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…

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.

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.

 

cat-in-a-suitcase

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.

PSA: Try to Follow Along

I’ll try to make this quick.

“Try to” and “try and” are not interchangeable.

If try describes an attempt to complete another verb, then to is correct. This is almost always the case.

My cat will try to sleep on my face at night if I don’t stop him.

417.jpg

“I think I’ll try to fit in this box. Oh hey! I succeeded!”

 

If trying is a separate action from the following verb, then there is an and between them. There’s generally only one phrase that uses this, and it’s try and fail. 

tumblr_n4prqtspox1tphrd2o1_500

“I may try and fail, but some part of me will end up in this box.”

Note the different meanings:

I may try and fail.

I may try to fail.

Don’t try to fail at things, folks.

Dashes: What All the Little Lines Mean

You ever find yourself with some alone time—maybe you’re cleaning out a litter box, maybe you’re taking the cat for a walk—when your brain puts together the pieces of a puzzle you didn’t even know you were trying to solve? We all have those moments, and for many of us, one of them is when we realize that there is a dramatic difference between the practical uses of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes.

It's okay, I do all my best thinking in the bathroom, too.

Let’s be real. This is where 90% of those realizations happen.

For those of you who have yet to experience this heart-stopping, adrenaline-filled punctuation epiphany, this post may help you along in a more subtle, nurturing manner.

Our topic for this post comes from a new reader, who is definitely, completely, not in any joking manner named Duai Rilly Hafta:

My question, Grammar Cat, concerns the use of the em-dash.… My book is full of them because it seemed to reflect how I think, but I wonder if there are conventions for good usage versus, for example, the dry, uninteresting semi-colon.

All cheap jabs to the majestic semicolon aside,  this is a great question.

Hyphen:

This is the smallest of the little horizontal line thingies that the English language uses. The most common use is to connect words for clarification. The function is basically the same as when people hold hands to let everyone know they’re together. It’s the “he’s with me” of the punctuation world.

The most common culprit of hyphen use is the phrasal adjective, which you probably already understand, even if you don’t know you know it. Let’s start simple. An adjective is something that describes a noun. A phrase is a group of words that may have a noun or a verb included, but no one is actually doing anything, meaning it’s not a complete sentence with a subject and verb.

The CMoS is kind enough to give a set of rules to follow for phrasal adjectives. Here they are, paraphrased and with cats.

1) If the phrasal adjective is placed before the noun it describes, hyphenate!
ex. That was a cat’s-out-of-the-bag moment.

“Your boyfriend got you a spatula for your birthday.”

2) If the phrasal adjective before the noun contains a compound noun, the compound noun must also be hyphenated.

Compound nouns are just nouns that require more than one word to describe them. For example, cat litter is a compound noun, because either word alone does not express the same idea as the two words combined.

I need to buy some cat. ←Sounds like you’re buying cat meat.

I need to buy some litter. ←Sounds like you’re making terrible financial decisions.

I need to buy some cat litter. ←Okay, I get it now.

So if one of those compound nouns shows up in a phrasal adjective that comes before the noun it describes, hyphenate it along with the rest of the phrasal adjective.

Ex. My cousin Gary is a cat-litter-scooping maniac.

“Is Gary gone yet?”

3) If more than one phrasal adjective is used to describe a noun, you better get your act together and hyphenate each one separate from each other.

Ex. Dude, I think I accidentally adopted a twelfth-regeneration time-lord cat.

NERD ALERT!

4) If two phrasal adjectives share a common ending element, then… Well, I’ll spare you the jargon. Just do it like this:

Ex. Both blue- and green-eyed cats are fully capable of stealing your heart.

But not:

Blue-and-green-eyed cats, because that refers to cats with one blue eye and one green eye.

“Look what your bad hyphenation has done to me! I’m a freak!”

However, if the shared element of the two phrasal adjectives is at the beginning, then you don’t get to use this convenience, and you have to write it twice.

Ex. Brown-eyed and brown-haired cats are the best. 

5)  If the phrasal adjective includes a duration or amount, the plurals should be changed to singular. So say your cat has been alive for four months. That would make it a four-month-old cat. This is probably the most common misuse of hyphens around. Here are the two correct ways to write age:

a) I own a ten-year-old cat. ←Notice that it’s hyphenated because it appears before the noun “cat,” which it modifies. Also notice that it’s year instead of years.

b) My cat is ten years old. ←Notice that it’s not hyphenated because the adjective appears after the noun it modifies. Also notice that the plural years is back.

