This week brings us two days worth celebrating. Here they are:
- First Amendment Day is Tuesday, Sept. 23, at UNC-Chapel Hill. Events will include a reading of banned books, a discussion of access to public records and a trivia contest. If you can’t be there, you can follow the fun on Twitter via the hashtag #UNCfree.
- National Punctuation Day is Wednesday, Sept. 24, throughout the United States. I’ll mark the moment with periods, commas and (yes) semicolons.
I hope that you will join me in celebrating our freedoms and our language.
A friend posted this clip from “The Colbert Report” on Facebook the other day. In it, the titular host offers a fierce defense of the Oxford comma.
That’s the comma that sometimes shows up in lists of three or more items. It’s also known as the serial comma.
The topic of punctuation came up on the Comedy Central show because Colbert was interviewing the band Vampire Weekend. One of the band’s songs is called “Oxford Comma.”
As a copy editor with a journalistic education and background, I don’t use the Oxford comma. To me, the American flag is red, white and blue.
But if I were to take a job that used, say, the Chicago Manual of Style, I would use the serial comma. Then, the American flag would be red, white, and blue.
The comments on my friend’s Facebook posting included some people arguing that the Oxford comma is a matter of right or wrong. Others never knew there was a debate.
In my editing course, I tell my students that they may need to use the serial comma in their term papers in English classes, but not in their journalism assignments.
I’d say it’s a matter of style, similar to whether names of blogs should be italicized. Just pick a style and use it, along with common sense.
Colbert, by the way, cites “The Elements of Style” to make his case for this comma. I wonder if he’s aware of the criticism that book has taken in recent years.
Editors and other journalists on Twitter have a new favorite to follow: FakeAPStylebook. It’s a dead-on spoof of The Associated Press Stylebook.
As The Onion does for news stories, FakeAPStylebook works so well because it mimics the tone and structure of its target. Here are a few examples of the style rulings from the fake stylebook:
- Always capitalize ‘Bible.’ You don’t want to get letters from those people.
- A surreal comma denotes a list of absurd items: fish mustache, one-legged spoon, glass violin.
- The correct spelling is ‘Mr. T.’ People who type out ‘Mister’ are fools to be pitied.
Enjoy more on the Twitter page of FakeAPStylebook.
On the occasion of National Punctuation Day, I offer a few tips on the use of this part of our language:
- Commas have many uses, but they are especially handy in making sure compound sentences don’t run on and on.
- I’m fine with semicolons; they can be useful on occasion.
- Ellipses can … wonder what … left out. Use … sparingly.
- You get one exclamation mark per year. Use it wisely!
- The period is powerful. The end.
My favorite scene in “The Jerk” is when Steve Martin exclaims, “The new phonebook’s here! The new phonebook’s here!”
That’s how I feel when a new edition of the AP Stylebook is released. That time is now.
I prefer the stylebook in print, but if you like your style on screen, subscribe to the online edition. You can also follow the stylebook on Twitter.
A recent Q&A on cover letters stayed near the top of the “most popular” list at the New York Times site for nearly a week. It’s certainly a timely article, with many people (including journalists) on the job market. And yes, those letters still matter in the age of the e-mailed résumé.
The last question in the Q&A is an important one. It’s about common mistakes in cover letters. Here’s part of the answer:
A cover letter with typos, misspellings and poor sentence structure may take you out of the running for a job. If you cannot afford to pay someone to review your cover letter and résumé, enlist a friend or a family member with good language skills to do it instead.
It’s true. Those things can take you out of the running for a job. I’ve seen that happen in newsrooms and in academia. If you are on the job market or want to go to graduate school, make sure those letters are clear and clean.
The New York Times has a new op-ed columnist: Bono, the singer for U2. In this news release, Bono has this to say about his latest gig:
What an honor. I’ve never been great with the full stops or commas. Let’s see how far we can take this.
Don’t worry, Bono. A copy editor will help you with punctuation and a whole lot more. And perhaps you could take your own advice about wordiness.
UPDATE: Bono’s first column was published Sunday to mixed reaction. I detected a few run-on sentences, and the piece seems more like a 12-inch dance remix rather than a 45.