Semicolons Explained

            People often ask writers and editors if they have a favorite punctuation mark. For me, the answer the semicolon. The reason why I like semicolons so much is how useful it can be. This punctuation is all about creating clarity and emphasis in complex or confusing sentences. Here are a few ways you can use semicolons in your writing.

            One common and very useful function of the semicolon is to create clarity in complex lists. Sometimes commas simply don’t cut it; they create more confusion than clarity. In those situations, the semicolon can come to the rescue. Here is one example of how this function works: I’ve visited Seattle, Wa.; Memphis, Tenn.; and Boston, Ma. The commas that separate the cities from the states are necessary, but the commas for the series make everything much more confusing. Replacing those commas with semicolons clears everything up. One note about this usage is that there is always a semicolon before the conjunction. You can’t omit it the same way you would with the Oxford comma.

            This usage also works for lists that are just plain long. The extra emphasis from the semicolon can help make it clear what counts as one item in the list. You can also use the semicolon for lists within a list (talk about a complex sentence). They can separate each list, similar to how the semicolons separate the city/state combinations in the example above.

            Another function of the semicolon is separating independent clauses, either with or without the assistance of a coordinating conjunction. The semicolon creates a more pronounced pause, which is helpful when connecting multiple clauses. The longer pause also allows the semicolon to stand alone if needed and create a different emphasis than a comma would. I notice this usage most often in classical literature and news articles. For your average novel, the comma tends to do just fine, especially since sentences aren’t usually as complex.

            Before leaving this usage, I will mention that semicolons can be used with words such as “therefore” or “however.” When these words are attached to the second independent clause in a complex sentence, you can replace the first comma with a semicolon. Just don’t forget to follow the word with a comma. Also don’t assume that the word needs a semicolon every time. You have to be aware of context and make sure it belongs to only one, separate independent clause.

            The third usage for semicolons isn’t a particular function; it’s more a style per se. You can use semicolons to create emphasis and add meaning to your writing. It isn’t all that different from the way you would use commas to imply your meaning. Instead of turning to commas, you can use the longer pause from the semicolon to your advantage.

            In addition, readers often think of the semicolon as more scholarly, which is probably why there aren’t too many to be found on social media sites or fiction works. Because of this perception, you can change the tone of your writing. You can also use the semicolon occasionally to replace an em dash. That is especially useful if you’re writing is gaining enough em dashes to rival Emily Dickinson’s. The semicolon won’t be as emphatic or distracting as the em dash for your readers.

            Writers might not use semicolons as often in their writing, but that does not mean that the punctuation mark isn’t an important tool. Semicolons can create emphasis and bring clarity to your writing, depending on where you place them or what combination of words you use. They can be your friend when writing about complex topics by making it easier for your readers to understand your point.

The Fun World of Reduplication

          Every language has developed some fun quirks, and English is no exception. Reduplication is one such characteristic. It appears in many different languages, but we’ll focus on English. When you hear an example of reduplication, it sounds simple. And yet, many linguists and experts have studied the mystery of its development and rules.

What Is It?

            Reduplication is simply a form of repetition of words or sounds such as “water-water” or “wishy-washy.” This type of repetition has been in evidence in English for hundreds of years. No one is entirely sure how it came about or where it came from, but it is here to stay. It also follows specific rules, even though it wasn’t something formally introduced into the language.

Types of Reduplication

            There are several different types of reduplication. The first is simple reduplication in which the word is repeated, usually to stress that you’re talking about the real or original version of something. So, if I wanted to make it clear that I wanted you to hand me a regular water and not a coconut water, I might ask you for “water-water.”

            Another type of reduplication is consonant reduplication. The ending sound stays the same but the first consonant changes. An example of this could be “hodgepodge” or the dance called hokey pokey.

            Finally, there is my favorite type of reduplication: ablaut reduplication. This form involves the changing of vowels. Many examples exist of this one, such as “chit chat,” “zig-zag,” “tick-tock,” or “ding-dong.”

Rules of Reduplication

            What is even more interesting about reduplication is that it exists in many different languages, even those that are outside the same language family as English[1]. Ablaut reduplication follows a specific order for vowels. I’s always come before A’s or O’s. The rules of order for sounds that occur in reduplication can be found elsewhere, such as in the order of adjectives before the noun they modify[2]. Even though English is filled with reduplications, the creation of new ones has declined significantly. There are actually many established reduplications that have died out in popularity as well.

            Reduplication in all of its forms is one of the many interesting aspects of language. It exemplifies how language affects communication through context, connotation, and phonetics. People can actually clarify or convey meaning simply by repeating words or sounds. The sound of reduplication even affects how people speak, as grammar rules change depending on how vowels are ordered. You should watch out for reduplication around you. Because of its inherit marketability, it can be found everywhere. Share your favorite reduplication in the comments section!


