Category Archives: spring 2015

Quotation Marks

For years I have enjoyed the idiosyncratic ways signage works. When I was living in India, for example, I kept a series of blog posts called “Signs of India.”


High above the capital city of Leh in Ladakh


Parking garage, Symbiosis Law School, Pune

Among the most perplexing patterns in signage closer to home is the myriad uses of quotation marks. Once you notice this, the world will never look the same. For years, Bethany Keeley-Jonker has been having a lot of fun with the ways we use quotation marks. Her “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks is great fun. She has also published a book that will make you laugh out loud again and again: The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks: A Celebration of Creative Punctuation (Chronicle 2010).

bathrooms    outside wouldyou

On Monday next week Bethany will give a talk, “Blogging as Hobby, Business and Social Action in a Changing Media Environment,” at 4 in Morrison 204. Please consider coming to hear her speak. And on Tuesday, Bethany, who is currently an assistant professor of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois, will join us as we continue our discussions of language and style.

What is a Sentence, anyway?

The most honest answer to this question: it depends upon who you ask. Most reliable definitions will surely get around to using the words “subject” and “predicate,” or will talk about a complete thought, or will say something about clauses and relationships. Or, if you happen to be Stanley Fish, and you are writing a book about how to write and read sentences, you might define the sentence as 1) “an organization of items in the world” and 2) “a structure of logical relationships” (How to Write 16). Ok, you say.

The other way to define the sentence would be to turn to a poem, in this case the poem “Permanently” by Kenneth Koch that tells the story of how relationships come together to create what we call the sentence:

One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.

Some times stories can help. Technical knowledge (or definitions) in the abstract, as Fish will go on to say in his chapter “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White,” often “yields only the illusion of understanding” (19). This is why when one has a definition in hand the next move will be classification. Here is a very partial list drawn up by Fish:

There are short sentences and long sentences, formal sentences and colloquial sentences, sentences that satisfy expectations and sentences that don’t, sentences that go in a straight line and sentences that surprise, right-branching sentences and left-branching sentences, sentences that reassure and sentences that disturb, quiet sentences and sentences that explode like hand grenades, sentences that invite you in and sentences that exclude you, sentences that caress you and sentences that assault you, sentences that hide their art and sentences that ask readers to stand up and applaud. (44)

What is it that you are trying to do, anyway? For once you figure out what you are trying to do then you will be ready to find the form that will be the answer to the question. It is up to you, as Edgar Allen Poe remarks in his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846):

Of the innumerable effects or impressions of which the heart, the intellect or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?

Give and Take

One of the reasons one reads papers like the New York Times is to read good writing. And one of the reasons one might check in on the Opinionator Blogs is to read the occasional series on the art of writing,  “Draft.

The piece by John Kaag, “The Perfect Essay,” is worth a look. He offers a reminder about what we often call “criticism”:

First off, it hurts. Genuine criticism, the type that leaves an indelible mark on you as a writer, also leaves an existential imprint on you as a person. I’ve heard people say that a writer should never take criticism personally. I say that we should never listen to these people.

Criticism, at its best, is deeply personal, and gets to the heart of why we write the way we do.

Sensible advice about giving (and receiving) criticism.

Hyphens and Dashes

What is the difference between a hyphen and a dash and when should I use them?
What is an “em dash” and what is an “en dash” and how do I use them?

1. hyphen (-) : Mac and PC: hyphen key: The hyphen connects compound words.

There are permanent compounds that have found their way into the dictionary (henhouse, makeup, notebook).

  • Kilowatt-hour, mass-produce, ill-favored, tie-in, toll-free call, two-thirds. A food-loving back-to-the-land generalist who became obsessed with fermentation

There are also examples when using a compound adjective before a noun.

  • A fast sailing ship. Or, a fast-sailing ship

2. en dash (–) : Mac: Option + – = – / PC “Alt” and type “0151.” The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance.

  • Seven–ten days
  • You will find the article in the May–September issue of Scientific American
  • According to Frank Hanks, there should be a reference to what Edward Said calls “Orientalism” (147–48).

