Using parentheses, commas or dashes to set off an aside

Punctuation has a purpose. When you want to add information in the middle of a sentence that doesn’t quite fit the flow but is essential, the punctuation you employ to set it off signals different levels of emphasis for the reader.

Consider these:

With no punctuation, the phrase “on Christmas Day” fits neatly in the sentence, adding information but not focusing on that:

  • He showed up at his daughter’s front door on Christmas Day to deliver the news.

Set off by commas, the phrase “on Christmas Day” seems more like an aside, something less important than the rest of the information:

  • He showed up at his daughter’s front door, on Christmas Day, to deliver the news.

Set off with parentheses, the phrase “on Christmas Day” seems almost whispered or hidden:

  • He showed up at his daughter’s front door (on Christmas Day) to deliver the news.

Set off with dashes, the phrase “on Christmas Day” is fairly shouted – Can you believe he would have the gall to show up on that day? – not just added information:

  • He showed up at his daughter’s front door — on Christmas Day — to deliver the news.

So use the punctuation carefully to give your aside the emphasis that you intend.

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Word of the day – Uninterested and disinterested

If I’m uninterested, I really don’t give a rat about the subject. If I’m disinterested, I don’t have a dog in that fight, but I might find it interesting.

If you don’t care to watch the Super Bowl regardless of who is playing, you’re uninterested. If you want to watch but don’t care who wins, you’re disinterested.

(If you’re inclined to root for — oh, say — a Dallas or Minnesota, you’re just interested in the wrong team.)

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Word of the day – nausea, nauseous, nauseated

“Sex and death are two things that come but once in my lifetime, but at least after death you’re not nauseous.”– Woody Allen, Sleeper, 1973.

Woody is a talented filmmaker and a funny fellow, but he’s wrong about nauseous.

Playing his classic nerdy, neurotic, hypochondriac, Woody spoke quite a bit about being nauseous. But what he really meant was nauseated. Here’s the rule:

* Nausea – that sick, upset stomach that comes with bad food and news

* Nauseated –when one is struck with nausea, one feels nauseated

* Nauseous – the cause of that illness, perhaps the double chimichanga grande with extra guacamole, or news that someone close has been killed, or something personally disgusting

Given that Woody Allen left is wife to run off with his adopted teenage step-daughter, though, maybe he does really mean what he says.

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Apostrophe now – What’s missing or what’s owned?

At a Phoenix Suns games some years ago, I found myself in front of a sign reading “Visitor’s locker room.”

This is going to be a cake game, I thought. The Suns are playing against only one guy,  and that’s his room.

We seem to have enormous trouble with the smallest pieces of the sentence. A great example is the apostrophe – this little bugger (‘). It’s often thrown in willy-nilly with little thought about how it is supposed to affect meaning.

Here is the easy way to remember when to use the apostrophe:

  1. Someone owns something.
  2. Something is missing

When it is ownership, think of the apostrophe as the arrow that points to the owner. If it is Bob’s motorcycle, then the arrow (apostrophe) points at Bob. That works the same with plural possessive. A doctor’s hospital is owned by one; a doctors’ hospital by many.

This is important. Look how often the Arizona-based Bashas’ brand is butchered. The family didn’t call it Basha market (a brand) or Basha’s market (owned by one dude named Basha). Family members called it Bashas’ – an intentional plural possessive to tell the world that many in the family were behind the store. The arrow (apostrophe) points to multiple Bashas, not just one. Yet people in Arizona throw that apostrophe in anywhere, often excluding all but one Basha, or removing the ownership element entirely. Eddie, Sr. and Ike must spin in their graves.

So remember:

  • Musicians piano = a piano used by musicians
  • Musician’s piano = a piano owned by a singular musician
  • Musicians’ piano = a piano owned by multiple musicians

If you wondered what I meant about the visitor’s locker room in the first sentence, go back to it now and see if it makes sense. If not, read from the beginning to here again.

Something is missing.

What we’re talking about is a contraction.

In the previous sentence, we could have said, “What we are talking about . . .” We shortened it from “we are” to “we’re.” The apostrophe substituted for the space and the “a”. You use “can’t” instead of “cannot,” “doesn’t” instead of “does not” and so on.

You know this stuff. (You got it sometime in grade school, I’m certain.)  I’m being intentionally basic to make the point that one doesn’t throw in an apostrophe without a reason – it is not just an accessory to go with words like a decorative scarf with a favorite outfit. It must have a purpose. If you know the purpose, you will use it correctly. If you don’t, you might look stupid.

With dates

People commonly misuse the apostrophe with dates, a good illustration of not thinking it through.

Which is the correct usage to describe the decade of the Beatles?

  • 1960’s
  • 60’s
  • 60s

The answer is D, none of the above, unless the point is that the decade owns something, in which case 1960’s would be correct (that was not the question asked, though). What you should use is 1960s, which is merely plural, or the ‘60s, using the apostrophe to substitute for something missing (in this case, “19”).

So it’s something owned or something missing. It’s simple.

One last thing: its and it’s. You’re just going to have to remember this one.

The contraction trumps the possessive, so “it’s” means “it is,” and “its” means something owned by it.

It’s a beautiful day in Arizona.

Its fur was glistening.

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Word of the day – There’s no their there

ASU begins their season . . . .

Today we’re going to tackle what probably is the most frequently broken grammar rule in America: the singular noun followed by the plural possessive pronoun.

