THE QUICK FIX: Helps for Office Writing
PUNCTUATION (a brief, minimal guide for offices)
A. STOPS We have four (count ’em, 4) complete stops: 1) . period 2) 3) 4)
! ? ;
exclamation point question mark semi-colon
The period. Love it, and use it often in office writing. “Plain English” recommends that easily comprehended sentences be no longer than 27 words (two and a half typewritten lines). The exclamation point. In adult writing, use sparingly, no more than one or two per page. Choose to let good writing convey your excitement. Three or more exclamation points per page are appropriate only when sighting UFOs or Elvis. The question mark. We could probably all benefit from using this more often. That is, to keep readers awake, occasionally try opening a dense paragraph with a rhetorical question. Example: Instead of opening with “Fiscal constraints forced the Maryland legislature to . . . ”, try grabbing the reader’s interest with “Why were College salaries frozen a few years ago? Because fiscal constraints . . .” etc., etc. Note: the less this strategy is used, the more effective it is. The semi-colon. Most of the time, the semi-colon acts as a period inside a sentence. It separates two related mini-sentences (called “independent clauses”). Example: “Turn right at the fork in the road; after that, look for the first twostory house on your left.” However, the semi-colon does have another, secondary use; see it below under “B: PAUSES: Commas, Colons, and Semicolons.”
B. PAUSES: Commas, Colons, and Semi-colons The comma. Commas indicate split-second pauses. Use like this: 1. Greetings, grabbers: Welcome, alumni! Thanks, Jack. Go, Seahawks! Hey, listen up. Sorry, everyone. Attention, all RAs: 2. Interruptions, explanations (see below, C). The core sentence is The
committee will support the dean’s decision. With added interruption, use a set of commas: The committee, although it does not want to, will support the dean’s decision. 3. Lists: A full colon may be used as introducer to a list. Commas must be used to separate single items in a list. Semi-colons must be used in a list of complex items. Do not use including (or any other verb) before a full colon. Simple list: We’re going to Oregon, Montana, and Utah. Complex list: We’re going to Salem, Oregon; Red Bank, Montana; and Provo, Utah. With introducer: We’re visiting the following: Oregon, Montana, Utah. 4. Job description after a name: Rob Stuart, director of transportation, retired. 5. Separating two independent clauses (mini-sentences with subject and verb) joined by and, but, so, or, for, nor, yet: - The dean made the announcement, and everyone listened. But do not use comma if the second clause lacks a specific subject: - The dean made an announcement and repeated it a second time. 6. Setting apart a dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence: - Although the heat is on, we feel cold. But do not use commas if dependent clause comes at end of sentence: - We feel cold although the heat is on. 7. To indicate speech. Notice the difference between direct and indirect. - He said, “There are no termites.” (Direct quotation) - “There are no termites,” he said. (Direct quotation) - He said that there were no termites. (Indirect quotation)
C. INTERRUPTIONS An interruption is something that can be removed from the sentence without damaging the sentence’s core meaning (Core: Uncle Don appeared on our doorstep). The interruption is usually either an explanation or a personal comment. It comes in three strengths: Light – a set of commas Uncle Don, who we thought was dead, appeared on our doorstep. Moderate – a set of parentheses Uncle Don (who we thought was dead) appeared on our doorstep. Full strength – a set of em-dashes (for em-dashes, see below, D). Uncle Don ― who we thought was dead ― appeared on our doorstep.
Note: a single em-dash near the end of the sentence grabs the reader’s attention. In the following sentence we could use an ordinary comma (We thought Uncle Don was dead, but he appeared on our doorstep). However, if you want subtle drama, change the comma to an em-dash: We thought Uncle Don was dead – but he appeared on our doorstep. The emdash can be found by going to “Insert,” then “Symbol.”
D. MISCELLANEOUS MARKS: Apostrophes, Accents, Hyphens, Em-dashes 1. Apostrophes (Annoying mosquitoes in the world of writing) You will be happy to hear that apostrophes are dying out. Although some of the rules we all learned in seventh grade still hold, some have eased up. This loosening will increase over the next few decades, but in the meantime – because we are an educational institution – our readers expect us to do what is “correct.” Here are some common problem areas. Apostrophes for Possession Singular (’s): the siren’s wail, James’s voice (formerly, James’ voice). Clue: write it as you pronounce it. Plural (s’): the cyclists’ speed, the Smiths’ plans, the Harrises’ children. Plural exceptions: children’s, women’s, men’s. Note: Sometimes it is not necessary to use a possessive, and grace is gained if the extra ’s syllable is not used. Examples: the College waterfront, the library patio, the engine vibration, etc. (Nerds will recognize this as the difference between a possessive adjective and an ordinary adjective.) Apostrophes for Plurals No apostrophe: the Harts, the Harrises. (But: the Harts’ dog, the Harrises’ car.) Apostrophe: pdf’s; two m’s in accommodate; too many awesome’s; the 1960’s; the ’60’s; two CD’s from the bank; new RA’s, their SMP’s. Note: Recently eased up: two CDs, new RAs, the 1960s, the ’60s, their SMPs.. Apostrophes for Contractions Sometimes an apostrophe is like a tombstone: it indicates that one or more letters have “died.” Below, the dead letters are entombed inside parentheses. It’s = it is (i) (It’s a great party.) It’s = it has (ha) (It’s been a good year.) Doesn’t = does not (o) We’ve = we have (ha) 2. Accents English is a language without accents. But it also borrows heavily from other languages, and such foreign words sometimes retain their original accents. To type these accents, go to “Insert,” then “Symbol.” The Spanish tilde is retained in el niño, and the
Spanish and French acute accents remain in café con leche and café au lait. The French circumflex is retained in pâté, the French grave accent in à la carte, the cedilla in Français, and the German umlaut in the wine Gewürztraminer. Note: the Publications Office has dictionaries for French, Latin, Spanish, Italian, and German to help in editing. 1. Use the original accent to distinguish between words that look similar: that is, résumé vs. the verb resume; chargé d’affaires vs. charge; pâté vs. pate (meaning head), rosé vs. rose, etc. 2. Use accents when printing out the menu for a formal College dinner: Examples: apéritif, Bon Appétit, canapés, chicken à la king, crème fraîche, duck à l’orange, entrée, Gewürztraminer, jalapeño peppers, pêches flambées, rémoulade sauce, rosé, salade niçoise, etc. 3. For titles and names, use accents as a courtesy: señor, señora, señorita, José, Groupé, Björn, etc. 3. Hyphens and Em-dashes Listen up, “and listen up good”: - A hyphen is not a dash. - A hyphen is used only in the middle of a word or a compound word: mid-term, a four-credit course, pre-requisite, part-time student, on-campus events, Daugherty-Palmer Commons, University of Maryland-College Park, the fiveyear plan, a state-supported project, a student-led strike, a budget-driven crisis, a job-related scandal, a credit-bearing internship, an entry-level job, a 19th-century novel, etc. A dash, on the other hand, is used in the middle of a sentence, to set apart blocks of words. Example: George Oliver ― never one to suffer from low self-esteem ― nominated himself for the annual prize. It is called an em-dash because it is as wide as a capital M, far more noticeable than a dinky little hyphen. For an example, see section C, INTERRUPTIONS. The em-dash does not exist on most keyboards. Go to “Insert,” then “Symbol” to find a robust em-dash.