Of Older Styles

Editors, writers, and other word people sometimes get into battling about style as if their lives, or at least the fate of the English language, depended on it.

“The Chicago Manual of Style says . . .”

“But according to the Associated Press . . .”

“That’s not true of British English . . .”

And so on and on and on.

Lately, for a writing project, I’ve been reading works published in the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s. For the record, so far they include Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, (1845); Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); and Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave (1853), as well Escape to Freedom, a young adult adaptation of Douglass’s Narrative, and Douglass’s very famous Fourth of July speech from 1852, which I’ve had the honor of reading parts of aloud at an annual performance.

The contemporary editions of all the full-length works retain the style, spelling, and punctuation of the original. While my writer-reader self takes in the content, my copyeditorial self is noting especially the style choices that contemporary U.S. editors might take issue with.

Perhaps my most important takeaway is that I’ve found all of these works, published between 164 and 172 years ago, readily comprehensible. The words I didn’t recognize are still found in English-language dictionaries. With the works of Shakespeare and others of his time — the late 16th century and early 17th — my eyes often drop to the footnotes. Footnotes were neither provided for nor required by this 21st-century reader of these mid-19th-century works.

To be sure, my 21st-century sensibility sometimes got impatient with the flowery style and digressions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not to mention some plot implausibilities toward the end, but Stowe’s interwoven stories, her attention to detail, and her acute insight into human nature more than made up for it. Twelve Years a Slave is a page-turner from beginning to end, and the main reason Douglass takes me longer to get through is that I often pause to read passages aloud — a practice I highly recommend, and not just with the Fourth of July speech.

If you’ve read my recent and not-so-recent posts on the subject, you won’t be surprised that my copyeditorial eye paid particular attention to hyphenation. All these works use considerably more hyphens than either Chicago or AP allows, or even the more hyphen-friendly online Oxford (UK version).

Opening Twelve Years a Slave at random, I find work-bench, blood-hound, and half-way on facing pages. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) and the UK Oxford have them all solid, one word, no hyphen.

A single page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers store-room, linen-presses, and china-closet all in the same sentence. Current English style would make storeroom one word and both linen presses and china closet two.

Aside: For storeroomMerriam-Webster’s notes the first usage as 1685. It does not note whether that first usage was one word, two, or hyphenated, leaving one to believe that it’s been one word all along. I tend to doubt it. This is one of my pet peeves with MW and one reason I prefer the American Heritage Dictionary. AHD is more likely to offer the hyphenated alternative for words that are indeed styled both ways in good English-language writing.

In Twelve Years a Slave some two-word proper nouns are hyphenated, notably New-York and New-Orleans. The styles I’m familiar with all dispense with the hyphen, probably on the theory that it’s obvious the two words constitute one name. The older style survives in the official name of the New-York Historical Society.

As noted in my earlier “Dash Away, All” post, Chicago style advises an en dash when such an “open compound” is joined to another word, as in New York–Boston train. It’s unlikely that, if only a hyphen were used, anyone familiar with U.S. geography and/or capitalization style would ever read that as a “new York-Boston train,” but I’ve been en-dashing such constructions for almost 40 years so the hyphen just doesn’t look like enough.

Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin I noticed almost immediately the unusual — to me — styling of contractions.  In most cases Stowe and/or the typographer inserted a space between the two words being fused together: I ‘ve, I ‘ll, it ‘s, is n’t, did n’t, there ‘s, and so on. However, in a few cases the contractions are set solid, the way we’d style them today: can’t and an’t. An’t, which we would write ain’t (but never, ever use except in the most colloquial dialogue), contracts either am not or are not; thus it might have been rendered a’ n’t. Quite possibly that failed Stowe’s “it looks funny” test, as it fails mine. And since cannot appears as one word, it makes sense that the contraction can’t would do likewise.

For a semicolon-lover like me, these 19th-century works are a feast. Douglass, Stowe, and Northup were not afraid of long sentences, and for writers of long sentences semicolons are indispensable. Stowe sometimes strings as many as four independent clauses together with semicolons, a practice that would send most U.S. copyeditors screaming for their red pencils (or, more likely, their Track Changes). And Northup writes, of Mistress Epps:

She had been well educated at some institution this side the Mississippi; was beautiful, accomplished, and usually good-humored.

