Miss Webster

Blog: Grammar and punctuation tips

Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Pexels

Oh, Miss Webster...!

Need grammar or spelling help? My husband calls me Miss Webster because I serve as his personal Webster's Dictionary. Spelling, grammar and punctuation are my things. I can help with your questions, too! We all have our superpowers. Me? I'm a word nerd! 

And while I can wield hyphens and semicolons with the best of them, the goal of grammar is to make material easier to read and understand, not more complicated. Sometimes, that even means breaking long-standing rules. The horror!

I have a degree in journalism and have worked in private and corporate communications for years. To see my portfolio, check the menu in the upper right corner.

Geeks and nerds: Unite!

Are you a nerd or a geek? Maybe both?

You hear it all the time: “What a nerd!” and “He was geeking out last night.” We all know what those words mean…more or less. But did you know there is actually a difference? And to complicate things a bit more, sometimes those terms can overlap. Let’s dig in!

You can generally identify nerds by their conservative dress and weaker social skills. They’re usually intellectual and interested in academic, technical and scientific topics. Nerds are generally introverts.

Geeks, on the other hand, often wear clothes that reflect their interests, because when they love something, they can get obsessive about it. You’ll often find them wearing fan shirts and hats with game logos. Geeks are experts in their field, even though they’re not necessarily the academic type.

Here's a great geek for ya!

Geek/Nerd/Dork/Dweeb Venn Diagram” by Yashodhan Thalwar (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Warrior and Nerd photographs courtesy Pixabay.

Is this your idea of a nerd?

After reading those two paragraphs, you probably have a mental image of what a geek and a nerd might look like. That’s because both of these terms are stereotypes. They’re broad generalizations that often cause people to make unfair judgments. That’s why we try to avoid stereotypes in our writing and speaking. Far better just to use real words that accurately describe individuals, not a whole imagined category of humans. But for the purpose of discussion, we’re exploring definitions and definitely not making any judgments.

But back to the conversation:

If you were to talk about video games, both nerds and geeks might be interested. The geeks would give you game cheats and tips; the nerds would be the ones who wrote the code to make the game. In fact, you might be a geek if people call you a walking encyclopedia when you start talking about your hobby. And you might be a nerd if it’s hard to draw you away from your keyboard because you’re researching new techniques for your pet project.

Nerd and geek may be slang words, but they both have a history. Geek is a term that goes way back. It originally referred to a circus freak in side shows, and now it describes a fanatic. Dr. Seuss first used the word nerd in his 1951 book, “If I Ran the Zoo.”

In our culture, these two terms can overlap. Someone who writes code AND is a gaming superstar could easily be both a geek and a nerd. And of course, both can be lovable or annoying, just like all humans.

For all you data nerds, you can see what I mean in the Venn diagram below.

Who doesn’t love the interrobang‽

Q: When is a question not a question? 

A: When you really don't expect an answer--when it's a rhetorical question.  

When you ask a rhetorical question and you're full of excitement, you need an interrobang for the closing punctuation. Huh?! You may not be familiar with that term, but you’ve probably used it and surely have seen it. That punctuation combination—the question mark alternating with the exclamation point— isn’t just a social media phenomenon. It’s a real thing with a history and everything.

So what is an interrobang, any way? Well, if a question mark and an exclamation point had a baby, it would be an interrobang. It started out as an advertising gimmick to add interest and excitement to ad copy. (You can credit Martin K. Speckter as the inventor.) The idea was to add this cool new symbol to rhetorical questions and outrageous statements. Interrobang gets its word from interrogātiō (Latin for “rhetorical question” or “cross examination”) and bang, which is a slang term printers use for exclamation marks. Interabang is the approved spelling variation. How’s that for some useless trivia

However, if you’re planning to use the symbol often and want to be correct, there are some keyboard shortcuts. In Microsoft Word, you can use a keyboard shortcut: alt+8253. You can also click Insert, then symbol, then more symbols and select wingdings2. Scroll down nearly to the end of the list and you’ll see four interrobangs. Click insert. For Mac keyboards, press Command+Control+spacebar. In Google Docs, click Insert, then Special Characters, and then type interrobang into the search bar. For a bit more information on how to insert an interrobang, this article explains more about how to do it in other operating systems. And here’s information on using interrobangs on your iPhone and iPad.



Interrobang is a combination of ! and ?

After learning all of this fascinating information about interrobangs, you’re probably eager to use it in all of your communication. Now comes the disclaimer: Don’t ever use it in formal writing. It’s considered poor style for business and academic documents, and if you try to slip it in, you will probably hear about it from your teacher, professor, manager, copy editor or proofreader. Grammar, you see, is no laughing matter. Informal punctuation like an interrobang is frowned upon highly.

For that matter, you should also really restrict your use of exclamation points for any type of formal writing. Exclamation points are the equivalent of SHOUTING, after all. Teachers and professors get quite riled when too many exclamation points appear in research papers. Even if you’re reporting on a highly celebrated innovation, do yourself a favor and skip the interrobang. I mean, go figure‽ Academia can be so stilted at times!

Oh, and here’s one more reason to use interrobangs sparingly: the person reading your document may have a different set of fonts installed that don’t recognize your carefully inserted symbol. Play it safe. Just use a period, unless you’re among friends. I mean, who wants to make an unforced error?! 

Uh...make that forced error‽

Everyday or Every day?


I go to school every day. Or is it everyday? Here’s a way to determine.

Every day: Are you talking about a quantity of days? I go to school each day. I go to school five days. I go to school on rainy days. I go to school every day. In each of these instances, you’re defining WHICH days you go to school. We don’t run the other phrases together, do we? We don’t say we go to school fivedays. We don’t say we go to school rainydays. When you’re telling which days, you separate the words.

