Category Archives: Punctuation tips

A Finer Point: The vocative comma

Cathy Tingle updates a column of Christmas past for a festive reminder of what one kind of comma can teach us.

As I am an editor, my favourite Christmas carol – obviously – is ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ because of the vocative comma (the one before ‘Gentlemen’). This type of comma is particularly important in creative works, as I discovered a few years ago when I cast my eye over a friend’s unedited novel and encountered characters being addressed directly without this comma: ‘I really don’t know Marion’, ‘Did you see Marion?’ (Marion was the addressee in both) and ‘Trying to sober up Richard?’ (as Richard was asked at the end of a party). The meaning conveyed in each case is quite different from what the writer was intending, as in the old classic ‘Let’s eat Grandma’.

A multitude of angels – sorry, angles

Commas cause most people who work with words to pause for thought now and then, and they can’t possibly be covered in one short column. Why? Because there is just so much to say. Larry Trask, in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation, divides the comma population firmly into four types: the listing comma, the joining comma, the gapping comma and bracketing commas. In his recent CIEP guide on punctuation Gerard M-F Hill takes on the brave task of simplifying Trask’s model, and consequently gives the comma ‘with minor exceptions … two functions in prose’: isolating and listing. But it takes an action-packed 22-page chapter to elaborate fully on these functions and their exceptions.

Elsewhere, John Seely, in the Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation, identifies seven roles for commas if we omit their use in numbers. And The Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition) devotes sections 6.16–6.55 – that’s 40 sections – to them.

Even if we could square up these various ideas about how many uses commas have (and it’s tough: Fowler’s deals with this by following New Hart’s Rules), comma use is, according to David Crystal in Making a Point, sometimes simply a matter of taste, because it’s linked to psycholinguistics. ‘One person says, “I need a comma to make the meaning of this sentence clear”; another finds the same sentence perfectly understandable without a comma. It’s because they have different processing abilities.’

So, because things are hectic enough at this time of year, how about we look at just one type of comma, the vocative, which many experts including Seely and Trask don’t even cover directly? Who knows, it might tell us a small thing about commas in general.

Merry gentlemen, or not so much?

Back we go, then, to ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’. This is interesting because, of course, it’s often rendered as ‘God Rest You, Merry Gentlemen’, and indeed I spent my childhood picturing a group of jolly old chaps. (My friend Judith spent her childhood thinking that the lyrics included the words ‘to save us all from Santa’s power’ – it’s ‘Satan’s power’ – but that’s another story.)

In fact, ‘rest you merry’ used to be a recognised phrase, meaning ‘rest well, be happy’. Dickens, in A Christmas Carol (1843), actually changed the title to ‘God Bless You Merry Gentleman’, in the words of a boy singing outside Scrooge’s door. There’s no comma at all in my 1946 edition, which isn’t to say Dickens didn’t put one in the original, but the point is that he made ‘God Bless You’ the unbreakable phrase in this line (and those who punctuate before ‘Merry’ are making ‘God Rest You’ the unbreakable phrase), whereas ‘God Rest You Merry’ is the title’s original unbreakable phrase and so the comma should follow that. As we wrote about this carol’s title in last year’s festive CIEP quiz, ‘if you’re interested in the impact of punctuation, it’s an interesting exercise to omit the vocative comma, then move it slowly up the sentence from the end, displaying its power to change meaning’. There you are – something to do once the presents are opened on Christmas Day.

‘“No punctuation” is the ultimate marker of semantic tightness’, as David Crystal says in Making a Point. Commas create breaks between words, to put it simply, and if there’s no comma we tend to read the words as one block. There’s something about the special confusion experienced in response to the lack of a vocative comma that makes you appreciate this fully.

If you’d like to further explore the comma nuances in ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’, complete with a cappella musical accompaniment, may I recommend to you a short video, new for the 2021 festive season, by RamsesThePigeon. It really is a gift.

No comma, no confusion

But what if the lack of a comma before a name doesn’t cause confusion? One thing the vocative comma has been suffering from is a sense that it has become non-essential in phrases like ‘Hi John’. Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl), in The Grammar Devotional, valiantly tries to explain why it’s necessary in such cases:

In Hi, John you are directly addressing John, which means the punctuation rules of direct address apply. From a comma-rules standpoint, Hi, John is no different from Thanks for coming, John or Wow, John, what were you thinking?

Yet the comma after ‘Hi’ is used less and less. In November 2019, Ellen Jovin of @grammartable lamented on Twitter: ‘If people I communicated with still used vocative commas after “hi,” I would have continued to use them. But they look at me as though I have three dangling participles if I even bring up such a thing.’ Are we losing the vocative comma in this formulation because there is very little scope for misunderstanding without it, as with 2019’s giddy pre-Covid inter-generational put-down ‘OK Boomer’? Whatever else you thought of it, and however you capitalise it, this phrase is certainly not punctuated. So perhaps we’re slowly discarding all punctuation except what’s absolutely necessary for comprehension.