(Are you itching to insert an of after “side”?)

Stowe is very fond of dashes, though not as fond as Emily Dickinson, and often, though by no means always, her dashes are preceded by a comma: “Topsy only thought Eva’s speech something funny and inexplicable,—she did not believe it.” Northup’s aren’t, and neither are Dickinson’s. In the later The Minister’s Wooing (1859) and Oldtown Folks (1869), Stowe was still preceding dashes with commas and even semicolons. Clearly no editor was telling her that this just wasn’t done,—or if they did, she was having none of it.


Dash Away, All

Dashes and hyphens are so often considered together that when I got to the end of “Sturgis’s Law #10,” I knew something was missing. After all, the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) devotes several pages to dashes, and so do many other style guides. Surely I should devote at least a few words to the subject?

But I’d already gone on too long (blog posts that top 1,000 words make me nervous), and besides, nowhere in Sturgis’s Laws are dashes even mentioned. (That may change in the future.)

Meanwhile — let’s talk about dashes.

In U.S. usage, dashes come in two sizes. The em dash ( — ) is so called because it’s generally the length of one m. The shorter en dash (which, surprise surprise, is the length of an n) is the one that gets mixed up with hyphens.

As my typographer friends point out, a dash is a dash. How it’s styled — em or en, with or without space before and after — is a typographical decision. In British English (BrE) the kind of dash that indicates a break or sets off parenthetical remarks (as in the previous sentence) is generally rendered by an en dash with a space on either side, like this: How it’s styled – em or en, with or without space before and after – is a typographical decision.

  • To create an em dash on a PC: Alt+0151 (use the number pad) or ALT+CTRL+minus key (the latter works in Word but not in WordPress). Using AutoCorrect, you can also tell Word to automatically convert two hyphens (which is how we indicated em dashes back in typewriter days) to an em dash. I don’t allow Word to AutoCorrect anything, but you may be more tolerant than I.
  • To create an en dash on a PC: ALT+0150 or CTRL+minus key (see above)
  • To create an em dash on a Mac: Option+Shift+minus
  • To create an en dash on a Mac: Option+minus

In this blog and in my own writing, I insert a space on either side of my em dashes. This is to avoid bad end-of-line breaks. Word processors may treat “styled—em” in the sample sentence as one word and keep it all on one line, which may lead to an unsightly gap in the line preceding. The shorter dash seems to be coming into its own in ebooks, and with good reason: ebooks can be read on devices with relatively narrow lines, and in a narrow line a full em dash can look huge.

Em dashes generally herald a break of some kind. In dialogue, they are commonly used to indicate in interruption: “But I was about to say—” Frankie began before Sal cut her off. (Dialogue that trails off is generally indicated by an ellipsis. For more about this see “Of Dots and Dashes.”)

In non-dialogue, they can signal a change of subject or an aside. When the aside occurs in the middle of a sentence, it becomes more or less a parenthetical and is set off by em dashes. Why not use parentheses in such cases? You can use parens in such cases. For me an aside set off by parens is more peripheral — expendable, even — than one set off by dashes.

Em dashes are big. They call attention to themselves. Flip through a book — on paper or on screen — and chances are your eye will be drawn to the em dashes. If a writer is overusing em dashes, it’s often the first thing I notice when skimming through a manuscript. So use them sparingly. Like just about everything else in writing, they lose their power when overused.

Emily Dickinson is noted for her extravagant use of dashes, but she could get away with it because (1) she was a poet, (2) her poetry was brilliant, and (3) she was writing in the 19th century, before the Chicago Manual of Style was invented. Long after she died, one of her editors got into big trouble for taming her dashes into commas. If you’re adding Dickinson’s collected poems to your library, make sure the edition you choose has the dashes.

En dashes are somewhat specialized, and different styles have different takes on when to use them. In the social sciences, for instance, an en dash is often used to indicate that a compound comprises two words of equal weight, e.g., “I’m a writer–editor.” Chicago does not recommend this, and neither do I. Here’s my reasoning: The difference in length between a – and a – is not huge. When you’re reading along, you may not notice it at all — unless of course you’re a copyeditor like me. If it is important to know that the two halves of a compound are of equal weight, I would not depend on an en dash alone to get that across. However, if you’re in a field that follows this style, you should too.

