Sometimes people have no excuse for grammatical mistakes (see our Grammarian Pet Peeves series). But let’s face it, sometimes English grammar just doesn’t make sense. Take the word nonsensical for instance. Currently, sensical is not a word in the dictionary. That’s right. We have a non something but not the something itself.
Way to think things through, English.
But fear not! We are here to help you navigate the confusing and finer parts of English grammar and punctuation. These are not necessarily pet peeves…unless you continue to do them wrong after you’ve read this. So without further ado, we’ll get into our first few nonsensical English matters.
Punctuation with Quotations
You ever get confused about where your punctuation goes in relation to your quotation marks? Here’s the break down for American usage:
Colons and semi-colons always go outside the quotation marks.
Exclamation points and question marks depend on whether the quotation itself is a question or exclamation (the punctuation would go inside) or the sentence as a whole is (they’d go outside). For example:
She said, “Will you remember this promise?”
Do you remember if he said, “The wall color should be orange”?
Now in Britain, all punctuation is treated like the exclamation points and question marks. That makes more sense, right? But if you’re American and writing in America, you’ll want to follow the convoluted American way, no matter how confusing it is.
Insure, Ensure, and Assure
Most people think these terms are interchangeable. Really, they are not. Now, one could argue that insure and ensure mean the same thing (technically the first is a variant of the latter), but in writing nowadays insure should only refer to what an insurance policy does for you. To ensure is to make sure something does or doesn’t happen.
Assure is similar. It involves something happening or not happening, but it also involves people. A person says something will or won’t happen, most often to allay someone else’s fears, but that person cannot absolutely guarantee anything.
Does the comma go before the because in a sentence or not? Is there even a rule for this? Well yes. Is it confusing? I’ll leave that judgment up to you. The basic thing you have to remember is that handling this issue is different depending on whether the clause before because is negative or positive.
It’s easier if it’s positive. Having a comma or not having one simply creates a slight shift in emphasis for the sentence, though the use of either is technically grammatically correct. With the comma, you emphasize the affirmation of the positive clause. Without the comma, you emphasize the reason why. For example:
I will do the dishes, because it will keep my mother sane. (Emphasizes me doing the dishes…Maybe I shouldn’t have picked this example.)
I will do the dishes because it will keep my mother sane. (Emphasizes me keeping my mother sane. Always a good idea to keep one’s mother sane.)
Now, it gets a little more complicated when the clause before because is negative. Here, having a comma versus not having a comma actually changes the meaning of the sentence.
I will not do the dishes, because I’m tired. (Means the reason that I’m not doing the dishes is because I’m tired.)
I will not do the dishes because I’m tired. (Means I’m not doing the dishes, but it’s not because I’m tired. It’s because of some other reason. Now, I do not suggest using this type of sentence without some sort of context, like the other reason in the following sentence. Or else the reader might not understand your meaning.)
I hope these are a little more sensical now (I’m going to use it anyway, English). For further reading, see The Elephants of Style by Bill Walsh and The Copyeditor’s Handbook (Second Edition) by Amy Einsohn, where you’ll get more information on nonsensical things than you probably ever wanted.
By Tracy Buckler
Images from FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Image credits in order of appearance: Master isolated images, David Castillo Dominici, vegadsl.