[1] O’Conner, Patricia T. and Kellerman, Stewart, Oct. 2, 2019, Grammarphobia, Vowel movement (blog post), https://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2019/10/vowel-movement.html

[2] Ibid.

Why You Should Use Readability Scores

            Concise language. Plain language. Readability. You have probably heard all of these terms concerning writing at some point. Even though these words are used to the point of becoming trite, they do bring up good points. Your writing does need to be clear so that you can effectively communicate with your readers. One way to make sure you are on the right track is by using readability scores.

What Are They?

            Readability scores are essentially different systems to measure how easy it is to read and understand a text. There are many ways to measure readability. One popular system is the Flesch Kincaid Readability Grade Level score, which is the one that I prefer. It’s measuring system is based on the expected reading ability of each school system grade level. It makes it easier to understand the score when you have something familiar like grade levels to compare your writing to. Knowing how your work compares can tell you how well you are conveying your ideas to your audience.

Why Should You Use Them?

            One benefit of using readability scores is to identify and remove jargon. Technical terms and buzzwords will make the readability score go up and alert you to wording that you don’t want. Long, complex words will send your work up toward a college reading level. You don’t want that if you don’t intend it for academic purposes. Readers seek out writing that is several grade levels below what they know. People prefer to save energy when they read. Even if they understand complex language, they don’t always seek it out. If your reader can’t easily read your work, they most likely won’t read it at all.

            Another benefit of readability scores is that they will help you remove fluff. All those filler words will affect your score because they muddle your meaning and distract readers. If you use the scores to help you edit, you can identify what is simply filling space and not conveying any meaning. Because readability scores can help you get an objective view of your work, they can help you point your writing in the right direction. You’ll have cleaner copy that gets to the point and keeps your reader’s attention.

            Something that I like specifically about the Flesch Kincaid grade level score is that it is easy to access. If you use either Microsoft Word or Grammarly, you can find your readability score. Microsoft Word has a special section for readability information in its Editor section. You can set it to show you your readability scores along with your word count. For instance, a quick check says that this post is at an 8th grade reading level. In everyday writing, the average person prefers about an 8th or 9th grade level of language. It makes it so that people can communicate faster and easier, without wasting time processing higher levels of language.

            Sometimes it is hard, as the writer, to know if you are clearly communicating your point to others because you are so close to your subject. Readability scores act as a gauge to help you know how concise and clear your writing is. You can use the readability score to help you play with wording and find the best way to say what you want. Both you and your readers can benefit from your using readability scores such as the Flesch Kincaid grade level score because it alerts you to what works and what doesn’t, and it makes your content more enjoyable and understandable for your readers.

Grammar Day 2021: Using Grammar Rules Effectively

            Following grammar rules is not as straightforward as it sounds. In fact, you can receive widely different answers about what constitutes a rule depending on whom you ask. Grammar has been on my mind a lot lately because March 4th was Grammar Day. As a vital part of communication, grammar and how to apply its rules is incredibly important for everyone.

            Lately, my focus has been on the practical application of grammar rules. How strict should I be in following these rules? Which rules am I following, anyway? These and many other questions plague my editorial decisions all the time.

            At least once in your lifetime, you’ve probably come across two types of grammarians: rule enforcers and rule-breakers. The grammar police are infamous. Language offers no shortage of rules to enforce, and these folks do so with passion. However, rule-breakers are just as proud of their rebellion, flaunting their ways of bending or circumventing grammar rules. So, who is right? Or do both sides have it wrong? In the words of every good editor, it depends.

To Follow or Not to Follow?

            Knowing when to adhere to a rule and when to break away is a very fine line that writers and editors must walk every day. Rules are rules, after all. If you want to share clear and understandable thoughts with your readers, rules are necessary. But at the same time, you don’t want to lose your voice or the sound of natural speech.

            A writer or editor can’t just broadly apply a set of rules or style suggestions. Language is fluid and changes all the time. If you don’t believe that, attempt to read Beowulf in its original English. Not all rules and styles last, and sometimes that change makes the language better. It provides us with a way to communicate something more clearly or exactly to others than we could before.

            But rules do serve a purpose. I don’t want you to toss your style guides out the window or burn your dictionaries. Some things are necessary. You’re most likely not writing for you, but your audience. You have a message you want to share with them. If a reader can’t understand it, what purpose does your writing serve? These rules are what make language work as communication. Grammar is necessary.

            My point in all these ramblings is that caution is needed. Grammar, while not foremost in everyone’s mind, plays a key part in how communication works. The decisions you make about following or breaking rules will affect how well people understand you and receive your message. Grammar rules aren’t the end-all-be-all, but they help you make sure your voice is heard.