Here are the most common uses of en dashes, per Chicago:

  • To signify through in number ranges: pages 3–17; the years 1941–1945. The range can be open-ended: my dog Travvy (2008–).  Figures and tables in nonfiction books are often given numbers like 2-5 and 3-17. The hyphen denotes that this is NOT a range; the first number is generally that of the chapter and the second that of the particular figure or table. The distinction comes in handy in footnotes and endnotes, where page ranges run rampant and table and figure numbers are sometimes concealed among them. By the way, It’s a faux-pas to use the dash when the range is preceded by from: She lived in France from 1978 to 1982, not “from 1978–1982.”
  • To signify to in destinations, votes, or scores: the Boston–Washington train; my team won, 99–92; the vote was 5–4.
  • To form compounds when one element is itself an open compound: the post–World War II baby boom; the New York–Boston rivalry. This is to avoid reading the former as post-world and the latter as York-Boston. Editors sometimes differ on which open compounds have to stay open and which can be hyphenated when attached to prefix, suffix, or another word. Proper nouns generally stay open, but when the New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804 another style prevailed, and its official name is so styled to this very day. Chicago 16, section 6.80, recommends country music–influenced lyrics, but I see nothing wrong with country-music-influenced lyrics.

All clear now? Dash away, dash away, dash away, all. And I really should come up with a dashing Sturgis’s Law . . .

Editing Workshop, 7: Commas

Extra commas.

I just copyedited a very good memoir that was seriously overburdened with commas. According to Sturgis’s Law #5,  “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.” I have written about commas (and hyphens!) before, but thanks to this job I’ve got plenty of examples of unnecessary and even misleading commas in my head, so this seems a good time to write about them again.

Rest assured that it will not be the last time, and if you’ve got any comma questions or comments, please do use the contact form at the end to send them in.

The examples follow the structure of the original, but I’ve changed the words because quoting without permission from an as-yet-unpublished book is ethically dubious. Not to mention — I don’t want anyone to think less of an excellent book because the uncopyedited manuscript had too many commas in it.

When she arrived at the concert hall early, she discovered that the rest of us were early, too.

There’s a zombie “rule” (a rule that no matter how often it’s refuted keeps coming back from the dead) floating around that you must have a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence. Not only is it not required, sometimes it actually gets in the way: your eye pauses briefly before it gets to the end of the sentence. If you want that pause, by all means stet the comma. If you don’t, take it out.

“Too” doesn’t often show up at the beginning of a sentence, but when it does, you will almost certainly want a comma after it. Same goes for “also.” They generally link the sentence to the one preceding. This is often OK in informal writing, but it can come across as rushed or sloppy when you’re trying to make a good impression.

The comma after “early” in the example is a good idea. When an introductory phrase or subordinate clause is short, you can often get away without the comma — “When she arrived I was on my second beer” — but if there’s any chance that the phrase or clause might slide into the main clause, consider using a comma.

Once he’d read the street signs, and consulted the map, he pulled away from the curb.

We’re looking at the comma after “signs.” I could make a case for it if the author wanted a bit of a break between the reading and the consulting. But I’m pretty sure he didn’t. When I’m editing, I note what the writer does habitually. This writer inserted a comma before the conjunction “and” so often that I wondered if maybe he thought it was a rule, like that comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.

A very strong convention — “rule,” if you will — is to use a comma before any conjunction that joins two independent clauses. This convention makes enough sense that the burden is on me or the writer to show that it’s not necessary, for instance when the two clauses are very short: “I got home from work and we sat down to dinner.”

I deleted the comma after “signs” but kept the one after “map,” which ends a rather long introductory subordinate clause.

After she entered the hall, so many people swarmed around her, as she moved toward the podium, that we couldn’t see her at all.

Notice the clause set off with commas in the middle of the main clause? Those commas make the clause almost parenthetical, meaning that you could omit it without losing anything. “. . . so many people swarmed around her that we couldn’t see her at all” does make perfect sense, but we no longer see the subject moving toward a podium. In other words, we’ve lost something. I deleted both commas.