A simple lesson

I still keep in touch with my high-school English teacher, now in his mid-80s, and as you might expect, along with the chat about how my kids and his grandkids are doing, occasionally punctuation comes up. In a letter in 2019, he said, ‘I used to try to teach various classes that punctuation was in many instances more important than spelling: I could make out that “ejog” (as I had to once) was meant to be “hedgehog” from the material round about, but if the punctuation was misplaced or non-existent the sense was lost.’ He continued by revealing his tried-and-tested example: ‘I tended to use “Stop Toby” (our dog) v. “Stop, Toby”.’ Well, then: perhaps the vocative comma can teach where no other comma types can reach. With my own vocative comma firmly in place, it only remains for me to wish you a lovely festive season, everyone.


An earlier version of this column was published in Editing Matters, Jan/Feb 2020. CIEP members can access all issues of Editing Matters in the archive.


Resources

The Chicago Manual of Style (2017). 17th edition. University of Chicago Press.
David Crystal (2016). Making a Point. Profile, 2016.
Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol (1946); reprint Penguin 1984.
Mignon Fogarty (2009). The Grammar Devotional. St. Martin’s Press.
Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ed. by Jeremy Butterfield (2015). 4th edition. Oxford University Press.
Gerard M-F Hill (2021). ‘Punctuation: A guide for editors and proofreaders.’ CIEP guide. ciep.uk/resources/guides/#PEP
New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press.
RamsesThePigeon. ‘Where Is the Comma in “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” Supposed to Go?’ YouTube video. youtube.com/watch?v=sxfxy-3dGz0
John Seely (2020). Oxford A–Z of Grammar and Punctuation. Oxford University Press.
RL Trask (1997). Penguin Guide to Punctuation. Penguin.

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle is a copyeditor, tutor and member of the CIEP’s information team.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: Capitals in titles – sentence case

Applying sentence case to titles is as straightforward as applying capital letters to sentences: more complicated than it first appears. Cathy Tingle considers proper nouns, identity and emphasis to investigate why we might add capitals in sentence case.

In some areas of editing and proofreading several tricky issues converge. You have two options with these: try wherever possible to avoid them, or tackle them head-on. Other brave, sparky, go-ahead souls will do the latter without question. I invariably start with the former and then slide into the latter when I’m well and truly cornered and I have to write a column or something.

I find capitalising titles and headings tricky. For a long time I preferred the idea of nice simple sentence case over horrid complicated title case where you have to consider nouns, verbs, articles, adjectives, adverbs, conjunctions and prepositions and capitalise accordingly. All that grammar packed into one style! No thanks. But the more I’ve edited the more I’ve realised that capitalising every type of word except conjunctions and articles, and sometimes prepositions, is often a more straightforward prospect than working with sentence case. Why?

What is sentence case?

Sentence case is also called essential caps, minimum caps and uclc (upper case lower case). In this style you capitalise as you would in a sentence – apply a capital letter to the first letter of the first word, and then add caps as you would to a sentence in text.

Sounds lovely and simple. So what’s the problem? The problem, my friends, is that sentences in text aren’t all that easy to capitalise, because of proper nouns and words you might cap for other reasons such as to emphasise something or convey a particular meaning. Let’s look at why we might capitalise in a sentence.

Proper nouns

Sometimes it helps to think of a capital as, literally, a cap. Perhaps with a feather. A fancy cap that we put on a proper noun to distinguish it from a general one. We use capitals to make it clear that we mean:

  • Turkey the country, not turkey the bird
  • the Next shop, the branch of a well-known UK brand, not the next shop, the one we’re just going to
  • a Guide, a member of the Guide Association, not a guide, another person or thing that might accompany you somewhere.

Capitals are also really useful to distinguish the many names that, uncapped, are English words: first names such as Amber, Bill, Cliff, Jasmine, Lance, Pinky or Pat, and myriad surnames including Smith, Gill, Bond and, er, Tingle.

Recently I saw a reference in the news to ‘Labour and co-operative politician Tracy Brabin’, which needed a capital C for ‘Co-operative’ to make it clear it wasn’t describing her manner but naming the political party (Co-operative Party) she was affiliated with. So, yes, for the most part we capitalise proper nouns, and for good reasons.

Cool, cool. But what about words and terms like ‘government’ and ‘marketing manager’? The convention is to keep these lower case in a general sense (‘the government believes’, ‘the marketing manager presents’) and capitalise them only as part of an official title: ‘Government of the United Kingdom’ or ‘Her Majesty’s Government’ and ‘Jay Patterson, Marketing Manager’.

However, bear in mind this point in New Hart’s Rules: ‘Capitals are sometimes used for a short-form mention of a title of a specified person, organization, or institution previously referred to in full.’ Examples are then given including ‘the Ministry’, ‘the Centre’s policy’ or ‘the University statute’. Note the ‘sometimes’. NODWE hedges similarly when talking about terms like ‘king’ and ‘queen’: ‘king cap. in titles (King Henry) and often the King, but king of the Visi-goths’; ‘queen cap. in titles (Queen Jane) and often the Queen, but queen of Castile’. So what is meant by ‘sometimes’ and ‘often’ in these mysterious entries? Style, that’s what. From here, your style sheet is your guide (not Guide, which, as we’ve discovered, is quite different). Your next requirement is consistency. (Had it been your Next requirement, it might have been a nice top.)

