Punctuation Marks – 2

Just as many people are afraid of the comma (in that they don’t know how it works or when to use it), so, too, they’re afraid of the apostrophe. Probably more than they’re afraid of the comma!

The apostrophe was used in French before it was used in English, and in French it was used to indicate an elision — one or more letters missing from a word. As in Let’s go to a movie, there’s a good one playing just down the street, and it’s been ages since we’ve eaten popcorn. During the 1500s learned Englishmen and Englishwomen imitated the French by importing the apostrophe to indicate elisions.

Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English was full of elisions. Think of any of Dickens’ novels. Or British mysteries, with words such as t’night and prob’ly. Some pages look as if a careless writer spilled a saltshaker of apostrophes over everything. Personally, I find too many such apostrophes intrusive to my reading experience. One or two per page, okay. Seven or eight . . . bothersome!

In addition to showing that some letters have been omitted, an apostrophe can also be used to show possession. Based on today’s evidence, I’m guessing that the apostrophe as a mark that shows possession will disappear from American English altogether.

Most people seem terrified by this little punctuation mark and don’t know how to use it to show possession. Or plurals. They seem to just throw the apostrophe in wherever they find an s! A sign that should read Fresh peaches, $2/pound might read Fresh peache’s, $2/pound. Or, Fresh peaches’, $2/pound.

In written language possession is fairly easy to infer. Dad painted Jasons bikes bright red, but Mom painted Saras bikes lime green. That probably looks strange to somebody who uses apostrophes correctly — but it looks a lot better than Dad painted Jasons’ bike’s bright red, but Mom painted Saras bike’s lime green. Perhaps in such cases misusage is worse than no usage. (The correct way to punctuate that sentence is as follows: Dad painted Jason’s bikes bright red, but Mom painted Sara’s bikes lime green.)

Unlike the apostrophe, the slash mark travels under so many different names, I’m not sure it can be trusted. It can be called The Slash (/), the Forward Slash, the Solidus, or the Virgule. I wasn’t taught the slash mark when in high school, nor when in college, and for those reasons I tend to think of it as a modern punctuation mark — more recent, say, than the comma or colon or semicolon.

RomanVirgilFolio014rVergilPortraitBut I am wrong. The slash was used during the days of Ancient Rome, and it made its way into Middle Ages manuscripts, where one slash represented a comma and two slashes (how bold!) represented a dash. The two slashes eventually straightened themselves out to look like a modern-day equals sign (=), but that sign was still a dash, not a mathematical symbol. Eventually the two horizontal dashes (=) became a single dash, which we still use today

The basic purpose of the slash today is to indicate per, as in $500/week. It is often used to indicate alternatives, as in and/or, but books such as The Chicago Manual of Style suggest this expression be avoided because its meaning is unclear. Use the word and, use the word or, or rewrite the sentence another way.

What Jack/Jill will be going up the hill means is this: Either Jack alone or Jill alone or the two of them together will be going up the hill. You can see why people prefer to use the slash mark rather than write out the possibilities indicated by the slash mark.

My favorite use of the slash mark is to indicate line breaks in quoted poetry. To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Unlike the slash mark, the colon has always impressed me as a straightforward punctuation mark, easily understood. (Much more so than the sneaky semicolon.)

Basically a colon is used to introduce a series, the items in the series being examples of the statement that comes in front of the colon. But the colon should not be used to create a list that is really the object of the verb. Here are two examples:

CORRECT — The necessities of life include these: air, water, food, shelter.
INCORRECT — The necessities of life include: air, water, food, shelter.

panctuationIn the correct example, the pronoun these is the object of the verb include. So the first example is correct: the items after the colon rename, or serve as examples, of these.

In the incorrect example, the verb include is being separated from its object. In the incorrect example the words in front of the colon do not constitute a complete sentence. The necessities of life include is not a complete sentence.

The colon is an emphatic punctuation mark. Not as emphatic as the dash, but still, it commands one’s attention. A colon can be used between two independent clauses when the second clause explains the first, expands upon it, illustrates it, or paraphrases it.

Here’s a light-hearted piece I wrote one day after tasting a particularly assertive wasabi.

Note to Self

Bite of wasabi:
Eyes go sobby.

Tasting wasabi:
Eschew as hobby.


There is no wasabi in Barbara Gregorich’s Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Five Figures of Speech

Rhetoric is effective and/or persuasive writing or speaking, and figures of speech are one of the components of rhetoric. Both readers of and speakers of the English language enjoy encountering figures of speech, which can be clever, humorous, biting, visual — intriguing or memorable in some way. Thus writers who can employ figures of speech are more likely to win over their audience.

Because the ancient Greeks valued and taught rhetoric, most figures of speech have names that come from the Greek. I have to confess that I can use a figure of speech, knowing I have used it, without being able to remember its name.


Some sources state that anaphora [a NAPH o ra] is probably the oldest literary device of all. Anaphora is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of successive clauses, and it has been used extensively by writers and speakers of all kinds. Walt Whitman used anaphora, as did Martin Luther King, Jr.

Here’s a well-known example, from Winston Churchill’s most famous World War II speech: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

Then there’s antanaclasis [ANT an a CLASS is], in which a word is repeated in the same grammatical form (verb, for example, or adjective), but with two different meanings or senses. An example is the quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin: “We must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” In both cases hang is a verb, but in its first use it means to consort with, and in its second use it means to be suspended by the neck until dead.

