Punctuation marks that eliminate the need for other punctuation marks
Posted by June on February 24, 2020


“How do you feel about commas after em dashes?” a writer asked on Twitter recently. “For instance: If you want to have a great Sunday — and by ‘great’ I mean emotionally and spiritually satisfying —, then you should consider the one-hour bath.”

The question left me speechless. It’s like asking if you’d put two commas after Washington, D.C., if the name appeared in a list like, “We visited Washington, D.C.,, Chicago and Nashville.”

It’s like asking whether it’s a good idea to put an ellipsis before a colon, as in “Beth made an important observation …: the door was unlocked.”

The answer to all these questions is an emphatic “no.” The reason: Sometimes one punctuation mark can preclude the need for another. Here, laid out in my recent column, are some examples.

4 proven ways to make yourself less clear
Posted by June on February 17, 2020
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When we talk about language and grammar, there’s an unspoken yet universal agenda: clarity.

The whole point of written communication is to get information to your reader as effectively as possible, meaning with as little confusion as possible. Grammar, punctuation and proper usage are tools to get you there.

But what if you don’t want to be clear? What if your No. 1 writing goal is to weasel your way around a point or a piece of information you’d rather not highlight, for whatever shady reason you may have?

Well, grammar is your friend too. After all, if you understand how to write clear, vivid prose, the secret to underhanded obfuscation is at your fingertips. Just do the opposite of that clarifying stuff. Helpful grammar concepts for all you devious purveyors of murky message include
upside-down subordination, nonspecific nouns and verbs, nominalizations and passive voice. Here’s my recent column on how to abuse them.

Subjunctive Mood
Posted by June on February 10, 2020


The subjunctive mood refers to sentences that express wishes, suppositions, statements of necessity, demands and other “contrary to fact” statements. “If he were taller” is an example of a contrary-to-fact subjunctive. He’s not taller. He’s as tall as he is. So this is subjunctive.

Compare that to “If he was being honest, you’ll get all your money back.” In this case it’s possible he was being honest. Time will tell. So it’s called “indicative,” which for our purposes just means “not subjunctive.”

The difference is reflected in the verb. In the past tense, the subjunctive applies only to the verb “be,” and it’s formed by replacing “was” with “were.” “If he were being honest” (which means he wasn’t) versus “If he was being honest” (which means it’s possible).

In the present tense, the subjunctive applies to all verbs, and you form it by replacing the conjugated verb with the “base form” of the verb.

Compare “Zach locks up the office at night” with “It’s crucial that Zach lock up the office at night.” “Locks” is the conjugated form. “Lock” is the base form. And by putting “it’s crucial” at the head of our sentence, we’re creating a statement of necessity that triggers the subjunctive mood.

Here's more on the subjunctive in my recent column.

'Til and Till
Posted by June on February 3, 2020

One of the most surefire ways to tell whether an article has been professionally edited is the word 'til. 

This contracted form of until correctly uses an apostrophe to indicate omitted letters. But though it's technically right, it's a dead giveaway that the writer or editor didn't know what he was doing.

Professionals, when they want a shorter form of until don't use 'til. They use till.

Anyone who hasn't studied a style guide might think this is an error. A till, in many cases, is a drawer in a cash register famously featured in the sentence "He had his hand in the till." So anyone with good language fundamentals but no editing training would logically conclude that till is the error.

It's not. The word till used to mean until actually predates until itself. Till is the original. That's why style guides say to use this original word and not a contracted version of a its younger cousin.

And while, technically, the contracted for 'til is legit -- you can, after all, contract anything you want -- it's a sure-fire sign that the editor doesn't know editing. Want to know more? Here's a column that goes deeper.