Honouring identity

Capitals also acknowledge identity. That’s why the Associated Press (AP) changed its style last summer ‘to capitalize Black in a racial, ethnic or cultural sense, conveying an essential and shared sense of history, identity and community among people who identify as Black, including those in the African diaspora and within Africa’, adding, ‘We also now capitalize Indigenous in reference to original inhabitants of a place.’ Many publications, organisations and individuals worldwide have followed AP’s lead. The Guardian’s style guide, at the time of writing, capitalises ‘Indigenous’ when referring to ‘Indigenous Australians’ and ‘Indigenous people in Canada’ but does not yet capitalise ‘black’, with the following vital qualification: ‘If a subject, writer or editor of a story prefers to use Black then that choice should be respected.’

The choices of other communities need to be respected, too. Should you apply a capital to the word ‘deaf’, for example? The charity SignHealth explains the distinction it makes in its own communications between ‘deaf’ and ‘Deaf’:

The word deaf is used to describe or identify anyone who has a severe hearing problem. Sometimes it is used to refer to people who are severely hard of hearing too. We use Deaf with a capital D to refer to people who have been deaf all their lives, or since before they started to learn to talk … It is an important distinction, because Deaf people tend to communicate in sign language as their first language … There is a very strong and close Deaf community with its own culture and sense of identity, based on a shared language.

As an editor or proofreader, it’s more than likely the decision to capitalise words that acknowledge identity will not in fact be yours to make, but the decision of the subject, author or style guide. Your job is to help ensure that the right people are being approached for these decisions. If you don’t think they are, that’s when you raise your hand.

Capitalising for emphasis

Now we come to Pooh Caps (there’s a phrase better written than said), the practice of capitalising Particularly Important Words. Here are Pooh Caps in action in The House at Pooh Corner: ‘When you are a Bear of Very Little Brain, and you Think of Things, you find sometimes that a Thing which seemed very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.’ The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) calls such capitalisation ‘pomposity’, but I’m not so sure. In social media in particular, it’s a thing (or a Thing) when it’s used with a particular intention. Sure, our work as editors and proofreaders is usually to uncapitalise words and terms such as ‘physics’, ‘school’ and ‘psalm’ – and I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that most common nouns assigned caps incorrectly by authors are those that are capitalised in other circumstances (‘Department of Physics’; ‘Snodsbury School’, ‘Book of Psalms’), and of course, just to keep things interesting, we have the proper-noun short-form consideration in Hart’s mentioned a couple of sections above. But sometimes the capital is being used for emphasis, and occasionally this is valid. Pooh uses caps for his own title ‘Bear of Very Little Brain’, and for the words that are important to him – thinking of a thing is a major event, and thinking of a thingish thing particularly so. Let’s pay attention to Pooh’s voice. Again, I’m glad I’ve written that sentence, not spoken it.

Pooh Caps are mentioned in Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet as an earlier version of ironic capitals, which she describes in an article about sarcasm on the internet: ‘Capitalizing Unimportant Words imposes a certain level of ironic detachment. Adding (TM) or periods between each word is optional but extra effective.’ In Because Internet, McCulloch asserts that even at Pooh Corner caps were used for irony: ‘“You’re a real friend,” said he. “Not like Some,” he said.’

However, people on Twitter aren’t displaying ironic detachment when they present their dogs as, for example, a Very Good Girl. They’re assigning a title to their pets, and a well-deserved one, no doubt. As ever, context, format and meaning have to be taken into account in this 3D chess we call editing.

Bring on title case

So, where does this leave us? Running headlong towards title case, that’s where. I’ll cover this style in a later Finer Point column.

Resources

AP (2020). Explaining AP style on Black and white. apnews.com/article/archive-race-and-ethnicity-9105661462.

Gretchen McCulloch (2019). Because Internet. Riverhead.

AA Milne (1928). The House at Pooh Corner. Methuen & Co.

New Hart’s Rules (2014). Oxford University Press; chapter 5, Capitalization.

New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (2014). Oxford University Press.

SignHealth. What is the difference between deaf and Deaf? signhealth.org.uk/resources/learn-about-deafness/deaf-or-deaf.

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle is an Advanced Professional Member who wears three (non-feathered) hats: copyeditor, tutor and CIEP information commissioning editor.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credit: Postage stamp showing Winnie the Pooh, Eeyore and Piglet by Andy Lidstone / Shutterstock.com.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: On the list

They’re lurking in most documents and they can contain pitfalls. In this updated article from the archives, Cathy Tingle looks at common problems with lists in body text, from punctuation to miscounting. The article covers:

  • Why pay attention to in-text lists?
  • Insufficient punctuation
  • ‘And’
  • ‘As well as’
  • ‘Both’
  • First … secondly … fourth
  • Mistakes in counting

In editing any document, you will usually come across an attempt to present more than one piece of information in a serial fashion – in other words, to create a list. You can easily detect a bulleted or numbered list trotting towards you, like a reliable but sometimes unkempt pony, so you can be ready to battle (or perhaps groom) it with your own checklist: is there consistency with other lists? Is there consistency in capitalisation and punctuation? What about agreement of lead-in text with all points, particularly those at the end? And so on. New Hart’s Rules and Butcher’s Copy-editing can help you build a checklist for grooming your ponies – I mean, for improving your vertical lists.

But lists in body text can sneak up on you, like a silent flock of sheep. Why does this matter? Because if you recognise an in-text list, you can look for its likely problems. Here are five issues I frequently come across.

