Sunday, February 8, 2015

Closing Pandora's box.

It's been quite a while since I wrote a punctuation-related post. Guess it's time.

One of the most common punctuation mistakes I see is when an author wants to use punctuation to set off a phrase, but doesn't do it correctly. Here, let me show you want I mean. See if you can spot the errors in the following sentences:

I introduced my brother, Hal to the group.*
Frieda swears she's going to shave her head because her hair (which is naturally curly is so hard to manage.
The most annoying thing about punctuation mistakes -- the thing that makes my teeth itch the most is that they're so easily fixed.

In each case, the author has begun the job of setting off a parenthetical expression with some type of punctuation, but has not followed through and finished the job.

I get that sometimes people get going on their point and forget. Or in revision mode, they add something here and forget to adjust the sentence there. But sometimes I wonder whether people even realize they're making a mistake. Hence, this post.

I guess first we ought to define what this thing-that-ought-to-be-between-punctuation-marks is. If you can take the words in question out of the sentence and it's still grammatically correct, then what you have is a parenthetical expression or a parenthetical phrase. And yes, that's what it's called even if no parentheses are involved.

So for our examples above, if I take out the parenthetical material, the sentences would read like this:

I introduced my brother to the group.*
Frieda swears she's going to shave her head because her hair is so hard to manage.
The most annoying thing about punctuation mistakes is that they're so easily fixed.

See? The sentences work just fine this way. So if I go back and insert the words I've left out, I need to set them off on both sides with my punctuation of choice -- commas, parentheses, dashes, brackets, whatever -- so that my reader knows where the parenthetical material starts and ends.

When you put in the first punctuation mark and don't put in the second, it's a little like you've opened Pandora's box. You know that story, right? Zeus was mad at Pandora's husband, so He gave her a box (or actually, a jar) and told her not to open it. But of course her curiosity got the best of her. As it turned out, Zeus had stuffed the jar full of all the bad things in creation, and when Pandora opened it, they all escaped into the world. But the jar contained one more thing: hope. And when the bad stuff got out, it did, too.

So when you put in the first punctuation mark, you've opened the box. You need to remember to close that box when you get to the right place -- or else you run the risk of doing a bad thing: confusing your reader. Setting off that parenthetical material on both sides makes your sentence easier to understand. Which is all punctuation does, guys. Honest.

Anyway, I'm hopeful that you all will remember to close the box the next time you include parenthetical material in a sentence. (See what I did there?)

*A word about this sentence: I've set off the name with commas here (or intended to, anyway) because in this example, I'm assuming Hal is my only brother. So his name is superfluous to the meaning of the sentence; regardless whether I name him or not, I'm still talking about the same guy. However, if I had two brothers, I would omit the commas because the name is now critical to the meaning of the sentence. If I say, "I introduced my brother to the group," my reader won't know whether I mean Hal or Fred unless I say his name.

Only one brother? "I introduced my brother, Hal, to the group."
Two or more brothers? "I introduced my brother Hal to the group."

Okay? Okay. Glad we've cleared that up.

In the news: I was very pleased to learn that I've been named to a 2014 Honours List of Indie Authors in Australia. Thanks very much to Tabitha Ormiston-Smith for the hono(u)r!

This moment of bloggy box-closing has been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

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