Apostrophe abuse

The Johnson is...what?

Dear Conan,

I was just in another state which uses the apostrophe quite frequently for a surname on their name plates at the front door or mail boxes. For example: The Johnson’s. I know that there should not be an apostrophe before the s but after when they are referring to all of the family. I know that you have spoken about apostrophes/possession before but I can’t remember if you mentioned anything about the above usage. I suppose I will have to let go of the mistake because I was soooo outnumbered by my family in the discussion of which was right or wrong…




Dear Sheryl,

An apostrophe NEVER renders anything plural. When you write “The Johnson’s,” you are saying “The Johnson is” or “That belongs to the Johnson.” As you can see, neither makes any sense whatsoever.

When you use an apostrophe after the name, as in “The Johnsons’,” you are saying, “This belongs to the Johnsons,” which does make sense if it’s a nameplate on a door or mailbox. It is incorrect, however, if you say “The party is given by the Johnsons’.” What you’re saying is that the party is being given by something that belongs to the Johnsons. In other words, that apostrophe makes the name possessive. Dig?

But isn’t it interesting how people believe that determining grammar is a democratic process?

Your ally in correctness,


What about semicolons?

Don't even think about it.

Okay, first off, I’m toying with the idea of just telling you to expunge this poseur punctuation mark like a common plantar wart. In my opinion, semicolons are the skin virus of writing. They’re not only archaic, but also pretentious. So if I were your editor, I would excise every single pompous little pause mark you threw in there. But I know you won’t let me do that. So I’m going to tell you exactly how to use them. Continue reading

Principle vs. principal

I am  your principle...uh, principal...I think...

I am your principle! Uh, principal...I think...

Here comes one that has stymied people for generations — the age-old duel between principle and principal. And why not? One is a rule you’d rather not follow and the other is a person you’d rather not run into in the hall. As always, there’s a way to keep the two separate, just like Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck: one here, one over there.  But first, how about some definitions?

Principal means first, most important, chief or head.

Principle means a law, rule or doctrine.

Both are nouns, but as you can see, principle is an idea and principal is usually a person. So here comes Conan’s mnemonic device for how to tell the two apart: The principal is your pal.

Hyphens and dashes

Use sparingly.

Oh, great, you think to yourself. Punctuation. Fascinating stuff. Who cares?

Well, um, duh, I do. And as long as I’m alive, I will be beating you over the head with my Strunk & White. Okay?

This article was inspired by a friend of mine who recently made the pronouncement that comma usage in our modern age is kind of up for grabs. It’s a Ted Nugent free-for-all. Sprinkle those commas like Bac-Os all over your prose. All paths lead to punctuational correctness! Continue reading

Comma tally voo?

In just a few short years, I'll be starring in "Westworld."

Obviously, I can’t tackle the entire subject of comma usage in one Conan, so we’ll take it a bit at a time.  I swore I’d never do this to you, but I can’t think of any other way to get my point across. I’m going to have to get a little technical this time.  Nothing to be done but suck it up and dive right in.

What does a comma represent in speech? Yes, you, in the front row with the bow tie? Right…a pause. Unfortunately, most people don’t talk no more betterer than they write. Most writers toss commas into their writing like rednecks toss Uncle Ben’s at a trailer park wedding. This will not do!

Comma rule number one: Joining independent clauses and verb phrases with a coordinating conjunction. Hey, wake up! This is important!

An independent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and verb and expresses a complete thought. This is commonly called a sentence.

Example: Eddie wore a pair of white pumps.

A verb phrase is a group of related words that does not include a subject.

Example: sported a rhinestone necklace.

A verb phrase usually follows an independent clause and “borrows” the clause’s subject, like so:

Eddie wore a pair of white pumps and sported a rhinestone necklace.

Here’s the common mistake: Most writers drop a comma in between “pumps” and “and.” WRONG! If whatever follows a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, yet, so, etc.) has no subject, do not use a comma before the conjunction. Let it be written. Let it be done.

Now: if you turned the verb phrase into an independent clause by adding a subject, THEN you separate with a comma, like so:

Eddie wore a pair of white pumps, and he sported a rhinestone necklace.

Think of it like this: your verb phrase depends on the independent clause for life support (i.e., its subject). The comma cuts off the phrase from that life support, and it dies a writhing, painful death.

Conversely, when you’ve got two independent clauses, each having its very own subject and verb, imagine yourself as the bartender in a biker bar — the conjunction, if you will. Now imagine your independent clauses as two very large, very angry bikers, one a Hell’s Angel, the other a Son of Silence. Now, the comma is the tire iron you keep stowed behind the bar. You’ve got to insert that comma between the first independent clause (the Hell’s Angel) and the conjunction (you), because that little comma is the only thing that stands between you and a full-tilt-boogie tavern brawl.

Can you see it? Remember it as if your life depended on it, because someday, it just might. Metaphorically speaking, that is.

Let’s Talk About Exclamation Points!!!

Hey, look at me! Look at me!

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an exclamation point is “a mark ! used especially after an interjection or exclamation to indicate forceful utterance or strong feeling.” The Random House Unabridged Dictionary says it this way: an exclamation point is used to indicate intensity of emotion, loudness or even “a speaker’s dumbfounded astonishment.” In the typesetting/printing world, this punctuation mark is appropriately known as a screamer or a bang…sometimes even a gasper or a startler. Continue reading

‘Tis the Season to Send Out Annoying Holiday Greetings


Nothing strikes fear into the hearts of Americans like the prospect of writing Christmas greetings. I should know–as the family wordsmith, it falls to me each year to crank out a two-page missive that’s engaging, informative and treads that fine line between connecting with friends and family–and smarmy bragging. Continue reading