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.

. . .

not

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.

Proofreading English English

British flagGeorge Bernard Shaw oh-so-famously said that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”

Ha ha ha. Clever, but a bit overstated, don’t you think? True, this native speaker of American English (AmE) usually turns the captions on when watching British TV shows like Sally Wainwright’s (awesome) Happy Valley because, between the Yorkshire accent, the colloquialisms, and the speed of conversation, my unaccustomed American ear can miss as much as half of what the characters are saying.

Also true: Accents and colloquialisms can trip me up in AmE as well.

Written English seems to cross the ocean more easily. Accents don’t interfere with the printed page, and print stands still so I can pore and puzzle over anything I don’t get the first time. If I don’t understand a word, I can look it up.

The biography I’m proofreading at the moment is being published simultaneously in the US and the UK. It was written and edited in British English (BrE), so that’s what I’m reading. I have no trouble understanding the text. The big challenge is that I’m so fascinated by the differences between AmE and BrE style, spelling, usage, and punctuation that I have to keep reminding myself that I’m proofreading. “They went to the the museum” is a goof on both sides of the Atlantic and it’s my job to catch it.

I’ve long been familiar with the general differences between BrE and AmE spelling. AmE generally drops the “u” from words like “favour” (but retains it in “glamour,” damned if I know why), spells “civilise” with a “z,” and doesn’t double the consonant in verbs like “travelled” unless the stress falls on the second syllable, as in “admitted.” In BrE it’s “tyre,” not “tire”; “kerb,” not “curb”; “sceptical,” not “skeptical”; and “manoeuvre,” not “maneuver.” (The “oe” in “amoeba” doesn’t bother me at all, but “manoeuvre” looks very, very strange.)

To my eye the most obvious difference between AmE and BrE is the quotation marks. A quick glance at a book or manuscript can usually tell me whether it was written and edited in AmE or BrE. In AmE, quoted material and dialogue are enclosed in double quotation marks; quotes within the quote are enclosed in single. Like this: “Before long we came to a sign that said ‘Go no further,’ so we turned back.” BrE does the opposite: single quotes on the outside, double on the inside.

That part’s easy. What’s tricky is that in AmE, commas and periods invariably go inside the quote marks, but in BrE it depends on whether the quoted bit is a complete sentence or not. If it is, the comma or full stop goes inside the quotes; if it isn’t, the comma or full stop goes outside. What makes it even trickier is that British newspapers and fiction publishers often follow AmE style on this. My current proofread follows the traditional BrE style, and does so very consistently. Thank heavens.

BrE is more tolerant of hyphens than AmE, or at least AmE as codified by Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and the Chicago Manual of Style and enforced by the copyeditors who treat them as rulebooks. I like this tolerance. (For more about my take on hyphens, see  Sturgis’s Law #5.)

BrE also commonly uses “which” for both restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. This also is fine with me, although as a novice editor I was so vigorously inculcated with the which/that distinction that it’s now second nature. Some AmE copyeditors insist that without the which/that distinction one can’t tell whether a clause is restrictive or not. This is a crock. Almost anything can be misunderstood if one tries hard enough to misunderstand it. Besides, non-restrictive clauses are generally preceded by a comma.

In my current proofread, however, I encountered a sentence like this: “She watched the arrival of the bulldozers, that were to transform the neighborhood.” “That” is seldom used for non-restrictive clauses, and a clause like this could go either way, restrictive or non-restrictive, depending on the author’s intent. Context gave me no clues about this, so I queried.

comma

A comma (willing to moonlight as an apostrophe)

Speaking of misunderstanding, remember “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God”? Some copyeditors and armchair grammarians consider this proof that the serial or Oxford comma — the one that precedes the conjunction in a series of three or more — is necessary to avoid misunderstanding. As I blogged in “Serialissima,” I’m a fan of the serial comma, most of what I edit uses the serial comma, but the book I’m proofreading doesn’t use the serial comma and it didn’t me long to get used to its absence.

BrE uses capital letters more liberally than AmE, or at least AmE as represented by Chicago, which recommends a “down style” — that is, it uses caps sparingly. In my current proofread, it’s the King, the Queen, the young Princesses, the Prime Minister, and, often, the Gallery, even when gallery’s full name is not used. Chicago would lowercase the lot of them.