How to Write Clear and Meaningful Articles

            Grammar rules and style guides have several differences. One difference is their goals. Style guides have two goals that grammar rules are not always concerned with: meaning and clarity. These are two goals that you should have for your writing as well. Achieving clear and meaningful writing will help you create better articles for your readers.

Express Your Purpose through Meaning

            Meaning is critical to writing. You need a purpose for your writing, or it will go nowhere very fast. It is possible to use a lot of words and say nothing at all. I see it all the time in business documents. You don’t want your writing to be the same way.

            The best method to ensure your writing is saying what you want it to is slowing down when you write. It is common advice to write your first draft without stopping so that you can get words on the page. When you start your revisions, you need to take the time to rethink your word choices.

            First, you need to lay out what you intend your article to say. Then, look at the phrases you used and think about what they mean. Do their meanings match your intent? Are they expressing what you want? It is easy to fall into routines when you write and use the same jargon, buzzwords, and trite expressions. By going through the thought process and challenging yourself to define the words, you can find better ways of saying what you want that will carry more meaning.

Promote Understanding with Clarity

            Meaning and clarity are closely related and work together. You can use words that pinpoint your meaning, but they won’t fully do their job unless they are clear to your readers. Both you and your readers need to understand the meaning for the article to serve its purpose. Clarity, in conjunction with meaning, makes that happen.

            The best way to achieve clarity is to be precise and concise. Don’t hedge around your meaning. Use words that will state it plainly, or as an editor would say, use plain language. If you bury your meaning in vague wording, jargon, or a long string of modifiers, the reader won’t be able to make sense out of it.

            Being precise leans heavily on meaning. Try to find words that get close to the nuance of meaning you wish to convey. A thesaurus is handy for this purpose. You don’t want to get so specific that you use obscure words that the average reader has never heard, but you do want to use strong, vivid wording. It is a balancing act that requires thought on your part.

            Conciseness will come from cutting out unnecessary modifiers, phrases, and dependent clauses. You are writing an article, not poetry. I’m reminding myself of this even as I’m telling you. I tend towards using long sentences full of phrases. You need a balance so that you don’t lose your author’s voice but still use minimal phrases so that your point is clear to your reader.

Conclusion

            Meaning and clarity are two goals for you as a writer that work together to help you achieve better articles. Meaning will help you state your purpose to your readers, and clarity makes sure those readers understand that purpose. You can look to style guides, your style sheet, and common sense to help you develop the meaning and clarity of your writing.

An Introduction to Eggcorns and Malapropisms

            Both native English-speakers and those who learn the language later can agree on one thing: English is hard! There are many complexities in English, including odd spellings and long lists of exceptions to grammar rules. A new set of problems form when you try to write what you usually say or vice versa. Today, we are going to focus on two mistakes—eggcorns and malapropisms—and how to avoid them.

Mistake #1 – Eggcorns

            The first type of mistake has, admittedly, a fun name. Eggcorns are words and phrases that people mishear, and therefore, write down incorrectly. The name is one example. Some writers mistakenly write “eggcorn” instead of “acorn.” Another eggcorn is writing “all intensive purposes” instead of “all intents and purposes.” I saw that mistake several days ago while reading the news online.

            If you try pronouncing some of these eggcorns out loud, you will quickly see how they’ve come into being. It is easy to misunderstand someone with the way English-speakers often smash sounds together or cut off the ends of words. It also doesn’t help that English words aren’t always spelled the way they sound (i.e. cough, though, and slough). If you want to see more of these eggcorns, you can visit the Eggcorn Database[1] or watch the video series about eggcorns on the Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s website.

Mistake #2 – Malapropisms

            The second type of mistake is a malapropism. This mistake is common, especially when someone is learning new vocabulary. Malapropisms are words that sound similar, which causes the writer or speaker to switch the words. The switched words can create a lot of confusion because their meanings are nothing alike. I get my favorite malapropism from a novel. The heroine says “indigestion” when she means “indignation.”

            Malapropisms are named after the character from an 18th century play. In The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop regularly mixes up words that sound alike but don’t have the same meaning. If you are curious about it like I was, you can find a transcript of the play on Project Gutenberg’s website[2].

Precaution #1 – Be Vigilant

            Knowing what the mistakes are is a good start, but there are several things you can do to avoid eggcorns and malapropisms in your writing. One action is learning to be cautious in using what you read or hear. Don’t automatically believe that everything is correct. Treat phrases and new words as wrong until proven accurate. Do some research to make sure it’s correct before you start using it in your writing. Assuming is a good way to fall into these mistakes. Question them and be willing to fact-check.