1. Insufficient punctuation

If the author is underusing punctuation, here is where your most effective (yet subtle) work as an editor can be done. This text is based on a past project:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’), the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.

An urgent question is whether Aristotle was the farrier and Derek the castle steward (sure, there could have been an ‘a’ before ‘castle’ if so, but …). Adding a comma after Aristotle, which the author confirmed was correct, starts to make things clearer:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’), the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle, and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.

However, this is still not an easy sentence to understand. Is it obvious who has which role? Time to bring in the semicolons:

This was the outcome of a discussion between the grand commander, Kojak (‘the Hirsute’); the emperor’s tutor, Aristotle; and Derek Handy, a farrier and castle steward.

2. ‘And’

It helps to make sure that there are enough ‘and’s, so that many ‘and’s make light work of comprehension (*snigger*). Also, keep your eye on phrasing:

The pony groom had a wooden brush, colourful ribbons and displayed her certificate on the wall.

This is not one list. There are two phrases in the sentence, so the first needs an ‘and’ and a comma at the end for clarity:

The pony groom had a wooden brush and colourful ribbons, and displayed her certificate on the wall.

3. ‘As well as’

These days on national radio it’s quite common to hear constructions such as ‘England, Northern Ireland, Scotland as well as Wales’. But ‘as well as’ doesn’t mean ‘and’. It heralds an addition to a list rather than its final item, so you need ‘and’ as well as ‘as well as’, as in this sentence, which conveys that although Wales has lovely beaches, so do England, Northern Ireland and Scotland:

England, Northern Ireland and Scotland as well as Wales have lovely beaches.

 And if you simply want to list the four nations, replace ‘as well as’ with ‘and’:

England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

4. ‘Both’

‘Both’ should be employed when it makes ‘and’ stronger (‘she was both accurate and fast’). However, as one of our Advanced Professional Members remarked in a 2018 CIEP (then SfEP) forum post, some less experienced writers use it ‘whenever they mention two things’.

As this member also pointed out, you need to make sure that ‘both’ refers to two items, not three or four. I’ve seen ‘both’ combined with another word that should only precede two things, to list three: a professional ‘doubled as both actor, artist and musician’.

5. ‘First … secondly … fourth’

If you see ‘first’, immediately locate ‘second’ (remember, don’t allow ‘secondly’ unless you have ‘firstly’), and make sure all subsequent flagging words proceed in the right order with no absences. If this threatens to get out of control (more than five points can be unwieldy), suggest a numbered list.

6. Mistakes in counting

It almost seems too obvious, but if an author says there are five items in their list, make sure that five there are. Things get added, things get cut, and the author forgets that they have mentioned, a few paragraphs up, that they will present five items … wait, I think I may have done this myself …

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy Tingle, an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP, is a copyeditor, tutor and CIEP information commissioning editor.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: pony by Tim Riesner; wooden brush and horse by Chris Bair, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: The dos and don’ts of dos and don’ts

Some very simple expressions can cause a quandary out of proportion to their size and frequency of use. In this article from the Finer Point archives, Luke Finley looks at one such phrase that often tests us. His article covers:

    • Discussions about dos and don’ts
    • Dos and don’ts
    • Do’s and don’ts
    • ‘Do’s and ‘don’t’s
    • Rules

This column is usually about the dos and don’ts of grammar – or, more accurately, the dos, don’ts, maybes and maybe-nots. This time round, it’s about the phrase dos and don’ts itself. It might seem a rather narrow concern, but it can cause confusion: I counted at least seven discussions on it in Facebook editors’ groups in the last couple of years. So, what are the options?

Dos and don’ts

The least-punctuated version is my preference. If you have more than one do, it seems natural to call them dos. The Oxford English Dictionary, the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors, The Chicago Manual of Style, the Guardian style guide and Bill Bryson are all happy with this. That’s authoritative enough for me.

But, admittedly, the drawback is that dos looks more like it should rhyme with boss than with booze, which may bring the reader up short. Hence the other options …

Do’s and don’ts

Some people who would turn the colour of beetroot at a sign reading ‘beetroot’s £2/kg’ nevertheless favour an apostrophe here. But while it seems to go against a basic rule of English, there are some comparable examples where this is accepted (by some!). Grammar Girl points to the phrase Mind your p’s and q’s, and the two a’s, not as, in aardvark. And some style guides agree: the widely used Associated Press guide, for example, prefers do’s and don’ts.

You might be thinking that if you’re going to apostrophise do’s, the other word should be treated the same way: don’t’s. If so, Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots and Leaves) agrees with you. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether that’s an argument in favour of it or not.

‘Do’s and ‘don’t’s

There’s a logic to this version. It overcomes the pronunciation issue without resorting to greengrocers’s apostrophe’s. It also arguably makes semantic sense: these ‘do’s are instances of someone saying ‘do X, Y and Z’, hence the quotation marks. On the other hand, you may feel, as I do, that it looks like someone’s gone wild with a salt-shaker full of punctuation marks. And just imagine it with double quote marks …

Rules

So there’s no hard-and-fast rule here, but as usual that doesn’t mean people don’t have some strong opinions about what looks and sounds right. As US editor Jake Poinier commented in a Facebook discussion on the usage, ‘50% of readers are going to think it’s wrong, no matter which you choose’.


