Quotes on Punctuation

*  The writer who neglects punctuation, or mispunctuates, is liable to be misunderstood. … For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid.  ~ Edgar Allen Poe

*  Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.  ~  F. Scott Fitzgerald

*  No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.  ~ Isaac Babel

*  You practically do not use semicolons at all. This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.  ~  George Bernard Shaw

*  Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.  ~  Lewis Thomas

*  In the family of punctuation, where the full stop is daddy and the comma is mummy and the semicolon quietly practices the piano with crossed hands, the exclamation mark is the big attention-deficit brother who gets over-excited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.  ~  Lynne Truss

*  A period is a stop sign. A semicolon is a rolling stop sign; a comma is merely an amber light.  ~  Andrew Offutt

*  Used sparingly, the semicolon emphasizes your crucial contrasts; used recklessly, it merely clutters your page.  ~  Sheridan Baker

*  If the semicolon is one of the neglected children in the family of punctuation marks these days, told to stay in its room and entertain itself, because mummy and daddy are busy, the apostrophe is the abused victim.  ~  John Humphrys

*  From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put.  ~  Winston Churchill

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Common Writing Error – the Misplaced Modifier

One of the most common writing errors is the misplaced modifier. Just like the dangling participle, it not only confuses the reader but can also be quite funny because of the meaning it gives to the sentence. What exactly is a misplaced modifier?

A modifier is a word or phrase that describes something else; and, therefore, should be placed as close as possible to what it describes. Sometimes this modifier is misplaced – that is, it is not placed close enough, thus giving the sentence a different meaning, usually an illogical one.  For example:

He had a hot bowl of soup.

What is hot? The bowl? The modifier hot is placed before bowl, so it’s as if it’s modifying bowl. But what was actually meant was  –

He had a bowl of hot soup.

Another example:

The stolen man’s bag was found the next day.

Stolen man? Sounds funny doesn’t it? What the writer really meant was that the bag was stolen. So the correct way of saying this should be:

The man’s stolen bag was found the next day.

See the difference in the meaning of the sentence when the modifier ‘stolen’ was misplaced?

The most commonly misplaced modifiers are only, barely, just, nearly, and the like.  Why? Take a look at these examples:

The girl only drank milk.

The girl drank only milk.

Both these sentences are correct, but they mean two different things. The first one means that all that the girl did with milk was drink it. The second sentence means that the girl drank nothing but milk. If both the sentences are correct, then what is the problem? The problem is confusion. Confusion because very often when the writer wants to say one thing, he says the other … just by misplacing the modifier ‘only’, and it doesn’t fit into the context. When something doesn’t fit into the context as a whole, it becomes confusing.

So, what does this mean? This means that we have to be very careful in placing a modifier. We should place it as close as possible to the word (or words) it modifies.

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The Correct Word – Learned or Learnt

I have often been asked this question: Which is the correct past tense of learnlearned or learnt? Well, the answer is simple. Both are correct. Yes, both learned and learnt may be used as the past of learn depending on which form of English you’re using. Learned is used in American English, and learnt in British English. But these days, due to the influence of American English, learned is also being written in Britain.  So, in short, both the forms are correct. The only thing to remember is – whichever form you use, be consistent. Don’t use both learned and learnt together.

There’s just one case where only learned is used – whether British or American English. This is when used as an adjective meaning “possessing or demonstrating profound knowledge”. For example, ‘a learned person’ or ‘a learned response’. In this case, learned is pronounced with two syllables – “learn” and “ed”, unlike learned as a verb where it’s just one syllable.

There are some other verbs that have both ‘ed’ (American) and ‘t’ (British) endings for past tense:

Spell – spelled, spelt

Leap – leaped, leapt

Burn – burned, burnt

Spill – spilled, spilt

Spoil – spoiled, spoilt

Dream – dreamed, dreamt

Kneel – kneeled, knelt

Can you think of any more?

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Avoid Dangling Participles

One of the most common writing mistakes is the dangling participle. It not only confuses the reader as to what the writer is saying, but it also completely damages the flow of writing. So how should one avoid making this mistake? But first… what is a dangling participle?

