Sturgis’s Law #10

Some while back 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. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar. Here’s Sturgis’s Law #10:

“Consistent hyphenation” is an oxymoron.

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.”

Arbiters of style.

No, that 90 percent figure isn’t based on any survey, much less a scientific study or even systematic observation of my own practice. Good editors and writers are always looking things up. But commas and hyphens seem to provoke an anxiety that needs frequent reassurance even when we really do know our stuff.

Funny thing, I was blogging about commas only last week — and quoting Sturgis’s Law #5. So hyphens seem to be a logical next step.

And yes, it is OK to use “hyphens” and “logical” in the same sentence. If you understand the logic behind hyphenation, you won’t spin yourself into a tizzy whenever dictionaries and style guides disagree.

Which they do. A lot.

Hyphens can do many things, but the two biggies are joining and separating. Hyphens are so clever that they occasionally do both at the same time.

A hyphen can fuse two words capable of standing alone into a compound that incorporates both: I’m a writer-editor. The pond looks blue-green.

It can join a prefix or suffix to a root word: an anti-intellectual movement, a business-like attitude. In the former example, the hyphen is also separating the two vowels. Except in skiing and taxiing and maybe a few other words that I can’t think of at the moment, i‘s rarely occur side by side in English, so it looks pretty weird when they do.

Several common prefixes end in e — re- and pre- come immediately to mind — and when they run up against another vowel, misreadings can happen. I can’t look at reignite without initially seeing reign. Plenty of writers have no problem with reignite, but if an author prefers re-ignite, I have no problem with it.

In some cases the separation is crucial. Consider the difference between coop and co-op.

The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), the style guide I use most often, has a long section on hyphenation. In the 16th edition, which has just been superseded by the 17th, it’s section 7.85. It is very, very useful. Plenty of hyphenation decisions can be, in effect, automated: Always use them in some cases (e.g., second-floor apartment, forty-one); never use them in others (e.g., grandmother, northeast).

In other cases, though, there’s plenty of gray area. CMS’s recommendations rely almost entirely on patterns: adjective + participle, gerund + noun, and so on. It suggests hyphenating most compounds when they occur before a noun — a well-rounded education — but leaving them open after a noun: Her education was well rounded.

What CMS and many copyeditors don’t acknowledge often enough is that the words themselves make a difference, and so does the intended audience. CMS does advise taking “readability” into consideration, but what’s readable and what isn’t depends a lot on context. Some noun + noun compounds are so familiar that inserting a hyphen when they appear before a noun looks like overkill. Yeah, “high school student” could be read to mean a school student on drugs, but when was the last time you saw it used that way?

On the other hand, “running shoe store” could conjure unintentionally hilarious images in enough readers’ minds that “running-shoe store” seems the better option.

CMS recommends that adjectives formed with half- be hyphenated before or after a noun but that nouns so formed be open. OK up to a point, but half sister strikes me as odd because all those half- relationships are words in their own right. Besides, if stepsister is one word, why should half sister be two? This is why “consistent hyphenation” is an oxymoron.

It’s also why I think writers and editors are well within their rights to impose some consistency and logic on hyphenation in a particular work, even if this involves deviating from the recommendations of dictionary or style guide. The American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) lists policymaker as one word. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate (MW) it isn’t listed, which means it’s two words. AHD has both policymaking and policy-makingCMS would probably suggest policymaker for the noun (by analogy with shipbuilder) and policy-making when it precedes a noun. But what if you’ve got people who make policy and people who make decisions in the same paragraph?

With certain prefixes, like pro- and anti-, separating the prefix from the root with a hyphen calls a little more attention to the root. Consider pro-choice and prochoiceanti-choice and antichoice. In this case I’m all for the hyphen, but when an author hyphenates something that I probably wouldn’t, there’s a distinct possibility that s/he’s seeing or hearing a distinction that I don’t.

Most non- words can be safely closed up, but with new or unfamiliar coinages, a hyphen can be helpful. A recent author used non-state actors several times. Fine with me. British English tends to hyphenate more non- words than its American counterpart: NGO is spelled out non-governmental organization, not nongovernmental organization. If a U.S. author wants to do likewise, fine with me.

