COLM O'REGAN: Getting to know the finer points of grammar and punctuation

The jig is up. I have a confession to make. I have been a total spoofer in these columns.

This revelation is not in relation to their content. We all knew that. It’s something else — the punctuation.

It’s one of those things I thought I knew it all about and an example of a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. It would nearly be better to leave the punctuation out completely like in a text from your mother: “hope u are having a lovely time go easy on the drink ur father has a cold”.

But, where it gets put in, too much; it is worse because the reader has to figure out what I was up to, with my smartness.

Well, all that’s about to change. A new bible has arrived into O’Regan Congressional Library: The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage and Punctuation. It’s a big orange book with no pictures or diagrams — just a list of stern rules and, in the Misuses section, a description of all the things I do.

It has been a voyage of discovery. Did you know brackets are different to parentheses? I didn’t. Nor did I know a slash is called a virgule and the dots that people put at the end of passive-aggressive Facebook updates are called ellipses…

And take the em-dash for example. The what? Exactly that’s what I thought. Apparently there are three ‘line-y’ things even though there’s only one on the keyboard.

The “-” is a hyphen. It’s just used for joining two words. For example: “he made a half-arsed attempt at punctuation.” The em-dash is a different story. It’s the long thing “—”. That’s what I should have been using all these years but rarely did. Microsoft Word adds it in automatically when you are typing because it knows you are thick, but only if you don’t put spaces before and after the hyphen. Which just goes to show some people can’t be helped.

There is also an en-dash. This is used for “from, until”. For example “Pages 1–2 of Colm’s writing were unreadable.” The em-dash is called so because it is the width of a typesetter’s letter “M”, whereas the en-dash is the width of an “N”. (There, don’t say I don’t give you anything.)

As for the semi-colon... From now on, I’m just going to leave it out because I might as well have been a dog staring at a satnav, when it came to using it correctly. (Except when I was using it as a winky-face ; ).)

I thought I knew about quotation marks. I mean, I knew enough about them not to use them completely willy-nilly. One of the small joys of life is to see shop signs accidentally indicating their total suspicion of one of their commercial activities. A car dealership in the Cork area has a large sign, in block capitals, that offers to TAKE CARS FOR “CASH”. Those are their quotes, not mine.

While not their intention, it does seem to suggest that the company has its qualms about where you might have got the car from, when you arrive in their showrooms with a car, sweating and just needing “enough to get out of the country.”

But the snark is on the other foot now. I too had been throwing in quotes where none were needed, and leaving them out where they were essential, like the times I described myself as a “writer”.

The question you might ask yourself at the end of this column, and indeed most of the others, is whether it really matters. Well, we’ve already lost the battle with the apostrophe’s so even if theirs only a handful of us who would of an interest in making are points clear, it matters to us.


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