Precaution #2 – Look It Up

            Fact-checking in dictionaries and usage manuals is an excellent habit to form. It is one of your greatest safeguards against mistakes. I would suggest depending more on usage manuals than dictionaries because the latter only tells you how words are used, not what is correct standard usage. To save yourself time, you should write down or bookmark any mistakes that you find yourself susceptible to so that you don’t have to waste time looking it up every time you run into it.

Precaution #3 – Avoid Figures of Speech

            A final thing you can do is clean up your writing. Don’t use a lot of expressions and figures of speech. Try to use word choice to express your style instead of waxing poetic. If you stay true to your meaning and use plain English, you’re less likely to run into trouble. I know that is easier said than done (see what I did there), but with practice, you can write concisely and clearly without losing any of your meaning.

Conclusion

            Eggcorns and malapropisms are mistakes that can trip up writers because of pronunciations and spellings. Words that sound alike or are spelled similarly are easy to mistake for each other. By not trusting what you hear, looking things up, and removing unnecessary phrasing, you can create copy that is free of these two mistakes and easy for your readers to understand. Do you know of any good eggcorns or malapropisms? Share them in the comments!


[1] https://eggcorns.lascribe.net/

[2] http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/24761

Apostrophes Explained

            Writers seem to become more frustrated and confused by apostrophes than any other punctuation mark. Apostrophes are an important part of English, which makes correct usage imperative. Instead of guessing at where an apostrophe should go, you can confidently use this punctuation by remembering their three main functions.

Function #1: Possession

            The first function, and most common, is creating the possessive form of words. Writers show possession by either adding an apostrophe or an apostrophe with an s to a word. Which one you choose depends on who is doing the possessing. If you have a singular noun, you need to add the apostrophe with an s. An example is “Tom’s books.” If you have a plural noun, you need to add only an apostrophe. An example of this is “the boys’ books.”

There are two exceptions to this rule. The first applies to singular words that end with an s, such as James. You could write them with just an apostrophe, but for the sake of clarity, several style guides recommend that you use the apostrophe with an s. In my writing, I decide case-by-case. I’m more old school in my preferences for punctuation, which means I often use only an apostrophe. I will sometimes add the s if I think it necessary for clarity’s sake. For example, you can write either “James’ book” or “James’s book.” Unless you are following a style guide, you should choose whichever you prefer and stay with it.

The second exception involves plural words that are formed without an s, such as children or mice. These words are treated like they are singular and receive an apostrophe with an s. The best way to remember this is that if it doesn’t already have an s, you will need to add one to make it possessive.

Function #2: Contractions

            The second function of apostrophes is creating contractions. English-speakers are adept at contracting their words and omitting letters when they speak. To replicate that in writing, apostrophes indicate places where the writer omitted letters. For contractions, the apostrophe will often go towards the end of the word. So, for instance, “I don’t have that book.” The apostrophe indicates that “do not” has been contracted into one word with the o removed.

Apostrophes can also indicate the omission of letters elsewhere in a word. For example, “That cake is lookin’ good.” The apostrophe takes the place of the omitted g. In these situations, the apostrophe goes wherever you omitted letters.

Contractions and other omissions can be useful to make writing have the same natural flow of speech. However, you want to keep track of how many contractions you are using. Too many can change the tone of your writing and make it hard to read.

Function #3: Plurals

            The final function of apostrophes is a lot less common than the other two and much more controversial. An apostrophe can be used occasionally to create a plural. This most often happens with numbers, letters, and symbols.

Depending on which style guide you consult, the advice will differ greatly. One rule everyone seems to agree on is how to create the plural form of lowercase letters. When talking about letters, you should use the apostrophe with an s. For example, “You forgot to dot your i’s.” Without the apostrophe, the sentence would not make sense because there would be little indication that it is a letter and not a word.

With abbreviations, capital letters, and numbers, advice becomes more varied. You can add the apostrophe with an s to create the plural. They would look like this: MRI’s, I’s, 1800’s. You can also go without the apostrophe, which seems to be the more popular way. In that case, those same words would look like this: MRIs, Is, 1800s.

Which form you choose will depend heavily on meaning and clarity, as you can see from the example. If you aren’t careful, a reader might misinterpret your plurals as indicating possession, or as a different word than you intended. If you must use a style guide, reference which version the guide prefers. Otherwise, I suggest choosing one form and staying with it.

Conclusion

            If you can remember these three functions and how to apply them, you will have no problems with apostrophes. The application of apostrophes relies on the sentence’s meaning and structure. If you follow the simple rules and remember the importance of clarity, you will know where an apostrophe is necessary without hesitation. As with all parts of writing, don’t be afraid to look it up. It is always better to check rather than depend on memory.