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The Man Who Hated Semicolons

Ten years ago, the author Kurt Vonnegut stirred things up with four sentences he wrote in his final book, A Man Without a Country: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

One must consider the source here. Vonnegut was a world-renowned novelist who had earned the right to make outrageous statements. He was not condemning all semicolons; he was condemning all pretentiousness.

As Vonnegut well knew, semicolons have at least one legitimate role: to separate items in a series when one or more of the items contain commas. Look at this mess of a sentence: The conference has people who have come from Italy, Texas, Moscow, Idaho, Venice, California, and other places as well. How could a reader know that only three specific locations are mentioned? The simple fix is three semicolons:  The conference has people who have come from Italy, Texas; Moscow, Idaho; Venice, California; and other places as well. (Yes, Italy is a town in Texas.)

What Vonnegut disdained was the discretionary semicolon, used by writers to combine complete sentences when a period feels too final, as in this example:  I looked at her; she smiled; we danced until dawn. Here the semicolons blend three terse statements into one sentence, which, in the writer’s opinion, more faithfully evokes the flow of events on that enchanted evening. (Vonnegut would have preferred three short sentences.) Note that there are no conjunctions in the sentence. If the last clause were  and we danced until dawn, commas would suffice, and most editors would banish the semicolons.

Fledgling writers especially should be wary of semicolons where commas will do. One wonders what the Vonnegut of 2005 would have said about the following sentence, written by a twenty-seven-year-old novelist: “Kroner’s belief [was] that nothing of value changed; that what was once true is always true; that truths were few and simple; and that a man needed no knowledge beyond these truths to deal wisely and justly with any problem whatsoever.”

The young author would defend his semicolons, claiming they give more weight to each clause than a comma could. But many editors would want commas there. The sentence, by the way, is from Kurt Vonnegut’s first published novel, Player Piano (1950).

Less than twenty years after Player Piano, Vonnegut achieved success beyond his wildest dreams. He had found his voice and streamlined his approach. Taken at face value, Vonnegut’s writing tip is sound advice—for Vonnegut. Semicolons do not suit the inimitable laconic style he perfected in the sixties, when he was lionized by the Baby Boomer generation.


Semicolons: Pop Quiz

Supply the necessary punctuation. Our answers are below.

1. He was too critical she was not critical enough.
2. Vanitia told me her wishes; a white picket fence a wonderful husband two gifted children and a million dollars in the bank.
3. Vanitia told me her wishes a white picket fence a handsome, successful husband two intelligent, gifted children and a million dollars in the bank.
4. He walked down the street he could not find her he went home feeling hopeless.
5. He walked down the street he caught a bus and it took him home.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. He was too critical; she was not critical enough. OR He was too critical. She was not critical enough.
2. Vanitia told me her wishes: a white picket fence, a wonderful husband, three gifted children, and a million dollars in the bank. (Note the colon after “wishes.” Do not confuse colons with semicolons.)
3. Vanitia told me her wishes: a white picket fence; a handsome, successful husband; three intelligent, gifted children; and a million dollars in the bank. (The commas after “handsome” and “intelligent” make semicolons necessary.)
4. He walked down the street; he could not find her; he went home feeling hopeless. (Or periods.)
5. He walked down the street, he caught a bus, and it took him home.

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Posted on Wednesday, April 1, 2015, at 8:34 am


Proper Pronunciation: A Sound Policy

Pronouncing words correctly helps convince listeners that you know what you’re talking about.

By correct pronunciation, we mean words as you’d hear them enunciated at formal occasions: a lecture by an English scholar, say, or a first-rate production of a play by George Bernard Shaw or Eugene O’Neill.

To settle pronunciation disputes, we recommend an old dictionary. New ones are fine, but having access to an old one minimizes the intrusion of trendy (mis)pronunciations.

Also, those serious about their diction might want to pick up a copy of The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations by Charles Harrington Elster, who says in the book’s introduction: “I am not opposed to change. Such a position would be untenable. I am skeptical of ignorant, pompous, and faddish change. I am annoyed when people invent pronunciations for unfamiliar words. I am exasperated when they can’t be bothered to check the pronunciation of a word they look up in a dictionary.”

Here are ten familiar words whose traditional pronunciations may surprise you. Note: capital letters denote a stressed syllable.

Alleged  It must come as a shock to those in the media, but alleged is a two-syllable word. It is pronounced uh-LEJD, not uh-LEDGE-id.

Envelope  Though you’d never know it from what you hear over the airwaves, the preferred pronunciation of this word is ENN-va-lope, rather than the pseudo-French AHN-va-lope.

Controversial  Four syllables, not five. Say
contra-VER-shul, not contra-VER-see-ul.

Camaraderie  It’s a five-syllable word, but you usually hear only four. That letter a before the r should be a clue to say comma-ROD-ery, not com-RAD-ery.