This article originally appeared in the November/December 2018 edition of Editing Matters.


Read more from the Finer Point archives

Read my ellipsis by Riffat Yusuf

Commas: the chameleon conundrum by Luke Finley

Self-help: a guide to reflexive pronouns by Cathy Tingle

About Luke Finley

Luke Finley is an Advanced Professional Member, and set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013. He will edit just about anything, but specialises in social policy and politics.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

Find out more about:

 

Photo credits: beetroots by Nick Collins on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Exclamation marks: Taming my exclaiming

Do you overuse exclamation marks? Cathy Tingle does! In this article from the archives, she searches her past to discover where she acquired this habit, and consults some language books to learn how the exclamation mark should be used.

Sometimes in life you come to a sudden realisation about your influences – why you do things the way you do. At holiday time, with more opportunity to see your extended family, you might suddenly realise that a characteristic you’d fondly thought of as all your own is in fact your Great Aunt Lottie’s most irritating habit.

And if you’re a wordy type, occasionally you have a blinding flash about what you might call your ‘language heritage’.

From Madame Bovary to …

Although I used to think of my writing style as something sophisticated that emerged from my years as a student of the world’s literature, I recently discovered that there had been a stronger, and more primal, influence. I had flattered myself that my love of sentence fragments was edgy. I had thought that my use of ‘And’ at the beginning of paragraphs was subversive. I had believed that my attraction to parenthetical phrases was clever and, on occasion, witty. And, of course, that every last one of these writing tics was down to my very own style.

But no. It seems that I got them from somewhere else: the Mr Men books, to be precise. Revisiting the oeuvre for the first time since my childhood at my own children’s bedtime, I suddenly realised that all these years what I had been channelling was not Madame Bovary but, in fact, Mr Greedy.

One of the biggest things for which I can thank my unexpected muse, Roger Hargreaves, is a love of exclamation marks. Let’s take a look at these examples, from Mr Grumpy:

Mr Grumpy was at home.
Crosspatch Cottage!

and Mr Silly:

In Nonsenseland the dogs wear hats!
And, do you know how birds fly in Nonsenseland?
No, they don’t fly forwards.
They fly backwards!

Those exclamation marks, I would say, are necessary in the context of a Mr Men book. RL Trask, in the Penguin Guide to Punctuation (1997), advises that you can use an exclamation mark (which also, he notes interestingly, can be called a ‘bang’ or a ‘shriek’) ‘to show that a statement is very surprising’. That’s what’s happening in the Mr Silly example. In Mr Grumpy, Hargreaves is packing in much more energy and emotion (of the ‘Look! How apt!’ variety) than if he had simply written ‘It was called Crosspatch Cottage.’

Laughing at your own joke

I must say that over the years I have found what we might call the ‘Crosspatch Cottage!’ sentence fragment/exclamation mark combo a particularly seductive one. My mistake may have been to put it into copy intended for grown-ups. Not anything too formal, granted, but the sort of chirpy, chatty writing you might find in emails, blogs or social media posts. Copy that’s supposed to raise a smile.

David Marsh observes, ‘When a newspaper employs an exclamation mark in a headline, it invariably means: “Look, we’ve written something funny!”’ (For Who the Bell Tolls, Faber, 2013). David Crystal, in Making a Point (Profile, 2016), adds a quote attributed to F Scott Fitzgerald: including exclamation marks is ‘like laughing at your own joke’. Hm. I do that in real life, too.

Exclamation marks only for exclamations!

So, when should exclamation marks be used? Benjamin Dreyer (in Dreyer’s English, Random House, 2019), after counselling against their frequent use as ‘bossy, hectoring, and, ultimately, wearing’ (oh dear!), does also say:

It would be irresponsible not to properly convey with an exclamation mark the excitement of such as ‘Your hair is on fire!’ The person with the burning head might otherwise not believe you. And the likes of ‘What a lovely day!’ with a full stop rather than a bang, as some people like to call the exclamation point, might seem sarcastic. Or depressed.

So their use doesn’t need to be banned completely in writing for adults. Trask adds to Dreyer’s instinct about the ‘What a lovely day!’ statement by formalising it in a rule: ‘Use an exclamation mark after an exclamation, particularly after one beginning with what or how.’

And although I disagree with the first part of what David Marsh says here (for where would the Mr Men books be without their exclamation marks?), he does sum things up nicely:

Exclamation marks are seldom, if ever, obligatory. They can, however, be annoying! And make it look as if your work was written by a 12-year-old!!! So use sparingly.

The cure

But nothing cures a writing tic like recognising your writing style in another writer who irritates you. And in the last few years we’ve had a lot of exclamation marks chucked at us in tweets and newspaper articles, haven’t we? A lot of ‘bossy, hectoring, and, ultimately, wearing’ claims, counter-claims, denials, deflections.

As when witnessing Great Aunt Lottie’s annoying habit, you find yourself saying ‘Am I really like that?’ So there’s my cure, it turns out: the realisation that there’s already quite enough banging and shrieking going on in the world without my adding to the din.

This article was published in the September/October 2019 issue of Editing Matters.

About Cathy Tingle

Cathy TingleCathy Tingle is an Advanced Professional Member of the CIEP.

