Grammar & Punctuation Rules: Joint Possession (we’re not talking pot laws)

Dear Copy Bitch: Which one is correct:

  1. Erik and Anne’s clients are neighbors and friends.
  2. Erik’s and Anne’s clients are neighbors and friends.

I think it’s the latter, but wanted to check.

—Michelle D., Connecticut

Answer: It all depends on your intended meaning. The first sentence shows joint possession, meaning that Erik and Anne have the same clients who also happen to be neighbors and friends. What makes it joint possession? The fact that the last noun only (i.e. “Anne”) has an apostrophe and an “s.”

In the second sentence (which shows individual possession since both names have an apostrophe and “s”), Erik and Anne have their own clients. Erik’s clients happen to be neighbors and friends, and Anne’s clients happen to be neighbors and friends.

I’m thinking an argument could be made to interpret the second sentence like this: Erik’s clients are friends and neighbors with Anne’s clients. The key, though, is that we’re talking about two separate client lists based on the use of that stinky apostrophe. I’d be curious to hear what other grammar geeks think on this one.

Hope this helps.

How to Use a Semicolon – Just 2 Rules

Dear Copy Bitch: You often say to avoid semicolons. But I want to know how to use them correctly. Any tips?

—Punctuating in Poughkeepsie

Answer: Here’s the good news about semicolons: you have only two rules to remember. The first deals with sentences where you’re probably itching to put a comma, period, or semicolon, and you don’t know which one to choose. The second rule deals with items in a series where you’re already using some other form of punctuation within the series, most likely a comma.

Let me explain. (And I’m not going to explain these rules the way your English teacher would, talking endlessly about independent clauses and transitional expressions.)

The Copy Bitch’s Semicolon Rule #1:

What you need to remember about Rule #1 is this: whatever comes before the semicolon should be able to stand on its own as a sentence. Ditto for what comes after it.

Winning George Clooney isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.

I could have just as easily written this: Winning George Clooney isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

Here’s another example of proper semicolon usage:
I’m supposed to go to the movies tomorrow; however, the weather will likely interfere with my plans.

What comes before the semicolon could stand alone as its own sentence. And what comes after the semicolon could stand alone as its own sentence.

Notice the word “however,” which is called a conjunctive adverb. Other conjunctive adverbs include therefore, moreover, hence, and furthermore. These words are used as transitions between two independent clauses, and they should be followed by a comma.

See? This is one of the reasons why I tell people to avoid semicolons. The problem is that so many people don’t know how to use them correctly. The other reason? Go back and re-read the two George Clooney sentences above. Even though they mean the same thing, the punctuation does have a subtle effect on how your mind reads it (you might be unaware of this effect, that’s how subtle it is, but it’s there).

I think you should haul a semicolon out of your bag o’writing tricks when the piece you’re working on calls for this effect. But that means using the semicolon once or twice, not every sentence or every other sentence. Copywriters and business writers should avoid semicolons 99.9 percent of the time (there’s always an exception). And even creative writers should have a darn good reason for littering a page with ’em, at least in this copy bitch’s not-so-humble opinion.

By the way, do NOT think that semicolons and commas are interchangeable. They are not. If you put a comma in place of the semicolon in the examples above, you have what’s called a “comma splice.” And it’s illegal. You could be arrested. Consider yourself warned.

The Copy Bitch’s Semicolon Rule #2

This rule isn’t optional. If you’re writing a sentence that includes a series and within that series you use some sort of punctuation (most likely a comma), you must use a semicolon to separate the items in the series. It’s for clarity’s sake.

Last summer, I visited Boston, Massachusetts; Baltimore, Maryland; and George Clooney’s birthplace.

Want to see the semicolon in brilliant action? Read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. Check out the 12th paragraph (but if you’ve never read the whole thing, you should…it’s a powerful piece of writing).

Apples, Peaches, and George Clooney Naked

Question: Hey, Copy Bitch: What’s the proper use of commas in a series: A, b, and c. Or A, b and c. I see it both ways. I usually do it the first way. That’s the way I remember being taught when I was in school. Thanks!

—Michelle D., Connecticut

Answer: Both are technically correct. If you’re writing for a specific publication, it will likely have a style guide it wants you to use. For example, MLA (Modern Language Association) uses the serial comma (also known as the Oxford comma), so you would write the following: I love apples, peaches, and George Clooney naked.

AP (Associated Press) doesn’t use the serial comma. So you would write the sentence like this: I love apples, peaches and George Clooney naked.

The Copy Bitch always uses the serial comma, unless she’s overruled by the publication she’s writing for. Why use the serial comma? For clarity’s sake. When you write, you want to be clear, and nine-and-a-half times out of 10, the serial comma will assist you in getting your point across.

To wit: consider this sentence: I’d like to thank my parents, William and Mary. How many people are you thanking? You could be thanking your parents and two other people named William and Mary. Or you could be thanking your parents whose names are William and Mary. If the former, I’d write it like this: I’d like to thank my parents, William, and Mary. (Actually, in this example, I’d probably put “parents” last in the series, just for added clarity.) If the latter, I’d write it like this: I’d like to thank my parents: William and Mary.

Here’s another good example from A Writer’s Reference by the late Diana Hacker: The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, much discussion of ancient heresies and midnight orgies.

Are we discussing the midnight orgies or participating in them? Written as is, the reader is left to believe that the discussion includes midnight orgies. The Copy Bitch suspects this wasn’t the writer’s intent, so she would rewrite it like this: The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, much discussion of ancient heresies, and midnight orgies.

If the writer did mean only discussions, then the Copy Bitch would rewrite it like this: The activities include a search for lost treasure, dubious financial dealings, and much discussion of ancient heresies and midnight orgies.

Of course, the former sentence sounds much more fun. 😉

Hope this helps!

Proofreading Strategies: 4 Ways to Do It Online

Dear Copy Bitch: My eyes hurt! I stare at my computer all day and make mistakes left and right–stupid mistakes, too. Do you have any tips for proofreading on a computer monitor?

–Grumpy Proofreader

Answer: Yes, Grumpy, never fear! The Copy Bitch feels your pain and has proofreading strategies when reviewing stuff on the ol’ monitor:

1. Increase/decrease the zoom level on your monitor. When you’ve been staring at a document for hours on end, this one little change is enough to give your precious eyeballs (and brain) a fresh perspective on the words staring back at you. When I’m in Word on my PC, the zoom toggle is in the lower right-hand corner.

2. Highlight the text in yellow. This works especially well for shorter pieces. In Word, the highlight option is usually in the same area as the font face and size options.

3. Read backwards. Start with the last sentence of your document and work your way to the beginning (note: don’t read the sentences themselves backwards). Reading things out of context is a great way to catch mistakes.

4. Do a “find” on your crutch words and problem areas. Do you write “your” when you really mean “you’re”? Do a “find” on “your” and double-check yourself. Do you tend to use fillers like “just,” “very,” “really” or “George Clooney is a god”? Do a search on those words/phrases. Do you type too fast and always use “manger” instead of “manager”? Ditto.

Would love to hear about some other proofreading strategies. Leave yours in the comments thread.