How to Use Apostrophes

That little  chap there is by far and away the punctuation mark that causes people the most consternation, for a variety of reasons. Some hate it because they have no idea what to do with it, and others hate it because those first people have no idea what to do with it, and it drives them crazy to see it misused or not used at all. Before getting into why people have difficulties with it, and why that infuriates others, let’s look at the basic rules of using the apostrophe. It has three basic functions: Continue reading

Getting your Message Across

Yesterday evening at about 6.30PM I had a moment of panic. I realised that in my rush to leave, I hadn’t read over my post and italicised all the words I should have. I couldn’t go back, and wasn’t in a situation to do it on my phone. It would just have to stay in that condition for a few hours, which aggravated me. Letting something unfinished like that out into the world seemed so sloppy.

What needed to be changed? Not much really, just two or three cases where I was referring to words, and not using them, and wanted to italicise them to make that clear. For example: “I’ve been trying to use the word application…” instead of “I’ve been trying to use the word application…”

A minor change, really, and most of my stress was due to my being a stickler for detail. Because, the post was probably quite comprehensible without my revisions (which of course I still made last night). Putting the word before application made what I wanted to say clear enough. Given also the topic of the blog and the specific context of the post itself, there was probably little ambiguity in the post. And it’s great that language can make things so clear for us, do so much of the heavy lifting of comprehensibility with words alone. But still, I’m drawn to being precise as I can in my use of language, just to be sure… Continue reading

Night of the Zombie Film-Maker

Today I came across the phrase zombie film maker (to describe someone who makes zombie films) somewhere online. I don’t really remember where now, but that’s not important. What struck me about this fabulous phrase was that it was crying out for some punctuation! Before I go any further, I want you to think about how it should be punctuated. Should it be:

zombie-film maker?


zombie film-maker? Continue reading

Punctual to a Point

While thinking about the word punctuation today (which is the kind of thing I do), I considered how similar the word punctuality is to it. I wondered what the link could be. It seemed to me that the concept they share is exactitude. Punctuation allows one to be precise in their meaning in a sentence, and if one is extremely punctual, one allows arrive at the exact moment one should.

And unsurprisingly, both come from the same root word: punctus, the Latin word for point. Which makes a lot of sense. Punctuality, though is an interesting concept. Of course it’s a positive one that we value, overall. We hate if our friends are late when meeting up (if we’re normal).  But do we ever admire it? Like the person who never misses a day off work through sickness, are we really impressed by someone who’s never late? Or does it annoy us? Do we think they’re too perfect, too punctilious? I think is why punctuality is often invoked as a kind of back-handed compliment in that great bastion of reading-between-the-lines: the job reference. Continue reading


Told you.

This is probably the most misused and misunderstood punctuation marks in the English language. What exactly is it, and what does it do?

First of all, it’s clearly a combination of a comma (,) and a colon (:).

A comma is used to separate elements of a sentence, such as items in a list, or clauses (a clause, generally, is a part of a sentence with its own sentence and verb). Most people use commas correctly without thinking about it, and the rules about them aren’t really strict anyway. Basically, you can use in a comma in a sentence where you would pause if you were speaking. Continue reading

The Oxford Comma

I’ve visited France, Germany and Spain this year.

I’ve visited France, Germany, and Spain this year.

You probably don’t see any difference between the above pair of sentences. But what about this pair:

On Twitter I’m following my friends, Stephen Fry, and Miley Cyrus.

On Twitter I’m following my friends, Stephen Fry and Miley Cyrus.

The second sentence is quite ambiguous. Do I mean that I follow my friends on Twitter, in addition to the celebrities Stephen Fry and Miley Cyrus? Or do I mean to say that Stephen Fry and Miley Cyrus are my friends, and I follow them on Twitter? The latter would probably make for some interesting dinner-party conversations, but that’s probably not what I meant, is it?

Still, just to be sure my meaning is clear, I can use the first sentence, with the comma between Stephen Fry and Miley Cyrus. A comma like this, before the last item in a list of three or more items, is known as the Oxford comma, as it’s an element of the house style of Oxford University Press. There’s quite a bit of debate about whether or not to use the Oxford comma, and it has its strong supporters as well as determined detractors. Some style guides recommend its use, some suggest avoiding it, and others don’t mention it at all.

Why use it? As we see above, it can resolve ambiguity in cases where the first item in a list might seem like it’s referring to the second and third items. More generally, it can avoid ambiguity when two words in a list could be joined together as one item, or could be separate items. For example: Continue reading

Making Connections

When I decided to call my blog English-Language Thoughts, I paused after first seeing the title typed out. I knew of course that it was the correct title, but it didn’t seem so aesthetically pleasing with that little hyphen in there. It makes it asymmetrical, too heavy and clumped together  on the left. English Language Thoughts would probably look much better.

Continue reading