Bloody Well Write

April 10, 2009

Going postal

Filed under: grammar,Jajo,post office,punctuation — bloodywellwrite @ 3:36 pm
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Art imitates life. Or is it the other way around? Or maybe both, depending on the day? Today’s entry developed directly from one of my work experiences yesterday.

A few of us went to the main post office here in town to learn a bit about mailpiece design. (Yes, the one-word mailpiece is, according to the post office, a legitimate term, and since I’m discussing postal issues, I’m deferring to its spelling preference.) We even scored a tour. The bummer was that we were there during off-peak hours, so all the belts were stationary, no whistles were toot-tooting and no one was shouting orders to and fro. In fact, there were very few folks around. But there were some chicks (dyed bright green and orange, no less) in cartons, chirping their little lungs out, waiting to be shipped out in time for Easter.

But I digress.

We learned about acceptable sizes for letters and postcards — including the “official” tapping-an-envelope-through-a-slot-to-see-if-its-size-is-legit method — and whether or not we should design an envelope out of metallic paper (not recommended); but what really caught my attention was the shtick about addressing a letter or parcel, particularly the punctuation (or lack thereof) within an address.

Read the entire article at Bloody Well Write’s new location.


April 6, 2009

Down with capitalization aggravation!

If you want to sit around and chat with like-minded folks who are concerned with the state of the English language, especially the capitalization conundrum, you better pull up a comfy chair and get yourself (and others — hey, you’re not rude) an oversized bottle of red zin, because it’s going to be a long discussion.

In a relatively fruitless effort to be short and sweet on a subject that is neither short nor sweet, here are a few (!) AP Stylebook rules. Sit back, grab your glass and enjoy.

What needs to be initial-capped:

• Internet and Web  (when referring to the World Wide Web: Web site, Web browser), no matter where it lands in the sentence

• Places and their derivatives (America, American, Americanism)

• Days of the week and months (Thursday, Saturday, May, November)

• Organizations and their abbreviations (American Kennel Club, AKC)

• Geographic areas when referred to as areas (the Northwest, the East Coast)

• Rank, position and family relationship unless preceded by my, his, their or other possessive pronouns (President Obama, Professor H. Higgins, Uncle Albert, Dr. Doolittle)

• Most titles and works of art (initial-cap the first word, last word, each important word and each pronoun/article of four or more letters), including titles of books, plays, pamphlets, periodicals, movies, radio and television programs, operas, ballets, records, tapes, CDs, sculptures and paintings, and the names of ships, airplanes and spacecraft. Some examples follow:

•    The Chicago Manual of Style

•    “On the Road”

•    “West Side Story”

•    The New Yorker

•    “There’s Something About Mary”

•    “Seinfeld”

•    “Swan Lake”

•    “Room at Arles”

•    Voyager 2

What doesn’t:

• The seasons (winter, spring, summer, fall)

• Words that indicate direction (We flew west to get to Los Angeles)

• Family relationships w/ possessive pronouns attached (my uncle Ivan)

• Multiple titles directly in front of a person’s name, even if each title on its own would normally be uppercased (J. Crew chairman and CEO Millard Drexler)

What about headlines?

Well, friends, it may as well be a crapshoot, as far as I’m concerned. The AP Stylebook explains that headlines only get the first word initial-capped, plus any proper nouns (as in someone’s name or a specific city or such). Fine. But then I check out The Washington Post’s Web site: Its headlines show every major word uppercased. Same with The New York Times’ Web site. But then I look at the Chicago Tribune’s Web site and presto! They follow AP. Same with the Los Angeles Times. And any number of other sites have any other number of alternate capitalization options. It boils down to each company’s particular or chosen style guide.

So what’s a writer to do?

Well, if you follow AP, you have your answer: Uppercase only the first word and any proper nouns. If you say, “Pooh-pooh on AP,” then you’re left to your own grammatical devices. I don’t know exactly why some papers choose to follow AP and some go rogue; my guess would be that they either do not know better (highly, highly unlikely) or they simply choose to uppercase every major word because it looks good, more prominent — as a headline should look. Maybe old habits simply die hard. Who knows?