6) Sometimes these hyphen rules look terrible once they’re employed. CMoS suggests that in such cases, you find a way to rework the sentence so it doesn’t look so sucky.

En dash:

The en dash is not interchangeable with the hyphen. Ever. Never, ever.

Here are some uses of the en dash:

1) To indicate a rage of numbers, be it time, distance, page numbers, etc.

Ex.  I spent 3–4 hours working on this Grammar Cat post.

But if the word from precedes the range, the en dash will not work, and it must be replaced by the word to.

Ex. I worked on the Grammar Cat post from 2pm to 5pm. 

Being a Grammar Cat is not all fun and games.

2) To signify to in the context of scores or directions.

Ex. The Carolina Panthers beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 35–17.

Ex. The Austin–Houston commute should be avoided at all costs.

…unless you have this sweet ride.

3) To indicate stuttered syllables in dialogue. Do keep in mind, though, that making a reader trudge through too much stuttering isn’t going to win you any fans as an author.

Ex. “I just w–w–wanted to p–pet the kitty,” the child said through his tears.

Em dash:

Before we get into the em dash and how it can basically be used for most other punctuation marks, let’s have a heart-to-heart conversation about moderation. Em dashes, like exclamation points, can be overused simply because they are so versatile. However, they’re also a fairly loud punctuation mark (like the exclamation point), and draw quite a bit of attention to the element they set off from the rest of the text. So imagine you have a friend who is totally into everything. Your friend is always touting the hottest new band who he loves so much. Do you go and listen to every band his says is the next best thing? Probably not. But if you have a friend who is rarely opinionated but implores you to check out this awesome band he heard, you’re likely to listen. Analogy complete.

1) Okay. The em dash, sometimes simply called “the dash,” can be used to replace parentheses, comma pairs, or a colon.

Here’s a sentence that uses a colon:

Alice in Wonderland provides us with one of the freakiest animal characters known to man: the Cheshire cat.

Now here it is with an em dash:

Alice in Wonderland provides us with one of the freakiest animal characters known to man—the Cheshire cat.

Totally not 100% nightmarish.

Both are correct; however, the colon is a little sharper of a punctuation mark than the casual em dash in this case. The colon is a jab, while the em dash is a nudge.

Here’s a sentence that uses a comma pair (meaning the commas are used to set off non-essential information):

The litterbox, the place where my cat spends most of his time, is starting to stink up the house.

Now with em dashes:

The litterbox—the place where my cat spends most of his time—is starting to stink up the house.

In these two examples, the commas are much more discreet than the em dashes and the separate ideas flow more smoothly.

Here’s a sentence that uses parentheses:

The kitten (he was really more of a cat at this point) no longer fit into his sweater.

Now with em dashes:

The kittenhe was really more of a cat at this pointno longer fit into his sweater.

“I think it shrunk, is all.”

So how does one choose between parentheses and em dashes? Consider parentheses are more of a whispered side note than the loud em dash.

2) The em dash can separate an introductory noun or series of nouns from the pronoun that describes it. Right? I wouldn’t be able to process that without an example, either, so here you go:

Ex. Hoping for catnip, naps, and staring into space—those are the three major pastimes of cats.

3) The em dash can be used to indicate a sudden interruption to thoughts or dialogue. This is not to be confused with ellipses, which indicate a trailing off of thought or speech. The em dash is much more sudden.

Ex. “Meow, meow, meow, me—”
“Shut up, Fluffy!”

4) When dialogue is interrupted in the middle of a sentence by narration that does not include some sort of dialogue tag (he said, she yelled, etc.), use pair of em dashes to insert the narration.

Ex. “I wish I’d written The Cat in the Hat, because”—he puffed up his chest—“I could have added more violence.”

***Note*** Question marks and exclamation points can come before an em dash, but commas, colons, semicolons, and periods (with rare exceptions you may live your whole life without encountering) cannot.

♥ ♥ ♥

Along with the topic request, Duai Rilly Hafta writes, My other question is whether Claire has Italian aunts at all.

This is, of course, in reference to a previous post, which can be seen here. The answer is that yes, Duai, all of my aunts are fairly Italian, but they are not, in fact, named Maria. However, were I to tell you their real names, I would likely incur the wrath of a handful of fairly Italian aunts, which any fairly Italian niece knows is not a smart fight to pick.

“I will have my revenge in this life or the next.”

Quoting and Quoting a Quote

The following is a paraphrased topic request from a loyal reader:

Grammar Cat, you are so awesome with grammar. I think you are the paramount source of cat-related grammar on the internet. Please tell me about how quotation marks work with other punctuation.