You see this everywhere, and broadcasters are repeat (and I fear, clueless) offenders.

In the sentence above, is ASU singular or plural?

Singular (very good).

Should their follow a singular or plural noun?

Plural. Correct again.

So if it’s so easy when asked that way, why is this violated so cavalierly? Probably because that’s how we talk, but that’s not an excuse in purposeful writing.

Remember:

  • ASU opens its season.
  • The Sun Devils open their season.

And let’s pray that they close their regular seasons with a win over the Cats.

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Word of the day – Incredible and incredulous

“That’s incredible” was a cheesy ‘80s TV show that demonstrated (as if it needed demonstrating) what stupid things people would do to get attention, like juggling things that can kill you. When you see someone land a plane on a moving truck, for example, you just might say, “That’s incredible.”

You don’t mean that you don’t believe it. What you mean is that it’s remarkable, not that it lacks credibility. You are wowed by it, but you believe it, like an incredible touchdown pass.

Incredulous, on the other hand, is about a lack of credibility. If you are incredulous, you are at the very least skeptical, probably doubtful and perhaps convinced someone is full of it.

“He thought it incredulous that American politicians actually believe we could borrow and spend our way out of a recession.”

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How to create a news release … and why

When I’m asked to write a PR release, my first question is: Why?

In my decades as an editor, most of the PR releases that crossed by desk were merely passing through on the way to the trash can or the delete button. They were either pointless to my audience, gushing hyperbole or too much work to find the usable nugget.

And the sad part is: Produce information that my audience wants, and we’ll LOVE to publish your news release. Give me something that my readership craves, and it’s win-win-win all around.

There are lots of good reasons to send a news release that will resonate with the publication’s audience. Make sure you know what yours is, and then create it to accomplish that.

The first question to ask before writing a news release is why? What do I hope to accomplish? It could be:

  •  To get someone to write a story about it or redistribute the information
  • To get people to show up
  • To have someone do a review
  • To improve web search results
  • To keep you name out there
  • To develop a reputation as an expert in the field.

Then write the release with the goal in mind. There could be more than one. If, for example, you’re trying to be the expert and get the company name quoted, then provide timely information useful to people. The Arizona Auto Club, for example, offers the weekly average gas prices plus seasonal stories about how to weatherize the car for summer, expected traffic on long weekends, what to do in auto emergencies, where to get a free ride home for drinkers on traditional drinking holidays and safety information on child seats. It’s all about cars, and it’s all good information.

Employment companies put out surveys about job satisfaction or fun but soft stories about relationships at work, dumb things people do in job interviews and the like. It’s useful and interesting and about their business. It’s a free story to be passed on. The best way to get noticed is to serve the end user.

Here are a few rules to consider when creating a release:

  • Say something different. Tell a story, not a collection of facts. If it’s not interesting, don’t expect people to be interested. If you have a laundry business or hair salon or bakery, great, but that’s not interesting in itself. If your laundry specializes in cleaning up blood and the homicide squad routinely calls you in, that’s a story. If your salon has the newest, all-the-rage new Japanese hair-straightening treatment, that might be interesting to a certain market. If you bake marijuana muffins, people will read. If you sell real estate like every other agent, big deal.
  • Tell it quickly and straight . I don’t need a set-up, surprise ending and endless laudatory modifiers. Get to the point, the elevator speech: Acme creates portable devices so soldiers on the ground can tell if chemical or biological agents are present. Never produce more than one page.
  • Don’t make me look around or work. Put contact and key info in one spot, set off and maybe bold so it’s easy to find. Name, address, phone, website, email at minimum; more depending on subject.
  • Make it timely and targeted. If it’s event-oriented, give people time to do something with the information. If it affects a specific area or audience (and most things do), make that evident and get it to the information-distribution entities that cater to those areas and audiences. (That used to be mostly local newspapers but now that includes local websites and subject-matter sites.)

Can you do it yourself or should you hire someone?

If the sole purpose of the release is to improve you search standings by dropping it on a bunch of PR wires, go ahead and write it yourself (making sure that you get key words up high).

You can also do it yourself if you:

  • Know your business well and can explain your purpose succinctly
  • Know or can figure out where to send it
  • Can write without grammar errors.

If you can’t accomplish all those tasks, consider paying someone to do it for you. So how do you know who to hire? Consider these things:

If they’re not asking you the right questions, they’re not going to get the right results. So if they’re not asking right off the bat why you’re doing this, what you want to happen, who is your audience and the like, find someone else.

This is my bias, but I recommend finding someone who has been on the receiving end of releases and knows what she or he is looking for. You want someone who is experienced at finding the story and telling it well. Reporters and editors run through countless stories every week, and I prefer that experience over PR training absent that. However, some PR professionals who have never seen a newsroom do a great job.

Don’t believe them if they promise results that are not in their control, like a placed story.

Get examples of news releases they’ve produced recently. Are they interesting? Are they grammatical? Or are they filled with gushing “We’re excited to announce that . . .” constructions that don’t seem to have an interesting point? Would you pass on that information?

Lastly, will they tell you that you have a bad idea? If you’re paying for expertise, you don’t have to take that advice, but you certainly want them to give it freely. If they’re going to just do what you want whether it works for you or not simply to keep you paying, you’re wasting your money and everyone’s time.

If you need help with a release, other presentations or media relations, go to AZwritingcoach.com.

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