Category Archives: Punctuation

Can Contractions Go Too Far?

Yes, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

Contractions exist to help written words sound the way we talk because we do not pronounce every letter in every word as if we are robots.

Instead, we drop letters and slide words together, and contractions depict that. But they can get weird if you try to follow speech too closely.

Such as when positive “would’ve” — would have — becomes negative “would’nt’ve” — would not have.

The same goes for for “could’ve” or “should’ve.” Sometimes you see these three expressions as “coulda, shoulda, woulda,” and they mean the exactly same thing. But in business writing I’d never advise turning a standard “could have” into a slangy “coulda.”

Nonstandard English is best confined to dialogue in creative writing where you’re trying to make a character’s speech distinctive. It’s extremely difficult to do well.

One common, simple contraction is “there’s,” but it’s tricky. It means “there is” and it’s singular. However, it’s often used with plural subjects because the contraction for “there are” would be “there’re,” which looks strange and is even hard to pronounce.

There’s people who aren’t going to agree with me about contractions.

Translation: There is people who are not going to agree with me about contractions.

Would you say that? No, I wouldn’t either. So let’s not write it.

On the other hand, we do have “you’re” for “you are.” Go figure. English is so quirky.

We should avoid some contractions simply because they don’t look good written, even if we often say them. One example is “that’ll” — that will — even though Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison used it with great success in a song: “That’ll Be the Day.”

Then there’s “there’ll” — there will — which sends my eyes and ears over the edge.

Conversely, a contraction sometimes doesn’t go far enough. such as on this license plate:

Apostrophe-VaLicensePlate

There’s no such word in English as “dont.” Microsoft Word won’t even let me type it that way without automatically inserting the apostrophe.

When at work, as long as you confine contractions to two words and put an apostrophe where letters are omitted, consider yourself on solid ground.

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Wild and Wacky AP Style

I’m developing a new course for the University of Richmond (Va.) School of Continuing Studies I’m calling AP Style for Business Writers because I’ve met many clients who claim to use it as their in-house writing style — except when they don’t.

I’ve never understood why corporate America glommed on to AP. It’s for news journalists. How many office workers need to know proper capitalization of Osama bin Laden (who, by the way, dropped out of the Stylebook somewhere between 2011 and 2013)?

The Stylebook devotes only 10 pages to all punctuation matters, whereas my old 6th edition of The Gregg Reference Manual (my preferred writing guide, back in the day) devoted 26 pages to commas alone.

The Stylebook is in alphabetical order, which means you must look up every stinking prefix (non-, dis-, un-) to find out which ones need hyphens.

So, preparing this class, I’ve had to read 300+ pages of the current Stylebook and compare them to the 2011 edition (I skipped 2012 — life’s too short) to ferret out any updates because AP willfully REFUSES to flag them.

Here’s one change for you: They dropped the hyphen from moped.

In the process, I have compiled and usefully organized the material that’s pertinent to business writers, and it fits in to 22 pages of handouts. Yup, that fat Stylebook is 99.8% irrelevant.

Here are a few points I uncovered that you might find interesting:

  • Never, under any circumstances, abbreviate department as dept.
  • Never use abbreviations for state names with five or fewer letters EXCEPT Alaska Hawaii (because they’re unattached to the U.S.) or the District of Columbia.
  • Never use italics. For anything. Ever.
  • Ditto for asterisks * and brackets [ ].
  • Lists of items should begin with dashes, never with any of Word’s bullet characters.
  • Every item in a list should end with a period, even if it’s a single word.
  • Parentheses used within a sentence are a sign the sentence has a problem. (Do mine?)
  • It’s not “Merry Christmas,” but “merry Christmas.”

I’m eager to have my first class because it’s bound to attract AP pros who want a refresher — and are possibly hoping for spirited debate.

I think everyone’s soon going to realize that the denizens of corporate America don’t embrace AP style with the fervor they think they do.

OK, I can’t resist. One more:

You’re not supposed to write, The meeting is on Tuesday, but, The meeting is Tuesday.

Well, two more:

And don’t write, We met last Wednesday. Make it, We met Wednesday.

The past-tense verb is supposed to clue the reader in to which Wednesday you mean.

The same goes for next Wednesday. If you write, We will meet Wednesday, you clearly mean next week (if it’s already Thursday).

I uncovered those relatively obscure nuggets for expressing dates under the entry for “on.”

Oh, this is going to be a fun class.

Why Proofreading Should Never be Optional

I was recently looking for a new healthcare provider and responded to a well-written, slickly produced brochure I received in the mail. The practice sent me an impressive “Welcome” package that contained two paperback books, which both appeared to be self-published.

One was a thoughtful, substantial work by the physician about his specialty. As self-publishing goes, it was impressive, but there were a few typos. Not a big deal.

The other book was a collection of first-person patient testimonials, accompanied by their full names and, in some cases, photos.

Oh. My. Goodness.

I found typos, usage errors, spelling, and punctuation problems on virtually EVERY PAGE.

The question it raised was, “How can a doctor take such pride in helping his patients feel better, and then leave them swinging like semi-literates in the breeze in PRINT?”

When I met the physician, he was bright and articulate, and I think flummoxed when I told him those testimonials don’t project the image of his practice that he undoubtedly had in mind.

He said, almost apologetically, “Well, they made all those mistakes.”

Obviously.

Since these weren’t professional writers, they probably assumed that this highly educated man would fix their mechanical errors and present their stories in the best light.

I’m guessing he saw it as a matter of honor to publish their words verbatim. But, unless there’s some legal consideration, it’s NEVER a good idea to leave in mistakes that make the writer look careless, inept, or downright ignorant. It makes you look just as bad — maybe even worse if you spent a small fortune having those errors preserved in a book.

ALWAYS proofread and clean up the wording. Every mistake you let stand detracts from your own credibility.