A participle is a verb that acts like an adjective. Present participles are formed by adding –ing. For example, crying or swimming.  Past participles are formed by adding –ed.  For example, twisted or talked. (There are some irregular past participles as well – like –ade, –own, –en, etc. Only examples with –ed will be used here, but the same goes with the other endings.) These participles given here as examples –crying, swimming, twisted, and talked – are verbs but can act like adjectives as well. For example:

The crying baby was hungry.

The swimming competition is on Monday.

The twisted rope hung from the tree.

The most talked stories of the day are of the Winter Olympics.

In these examples, crying, swimming, twisted, and talked are verbs that are acting like adjectives. Hence, they are participles.

So what are dangling participles?

The word “dangling” means “hanging”. So, a dangling participle is a participle that is just hanging there in your sentence, without a subject or anything else. For example:

Flitting from flower to flower, the girl watched the butterfly.

Who is flitting? The girl or the butterfly?

Walking down the road, a friend bumped into me.

Who bumped? The friend or me?

In these examples, the participles have no subjects. They are “dangling”, making the sentences confusing as to what exactly the writer is saying. This has made the writing ambiguous, and we all know that ambiguous writing is bad writing. Therefore, when writing, be careful and avoid writing dangling participles. This can easily be done by giving the participle a proper subject, generally given right after the participle. Like this –

Example 1: Flitting from flower to flower, the butterfly was watched by the girl. Or, rewrite as – The girl watched the butterfly flitting from flower to flower.

Example 2: Walking down the road, I bumped into a friend.

Sometimes dangling participles can be so funny that they make you laugh. Have you ever come across such participles? What have been the funniest dangling participles that you have seen written?

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Punctuation – Inside or Outside Quotation Marks

There is general confusion on the use of punctuation with quotation marks. Should the punctuation be inside or outside quotation marks? The confusion is understandable since it is seen written both ways – inside and outside. So, which is correct? The answer is – both. Here’s why –

According to the American style, the commas and periods (or full stops) always go inside the quotation marks. For example:

“Sam,” he said, “your dinner’s on the table.”

I like Shakespeare’s line “to be or not to be.”

So, the American rule is – always place the comma and the period inside the quotation marks.

In the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth countries where there is British influence, it’s different. Here instead of following a rule, logic is used. In other words, the placement of the comma or period depends on whether it belongs to the quotation or to the sentence that contains the quotation. For instance in the examples above, the first example remains as it is –

“Sam,” he said, “your dinner’s on the table.”

This is because the comma after the Sam and the period after the table belong to the quote.

The second example, however, changes to

I like Shakespeare’s line “to be or not to be”.

The reason for the change here is that the period belongs to the complete sentence and not the quoted material.

So, the British rule is – place the comma and period inside the quotation marks if they are part of the quoted material, otherwise place them outside.

But the rules for the question mark, exclamation mark, colon and semicolon are the same in both the American and British systems.

The question and exclamation marks follow the rule of logic – they are placed inside the quotation marks if they are part of the quoted material , otherwise outside. For example:

She asked, “Am I late?”

He screamed, “Help!”

But –

Did you hear him say “I don’t want to go”?

I can’t believe he said “I am scared”!

The colon and semicolon are always placed outside the quotation marks. For example:

I found three things in the new magazine “The World Today”: quality, information, and attractiveness.

The guard said “Stop”; I stopped.

Do you know of any other rules pertaining to punctuation and quotation marks?

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Rhetorical Devices

This post is a follow-up of my previous post on clichés. The reason? I received several requests from readers asking me to clarify, or explain, the rhetorical devices further. There is confusion in the minds of some as to what is what. It is not possible to write everything on the subject in one post, so I’ll just restrict myself to the queries that I received. The rest will follow in future posts.

First off:

What is a rhetorical device? Rhetoric is the study of effective speaking and writing. It is also described as the art of persuasion. Therefore, a rhetorical device is a means of, or a tool used to effectively speak or write. The main devices:

Figure of speech: This is a rhetorical device that uses words in distinctive ways to achieve special effects. Figures of speech are used to emphasize or bring freshness to expression. There are several different types of figures of speech – some being metaphor, simile, and personification.

