PSA: Managing Contractions

Today’s question comes from Jim A.

I have a simple question:

If I say, “That’s the cat’s toy,” then “cat’s” is possessive and correct with an apostrophe. [Right-O, Jim. Continue.] But if I say, “Your cats outside,” I am making a contraction with cat and is.  Should it be “cat’s,” which appears possessive or “cats,” which appears to be plural?

That’s a good one, Jim. The Grammar Cat comes to you from Texas, so we’re no strangers to blending two (or more) words into one for efficiency’s sake. The heat down here makes things melt into each other, and words are no exception.

Before we get right to it, let’s talk about an important use of the apostrophe. With the exception of possessives, the apostrophe functions as a placeholder for missing letters or numbers. That’s why we use it in contractions like can’t and didn’t. Can’t, of course, is short for cannot. Pull out the second n and the o, insert the apostrophe to indicate missing letters, and you have yourself the contraction. Similarly with did not, you can replace the o with an apostrophe, but you don’t replace the space between words with one. One of my personal favorites is shouldn’t’ve, which is actually three words squashed into one, because like I said, it’s hot down here. Must conserve energy. If there are still questions on it, you might check out our previous post that goes into more detail.

The same use of the apostrophe goes for numbers, specifically decades. Take for instance the 1980s, most famous for big hair, power ballads, and Alf.

The mortal enemy of TGC: Alf

AKA Grammar Cat’s mortal enemy

When it’s shortened and the 19 is taken out, most people know instinctively that there should be an apostrophe in there somewhere, but that’s about where general understanding ends. So then we get a whole lot of the 80’s, which is incorrect. It should be the ’80s. That’s because what’s been taken out is the 19, which comes before the 80. Nothing’s been taken out between 80 and s, and it’s not possessive, so there shouldn’t be an apostrophe between the 80 and the s. However, if you’re talking about something that a decade possessed, you could add an apostrophe at the very end.

Example:

Josie and the Pussycats was the ’70s’ most fabulous cartoon.” Of course, it sounds much better to say, “Josie and the Pussycats was the most fabulous cartoon of the ’70s,” or just not talk about Josie and the Pussycats at all.

So to answer your question, Jim, in the case you explained, you’re cramming together the words cat and is by removing one letter, which means that there needs to be an apostrophe to hold the place of the missing letter; therefore, the correct way to write it is, “Your cat’s outside.”

And I think she wants back in...

And I think she wants back in…

Frank’nstein’d

You know those little dangly things that stick up in the middle of words sometimes? No, not the dot in an i or a j. I mean the ones that show up in the middle of an otherwise normal word and stick WAY the hell up like they’re–ah! There’s one! AHH! And another!

cat1

Get it get it get it.

When that mark appears in the middle of a word like “they’re” or “there’s,” it’s an apostrophe. “Apostrophe” probably comes from Greek but I’m too lazy to look it up. Let’s just assume it means “little dangly thing in the middle of a word.”
Apostrophes have several uses. They show possession, as in The cat’s fabulous hairdo.
 
cat wig
Most of us, thank dog, have a grasp on that usage. The difference between “the cats” (plural, multiple cats) and “the cat’s” (possessive, single cat) is fairly easy to see. If it’s not easy for you to see, just nod your head anyway and we’ll cover it in a later post.

 

What certain people on the Internet seem to have a harder time with is the difference between a word like “your” (possessive) and “you’re,” which is a contraction of “you” + “are.” The same goes for its/it’s and their/they’re/there. This is something that will literally drive grammar people up a wall, almost as much as misusing the word “literally.”

 

catwall
Literally.

 

“You’re” and “your” are homophones, like those in Claire’s last post. They sound alike and mean totally different things. But there’s a foolproof way to think about this so that you don’t uset the wrong

Contractions like “you’re,” “it’s,” and “don’t” are like Frankenstein’s monster.
 
Frankencat-l1
It’s ‘FRAHN-ken-steen.’

 

Frankenstein’s monster, for those of you who slept through tenth-grade English, was cobbled together out of corpses, which is something it’s better not to think about too deeply. This is why any self-respecting portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster has to include those big-ass scars.

 

frankenkitty
Bonus lesson: calling the monster “Frankenstein” and not “Frankenstein’s monster” is a quick way to distinguish English majors from everyone else. The English majors will begin twitching uncontrollably.

