Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Grammar Police give me a ticket

"Why did you give me a ticket, officer?" "I plead 'guilty,' judge." I had no idea that a misused colon would be so important. I promise to use a complete phrase if I use a colon from now on. Honest.

As an "old dog" engineer, I used colons extensively to introduce numbered, lettered or bulleted lists of items. As a "new pup" in genealogy writing, I just used my former writing "style" in my work, including this blog. I hope my mal-use of the colon has not infuriated any of my loyal readers to the extent that they stop reading my wit (?) and wisdom (?). [Note to self - should the "(?)" be inside the period or outside? Better check that too.]

The APG mailing list has had an extensive discussion about the use of a colon in written materials. It got started with this post by Virginia noting that genealogy software programs often write (for example) "Children of Frederick Seaver and Alma Bessie Richmond are:" followed by a numbered or lettered list of children. This post garnered a number of responses from the highly respected and emulated genealogy writing experts, and then several new threads were started. Claire Bettag pulled out the Chicago Manual of Style as the authoritative word, which states:


"A vertical list is best introduced by a complete grammatical sentence, followed by a colon.....Items carry no closing punctuation unless they consist of complete sentences. If the items are numbered, a period follows the numeral and each item begins with a capital letter."


"In a numbered vertical list that completes a sentence begun in an introductory element and consists of phrases or sentences with internal punctuation, semicolons may be used between the items, and a period should follow the final item. Each item begins with a lowercase letter .... If bullets were used instead of numbers ... the punctuation and capitalization would remain the same."

The grammatically correct formats should be (Note that I didn't use a colon here - I actually had to delete it when I edited this post! Note also that I edited out the dangling participle in the initial sentence)

1) Use a complete introductory sentence with a colon, with no punctuation to end the list items, as in

"Frederick Seaver and Alma Bessie Richmond had seven children:
i. Marion Seaver, born 1901 in Catgut, MA, died 1999 in Pepper Maze, SC
ii. Evelyn Seaver, born 1903 in Hogswallow, MA, died 1977 in Witch Hazel, NH
iii. Stanley Seaver, etc.
iv. Ruth Seaver
v. Frederick Seaver
vi. Edward Seaver
vii. Geraldine Seaver"

2) Don't use a complete sentence and have no colon after the introductory phrase, but use semi-colons in the list, as in

"Children of Frederick Seaver and Alma Bessie Richmond were
i. Marion Seaver, born 1901 in Catgut, MA, died 1999 in Pepper Maze, SC;
ii. Evelyn Seaver, born 1903 in Hogswallow, MA, died 1977 in Witch Hazel, NH;
iii. Stanley Seaver, etc.;
iv. Ruth Seaver;
v. Frederick Seaver;
vi. Edward Seaver;
vii. Geraldine Seaver."

There. Got it. Are you impressed? Were my examples done good?

Now I need to go change all of my thousands of Notes in my databases, in my books and on my web site and ... [note to self - what about the ellipsis? How should I deal with that, besides don't use it for fear I'm going to get another grammar ticket?]. That should keep me busy until 2009.

The reason given for being grammatically correct is that a professional genealogist should using writing standards set by experts will impress their clients and colleagues with their erudition and perspicacity [is that the right word?] Obviously, I want to be accepted by my clients, customers, colleagues, peers and superiors.

My excuse for my previous errancy over about 50 years is that I only got 470 on my Verbal SAT way back when and in engineering they recommended clear and concise writing that enable the reader to easily understand what was written (and most of the readers probably had low Verbal SAT scores also) - ergo the colon was a good friend (I now know why one of my engineering colleagues always redlined my work, much to my chagrin and misunderstanding).

Maybe I should have my English PhD candidate daughter review all of my posts, but she's pretty busy teaching proper grammar to a 2-year old and her classes of prospective teachers.

Note to all readers (no colon here, dummy) - Genea-Musings will publish only updated notes until the grammar is correct. Some of you have missed many of the notes anyway, so it will be like reading them the first time, right? There are over 1,300 posts here, so it may take awhile.

Hopefully, no one will grade this musing for proper grammer and punctiation, let alone for speling.

UPDATED 1:15 PM. I corrected some phraseology to make it more sensible and accurate. In Comments, Drew told me that I had dangled a particple and so I think I put it back in the sack where it belongs. I'm still confused by dangling participles, pluperfect subjunctives and the like.


Drew Smith said...

OK, Randy, I could not resist. You wrote as follows:

"Trying to be grammatically correct then, the appropriate formats could be [...]"

Ummmm, the formats were trying to be grammatically correct? (Watch out for those dangling participles!)


Becky Wiseman said...

Randy - Regardless of misused colons, dangling participles, grammatically incorrect format, non-sensibility, lack of wit and/or wisdom, many of us will continue to read and enjoy your blog posts. Right now, right or wrong, correct grammar is the least of my concerns! LOL.