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Odds and Ends: Scare Quotes, Exclamation Points, Almost, and Plural Compounds

Exclamation points, plural compound words like “mothers-in-law,” and scare quotes are tricky for writers concerned with proper grammar, punctuation, and usage. Writers tend to use “almost” and “most of” with imprecision as well. Keep reading to learn the best way to use these words and punctuation marks.

How to Effectively Use Exclamation Points!

As with many things, overuse of a technique will diminish its power. So it is with the oft-overused exclamation point. This powerful little punctuation mark loses its punch if it appears too often or, worse, in multiples. Use the exclamation point for emphasis, humor, strong emotion—but use it sparingly to avoid sounding like a lovesick teenager.

The concert was great!!! Joel was totally awesome!!! I’m in love!!!

Another example of overusing the exclamation point:

The car took the turn too quickly! Martha shrieked in fear and stomped on invisible brakes, but it was too late! Her baby was in the backseat! Skidding, the SUV broke through the barricade and disappeared over the edge of the embankment!

Despite the tension of the entire paragraph, only one exclamation point is appropriate—Her baby was in the backseat!—and using more than one in a paragraph is almost always overkill. Not that the exclamation point doesn’t have its uses—if there’s no emphasis in a scene that screams for emphasis, the writing will come across as the equivalent of monotone.

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What Are Scare Quotes?

Have you ever seen a sign like this at your local grocery store?

Today only! Buy one, get one “free”!

Is the second item free or not? The scare quote casts doubt on the word it encloses, even though the author’s intention was simply to make the word “free” stand out. Many writers make this mistake when trying to emphasize a particular word or phrase.

Cathy didn’t know why her friends were making her an “outcast.”

I felt “ripped off” by my agent.

Scare quotes should be used to express skepticism or derision about the enclosed word or phrase. They are especially useful when you’re aiming for irony or sarcasm:

The so-called “humane” society put over a hundred dogs to death this year.

It was hard to believe this noise was actually classified as “music.”

You may also use scare quotes to distance yourself from a word or phrase. For example, if you are writing a self-help book, you may surround “inner child” with quotes to show it’s not your own term, and that you may not even agree with the phrasing.

Be careful how you use these “scary” quotes or your reader may have trouble interpreting your meaning. If you offer a 19th-century saga of the “Western” frontier, your readers may assume they’re going to be tricked and denied any cowboys and Indians.

How to Make Compound Words Plural

Compound words are often hyphenated (brother-in-law). Since the first word in the compound (brother) is the most important, it is the part that is pluralized: brothers-in-law.

Other examples of compound words in plural form:

passerby                          passersby

matron of honor              matrons of honor

knight-errant                  knights-errant

Do not add an apostrophe “s” to the end to make it plural, unless it is possessive.

Correct:            My mother-in-law’s opinion matters to me. (Singular)

My mothers-in-law’s opinions matter to me. (Plural)

Almost (all of) vs Most (of)

These phrases can be pitfalls for writers, and their different nuances can change the meaning of your sentence. So can the placement.

1.  I almost failed all of my classes. (I nearly failed but ended up passing all of my classes.)

2.  I failed almost all of my classes. (I did fail most of my classes.)

3.  I failed most of my classes. (I failed more than half of my classes.)

Here’s how to remember where in a sentence to write “almost.”

“Almost” means “nearly.”

“Almost all” means close to all, but not quite all.

“Most of” implies more than half.

“Almost all” and “most of” are very similar and can be used in similar ways, although “almost all” is stronger than “most of.” (I like almost all of his movies implies that I’m a bigger fan than I like most of his movies.)

Here are a few more examples:

1. She almost planted all her roses. (She was interrupted before she could finish or start.)

2. She planted almost all her roses. (She was able to plant nearly all of her roses.)

3. She planted most of her roses. (She was able to plant at least half of them.)

Don’t be tripped up by confusing words and phrases. Sign up for our Submit Write Now! for monthly articles on tricky grammar and troublesome punctuation problems, along with dozens of articles on the writing craft and the publishing industry. And if you’d like one of our expert proofreaders to make sure your writing is smooth and error-free, check out Writer’s Relief’s list of services, designed to help the creative writer send out their best work and get it published.

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