Some sticky punctuation questions: PART 2

(from the Chicago Manual of Style)

From Rick:

I decided to continue from last time with more of those sticky punctuation questions I found in the Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A. To avoid confusion, I’m going to pick up the numbering from last time, where I left off with (12).

(13) Comma splices

To refresh you on the terminology, a comma splice refers to joining two complete sentences or independent clauses with a comma instead of a conjunction. Some examples will clarify what I mean by this.

>>> John went to the store to buy a pair of shoes, he bought two pair of shoes on sale for the price of one.

The error here should be obvious enough, but I do see inexperienced writers committing this mistake. Either make it two separate sentences, with a period after each, or join them with a conjunction.

>>> John went to the store to buy a pair of shoes. He bought two pair of shoes one sale for the price of one.

>>> John went to the store to buy a pair of shoes, and he bought two pair of shoes on sale for the price of one.

What about these two examples?

>>> I’ll tell you exactly what’s going to happen, you are going to jail!

>>> Let’s face it, truth is stranger than fiction.

In both, the second part of the sentence very closely follows the first. A period works for the first case, but in the second a period doesn’t feel quite right. Nevertheless, a comma is considered grammatically incorrect in both. There are pieces of punctuation that serve well in these situations. The comma could be replaced with either a colon (to show consequence) or a dash (to join but still set off), whereas a period, although correct, seems to separate the sentences too much.

One might be tempted to consider a semicolon for these, but the semicolon is reserved for when the two sentences show parallelism, contrast, or cause and effect, and none of these apply here. We can revise the sentence into a cause-and-effect case and use a semicolon:

>>> You broke the law; you are going to jail.

A colon would fit well in either of the original cases because it can be used to show a logical consequence or to introduce. I would not consider a dash appropriate in either case.

>>> I’ll tell you exactly what’s going to happen: you are going to jail!

>>> Let’s face it: truth is stranger than fiction.

What’s sad is that sometimes even so-called editors don’t know what they’re doing. In the CMOS Q&A, they gave the following submitted example from an author’s novel:

[ORIGINAL SENTENCE] “I see you got the water running.” Steve looked from the water canal to the disheveled man before him. “But what in God’s name happened to you?”

And the editor the author had hired wanted to change it to this:

“I see you got the water running,” Steve looked from the water canal to the disheveled man before him, “but what in God’s name happened to you?”

This creates a comma splice, which is incorrect. In fact, the CMOS responder commented, “I hope you got a good deal on that editor.”

I’ll also point out that the action by Steve is not a dialogue tag and is therefore would not be separated with a comma. The original is correct.

[CORRECT] >>> “I warned you not to come.” Jake shook a warning finger at Kevin.

[CORRECT] >>> “I warned you not to come,” Jake said, shaking a warning finger at Kevin.

[INCORRECT] >>> “I warned you not to come,” Jake shook a warning finger at Kevin.

In this blog I’ve warned my readers that it’s important to check out the credentials and competence before hiring any editor. I want to repeat that caution here because, sadly, I’ve seen some English teachers who claim to be editors but can be poor editors because when too rigid. Fiction often requires bending and breaking some of the formal rules. In other cases, those English teachers haven’t kept up with the latest style changes and recommendations, and they are using out-of-date rules. If you try to stick to a formal style of writing in fiction, you can end up with correct, but very sterile, writing.

Here’s another case where someone questioned punctuation that a supervisor, a former English teacher, felt was correct.

>>> Your professionalism supports our record for safety and quality, advances our worldwide reputation; and helps us to grow as an industry leader.

The CMOS response is that the semicolon is not at all justified and should be a simple comma. Once again here is an example that just because someone was an English teacher does guarantee that person’s editorial authority, which is sad because those are the people we expect should know.

(14) Should you put a space between an apostrophe or a single quote mark and double quote mark? Consider these examples:

>>> When asked why he decided to get drunk tonight, Chad pursed his lips. “’Cuz my parents are out of town for the weekend and not around to ground me for doing it.”

>>> In Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire the reporter interviewing the vampire Lestat is just called ‘the boy.’”

Depending on the font used, the single quote mark (or apostrophe) is very close to the double quote and can be difficult to see. Even so, it is NOT correct (or advisable) to put a regular space between them because it could potentially lead to some odd formatting issues, like the two marks getting split at the end of a sentence. What you can do is insert a nonbreaking space or a thin space, neither of which will break at the end of a line.

Here’s how to insert one of those, should you desire to do so, using Unicodes. You can try each one to see which looks better in your situation, or if you need it at all.

To insert a nonbreaking space, at the spot where you want to add it, type 00A0, then press and hold the ALT key and press X. Release the keys. The numbers and letters will vanish, and in their place will appear a nonbreaking space. The code for the thin space is 2009.

This assumes you’re using a PC. If you’re using a MAC, hold the OPTION key while you enter the 4 characters, then release the OPTION key.

(15) How do you handle ugly punctuation situations?

The example was this:

>>> The album’s first single, “Do you Realize??,” features a lush arrangement.

The double question mark is part of the song’s title and cannot be changed, but what about the commas? The CMOS reply is that the song’s title is an appositive of “first single” so the commas are required and the punctuation is correct. But if you find it ugly, then you should recast the sentence.

(16) When do you use a comma before then?

I’ve seen a lot of discussion in the past on this because “then” is being used as a coordinating conjunction when it’s really not one.

A coordinating conjunction is used to join to INDEPENDENT CLAUSES (ones that can stand alone as sentences).

There is a mnemonic for remembering the seven coordinating conjunctions: FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). You’ll notice that “then” is not among them.

>>> I sometimes see people say one thing then do something else. (“then” is subordinating, not a coordinating, conjunction)

>>> I sometimes see people say one thing, and then they do something else. (used as a coordinating conjunction with “and”)

In the latter example, we are joining two independent clauses: “All the time I see people do one thing” and “They do something else.”

But “then” is often used as a shortened form of “and then.” In that use, it is functioning as a coordinating conjunction. If an independent clause follows then, it requires a comma before it.

>>> I sometimes see people say one thing, then they do something else.

I personally prefer then to and then because the and seems redundant or confusing. You either do one thing AND do something else (at the same, or roughly the same, time). Or you do something THEN do something else after it (one event follows another).

>>> I went to the mall and purchased a new pair of shoes, (and) then I went to see a movie.

It’s a subtle difference, and we could certainly include the and with the then, but that sounds more formal. Know that you have the option and won’t be smacked silly if you leave out the and. What I find interesting is that previous versions of MS Word’s grammar checker flagged then alone as an error and suggested changing it to and then. The latest Office 365 no longer complains about that.

I have more of these lovely sticky punctuation points for future posts, depending on how the mood strikes me.

—Rick

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