I’m proud to call myself a HARPy — HARP stands for Hyphens Are a Reader’s Pal. When I come across a hyphen that doesn’t follow the “rules” of the guiding dictionary or style guide, I ask, Is it useful? Does it get in the way? Is it consistent with the author’s other preferences? Sometimes I’ll consult CMS, MW, AHD, and the UK English section of the online Oxford Dictionaries. If it passes muster, I’ll enter the spelling in my style sheet so I’ll remember it if it comes up again, and so the proofreader will realize that this was a conscious choice, not a mistake.

Wield hyphens with confidence. They’re helpful little buggers, and nothing to be afraid of.

 

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My First Meme

I just created my first meme, and wouldn’t you know it’s about the power of words?

press-meme

I’ve been itching to do this for some time, but my graphics ability is minimal so I procrastinated.

Then the other day I read New York Times columnist Charles Blow’s “Trump, Archenemy of Truth,” about the current U.S. administration’s relationship with the press. The whole column was good, but the next to line deserved to be on a banner or a T-shirt or something.

So with the help of a free image and Serif PhotoPlus 7 I made my first meme.

Like many another word worker, I’ve been looking for ways to put my skills to use in resisting the current U.S. administration and encouraging the opposition. On a less political note, some of Sturgis’s Laws might work well as memes.

This was my first, but I don’t think it’ll be my last. (Feel free to download the image and pass it along.)

Sturgis’s Law #9

Some while back 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. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

Guidelines are not godlines.

Is middle school (junior high for us older folk) particularly hazardous to future writers and editors? This seems to be when admonitions to never do this or always do that put down deep roots in our heads.

  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Always use a comma before “too” at the end of a sentence.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.

Etc.

Plenty of us get the idea that written English is a minefield laid with rules they’ll never remember, let alone understand. When you’re afraid something’s going to blow up in your face, it’s hard to construct a coherent sentence. A whole story or essay? No way.

In the late 1990s, when I started hanging out online with more people who weren’t writers or editors, I often encountered a strange defensiveness from people I hardly knew. They apologized in advance for their posts: “Maybe I’m saying it wrong . . .”

My sig lines at that time identified me as a copyeditor and proofreader. I deleted those words from the sigs I used when communicating with people outside the word trades. And the defensiveness disappeared.

Those of us who work with words for a living eventually realize that language is not a minefield, but plenty of us have got a Thou shalt or Thou shalt not or two embedded in our heads. On the editors’ lists I’m on, it’s not unusual for someone to ask whether it’s really OK to break some “rule” or another. Generally the rule isn’t a rule at all.

English grammar does have its rules, and if you break or ignore them, intentionally or not, you may have a hard time making yourself understood. But many of the “rules” we learn in school aren’t about grammar at all. They’re about style. Style is more flexible than grammar — and grammar isn’t as static as some people think it is.

Sturgis’s Law #9 came about because even working editors sometimes confuse style guidelines with Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

Arbiters of style.

Arbiters of style.

Let me back up a bit. Book publishers, magazines, newspapers, academic disciplines, and businesses generally develop or adopt a style guide to impose some consistency on their publications. For U.S. journalists it’s the Associated Press Stylebook. For trade publishers and university presses it’s usually the Chicago Manual of Style. In the social and behavioral sciences it’s APA Style, developed by the American Psychological Association. And so on.

These style guides do deal in grammar and usage — Chicago has a whole grammar chapter — but much of what they recommend is discretionary. It’s about style. For instance, Associated Press (AP) style generally uses figures for numbers 10 and up; Chicago spells out most numbers up to a hundred. When I start editing a book manuscript, I can tell within a few pages if the author is accustomed to AP style.

I’ve been using Chicago since the 12th edition (it’s now up to the 16th). I can’t say I know it by heart, but Chicago style is my default setting. No way do I want to invent guidelines from scratch for every manuscript I work on, especially when it comes to documentation: the styling of endnotes, footnotes, bibliographies, and reference lists.

Default settings, however, can be changed as need or preference dictates. They really are guidelines, not godlines. Chicago can be useful for any English-language prose writer, but keep in mind that it was developed for scholarly nonfiction and the further you stray from that, the more leeway you should allow in applying its guidelines.

If you use different style guides, or move between American English (AmE) and British English (BrE), you’ll see plenty of variation in things like capitalization, hyphenation, and the punctuation of dialogue. There’s even considerable variation between dictionaries. When I’m working, I’ve usually got Merriam-Webster’s, American Heritage, and Oxford (the UK/World English edition) open in my browser.

Maybe the most important thing to remember about guidelines is that they aren’t landmines waiting to blow up in your face. They’re on your side. They help your words get across to readers the way you want them to. Following guidelines can be like automating routine tasks: it frees your mind to deal with the more important stuff.