 

In a contraction like “you’re,” think of the apostrophe like a scar. You, Dr. Frankenstein, have stitched together the words “you” and “are” to make a perfect killing machine–I’m sorry, I mean contraction. A perfect contraction. Yes.
But that “a” in “are” turned out to be superfluous, like having two kidneys, so you cut it out. Removing the letter left a scar, which is the apostrophe.

 

You + are = you’re
Its_alive_cat

 

Now let’s say you’re casually writing a sentence. You want to tell your BFF, Fluffy, that you caught and killed one of her favorite birds, which happens to be a grackle. But do you say “you’re favorite bird” or “your favorite bird”?

 

Un-Frankenstein it to be sure. Would you say “you are favorite bird”? No, because then it starts to sound like Fluffy is a bird, and she will cut you if you start spreading rumors like that.

 

catbird
Bitch, don’t even.

 

By deduction, we need “your” in this case: “Your favorite bird.”

 

Now, if you want to make it up to Fluffy and tell her that she’s the best cat in the world, you’d say:

 

“You’re the best” = “[you + are] the best.”

 

At this point you can stop thinking about it and move on, because “your the best” does not make any kind of sense whatsoever and will provoke grammar people into a frothing rage.
angry-cat-birthday-hat
The same trick works for “it’s” (it + is), “they’re” (they + are), and “I’m” (I + am). If you can’t break it apart, it was never stitched together in the first place.

 

Example 1:
Look at its cute little face!
deadpancat

 

Do I mean “look at [it + is] cute little face”? No, that doesn’t make sense. Therefore “its” is correct.

 

Example 2:
It’s coming toward us! Run!
scarycat

 

Do I mean “[It + is] coming toward us”? Yes!

 

NOW RUN.

Outing Some Sneaky Homophones

Homophones are, quite simply, the bane of many editors’ existence. They’re one of the most common mistakes, and they’re easy to miss, because the brain is an unreliable monster.

genius cat

“Is it affect or effect? I don’t know what to believe in anymore.”

Homophones are words that sound alike and may or may not be spelled the same. If they’re spelled the same, then great! You can screw it up all you want and no one will know the difference. It’s when words sound the same but they’re spelled differently that people start to look a little bit foolish.

Wikipedia warns not to confuse the word “homophone” with “homophobe” because Wikipedia is targeted at knuckleheads. Although, if you have fat fingers (or paws), you could very well accidentally type the wrong word, which is just another argument for proofreading.

Editor cat accidentally asked the author to correct the homophobes... but he's not sorry.

Student Cat just received a poor grade from his professor due to “homophobe errors.”

Homophone errors can cause quite a bit of confusion in your writing (or just make you look like an idiot—either way).

Example: The cat killed the vampire with a steak to the heart.

"It's so crazy, it just might work."

“It’s so crazy, it just might work.”

Unless the vampire has some serious plaque build up in his arteries, this is probably the worst plan for defeating a vampire. Try again.

Example: The cat killed the vampire with a stake to his heart.

That makes much more sense, well, beside the whole scenario taking place to begin with.

One of the main problems with homophones occurs when people don’t know there are homophones to be had. Whenever someone runs into a homophone he or she never knew existed, there tends to be this horrifying moment:

"Wait. Have I been spelling it wrong this whole time?"

“Wait. Have I been spelling it wrong this whole time?”

We’ve all felt that, so let’s work together to keep that from happening to anyone ever again. It’s time for some of the homophones to come out of the closet!

Altar (n)/alter (v)

The woman placed the cat upon the altar of her shrine.

altar cat

The psychopath altered the bear’s skin so that he could wear it. 

8108083297_e3ff28fd03_n

Bazaar (n)/Bizarre (adj)

Scruffy had spent his whole kittenhood selling silk scarves at the bazaar, and no one could haggle better than him. 

"Please, sir, I need to feed my litter!"

“Psh! I can’t feed my litter on that offer!”

When Spot saw a cat selling scarves, he wagged his tail and said, “How bizarre!”

Surprised-Dog-85614684065_xlarge

So judgmental.

Berth (n, sometimes v)/Birth (n, v, adj)

This one could be tricky if you’re high on catnip or something. The most common confusion with these homophones is when people talk about playoffs of any sort.

"I've worked too hard for you to ruin this with a homophone error."

“I’ve worked too hard for you to ruin this moment with a homophone error.”

One does not earn one’s right to being birthed into playoff existence, though I can visualize the metaphor (all too vividly). Instead, one wins a playoff berth. So what’s the difference?

