe as it was to subscribe in the first place, all those many long years ago… and I will be over here crying, but I wish you well. Read on to find out how, if you haven’t figured it out already.

For those of you who are new to this blog or just curious about the free features Follow.it has for readers (they’re all free for you readers, and mostly free for bloggers*), I invite you to click the big green Follow this blog button, below:

You will be taken to the Filters and Output channels page:

Choose your Output channels: Newspaper (a daily digest of posts from the feed); Single emails (oh, you eager thing – you want to see each post the minute I hit Publish?); News page (Follow.it feed reader dashboard); RSS (you have your own feed reader); Telegram (how cutting edge of you!).

You can play with Filters: keywords, tags, authors, and popularity, though it is unlikely they’ll match content on the blog and you may get no results at all. You can see the options I’ve chosen for my own subscription, above. Of course I subscribe to my own blog – that way, I know if something goes wrong!

You may, instead, be taken directly to the subscribe page where the only option is Follow or Unfollow. If you see the Manage button shown below, you are already subscribed; click the Manage button to go to the Filters and Output channels page.

Enjoy this little playlist, especially from me to you:

Follow.it for Bloggers

Follow.it is a great alternative to Google’s Feedburner.* Most of the features are free – forever. It’s not a trial. You can see all three pricing levels – the paid levels are based on the number of subscribers you have, and there is a simulator to help you calculate the costs. You can change plans or revert to free easily, at any time. One good reason to upgrade is to get discovered like a Hollywood celebrity – consider one of the paid plans to have your feed(s) included in the Follow.it Directory.

Click here to sign up as a Publisher on Follow.it.*


* Affiliate link: If you do end up upgrading to a paid plan, I’ll receive a small commission.

 

 

Movement: Mind and Soul

Movement: Mind and Soul

For the next six to twelve months, at least, I’ll be focusing on writing poetry. Not to the exclusion of anything else, of course – but with an eye towards publication. That means no more posting it online, until it has had its fair shot at the footlights of publication – poetry journal, contest, anthology, or book. No “previously published” material is loved in the hallowed halls, and I have been an undisciplined writer all my life, shoving scraps of paper in drawers, posting bits online, here and there. When you have a full-time career and no plans to leave it, it’s difficult to write poetry or fiction seriously. It simply cannot compete for time and energy. So you shove it into drawers. Or share it willy-nilly, like these:

And a few posts on writing poetry, if you’d care to join me:

View at Medium.com

View at Medium.com