Thursday, December 29, 2005

Random acts of punctuation

Let me guess. Some evildoer snuck into the Missourian at night, took all the year's surplus punctuation marks, dumped them in the CD player and hit "randomize"? Or is there some other explanation for ...

“I have no idea man, ya’ll talk to Coach Q on that one,” Horton said. (1B Thursday)

1) Always separate nouns or pronouns of direct address from the rest of the sentence with a comma. "Let's eat, Roscoe" does not mean the same thing as "Let's eat Roscoe." This rule holds whether the address precedes ("Man, I have no idea") or follows ("I have no idea, man") the main clause.
2) Don't use commas alone to join independent clauses. That fault is called a "comma splice." Since people don't speak punctuation (more on this follows), editors should feel free to keep writers from making their subjects look dumb in this manner.
3) Misplacing the apostrophe in "y'all" is the indelible Mark of the Yankee trying to fake it (more on dialect writing follows, too). The apostrophe in "y'all" behaves the same way as the one in "you're": It replaces the missing letter or letters. There are no missing letters in the "all" part of "y'all." What do you suppose "y'all" stands for, anyway? (Hint: Try the dictionary.)

And speaking of contractions ...

The same day, Missouri also held it's "Futures Bowl", a scrimmage involving first-year or redshirt players that hinted at the future of Tigers football. (1B Thursday)

Right. No apostrophe in "its" here. It's not a contraction -- unlike

"Its pressure you accept, you want to be successful," Duany said. (1B Thursday)

... in which "it's" is a contraction. So even if you completely slept through 105 and 110 and every other class in which the its/it's distinction is discussed, you could have figured these two out. That's so irritating one is tempted to overlook the comma splice here (why not just make it two sentences?) and the misplaced comma after "Futures Bowl" above (and yes, alas, more on that later).

"I just try to lead by example, that's the only way I know how," Smith said. "I'm trying to come out and play fast, make great decisions, and be focused. (4B Thursday)

Yep. Another spoken comma splice. And a nice Oxford comma after "decisions" -- but last I heard, the Missourian still followed AP style, which removes that comma in most such cases.

"So we need a big lift from the bench,” Watkins said, speaking as a starter but acknowledging himself as one of those ‘bench guys’. (3B Thursday)

Commas and periods go inside quotation marks. American English uses double quotes, not single, for "bench guys" and the like. See "slept through," above.

You could get the impression that the sports department is the lead offender in punctuation carelessness, and you'd be right. But it is not the only one:

Das was the second author of Robert’s paper for which he received the acknowledgement. (1A Thursday).

In the lede and throughout the story, he's "Roberts." Why is he "Robert" in this reference?

She will also perform a cover of the Animals' song "House of the Rising Sun," which leads with a reference to "a house in New Orleans." (1A Thursday).

That's an Animals song, not an Animals' song. Don't be fooled by the "s." You can test whether you need the possessive by plugging in any name that doesn't end in "s," same as with sports teams:

* She will also perform the Sinatra's song "Fly Me to the Moon."
She will also perform the Sinatra song "Fly Me to the Moon."

There are several cases in which the possessive is fine:
She will also perform Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon."
She will also perform the Animals' first hit, "House of the Rising Sun."

... but that's determined by function, not by the presence or absence of "s."

As you might have gathered, the rules of punctuation aren't the rules of physics (else there wouldn't be the dispute over the Oxford comma, nor would British and American English disagree on single vs. double quotes). What makes a paper like today's especially embarrassing -- and I trust we can agree that it is pretty damn embarrassing -- is not that the whole staff is ignoring your or my or Colonel Blimp's favorite set of rules, but that it's ignoring a different set for just about every story.

Oh, yeah. Dialect:

"This game is different (than other neutral-site games). It's basically split down the middle, and if you're playin' well your fans are cheering, and if they're playing well, their fans are cheering. It kind of goes back and forth."

So the coach actually said playin' in one clause and playing in the next? Time for a reminder of the two basic rules of dialect writing for newspapers:

1) Don't try to mark dialect visually unless you're at the skill level of, say, Roddy Doyle or T.R. Pearson.
2) You aren't.

This doesn't mean "don't use contractions." Contractions are a fine, well-tested, sturdy part of the language, though it'll be nice if you spell them correctly when you use them. It means don't use orthographic tricks to indicate features like g-dropping (so called) or vowel shifts.



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