Berth has a few definitions. Most of them are nautical. When it comes to “berth” as a verb, all the definitions are about ships. So let’s move on. Here are the most useful, non-nautical definitions of berth as a noun, according to the gospel of Merriam-Webster.

1. “An amount of distance maintained for safety.”

Example. You’re going to want to give this cat a wide berth.

Crazy-cat_large

 

2. “Job, position, place.”

Example: This year the Jacksonville Jaguars will have their first playoff berth since 2007.

"What's the point? It's not like we have a chance at the Super Bowl anyway," said the mopey jaguar.

“What’s the point? It’s not like we have a chance at the Super Bowl anyway,” said the mopey jaguar.

As far as uses for “birth” go, I really hope I don’t have to provide explanation and pictures. Your parents/school districts should have already informed you about that process.

pirate cat

“But what about those nautical terms? Some of us might want to know!”

Fine. You’re asking for it. I’m not kidding about there being a lot of them.

1. Sufficient distance for maneuvering a ship
2. The place where a ship lies when at anchor or at a wharf
3. A place to sit or sleep especially on a ship or vehicle
4. A billet on a ship
And the verb:
5. To bring (a ship) into a place where it can stop and stay : to bring (a ship) into a berth

Complement (v, n)/Compliment (v, n)

Both of these have a positive connotation, so sometimes they’re confused. But trust me, the cat sweater doesn’t “compliment” the sad model’s beard, it “complements” it.

Example of it “complimenting” his beard: “Oh hey,” said the cat sweater, “your beard is awesome and it hides your sadness really well.”
Visual example of a cat sweater “complementing” his beard:

Just like the old saying goes, "They go together as well as a cat sweater and a bearded man."

Just like the old saying goes, “They go together  like a cat sweater and a bearded man.”

“Complement” means, “something that completes something else or makes it better,” as is clearly demonstrated by Vince (probably his name) and his amazing sweater, neither of which would be complete without the other. Can’t you see how complete he feels?

Discreet (adj)/Discrete (adj)

This one is a sneaky homo because most people only know one version of the word even exists, and that’s “discreet.” That version means that something is either out of the way or unlikely to be noticed, or it can refer to a person using good judgement or “being discreet.”

So very discreet.

So very discreet.

“Discrete” is almost never used (except in Grammar Cat conclusion paragraphs), because it’s almost an exact synonym for “distinct,” so people tend toward that word instead. But “discrete” exists, it’s just being very discreet about its existence.

Hangar (n)/Hanger (n)

This cat is hanging out in some hangers.

cat hanger

This cat is hanging out in a hangar.

cat hangar

For those who still don’t get it, note the plane in the background.

Load (n, v)/Lode (n)

If you’re putting something into or onto something else, you are loading. The only word from this homo pair that can be used as a verb is “load.” Simple enough?

Okay, so here’s the thing. You can have a truckload of kittens…

kittenpile-300x214
… and you can have the mother lode of cat toys.

Mother lode cat

But while they appear very similar (they both have a large amount of something!), you cannot have a trucklode of kittens or a mother load of cat toys. The trick lies in the origin of the word “lode.” It originally referred only to an ore deposit, and the term “mother lode” referred to a particularly large one (that you might be killed for later if you didn’t keep your big mouth shut). Now we use it in reference to anything that we discover a lot of: “I found the mother lode of Fancy Feast at PetSmart today!” A good rule is that if you’re not referring to gold, and you don’t have the word “mother” in front of it, stick with “load.”

Mantle (n, v)/Mantel (n)

This cat is sitting on a mantel:

Cat-on-mantel-1-768x1024

Mantel = pointless shelf above the fireplace

This cat is wearing a mantle:

cat mantle

Mantle =  badass cloak

Two other definitions for the -le version:

1. “The position of someone who has responsibility or authority.”
Example: Fluffy had earned his mantle by defeating the mutt next door.

2. “The part of the interior of a terrestrial planet and especially the earth that lies beneath the crust and above the central core.”
Example: Tiger was terrible at geology; he always mixed up the central core and the mantle on his charts.

Stationery (n)/Stationary (adj)

“Stationery” is a thing. “Stationary” describes a thing. So yes, you can have stationary stationery, but not the other way around.

This cat is not moving. She is…

STATIONARY!

STATIONARY!

This cat is writing a letter on…

STATIONERY!

STATIONERY!

 

I hope we’ve taken a strong first step in outing some homophones. Keep in mind, there are hundreds, possibly thousands (depending on dialects) of homophones in English, so we’ve only touched on a few. Can you think of a homophone pair that needs to be outed? Let us know by requesting a topic, and it might just be our next PSA.

