Reader-submitted question: I am trying to decide if I need to stop using parentheses (like this) instead of using commas like everyone else. One of my teachers, a loooonnnnggggg time ago, told me that parentheses were out and that commas were now in.
I will admit that I tend to overuse parentheses and commas. I can’t help myself; I feel compelled to make snide side remarks that are unrelated to the main point of the sentence (like a desperate girl on a first date), even though I can’t stand it when other people over-share this way. Sometimes I will put clauses at the end of a sentence in parentheses (even though that is just stupid and there’s no need for them). I have no idea why I do this (it’s definitely not because parentheses are cool). Clearly, I have a problem (and so do you) and need to put some real effort into constructing my sentences.
Now, that last sentence could have been a lot clearer without the parentheses. I need to take that side remark out, because it just breaks up a perfectly good sentence about how much I suck (and goodness knows, that’s what you guys come here for) and screws up the back end with some questionable grammar: am I really the only one who needs to put in the effort? The sentence is stronger without it. The focus should be on ME, ME, ME (that’s the way I like it); there’s no need to distract readers with a parenthetical remark. I’m only using parentheses, and extra commas, because I’m writing without any real thought (or talent, as you’ll recall) and I’m not paying enough attention to the main message.
(Yeah, sure, lots of people like stream-of-consciousness writing, but I don’t think it’s the best way to go, all things considered, which is why it’s a good idea to edit your copy before you send it out into the world, seriously.)
So, about the editing (always a good plan). When I go back over my copy, I usually find at least one parenthetical remark that doesn’t need to be there (or is a subordinate clause wrapped in parentheses, which is just silly of me. Who does that?). I take these out. Sometimes I just delete the entire clause, because it wasn’t important to the sentence; other times, I take out the parentheses that should never have been there in the first place. Sometimes, when I’ve used too many commas, I need to start breaking sentences up or deleting words, and there are times when I’m repetitive, and boring, and redundant, and commas can be pretty good indicators that the sentence is too complex. (Nobody wants to read that sort of thing, especially not you, and definitely not the people who only came here to complain.)
Parentheses and commas aren’t bad, and they can sometimes be good, as long as you’re not being sloppy with your writing. You just have to make sure you’re using them because they’re the best way to get your message across, not because you were writing without thinking about what you were trying to say, and really should be looking for a better way to express yourself.
Thanks for your question (it was an excellent one, and made me think about what it is I’m doing, or trying to do, here).
This reader is a huge tease. Semicolons are the sexiest punctuation marks; I tremble a bit at the thought of giving away my techniques.
You know how sometimes you’ll catch a Hot Babe’s eye? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. But that Hot Babe is WAY out of your league. There’s no way you can get together…or is there? Could we find a way to combine two independent clauses and relate them in a way that’s far more direct than simply placing them next to each other?
Ooooh, it makes me wriggle with excitement at the mere THOUGHT of doing such a thing.
Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
I often quote myself; it adds spice to my conversation.
Excuse me. I have to, uhhhh, take Strunk and White into the other room for a moment.
Today’s episode of Little Miss Know-It-All: The colon.
Colons are not capital periods. I know they look like they could be, so bear with me through this part. This can be particularly confusing, because when correctly used, colons often follow a complete sentence and can even come just before a capital letter:
I often quote myself: It adds spice to my conversation.
Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: That is the ideal life.
Husbands should be like Kleenex: soft, strong and disposable.
A colon moves things forward. (HAHAHAHAHAHA.) It is used to join two sentences in a way that builds and then releases tension. (“I often quote myself:” – ohdearohdearwhat’scomingnextIcan’tbeartolook – “It adds spice to my conversation.” – whew, now I can take a break and chuckle.)
The first part makes a statement while the second part explains it further. They are not separate sentences: they actually belong together as two halves of one thought. The second half might be a joke or might simply explain the first half. In any case, think of the colon as a signal that one phrase is related to the next. It is not a double period that would signal the end of one thought and a definite break before the beginning of the next.
The colon has other uses as well: it starts lists, it attributes quotes, and it separates subtitles from main titles of books and movies (Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi).
I feel like if this was on a shirt people would be so fucking stupid to ask what a Synonym is , which is really sad
“Gay” is a synonym for many words. It’s a synonym for “happy” and many of its synonyms, “homosexual” and many (maybe all) of its synonyms, and for “carefree” and many of its synonyms.
It’s not a synonym for “weird” or “pathetic”. Those words already have plenty of synonyms; we don’t need to invent another definition for “gay” just because teenagers have limited vocabularies.
Today’s episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Hyphenated compound modifiers.
I am asked about hyphenated compound modifiers at least once a month. Of course, the people who ask these questions usually don’t know what they’re asking. They usually say something like I’ve been a lawyer for 35 years and I have never ever EVER seen the phrase “criminal justice” with a hyphen! Harrumph, harrumph!
I usually smile sweetly and make a joke about how leaving out the hyphen in “criminal-justice system” would be playing right into our critics’ hands. Then I grumpily remove the hyphen; the alternative is to argue for the next half hour. I do this only because I know that there are only a few people who would argue that the justice system is itself criminal, and they are not good enough at grammar to notice the error.
We are all a long way from total agreement on hyphenated compound modifiers, even among people who are generally very good at grammar. This is because sometimes you should use a hyphen, sometimes you shouldn’t, and sometimes it doesn’t really matter. It confuses people, and in their confusion they decide that hyphens make the sentence look cluttered.
A good rule of thumb is that even though you sometimes don’t really need a hyphen, you won’t go wrong by using one if it’s truly optional. This will reduce the uncertainty your readers will have when you use phrases that really don’t need hyphens. For example, one day you’ll want to say something like “We have two hundred odd employees” when you have a total of 500 employees but only 300 of them are normal.
Hyphens join words together to modify other words, and they really do change the meaning of a sentence. They turn two or more words into a single expression. For example:
- A “criminal-justice system” is a system of criminal justice. However, a “criminal justice system” is a justice system that is criminal. It’s probably not a good idea to write this phrase into an ad unless you’re an activist.
- “English-language learners” are people who are learning the English language. “English language learners: are English people who are learning any language.
- “On-site visits” are visits to the site of an activity. “On site visits” are — well, nothing really, just words that have been slapped together but make no sense.
I can already hear your cries of protest. You say that hyphens aren’t needed, because only an idiot would be unable to figure out what a writer meant by “on site visit”. I suppose you are also a fan of typos, because even idiots understand what the writer meant to say.
Punctuation is important, and hyphens are important. Sorry, wanna-be writers.
I’m pretty sure the founder of your religion had something to say about rich people. Hang on, I’ll look up the exact reference. It would be embarrassing if your editor didn’t fact-check that for you.
that every time I see a miss-used apostrophe, the wrong form of “there/their/they’re”, the wrong form of “your/you’re”, or any other grammar mistake that no one with access to a computer should make, I mentally berate and belittle the poster for a good 10 seconds before scrolling down.
I don’t judge people based on their race, sexual orientation, etc, but I will judge the fuck out of their grammar.
I feel the same way about people who misspell “misused”. And don’t get me STARTED on people who don’t know that “etc.” is an abbreviation and therefore requires a period.