A monthly column in which we attempt, however futilely, to defend the English language against misuse and abuse

Misplaced Quotation Marks

Here, hands down, is the most common punctuation mistake: misplaced quotation marks. Or, put another way, misplaced commas and periods.

Commas and periods go inside quotation marks, and that rule applies whether the quotation appears at the end of a sentence, after a phrase, or after a single word. Examples:
• “My biggest fear is failure.”
• Calling failure his “biggest fear,” Smith nevertheless accepted the challenge.
• The mayor claimed the story was “preposterous.”
Yes, I know this seems and looks counter-intuitive, and it’s not done this way in other English-speaking countries. For those reasons, most people get it wrong (even some of my most learned readers). Don’t think you’re making this mistake? Go back over your emails or your posts on Facebook. You just may find that you’re putting periods and commas outside quotation marks. Check on it. Report back.

Miss-Addressed: The Missing Comma

Another common punctuation error is the missing comma in sentences where someone or something is being addressed. A comma should be inserted immediately before that person or thing. Take this example from a News Journal editorial: “So have at it Delaware, it’s your Constitutional right.” There should be a comma after “it.”

The same applies if the addressee appears at the beginning of the sentence: “Mary, you always have a positive attitude.”

The missing comma can change the meaning of a sentence. E.g., The father said, “Your grades are disappointing, my boy” is correct, but it you delete the comma—“Your grades are disappointing my boy”—it reads as if the boy is being disappointed.

Facebook is full of these missing commas/confusing messages. Here are actual examples:

“I want one Eddie.” (The writer apparently wants one Eddie.)

“Good morning bright eyes.” (Bright eyes are good in the morning.)

“What a beautiful photo of you Mary.” (Is the woman’s name “you Mary”?)

Awash in Iconic Icons

Word Warrior Walt DelGiorno has convinced us that “iconic” and, to a lesser extent, “icon,” are currently the most over-used words in American media. This applies especially to the sport of golf. Walt, a dedicated golf-watcher, has accumulated several examples. Among them:

• Announcer Gary Koch described the 17th hole at The Players Championship as “an iconic hole.”
Golf magazine referred to “Johnny Miller’s iconic round at Oakmont.”
• An AP story called the Oakmont Country Club “an iconic test.”
The phenomenon isn’t limited to golf. Mercedes Benz ads refer to the “iconic design” of its early models, which delivered “icon after icon.” The Beatles have been described as having conducted “iconic recording sessions.” And The News Journal recently called the DuPont buildings “iconic on the Wilmington skyline.”

The media is apparently averse to the words “legendary,” “fabled,” “famous,” or “well-known.”

Media Watch

• Speaking of “averse,” it’s often confused with “adverse,” as in this excerpt from a recent Jeff Zillgitt story in USA Today: “Crawford . . . was not adverse to confrontation.” Adverse means “unfavorable,” as in adverse weather. Averse means “opposed to.”
• From the Newark Post, courtesy of reader Jane Buck: “A sign inside the restaurant on Monday eluding to the delay . . .” The sign was alluding (referring) to the delay, it wasn’t eluding (escaping from) anything.
• Reader Rob Beatson submits this from CBS Sports Online: “The Philadelphia Phillies keep finding ways to eek out victories.” The correct word is eke. Adds Rob: “And it’s the lead, of course. Eek!”

Follow me on Twitter: @thewaronwords

Pronounced rek-ta-tood, it’s a noun meaning morally correct behavior or thinking; righteousness.

Need a speaker for your organization?
Contact me for a fun power point presentation on grammar: ryearick@comcast.net.

Bob Yearick
The copy editor of Out & About, Bob Yearick retired from DuPont in 2000 after 34 years as an editor and writer. Since “retiring,” Bob has written articles for Delaware Today, Main Line Today and other publications. His sports/suspense novel, Sawyer, was published in 2007. His grammar column, “The War on Words,” is one of the most popular features in O&A. A compilation of the columns was published in 2011. He has won the Out & About short story contest as well as many awards in the annual Delaware Press Association writing contest.

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