So next time you’re typing a word and you have this sneaking suspicion that there may be more than one way to spell it, perhaps you have actually stumbled upon a homophone! When that happens, be respectful and remember that homophones are actually discrete (boom!) words, not simply interchangeable spellings for the same thing. Let’s treat all homos with the respect they deserve.

Greetings, Earthlings.

To commemorate Grammar Cat having been viewed in over ninety countries around the globe, let’s talk foreign languages! Well, not actually talk them, because we don’t know many. What we do know, however, is how to integrate them into English text.

cute-animals-japanese-cat-wearing-kimono-pics

The Grammar Cat has been viewed in fourteen countries across Asia! But not China. Never China.

The way to set apart foreign language text from the surrounding English is to add italics. It’s a visual device that’s kind to readers, especially if the language is close to English and may share many words, like, say, French, Spanish, or German.  Since English is essentially the lovechild of French and German, it’s riddled with words that were originally French or German. However, not every French word is italicized, because that would be endlessly annoying. The rule for when to add italics is basically contingent upon one question: How stupid are your readers? Okay, so that’s harsh (maybe). But basically, the first use of foreign words and phrases in a text should only be italicized if they are ones with which average readers may be unfamiliar.

This cat has that je ne sais quoi that makes him so very chic!

If you’re unsure whether or not readers will know the foreign word, see if it appears in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. If it appears in an English dictionary, assume that readers will be familiar with it (or as familiar as they are with the other words in there).

The same goes for when the phrase is found in dialogue.

Example: The man looked longingly at le chat through the glass divider before turning to the clerk. “Combien coûte-t-il?”

While translating “cat” to the French word doesn’t make much sense here, it’s to prove a point, people. Were it not italicized, the sentence might be even more confusing and nonsensical than it already is, because “chat” means different things in each language. You will do your readers a great service if you follow that rule.

At the same time, italicizing every foreign word or phrase is going to become an eyesore.

"Well said! Oh that's jolly good."

Too many eyesores leads to glasses, so unless you’re a swanky British cat and can pull off glasses like you were born to wear them, do avoid eyesores.

Example of eyesore: I met the attaché for our weekly rendezvous at the café. She was a brunette southern belle and a bon vivant, and she spent her days eating croissants and éclairs.

Admittedly, most sentences that aren’t about baked goods have many fewer French terms, but hopefully my point is made.

Sometimes, authors think it’d be cool to have their characters speak a lot of a language that isn’t English (looking at you, Agatha Christie!), and the courteous thing to do is often to include a translation into English.

Example: While he called himself le chat sosie de Poirot (Poirot’s cat lookalike), we all knew who he really was.

afd5b8f6663bf4e535357b9af5a45330

Bonjour. Je m’appelle Inspecteur Poirot Chat. Vous avez tué mon père. Préparez-vous à mourir.

For those of you unfamiliar with French, I suggest you Google Translate that caption, because I just killed it with that reference to a previous post.

Anyway, you can also use quotation marks in lieu of parentheses, if that tickles your fancy feast. But we all know how some people deserve to be in QMA (Quotation Marks Anonymous), and so for those of you who can’t have nice things, stick with the parentheses.

¿Entiendes?
Comprenez-vous?
Verstehen Sie?
Capisce?
Skilur þú?
Καταλαβαίνετε;
Ooday ouyay understanday?

PSA: Direct Address Commas

Let’s get to the point, folks.

A direct address is when you are addressing a person or group directly and you use a name or something like, “sir” or “everyone” in relating to that person or group.

Example: [see first line of post]

I see what you did there...

I see what you did there…

The direct address can fall anywhere within a sentence. If it begins a sentence, a comma needs to follow it.
Ex: Felix, if you cough up one more hairball on my carpet, you’ll get to see what it’s like to be an outdoor cat.

If the direct address is in the middle of a sentence, there needs to be a comma before and after it.
Ex: You know, kitty, just because I enjoy talking with you doesn’t mean I’m lonely.

If the direct address ends a sentence, a comma needs to come before it.
Ex: Would you like to eat, Fluffy?

Now let’s look at that last sentence without the direct address comma.
Would you like to eat Fluffy?

Please don't eat me.

Please don’t eat me.

You monster.

Inconceivable Diction: an Intervention with Inigo Catoya

This post is brought to you by:

I know, I know: he’s not a cat. Can we nonetheless agree that Mr. Montoya makes an excellent point about some of our ability to choose words in a way that you won’t lose your readers?