When I’m copyediting, I want to improve the sentence as unobtrusively as possible. If this were my own sentence, I might revise with a heavier hand, perhaps “After she entered the hall and moved toward the podium . . .” Or maybe “. . . so many people swarmed around her that we couldn’t see her at all as she moved toward the podium”? Or maybe not. As is so often the case, there are several options, equally correct but somewhat different in nuance, emphasis, and/or cadence. Unless there’s a compelling reaason to do otherwise, I stick as close to the author’s version as I can.

As much planning as we did, to my way of thinking, we should have done more.

Here’s another thing to watch for when you come across a phrase or clause set off by commas in the middle of a sentence. The question here is about what half of the sentence “to my way of thinking” belongs with: “As much planning as we did to my way of thinking . . .” or “. . . to my way of thinking we should have done more.” Reading along, I skidded to a halt to sort this out. Based on both context and the sentence itself, I was pretty sure that the latter was intended, so I deleted the comma after “thinking” to avoid separating phrase from clause.

Mind you, if the whole sentence were “To my way of thinking, we should have done more,” that comma would have been unexceptional — not required, but not a problem either. In the middle of a complex sentence, however, it creates enough ambiguity to make a reader pause. In some cases, such commas or the lack thereof can even create serious confusion about the meaning of the sentence.

* * * * *

There’s plenty more to be said about commas, but I think this is enough for one post. Have you got a comma question, or a sentence that needs a second look, or one you successfully sorted out? Use this contact form to send it in, and I’ll work it into a future blog post — or reply privately if you prefer.



Punctuation seems to me one of the few human inventions without bad side-effects, and I am so fond of all the little dots and curls that I once taught a whole writing course devoted to them.

— Ursula K. Le Guin

I was tempted to post that quote all by its own self because (1) I agree with it, and (2) Ursula K. Le Guin wrote it, but reading Le Guin reminds me continually to pay attention to context, and I’m continually railing at online memes that encourage us to do the opposite.

So, context: The quote comes in “Examples of Dignity: Thoughts on the Work of José Saramago,”  in her most recent nonfiction collection, Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016).

Saramago, the 1998 Nobel laureate in literature, was not a big fan of punctuation. Writes Le Guin: “So a Saramago page, one dense thicket from top to bottom with only commas to indicate the path, was hard going for me, and I was inclined to resent it.”

After a couple of attempts, I bailed on Joyce’s Ulysses for similar reasons. Saramago had been commended to Le Guin not only by his reputation but by a friend whose opinion she trusted, so she didn’t stop with resentment. If she was going to persevere through this difficult book, Blindness, she had to trust the author, her guide, and “the only way to find out if he deserved such trust was to read his other books. So I did.”

This worked. “I returned to Blindness and began it again from the beginning,” she writes, “by now used to the thicket and confident that wherever Saramago took me, however hard the going, it would be worth it.”

She doesn’t learn to love Saramago’s ways with punctuation: she “learned to accept them, but without enthusiasm.” She also notes that she has little difficulty when she reads his work aloud, “probably because it slows me down.”

All of which reminds me of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s much-quoted (and -misquoted) lines:

You write with ease to show your breeding,
But easy writing’s curst hard reading.

It doesn’t seem that Saramago wrote with particular ease, and “breeding” in Sheridan’s sense he certainly did not have, but — point taken. At the same time there are editors out there who think any irregularity that slows the reader down is anathema, and readers who want to barrel through one book after another without engaging with any of them or remembering them later.

I like Le Guin’s approach. She’s willing to put out considerable effort if she trusts her guide.

Me too — but I did give up on Ulysses, although I’d liked some of Joyce’s other work. The trouble was that too many other guides were clamoring for my attention.

T Is for That

That is a handy and versatile word. It can be an adjective:

That puppy followed me home.

Or an adverb:

Are you that sure of yourself?

Or a pronoun, standing in for a person, place, thing, event, or anything else that is clear from context:

That is the way we’ve always done it.

Or a conjunction:

She insisted that we show up on time.