Her business, DocEditor, specialises in non-fiction, especially academic, copyediting.

 

 

About the CIEP

The Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) is a non-profit body promoting excellence in English language editing. We set and demonstrate editorial standards, and we are a community, training hub and support network for editorial professionals – the people who work to make text accurate, clear and fit for purpose.

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Photo credits: lightning by Leon Contreras; laugh by Tim Mossholder, both on Unsplash.

Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: Read my ellipsis

By Riffat Yusuf

There are some words I should think about before saying them. Instead, I mispronounce with confidence and blasé out people’s corrections: ‘If-eat? Are you sure? All my French friends rhyme effete with tête.’ (The friends I have yet to make.) There are other words that I rehearse before sharing aloud, such as conscious and conscience. But present me with a dot dot dot and I dither between ellipsis and ellipses. It makes me sound like I don’t really know what it is or they are.

Elliptically challenged

A quick round of etymology won’t stop my flapping, though it should stand me in good stead if University Challenge ever comes scouting. Ask me about elleipein and elleipsis. One of them is an ancient Greek noun of action meaning to fall short or leave out, then it got Latinised. The other one might be, too. Ask me when the first recorded use of ellipsis/ellipses in English was. Sixteen something. Do not, Bamber Gascoigne, ask me if I denote the omission of letters or words with an ellipsis or with ellipses.

I’ve just realised why nobody else is confused. You all interpret an ellipsis as you would other punctuation: a comma, a dash, an apostrophe. I count the dots and see plural; you don’t. Let’s call a single set of three equidistant points ‘an ellipsis’ and ask why three and not four? Because we’re not in 1890s Oxford or 1948 Chicago – by the start of the 20th century Oxford University Press had clipped to three, with the Chicago Manual of Style dropping a point in 1948.

We all know what an ellipsis is for

We do? Omission from what, then? Quoted speech and text, and also? Incomplete thoughts and trailing off … Anything else?

Don’t buzz in too quickly: pausing for dramatic effect while reading is not the answer I have in front of me. I’ll accept gapping, stripping and sluicing. When you type a gapping comma, you’re showing that a verb has been left out. You’re omitting part of a sentence without typing in a …

Spaced out

Should there be a space before, during or after an ellipsis? Imagine a world where the answer was ‘it’s entirely up to you; nobody’s going to wince if you do this…or this. . .or this … or this . . . ’. But life says start by asking your client if they prefer normal word spaces between the points of an ellipsis (. . .), or none (…), or if they’d like you to insert a single glyph.

CIEPer, when you’ve made a note of your client’s shoulder shrug, I say reach for New Hart’s Rules for style and punctuation guidance; it’s a lot less headachy than CMOS: 13.50–infinity.

In general, NHR favours a space on either side of an unspaced ellipsis – unless the ellipted text ends in a question or exclamation mark: here, the punctuation is closed up to the ellipsis it follows. What I’ve just written I would have to read several times to visualise. I need to see examples. I could really do with a table showing how NHR ellipts the following strongly held opinion in a variety of settings.

I like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs. I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.

Ellipsis when ...

There is an omitted wordI like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs! I also … rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
There is an incomplete thought followed by a new sentenceI like fluffy, crazy cats … I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
The sentence before the ellipsis ends with a full pointI like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs! I also like rabbits. …
There is a comma or other punctuation before or after the ellipsis (if the meaning isn’t affected). (Retain the comma if it follows the last item of a sequence after which the ellipsis shows inferred continuation.)I like … crazy cats, not dogs! I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
The ellipted text is preceded by an exclamation mark (or a question mark)I like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs! … I don’t like anything else.
The ellipted text is followed by an exclamation mark (or a question mark)I like fluffy, crazy cats ...! I also like rabbits. I don’t like anything else.
The original text has an ellipsis after fluffy … but you want to add an ellipsis of your ownI like fluffy … cats, not dogs! […] I don’t like anything else.
Incomplete sentence in an embedded quoteI said, ‘I like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs. I also like rabbits. I don’t like …’.
No ellipsis needed at the start or end of a (non-embedded) quoteRiffat’s reference to ‘cats, not dogs … rabbits … anything else’ isn’t styled the same way as an embedded quote. She didn’t place an ellipsis at the start or end of her quotation even though she missed a word at the start, and one at the end.
Displayed verse omits the end of a lineI like fluffy, crazy cats, not dogs!
I also like rabbits.
I don’t like …
No ellipses needed when displayed verse omits the start of the first line (align right with the next line)    not dogs!
I also like rabbits.
I don’t like anything else.

But CMOS .  .  .

Here’s a link, enjoy! We’re off to play with Word’s unspaced points where the real fun is. If you increase the font size to 80 and type in three full stops, you get to see them being nudged into a single character once you type the following space. For the same result and a non-breaking ellipsis without the jiggle, press Alt+Ctrl+.[stop] or insert Unicode (U+2026). It’s Alt + semicolon on a Mac.

Rich pickings

There’s one ellipsis question I’ve omitted to mention. NHR 14.6.2 tells me it’s maths – where a horizontal, vertical or diagonal ellipsis is used to represent missing terms, followed by an unspaced comma before the final term – but that’s not what I had in mind. I’ve left out typesetting needs. Does experienced typesetter Rich Cutler prefer the proper typographical character over dot dot dotting? In his own writing, yes. But professionally? Not especially. So that’s good, maybe you don’t need to worry about an ellipsis perched at the end of a line and how it’s typed. Yeah, you do: Rich says editors can help with typesetting by being clear about marking up ellipses and/or giving instructions on how they should be set.