Or combining open compounds (note prefix connected to proper noun):

  • North Carolina–Virginia border
  • a high school–college conference
  • Post–Civil War

3. em dash (—) : PC “Alt” and type “0151” / Mac: Shift + Option + – = —. Em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses in apposite phrases, to indicate added emphasis, to interrupt or change thought:

  • “The Incompletion figured in the dash—is life” (McHugh 113)
  • Dickinson’s use of the dash—a mark of punctuation a reader encounters throughout her work—requires careful scrutiny
  • There is little room for error—whether one is consuming French fries or pork rinds.

(The practice of using two hyphens for a dash, although acceptable, is a holdover from the days of typewriters).

A Primer for Users of the Colon

Here are ways of using a colon one can find by looking for different uses in writing in print and on the web. The examples are my own:

1. Following a statement (most often an independent clause) that introduces a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series

  • Professor Fienberg considers an example of this kind of narrative strategy in the prose works of Mary Roth: (introduce a quotation)
  • There is little doubt that the athletes knew exactly what to do following the competition: hydrate, eat carbohydrates, and get plenty of rest (an explanation)
  • The proper ingredients are essential to making an authentic burrito: beans, rice, onions, cilantro, and tomatoes (a word or group of words that rename a noun or a pronoun)

2. So far so good: he would begin again first thing in the morning (after an element which is not an independent clause, but merely a fragment)

3. Dear Professor Garrity: (After salutation in a formal letter)

4. Genesis 1:1 or Judges 16: Sampson (Between the chapter and verse numbers in a biblical citation)

5. Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature (Between the title and subtitle of a book or article)

6. 3:00 a.m. (Between numbers or groups of numbers in expressions of time. Though the British convention is to use a period instead of a colon: We left the pub at 5.45 in the morning. And the use of 24-hour time does not include the colon: our shift begins at 0730 and ends at 1700.)

7. 1:5 (in ratios)

8. Messenger: Occasions drew me early to this city,
And as the gates I entered with sun-rise,
The morning trumpets proclaimed
Thorough each high street. Little I had dispatched. . . .

(To separate dramatic characters from dialogue in a script. from John Milton, Samson Agonistes)

9 . Date: December 30, 2013
To: Dr. Frank Smith
From: Dr. Julio Fernandez
Re: Fall 2012 Plagiarism Cases

(In the header to a memo)

10. Without hesitation, and with a surprising lack of decorum, the bishop chastised the small group behind the pew: “There are reasons why you are to be held accountable and I will explain them to you when you have left the church grounds. (an independent clause introducing a quotation or spoken text in a dialog. If the introductory text is not an independent clause, use a comma instead.)

Style Conventions for the Colon

Should there be one or two spaces following a colon?

  • Word processing software makes the answer one. However, if you choose two, be consistent.

Where does a colon go after quoted text?

  • When a colon appears after quoted text, put it after the closing quotation mark.

Do I start the text following the colon with either an upper-case or lower-case letter?

  • It depends who you ask. The Associated Press and MLA say to include the capital letter. The Chicago Manual of Style tells you to capitalize only when what follows the colon is a quotation or where two or more sentences follow the colon. Again, be consistent with the option you choose.

A.R. Ammon: the Colon

If Anything Will Level With You Water Will

Streams shed out of mountains in a white rust
(such the abomination of height)
slow then into upland basins or high marsh
and slowing drop loose composed figurations
on big river bottoms
or give the first upward turn from plains:
that’s for modern streams: if sediment’s
lithified it
may have to be considered ancient, the result of
a pressing, perhaps lengthy, induration:
old streams from which the water’s
vanished are interesting I mean that
kind of tale,
water, like spirit, jostling hard stuff around
to make speech into one of its realest expressions:
water certainly is interesting (as is spirit) and
small rock, a glacial silt, just as much so:
but most pleasurable (magma and migma) is
rock itself in a bound slurp or spill
or overthrust into very recent times:
there waterlike stone, those heated seekings &
goings, cools to exact concentration, I
mean the telling’s unmediated:
the present allows the reading of much
old material: but none of it need be read:
it says itself (and
said itself) so to speak perfectly in itself.