Here’s what I do know.

The ad agency I work at (Jajo, if you’re interested) likes the AP format. I’ve come around to being OK with that. I’ve got old-school-itis, in that the all-caps thing looks more headline-ish to me. However, I get why the fewer-caps style makes sense. After all, most headlines are meant to read like sentences, albeit stilted ones, so why not cap them accordingly?

So yes, that’s my recommendation: Initial-cap the first word and any proper nouns. No more, no less.

Warning: Diversion ahead!

I do have to moan a bit about one headline convention that I do not get: punctuation. To me, punctuation includes periods, question marks, exclamation points, etc. So if you’re not supposed to have ending punctuation marks, why do question marks squeeze in? Granted, they help make the point of the question. But it’s selective punctuation.

And worse than that, I sometimes see a headline that has two (count ’em, two) sentences; the first sentence ends with a period but the second doesn’t. Good grief! That bugs the bejeebers out of me. If anyone has the answer, by all means, leave a comment so I can learn to just let it go.


Happy trails!


March 10, 2009

Avert the apostrophe catastrophe

Filed under: AP Stylebook,grammar,Jajo,punctuation — bloodywellwrite @ 6:47 pm
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That tiny, seemingly innocuous punctuation mark: The apostrophe is the bane of so many writers’ existence. The rules on its correct use tend to flip-flop depending on which style guide is followed or which side of the bed the writer rolled out of that morning. Of course, all things being equal (!) and my my-way-or-the-highway logic, I suggest following the AP Stylebook on this — and nearly every other — punctuation snafu.

Add an ‘s to form the possessive of most singular and proper nouns, even when they end in a z or an x:

• Bear’s honey
• Jazz’s impact
• Max’s dinner
• Substance’s properties
• Trance’s hold

Exceptions occur when doing so would result in a difficult-to-pronounce s or z sound:

• Xerxes’ statue
• Moses’ journey
• For conscience’ sake (no ending s since the following word starts with an s)
• For appearance’ sake (no ending s since the following word starts with an s)

To form plurals into the possessive case, add ’s to words that do not end in an s and a lone apostrophe to those that do:

Women’s rights
• Data’s fallibility
• Spectators’ applause
• Witnesses’ testimony

To show joint possession, add ’s to the last member of the compound group; to show separate possession, add ’s to each member:

• Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure really happened, dude.
• Bill’s and Ted’s excellent adventures were astoundingly similar. Gnarly.

To show one or more deleted letters or numbers, add an apostrophe: It’s (It is), you’re (you are), they’re (they are), ’tis the season (it is the season), ne’er-do-well (never-do-well), mac ’n’ cheese (yummy), summer of ’67 (1967), the roaring ’20s (1920s). Please use with caution, as puttin’ a lot of ’em in yo’ writin’ can make y’ur writin’ seem like y’ur 8 years ol’, from the back country or from the ’hood (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but you get my drift).

To show the plural of a single letter, use an apostrophe: Dot your i’s and cross your t’s. Root for the Oakland A’s.

For you detail-crazy font-watchers, pay attention to the shape of the mark itself. There’s a difference between a curly apostrophe () and a straight one (). Although the vast majority of folks wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, the curly (aka “smart”) apostrophe and quotation marks should be reserved for words and quotations: He murmured, “Let’s get some tacos.” Use the straight (aka “dumb”) apostrophe and quotation marks strictly for measurements and dimensions: He’s 6′ 2″.

Caveat lector: See those straight marks? No? In the height of the guy above: He’s 6′ 2″. The foot and inch marks may or may not have shown up correctly on your computer as straight marks. The funny thing is that I wrote this entire article, blabbing about smart quotes, and didn’t realize I had an issue until I was previewing the document before hitting the Publish button. On my screen, none of the so-called smart quotes are true smart quotes; they are not curly, but simply angled. Well, that is a big problem with Internet writing. I asked one of the IT guys I work with about it, and he said that to get straight quotes consistently in an Internet-based document, I would have to jump through all sorts of computer hoops. Something about coding. And coding, my friends, is Greek to me. So — use your imagination. Those suckers are meant to be straight marks, vertical through and through.

