Ask Mr. Punctuation

Wondering how to end that sentence you’re working on? Don’t know what an “interrobang” is? Ask Mr. Punctuation, if he doesn’t know the answer he’ll look it up in his fourth-grade English book.


Dear Mr. Punctuation:

My eldest daughter is engaged to an adjunct professor at Wapello County Junior College, a real “know-it-all.” My husband Earl and I let him stay over last weekend even though he has not given Lynette a diamond, just his high school ring, he makes so little money. We laid down the law first thing Friday night, though: This is our house, and our rules apply: If we’re not having sex, you’re not having sex.

Anyway, this guy Michael–“Mike” isn’t good enough for him–told our younger kids about “semi-colons,” and now it’s become a “fad” around our house, like the Hula-Hoop was when I was a girl. Example: Sunday night Timmy our youngest wrote me a note saying “Mother, I need you to go to Staples and get me a Flipside 1-Ply Project Board for my oral report on dinosaurs; either brown or red, because my report focuses on Tyrannosaurus rex, which was reddish-brown, not orange as typically depicted.”

My question is–can semi-colons breed? They are everywhere in the house now, and none of the bug sprays Earl has in his garage “workshop” seem to kill them.

(Mrs.) Violet Sprague, Ottumwa, Iowa

Where Earl keeps the bug spray.


Dear Mrs. Sprague:

The semicolon or semi-colon (either spelling is acceptable) is used to separate major elements of a sentence and to show that the author went to college. They cannot reproduce, but they molt once a year. Keep them off the den couch during their fall shedding season.

Dear Mr. Punctuation:

My daughter Violet has applied unsuccessfully for over sixty jobs since she graduated from high school last spring. I am beginning to think her writing style may have something to do with it, as I recently peeked over her shoulder before she hit “send” on an email to Fast Seal Adhesives and it was “peppered” with exclamation points and included a “smiley” face where I was taught you should put “Sincerely” or “Very truly yours.”

Perhaps I am “out-of-date” but it seems to me that if you want to get a position with a corporation that includes benefits instead of being a car hop at “Shakes ‘n Fries” which is where she works now, you need to project a “professional” image in your correspondence. I was an executive secretary for six years before I got married, so I know a little bit about the “world of business.”

Marjorie Olmstead, Seekonk, Mass.

“Perfect — not a single exclamation point! Oops.”


Dear Marjorie–

I asked Thurman Seebold of the Calumet (Michigan) College of Business for his take on this inter-generational squabble and here is his response, which I quote in pertinent part: “The rule in this regard is known as ‘Mulhern’s Law,’ after Edward Mulhern, the former Director of Personnel at Atlas Brake Pads, a major supplier to the auto industry: ‘The competence of a prospective employee is inversely related to the number of exclamation points in his/her resume and/or cover letter.’” So tell Violet to “shrink” the number of exclamation points she uses down to zero.


Dear Mr. Punctuation–

Please settle a dispute that threatens to tear my family apart. Now that everyone communicates by email, differences in punctuation styles are readily apparent–this is why I miss a nice note or letter written in cursive. Some members of our family put two spaces after the period or other ultimate punctuation mark at the end of a sentence, while others use only one.

This issue has caused many “flaming” wars between the two opposing camps, and we have a wedding coming up in October so the volume of communications will increase right before Thanksgiving. I don’t want what should be a nice family get-together to degenerate into a free-for-all of the sort you read about in the police blotter of our local newspaper, not that I have any interest in the mortality rates of the lower classes.

We have agreed to abide by your decision, regardless of how you punctuate your reply.

Millicent Bristol, Croton-on-Hudson, New York

Dear Millicent:

There are substantive reasons for the two most popular spacing techniques. Some word processing programs choke when they open documents with more than one space after the end of its sentences, causing laptop computer screens to “freeze.” This in turn requires a “re-boot” that your children can perform for you–it is like a Heimlich Maneuver for a computer. Others say two spaces makes for easier reading, and thus is preferable from the point of view of the human and not the computer.

A third and increasingly-popular minority viewpoint is who gives a rat’s ass?

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Take My Advice–I Wasn’t Using it Anyway.”

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