Quick! Stop That Sentence!

The run-on sentence is often the subject of some confusion. Though a writer can seem to run on and on and on, each thought flowing mercilessly into the next, it’s not a run-on unless it lacks an internal separation of each thought. Thus, as authorities such as Grammar Girl might suggest, “I had lunch you did not” is a run-on despite its brevity because it’s two thoughts that run together. “I had lunch but you did not” or “I had lunch; you did not” is correct.

Which is not say that you can simply throw in some punctuation and all is well. Thanks to the semi-colon, we can string together all kinds of thoughts and be good little writers. But should we?

Take this sentence that came to me for editing:

The resort offers several convenient amenities: complimentary international calls; complimentary Wi-Fi all over its properties; smart technology in all of its meeting spaces and an easy-to-navigate mobile application that provides access to food and beverage menus from bars and restaurants at each property and resort navigation showcasing precise locations and points of interest, on-property events, spa menus and property information.

I don’t know but you, but I need to lie down for a moment and catch my breath.

Strictly speaking, the sentence is correctly punctuated. Independent ideas are properly separated by semi-colons. But it takes a bit of work to be sure that everything really is in its place. And it’s just plain too long. Couldn’t the writer have cut this into a couple of sentences?

Better (with some wordiness fixed as well):

The resort provides complimentary international calls and free Wi-Fi all over its properties. It offers smart technology in all meeting spaces and an easy-to-navigate mobile application giving access to food and beverage menus from bars and restaurants at each property. The app also has resort navigation showcasing precise locations and points of interest, on-property events, spa menus and property information.

People don’t have the time to carefully read your words and be sure they’re absorbing them correctly. Give your reader a break and keep your writing simple and direct.

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It’s Not That Complicated

If you’re one of those who often confuses ITS and IT’S, don’t feel bad. Even the pros get it wrong from time to time.

SUN POST DETAIL

Miami Beach Sun-Post – June 20, 2013

It may further comfort you to know that today’s rule — no apostrophe in the simple possessive ITS — has not always been the standard.

According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994), the non-apostrophized form did not come into favor until the 1800s. “The possessive pronouns were a complete muddle in the 18th century,” the guide laments, noting that Thomas Jefferson and Jane Austen used IT’S for ITS.

We are in the 21st century, however, and we are neither Thomas Jefferson nor Jane Austen. (I’m not, anyway.) The matter is settled.

Just  as HERS and THEIRS are simple possessives that do not need an apostrophe, IT’S is not the possessive of IT.

IT’S is a contraction of IT and IS.

I don’t know of any rules of thumb to help you keep this straight.

IT’S just the way ITS is.

Exclamation Points: What’s the Point?

There’s a place for the exclamation point in even serious writing, but the rule of thumb is this: Limit yourself to one in every 10,000 sentences.

That’s a tongue-in-cheek rule, of course, and I’ve broken it myself. It’s meant to inspire caution. Will your sentence really become more urgent or important if you stick an exclamation point at the end?

I was reminded of this a few nights ago, during a Seinfeld rerun in which Mr. Lippman takes Elaine to task for overuse of the exclamation point in a novel she’s editing. Elaine says she felt a writer’s work lacked energy, which results in such laughers as  “It was a damp and chilly afternoon, so I decided to put on my sweatshirt!” and “I pulled the lever on the machine, but the Clark Bar didn’t come out!”

“Get rid of the exclamation points,” Lippman tells her at the end of the scene.

Yes! That Works!

By the same token, leaving off the exclamation point can deflate an energetic sentence. Take the first three lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “God’s World”:

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!

   Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!

   Thy mists, that roll and rise!

Now imagine those lines without the exclamation points. They don’t have the vibrancy, the breathless awe, that I believe Millay intends. A period would make them seem matter-of-fact and ordinary.

The key is that Millay is not trying to bump up the excitement by tacking on exclamation points. Her speaker truly is  excited, and Millay is giving voice to that.

Exclamation Pointless

Overuse of the exclamation point is most often seen in marketing and ad copy. This writing is supposed to create urgency — a gotta-get-it-now feeling — but a constant stream of exclamation points does little but make the prospective customer feel yelled at. Buy this product! It’s great! You’ll love it!

Imagine a real-life salesman grabbing you by the hand and shouting his entire pitch, instead of a few key phrases.

Peppering your copy with exclamation points everywhere dilutes the effectiveness of the sentences that deserve one.

You’ll love the look of this handbag! And it’s priced at 75% off! You’ll want to get one for every outfit!

Or:

You’ll love the look of this handbag. And it’s priced at 75% off! You’ll want to get one for every outfit.

Next time you find yourself tempted to add energy, try the sentence with and without an exclamation point. Does it still convey the urgency you need? You may be surprised! Or just surprised.