Please make sure you know your client’s preferences: the ellipsis character or three points (with spaces between, or not), and when to close up or include surrounding spaces. And do pay attention to surrounding punctuation and be sure to check each ellipsis for nonbreaking spaces.

Meanwhile, in downtown Ithaca …

Inspired by David Nagy, whose Ellipsis in Homeric Poetry makes me wish I’d studied Classics.

Odysseus: Why are you wearing glasses?

Homer: According to historians, I had problems with my eyesight.

Odysseus: But why are you wearing them over your mouth?

Homer: Because ellipses.

Odysseus: …

Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.

 


Want to refresh your punctuation knowledge? Check out the new CIEP course Getting to grips with grammar and punctuation.


Photo credits: three – Mike Szczepanski; cat – Corina Rainer, both on Unsplash

Proofread by Lynne Baybut, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

A Finer Point: Style counsel

Is our dropping of hyphens and dangling of modifiers de trop? Riffat Yusuf gets coached in punctuation style by previous writers of A Finer Point.

I always thought punctuation was about correctness. The function of dots and dashes was structural: to hold grammatical constructions in place. The idea of using punctuation for style was an afterthought – if a dash had panache / if an oblique was on fleek, it was down to ‘feel-right’ and whimsy rather than considered strokes on my part. And then I read what Val Rice had to say on using semicolons to avoid style errors.

In A Finer Point in the July/August 2009 edition of Editing Matters, Val outlined how semicolons are more than links between independent clauses connected by meaning; they are buffers against bad styling. They declutter comma overload, take the edge off short, sharp sentences and break up the monotony of repeated conjunctions. And crucially, they have their own role to play:

I started to think about the pros and cons of using dashes and semicolons, and spent an afternoon looking through all my punctuation and grammar reference books to see whether I could find anything, anywhere, to prove that semi-colons and dashes are interchangeable. You may be relieved to know that they aren’t!

Lesson 1: Semicolons are for composition and style. But be aware also of Sarah Price’s observation that technical documentation often avoids the semicolon (January/February 2014):

For some styles of writing, such as technical documentation, joining two clauses together with a semicolon is frowned upon (or it certainly was when I was a technical writer): writers are encouraged to keep sentences short and simple. However, in more prosaic styles of writing, semicolons can be used to improve the flow of the text and avoid the ‘staccato’ effect of short sentences.

Chagrin and bear it

You know how I said that semicolons link independent clauses that have a connected meaning? There’s a reason why I just repeated it: Cathy Tingle. In ‘Scared – and scarred – by semicolons’ (May/June 2019), she shared a snippet of her semicolon-indulgent dissertation where the connection was assumed (if she knew it, then so would her supervisor?) rather than actual.

Lesson 2: If you must revisit the seminal outpourings of your student self, allow enough room for a cringe dance.

Which comma?

I know what restrictive and non-restrictive relative clauses look like. But I still need Luke Finley to make instant sense of the difference in meaning. And so, Lesson 3, adapted from Luke’s unpacking of that/which (September/October 2016): Learn these sentences off by heart.

Open the third door which is blue and enter the room. (Here, the restrictive clause tells me to ignore the first two blue doors I see – I could pass several doors before I get to the first blue one, let alone the third one …)

Open the third door, which is blue, and enter the room. (Here, the non-restrictive clause tells me to open the third door – it just happens to be blue.)

Commas with clout

The comma, not the relative pronoun which, is what conveyed the aside-ness of Luke’s non-restrictive clause. Commas lack heft. Or so I thought. Lesson 4 is from Luke’s column in July/August 2017 where he notes that the comma after an adverbial introductory phrase can drive meaning further than intended.

Luke gives an example: ‘Quickly, he finished the column and then made a cup of tea.’ He then explains:

In adverbial introductory phrases the use of a comma tends to suggest that the adverb modifies the whole sentence rather than only a part of it. In the last example it appears that both the column-finishing and the tea-making were done quickly: this may not have been the intention.

Sticking with unintentional application of meaning, here’s what I learned about dangling modifiers. Iffy sentence alert.

Heeding a point made by Sarah Price, modifiers dangle less offensively than I once thought.

A participle ‘dangles’ when it isn’t clear which text element it modifies … We only need to consider rewriting when there is ambiguity. If it’s clear from the context what is meant, there is no need to change it.

In my sentence, heeding is the modifying participle, and it looks like it’s dangling because the word after the comma (modifiers) isn’t really the intended heeder, is it? To truncate Sarah’s much clearer explanation, if you understand that the heeding pertains to me, then the dangle can stand. Lesson 5 (from July/August 2015) suggests that a bit of dangle is acceptable. Lesson 6: Maybe recast anyway …

Comma quickies

Who knew that commas enclosing parenthetical information, as gleaned from the January/February 2020 Editing Matters, imply a closer connection to the surrounding context than round brackets or en dashes? It makes sense though, visually. Commas place less distance between words than a pair of dashes, and they aren’t as marked a barrier as parentheses.