Or a relative pronoun, which is sort of a cross between a pronoun and a conjunction:

Any map that shows my road as two-way needs to be updated.

In the grammar and usage section of the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), Bryan Garner puts it more elegantly: “A relative pronoun is one that introduces a dependent (or relative) clause and relates it to the independent clause. Relative pronouns in common use are who, which, what, and that” (CMS 16th ed., section 5.54).

Here’s where things get interesting, maybe a little confusing, and sometimes even contentious. These “dependent (or relative) clauses” can be either restrictive or nonrestrictive, or, as they’re sometimes called, essential or nonessential. Borrowing from CMS again: “A relative cause is said to be restrictive if it provides information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. . . . A relative clause is said to be nonrestrictive if it could be omitted without obscuring the identity of the noun to which it refers or otherwise changing the meaning of the rest of the sentence” (CMS 16, section 6.22).

Here’s a restrictive clause:

The novel that we’re reading this month can be found in the library.

And here’s a nonrestrictive one:

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which we’re reading for class, was published in 1985.

Here’s where the contentiousness comes in. Have you in your travels come across the “which/that distinction”? I don’t believe I was aware of it before I got my first editing job, in the publications office of a big nonprofit in Washington, D.C. My mentor was a crackerjack editor with decades of experience in New York publishing. Thanks to her I’ve been able to more or less support myself as an editor all these years. She was a stickler for correct usage, and as her apprentice I internalized most of her thou shalts and thou shalt nots.

High among the thou shalts was Thou shalt use only “that” for restrictive clauses and only “which” for nonrestrictive clauses, and “which” must be preceded by a comma.

This is the which/that distinction, and like many another novice editor I became a zealous enforcer of it. Worse, I became a tad smug about it. As I like to say, “everyone’s the hero of their own story,” and for copyeditors, whose brains are crammed with rules and guidelines, this sometimes leads to a conviction that it’s our esoteric knowledge that stands between us and the collapse of civilization, or at least the English language.

In other words, I looked down my snoot at any writer who used “which” for restrictive clauses.

Until I noticed, before too many years had passed, that writers of British English (BrE) regularly used “which” for restrictive clauses without their prose collapsing into a muddle.

And that speakers of American English (AmE) often don’t make the distinction in conversation.

Hmmm. By this point, the which/that distinction was so ingrained that I applied it without thinking in my own writing and in editing as well. This stands me in good stead in U.S. trade publishing, where which/that is still a thou shalt in many quarters.  Nearly all of the AmE writers whose work I edit apply it automatically, so I don’t have to change anything.

With BrE writers, at first I’d diligently change all the restrictive whiches to thats, but then I started getting uneasy. The which/that distinction is a convention, not a rule. I wasn’t improving the prose in any way by enforcing it. Most important, by diligently enforcing a distinction that didn’t need to be enforced, I was pretty sure I was missing more important stuff. Like many other editors and proofreaders I learned early on that the mistakes I missed usually came in close proximity to the ones I caught. It’s as if the editorial brain takes a self-congratulatory pause after each good catch, and in that moment an obvious error can slip through.

So I stopped automatically changing all those whiches to thats. I’d note on my style sheet “which OK for restrictive clauses” so the proofreader wouldn’t flip out and think the copyeditor was asleep at the keyboard. So far the language hasn’t collapsed and my publisher clients haven’t dumped me, but it still feels a little daring so I look over my shoulder a lot to see who’s watching.

Garner notes that the restrictive that is used “in polished American prose,” but that “in British English, writers and editors seldom observe the distinction between the two words.”

Says the usage note in Merriam-Webster’s:

Although some handbooks say otherwise, that and which are both regularly used to introduce restrictive clauses in edited prose. Which is also used to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. That was formerly used to introduce nonrestrictive clauses; such use is virtually nonexistent in present-day edited prose, though it may occasionally be found in poetry.

In its much lengthier usage noteAmerican Heritage comes round to more or less the same conclusion: “But this [restrictive] use of which with restrictive clauses is very common, even in edited prose.” The whole note is an excellent introduction to which/that and restrictive/nonrestrictive. Check it out.

Questions, Anyone?