I knew that BrE punctuates certain abbreviations differently than AmE, but I was a little fuzzy on how it worked, so I consulted New Hart’s Rules, online access to which comes with my subscription to the Oxford Dictionaries. If Chicago has a BrE equivalent, New Hart’s Rules is it. In BrE, I learned, no full point (that’s BrE for “period”) is used for contractions, i.e., abbreviations that include the first and last letter of the complete word. Hence: Dr for Doctor, Ltd for Limited, St for Street, and so on. When the abbreviation consists of the first part of a word, the full point is used, hence Sun, for Sunday and Sept. for September.

Thus enlightened, I nevertheless skidded to a full stop at the sight of “B.Litt,” short for the old academic degree Bachelor of Letters. Surely it should have either two points or none, either BLitt or B.Litt.? I queried that too.

AmE is my home turf. I know Chicago cold and can recognize other styles when they’re in play. I know the rules and conventions of AmE spelling, usage, and style, and (probably more important) I know the difference between rules and conventions. In BrE I’m in territory familiar in some ways, unfamiliar in others. I pay closer attention. I look more things up. I’m reminded that, among other things, neither the serial comma nor the which/that distinction is essential for clarity. Proofreading in BrE throws me off-balance. This is a good thing. The editor who feels too sure of herself is an editor who’s losing her edge.

Serialissima

If you hang out with editors and armchair grammarians, you soon learn that the serial comma is a contested issue.

You will hear some defend to the death their right not to use it, while others insist that every time it’s omitted the English language teeters closer to the brink of collapse.

If you hang out with editors and armchair grammarians or count them among your Facebook friends, it’s best to keep Sturgis’s Law #16 in mind. In the annotation of Sturgis’s Laws I haven’t got there yet , but here’s a sneak preview:

The amount of discussion devoted to an issue is inversely proportional to the issue’s importance and to the preparation required to say anything meaningful about it.

So what exactly is this little mite that inspires such passion?

comma

Commas in isolation are hard to distinguish from apostrophes.

The serial comma is also called the Oxford comma, but I prefer “serial,” and not just because I live on the left side of the Atlantic. The serial comma, after all, is about how one punctuates series of three or more items, specifically about whether one should use a comma before the conjunction that precedes the last element.

This sentence is widely circulated by serial-comma fans to prove their point: “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” You’ve probably seen it, or one very like it.

Without the serial comma, “Ayn Rand and God” could be an appositive phrase. Is the writer really saying that Ayn Rand and God are his/her parents? Ha ha ha.

As an argument for the serial comma, however, this example is less than persuasive. Take any sentence out of context and myriad misreadings become possible. The Associated Press style guide, widely used by newspapers and businesses across the U.S., generally doesn’t recommend the serial comma unless confusion might result from its absence. The sky hasn’t fallen in yet, and besides, if one fears confusion might result from “my parents, Ayn Rand and God,” one is free to insert a comma after “Rand.”

That said, I’m a serial-comma fan. This has as much to do with habit as anything else. I don’t recall anyone making a big deal about serial commas when I was in school, but when I was an apprentice editor in the very late 1970s, “Chicago style” — currently codified in The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition — was drummed into my head. Chicago recommends the serial comma, as do most U.S. publishers.

As a result, I’m used to it. I notice when it’s not there. Here’s a sentence chosen at random from my novel in progress. The speaker is referring to Moshup, the giant of Wampanoag legend.

“He caught whales one-handed, cooked them up here, and shared the meat with the resident Wampanoags.”

To my eye and ear, the comma after “here” makes clear that there are three elements here, not two. If that comma isn’t there, my eye slides to the end of the sentence without registering the slight break that separates the third element from the second. A reader who doesn’t expect a comma there probably isn’t going to miss it.

Sometimes, however, I want my eye to slide to the end of a phrase. The U.S. flag is often called “the Red, White and Blue.” We say it almost as if it’s one word: “the RedWhiteandBlue.” With a comma after “White” I visualize three distinct colors, not a single flag. If I wrote “The flag is red, white, and blue,” would I use the serial comma? Yes, I would. (I just did.)

The serial comma is rarely used, by the way, when the conjunction “and” is represented by an ampersand: “The flag is red, white & blue.” Ampersands are rarely used in formal or even informal writing, so this comes up more often in display type, like advertisements, posters, and headlines. Why is this? Damned if I know, but the big ampersand dwarfs the tiny comma so I don’t blame the comma for wanting outta there.

But it’s more than habit and long experience that makes me a serial-comma fan. Because I generally use it, I can use its omission to shape the meaning of a phrase. Here’s a simple example:

Gathered in the foyer were colleagues, writers, and editors she’d known for years.

