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    Entries in Punctuation (7)


    The Lovely Ellipsis

    The ellipsis—we've all seen it and most likely used it. This piece of punctuation is often abused in informal writing, such social networking and email. So what is the correct way to use it? There are several.

    First let's establish what an ellipsis is. The ellipsis is three periods, not five, seven, two, or eight. There is a method where a four-dot ellipsis can be used, but a four-dot ellipsis is simply a three-dot ellipsis preceded by a period. I commonly see writers throwing a multitude of periods after a sentence for various reasons,  but writers should not do this. Three periods is both sufficient and correct.

    The first way to use the ellipsis is most common in nonfiction writing. It is most commonly used to indicate that a portion of some quoted material is missing. For example, "God so loved . . . he gave his only begotten son" (John 3:16). The ellipsis in this quote indicates that part of the quote is missing. This use of the ellipse is pretty uncommon in fiction because other material is rarely quoted in fiction.

    You might notice that although John 3:16 continues after "only begotten son," I did not include an ellipsis after it. I also didn't start the quote with an ellipsis, even though the quote begins with the word "for." This is because Bible verses should not begin or end with ellipses unless the context demands it (e.g., it results in a sentence fragment). Also, introductory words, such as for, and, therefore, but, etc., can be omitted without inserting an ellipsis.

    The second case where ellipses should be used is more common in fiction writing. Ellipses should be used to indicate trailing off thought or speech. For example, "If only I could fly . . ." They should not be used to indicate that speech has been interrupted or to show an interjection or departure in thought. As discussed in this post, the em dash should be used for this.

    So how do you form an ellipsis? This can vary widely from publisher to publisher. Some publishers I have worked with prefer to use three spaced periods (. . .), while some prefer that authors use three unspaced periods (...) or Word's ellipsis character (…), which is formed by holding down ctrl+alt+the period. Some call for spaces before and after the ellipsis, while some prefer to have no spaces. The important thing, as always, is to pick one method and use it consistently. And of course, if you are still confused, a skilled editor can help you discern whether you're using ellipses correctly. Happy writing!


    Serial Commas

    A much-debated issue in writing is whether to use a serial comma. The serial comma has been known by many names, including the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, and the series comma. If you’re wondering what exactly I mean by a serial comma, just look at the previous sentence. There are three items in a series (i.e., the Oxford comma, the Harvard comma, and the series comma) in the sentence, and the serial comma is the comma that appears after “the Harvard comma.”  According to The Chicago Manual of Style, three or more items in a series (e.g., eggs, butter, and milk) should have a comma after the second to last item in the series.

    The serial comma is used to avoid confusion, as in the following sentence: “I like all kinds of ice cream flavors, like strawberry, coconut and chocolate chip and raspberry.” Without a serial comma, it’s unclear whether you are talking about coconut and chocolate chip ice cream or chocolate chip and raspberry ice cream. Adding a serial comma will never cause confusion, but omitting it might. In my opinion, a serial comma is an important tool for clarity in writing.

    There are some style guides that do not use the serial comma, most notably the Associated Press style guide. That is the guide used in writing for newspapers, where space is an issue. In book writing, however, the serial comma should almost always be used. I have personally never run into a publishing house that doesn’t use a serial comma, although I’m sure they exist. Also, the authority on writing for books is The Chicago Manual of Style, which calls for a serial comma.

    There is one notable exception, though, that often trips writers up. The serial comma should not be used when you use an ampersand (&). Ampersands usually should not be used in the text of a book but are often used in titles, ads, and other supporting materials. If you are called upon to use an ampersand, remember that a serial comma isn’t needed.


    Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes—Oh My!

    One of the least-understood sets of punctuation in writing are dashes. Most people don't realize there are three distinct versions of them, and they are used for very different purposes.

    The most commonly used and confused dash is actually not a dash at all but just the plain old hyphen (-), which is the same character used for a minus sign. You will see this used sometimes in books where a word is split across a line. This is something for book designers to worry about, though, not writers. You should never split a word across a line yourself as a writer. The hyphen is also used to hyphenate two words, as in "twenty-one" or in compound modifiers, like "a little-known restaurant." There are rules governing when a compound modifier should be hyphenated, and they can get pretty confusing. Here's a quick guide for you:

    • Don't hyphenate compound modifiers that come after the words they modify (e.g., "a restaurant that is little known").
    • Don't hyphenate compound modifiers if one of the words in an adverb (e.g., "a rapidly filling cup").
    • Spelled-out numbers between one and one hundred should always be hyphenated (e.g., twenty-one, ninety-nine).
    • Compound modifiers before words should usually be hyphenated (e.g., "a three-year-old boy" or "an American-football player"). The second example demonstrates why hyphenation is needed for compound modifiers. If the word wasn't hyphenated, the phrase could be interpreted either as a player of the American version of football or as a player of football who is American.