Metaphor: A metaphor is a figure of speech, which compares two things without the use of ‘like’ or ‘as’. It is used to bring more force to the comparison. For example: a heart of stone, or food for thought.

Idiom: An idiom is a figure of speech – a phrase that means something other than its literal meaning. For example: get cold feet (meaning: become timid), or rat race (meaning= struggle for success).

Cliché: A cliché is a phrase that conveys a particular message, but has been so overused that it now sounds boring and irritating. For example: at the end of the day, or bottom line.

What are the similarities/differences between the above?

Difference between a metaphor and an idiom: A metaphor and an idiom are two different things. Whereas a metaphor compares a person or thing to something that possesses similar characteristics, an idiom is a phrase whose meaning as a unit differs from the meanings of words (of the phrase) taken separately. For example (taking the examples given above):

A heart of stone is comparing the heart with a stone – meaning the heart has no feeling, just like a stone doesn’t. (Meaning = the person has no feelings in his/her heart). Therefore, it is a metaphor.

Get cold feet – here there is no comparison. Instead, the whole phrase has an implied meaning, i.e. becoming timid. This implies meaning is very different from the literal meaning. Therefore, it is an idiom.

Difference between an idiom and a cliché: The idiom has been explained above. A cliché on the other hand, is a phrase that has become stale or boring due to its overuse. This phrase may be anything – a proverb, a metaphor, a simile (a comparison with the words like or as), an idiom, or even a single word. Hence, terms like metaphorical clichés (clichés that are metaphors).

So, what we see here is that an idiom can be a cliché, and a cliché can be an idiom… and yet, the two are different. Some ask – how can we tell whether a phrase is an idiom or a cliché? The deciding factor is its use – if the phrase is a common one and you hear it several times a day, then it’s a cliché, otherwise it’s an idiom.

There is so much that can be written on the topic, but I confined myself to the questions that were asked.

By the way, how would you tell the difference between an idiom and a cliché?

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Words Ending In –able and –ible

We previously did a post on words ending in ‘–ance’ and ‘–ence’. Another such pair of words is ‘–able’ and ‘–ible’.  Words ending in these suffixes are adjectives that refer to the ‘ability to’ or ‘necessity to’. For example ‘acceptable’ or ‘possible’. The problem is in the difficulty to remember which ending to use, ‘-able’ or ‘-ible’. What makes it even more confusing is that the two are pronounced identically.  So, when do use ‘-able’ and when do use ‘-ible’?

English being English, there is no rule; but generally, these hints work most of the time:

* Add ‘–able’ when the root word is a complete word. For example:

Accept + able = acceptable

Suit + able = suitable

Depend + able = dependable

* Add ‘–able’ when the root word ends in ‘e’, but first drop the ‘e’. For example:

Excuse – e + able = excusable

Value – e + able = valuable

Desire – e + able = desirable

* Add ‘–ible’ when the root is not a complete word. For example:

Horr + ible = horrible

Permiss + ible = permissible

Aud + ible = audible

* Add ‘–able’ when the word is new or modern. For example:

Email + able = emailable

Surf + able = surfable

Network + able = networkable

* As always is the case with the English language, there are exceptions. That is, none of the above apply. For example:

‘Contempt’ is a complete word, but ‘–ible’ is added, not ‘–able’ … contemptible

‘Response’ ends in ‘e’, but ‘–ible’ is added after dropping the ‘e’, not ‘–able’ … responsible

So, what should you do when you’re confused as to which suffix to use? Do one of the following:

1. Learn the spellings.

2. Look the word up in the dictionary.

3. Remember the hints above.

4. If there’s no dictionary around and you can’t remember either the spellings or the hints, just add ‘–able’. There is 5:1 chance you’ll get it right, because according to a research, there are only about 150 words that end in ‘–ible’. All the rest end in ‘–able’.

What do you do to remember which suffix to use?

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