Everyday: Everyday means normal, customary or usual. That’s an everyday complaint. I wear my everyday clothes. It’s an everyday occurrence. You’re not actually meaning that you wear those clothes every single day. You’re simply saying that you’re wearing your customary clothes.

To complicate things just a bit, you can also use BOTH of these words in one sentence! Here’s how you might do that: Every day I wear my everyday clothes. Make sense?


Do you capitalize the seasons of the year?

In a word, no.

The seasons are written as winter, spring, summer and fall (or autumn). No capital letters. That’s because the seasons are considered common nouns—general terms—and common nouns aren’t capitalized. Proper nouns describe very specific people, places and things, and they’re capped.

With that in mind, you’d capitalize the seasons in a few rare instances:

  • Capitalize when a season begins the sentence. You probably knew that one.
  • Capitalize when a season is part of a name or title, such as The Chicago Fall Fest or The Summer Olympics.
  • Capitalize if your name is Summer (or Autumn, Winter, etc.)
  • Capitalize when a season is referred to as a person (personification). You’ll probably only see this rarely, and most likely in poetry. Here’s an example: “Oh Winter, the worst foe I’ve ever known! I hate the way you chill me to the bone.” (That’s not a real poem, by the way. I just made it up to illustrate the point.)

It doesn’t seem logical that we don’t capitalize seasons, since we do capitalize days of the week and months of the year. I guess early language people decided they had to draw the line somewhere—or before you know it, we’d end up capitalizing words like afternoon, morning, tomorrow and yesterday.

It’s inconsistencies like this that make a word nerd’s life meaningful, though. These are the things I spot when proofreading documents. It makes me smile when I see seasons properly used, and it makes me cringe when I see one improperly capped. Especially when I’m the one who did it.

Hope you Summer summer is going well!

#usage

The seasons of the year are not capitalized, as a general rule.

Geeks and nerds, unite!

Are you a geek or a nerd? Maybe a bit of both? Find out here.

You hear it all the time: “What a nerd!” and “He was geeking out last night.” We all know what those words mean…more or less. But did you know there is actually a difference? And to complicate things a bit more, sometimes those terms can overlap. Let’s dig in!

You can generally identify nerds by their conservative dress and weaker social skills. They’re usually intellectual and interested in academic, technical, and scientific topics. Nerds are generally introverts.

Geeks, on the other hand, often wear clothes that reflect their interests. When they love something, they can get obsessive about it. You’ll often find them wearing clothes that reflect their interests—fan shirts and hats with game logos. Geeks are experts in their field, even though they’re not necessarily the academic type.


If you were to talk about video games, both nerds and geeks might be interested. The geeks would give you game cheats and tips; the nerds would be the ones who wrote the code to make the game.

Nerd and geek may be slang words, but they both have a history. Geek is a term that goes way back. It originally referred to a circus freak in side shows, and now it describes a fanatic. Dr. Seuss first used the word nerd in his 1951 book, “If I Ran the Zoo.”

These two terms, as used in our culture, can overlap. Someone who writes code AND is a gaming superstar could easily be both a geek and a nerd. And of course, both can be lovable or annoying, just like all humans.

Geek/Nerd/Dork/Dweeb Venn Diagram” by Yashodhan Thalwar (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr

Run away from run-on sentences

Water runs. People run. Even refrigerators run. But sentences shouldn't.

Running water is great! But run-on sentences aren't.

When a sentence goes on and on and on, there's a name for that: a run-on sentence. That makes easy enough sense, right? But how do you recognize run-ons, and how do you fix them? It helps to know the basic structure of sentences, which is noun+verb+modifiers. 

A sentence like "Mary went to the store" fits that model. But when it includes way more information, it's really easier to read that sentence if it's broken into separate sections. For instance, "Winnie put on her hat and coat, and went to the store, where she saw a dozen people buying their groceries and even some extra supplies because a hurricane was predicted" really packs a lot into one sentence! It is a genuine sentence, but it could easily be broken up into several smaller ones. 

Here's one way you could do it: "Winnie put on her coat and hat. She went to the store, where she saw a dozen people buying their groceries. They were even buying extra supplies. After all, a hurricane was predicted."

Not all run-on sentences are as easy to break up. They may be convoluted or full of ideas that don't make sense on their own. Every sentence needs to have that subject+verb structure, though, so dividing a long sentence into choppy phrases isn't doing your writing any favors. It's tiring to read and often more difficult to understand.

How long is too long for a good sentence? That depends on many factors, including the audience and the subject matter. Shorter is almost always better. Try to keep every sentence at or under 15 words, and mix that up with some shorter ones of five words or so. (By the way, the previous sentence was 23 words. What do you think?)

One famous writer once said, "If you have to stop and take a breath, the sentence is too long." Sounds good to me!

#usage #grammar

Writing tip: Is it loose or lose?

Because I'm a word nerd, it drives me bonkers to read that someone wants to loose a few pounds. The correct word is lose. Here's how to know when to use which word.

Just remember Loosey Goosey.

Loose rhymes with goose, right? When something is loose, it isn't gathered together. In fact, there is not just one, but two letter Os in the word loose. They're on the loose! Loose tooth, loose clothing and loose tongue all work fine.

Lose (pronounced looz) is an action. It's the action of losing or removing something. So if you want to lose weight, that's the word you'd use. When you lose weight, it's lost. So lose your way, lose a game and lose patience are perfect ways to use lose.

Lose is lost; the goose is loose!

#usage