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Tag: punctuation

Copy-wise: Beware of too many, too few or misplaced commas

Imaginehavingtoreadentirebookscompanyreportsorwhitepapersinwhichwordswerent separatedbypunctuationofanykindcanyouimagineunderstandinganythingthefirsttime

Writing that way would seem like the opposite of clear communication, wouldn’t it? But that’s actually how information was recorded in ancient Greece, when all writing was meant to be read aloud by speakers familiar enough with the text to understand where – and how long – to pause between words.

Fortunately, today we have the comma, question mark, dash, semicolon, colon and exclamation mark to help break our written words into clear, manageable chunks. But they do this only if they’re used correctly. When they’re not, they can create confusion just as much as writing without any punctuation at all.

Let’s start by looking at the comma. This little curly mark has many good uses. But it also seems to be getting more than its fair share of abuse lately. Consider a few of these based-on-real-life examples:

Besides the benefits, this will bring to both our companies, this move will help our customers as well.

Rather than negatively affecting our customers, partners and suppliers, this buyout, a way of combining our company’s strengths with another’s will boost the appeal of both our offerings.

This problem arises when businesses that have offices in many parts of the world and need local suppliers, try to find services without understanding the region’s culture.

In all of the above examples, commas appear where they aren’t needed (after “Besides the benefits” and “need local suppliers”) or aren’t used where they should be (after “our company’s strengths with another’s”).

The problem shows up most often in sentences that are long and complicated. This illustrates why it’s important to keep writing succinct and try to stick with one key thought per sentence. When you muddle a sentence with multiple points, it’s easier to get lost in the punctuation weeds.

Beyond that, though, it’s worth reviewing the fundamentals of good comma use. Contrary to what you might have been told at some point, this doesn’t include putting in a comma “whenever you take a breath” while reading your writing out loud.

Instead, there are 10 simple rules for using commas properly, according to journalism professor Miles Maguire’s The Comma Project from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Use them to:

  • Separate elements in a series (e.g., “We bought bread, olives, cheese and fruit.”)
  • Separate two independent clauses when they’re connected by an “and” or other conjunction (“We went to the market, and then we stopped by our old school for a visit.”) – although also check out our take on the Oxford Comma, which may or may not be the right style for you
  • Follow an introductory phrase that’s four words long or longer (“Before I drove to the train station, I picked up my clothes from the dry cleaner.”)
  • Set off a non-essential modifying phrase (“William Shakespeare, whose birthday is traditionally observed on Saint George’s Day, began his career writing comic and historic plays.”
  • Separate adjectives of equal importance (“The bright, modern dining room was set for a birthday party.”)
  • Set off a parenthetical word or phrase, or a word like “yes” or “no”) (“The park, of course, was empty during the stormy weather.”)
  • Set off a participial modifier (“Robert sat quietly for a moment, stunned by the TV programme’s final episode.”)
  • Mark a quote or paraphrased comment when appropriate (“Lara laughed and said, ‘I don’t believe it.’” However, no comma is needed in this sentence: “Lara laughed and said she didn’t believe it.”)
  • Set off cities, states, countries, dates, ages and titles (“The two boys, ages 15 and 17, arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 15, 1967.”)
  • Separate two identical words when used next to each other (“The question is, is this enough to get started?”)

Finally, if you’re writing a complicated sentence that absolutely can’t be shortened, it helps to look out for missing commas by following this rule of thumb from writer and English/journalism professor Ben Yagoda:

“It may sometimes be because these phrases are so long that by the time we get to the end of them, we’ve forgotten about the first comma. In any case, a strategy to prevent it is to remember the acronym I.C.E.. Whenever you find yourself using a comma before an Identification, Characterization or Explanation, remember that there has to be a comma after the I.C.E. as well.”

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Copy-wise: Beware of the Apostrophe-pocalypse – 3 rules

Ugh, you may groan. A blog post about punctuation? And not just punctuation in general but a post about just one punctuation mark in particular: the apostrophe? Boooooring.

Only it’s not true. In addition to being so often misused and abused – or, actually, because it’s so often misused and abused – the apostrophe can be controversial, rage-inducing, profane or even funny (though, admittedly, generally in the grammar-scold-humour sense).

Greengrocers (produce sellers, to the Yanks out there), for instance, seem to have long been Public Enemy No. 1 when the crime is apostrophe abuse. All those hand-lettered store signs about “fresh apple’s”, “new potatoe’s” and “ripe tomatoe’s” really infuriate some grammatical sticklers. They’ve even led to the creation of a trade-specific term (“greengrocer’s apostrophe”) and inspired a small multitude of wry buttons, stickers and notecards. (They include one with the message: “Grammar. The difference between feeling your nuts and feeling you’re nuts.”)

Rule No. 1: Whether you’re talking vegetables or decades, apostrophes do not turn singular items into plurals. Contrary to a classic 1985 ‘Mr. Language Person’ column by American humour writer Dave Barry, an apostrophe is not meant to “alert the reader that an ‘s’ is coming up at the end of the word”.