Got a question or comment about editing or writing? Send it along! Here’s a handy-dandy form to make it easy. You can also find one up on the menu bar. Both of them go to the same place.

When I started this blog, I hoped it would be at least partly driven by questions and comments from other writers and editors. I’ve got plenty of experience packed in my head, but where to start, where to start? What I’m loving most about this A–Z Challenge is the way it helps me focus on a specific topic and carry on from there.

In the online editors’ groups I’m in, threads often start when an editor posts a snarly sentence that she’s not sure how to fix, or maybe asks about the usage of a particular word. Other editors will weigh in with their suggestions. Sometimes the thread will take off in a different but equally interesting direction. I can’t begin to tell how much I’ve learned about, for starters, English spoken in other countries and in different regions of the U.S., and editing in fields about which I know little or nothing.

So if you’ve got a snarly sentence, a dubious usage, or a structural problem that’s bugging you, either in what you’re writing, what you’re editing, or something you’ve read, send it along. The chances are good that whatever it is, others, including me, have dealt with it too.

G Is for Grammar

We’re so quick to say that someone “doesn’t know their grammar” that it might be surprising how many of us aren’t entirely sure just what “grammar” is. This would include me. I just had to look it up (again). Here is what Bryan A. Garner, author of the “Grammar and Usage” chapter of the Chicago Manual of Style, has to say:

Grammar defined. Grammar consists of the rules governing how words are put together into sentences. These rules, which native speakers of a language learn largely by osmosis, govern most constructions in a given language. The small minority of constructions that lie outside these rules fall mostly into the category of idiom and usage.

In the very next paragraph he notes that “there are many schools of grammatical thought,” that “grammatical theories have been in great flux in recent years,” and that “the more we learn the less we seem to know.”

button: grammar police enforce the syntaxNot to worry about all this flux and multiplicity, at least not too much. A couple of things to keep in mind, however, when someone accuses you or not knowing your grammar or when, gods forbid, you are tempted to accuse someone else: (1) spelling and punctuation are not grammar, and (2) some of the rules you know are bogus.

If you’re not sure which of the rules you know are bogus — well, I just Googled bogus grammar rules (without quote marks) and got 338,000 hits. Bogus rules are the ones we generally don’t learn by osmosis. They are stuffed down our throats by those in authority, often teachers or parents.

At the top of almost everybody’s list are the injunctions against splitting an infinitive and ending a sentence with a preposition. They’ve both been roundly debunked, but I still get asked about one or the other from time to time so I’m pretty sure they’re not dead yet. Plenty of writers and even editors still get anxious when a “to” is split from its verb or a preposition bumps up against a period/full stop.

The general purpose of bogus rules is not to help one write more clearly; it’s to separate those who know them from those who don’t. As literacy spread and anyone could learn to read and write, the excruciatingly well educated upper classes confronted a dilemma: how in heaven’s name can we tell US from THEM? Hence the rules — about language, etiquette, and various other things.

Note, however, that the uppermost class can generally get away with anything, so the ones who follow and strive to enforce the bogus rules are often those a notch or two below in the pecking order. That’s how they demonstrate their loyalty to those at the top. Watch out for them.

E Is for Ellipsis

An ellipsis is three dots.

An ellipsis comprises three dots. (See, I have to show that I know how to use “comprise” in what used to be considered the correct manner.)

An ellipsis consists of three dots with spaces between them.

. . .


I don’t get feisty about the things some editors get feisty about. I mean, I’m behind the serial comma, but I don’t believe those who don’t use it are trying to destroy the English language, western civilization, or some other cosmic entity. Ellipses, on the other hand . . .

Aside: That wasn’t an ellipsis. Those were suspension points. Read on for clarification.

I get feisty about ellipses. In my mind, for instance, there is no such thing as a “four-dot ellipsis.” An ellipsis comprises three dots. The fourth dot is a period — “full stop” if you’re working in British English (BrE).

Let me back up a bit. When you’re quoting from someone else’s work and you decide to skip some of the original writer’s words, you use an ellipsis to indicate the omission. Say I wanted to quote from the previous paragraph, but I wanted to drop “for instance.” I might write this: “In my mind . . . there is no such thing as a ‘four-dot ellipsis.'”