Well, grotesquely paraphrased reader, the good news is that this doesn’t have to get too complicated. The bad news is that you will have to do some memorization. The first thing you must do is abandon almost every fundamental need for a consistent rule. The second thing you must do is blame the British for the madness that is American quotation punctuation.

“Typical.”

British rules tend to follow a consistent string of logic. However, Americans at some point decided to do our punctuation a bit differently, just to be…well, different. The most obvious difference between British and American rules is that standard quotation marks for the Brits are single marks like so: ‘I do say, Sir Purrsalot, this custard is brilliant!’ while Americans prefer, “My cat ate a cheeseburger the other day and everyone thought it was funny, but I have no idea why.” But we’re not British, right?

Darn tootin’!

I’m pretty sure quite a few people had to die to make it this way, so let’s not disgrace their memory by screwing with punctuation.

PUNCTUATION BEFORE QUOTATION MARKS:

Punctuation that helps introduce a quotation will always go before the opening quotation mark. Whether it’s a comma, period, colon, semicolon, em dash, or whatever other harebrained thing you can think up, it will always be correct with the punctuation mark preceding the opening quotation mark.

I swear my cat just said, “I love you, Daddy.”

The cat’s eyes bore into me until I cracked. “Okay, fine! I did it! I spilled your milk saucer!”

He then understood what was happening: “Dude, I think my cat is on drugs.”

“Sorry, but I ate all of the green stuff that you always hide in your sock drawer when your mother visits.”

PUNCTUATION AT THE END OF A QUOTATION:

This is really the main event, right? This is why you’re here.

Periods and Commas

Here’s a simple thing to remember:

Periods always go inside the closing quotation mark.

And guess what.

Commas always go inside the closing quotation mark. 

Repeat after me: Periods and commas always go inside the closing quotation mark.

“So many hairballs, but so little time,” the cat said sultrily.

“I think I’ve seen that cat kill a man before.” Steve’s fearful eyes never left Fluffy’s as he backed away.

The talking cat’s first words were, “milk,” “love me,” and “okay, we’re done here.”

Colons and Semicolons

Here’s another simple thing to remember:

Semicolons always go outside the closing quotation mark.

Same goes for colons.

Colons always go outside the closing quotation mark.

Now repeat after me: Colons and semicolons always go outside the closing quotation mark.

I should have said, “I’m sorry your cat is a communist”; instead I read him Das Kapital.

I noticed something strange while reading William Carlos Williams’s “Poem (As the cat)”: I am a cat.

“It all makes sense now.”

Exclamation Points and Question Marks

Now let’s get into some grayer territory and learn about question marks and exclamation points.

Question marks and exclamation points can go inside or outside of the closing quotation mark. 

The way to determine where to place your ? or ! depends on the context of the sentence. If your quotation is part of a larger question or exclamation, then the ? or ! it will go after the closing quotation mark, and no other punctuation is needed before the closing quotation.

For example:

Would you rather spend a day in a freezer with a wolverine or spend an entire day listening to “Honky Cat”?

To quote Socrates, you idiot, “Kittens don’t eat broccoli”!

BUT

“Do you have any Grey Poupon?”

“Why, I never!” the cat said when the waiter admitted he had no Grey Poupon.

As you can tell from the last two examples, when the ? or ! is actually part of the quotation, it comes before the closing quotation mark.

So yes, there’s a bit of thinking when it comes to the question mark and exclamation point. Sorry about all that.

QUOTATIONS WITHIN QUOTATIONS:

Prepare to have your mind stretched to its limits!

“A quotation within a quotation within a quotation within…”

When a quote has a quote within it, Americans use a single quotation mark to denote the secondary quotation. So say you’re writing about your petty friend imitating his cat. He believes the cat said, “Give me some food and shove off.” Now, since we only quoted the cat in that example, the speech goes in double quotes. But when we quote our petty friend’s rendition, then suddenly the cat’s words are embedded within our friend’s speech, making it something like,

“My cat is such a mooch. He just walks up to me and says, ‘Give me some food and shove off!’ and then walks away.” 

Notice that the embedded quote of the cat is punctuated with the exclamation point just like a double quotation would be. And that’s the trick. Quotes within quotes are treated just like regular quotations. The only difference is in the single or double quotation mark.

