Tuesday 26 January 2016

Commas and Conjunctions

A comma goes before words like and, but, and or—except when it doesn’t.

Have you made the appropriate sacrifices, or will you be leaving our fate up to luck or chance?

When And Needs a Comma

It’s traditional to put a comma before words such as and, but, or, so, and yet (a.k.a. coordinating conjunctions) when they’re joining two independent clauses. Independent clauses are clauses that could stand on their own as sentences if they wanted to. Think of them as train cars that could travel by themselves but have been hitched together to form one sentence.

  • I’ve trained the squirrels outside my window to do backflips and pyramids, and we’ll be taking our act on the road next week.
  • He bought the jester’s costume and the floppy hat, but I can’t help feeling his heart isn’t in it.
  • Have you made the appropriate sacrifices, or will you be leaving our fate up to luck or chance?

If the sentence is quite short or its clauses are closely connected, you may leave out the comma.

  • Mom played and Dad sang.
  • The pirate queen unsheathed her cutlass and I knew it was over.

When But Doesn’t Need a Comma

Conjunctions don’t always join independent clauses—and they don’t always need commas.

  • Clyde wanted to go to the orgy but couldn’t find any whipping cream.

“Couldn’t find any whipping cream” is not an independent clause: it lacks a subject and would never make it on its own as a complete sentence. Its subject, Clyde, is doing double duty for two verbs, wanted and couldn’t. (This is called a compound predicate, if you want to get fancy.)

  • Clyde wanted to go to the orgy, but he couldn’t find any whipping cream.

Now each clause has both a subject and a verb, so our but can take a comma.

Similarly, when a single verb is shared between two subjects (called a compound subject), you don’t need a comma before the conjunction joining them together.

  • Crawling up the side of a castle and crawling down the side of a castle are different levels of creepy.

As you can see, this rule applies to other conjunctions besides but.

  • I knew the full moon was coming so didn’t bother to shave.
  • He tried valiantly yet failed miserably.

I knew the full moon was coming so didn't bother to shave.

Parenthetical Ors

A comma might be found before an or or an and if it’s one of a pair enclosing an aside, or parenthetical phrase. These are phrases that are not essential to the sentence and could just as well be set between a pair of parentheses or dashes.

  • Sook-Yin’s doppelgänger, or double, had been lurking in the lobby all week.
  • If you know what I mean, and I think you do, give me a wink.

But with Not or Not Only

Constructions like “not only…but…” don’t take commas before the but.

  • The cowboy was impressed not only by her hair but also her horns.

However, you may use a comma for emphasis if you choose.

  • It would be not only his first trip to the Sierras, but his last.

The cowboy was impressed not only by her hair but also her horns.

Discretionary Commas: When to Break the Rules

Sometimes punctuation is as much an art as a science—particularly when it comes to commas. As in the case of the pirate queen earlier, it’s okay to ignore the “put a comma before a coordinating conjunction when it joins two independent clauses” rule if the clauses are short or tightly connected. You may even break up a compound predicate if you want to highlight the contrast between its verbs.

  • The adventuress declared her eternal devotion to Alberto, yet left him to perish in the swamp.

Your most important consideration as a writer is clarity. An unconventional comma placement is sometimes necessary to keep readers from misunderstanding you. Notice how commas change the meanings of the following sentences:

  • Jasika recognized the supervillain as he leaned out the porthole, and pointed an accusing finger.
  • If you’re ready, and I think you’re up to it, you can dance the funky chicken at my bat mitzvah.

In creative writing and informal prose, commas are often discarded as a matter of style. It’s up to you as a writer to decide on the appropriate amount of punctuation for your piece. But before you can successfully flout the rules, you must understand exactly what you’re doing, and why.

Saturday 23 January 2016

Apostrophes: How to Use ’Em

Few punctuation marks are as abused as the blameless apostrophe. The better you understand the little critter’s job—whether in forming possessives, contractions, or certain plurals—the less likely you are to do it harm.


People like to throw apostrophes at the letter s like confetti, but not every s wants to be festooned in punctuation. Don’t reach for an apostrophe if you’re just forming a plural—making an apple into an avalanche of apples, say. But do grab the punctuation when you’re showing possession or ownership.