When would you use a four-dot ellipsisperiod followed by an ellipsis? When what you decide to drop follows a complete sentence. The complete sentence ends with a period, you add the ellipsis, then you carry on with your quotation.

Here I part company with the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), so if you’re a dedicated follower of Chicago you better clap your hands over your ears. I want my readers to figure out as much as possible about the source of my abridged quote, so I don’t insert a period where there wasn’t one in the original, even if the remnant is a complete sentence. A capital letter signifies where the next complete sentence begins, and that’s enough.

So — suspension points. What are they? Suspension points indicate a trailing off, a suspension. Whatever was going to be said is suspended — it hangs in the air. I like the common convention in American English (AmE) that three dots indicate a trailing off, but a dash indicates an interruption. A while back I wrote about this in “Of Dots and Dashes.” Do note that at that time I either didn’t know or didn’t care about the distinction between ellipses and suspension points. 🙂

C Is for Comma

As noted in “A Is for Audience,” I started this A-to-Z challenge a little late. C should have been posted on the 4th, but it’s currently the 6th. I’m backdating this post to the 4th to make myself look good. I will catch up, I promise.

According to Sturgis’s Law #5, “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.”

Is it a comma, or is it an apostrophe? Without more context, like maybe a baseline, it’s hard to tell.

Commas drive many writers and editors crazy, mostly because they are convinced that there are places where commas must always be used and places where commas must never be used, and the rules that specify which places are which are both inscrutable and shifty, which is to say they swap places in the night just to mess with people’s heads.

Commas are useful little buggers. Writing that consists of long comma-less sentences is devilish hard to read, and besides, we usually talk in phrases, emphasizing some words and not others. Commas, and punctuation generally, help shape your sentences so they’ll be read, understood, and heard the way you want them to be.

Yes, it’s usually a good idea to put a comma before the conjunction that separates two independent clauses:

She dashed down the stairs and into the street, but the car was already disappearing around the corner.

But when the clauses are short, a comma might feel like overkill:

Michaela went into the garden and Joan left the party.

But a comma wouldn’t be wrong in the sentence just above, nor would it be wrong to omit it in “She dashed down the stairs . . .” Much depends on how the writer hears the sentence, and how she wants readers to hear it. A comma does suggest, or at least permit, a pause.

Not all writers hear the words we write, but some of us definitely do. When I’m editing and come to a comma in an unconventional place, or an absence where convention thinks a comma should be, I read the sentence aloud with and without the comma. Do the two versions feel different? If so, which works better in context?

Commas are small but powerful. Don’t be afraid of them. Put them to work.

For more of my thoughts on commas, check out “Dot Comma.” And if you have any questions or advice about commas, let me know.

Proofreading Poetry

Me and my IWD sign, which says “The common woman is as common as the best of bread / and will rise.” I am, you may have guessed, a regular bread baker. Photo by Albert Fischer.

I’ve been thinking about this because, you guessed it, I recently proofread a book-length collection of poems.

Prompted by the poster I made for an International Women’s Day rally on March 8, featuring a quote from one of Judy Grahn’s Common Woman poems, I’ve also been rereading Grahn’s early work, collected in The Work of a Common Woman (St. Martin’s, 1977). So I’ve got poetry on my mind.

A 250-page book of poetry contains many fewer words than a 250-page work of fiction or nonfiction, but this does not mean that you’ll get through it faster.  Not if you’re reading for pleasure, and certainly not if you’re proofreading. With poetry, the rules and conventions generally applied to prose  may apply — or they may not. It depends on the poems, and on the poet.

Poetry also offers some tools that prose does not, among them line breaks, stanza breaks, rhyme, and meter. (These techniques and variations thereof can come in very handy for prose writers and editors, by the way.) The work I was proofreading also includes several “concrete poems,” in which the very shape of the poem on the page reflects and/or influences its meaning. “Sneakers” was shaped like, you guessed it, a sneaker; “Monarchs” like a butterfly; “Kite” like a kite.