For those of you who never know when enough is enough and are asking, “But what if someone is quoting the Grammar Cat’s example of a quote within a quote? How does one indicate a triple-layer quote?” Okay. Here’s how it would go: The Grammar Cat says, “…then suddenly the cat’s words are embedded within our friend’s speech, making it something like, ‘My cat is such a mooch. He just walks up to me and says, “Give me some food and shove off!” and then walks away.'”  Always start with a and then go to a then back to a and so on and so forth.

However, here’s an easier rule:

If you find yourself using a triple-layer or (dog forbid) quadruple-layer quote, find a way to rework the sentence so that you don’t have to do that.

Readers will thank you.

Also, when there’s a single quote and double quote next to each other, it looks terrible. CMoS acknowledges this fact and allows for a space to be placed between them for readability’s sake, if one so chooses.

QUOTATION MARKS FOR EMPHASIS:

This last tidbit on quotation marks feels more like a public service announcement than a grammar lesson. There’s this weird thing that people do nowadays when they have too limited a vocabulary to use connotation to their advantage and think that for some reason italics, underlining, and/or bolding doesn’t provide enough emphasis on a particular word. This terrible thing is where people use quotation marks to add emphasis. This is not a function of the quotation mark. Here is an example of how quotation marks are used incorrectly:

quotation-marks-beware-dog.jpg

The above makes no sense. Is there really a dog?  Is there just the concept of dogness happening? Is there just a cat whose name is Dog?

dog_costume_for_cats

“Beware me!”

 

 

The only way that random graffiti would make any sense is if saying the word “dog” was something to beware.

What’s even worse is that now there are people who see others using quotation marks to add emphasis and react with, “Oh, that’s just silly. Everyone knows it’s the single quotation mark that’s used to add emphasis.” WRONG. THAT IS SO WRONG. That makes even less sense, because there is only one use for single quotation marks, and that is listed above under Quotations Within Quotations.

Here are some examples of incorrect use of quotations, both single and double:

My cat stopped eating his “so-called” food.

How many more times until my cat realizes I ‘don’t’ want him to shed?

Just writing those examples is making my skin crawl, and yet it happens everywhere. I almost feel bad for pointing it out, because now you’ll notice it everywhere.

Sometimes I “use” quotation marks because it makes it seem like I’m not the one “responsible” for my stupid words, but that I’m just “quoting someone else.”

It’s unclear whether people started abusing quotation marks to avoid taking personal responsibility for their own words, instead trying to pass the buck to some other unnamed source, but that seems pretty typical for the internet.

Since it only seems right to end the quotation mark post with a quotation, I’ll leave everyone with the words of the great Theodor Geisel. “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” Grammar Cat can’t be sure, but we think he wrote this in regard to the misuse of quotation marks.

Talking About Family: Merry Commamas!

Grammar Cat loves the holidays.

Our favorite part is visiting family. Unfortunately, some people aren’t so good with writing about their family afterward. So let’s do a quick review on how to talk about people, both individually and in groups.

Setting Off Nonessential Information

When information in a sentence doesn’t need to be there for the meaning of the sentence to stay the same, it’s called “nonessential.” This sort of information is set off by commas on either side (unless it ends a sentence, in which case it’s preceded by a comma and followed by your terminal punctuation of choice).  For example:

The cat rolled onto its back, like it always does, and tried to scratch my arm.

Can you spot the nonessential information? I’ll give you a hint: it’s set off by commas. The sentence describes the exact same thing if the nonessential information is removed:

The cat rolled onto its back and tried to scratch my arm.

Now let’s consider nonessential information in respect to your family, because goodness knows holidays spent with the family can easily become a verbal onslaught of nonessential information.

When talking about or introducing people, there is usually the component of nonessential information. Say you come from a large Italian family and you have a handful of Aunt Marias. How do you successfully relate to your mother which one of them has had too much eggnog and is hitting on the neighbor? Well, you could say, “Mom, Aunt Maria who has the drinking problem is hitting on the neighbor again,” assuming that there is only one Aunt Maria with a drinking problem. Because the “who has a drinking problem” is essential information to identify the exact Aunt Maria who is going to be a hot topic at the next HOA meeting, it doesn’t need to be set off by commas.

But the situation can change in a way where a comma after “Maria” does become necessary. “Mom, Aunt Maria, who I already told you was a bad idea to invite, is passed out on the lawn.” This example assumes that Mom knows exactly which Maria is pulling the shenanigans, and the “who” clause is just a bit of rubbing in her face that you totally called Aunt Maria’s behavior. While gloating is nice, it’s nonessential information in that situation.