Apostrophes do indicate contractions, although not in the way Barry described in another column in which he used the example: “This childbirth really hurt’s!” Instead, they are used in expressions like “do not” minus the “o” (“don’t”) or “Andrea is busy” minus the “i” (“Andrea’s busy”).

According to writer Simon Griffin’s 2016 book, Fucking Apostrophes, the practice of using the punctuation in this way can be traced back to a 15th-century French printer named Geoffroy Tory, who presumably wanted to save time or sometimes came up short on letters during a printing job. In fact, Griffin writes: “Most people generally agree that fucking apostrophes come from the Greek hē apóstrophos, meaning a turning away or an elision (the omission of a sound or syllable when speaking).”

(Apostrophes, though, don’t cost money, so poverty is no excuse for leaving them out… as Al Copeland, the late founder of the Popeyes restaurant chain, used to joke in explaining his business’ lack of an apostrophe.)

Rule No. 2: Apostrophes are used in a variety of situations where letters are left out. These include contractions (“couldn’t”) and omissions (as in “’80s” for “1980s”).

As Griffin notes in his book, there are exceptions to these rules that can make things confusing… something he found difficult to explain to designers in his work as a copywriter. That’s the reason he wrote the book in the first place, he told ABC Radio Perth last November: “[T]he more I tried to explain to them, the more I found myself going in circles. There would always be an exception to every rule I tried to tell them.”

This is especially the case in another situation where apostrophes are used: to indicate possession. When something belongs to Claire, for instance, we say it’s “Claire’s”. But it gets a little trickier for plural subjects, where the apostrophe is typically used without the following “s” (i.e., “the boys’ model cars” or “The Simpsons’ three-eyed fish”). And then there’s the exception for something that belongs to “it”, which doesn’t use an apostrophe at all (i.e., “Here’s my trophy and this is its case.”)

Rule No. 3: An apostrophe followed by an “s” is used to indicate possession but when the subject itself is plural or ends in “s”, an apostrophe alone often does the trick (i.e., “the Gross’ car”. Though there are exceptions, such as “St. James’s station” on the London Underground).

Finally, remember that languages are living things and – like other living things – they evolve and their rules change. Technology and the pace of change today can sometimes help speed that process up, which means that acceptable uses or omissions of apostrophes can change as well. As Griffin points out, apostrophes don’t work in URLs or Twitter hashtags, so they’re increasingly being left out in names or phrases that appear online often.

“Mistakes will always be made,” he writes at the close of his book. “My advice is simply to apologise and politely point out to the person correcting you that apostrophes aren’t as fucking simple as they might think they are.”

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What is a… copy-editor / sub-editor?

photo credit: Maggie T The Book of Nerds via photopin (license)

Photo credit: Maggie T The Book of Nerds via photopin (license)

We’re all familiar with editor and reporter characters from movies set in magazine or newspaper offices. Think the Robert Redford/Dustin Hoffman reporter duo in All the President’s Men, Meryl Streep’s beyond-demanding editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada and Liev Schreiber’s portrayal of then-Boston Globe editor Marty Baron in Spotlight.

But what about copy-editors, as they’re known in the US, or sub-editors, as they’re called in the UK? They’re not writers or reporters but are their jobs similar to editors? What exactly do they do, and why don’t we see them in action in TV and films?

Copy-editors and sub-editors don’t tend to star in Hollywood stories because their work is behind the scenes. But what they do is incredibly important, as they’re generally the last set of eyes to review any piece of content before it goes to press or appears online.

Where editors tend to be in charge of assigning writers to specific projects, and then working with writers to polish their words – eliminating confusing passages, streamlining wordy sections and smoothing transitions so copy flows naturally – copy-editors handle the subsequent fine-tuning, tackling grammatical, technical and stylistic issues.

For instance, an editor might help a writer whittle down an article from 2,000 words to 1,200 while also cutting irrelevant material, eliminating repetition and replacing dull and passive verbiage with more descriptive and active language. Copy-editors/sub-editors, by contrast, will carefully comb through already-edited copy to correct for spelling, punctuation and style consistency.

In a blog post aimed at British readers, for example, they’ll make sure that ‘colour’ and ‘organisation’ are used instead of ‘color’ and ‘organization’. Copy-editors will also correct sections where ‘their’ is incorrectly used instead of ‘they’re’, and will check for factual discrepancies and inconsistencies, ensuring – for instance – that the company CEO and co-founder is not referred to in other places as the president or sole founder.

“Being a copy-editor means taking a backseat to writers, production managers and, of course, the dictates of style guides,” notes an online article from the American Copy Editors Society.

“I check and correct grammar, spellers, literals [typing mistakes]; add in missed words; rephrase sentences for greater clarity; check author references in text for consistency with bibliography, reference-list, end- or foot-notes; check hierarchy of headings; impose consistency,” adds a guide from the Royal Literary Fund. “I try to ensure the author’s work is as fluent and consistent with the style of the publication as possible.”

That might not sound exciting but everything we read would be a lot less readable and clear without the behind-the-scenes efforts of copy-editors and sub-editors.

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