  • Mohinder’s sideburns were the envy of all who knew him.
  • Her science project’s effects were unforeseen and world altering.
  • Satan’s cheerleaders have set fire to the auditorium.

The aliens' spaceships play Billy Joel on a loop. 

When the possessors are themselves plural, the apostrophe comes after the s, where it dangles like the severed ear in Blue Velvet.

  • The hippies’ drum circle is blocking the strollers.
  • The aliens’ spaceships play Billy Joel on a loop.
  • Satan’s cheerleaders’ uniforms are hellfire red.

But be sure not to give the David Lynch treatment to plurals that don’t end in s.

  • The children’s pyromaniacal tendencies ought to be encouraged.
  • The men’s feather boas fluttered in the breeze from the wind machine.
  • The sheep’s plans for world domination have yet to be realized.

And what about singular possessives that end in s? Opinion is divided. Many Americans like the simpler, apostrophe-only method:

  • the cactus’ spines
  • David Sedaris’ stories

Most Brits, on the other hand, prefer the full Monty:

  • Tom Jones’s knickers
  • Prince Charles’s ears

If you decide to go the British route, you should know that because of tradition, certain words take only an apostrophe.

  • for goodness’ sake

There’s one kind of possessive that’s allergic to apostrophes: possessive pronouns. You wouldn’t put an apostrophe in my or mine, so don’t even think about shoving one in any of the following:

  • his
  • hers
  • its
  • ours
  • theirs
  • whose


The ’em in this post’s title is a shortened version of them, in the same way ’cause is a shortened version of because. These words’ beginnings were amputated like gangrenous limbs, and apostrophes were put in their places to show that something had been removed. Contractions are words in which some of the letters have been extracted and replaced with apostrophes.

  • what’s = what is
  • wouldn’t = would not
  • can’t = cannot
  • let’s = let us

Some contractions are the source of much confusion and hair-pulling, namely,

  • it’s = it is (or it has)
  • who’s = who is (or who has)
  • you’re = you are
  • they’re = they are

Their doppelgängers—its, whose, your, and their—are all possessive pronouns and therefore don’t want apostrophes cramping their style.

It’s/Its, Who’s/Whose, You’re/Your, and They’re/Their

The incubus blew its nose on my duvet.

In the heat of composition, it can sometimes be difficult to remember whether you want the version with the apostrophe or the one without. Try to create a titanium connection in your mind between the possessive pronoun his—which, as we all know, wouldn’t wear an apostrophe if its life depended on it—and its cousins its, whose, your, and their. If you can use his and your sentence still makes sense, then the word you want is a possessive pronoun, i.e., sans apostrophe.

  • The incubus blew its nose on my duvet. (The incubus blew his nose on my duvet.)
  • Whose car is at the bottom of Mom’s swimming pool? (His car is at the bottom of Mom’s swimming pool.)
  • Wear your best sharkskin suit. (Wear his best sharkskin suit.)
  • Their idea of a hot date is Horlicks and Scrabble. (His idea of a hot date is Horlicks and Scrabble.)

It’s, who’s, you’re, and they’re, on the other hand, are contractions. Expand them into their longer forms to see if they belong where you’ve put them.

  • What a long, strange trip it’s been. (it has been)
  • She’s a siren who’s got a voice like a foghorn. (who has got)
  • I’ll tell them you’re swimming with the dolphins. (you are swimming)
  • They’re spending this weekend on acid. (they are spending)

She's a siren who's got a voice like a foghorn.

Exceptional Plurals

Once upon a time, writing guides urged us to use apostrophes when creating plurals of words ending in numbers or capital letters, such as 1980’s or VCR’s. That rule has since fallen out of fashion, and nowadays the cleaner-looking 2000s and DVDs are preferred.

  • The 1990s were good to CEOs.
  • His best years were spent in an ’80s hair-metal band. (Note the apostrophe before 80s. That’s to stand in for the missing 19. Remember the gangrenous limbs from earlier? Same thing.)

However, there are still a few plurals that need apostrophes to prevent confusion.

  • How many a’s are in aardvark?
  • cross your i’s and dot your t’s

After all, the point of using punctuation is to make things clear to your readers. The less time they spend puzzling out your meaning, the more time they’ll have to be persuaded by your prose.