So what about introductions? There’s essential and nonessential information in those, too. Please consider:

“This is my brother, Will, and his wife, who came all the way from New Jersey.” 

This first example asserts that the speaker has only one brother, making the name of Will nonessential to identifying who this is (in this case, it’s also an appositive). It also allows for the cultural norm of Will only having one wife, and that wife is from New Jersey.

Now consider:

“This is my brother Will and his wife who came all the way from New Jersey.”

This introduction implies a slightly different thing. First, it says that the name Will is essential to identifying which brother of the speaker’s is being referenced, meaning the speaker has more than one brother. Secondly, and most importantly, it implies that, while this wife of Will’s has made the journey from NJ, his other wives weren’t able to make it for the holidays.

“You think the other wives know?”

Now say you bring your unsuspecting significant other into a room full of your relatives and it’s time for rapid-fire introductions. First let’s establish a few things about your family, giving insight to what the heck is about to happen:

You have two cousin Freds, but one is in Iraq.

Uncle Jerry spent three years in prison.

You only have one sister and her name is Sally.

You have a nephew whose name you can never remember.

You only have one living grandma and she made your significant other the hideous sweater he or she is currently wearing.

Ready? Here goes the awkward introduction:

“This is my uncle Fred who isn’t in Iraq. This is Uncle Jerry, who spent three years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit.” You wink at Uncle Jerry and hope it’s enough to guarantee your safety for another year. “And this is my sister, Sally, and her son”—is it Jayden? Braydon? Caedon?—”and this is my grandma, who sent you that lovely sweater you’re wearing right now.”

Capitalizing Family Titles

Let’s talk about capitalization for a minute. We all know that proper nouns are capitalized: Sally, Jerry, Fred, etc. When it comes to titles like uncle, aunt, cousin, niece, and nephew, things get a little trickier. A few things to know:

If the familial title is used in place of the person’s actual name, then it is capitalized.

Why won’t Grandma stop petting her cat for one second?

If Dad would just stop pestering Mom, we might have a pleasant meal for once.

When the familial title appears before the name, it is capitalized.

You see what Uncle Jim is doing over there? What a weirdo.

I wish Grandpa Smith would stop spouting off racist things.

When the familial title follows a possessive pronoun, do not capitalize.

My dad says to take off the dress and stop your crying.

Your aunt Maria sure does love eggnog.

To celebrate the holidays, Grammar Cat will leave you with a slew of holiday cat pictures.

Sorry there aren’t more Kwanzaa cats. Blame the internet.

Simple Tenses: They Don’t Have to Make You Tense

Events tend to happen in a linear fashion, unless you’re from Tralfamadore. We mere Earthlings have to tell stories with some semblance of respect for chronology. It’s because of this that learning how and when to use each tense is to your advantage.  Here’s a visual aid that I most definitely didn’t spend an hour slaving over in Paintbrush.

Tense Timeline

If the timeline tells us one thing, it is that cats always want what they can’t have. If it tells us two things, it should be that cats always want what they can’t have and that time works in a linear fashion and can be broken down into a specific sequence of events that we can naturally identify based on auxiliary verbs and verb forms.

Behold. The greediest of God’s creatures.

Let’s talk about the tenses individually so that we don’t confuse a cat. For fear of this blog repeating itself, let’s be brief on past perfect, since Julia has already eloquently explained it here.

The following explanations use examples of simple tenses, not continuous tenses, which will eventually get their own post.

Past Perfect Tense

When you’re talking about something that has happened, like a kitten’s watery eyes boring into your soul because it just wants that cookie so bad, you may encounter a situation where you need to provide some background for why the kitten is in your kitchen, because you don’t own a kitten. So you have your simple past: “This kitten stared at me with watery eyes.” But then your friends are staring at you openmouthed because you don’t own a kitten and they suspect you may have started stealing again, you klepto. Well, guess what? The past perfect is about to save your social reputation. “I had left the door open that morning to let in some fresh air, and a kitten walked in.” Your friends might be skeptical, but at least you gave them an explanation.

Late-20s-break-up-live-in-Scared-kitten

“I was just sitting in my front yard when the human ran up and snatched me…”

Past Tense

When you tell a story, your basic tense—the one where the majority of the action happens—will be past tense. There are a few exceptions to this, like:

  1. If you’re clairvoyant and are telling someone their future: My spirit guide wants me to tell you that a cat will pee on your shoe when the next full moon rises.
  2. If you’re writing a Choose Your Own Adventure book: You walk down the empty corridor and look to your left. Down the hall are identical twin kittens staring at you…but there haven’t been kittens in this building for eighteen years. If you want to run, turn to page…
  3. If you’re prefacing your story with a previous action (see the section on past perfect that you just read and should understand by now).

