A Word, Please: A day of remembrance for punctuation

Someday soon, your local drugstore will spend the first part of September decking the aisles with dangling apostrophes and setting out display cases of semicolon-themed bric-a-brac. But until the day marketers sniff out the profit potential of another holiday, it’s up to word nerds like me to help spread the word about National Punctuation Day.

On Sept. 24, National Punctuation Day is the brainchild of Jeff Rubin, a professional wordsmith based in Pinole, Calif. With a strong emphasis on schools and kids, National Punctuation Day promotes games, activities, contests and lessons in classrooms nationwide and is now entering its eighth year.

But this holiday isn’t just for kids. A lot of grown-ups lack confidence in their punctuation skills, too. So why not celebrate by taking note of a few of the most common and egregious punctuation conundrums afflicting folks already out of school?

I’ll start with one that’s in the National Punctuation Day press release: “p’s and q’s.” A lot of people would use those apostrophes without thinking, and they’d be right. But few could cite any rules to support their decision. Apostrophes don’t usually form plurals. In fact, there’s nothing more incriminating than writing “I ate two carrot’s.”

So why is it any different when you’re making a letter like p plural? Because without putting in an apostrophe to make it “p’s,” you’d have to write “ps,” which makes it unclear what the s is doing there. And the rules recognize that.

“To avoid confusion, lowercase letters and abbreviations with two or more interior periods or with both capital and lowercase letters form the plural with an apostrophe and an s,” the “Chicago Manual of Style” says, offering the example “x’s and y’s.” Of course, if you’re using capital letters, no apostrophe is needed: Ps and Qs.

Another punctuation issue that plagues a lot of adults is where to put a closing quotation mark relative to other punctuation. It seems like every day more and more online commenters are putting periods and commas after a closing quote mark: Joe likes the word “cool”, while Mary prefers to say “neat”.

Bad call. In British style, this is correct. But in American style, a period or comma always comes before a closing quotation mark, regardless of whether it’s part of the quotation: Joe likes the word “cool,” while Mary prefers to say “neat.”

It’s easy to get confused about this because different rules apply to question marks and exclamation points. They can go either before or after a closing quotation mark, depending on whether they apply to the whole sentence or to just the quoted part.

Look at this sentence: Alfred E. Neuman’s catch phrase is “What, me worry?” And compare it with: Do you think people overuse the word “awesome”? In the first, the question mark refers to just the quoted part of the sentence, so it goes inside the quotation marks. In the second example, the whole sentence is the question, so the question mark goes outside the closing quotation mark.

As for commas, there are a lot of situations that trip people up. But the most common mistake I see is a comma between non-coordinate adjectives.

Compare “I saw a big, white, scary, snarling dog” with “I saw a dull gray prancing pony.” In the first, you could replace each comma with the word “and” precisely because each adjective functions independently to modify the noun. You could change their order without losing anything.

In the second example, “ands” wouldn’t work between the adjectives because they’re not working independently. And if you moved them around your meaning would change: a gray prancing dull pony.

So whenever the word “and” would make sense between your adjectives, you can place a comma there. Otherwise, don’t.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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