Being Possessive

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When to Use Em Dashes, Parentheses, and Commas?

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According to Roy Peter Clark, in Writing Tools: Fifty Essential Strategies for Every Writer, “Punctuation comes from the Latin word punctus, or “point.” Those funny dots, lines, and squiggles help writers point the way. “There is a tendency to use marks of punctuation interchangeably; and this is acceptable in personal writing and using personal style in writing a novel or a story.

In general, any of these three marks—em dashes, parentheses, commas—serve to separate information that is incidental. However, there are subtle distinctions that can make usage more credible in business writing—and all writing, in my opinion.

Credible uses for each

Em dashes:

The teacher—who wears red socks—is a fan of Mark Twain.

The em dashes set off the information from the main sentence without making it unimportant as in, “you need to know that she wears red socks.”


The teacher (who wears red socks) is a fan of Mark Twain.

Parentheses indicate that the information is incidental, as in “oh, by the way…”


The teacher, who wears red socks, is a fan of Mark Twain.

The commas indicate that the information is integral to the sentence, as in “the particular teacher who specifically wears red socks.”
Note: The meaning here might be just as effective without commas.

Ask yourself if you want the information to be—

  • helpful backstory (em dashes),
  • a trivial aside (parentheses), or
  • integral to the sentence (commas).

Consult these examples when trying to decide what punctuation fits the exact meaning you want to portray in your document. Let me help you put your best word forward. Contact me at

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Use productive tools to keep your reader focused


One way to diminish the effect of your message is to load it up with words that are neither useful nor productive.

Two ways to kill your message:

  1. Write too many words to say something.
  2. Write something that does not need to be said.

A clear, concise, well-constructed message gets the response you seek from readers.

Take advantage of the power of punctuation

Punctuation controls how a reader understands a group of words. Let these punctuation tools guide you.

  • The period urges the reader to stop and let what they just read sink in.
  • The comma urges the reader to take a breath.
  • The semicolon urges the reader to evaluate. It divides two pieces of information that are related.
  • The colon urges the reader to pay attention, because something important is about to be said.
  • The em dash and parentheses let the reader know there is a diversion ahead­—information that is not crucial, but sheds light on the issue.
  • The bulleted list helps the reader itemize each thing they are asked to know.

Of course, there are other tools, including brackets and exclamation points. These are rarely used in writing for the public. If you really want to use them, do so sparingly.

So, write you message clearly and concisely; and use the right punctuation to make it pop and drive it home.

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Tips for using a and an before words that start with h or u.

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Tips for using a and an before words that start with h or u.


This is a small thing, but it makes your writing so much more credible. It’s all in the details!

Use a before words that start with the enunciated letter h:

  • History. A history class about famous churches.
  • Hazard. Going without sleep is a hazard to your health.
  • Home. She bought a home in the hills.

with words with the phonic sound yew:

  • University. She attended a university in Rome.
  • European. France is a European nation.
  • URL. You need a URL for your website.

Use an before

words that start with silent letter h:

  • Hour. It took an hour to drive to the mountains),
  • Herb. Use an herb to flavor your cooking),
  • Heirloom. The silver brush is an heirloom from my grandmother.

words that start with a short u:

  • Uncle. He is an uncle of mine.
  • Underdeveloped. An underdeveloped bee has no wings.
  • Urgent. They put out an urgent call for supplies.

and acronyms that start with with a vowel sound:

  • M(em)CPS—Montgomery County Public Schools. An MCPS student.
  • L(el)GBTQ—Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer. An LGBTQ study circle.
  • N(en)PR—National Public Radio. I work at an NPR station.

Inspired by Woe Is I, by Patricia T. O’Connor. Copyright 1996.

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My Take on Using Themself as a Gender-neutral Pronoun

Normally, a singular antecedent requires a singular pronoun. But, because he is no longer universally accepted as a generic pronoun, referring to a person of unspecified gender, people commonly (in speech and in informal writing) substitute the third-person-plural pronouns they, them, their, and themselves (or the nonstandard singular themself), Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, p. 241.

So, I like that themself is acceptable as a singular pronoun in general writing, as in the following:

At least take your phone with you. A person should be careful when walking alone; they could find themself facing great danger.

Although themselves may be used as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, it just does not have any of the trappings of a singular word—referring to just one person. Themself is not such an alien word. It enjoyed popular usage in centuries past. I agree with the adage that what falls out of favor in one century can crawl back into acceptable usage later on. There is nothing new under the sun. Now we accept they as a singular gender-neutral pronoun; so, now it’s time to welcome themself to the table.

There are other candidates for singular gender-neutral pronouns floating around out there, for example, the strange-sounding xeself. However, they are not yet popular and none have stuck the landing, so to speak. Here are five of them, taken from the Free Dictionary.

Once you know your audience and feel confident about the best way to get their attention, the golden rule is to be consistent in your usage of that word you choose throughout your document or manuscript.

More on this at

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Simple Habits of Good Reading Make Good Writers

Before you read As you read After you read
Set a goal to read
one book a year, a month, every
six months—what-
ever is easy for

Pick a book on a
topic that interests you.

Set a time to read

Select a
comfortable space
to read.  
Make connections with your own

Look up the
meaning of words
you do not know
and write them

Reread sections if
you need to
understand the
context of the
Share some or all
the story with
someone else.

Try to use the
words and
definitions you
wrote down in
your own

You finished the
book. Claim your
bragging rights!  
Repeat these
activities to
a better writer
and speaker.  

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