—A.R. Ammons

Notes on the Semicolon

“If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.”

—William James, Letter to Sarah Whitman

In our last class session we were talking about the anxiety that accompanies the use of punctuation. Does a comma go here? Should I include a comma to separate the second and third item in a series? And so on. I also pointed out the vehement positions people take when it comes to punctuation. That an occasional piece of writing on a comma generates over three hundred comments  says something about our relationship to marks on a page.

But what about the semicolon? Why does this mark of punctuation generate so much turbulence? Noah Lukeman suggests that because semicolons are never necessary there will always be a link between its use and whether or not it needed to be used.

images-2Here is a classic statement (in a classic text on style) about the proper use of the semicolon that appears straightforward: “If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence,” say William Strunk and E. B. White, “the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon” (The Elements of Style 5-6). But then, let’s say, you start reading one of my favorite writers, the philosopher and psychologist William James. Here are a couple of examples from James in his chapter “Will” near the end of his The Principles of Psychology. James is making the case (following Carl Lange) that emotion follows, rather than causes, its bodily expression:

Common-sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike.

I sit at table after dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally to bring the act about.

One can hear in these examples the “aught of good,” as James puts it, “the result of ceaseless toil.” His style is quite distinctive, actually, and readers of James are grateful for his willingness to “torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.” Or, let’s say I pick up The Varieties of Religious Experience and read:

Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile.

 Or have a look at another example, this one from The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy,

Science, like life, feeds on its own decay. New facts burst old rules; then newly divined conceptions bind old and new together into a reconciling law.

Or, finally, a series in a passage from James’ essay “The Moral Equivalent of War”:

A great nation is not saved by wars, it is saved by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans and empty quacks.

One conclusion to draw from this series of examples is that the use of the semicolon is, alas for some of us, a situational decision.

Looking for a bit more uncertainty to cultivate your punctuation anxiety? Consider Kurt imagesVonnegut’s often-quoted quip about the semicolon in A Man Without a Country (2007). “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” These lines from Vonnegut are quoted by Ben Dolinck in his 2012 Times Opinionator Blog post, “Semicolons: a Love Story.” Of course accomplished writers use semi-colons—in fact, in addition to William James, none other than E. B. White uses them beautifully in his essays, as Mary Norris notes in her  “Semicolons; So Tricky” in the New Yorker.

As with most things linguistic, and again more’s the pity, rules for usage are at once invariant and variant. You can stick with Strunk and White. Or you can read and pay attention to how writers actually use semicolons. You might also want to have a look at Matthew Inman’s “How to Use a Semicolon: The Most Feared Punctuation on Earth” on the Oatmeal Blog.

Pause Here

“The Good Word: Language and How We Use it” is a series published on Slate and I heartily recommend Matthew J.X. Malady’s blogging in this series. His posts are interesting, and fun.

For this week, read “Will We Use Commas in the Future? Maybe.” The essay explores the ways we use (and have used) commas and asks whether we will continue to use them in the future. Another piece, “Fingerprint Words: the verbal tics that make up who we are–and how they spread to others” is good stuff as well.

Finally, on the NPR blog “Monkey See,” Linda Holmes’ “Going, Going, And Gone?: No, The Oxford Comma Is Safe … For Now ” takes on the most recent flare in the comma-in-a-series battle. As with most thoughtful commentators on this stylistic choice, Holmes offers up an example when style (in the case, the placement of a comma) does change the meaning of the sentence.

These essays are good models for your columns on language. We will talk about how these pieces of writing are working when we meet on Thursday. Read and take notes. Attend to how this writing is doing what it does.

The comments on the posts are both entertaining and instructive, too (when I first read these pieces I checked in on the Malady essay there were 212 comments and 316 on the Holmes) . . . . Who would think so many people were so concerned with grammar. . . . Food for thought. . . . Check ’em out!