“Colleagues, writers, and editors” are three distinct groups, right? Now remove the commas after “writers”:

Gathered in the foyer were colleagues, writers and editors she’d known for years.

“Writers and editors” is now in apposition to “colleagues.” In other words, the writers and editors are her colleagues.

To a non-serial-comma user the second sentence could go either way: two groups or three? The astute non-serial-comma user might insert a serial comma here if three groups were meant, realizing that this is an instance where the serial comma serves a purpose. With any luck the non-serial-comma-using copyeditor would realize as much and not delete it.

So I use the serial comma regularly because if I do, its omission becomes a tool in my toolkit. Even if I only use it a few times a month, I like knowing it’s there.

Squeaky Clean

Sturgis’s Law #4 warns editors to be skeptical when anyone comes to them swearing that “all this manuscript needs is a light edit.”

The skepticism is warranted, but in all fairness — light edits do happen. I’m working on one now. In my post about Sturgis’s Law #4 I wrote that light edits “are generally prepared by fairly experienced writers who have already run them by a few astute colleagues for comments and corrections.” This particular manuscript was prepared by extremely experienced writers, and it’s being published by a reputable trade house. I copyedit regularly for this house, but this ms. is clean even by their standards.

Cleaning bucket

Cleaning bucket

To editors and others engaged in the publishing process, “clean” means, more or less, in very good shape. Whether edited on paper or on screen, the ms. doesn’t have a lot of markup showing. If an editor who’s reviewed your ms. tells you it’s very clean, that’s high praise. It doesn’t mean that the ms. won’t benefit from editing, but it does mean that the editing will mostly involve fine-tuning and polishing, not a remedial overhaul.

“Squeaky clean” to me goes a step further. A squeaky clean ms. could probably go straight to press without embarrassing anybody. No, it’s not perfect. Yes, I’ve caught a few typos and formatting glitches, a missing endnote, and one instance where a character is 17 years old on one page and 16 a few pages later. But this is not stuff that most readers notice. In gravity or quantity, these are not errors that would prompt even the perfectionists among us to toss the book aside as sloppily edited. The writing is just too good.

Squeaky clean mss., like well-edited proofs, can be a little scary. That perfectionist in the back of my head is sure I’m missing something. Maybe my eyesight has deteriorated overnight?

They also lead us into temptation — the temptation to fiddle where fiddling is not called for. The impulse to make our mark runs strong in most of us, and the manuscript where minimal marking is needed can be profoundly frustrating.  Doesn’t it mean that all the knowledge of grammar, punctuation, usage, and sentence structure crammed into our heads is going to waste?

No, it doesn’t. I adapted the familiar Serenity Prayer for editorial use. It goes like this: “Grant me the serenity to recognize the prose I should not change, the ability to improve the prose I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

That wisdom, and the self-restraint that comes with it, is an essential editorial skill. Most of us take a while to develop it. Novices are notorious for fiddling with what doesn’t need fiddling with, usually because we’re afraid we’re not doing our job if we aren’t making marks on page or screen. (When this persists and spins out of control, I call it “piss-on-fire-hydrant syndrome.” One of these days I should blog about that.)

Over the years I’ve come to realize that these squeaky clean manuscripts are a gift. When the prose is already clear and graceful, attentive to sound, pacing, and nuance, I get to focus on the finest of the fine points: Does this particular word, though definitely OK, perhaps have connotations that get in the way? How about a comma here, to slow somewhat the headlong rush to the end of the sentence?

With a ms. this clean, the competent editor quickly comes to trust the writer’s judgment, and even to sense why the writer has phrased something this way and not that. At the same time — well, this particular ms. is almost 500 pages long and contains more than 180,000 words. Even the most experienced and careful stylists can’t devote equal attention to every one of those words. So I suggest the occasional change, suspecting that the writer will appreciate the suggestion even if s/he decides not to act on it.

serenity prayer

Dot Comma

This is part 2 of “Sturgis’s Law #5.” I got carried away with hyphens and didn’t get around to commas till the word count was edging toward the stratosphere. Here’s Sturgis’s Law #5 redux.

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.

Commas drive people crazy. They’re small but they’re powerful. They can be used for so many things. Teachers, editors, and the authors of style guides often try to wrangle them into some sort of order, which is fine, but when the guidelines harden into rules, writers and other editors may get feisty.