They can also help establish your credibility with agents, editors, and readers. There’s nothing wrong with a manuscript that isn’t double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins all around, but a manuscript that is so formatted will enhance your credibility with any publishing pro who sees it for the first time. And the further it deviates from “the usual,” the more likely doubts are to creep into the reader’s mind.

Sturgis’s Law #8

Some while back 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. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

A funny thing happened when I set out to blog about Sturgis’s Law #8. I kept putting it off. It’s been months since I blogged about #7. A couple of days ago I sat myself down and said, “You can do this. Do it.”

But I couldn’t.

Out walking yesterday morning, turning Law #8 over and over in my mind, I realized that I didn’t like the way it was worded: “People tend to define problems in a way that makes them part of the solution.” It overlapped too much with Sturgis’s Law #18, “Everyone’s the hero of their own story.” (Don’t worry, I promise we’ll get there before the end of the millennium.) What Sturgis’s Law #8 should say is this:

People tend to define problems in a way that lets themselves off the hook.

It’s OK for me to do that, right? I’m Sturgis, after all, and these laws really are hypotheses based on my observations. Which is to say they’re subject to revision. (I really do have revision on the brain these days . . .)

This is what I was getting at. Think of how tempting it is for white women to assume that sexism is a bigger problem than racism, and for black men to think the opposite. Women of color get stuck with putting us all back on the hook, where we belong.

Wade into almost any discussion about the problems confronting the town, the nation, the world, and you’ll hear plenty of people insisting that the problems could be solved if only they would shape up. The they  changes according to the issue, the time, and the place, but the gist is usually that if it weren’t for them life would be hunky-dory.

brochure cover cropWhat does this have to do with writing and editing? I’m so glad you asked. As an editor, I sometimes hear editors complaining about writers who snark about their edits. As a writer, I sometimes hear writers complaining about the editors who butchered their manuscript and messed with their voice. Just about all of us have had occasion to bitch about agents, editors, and publishers who were too obtuse, lazy, illiterate, racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-genre, anti-literary, and/or obsessed with the bottom line to give our work a fair shake.

And sometimes we’re at least 90 percent right. But even then it’s worth considering the possibility that maybe as editors we were a little heavy-handed, or as writers we might be a little too touchy, or that our work isn’t as ready for prime time as we thought.

The paradoxical thing about this approach is that it’s empowering. It means we can do better and get better results. If the problem is all someone else’s fault, there’s not much we can do about it except bitch.

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.

Sturgis’s Law #7

ink blot 2Last 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 #7:

It’s hard to see the whole when you’re up too close, and easy to see unity when you’re too far away.

Notice how some people will make sweeping generalizations about huge groups of people they know very little about, then call you on every generalization you make about their people?

That’s what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about. This is a presidential election year in the United States — lucky you if you haven’t noticed — and generalizations are running amok. Generalizations are often made about groups of people the generalizer doesn’t particularly like. Conservatives generalize about liberals, liberals about conservatives, Democrats about Trump supporters, Sanders supporters about Clinton supporters, gun control advocates about gun owners . . .

When anyone generalizes about “Americans,” all 320 million of us, I look around my town of fewer than 3,000 souls and realize I’d have a hard time making a generalization about us, other than “we all live in West Tisbury.”

Sturgis’s Law #7 has several applications for writers and editors. Here’s one: You’ve got a grand idea for a story or novel or essay. You map it out in your head. Then you sit down to write it — and you immediately realize how little you know about the details necessary to create images in the reader’s mind.

Here’s another: You’re so fascinated by the research you’re doing for your project that you lose sight of, and maybe interest in, the project itself.

And here’s yet another, this time from the editorial side: When I’m copyediting — reading line by line watching for typos, pronouns with unclear referents, sentences that swallow their own tails — I probably won’t notice that a compelling scene in chapter 4 really needs to come earlier. But if I’m critiquing, considering the work as a whole, I’ll probably skip over the typos or even miss them completely. In fact, if I’m too conscious of typos, it’s either because I’m not paying enough attention to the big picture or because the typos are so numerous they’re distracting me from my job.

Many editors specialize in either “big picture” structural editing or sentence-by-sentence language editing, but even those who do both won’t try to do both at the same time. Wise writers do likewise. When you start revising, don’t obsess about typos and subject-verb agreement. Deal with those when the work’s structure is solid. If you share your near-final drafts with volunteer readers, make it clear that you want them to read, not proofread — unless one of them is a crackerjack speller, in which case you may want to let him or her have at it.

