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Write From Home
Kim Wilson
P.O. Box 4145
Hamilton, NJ 08610

E-mail: kim @ writefromhome.com

Perhaps Never Before Has So Much Been Written So Badly
by Mark Landsbaum

The good news is that thanks to the Web, people are writing again. E-mail. Chats. Web sites. E-zines.

The bad news is people are writing again.

On one hand, as writers we are heartened by this trend because, frankly, it means someone out there is likely to read what we write. (The TV age nearly rendered us obsolete.)

On the other hand, as writers we also are dismayed that, after only a couple decades of neglect, writing has sunken to such depths.

Grammar and clarity are the first casualties, of course. But you don't have to be a purist to be saddened by the deplorable language spilling out of keyboards Web wide.

Some of the most egregious offenses are committed by those who purport to be experts. Beware the “professional communicators” who don't know a comma from a dash, or an ellipsis from an eclipse.

Here are a few telltale signs that Shakespeare and Hemingway probably are rolling over in their graves:

Exclamation points
Once a respected form of punctuation properly reserved for the infrequent shriek or occasional holler accompany fear or crisis, the exclamation point has become as common as lies in a singles’ bar.

Ask yourself who uses the highest ratio of exclamation points to words? Yes, that's right. Kindergarten teachers!!! And you know for whom they write. The moral is, reserve exclamation points for screams (that's literally what they indicate) and for when you try to be ironic (as I just tried to be).

The Dash
Tragically, this once noble character is now to the written word what “uh” is to oratory. Unable to fathom proper punctuation, web writers are resorting to this horizontal version of the exclamation point at a maddening rate.

But a dash is not a comma. A dash is not a pause. A dash is not a deep breath. A dash is not to be applied like salt on a radish.

A properly used dash precedes a series of items punctuated by commas. In a pinch you may use the dash to indicate an abrupt interruption in dialogue, such as:

John said, "Geeze, pedantic subjects like this make me - "

"Well, excuseeeeee me!" Mary interrupted.

False Quotation Marks
The laissez faire school of contemporary writing apparently holds that anything you’d like to emphasize deserves quotation marks. However, quote marks have but two legitimate uses:

1. To enclose a quotation. That is to say, words spoken or recounted. “Mary, pass the salt for my radish,” John said.

2. To indicate that a word or phrase is not being used with its conventional meaning, such as President Clinton answered “truthfully,” if you can call it that.

You've seen these. They are the little dots sprinkled all over the Web. Perhaps more abundant than all the exclamation points, dashes and false quotation marks combined, ellipses are now ubiquitous.

However, ellipses are supposed to have a very narrow role in life. They weren’t meant to stitch together weak copy, or to bind loose verbiage. Ellipses simply indicate that something is missing. Use three of the dots in the middle of a sentence, and four dots at the end of a sentence to indicate that words belong there, but aren’t used.

Ellipses are great when applied, for example, to condense long quotations by eliminating the extraneous or verbose (or just to save space): “Four-score and seven years ago… and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Alas, despite God's limited intent for these dotty creatures, ellipses are appearing on Web pages and in e-mail like pollen in spring. If you're an ellipses abuser, this is your opportunity to repent. Just remember to use them only when something is missing like at the end of a . . . .

Finally, a good rule of thumb is to abstain when you are unsure. Or, put another way, when in "doubt" … refrain – or you may regret it!!!

Mark Landsbaum is a freelance writer and award-winning former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter. Landsbaum launched Landsbaum Communications in 1995 after a 24-year journalism career, specializing in copywriting and freelance writing. His book, Low-Cost Marketing, will be published by Adams Media in 2003. Landsbaum is married, father of two, grandfather of one, prefers baseball played on grass, sunshine to rain and freedom to security.









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