Can I slip in a vocative comma, CIEP member? Did it. Another one coming up. Newbies, we can be forgiven for not identifying a gapping comma; experienced editors, less so. (Like that last one.)

Compounded by hyphens

What strikes me in Cathy’s piece about hyphenated compounds (July/August 2019) is how disarming a character the hyphen can be – and not in a copy-editor vs copyeditor kind of way. In 2014 it was dropped from African American in both noun and adjective form. It took another five years for people (inclusivity-respectful editors?) to omit the othering hyphen from Asian American. That hyphen, uncontested for too long and providing clarity for nobody, snags even more when you view it against an editing cornerstone: introduce punctuation only to avoid ambiguity.

So, a round-up lesson for all of us is to be more confident in querying the ‘correctness’ of punctuation, not just when it challenges convention, but sometimes when it doesn’t.

Riffat Yusuf is a West London-based proofreader and copyeditor, and a content editor for a small structural engineering company. She has been editing since 2018, and before that she taught ESOL for 10 years and brought up her family. In the dim and distant past she was employed in journalism, radio and television. In the future, she’d like to work on ELT resources.

 


‘A Finer Point’ was a regular column in the SfEP’s magazine for members, Editing Matters. The column has moved onto the blog until its new home on the CIEP website is ready.

Members can browse the Editing Matters back catalogue through the Members’ Area.


Photo credits: comma (butterfly) Michael Weidner; cups of tea Joanna Kosinska, both on Unsplash.

Proofread by Alice McBrearty, Entry-Level Member.
Posted by Abi Saffrey, CIEP blog coordinator.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the CIEP.

Punctuating quotes: UK and US differences

Outside or inside, before or after? Punctuating quotes can be a bit of a minefield, as Luke Finley points out.Us-UK English

A quick search on the SfEP forums reveals that punctuating quotes is an area that trips many of us up – and not just those with less experience. This isn’t a surprise, because there’s extensive variation in the conventions. In this column I focus on quotes in non-fiction texts: conventions for reported speech in fiction are arguably even more subjective.

Academic/formal writing

In academic writing and other materials that cite in a strict academic style (policy papers and the like), the conventions are fairly fixed.

UK/US variation

In US English, closing punctuation goes inside the quote marks, whether the quote is a complete sentence or not, and whether the punctuation was there in the original quoted material or not:

Svolik identifies the “twin problems of dictatorship,” going on to explore how different institutions address these problems.

In UK English, in the same example the comma would follow the closing quote mark (which would more usually be a single quote mark – but that’s another story). However, UK English does put the closing punctuation inside the quote marks if the quote is, or ends with, a complete sentence:

Balkin says that ‘almost all political activity may be constitutional. Often we may only know what counts later on, when practice and precedents become settled.’

Punctuating with citations

Where a parenthetical citation (eg in author–date style) appears immediately after the quote, the punctuation follows it, in UK or US style:

‘… precedents become settled’ (Balkin, 2011).

Displayed quotes

In displayed quotes there are typically no quote marks to interfere with the closing punctuation. In this case, if there is a citation it follows the closing punctuation:

… precedents become settled. (Balkin, 2011)

Other non-fiction texts

Separating quotes from text

Where quoted material is part of a longer sentence, it’s often separated from the text using commas:

He said, ‘show me where the comma should be’.

In more formal writing, or where the quoted material is longer, a colon might take the place of the comma. Or it might be omitted altogether for very short quotes or where the quote is integrated into the syntax of the sentence:

About commas, he said simply ‘Hate them!’

He said that he was kept awake at night worrying about ‘the horrors of punctuation’.

Punctuation inside or out?

The UK approach is generally to be guided by whether or not the punctuation ‘belongs’ to the quoted matter. ‘Belongs’ is often interpreted (eg The Economist Style Guide goo.gl/w52udb) to mean a natural pause regardless of how the original quote was punctuated.

‘This sentence’, she said, ‘has a full stop but no commas.’

‘On the other hand,’ she continued, ‘this sentence has both.’

The US approach – which is common in British fiction and increasingly in journalistic writing – is to punctuate inside the quote marks regardless of whether the sense of the quoted matter requires it.

Use your own good judgement

As is clear from my qualified statements, these are conventions, not hard-and-fast rules. Sources such as Butcher’s Copy-editing and New Hart’s Rules are good for the range of approaches but don’t necessarily tell you which to use in a particular case. Others, such as Trask’s Penguin Guide to Punctuation, offer their own preferred approach – which may be clear and persuasively argued, but doesn’t necessarily preclude a different approach.

In the end, it comes down to your client’s preference, the need for consistency and your own judgement. For example, Trask argues for minimal punctuation – why use additional marks to signal that a quote is coming up when the quote marks already do that job? This notion is attractively straightforward but, as an editor or especially as a proofreader, you won’t always be in a position to impose such an approach.

 

Luke FinleyLuke Finley, an Advanced Professional Member of the SfEP, set up Luke Finley Editorial in 2013 and left the public sector soon after, to edit and proofread full time. He will edit just about anything but specialises in social policy.

 

 


This article first appeared in the SfEP magazine, Editing Matters, in November 2016.


Posted by Abi Saffrey, SfEP blog coordinator.

Picture credit: raphink, on Pixabay.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the SfEP.