UnknownYou can infer the importance of repetiton, both to the Greeks and to ourselves, when you consider how often repetition is part of a literary device. There’s anaphora, there’s antanaclasis, and there’s ploce [PLO see], which is the repetition of a word, often with intervening words between, and usually the second use of the word has a different meaning than does the first use of the word. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”

game-of-thrones-longclaw-sword-of-jon-snow_1000Metonymy [meh TON eh me] replaces the name of something with a word that is closely associated with the first thing. For example, when Christina Rossetti wrote “Never on this side of the grave again,” she was replacing the word death with something associated with death: the grave. In “The pen is mightier than the sword,” pen is being used instead of written words, and sword is being used instead of military force.

Metonymy is so much a part of our spoken and written language that we’re often unaware that we’re using a figure of speech.

Synecdoche [sin EK do kee] is a special form of metonymy in which a part is used to represent the whole. An example of synecdoche from everyday usage is calling workers hands — the hand is just part of a human being, but it is used to stand for the whole person. Likewise, calling a very intelligent person a brain is an example of synecdoche.

And now, by your leave, I’ll leave you alone.


Barbara Gregorich employs figures of speech in her poems, published in Crossing the Skyway.

Goodbye Hyphen, Hello Confusion

I love punctuation marks. Not just the inventiveness behind them (squiggles, slants, dashes, dots), but the way they work. Punctuation marks help the reader know what the writer of a sentence is trying to say.

So I’m very sad to see the fading-away of the hyphen as a mark that helps the reader understand the writer’s intent. Ad writers are particularly guilty of ignoring this punctuation mark: perhaps they think the hyphen is too tiny to convey anything of importance. They are oh so wrong.

One day several years ago I was hit by two unrelated ads (the “sex party” was in a newsletter, the “never” was on a shopping bag) which I read the wrong way.

     The Tie That Binds

     The hyphen once connected
     what hadn’t yet coalesced,

     protected words from prematurely
     bumping or stubbornly jumping back

     to apartness. Base ball bounced
     into base-ball before it reached home;

     to day grooved into to-day before becoming
     current. But few seek connections these days,

     except for the kind that rack up
     unearned favors or lead to higher-

     paying jobs — not the kind that help patch
     cracks in thinking. Sex party for twenty

     three year olds. She holds you
     in her arms and you feel never

     before love. Tidal waves
     of separation

     drown ember glows
     of punctuation.


This poem appears in Barbara Gregorich’s Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Sentences and Train Wrecks

It’s true that we can communicate through grunts, gestures, and a mere word here and there — but it’s the sentence that’s the basic unit of communication. Not the word. Not the paragraph. Not the chapter. Occasionally readers will marvel over a writer’s word choices. Rarely will readers think, “What a magnificent paragraph!” They will, however, be struck by the power, grace, beauty, or wit of individual sentences.

If you want to write well — to have readers enjoy the content and cadence of what you’re saying — you must write good sentences. And to write good sentences, you must be in charge of where the sentence is going.

In How to Write a Sentence Stanley Fish cautions writers to “make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at).”

porter-cty-train-ax-2The sentence is a train, with clauses, phrases, adjectives, and adverbs all coupled in a logical order. But if the order is wrong — if any of the parts are hooked on incorrectly, swing wide, or come undone — that wrong order can and will pull the train off the track. You will have not a sentence, but a grammatical wreck.

In order to teach yourself to control all the components of a long sentence, Fish asks you to write three-word sentences — lots of them. (Articles don’t count as words at this point.)

Then, after you’ve written 20 or so such sentences, he asks you to expand each into a 15-word sentence: articles count as words at this point. Be sure that you remember the doer and action from the 3-word sentence, be sure that they remain the doer and action, and be sure you can tell how your additional words relate to the doer and action.

After you’re sure that your 15-word sentences are clear and unambiguous . . . expand them to 30 words.

Finally, expand them to 100 words.

This is a wonderful exercise! Here’s what I did with it:

3-word sentence
Xenia steered the boat.

17-word sentence
As a furious rain assailed the heart of Chicago, Xenia, gripping the wheel firmly, steered the boat.

30-word sentence
As a furious rain, more furious than any in living memory, assailed the heart of Chicago, pelting pedestrians and vehicles, Xenia, gripping the wheel firmly, steered the wildly bucking boat.

Neptune_1100-word sentence
As a furious rain, more furious than any in living memory, assailed the heart of Chicago, pelting not only pedestrians scrambling for shelter and vehicles laboring through river-like streets, but assaulting the great skyscrapers themselves, cascading off them in colossal waterfalls, Xenia, more or less dry inside her yellow slicker and hat, gripping the wheel firmly, refusing to relinquish it to any mortal (maybe not even to Neptune himself should he appear from the deep), steered the wildly bucking yet totally seaworthy boat northward, toward the line where the dark and furious storm clouds met the brilliant blue sky.

The purpose of this exercise is not to prove that longer sentences are better than shorter ones, but to make certain the writer can control sentence structure at all times. At no time in any of my sample sentences did the subject or verb or object change. Rather, I added many modifiers (some words, some phrases) to give a more detailed picture. I did not let any of these modifiers hijack my sentence and run off with its meaning.

Which is not to say that the 100-word sentence is anything I would ever write — that long sentence is easy to enjoy, but a bit difficult to take seriously.

Still, I kind of like the brilliant blue sky at the end.


Barbara Gregorich’s mystery Sound Proof contains approximately 10,000 sentences . . . none of them a train wreck.