Practical Tips

The use of the Colon, Semicolon, Quotation Marks, Capital Letters, and Lists

 

What's the difference between a colon and a semicolon?

The colon (Doppelpunkt) is used in 3 ways:

  • It explains or expands on something that has just been mentioned.
  • It introduces lists.
  • In the US, when following an independent clause, it can be used before quotation marks.

The semicolon is used in the following ways:

  • It joins two closely connected but ultimately separate ideas (independent clauses) within a sentence.
  • It is sometimes used to separate complex items in a list.

The colon and semicolon in English can be confusing because of their similar but disparate uses. In the following example Sarah was upset because Bill was hurt:

Bill was hurt: Sarah was upset.

In the next example, however, the cause of Sarah's unhappiness is independent of Bill's misfortune (i.e. it could be a car accident, for example, that they were both involved in). The following sentence records  their separate reactions to the car crash:

Bill was hurt; Sarah was upset.

In the second example, the semi-colon could, of course, be replaced by the word 'and'.

 

Quotation marks - double or single?

It depends on which side of the pond you find yourself. Here is an example of how the Brits use these:

The manager said, 'These parts are known as "premium parts", they're the most expensive in our range.'

An American, however, would do exactly the opposite!:

The manager said, "These parts are known as 'premium parts,' they're the most expensive in our range."

Does punctuation go inside or outside quotation marks?

Another grey area, I'm afraid. Normally, if the quotation contains a grammatically complete sentence starting with a capital letter, punctuation precedes the closing question mark, as in the example above. However, the following example is an exception:

Who said the following line, 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears' ?

If the quotation is not a complete sentence but part of a sentence, then the punctuation goes outside the closing quotation mark:

He concluded that the company 'might consider taking on more staff '.

The same rule applies when using parenthesis. If the words in parenthesis form a complete sentence, then the punctuation is inside the parenthesis. If it's part of a sentence, however, it goes outside:

(Each line needs two operators, four welding cells and a fixture.)

Safety equipment must be worn at all times (goggles, gloves, steel-capped shoes etc.).

Does the quotation always begin with a capital letter?

No. When you quote what someone more or less said, as opposed to directly writing the exact words they used, then the quote doesn't begin with a capital letter:

The production manager told the workers that the parts must be 'reworked'.

 

When else do I use capital letters?

The good news is - some rules are the same as in German. So we capitalise  the beginning of sentences, people's names, continents, countries, states, regions, days, months, historical eras, and religious holidays. However - and this is the bad news - there are significant differences. Nationalities, for example, are always capitalised even when used as an adjective:

My wife is a German citizen. Compared to the German: Meine Frau ist eine deutsche Staatsbürgerin.

Furthermore, the English language divides its nouns into two basic groups which the grammar books label  proper and common.  proper noun is the specific name of a person, place, organisation, or thing. All proper nouns should be capitalised:

  • Mr Wilson, who lives in New York, works for the United Nations.

A common noun, however, refers to  general concepts or non-specific entities. These are not capitalised:

  • Our local sports club  welcomes all new members.

Of course, common nouns -  if referring to a specific entity - then become proper nouns:

  • The nations of the world
  • The United Nations

What about titles and headings?

Unfortunately, this is also a grey area. To be brief, there are several stylebooks that offer writers 'guidance' in such matters, e.g. APA, Chicago, MLA, Associated Press.....  The problem is, there is often little consensus between these various styles and so no 'standard' exists. Of course, if your organisation or company requires you to publish or present written documents following a specific style guideline then that must be adhered to. In which case, the services of a professional proofreader would be advisable. When no style is stipulated, however, how one capitalises headings and titles, is really a matter of taste.  The golden rule is to be consistent.  I generally capitalise all main words in titles and subheadings. However, for headings below this level, I use sentence case, i.e. I only capitalise the first word and proper nouns (as I'm doing in this post).

And lists....?

Capitalising after colons when introducing a bullet point list is another grey area for the same reason. For complete sentences, after a colon, I  capitalise the first word and conclude with a full stop (as I'm doing in this post). This is purely a matter of taste. There's no fixed rule. If you wish, you can start the sentences in a list after a colon with lower case and place a full stop only after the last item in the list. However, when a colon introduces a list that is not a complete sentence, then the first word is not capitalised. For example:

For operators on production lines, the following equipment is obligatory: goggles, gloves and safety shoes.

 

Should I use the services of a professional proofreader (Korrektor) or editor (Lektor), and what is the difference?

Proofreading entails checking for accuracy of spelling, punctuation, grammar, capitalisation, vocabulary, syntax, editorial style and formatting. Many (but not all) errors involving some of  these issues can be corrected by using software such as Microsoft Word, Google Docs or the following: http://www.grammarly.com

Editing, on the other hand, also involves removing errors but focuses more on content. In particular, it focuses on ensuring that the presentation, document, article, or whatever, makes sense as a whole: that ideas are organised logically, that paragraphs and sentences are clearly structured, and that the prose style -or choice of words - is appropriate. The ultimate aim is to ensure clarity and intelligibility. No software, as yet, can do this: it's intuitive.

The appropriateness of using a professional service would depend very much on the nature of your target audience. If something is to be published, presented to customers or senior levels of an organisation, it's probably advisable. I offer this service at very competitive  rates. For more details click here.

 

Presenting in English. Part 3.

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