Errors are still errors, of course. When the name Tammy Faye Baker appeared in one poem, I added the absent k to “Baker” — checking the spelling online, of course, even though I was 99 percent sure I was right. Sometimes a word seemed to be missing or a verb didn’t agree with its subject. In a few cases, the title given in the table of contents differed somewhat from the title given in the text.

Often the matter was less clear-cut. English allows a tremendous amount of leeway in certain areas, notably hyphenation and punctuation, and that’s without even getting into the differences between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE). Dictionaries and style guides try to impose some order on the unruliness, but style guides and dictionaries differ and sometimes even contradict each other.

If you’ve been following Write Through It for a while, you know that I’ve got a running argument going with copyeditors, teachers, and everyone else who mistakes guidelines for “rules” and applies any of  them too rigidly. See Sturgis’s Law #9, “Guidelines are not godlines,” for details, or type “rules” into this blog’s search bar.

Imposing consistency makes good sense up to a point. For serial publications like newspapers or journals, consistency of style and design helps transform the work of multiple writers and editors into a coherent whole. But each poem is entitled to its own style and voice, depending on its content and the poet’s intent. Short poems and long poems, sonnets, villanelles, and poems in free verse, can happily coexist in the same collection.

What does this mean for the proofreader? For me it means second-guessing everything, especially matters of hyphenation and punctuation. Remember Sturgis’s Law #5? “Hyphens are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the dictionary. Commas are responsible for at least 90 percent of all trips to the style guide.”

But dictionaries and style guides shouldn’t automatically override the preferences of a poet or careful prose writer. The styling of a word may affect how it’s heard, seen, or understood. When  I came upon “cast iron pot,” my first impulse was to insert a hyphen in “cast-iron,” and my second was No — wait. Omitting the hyphen does subtly call attention to the casting process; my hunch, though, based on context, was that this was not the poet’s intent. I flagged it for the poet’s attention when she reads the proofs.

Another one was “ground hog.” I can’t recall ever seeing “groundhog” spelled as two words, though it may well have been decades or centuries ago. However, in the first instance “ground hog” broke over a line, with “ground” at the end of one line and “hog” at the beginning of the next. In prose such an end-of-line break would be indicated with a hyphen, but this poet generally avoided using punctuation at the ends of lines, instead letting the line break itself do the work, except for sentence-ending periods. “Ground hog” recurred several times in the poem, so consistency within the poem was an issue. It was the poet’s call, so again I flagged this for her attention.

One last example: Reading aloud a poem whose every line rhymed with “to,” I was startled to encounter “slough,” a noun I’ve always pronounced to rhyme with “cow” (the verb rhymes with “huff”). When I looked it up, I learned that in most of the U.S. “slough” in the sense of “a deep place of mud or mire” (which was how it was being used here) is indeed generally pronounced like “slew.” The exception is New England, which is where I grew up and have lived most of my life. There, and in British English as well, “slough” often rhymes with “cow” in both its literal and figurative meanings. (For the latter, think “Slough of Despond.”)

All of the above probably makes proofreading poetry seem like a monumental pain in the butt, but for me it’s a valuable reminder that English is remarkably flexible and that many deviations from convention work just fine. At the same time, although I can usually suss out a writer’s preferences in a book-length work, I can’t know for sure whether an unconventional styling is intentional or not, so sometimes I’ll query rather than correct, knowing that the writer gets to review the edited manuscript or the proofs after I’m done with them.

The other thing is that while unconventional stylings may well add nuance to a word or phrase, they rarely interfere with comprehension. Copyeditors sometimes fall back on “Readers won’t understand . . .” to justify making a mechanical change. When it comes to style, this often isn’t true. My eye may startle at first at an unfamiliar styling or usage, but when the writer knows what she’s doing I get used to it pretty quickly.

The above examples come from Mary Hood’s All the Spectral Fractures: New and Selected Poems, forthcoming this fall from Shade Mountain Press. It’s a wonderful collection, and I highly recommend it. Established in 2014, Shade Mountain Press is committed to publishing literature by women. Since it’s young, I can say that I’ve read and heartily recommend all of their titles, which so far include three novels, a short-fiction anthology, and a single-author collection of short stories. All the Spectral Fractures is their first poetry book. I rarely mention by title the books that I work on, but Rosalie said it was OK so here it is.