No?

Fine. Here’s Inigo Catoya:

Image You killed my father. Prepare to cuddle.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s say you’re writing about your cat–not a stretch, right? You’ve got the cat right in front of you, lounging decadently yet sophisticatedly on the windowsill, and all you want, with every iota of your being, is to communicate the grace and beauty you see before you. Your task now is to pick the right word.

Then this happens:

She walked into the room. She saw the cat. The cat looked directly at her with a smoldering green gaze.

Here’s how that works when I read it:

First sentence: cool. Second sentence: cool. Third sentence: ooh, smoldering! Nice word cho–what is “gaze” doing there?

A screeching halt, that’s what happens. No one is going to get carried away by your verbiage if they have to stop and process what’s happening. And this is what I imagine when I see “gaze” used that way:

Image

The gaze is the invisible line between your eyeballs and whatever you’re looking at. “Invisible” is the key word. Eyes can be blue; a gaze cannot be blue. (“Cannot” in this case meaning, “your editor will be imagining blue lasers beaming from your character’s eyes.” If this is your intention, by all means, carry on.) A gaze can, however, be intense or glassy or passionate or whatever. A gaze can also travel at will. “His eyes wandered across the room” is ambiguous at best and requires immediate medical attention at worst.

A look and a gaze are close relatives. Both of them work as verbs and nouns:

The cat looked at me incredulously.

The cat gave me an incredulous look.

Image

The cat gazed at me, murder in its eyes.

The cat’s gaze was murderous.

Image

What you see right before you die.

Even eye works this way:

The cats eyes were full of promises of what was to come.

The cat eyed me like he knew what he was doing.

Image

 

But when the thing you’re picturing in your mind is your character’s eyes, for the love of cats, say “eyes.” Don’t say “look” or “gaze” or something weird like “scan.” If you use “scan” as a noun, this is what I will picture:

Image

Cat scan. HEH HEH.

“But but but,” I can hear you saying, “I have to talk about my cat’s eyes for six sentences! If I keep using, ‘eyes’ every time, it’ll be really repetitive!”

First of all, if your paragraph is dwelling so heavily on one thing that you have to dig deep into the pits of the thesaurus to avoid repetition, one might choose to take it as a sign that something needs to change. Something that is not word choice. Second, there are still plenty of other things you can use to describe the thing on your cat’s face that it uses to watch birds out the window. Let’s use as our example a confused cat, because it turns out there are a lot of those on the Internet.

The cat’s face showed his confusion.

Image

…sideways.

Confusion radiated from the cat’s countenance.

Image

The cat looked severely confused and alarmed.

Image

IT’S GOT MY LEG. OH GOD.

There you have it: gaze and eyes (and some other stuff). Mess it up and Inigo Catoya will give you scans of withering scorn…

catoya

…or something.

The Majestic Semicolon

Grammar fact: Five hundred and forty-two people a day are faced with the conundrum of whether or not to use a semicolon in an important communication. Five hundred and fifteen decide against it, because they just have no freaking clue how it works.

Okay, so that’s not a solid fact, but there are a lot of people who still have no idea how one is used and find themselves utterly confused and wondering how, with modern printing technology, the publisher managed such an egregious mistake of somehow stacking a period on top of a comma.

Or maybe you feel a little overwhelmed when you encounter one and don’t know what to do with it.

“What…is…that?”

But take a moment and think back to the last time you encountered a semicolon. Did you just start spitting up on yourself or did your mind make sense of it by just sort of reading it as a half-assed period? If that’s what your mind did, your mind might be on to something, because the semicolon can sometimes function as a half-assed, wishy-washy period…

BUT MAJESTIC AS ALL GET OUT.

big-lion-beckgroun-free-picture

Behold the semicolon’s feline counterpart!

While the semicolon does have quite a few uses in citations, Grammar Cat would rather clean litter boxes for eternity, Sisyphus-style, than optionally talk about citation formatting. If you’re reading this to get that exact information, I suggest you stop wasting your time on this website and get busy weeping. Just get it all out of your system. There you go… No, crying is not a show of weakness… Well, your father was wrong, then.

Without further ado, we present to you the many magical uses of the majestic semicolon.

Use #1: The semicolon can be used between two independent clauses that lack a conjunction, as a way of showing that the clauses are closely related.

So let’s break that into more manageable terms. An independent clause is a phrase that has both a subject and a predicate, meaning it can stand alone as a complete simple sentence: My puppy and kitten always cuddle.  The subject is My puppy and kitten and the predicate is always cuddle.

