The “Infamous” Quotation Marks

I’ve been doing a lot of proofreading and grading recently, which means grammar is more and more the uppermost thing on my mind. Today, I will address two main misuses of quotation marks.

First, I would like to address the mistaken idea that you need to use quotation marks in order to make a phrase stand out. That’s what Italics are for, if the phrase really must stand out. Quotation marks are for (surprise!) quotations. And titles of articles or songs. That’s all. Every time I see them where they’re not needed, I picture that annoying person who speaks using the finger-hook quotation marks for every slang word he uses. It makes me want to break his fingers, and it makes me want to break your pen. Stop it.

Secondly, let’s talk about the hairy topic of quotation marks when it comes to punctuation. As a general rule, in American English, punctuation is included inside the quotation marks, but it’s only barely a general rule. Commas and periods are always included inside the quotation marks. Colons and semicolons should always be on the outside of the quotation marks, and things like question marks are situational and it depends on whether the thing being quoted is actually a question.

Correct:

What book began, “In a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit”?

The sentence being quoted is not a question, so the question mark doesn’t go inside the quotation marks.

Thank you for joining me for today’s grammar rant.

Everyday Mistakes

Besides the Oxford comma, another common mistake is the misuse of “everyday.” Unlike “alright,” which is just an informal meshing of two words, “everyday” and “every day” actually have two separate meanings.

To put it briefly, “everyday” is an adjective, while “every day” is an adjective followed by a noun.

Before I took Latin and really understood English, I would perform one of two tests: either I would insert the word “single” between “every” and “day,” and if it still made sense, I used the two-word phrase. Or I would substitute “each” for “every.” Again, if it still made sense, I would use the two-word phrase.

Using your newly honed editorial skills, tell me which sentence is correct:

These are some of the everyday mistakes people make.

or

These are some of the mistakes people make everyday.

Thank you for playing! I’ll be here all week.

Grammar Debate: The Oxford Comma

I’m not sure if it’s actually referred to as “the Oxford comma,” but I heard it on Stephen Colbert last night, so I’m running with it. The point is, it’s quite often the subject of debate. What is the Oxford comma? It’s that last comma separating the items in a series. For example, in a, b, and c, the Oxford Comma would be the one following “b.”

According to current grammar rules, the Oxford comma should always be there.

This is confusing to some people, largely because it used to be optional. However, it can completely change the meaning of a sentence sometimes if it’s missing, and it’s never more obfuscating if it’s there, so why not always put it there?

Entire lawsuits have been built around a missing Oxford comma. Consider an estate that’s to be equally split among Jane, Jack, Millie and Joe. Does that mean Jane and Jack each get 1/3 of the estate while Millie and Joe split the remaining 3rd or that each of them gets a quarter of the estate? You may laugh, but it’s true.

The point is, especially in formal writing, it’s better to take the safe route. MLA and APA guidelines call for every item in a series to be followed by a comma, so no matter who you’re writing for, you’re better off assuming it’s not optional.

Impossible Dreams

I eat chocolate in a pretty regular basis. One of my favorite chocolates to eat is Dove dark chocolate. It’s kind of a signature that they have fortune-cookie-type sayings inside the wrappers of each little chocolate piece, like “Worry wastes wisdom.”

I recently got one that instructed:

If you fall down 7 times, get up 8.

Sounds inspirational, unless you take about 10 seconds to think about it. The falling must precede the getting up. You have to fall before you can rise. So if you fall down 7 times, the most you can climb back up is 7. This confuses me.

Maybe they’re talking about the number on the scale?