In Thought

The blog post is a form of writing that raises interesting questions for writers. In a four-part essay on blogging written in the summer of 2012 the Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh makes the case for the blog as a distinctive form of digital writing. “The blog is to a much greater degree shaped by the tastes of its maker,” he suggests. “With the pressures of the Here-and-Now removed, it is also one of the few virtual forms that is no longer primarily utilitarian.” The blog post, he argues, is less determined by commercial and social utility of popular media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The structure of the blog post is more like the essay, for it encourages an extended use of language.

It is interesting to think about what distinguishes the blog post, and the blog, as a distinct artifact, object, or genre. The blog first helped me work with words and images during a year living and working in India on my Far Field blog.


“Zhao Cangyun: Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao Entering the Tiantai Mountains” (2005.494.1) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–

Of course making a text with words and images uses a traditional form of representation. With Ghosh, I have thought about the beautiful ancient Chinese Handscrolls that incorporate colophons and commentary, for example, or Medieval illuminated manuscripts.


Illuminated Manuscript: Histoire universelle. Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), 1286-1291. Add. 15268, f.103 (British Museum)

The blog also changes the material conditions and economics of publishing as an enterprise. “If this process gets under way,” Gosh writes, “it will have far-reaching consequences:  there would be nothing for example, to prevent writers from creating unique versions of their books for special patrons – by including say, an extra chapter or character, or by changing a name or a setting (it is of course, a common practice for painters, sculptors, photographers and architects to tailor their work to the needs of specific patrons). This would transport us not only to the age of the illuminated book, but also to the age of the ‘recension’, when the meaning of a book had to be deduced by comparing variant versions of the text.” What is more, the blog form is open to revision by the author and so there are no limits to the process of revising and red-editing and curating the digital text.

Ghosh’s commentary frames digital writing as a complement (as opposed to a threat to or erosion of) our literary and cultural activities:

Nothing that I have said in these posts is intended to deny or diminish the strengths of the print media. The process of publishing in print consists of a collaboration between authors and a great number of others: editors, agents, book-designers, jacket-artists, proof-correctors and so on. Every one of these people puts something into the process and the finished works are, without a doubt, vastly the better for it. This process adds enormously to the quality, value and significance of books. That is why the institutions of print will not disappear: they are irreplaceable.

In the classroom, where the process of writing is the subject and the practice, might the blog help to emphasize the dynamics of thought as it takes form in words, phrases, and sentences? More than that, might the digital space in which these words appear reinforce the idea that thoughts are not really in us but rather that we are in thought?

On Thursday this week we will talk about your first weekly blog posts. These relatively brief essays (400-500 words) offer you the freedom to write about a specific question or issue related to language and/or style. Yet the blog post presents particular challenges for writers. So before we gather on Thursday, spend some time reading blog postings and taking some notes on how writers are making use of this form. Consider the style of the posts I am making here, read for style the posts of your classmates, browse the blog posts of others–and bring your notes to class.

Right and Wrong

As we begin our work this semester, I recommend that you read Michelle Navarre’s “Cleary The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar” published last year in The Atlantic magazine. The essay takes up the question whether grammar lessons must come before writing or the learning of grammar through writing (and reading). Navarre, an associate professor and associate dean at DePaul University’s School for New Learning, notes the decades of study that demonstrate how teaching rules outside of context or use does not work well for most writers.

These kinds of conversations inevitably bring up approaches to teaching writing, and the ways that teaching writing in schools does and does not result in better writing. What we have discovered in more than a decade of work at Keene State College is that developing writers requires a sustained focus on writing—across all four years, and in as many classrooms and fields of study as possible. If we value writing, we need to give students authentic and challenging writing at every turn. This philosophy of teaching writing, it should follow, needs to shape elementary, secondary and post-secondary classrooms. Have a look at another essay in The Atlantic series, Peg Tyre’s 2012 essay “The Writing Revolution” for a case study at New Dorp High School focused on teaching analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class.

Finally, and not incidentally, The Atlantic series includes an essay by a secondary teacher, Andrew Simmons, whose “Facebook Has Transformed My Students’ Writing—for the Better,” offers a first-person anecdotal case for the value of social media in developing skills associated with storytelling and emotional authenticity in personal writing.