Better yet, use those straight marks only in ultratechnical data. Otherwise, the AP Stylebook suggests writing out the dimensions: He is 6 feet 2 inches tall.

Unless you happen to have a crafty IT guy/gal at the ready, the easiest way to have smart quotes flow seamlessly into your copy is to go to the Preferences menu (AutoCorrect) of your word processing or design application and activate the “smart quotation marks” feature; they will be automatically substituted in newly typed text. Triple-check your work if you import text or copy and paste from somewhere else, though, because you may have to replace the dumb quotes manually.

If your smart quotes are not activated, you can find them another way if you snoop around your computer just a bit:

If you’re on a Mac, they are under Insert, Symbol …; just hunt, click, insert and — PRESTO! — straight mark, just as requested.
If you’re on a PC, go buy a Mac. Kidding.* (Since I’m a Mac gal, I’m not sure how to manually change straight quotes to curly on a PC — hey, I don’t lie.) Check your manual, or use the above-mentioned smart quotes feature.

OK, thats it for today. Hope you enjoyed this little romp through the apostrophes.

Happy trails!


*Only kind of.

March 3, 2009

Comma, comma, comma, comma, comma chameleon

Man. If ever a piece of punctuation brought out the über-moxie in people (usually wordsmiths of some sort, but frankly, all sorts of folks fit in this ire-inspiring category), the comma is it. It’s complicated. It follows several rules and then breaks them with a wink and a smile. It’s the top dog in the you’re-crazy-if-you-think-you-can-get-away-with-putting-that-THERE contest.

All sorts of stylebooks and writing guides have their own (slightly different) version of the comma rules. Since journalists tend to follow the AP Stylebook, and since most “ordinary” folks are familiar with journalistic writing (via newspapers and magazines), here’s the skinny on how to use the comma according to AP regulations.

Generally, commas correspond to the pauses we use in our speech to separate ideas and to help avoid ambiguity. Place a comma:

• Before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, yet) that joins two independent clauses, unless the clauses are short or have no internal punctuation: John would have gone to the store, but he couldn’t find his pants. John would have gone to the store if he had his pants, for he was completely out of strawberry milk, but his car keys were in his pocket, and his boxers were a little too shabby to wear in public.

• Around a nonrestrictive phrase — a phrase that can be deleted w/o changing the meaning of the sentence: The power of any vampire, whether practiced or inexperienced in blood-sucking, depends upon an invitation into the victim’s home.

• To separate members of a coordinate series of words, phrases or clauses if all the elements are not joined by coordinating conjunctions*: To make a proper mud pie, you need water, mud, a bowl and a stick.

*Notice that there is NOT a comma directly before the “and.” This is in accordance with AP Stylebook regulations. If you ask me, though, I think the AP folks are out of their grammatical minds. MLA’s version (comma before the and in a series) is the right and obviously morally correct way to do things, in my not-so-humble and loudly typed opinion; always using the comma before the and clears up every ambiguous instance. But AP rules the proverbial roost, so I enforce the lack of the comma in my work. I’ve even stopped cursing the AP gods under my breath every time I see the situation in copy. Apparently, time is the ultimate healer.

• Before the concluding conjunction in a series if an element in that series includes a conjunction: Sue ordered a greyhound, a whiskey sour, a wheat beer, and a gin and tonic that night. (Some would argue that the second and, joining gin and tonic, should be changed to an ampersand (&). AP, and thus I, argues against it; the ampersand should only be used if it’s officially in the name of something, such as a company (e.g., Johnson & Johnson).

My parting gift to you: One way to tell whether or not you need a comma between adjectives is to consider the weight of each adjective. Try to add an and between the adjectives. If it works and still makes sense, the comma is necessary: a small, red dog = a small and red dog. If it doesn’t, the comma doesn’t belong: He went to a large public school (no comma after large).

And one last thing: Please don’t give me too much grief about the title of this entry. It is quite obvious, I know, but I couldn’t help myself. I grew up, in part, in the ’80s, so please don’t taunt me too much about my silly, nostalgic pun. My inner child will thank you for it.

Happy trails!


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