Some sticky punctuation questions: PART 1

(from the Chicago Manual of Style)

From Rick:

This past Saturday I gave a presentation to my local writers group on “Sticky and Tricky Points of Punctuation.” As a result of that presentation, one of the members sent me an extensive post from the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) website with reader questions. When I say it was extensive, I mean it was over thirty pages worth of Q&A. I extracted some of the more interesting and useful points here.

(1) Should you put periods in US and DC when referring to the United States and Washington, DC? No, you should not. Since 1963 the US Postal Service has been using these and all state abbreviations without periods. Only if there could be confusion would you need the periods. For example, if you were casting a sentence in ALL CAPS for some valid reason and “US” appeared there in such a way that the reader wasn’t sure if it meant the pronoun “us” or the United States, then you would use the periods. Bear in mind that UK, USSR, and PRC (People’s Republic of China) are all used without periods.

That said, some style guides and publications still use the periods, but that’s a matter of their style. Writers of books should be using the CMOS style unless you’re dealing with a publisher who is using a different style. Even in the latter case, I’d still argue that the CMOS is the preferred style for books.

(2) When writing feet and inches using the single and double quote symbols (2” x 4”), if the measurement occurs at the end of a sentence, where does the period go?

>>> A two-by-four piece of lumber actually measures 1.5” x 3.5.”


>>> A two-by-four piece of lumber actually measures 1.5” x 3.5”.

The SECOND one is correct because the “inches” symbol is not a quotation mark. It’s called a double prime, and it’s actually a different symbol from the quotation mark. Even if you use the double quote mark, like many will, it’s not a quotation mark in that usage and therefore the period goes OUTSIDE it. The same is true if you use the prime symbol for feet.

Of course, I don’t expect many of you will encounter this issue in your writing, but now you know the ruling if you do.

(3) How do you punctuate rhetorical questions?

>>> The question in her mind was should she listen to her friends’ advice or to her trustworthy sister?


>>> The question in her mind was should she listen to her friends’ advice or to her trustworthy sister.

The CMOS response was that the FIRST sentence is correct, but in such cases, rewording it into a statement might avoid such problems:

>>> The question in her mind was whether she should listen to her friends’ advice or to her trustworthy sister.

(4) When addressing a person generically or with a term of endearment (sir, mister, dear, sweetheart), do you put a comma before it or not?

>>> “Will you help me, mister?” / Will you help me mister?

>>> “Anything for you, my dear.” / Anything for you my dear.

The answer is that anytime you are addressing a person, regardless of the term of address, you DO put in the comma. It’s no different when addressing the person by name. In the examples above, the FIRST sentences are the correct ones and are no different from the sentences below in terms of comma usage.

>>> “Will you help me, Dave?”

>>> “Anything for you, Yvonne.”

(5) In the first set of examples in (4) above, I used the slash with spaces around it. Is this correct, or should there be no spaces around a slash mark?

The rule is that when the slash divides two words no spaces are used.

>>> This is not an either/or choice. You are required to do both.

When the slash separates two sentences, a space before and after the slash is required.

(6) Can em dashes be used to join complete sentences? We see the em dash used to insert words or phrases or a short sentence into the middle of another sentence, but is it limited to this? All of the following are correct and acceptable.

>>> He couldn’t believe his eyes—it was Claire in the flesh. She wasn’t a ghost after all.

>>> There she was, standing in front of him—Claire—in the flesh.

>>> Claire—in the flesh, not a ghost—was standing in front of him.

(7) Does a question mark ever go outside quotation marks?

Yes, if the sentence itself is a question, but a quote inside that sentence is not a question.

>>> Can you believe he memorized the entire soliloquy from Macbeth, the one with “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow”?

Again, you probably won’t have occasion to use something like this in your fiction, but if you do, this is how you’d punctuate it. But if you think it looks awkward (or that readers will question it), you could recast the sentence into a statement as we did in point (3) above.

(8) Can a semicolon ever follow a question mark?

We know that the semicolon is used to join two closely related sentences.

>>> I wear long pants on cold days; Steve always wears shorts. [CORRECT]

>>> Will you go to the horror movie with me?; I promise not to scream this time. [INCORRECT]

A semicolon is never correct after a question mark. In the first example, it REPLACES a period, but there is no way it can replace a question mark. Therefore, the second example must be rendered as two separate sentences. But if the first sentence is not a question, the semicolon could be used.

>>> Will you go to the horror movie with me? I promise not to scream this time.

>>> Go with me to the horror movie; I promise not to scream this time.

However, in this last example, I think some would prefer a period instead of a semicolon, but you could argue it either way.

(9) Is it ever permissible to put two periods at the end of a sentence? What about a question mark and a period together?

The answer to the first question is that it is acceptable if a parenthesis intervenes.

>>> When you kill off your main character, one who your readers have come to love, you should be prepared for a great outcry (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle learned this when he killed off Sherlock Holmes.).

Both periods are required because the sentence within the parentheses is a complete one, and the larger sentence also requires a period. If the parenthetical sentence is not complete, only the outermost period is used.

>>> When you kill off your main character, one who your readers have come to love, you should be prepared for a great outcry (as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle learned when he killed off Sherlock Holmes).

When a sentence ends with an abbreviation that requires a period, the final period is absorbed by the abbreviation’s period.

>>> We were told that the meeting would begin at 11 a.m.

(10) Should a comma be used with an ampersand? According to the CMOS, the ampersand is strong enough to stand on its own.

>>> The meetings will be held Friday evening, April 26, & Saturday, April 27. [INCORRECT]

>>> The meetings will be held Friday evening, April 26 & Saturday, April 27. [CORRECT]

(11) Confusion over the spellings of till

I see this word written in several ways:


Till is a correct word by itself, meaning until.

’Til is a contraction of until and is also correct.

The other two spellings (til and ’till) are incorrect. You are free to use either of the correct spellings: ’Till death do us part or Till death do us part.

(12) When an apostrophe and a close quote end a sentence, where does the period go? In the following example, the apostrophe is part of the word, and a period follows it to end the sentence, but the close quote comes after it (in US usage) because the period goes inside the quotation marks.

>>> He told me, “The times they are a changin’.” [CORRECT]

I’ll do more of these either next time, or in a future post.


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