I suspect that it’s not the poor commas that drive people crazy; it’s the notion that there are a gazillion iron-clad rules about the right and wrong way to use them and if you get any of them wrong someone will think you’re stupid.

Context matters. Is this a comma or an apostrophe? Actually it's the bottom half of a semicolon, but it's impersonating a comma.

Context matters. Is this a comma or an apostrophe? Actually it’s the bottom half of a semicolon, but it’s impersonating a comma.

Take my sentence above: “They’re small but they’re powerful.” To comma or not to comma? It’s actually OK either way: convention sensibly advises a comma before the conjunction that separates two independent clauses, but an equally sensible corollary notes that the comma may be dropped when the clauses are short.

So I went back and forth a half-dozen times between “They’re small, but they’re powerful” and “They’re small but they’re powerful.” To avoid settling on one or the other, I actually contemplated “They’re small but powerful” and “They’re small — but they’re powerful.” All four options are well within the pale of acceptable usage, but each reads a little differently.

Sentences like this can send us running to the style guide, and when the oracle responds with “It depends,” that’s when we start to lose it.

This, however, is no reason to throw the comma conventions out. 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. Learn the basics so well that they become your default settings. At that point you’re ready to change the defaults when it best serves your writing.

Here’s a short paragraph plucked at random from my novel in progress. Shannon is explaining to the selectmen in her town* why Wolfie, a dog who’s been running amok and maybe killing livestock, should be allowed to remain in her house. No surprise, the paragraph has a lot of commas in it, doing common comma duties.

Shannon smiled. “You might say so,” she said. “When Wolfie’s confined to a crate, he tries to get out, and when he can’t get out, he howls. We’re making progress on that, but, well, I don’t think he would do well at the kennel.”

The first comma is standard in punctuating dialogue in American English (AmE). Use a comma before or after a dialogue tag, depending on its placement in the sentence. If you want, you can turn that sentence around:

She said, “You might say so.”

The second comma follows a dependent clause at the beginning of a sentence. Commas are also used to set off introductory phrases, especially when they’re fairly long. How long? I remember learning that any introductory phrase or clause of at least seven words should be followed by a comma, but please, don’t be making your decisions on word count alone. The main purpose of that comma is to keep the introductory phrase or clause from bleeding into the main sentence.

The third comma, the one before and, separates two independent clauses. The fourth, like the second, sets off an introductory clause. This sentence is both compound (it comprises two independent clauses) and complex (it includes dependent clauses). In such sentences, commas help the reader figure out what goes with what.

Next comes another before-the-conjunction comma, and then we’ve got an interjection: well. When interjections — well, oh, good heavens, and the like — come at the beginning of a sentence they are almost always followed by a comma. When they come in the middle, you usually want commas fore and aft. Say the sentence out loud. You pause before and/or after the interjection, right?

Good writers often use commas to help pace our sentences, perhaps to signal a slight pause. I hear a subtle difference between She shut the door then opened it again and She shut the door, then opened it again. In the former, the opening follows hard on the shutting. In the latter she hesitates; maybe she’s had second thoughts. Some people don’t hear any difference at all between the two. When an editor who doesn’t hear the difference meets up with a writer who does, things can get ugly.

When they approach commas that can’t be neatly explained by one of “the rules,” some editors ask “Is it necessary?” When I’m editing, my own work or someone else’s, I ask instead “Is it useful?” and “What purpose is it serving?” If it’s serving a purpose, I generally leave it alone.

This is not to say that I pause to ponder every comma I come to. In most book-length copyediting jobs I put a bunch in and take a bunch out on the fly. If asked, though, I can nearly always explain what I did and why: this is a knack that comes with experience, lots of experience.

Commas ready for recycling

Commas ready for recycling

Some writing, even good writing, is peppered with commas. I remove the excess and save them in a pepper shaker, so I’ll have them on hand when I come to a work with too many long, breathless sentences.

When a sentence or whole passage is overpunctuated — it contains so many commas and other punctuation marks that you barely notice the words — this is often a sign that the sentence itself needs work. The writer is trying to tame the sentence with commas when the real problem lies with the words, phrases, and/or clauses and the arrangement thereof.

OK? Commas may be small and powerful, but they don’t have to be scary. Play around with them. See what works and what doesn’t. And if you’ve got a comma question or observation, post it in the comments or use the “Got a Question?” form at the top of this page.


* This town, like most small to middling towns in New England, runs by the town meeting system. Town meeting, in which all the town’s registered voters can participate, functions like a legislature. In addition to the big annual town meeting, usually in the spring, there are usually two or three special town meetings during the year. The board of selectmen takes care of business in between.