In traditional publishing, a manuscript passed through several editors on its way to becoming a book. Once the structure was sound, the focus moved on to the paragraphs and sentences, then to the words, and finally the proofreader went hunting for the details that had eluded everyone else. The result probably wasn’t error-free, but it came pretty close.

Such attentiveness, however, is time-consuming and expensive, beyond the reach of most self-publishers and many small and not-so-small presses. Still, it’s possible to get excellent results by keeping Sturgis’s Law #7 in mind. Both distance vision and tight focus are important, but don’t expect yourself or your editor to catch everything on one pass through your manuscript.

***********

Serendipitously, I just came across this passage in The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the Twentieth Century’s Preeminent Writers, edited by George Plimpton (New York: Random House, 1999). It’s full of pithy comments by all sorts of writers on all sorts of writing-related subjects. It’s also out of print, alas. I got it on interlibrary loan. Anyway, this bit from novelist Michael Crichton illustrates what Sturgis’s Law #7 is about:

In my experience of writing, you generally start out with some overall idea that you can see fairly clearly, as if you were standing on a dock and looking at a ship on the ocean. At first you can see the entire ship, but then as you begin work you’re in the boiler room and you can’t see the ship anymore. All you can see are the pipes and the grease and the fittings of the boiler room, and you have to assume the ship’s exterior. What you really want in an editor is someone who’s still on the dock, who can say, Hi, I’m looking at your ship, and it’s missing a bow, the front mast is crooked, and it looks to me as if your propellers are going to have to be fixed.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

The Charles W. Morgan, restored 19th century whaling ship, seen from the dock. Vineyard Haven, Mass., June 2014.

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.

Sturgis’s Law #4

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 #4:

“The check’s in the mail,” “I gave at the office,” “All this manuscript needs is a light edit”: Caveat Editor.

If you’ve forgotten all the Latin you ever learned or never studied it in the first place, “Caveat” means, roughly, “Watch out!”

brochure cover cropWhen someone tells you “The check is in the mail” or “I gave at the office,” your most likely response is skepticism. You know this because you have used variations on the same excuses yourself, right? I sure have.

It is true that all some manuscripts need is a “light edit.” These manuscripts are generally prepared by fairly experienced writers who have already run them by a few astute colleagues for comments and corrections.

When I and most of the working editors I know roll our eyes at “All this manuscript needs is a light edit,” it’s because the manuscript in question usually needs considerably more.

So what does “light edit” mean?

Nothing associated with editing has one clear-cut, hard-and-fast, universally understood definition, but “light edit” generally means copyedit, as described in “Editing? What’s Editing?”:

Let’s say here that copyediting focuses on the mechanics: spelling, punctuation, grammar, formatting, and the like. With nonfiction, it includes ensuring that footnotes and endnotes, bibliographies and reference lists, are accurate, consistent with each other, and properly formatted.

Once one starts dealing with matters of style and structure — snarly sentences, internal inconsistency, abrupt paragraph transitions, missing information, and so on — one has moved beyond the realm of the light edit.

Most of us are not the best judges of our own work. Good writers know this. When we think a story or essay is done, the very best we can do, we set it aside for a week or a month. When we come back to it, we see it with fresh eyes. Problems we missed before are now glaringly obvious, from typos to dangling participles to plot holes that could swallow a truck.  Often the fixes are just as obvious, thank heavens.

Outside editors come to the work with even fresher eyes, along with considerable experience in identifying and fixing problems in all sorts of manuscripts. They haven’t seen the previous drafts. They don’t know what you meant to say. They see only what’s there on the page.

So when you approach a prospective editor, don’t lead off with “All this manuscript needs is a light edit.” Describe the work and let the editor know what you want to do with it: submit it to a literary magazine or academic journal? find an agent? self-publish?

With a book-length work, fiction or nonfiction, an evaluation or critique is often the best place to start. Editing a book-length work takes time. This means it isn’t cheap. A good critique will point out the strengths of your ms. as well as any weaknesses that may exist. It will identify problems that you can fix yourself. It will let you know if this particular editor is a good match for you and your manuscript.

And if you’re an editor, the next time a prospective client approaches you with “All this manuscript needs is a light edit,” don’t snigger, raise your eyebrows, or roll on the floor laughing.

Because this time the author may be right.