You’re welcome.

Say you have two independent clauses and they’re so closely related that you want to put a comma, but you know your teacher/professor/editor will highlight that in a heartbeat and give you the ol’ comma splice song and dance. But a period between them seems so harsh. This sounds like a job for…

THE MAJESTIC SEMICOLON.

Example: It wasn’t difficult to snag the picture; my puppy and kitten always cuddle.

I guess I’m just feeling generous.

This does not mean that any two independent clauses should be connected with a semicolon just because they follow in a logical order. Like Pixy Stix, Björk, and your friends from high school, semicolons are most easily appreciated when they’re only encountered on rare occasions.

Use #2: When the transitional adverbs howeverthushenceindeed,  accordingly,  besides,  therefore,  and sometimes  then separate two independent clauses, a semicolon should be placed before the adverb and a comma should come after it, unless the sentence reads just the same without the comma.

This is probably the rule you remember from middle school and thought was way stuffy and lame and who has time for semicolons when there are Pixy Stix to be snorted? (Disclaimer: Grammar Cat does not encourage or condone snorting Pixy Stix.)

Example: I really wanted to buy the kitten; however, I changed my mind when I remembered how many cacti I’d killed from neglect.

To help you remember the transitional adverbs that lend themselves to the semicolon, here’s a mnemonic device:

The Hairball Has Actually Been Ingested Twenty Times
Thus, Hence, However, Accordingly, Besides, Indeed, Therefore, Then

And here’s a visual:

cat-puke

The Hairball Has Actually Been Ingested Twenty Times. Number twenty-one, coming right up.

Use #3: The semicolon can be used before phrases like that isfor example, namely, and other similarly functioning words when they introduce an independent clause. A comma is often called for after the phrase.

I have a mnemonic device for this one, but it would likely make you vomit or scream or both (it’s the for example part that really makes it unprintable).

Example: Kittens sometimes go to the bathroom in the most unfortunate places; for example, my boyfriend’s work boots.

In the kittens’ defense, the boots did smell like a litter box.

Use #4: Sometimes, and I mean sometimes (and only if you really know what you’re doing and it’s the second full moon of the month and also a Tuesday), the semicolon can be used in place of a comma when two independent clauses are separated by a conjunction.

The editor in me reads that and curses CMoS in the most blasphemous of language; however, the writer in me wants to print that rule on a million tiny slips of paper and then toss them in the air before rolling around on them and then having a good cry, because things are finally, finally, looking up. Sigh.

But before we all get ahead of ourselves, CMoS also clarifies that this rule should generally be used “either to effect a stronger, more dramatic separation between clauses or when the second independent clause has internal punctuation.” And yes, that use of “effect” is correct.

Example of a semicolon for dramatic separation: The cat knew that eating a cactus couldn’t possibly turn out well; but he’d be damned if that stopped him. 

Example of a semicolon before an independent clause with internal punctuation: Living in suburbia is a high-stakes game for a cat; for, of all the learned skills, stealth is not only the most difficult to master, but the most crucial to survival.

That example was outrageous and clearly used as an excuse to post this picture.

Use #5: When a sentence that contains a series has punctuation within items of the series, a semicolon can be used to help clearly differentiate each item of the series.

A sentence containing a series just means that the sentence has some sort of list. The series can be anything as simple as, My cat’s favorite things are naps, yarn, and mice, or the series can list longer phrases; for example, actions: My cat woke from her nap, stretched out her paws, and took a swipe at my ankle.

So if the items of the series have commas embedded within them, then the semicolon, rather than the comma, can be used to separate out the larger items. The most straightforward example might be listing cites with the states they’re in:

My kitten traveled with me to Eugene, Oregon; Atlanta, Georgia; Austin, Texas; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

And TSA was never the wiser… Mwahaha!

The Battle of the Semicolon

Some writers and editors only see the semicolon in terms of it looking a lot like the dagger they wish they could plunge into the hearts of semicolon users. Kurt Vonnegut was among this group. However, some people just can’t get enough, and those are also the people who have a questionable amount of Björk on their iPod. Virginia Woolf, for instance, would have had a separate iPod just for Björk. She was crazy about the semicolon, which begs the question of who would win in a Vonnegut–Woolf death match. Holy crap. Let’s all take a second to imagine that.

No, let’s take more than a second. Let’s let that thought ruminate until the next Grammar Cat post.

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