Forte  When the word refers to a specialty or area of expertise (math is his forte), this is a one-syllable word pronounced fort. Most people mistakenly say for-tay. That pronunciation is only correct as a musical term. When forte is pronounced FOR-tay it means “loudly.”

Short-lived  This is not the lived of She lived well. The is long; short-lived rhymes with thrived.

Schism  It’s pronounced sizzum. The 1968 Random House American College Dictionary lists no alternative pronunciation. You rarely hear this word, but when you do, it’s generally pronounced skizzum, a pronunciation that, in Elster’s words, “arose out of ignorance.”

Integral  Why do so many people say in-tra-gul, despite the spelling? Make it IN-ta-grul.

Homage  A reviewer called a film “a homage to motherhood.” The critic wisely did not write “an homage,” knowing that the h is sounded. This word has spun out of control in the twenty-first century. Its traditional pronunciation is HOMM-ij. But then AHM-ij gained a foothold, and it went downhill from there. Now, just about all one hears is oh-MAHZH, an oh-so-precious pronunciation that was virtually nonexistent in English until late in the twentieth century.

Pronunciation  As the spelling indicates, it’s pronounced pra-nun-see-AY-shun. Too many careless speakers say pra-nown-see-AY-shun.

Most words have been around longer than any of us have. Pronouncing them properly is showing respect for our elders.

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Posted on Friday, March 27, 2015, at 7:18 am


That and Which: Rule or Guideline?

A sentence in our recent article on spelling ruffled a few readers. See if you can spot what caused the commotion: “The other errant site offered a quiz which claimed that ‘inflammation of the membrane of the brain’ is spelled ‘meningitas.’ ”

Did you catch it? Our correspondents insisted “which” was wrong and should be replaced by “that.” For those unfamiliar with the prevailing assumptions about that and which, here is an overview:

Consider the sentence It was just something that came over me. According to most sticklers, when a dependent clause (that came over me) does not require a comma to introduce it, the relative pronoun that is indicated, and which would be wrong. Such a clause is called restrictive (or essential or defining).

Now consider the sentence Joe ordered eggs and toast, which he always enjoyed. When a dependent clause (which he always enjoyed) requires a comma to introduce it, the relative pronoun which is necessary, and that would be wrong. Such a clause is called nonrestrictive (or nonessential or nondefining).

These guidelines caught the public’s attention back in 1926, when H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the bible of modern grammar, endorsed that for restrictive clauses and which for nonrestrictive clauses. Fowler’s suggestion has become law, even though Fowler himself was never strident about his theory, writing “it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.”

This is the background behind the scolding we received for using a restrictive which. Nonetheless, we stand behind our sentence and would not change it.

The language scholar Geoffrey Pullum has written, “What is actually true about expert users of English … is that they use both that and which in integrated relative clauses, in proportions that aren’t very far away from being 50/50.” We could start with the King James Bible: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Jane Austen used the restrictive which, as did Macaulay, Dickens, Melville, Conrad, Lewis Carroll, and other literary luminaries right up to the present.

William Faulkner, awarded the 1949 Nobel Prize in Literature, was a champion of the restrictive which. As an experiment we opened Faulkner’s 1932 novel Light in August to a random page and immediately found “He just stared at her, at the face which he had never seen before.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s stirring Pearl Harbor speech before Congress began “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy …”

Getting back to the offending sentence that started this flap, we’ll let this passage from Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage explain our word choice: “[There are] many instances where being forced to use that leads to an intolerable repetition of sounds.” We wrote “a quiz which claimed that” simply because we cringed at the look and sound of “a quiz that claimed that.”

Those who swear by Fowler’s rule have a formidable array of language scholars aligned against them. Here is a small sample …

“You can use which or that to introduce a restrictive clause—the grounds for your choice should be stylistic.”— Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

“This use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose. Moreover, in some situations which is preferable to that.” —American Heritage Usage Panel

“No one could plausibly insist that which as a restrictive relative pronoun is indefensible or incorrect.” —Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage

“This is a canonical case of a self-appointed authority inventing a grammatical theory, observing that elite writers routinely violate the theory, and concluding not that the theory is wrong or incomplete, but that the writers are in error.” —Mark Liberman, American linguist

“Follow the Fowler rule if you want to; it’s up to you. But don’t tell me that it’s crucial or that the best writers respect it. It’s a time-wasting early-20th-century fetish, a bogeyman rule undeserving of the attention of intelligent grownups.” —Geoffrey K. Pullum, linguistics professor, University of Edinburgh

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Posted on Tuesday, March 17, 2015, at 2:36 pm


Capitalizing Composition Titles, Part II

Some may question the need for a two-part series on this esoteric topic. But even those who consider themselves top-notch at identifying parts of speech in a word grouping will find composition-title capitalization a skill worth mastering.

Any title of more than two words can be a challenge. How would you capitalize a title such as not yet rich? Since the first and last word in any title are always capitalized, the only question is whether to cap yet. In this case, yet is an adverb, and adverbs are always capped. So make it Not Yet Rich.

