Telling Friends How to Punctuate E-mail Greetings
Posted by June on October 5, 2015

I made the mistake of telling some friends a while back that it’s better to address an e-mail

Hey, June.


Hey June,

Bad idea. But before I get to how this backfired, let me explain the punctuation issue.

Most casual correspondence you see these days begins with something like “hey” or “hi” or “hello” followed by the recipient’s name. Nothing wrong with that. But perhaps 99% of the time, there's a comma after the name but not before it.

Hey June, 

I suspect that’s because people are so conditioned to seeing the traditional greeting:

Dear June,

But just because “Dear June,” is punctuated this way doesn’t mean that’s how you’d punctuate greetings that being with “hey,” “hi” or similar words. Grammatically, they’re different. In “Dear June,” the word “dear” is an adjective. It’s modifying the noun “June.” So “Dear June” is just a noun phrase, not a complete sentence.

But “hey,” “hi” and “hello” aren’t adjectives. They’re basically interjections, which can stand alone as sentences. So they don’t combine with a name to form a single noun phrase.

There's another aspect to this, too. In editing, when you call someone by a name, it’s called a direct address. A direct address is set off with commas.

As I’ve been saying, June, this is the plan.

In "Hey, June" you have a complete thought, "Hey," followed by a direct address. So theoretically a comma should go between them. What about afterward? Well, as I said, interjections can function as complete sentences, which is why I punctuate these greetings with a period.

Hey, June.

If you prefer you can make this part of the sentence that follows by ending it with a colon.

Hey, June:

And, technically, you could also end it with a comma.

Hey, June,

That looks terrible. So I don’t recommend it. Unfortunately, ever since I mentioned this issue to friends, that’s how a couple of them now address their e-mails to me and, I presume, to their business associates.

Hey, June, 

I tried to explain that the first comma's good but a period at the end would be better. But the second lesson isn’t sticking as well as the first. So my help wasn't very helpful. And from now I’ll keep silent on this matter.

'Is When'
Posted by June on September 28, 2015


It’s been 13 years since I started writing a weekly grammar column. And just when I think I’ve heard every weird grammar myth that ever existed, another one comes at me out of nowhere. Here’s an e-mail I got from a reader in Upstate New York.

“You can’t be talking about grammar and say ‘is when.’”

Apparently, somewhere in my column, I had used this this term. I was so gobsmacked by the “rule” that I didn’t bother to check. Instead, I immediately wrote back saying that was a new one on me and asking my correspondent where she heard it and if she knew of any rule books that mentioned it.

She was cool enough to answer me: She had no source. A teacher had told her that once and it stuck in her mind. She had never heard it anywhere else and didn’t know of any book that discussed it.

In other words: We can add yet another silly superstition to the mountain of nonsense that people have been told and believed.

Like all grammar nonsense, the idea that you can't use “is when” may be rooted in some solid logic. There’s a common problem in writing called faulty predication that deals with sentences like “A death is when bereaved people come together to mourn.” That’s illogical because a death is a thing, not a when. Another example, “Good dental hygiene is when you brush three times a day.” Again, it’s just too weird to call hygiene a when.

But does that mean you can never say “is when”? Of course not.



Using Quotations to Report Facts
Posted by June on September 21, 2015


Here's a tip far too many writers need to hear: Don't use quotations to report facts.

Let me demonstrate.

“The school was founded in 1897 by settlers from Pennsylvania,” Mary Schoolspokesperson said.

Here’s another:

“Just over 38% of registered voters turned out for the election,” Shelly Soandso said. “That’s a 2% decrease from last year.”

One more:

“The parade begins at 8 a.m. and ends at around 11 a.m., or whenever the last float reaches Sierra Madre Boulevard,” said Joe Repstheclub.

I see stuff like this all the time in my editing and it tells me in an instant something the writer would prefer I didn’t know: He has no real news experience.

Journalism has some good ideas about what kind of information belongs in quotations or, more importantly, what does not. In its simplest form, the best principle is this: Facts are the reporter’s job. They should be verified by him and reported in his own words, rather than attributed to someone else. Look at a hypothetical example so you can see why.

“My neighbor Dan is a child molester,” Joe Soandso said.

That’s not OK. It doesn’t absolve the reporter of responsibility for the facts. It doesn’t even protect him from legal liability. The reporter and publication can be sued. And the “We didn’t say it, Joe Soandso did” argument won’t hold water.  (If you’d like to know more, read the section on libel law in the back of the Associated Press Stylebook.)

But that’s an extreme case. Most abuses of this principle don’t involve shocking assertions. They just say stuff like “The park opens at 10 a.m.,” which comes off as amateurish because, in professional publications, the facts come straight from the reporter – the person who takes responsibility for them. And quotes are left for opinions, observations, and other bits exclusive to the person saying them.


Semicolons in One-sentence Paragraphs
Posted by June on September 14, 2015


Here’s an argument I’ve gotten into a few times. I'm of the mind that there’s never a good reason to use a semicolon in a one-sentence paragraph. For example:

There are many reasons to visit the Valley this summer; it’s a fun place with lots to do.

To me, that should be two sentences:

There are many reasons to visit the Valley this summer. It’s a fun place with lots to do.

(A colon would be okay, too. But because the colon is more specialized, adding a deliberate emphasis to the second clause, we’ll set that option aside for now and just focus on the semicolon option and the two-sentence option.)

The semicolon has two jobs. It can indicate that two clauses are closely related. Or it can be used as a sort of uber comma to manage unwieldy lists, especially lists in which the individual items have their own commas: I visited Springfield, Illinois; Washington, D.C.; and Sacramento, California.

In our one-sentence paragraph, it’s doing that first job: showing that the clauses are closely related. But here’s the thing: The paragraph structure beat the semicolon to the punch. There are only two clauses in the whole paragraph, so it’s already clear that they’re closely related. The semicolon is redundant.

What’s worse – what’s always worse about semicolons – is they make sentences longer. What’s gained by making a simple, clear 10 word sentence and a simple, clear eight-word sentence into an 18-word sentence?

Even within a longer paragraph, this use of semicolons is usually a bad idea. In a three-sentence paragraph, two of the sentences are likely to be closer to each other than they are to the third. Any four-sentence paragraph you could divide into two simply by pairing the sentences up based on similarity. And so it goes. So regardless of paragraph length, all a semicolon really does is make neat, tight sentences into longer beasts, bringing no reader benefit in the process.

Repeat: no benefit to the reader.

That’s why I’m down on semicolons in general. But in a one-sentence paragraph, they’re even worse.