It doesn’t take much to turn all the foreigners in Switzerland into convicts, and I don’t mean the vote Sunday 28 November or even the infamous black sheep posters by the UDC (People’s Party). It’s much easier: a comma will do the trick nicely.
There are many uses for commas, but one of the most abused and mis-used is the comma that isolates weak interruptions to sentences: Check that these words really are an interruption and that if you lifted them from the sentence it would still make sense. Then re-read it to be sure it says what you want it to say.
Here is a fine example of a weak interruption, with commas used correctly. It’s from a comment posted on swissinfo’s lengthy article about the reaction of foreigners in Switzerland to the vote approving automatic expulsion of criminals who are foreigners, once they’ve served their prison sentences.
‘Your title is misleading. It should read “Foreigners, who are criminals, alarmed by Swiss Expulsion vote”…
The title of the article is “Foreigners alarmed by Swiss expulsion vote”.
Once you’ve checked that your use of the commas for a weak interruption is correct, read it again to be sure this is what you mean. Write what you mean and mean what you write.
Try the comment author’s sentence above, without commas, to see how this shifts the meaning.
“Foreigners who are criminals alarmed by Swiss expulsion vote.”
Well, they would be, wouldn’t they?
But it doesn’t say anything about what the rest of us think.
I’ve been following the TES (Times Ed Supplement) coverage of the IBO’s recent problems with plagiarism. I have been asked if I believe all speeches have to cite their sources all the time. While there is some acceptance of the idea that citation matters less in a speech, where ideas are often borrowed and you don’t want to bore the audience with verbal clutter, good speakers have the self-confidence and intellectual honesty to briefly attribute a good line to the person who crafted it. Clutter shouldn’t be an issue if most of the speech is your own.
A friend who contacted me about it said that the incidents in question are a good reminder to everyone to give credit where it’s due. But, she said, somewhat embarrassed, she is never sure exactly how to punctuate quotes in print, which reminded me how widespread this problem is. I recently edited the work of a group of writers, and their inconsistent use of punctuation with quote marks was part of the tidying up work I had to do.
Here, as with many other areas of grammar and punctuation, the idea that people writing for an international audience have to choose between British or American usage is based on the false notion that there is such a thing. Each of these countries has more than one accepted style for quotation marks, punctuation in general and spelling. Australia, Canada, India, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa are some of the larger countries that use English officially and they have yet more variations that are widely considered correct.
Here’s a slightly modified version of what I wrote about quotation marks in 2003 in The Fine Line (see below), the book behind this blog, based on considerable research into accepted international usage. A quick online check I did this week shows it is still valid.
What to call those marks, and single versus double ones
Use double quotation marks for citations. These are also called inverted commas or quotes but to avoid confusion use the term quotation marks in written references to them. Single ones indicate a quote within a quote. Long citations should be indented with no quotation marks, although online, for clarity, many editors including me do both. The eye readily skims printed pages but not screens. Punctuation generally goes inside the quotation marks unless the quote has no punctuation.
Note the punctuation in this example:
“‘You seem very clever at explaining words, Sir,’ said Alice. ‘Would you kindly tell me the meaning of the poem “Jabberwocky”?’” (Carroll, L 1871)
The question mark is part of the quotation and is therefore inside single quotation marks. The double marks immediately after indicate the end of the quoted text. We’re quoting Lewis Carroll, who was putting Alice’s dialogue in quotation marks. The poem is not considered long, so it is also in quotation marks.
The greatest punctuation confusion seems to arise with quotation marks and full stops, perhaps because several systems are used around the world. The system below is generally well accepted. If a sentence is complete it has a full stop inside the quotation marks. A second full stop after the quotation marks is unnecessary. This is replaced by a comma if the sentence cited is contained in another sentence:
“Do not go gentle into that good night.” This is a famous line of 20th century poetry.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,” wrote Dylan Thomas when his father was dying.
If the quotation or citation is not a complete sentence it will not have ending punctuation and the quotation marks indicate the end of the quote, followed in this case by a full stop:
The students argued about what he meant by “good night”.
When to use quotation marks
Use them for titles of short works, such as essays and most poems, for parts of longer works, for direct quotations from speech or print.
When not to use quotation marks
Do not use them to set off words in a text, a bad habit picked up by too many writers. For emphasis or to indicate a special use of a term, italics are acceptable. The problem of how to set off the text can often be avoided by writing precisely what you mean, clearly, so that you don’t have to use either solution.
The Fine Line book
The Fine Line, Communicating Clearly in English in an International Setting was initially written as a style guide for the International Baccalaureate Organization in 1999, based on research into correct, popular usage in English-speaking countries around the world. A revised edition, with new research to reflect the impact of the Internet, was published in 2003. The book, currently out of print, sold 7,000 copies worldwide and is still used by schools, universities and international organizations around the world. As the author and copyright owner I’ve decided to continue sharing the guide’s contents online, through this blog. Note that the IBO has no connection with the book today.
This is a sentence I published last night, but rewrote this morning after seeing it with fresh eyes: (new version) “The world is a funny inter-connected kind of place when you’re sitting in a small town near Geneva, Switzerland and you see in the Los Angeles Times page for local animal-lovers that a couple of kangaroos have had a gooooood kissing and cuddling session in Basel.”
The original version was correct, but it didn’t look or feel right, and if it bothered me, it will bother other readers. Editing isn’t just a matter of getting the writing correct, but of making the reader comfortable. The goal is to make readers forget the grammar and spelling and punctuation so they can concentrate on the content.
Here is what I had earlier: The world is a funny inter-connected kind of place when you’re sitting in a small town near Geneva, Switzerland and you see in the Los Angeles Times for local animal-lovers page that a couple of kangaroos have had a gooooood kissing and cuddling session in Basel.
What was wrong with this sentence, grammatically? Nothing, although the more pedantic editors among us will argue for an apostrophe: Times‘ or Times’s, to show that the page belongs to the newspaper. The Times’ solution is considered wrong by some editors (I’m one of them) because it signifies that Times is plural, whereas logically we’re talking about a newspaper, so the use of singular is called for. But who has the time or energy for this kind of hair-splitting in an age where many people don’t know the difference between it’s and its?
Our house style, for an international audience, includes the more easily understood Times’s, but I avoid using this as much as possible because it weighs down the sentence. Writing for the web should be kept light because the eye does not scan the same way it does with paper. Web writing benefits from being as free as possible of eye-stopping commas, apostrophes, dashes and other grammar trappings, while respecting the need for enough of these for the writing to be clear.
Possession, and the use of an apostrophe to show it, is one of the most confusing bits of punctuation for many writers who otherwise feel they write clearly and have mastered grammar. Should we write the board of directors meeting or the board of directors’ meeting?
Relax: both are correct. The first solution is considered correct because you can make the argument that it is descriptive rather than a case of possession. Personally, I prefer the first one, but it has great potential for error, so if you’re a writer who is on unsteady ground here, keep that apostrophe.
Coming back to the LA Times and kangaroos, I think an argument can be made that the whole phrase is descriptive, although you can certainly argue that the page belongs to the LA Times. I don’t believe the page belongs to the animal-lovers, however: it is for them. They definitely don’t get an apostrophe, I’m afraid.