Grace's Mosaic Moments

Sunday, September 15, 2013

EDITING - "Modern" Punctuation

Up close & personal with a frog at Chatfield Hollow State Park, CT

A quick trip to Connecticut last week - 
where Susie and I visited sites old & new.

Mailbox for the new "Fire Palace" in Branford, CT

While in New Haven, we stayed only a few blocks from the house used in the Adam's Family. Which has been bought refurbished, and expanded by Yale into a conference center.

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"Modern" Punctuation - for good or ill

As both a writer and an editor, over the past couple of years I have been attempting to adjust to the contemporary approach to punctuation, which is definitely not what I learned in English class way back when. Certain changes, I find, I can accept. Others? Forgetaboutit! Below are some of the changes I am trying to incorporate into my own writing and into the fiction edits I do for others. (I am talking about fiction only here - I am unsure if "modern" times have caught up with the academic world or not!)

Grace Note 1: The general trend is definitely toward "Less is More." The assumption is, we can use less punctuation and still write sentences readers can understand. Sentences that offend neither eye nor ear (for I suspect we all "hear" the poetry in good prose in our heads, even if we've never stopped to think about it before.) Sentences we don't have to stop and read a second time to understand the meaning. Clear sentences that warm our hearts, curl our hair, tickle our funny bones, or scare the daylights out of us. Clarity is all important. I will never be "modern" enough to believe in the philosophy that says: "If you can read a sentence without punctuation don't put any in." Aargh!

Grace Note 2:  I would suggest that "modern" punctuation is subjective; i.e., not mandatory. If you ignore it, however, don't be surprised when a copy editor makes changes. I also suggest that classic punctuation still seems appropriate for historical novels, though I make a conscious effort not to clutter a sentence with too many commas.


 New punctuation I can live with - most of the time:

1.  Most short compound sentences can do without a comma in the middle. Emphasis on short.

Betty walked down the street but John went the other way.

2.  Introductory phrases of 3 or 4 words can do without a comma at the end of the phrase. (I make subjective choices on these - the "new" rule doesn't work 100% of the time. 

Early next morning I dressed and went to work.

3.  Certain phrases at the end of a sentence can do without a comma dividing them from the main part of the sentence.  (Also a subjective call .)

It was raining hard as I ran down the street.

4.  Not so new (& true mostly of Romance genres):  Colons & semi-colons are rare - very likely considered too academic. The colon has been replaced by an M-dash or by using two separate sentences. Semi-colons have been replaced by simple commas (and, yes, that creates 2 separate sentences divided by a comma). You can also use a period, creating two separate sentences. Or use an M-dash.

It was dark and cold, the moon was rising. 

Grace Note 3:  Enjoying being contrary, I used both colons and semi-colons in my latest book, Brides of Falconfell.

5.  N-dash. I personally use the N-dash for stuttering dialogue. Other authors simply use a hyphen. The choice seems to vary from publisher to publisher.  

"I–I'm so c–cold my teeth are chattering."

Grace Note 4:  M- and N-dashes are found in Insert - Symbols, or, faster & easier, by using ASCII codes. M-dash = Alt +0151 on your keypad (Num Lock on). N-dash = Alt + 0150 on your keypad. [These numbers will not work on your QWERTY keyboard, only on the keypad.]

Some "oldies" that authors need to remember:

1.  Do NOT put a comma before "and, but, then, while, etc." if these conjunctions connect two compound verbs; i.e., ONE subject with two verbs that follow it.

 John played baseball in the afternoon but went to a nightclub that night.

Exception:  a comma may be inserted for clarity or for emphasis.

2.  A clause beginning with "even" does not need a comma before it. (Though I tend to do it every time.)

That's the last thing I'd ever do even if you paid me.

3.  Do NOT use a full sentence (subject & verb) as a dialogue tag. (He said, she replied, he asked, etc., are okay, but not a long sentence that can stand independently.)  

Wrong:  "You know something," John rubbed the side of his nose, "that's just plain crazy." 

Correct:  "You know something . . .? John rubbed the side of his nose. "That's just plain crazy."

or (though not all copy editors agree)
 "You know something"—John rubbed the side of his nose—"that's just plain crazy."

4.  I'm still seeing manuscripts without a Hard Page End at the end of every chapter. Don't "space" this - it's essential to every professional author. Hard Page End = Control+Enter. [One of my clients swore she'd done that on every chapter - turns out, she hadn't always held the two keys down at the same time.] 

5.  I'm also still seeing manuscripts with Manual Indents. These are an absolute no-no these days in both print and e-publishing. Set up Auto tabs. [For how to do it - or how to change a ms from manual to auto tabs, see my blog,  Tab Conversion

Some "changes" I reject - the choice, however, is up to you:

1.  Not adding an "s" to possessive names ending in S. For example:  Nicholas' instead of Nicholas's. You have only to pronounce the word to discover that leaving off the s is ridiculous as we pronounce it quite clearly when we say the name.

2.  Ellipses.  The trend is all toward using an ellipsis with no spaces, perhaps because the almighty god, Microsoft Word, made it an automated "built-in." Sigh. I don't like those three little side-by-side periods, which provide more of a hiccup than a proper space in the narration or dialogue. I don't like it even if a space is put on either side of those three miserable periods. I'll stick with the Chicago Manual of Style, thank you very much. Ellipses were designed to provide  a pause, and only . . . [space-period-space-period-space-period-space] does that.

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Thanks for stopping by,


Sept. 22: Updated Index to my Writing & Editing blogs

Sept. 29:  Brides of Falconfell, a Regency Gothic

Oct. 13:    The wind-up to this latest Editing series: "Questions you should ask yourself"

Blair's Website                              Editing Service




  1. My editors must be older, because they adhere to the older punctuation. Although it may be because I write Regency. Loved the post. Tweeted.

  2. Very interesting, from a grammar-pain-in-the-ass editor.

  3. A friend, who is usually an old-fashioned purist on punctuation, told me that for e-publishing you absolutely must not use spaces in ellipses. I don't exactly remember the rationale. But I'm with you, Grace, the spaces are needed, especially if you're eyes aren't what they used to be. I'll pass right over three dots all pushed together and not notice the ellipse. Going to send her the link to your article and see what she says!

  4. Using spaces in an ellipsis allows it to break up at the end of the line--really looks wonky on an ereader, so I use three periods, no spaces. Some use the ellipsis symbol but it sometimes comes out as gobbledygook, so I don't use it.

    The comma thing? I'm trying to get used to leaving them out even though it looks wrong to me, especially before "too."

  5. Is there any one place that lists all the "new" punctuation? I seem to just see bits and pieces.

    Good post.

  6. Kate, there may be such a list, but I doubt it. As far as I can tell, individual publishers are adjusting their "style" sheets to suit themselves. I suspect the major NY print pubs are still sticking pretty closely to THE CHICAGO MANUAL OF STYLE, but I am an avid reader and keep an editing eye out, whether I'm reading Nora Roberts, Janet Evanovich, Jayne Ann Krentz, or the latest 99 cent indie on my Kindle. And even among the Biggies, I see differences. One of the major e-publishers has gone further than most, practically doing away with punctuation altogether, to the point of changing where the period goes at the end of quote. I find it appalling. So for these reasons I doubt you'll find a listm because there is no real agreement among the various publishers. And then there are those who upload a "draft" to online publishers with no thought to whether their book looks professional or is a mishmash of mistakes. That certainly doesn't help industry standards either. Sigh. Sorry I couldn't be more helpful.