Monthly Archives: August 2006

Grammar and punctuation

I'm fed up. I'm fed up of seeing poor grammar and lacklustre punctuation all over both the Internet and the world at large. It's not only embarrassing to the authors, but also spreads misunderstanding and confusion in some cases.

During a (rather long) journey I recently made, I saw the text "Melamine Faced MDF and Plywood" on the back of a van. Let's analyse the mistakes here (admittedly in a rather exaggerated fashion, but it's hopefully educational nonetheless).

First of all – and (in my opinion) the most prominent error – is the lack of a hyphen between "Melamine" and "Faced". To me, this makes it sound as if a person called Melamine faced (i.e. looked at) two people called MDF and Plywood. This can't be right! People may argue that we're all used to such mistakes, and that it is therefore acceptable. Other people may argue that we're used to frequent assaults by drunkards on innocent people. Get my point?

Secondly, neither "Faced" or "Plywood" are proper nouns, so why are their first letters capitalised? This is a sentence, and should be using sentence case: the first letter of the sentence and of any proper nouns should be capitalised, and the rest lower-case.

This brings me quite neatly onto my third and final point about this five-word disaster: it's a sentence, so it should end with a piece of sentence-delimiting punctuation, such as a full stop or exclamation mark.

After fixing all this, the sentence is much better: "Melamine-faced MDF and plywood.". Don't you think this is an improvement?

Moving into more general territory, I won't go into the age-old apostrophe rant, or the sub-rant about "its" and "it's"/"it is", but suffice to say, I'm not pleased about that either. :(

One thing I will go into is more HTML-specific — although it could be applied to all writing, and the terminology applies everywhere. It concerns hyphens and dashes; hyphens being the little horizontal lines joining words together (as in the example off the van), and dashes being the ones used to indicate sub-points (separate clauses) in sentences. My point is to do with the special HTML entities provided to cater for the two types of dash: the en-dash (the entity is –), and the em-dash (the entity is —).

Why do people insist on using hyphens to represent them? There are special entities/characters for them, so why not use them? Remember: hyphens join two words together, en-dashes are used in pairs (like brackets) to delimit a clause (an "off-topic" section/side-point), and em-dashes are used to indicate that the final clause or point of the sentence – the summation or answer, perhaps – is forthcoming. Em-dashes are commonly represented by some as two or three contiguous hyphens ("-​-"), which is also wrong, and hails for the command-line era.

My final point is again concerned with HTML entities — this time, the ellipsis. As an entity it is … and produces a nice single-character ellipsis ("…"), which is much better than the traditional use of three full stops ("..​."). Could people please get around to using grammar, punctuation, and HTML entities properly?