The narrator’s norm should be past tense, basically. So on the timeline above, the You Are Here for a narrator will generally be not at the present tense, but at the past tense and shift in either direction from there.

Cats don’t understand the You Are Here on a map.

Present Tense

This is the most happening of tenses.

Right. Sorry. No more puns.

The present tense is pretty handy. It can point out things that are happening right now. The most important use may be the warning.

“Watch out! There is a guard cat flying at your head!”

“Ach! Thwarted again by the present tense!”

We live in the present tense. Crazy, right? The present tense is, like, now. Don’t let it blow your mind. We tend to talk in the present tense when we talk about ourselves, which is most of the time. “I think,” “I like,” and “I want” are useful present tense tools. There’s not much more to say about it. I feel like it’s pretty easy to grasp. If you’re confused…sorry?

Present Perfect Tense

This tense, like all of the other perfect tenses, can generally fall anywhere during a particular range of time. For the present perfect, the event described will fall anywhere between the past tense and the present tense. It’s like the shortstop of tenses because it covers the the space in between those two points. The beginning of the verb could have started anywhere in the past, but the action or effects of that verb last until the present. Here is how it works versus the past tense.

Past tense: The kitten ate the cookie.

Present perfect tense: The kitten has eaten the cookie.

The difference between these two is that, while the present perfect talks about something that is in the past, it points toward the present. Imagine, if you will, that the present perfect event is a magic trick where the magician is making a cat disappear. There’s a process involved in that—put the cat in a box, rotate the box, allow magic to take place—but at some point between when the box is closed and when it’s opened, disappearing takes place. Now imagine the magician presenting this amazing feat: “Ladies and gentleman, the cat has vanished.” Any time you have trouble remembering what the present perfect is, ask yourself if a magician would use it to announce what has happened. Hopefully present perfect tense will seem wildly more entertaining to you with this new magic-related association.

Cats love purr-esent purr-fect. And magic.

Future Perfect Tense

The placement of future perfect on the timeline can be tricky, because you can’t go straight to it from present tense. Future perfect can only be used if it’s paired with the future tense (similar to how past perfect relates to past). For this reason, let’s skip over it, move onto future tense, and then come back.

Future Tense

Travel into the future with me for a second.

“I’m already there…here…in the future.”

No, astronaut grammar cat, not actually traveling into the future, because if we spoke about things in the future while we were in the future, then we would just be speaking about the present.

The future tense is handy because talking about things to come helps prepare us for things to come. For example,

  1. That kitten will grow up to be a cat.
  2. Your litter box will smell terrible when you get home.
  3. The Catfather will set you straight.

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

Good point, Catfather. While “will” is often used as the auxiliary verb to indicate that an event takes place in the future, there are other words that indicate the same thing. For example, “going to” (or “gonna” if you’re a lazy typist).

Here are a few other forms for talking about the future, using the subject “I” and the phrase “bathe the cat”:

  1. I shall bathe the cat.
  2. I am to bathe the cat.
  3. I am about to bathe the cat.
  4. I must go bathe the cat.
  5. I should go bathe the cat.
  6. I can go bathe the cat.
  7. I might go bathe the cat.

“You shall NOT bathe the cat.”

Future Perfect Tense (second attempt)

Now that we’ve ventured into the future tense, we can travel back from the future into the future perfect. This one works a lot like the past perfect. It’s used for talking about something that has happened between the present and the future. Yes, technically it is in the future itself, but it’s the present’s future, and the future’s past. This is something that will [indicating the future] have happened [notice the past tense verb]. Referring back to the timeline, we have the future of the kitten wanting milk, but before that, it will eat a cookie.

So, Before you know it, the kitten will have eaten its cookie and it will want some milk.

Putting it All Together

So it should all be clear, right?

Here’s the timeline again:

Tense Timeline

Now working off the examples of that timeline, we can create a short story (I used the word “story” loosely here, because nothing interesting actually happens). The story:

The kitten wants a cookie [present]. In fact, it has wanted [present perfect] one for quite some time. Before the kitten wanted a cookie [simple past], it had wanted a brownie [past perfect]. Before you know it, the kitten will have eaten the cookie [future perfect] and it will want some milk [simple future].

“Enough of your yapping. Give me a damn cookie already.”

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