    The second form of dashes is the en dash, so named because it is roughly as long as the lowercase letter n. It's bigger than a hyphen but smaller than the em dash. This dash is used between ranges of numbers or values, as in "Arkansas beat Ohio State 31–3 in the Sugar Bowl." (And yes, that is wishful thinking!) En dashes are also used in the rare event of a compound modifier where one or both of the modifiers is made up of two words, as in "a pre–Civil War house." You can create an en dash in Microsoft Word by pressing ctrl+the hyphen on the number pad.

    The em dash is the most utilitarian of the dashes and was so named because it's roughly the size of a capital letter M. To create an em dash in Microsoft Word, press ctrl+alt+the hyphen on the number pad. It's the dash most people are looking for in writing. It is used to indicate a change in thought or tone or to replace sets of parentheses or colons. For example, "Our dinner—which was delicious—had five courses." It can also be used in dialogue to indicate the speaker has been interrupted. For example:

    "But you said—"

    "I said I'd do it when I'm ready!"

    The em dash can be used effectively in writing, but be careful not to overuse it. An overabundance of em dashes can be distracting, and they tend to lose their effectiveness when used too often.


    Scare Quotes

    Punctuation marks of various kinds often trip writers up, and one area many seem to struggle with is when and how to use quotation marks.

    The rules for when to use quotation marks are fairly simple. You should always use them when you are directly quoting something and very sparingly in other cases. Many times I run into the overuse of "scare quotes" when editing. Scare quotes are basically when you put quotations around a word or phrase that is not quoted from another source to indicate that you find it ironic, don't agree with the common usage of it, or are distancing yourself from it in some way. This crops up frequently in religious or political writing.

    For example, a writer who is trying to debunk global warming might consistently use quotation marks around "global warming" to show his or her disdain for the concept. As you can imagine, this can get tiresome pretty quickly. Consider the following example:

    Modern scientists are trying to push the theory of "global warming" on people. There is no evidence for "global warming," but they promote the concept frequently anyway. This "warming" effect is negligible at best. We had a sixty-degree day where I live in the middle of July recently. Does that sound like "global warming" to you?*

    As you can see, the constant use of scare quotes gets to be very irritating. They most often have the effect of making the author seem pompous, pretentious, and condescending, which rarely helps to convince someone on the opposite side of your opinion. Try to be aware during your writing of whether you're using scare quotes too often and how those quotes may be interpreted by your readers. Although scare quotes can sometimes be used to get a point across, they should be used infrequently and with caution.

    * Views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Right Price Editing.


    Quick and Dirty Semicolons

    The semicolon is a punctuation mark that puzzles many writers. It's an odd duck that looks a lot like a comma, so it feels like it should be interchangeable with the comma. However, the semicolon has its own separate function, and it should be used sparingly and with caution.

    There are a few places where a semicolon is appropriate and essential. The most common case where a semicolon should be used is between two independent clauses (i.e., phrases that can be complete sentences if they stand alone) that are closely related and that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction (e.g., and, or, but).

    Consider the following sentence: "My daughter is very talented; she sings very well." The two independent clauses are closely related to one another, and the meaning would subtly change if they were joined by a conjunction (as in, "My daughter is very talented, and she sings very well."). In this case, the best way to get your point across is the join the two closely related clauses by a semicolon.

    Another case where semicolons should especially be used is between independent clauses when the second independent clause is preceded by the following adverbs: then, however, thus, hence, indeed, accordingly, besides, and therefore. For example: "I love to read; therefore, I own a lot of books."

    Semicolons should also be used when in items are listed in a series that have internal punctuation. For example, "On our vacation, we visited Seattle, Washington; San Diego, California; and Portland, Oregon." In cases like this, it is important to use a semicolon to avoid confusion, especially in longer sentences.

    A final case where semicolons are used pertains mainly to Christian writing. According to the Christian Writer's Manual of Style, semicolons should be used to separate Scripture references within parentheses. For example: "(James 1:3; 5:8; John 3:16)." Some Christian publishers vary from this style, but the industry standard is to do it in this way.

    There are other limited cases where a semicolon might be used, but this quick guide will cover most cases. Feel free to comment with any specific questions, and as always, I'll be happy to provide some guidance.