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.

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.

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.

Exclamation Point Etiquette: Please Stop Yelling at Me

Have you ever been at a party and there’s that one girl who is constantly yelling things like, “Oh my god! Shut up!” and “She is such a slut!”? If you despise that girl as much as we at Grammar Cat do, then this is a post you’re going to want to pay attention to, because the written world has “that girl,” too. Only, when it comes to print, it’s not the harpy’s piercing voice that does the damage; it’s the exclamation point.

Don’t be this cat.

The whole “indoor voices” thing we’re taught in elementary school never actually stops being relevant. People who yell all the time will inevitably find themselves alone at some point. In a similar vein, people who use exclamation points all the time will eventually stop being read.

Obviously there’s a reason this punctuation mark was created, but like any good tool, it can be used against its handler fairly easily.

Let’s start off with why it’s useful. The exclamation point is a way for a writer to tell a reader that something is being said emphatically or in a high volume.

Here are some examples of things worth shouting about:

“Either the cat goes or I want a divorce!”

“That kitten is driving a car!”

“Everyone watch out! That cat has a gun!”

These are all things where you would probably be pretty understanding about all the yelling (if not yelling yourself, in the case of the third example). Notice this is all dialogue. Also notice that if this list went on for too much longer, you would probably tire of all the yelling, regardless of if it seemed warranted or not.

Let’s talk about exclamation points in narration. Here’s a good rule of thumb: don’t freaking use them.

BUT WHAT IF THE NARRATOR IS YELLING?!

The narrator shouldn’t be yelling. That’s not the narrator’s job. The narrative voice isn’t some sort of warm-up act for the conflict and characters. It doesn’t need to point out things like, The characters’ actions were so zany, guys! If your narrator is doing that, your characters aren’t doing their jobs.

But what if it’s first-cat narration?

If you’re writing first-person narration, you’re probably facing a litter-box load of other challenges, so it may be best to avoid making your narrator “that girl” by having her yell all the time. It doesn’t matter if your narrator is a little unstable, either. Take, for example, the infamous unreliable narrator Holden Caulfield. His narration doesn’t use exclamation points, proving that even a horny sixteen-year-old boy has sense enough to take it easy with the stabbiest of punctuation.

But it isn’t an exclamation point free-for-all when it comes to dialogue. Just like listening to a shouting match in real life is tiring, reading a shouting match in print—and all the !!! that goes along with it—can become stressful and irritating. If you find that your characters are shouting at each other a lot, there are a few things to consider:

  1. Could these characters possibly mix sarcasm or passive aggression into the interaction to avoid all the shouting?
  2. Why do these characters hate each other so much?
  3. Would there have been a wiser place to set the story besides an airplane runway?
  4. Do I, as the author, need too seek help for unresolved conflicts in my life?

But sometimes I get so ANGRY that one exclamation point ISN’T ENOUGH!!!!

If one exclamation point isn’t enough, then it’s time to reword; it’s not time to start tacking on more and more exclamation points. The person who benefits most from this suggestion isn’t the readers but the writer. Once the possibility of more exclamation points is presented, where does an author stop?

“Well, before, the character was angry, so I put one exclamation point, but then he got really angry, so I used two. But now he’s, like, super pissed, so I’m not sure if that’s four exclamation points or five.”

Before you know it, the readers have caught on, too, and are trying to keep track.

“This doesn’t make sense. When his stubbed his toe, he had three exclamation points, but when he told his cheating wife to go to hell, there was only one, even though he was clearly more pissed about his wife than his toe. Only one explanation: TYPO!”

Readers love finding typos.

The exclamation point should be treated like a knife. If you pull it out and start waving it around, people are going to take notice, which can be useful. But don’t pull it out too often or you’ll start to seem reckless and your friends will start avoiding you and having “other plans” every time you want to hit the town. And for god’s sake, don’t give a knife to “that girl.” She’s already had way too much to drink.

I’m so drunk!!!!!!!!!!