Now suppose the title is rich yet miserable. This time yet is one of the seven coordinating conjunctions (the others are and, or, nor, but, for, and so). Since coordinating conjunctions are not capitalized in titles, the right answer is Rich yet Miserable.

Here are two correctly capitalized titles: Going up the Road and Going Up in a Balloon. In the first title, up is a preposition, and short prepositions are not capitalized. In the second title, Up is an adverb and should be capped.

Along the same lines, compare the following three titles: I Got It off the InternetPlease Put It Off for Today, and I Hit the Off Switch. In the first example, the preposition off is lowercase. But the word must be capped in the second example because put off, meaning “to postpone,” is a two-word phrasal verb (a verb of two or more words). One-word verbs, auxiliary verbs, and phrasal verbs are always capitalized. Off is also capped in the third sentence because the word functions as an adjective in that title, and adjectives are always capitalized.

Although the seven coordinating conjunctions are not capitalized, you may have noticed there are many more than seven conjunctions in English. Most of these are called subordinating conjunctions, because they join a subordinate clause to a main clause. Familiar examples include asalthough, beforesince, until, when.

There are three approaches to capping subordinating conjunctions: capitalize them all, lowercase them all, or capitalize them if they are words of four letters or more. Take your pick.

Try applying your own composition-capitalization policy to any sentence you see or hear. This is a great mental exercise, which will help keep you well grounded in the fundamentals of our language.

 

Pop Quiz

Capitalize the following titles. Extra credit: indicate which words could go either way. Answers are below.

1. oh, how i hate to get up in the morning
2. we will be there although it is madness
3. always look up as you go down the road
4. i thought it had no on button
5. pick me up on your way over here
6. my work: the search for a life that matters
7. have you heard of that of which I speak?

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning (OR how)
2. We Will Be There Although It Is Madness (OR although)
3. Always Look Up As You Go down the Road (as and down could go either way)
4. I Thought It Had No On Button
5. Pick Me Up on Your Way over Here (OR Over)
6. My Work: The Search for a Life That Matters
7. Have You Heard Of That of Which I Speak?

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Posted on Tuesday, March 10, 2015, at 9:53 am


Capitalizing Composition Titles: The Lowdown

Which words should be capitalized in titles of books, plays, films, songs, poems, essays, chapters, and the like? This is a vexing matter, and policies vary. The time-honored advice—capitalize only the “important” words—doesn’t help much. Aren’t all words in a title important?

The following rules for capitalizing composition titles are virtually universal.

• Capitalize the title’s first and last word.

• Capitalize all adjectives, adverbs, and nouns.

• Capitalize all pronouns (including it).

• Capitalize all verbs, including the verb to be in all forms (isarewashas been, etc.).

• Capitalize no, not, and the interjection (e.g., How Long Must I Wait, O Lord?).

• Do not capitalize an article (aanthe) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, for, yet, so) unless it is first or last in the title.

• Do not capitalize the word to, with or without an infinitive, unless it is first or last in the title.

Otherwise, styles, methods, and opinions vary; for instance, certain short conjunctions (e.g., asifhowthat) are capped by some, lowercased by others. 

A major bone of contention is prepositions. The Associated Press Stylebook recommends capitalizing all prepositions of more than three letters (e.g., withaboutacross). Other authorities advise lowercase until a preposition reaches five or more letters. Still others say not to capitalize any preposition, even big words like regarding or underneath.

Hyphenated words in a title also present problems. There are no set rules, except to always capitalize the first element, even if it would not otherwise be capitalized, such as to in My To-go Order (some would write My To-Go Order). Some writers, editors, and publishers choose not to capitalize words following hyphens unless they are proper nouns or proper adjectives (Ex-Marine but Ex-husband). Others capitalize any word that would otherwise be capped in titles (Prize-WinningUp-to-Date).

Many books have subtitles. When including these, put a colon after the work’s title and follow the same rules of composition-title capitalization for the subtitle: The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage. Note that is capitalized because it is the first word of the subtitle.

Capitalizing composition titles is fraught with gray areas. Pick a policy and be consistent. Next time we’ll discuss more of the pitfalls of this tricky business.

 

Pop Quiz

Capitalize the following titles. Answers are below.

1. how to be decisive yet careful

2. the secrets of the woman who is free

3. where, o where, is my in-the-flesh soulmate?

4. happiness: the proof that it is possible

5. the man who did not dance with wolves

 

Pop Quiz Answers

1. How to Be Decisive yet Careful

2. The Secrets of the Woman Who Is Free

3. Where, O Where, Is My In-the-Flesh Soulmate? (OR In-the-flesh)

4. Happiness: The Proof That It Is Possible (OR that It Is Possible)

5. The Man Who Did Not Dance with Wolves (OR With Wolves)

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Posted on Wednesday, March 4, 2015, at 7:55 pm