Sturgis’s Law #5

This past spring I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #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.

Policy making, policy-making, or policymaking? If “policy making” is the noun version, do you hyphenate “policy-making process”? How about “policymaker”? One word, two words, or hyphenated word? “Prodemocracy forces” or “pro-democracy forces”? “Back-seat driver” or “backseat driver”?

So you trot off to the dictionary. This is where the real fun starts. Dictionaries can be internally inconsistent: “policyholder” is one word, but “policy maker” is nowhere to be found, which generally means it’s two. The American Heritage Dictionary offers “policymaking or policy-making” but recommends “policymaker” for the person who makes the policy.

For even more fun, consult a second dictionary. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, aka MW, makes “backseat” one word, both as noun and adjective: “The dog sat in the backseat” and “He’s a terrible backseat driver.” American Heritage doesn’t list “backseat,” so it’s safe to assume that it considers it two words: “The dog sat in the back seat” and (probably) “He’s a terrible back-seat driver.”

My dog sits in the front seat.

My dog sits in the front seat. He is not a backseat driver.

Note that MW doesn’t list “frontseat” anywhere, so presumably it considers it two words. So what if you’ve got “front seat” and “back seat” in the same story, the same paragraph, even the same sentence? Do you follow the dictionary into an inconsistency that makes no sense? Not me.  In my own writing, it’s “The dog sat in the back seat” and “He’s a terrible backseat [or back-seat] driver.” (My dog sits in the front seat, by the way. It’s all I can do to keep him out of the driver’s seat.)

When you’ve sorted out “backseat” and “front seat,” you can move on to “backyard” and “front yard.” What’s sauce for the seat is sauce for the yard — or maybe not.

The Chicago Manual of Style has a handy-dandy several-page hyphenation chart. It’s extremely useful, it really is: you really don’t need to be deciding all this stuff from scratch. But if you use it a lot, as I do, pretty soon you’ll notice that it and your dictionary of choice don’t always agree. You’ll notice that different genres and different disciplines often have their own conventions, and these conventions are perfectly OK even if they don’t agree with Chicago or Merriam-Webster’s.

Here’s an example: Chicago often recommends hyphenating compound adjectives when they appear before a noun but leaving them open when they follow the verb. “A well-known proverb” but “The proverb is well known.” The catch here is that “well-known” appears in most English-language dictionaries. This makes it a word, and English words don’t generally change form according to their position in a sentence. So it depends on whether you think of “well-known” as a word or as a temporary compound — two or more words yoked together to serve a common purpose and that may be unyoked after that purpose is satisfied.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Here’s another one: Both Chicago and Merriam-Webster’s generally recommend dropping the hyphen after prefixes and before suffixes: multitask, flowerlike, and so on. (Yes, there are exceptions. No one recommends dropping the hyphen in “bell-like,” which would give you three l‘s in a row.) However, I’ve also noticed, both in my own writing and in what I edit, that the hyphen can call attention to the root word in a way that makes sense and may even aid understanding.

One of my current jobs refers several times to “pro-democracy activists.” Consider “prodemocracy” and “pro-democracy,” or “antichoice” and “anti-choice.” To me,  whether I’m reading or writing, the hyphenated version gives a little more weight to the root. This can be especially useful when the prefix is something like pro- or anti-, non-, or counter- and the compound is a temporary one, not an established word like “antifreeze.” Consciously or not, plenty of good writers seem to feel likewise. When I’m editing, I’m loath to delete hyphens where they’re consistently used and serve a purpose, even when Chicago and Merriam-Webster’s recommend against them.

American Heritage is more hyphen-friendly than Merriam-Webster’s, and British English is more hyphen-friendly than its American cousin. This is why I usually have American Heritage, MW, and Oxford open in my browser when I’m working. I’ve set my Oxford default to “British and World English,” which seems to be why I keep getting billed in pounds. No, I don’t live in the UK, but I do like the reality check when it comes to hyphens.

The short version: Hyphens are responsible for [insert large number of your choice] percent of our trips to the dictionary because we think there’s a right and a wrong way to do it and the dictionary has the answer. When it comes to hyphens, there may be more than one right answer, and different dictionaries may give different advice. Learn the guidelines, pay attention to what hyphens can do, and don’t get too hung up on it.

So I’m closing in on 1,000 words and have said almost nothing about commas. The comm part of Sturgis’s Law #5 can be found here.