The Pain of Punctuation

At Writer Unboxed, a perennially engaging topic: Assuaging the Pain of Punctuation

Punctuation can be as thrilling as grammar: The wrongly maligned semicolon magicking a comma-spliced run-on sentence into an elegant complex thought; the jocular, informal em dash heralding an impending related tangent, explanation, elaboration, or contradiction that reflects so well the way many of us think and talk.

We’re off to a good start, as I certainly like both semicolons and dashes.

Let’s start with the most egregious punctuation violation: If you are still using two spaces after a period, I invite you to stop it. That convention is a relic of the earliest days of typography, and using it may make you look like a dinosaur. Of course, you are welcome to continue insisting upon it, but let’s acknowledge that it’s a bit of an affectation, like wearing a monocle, isn’t it?

And here’s the skinny on ellipses: No more does the venerated world of publishing add a persnickety little space between each dot. Close those puppies right on up…just like that…

Oh, and I have comments regarding both these tidbits of advice!

Sure, you can quit using two spaces after a period, but you know what else you can do? Type with two spaces and then uses find and replace to magically turn them all into single spaces. EVEN IF you type with one space, I suggest you do a find and replace at the end as part of your final formatting job, because there are always some instances where you have two spaces and didn’t realize that. I do three rounds of find and replace to be sure I get them all. Otherwise the occasional triple or quadruple space does not get corrected.

I did change from two spaces to one, but ONLY when I hurt my right thumb badly enough that I quit using it at all when typing. If you’re re-training yourself to use your left thumb on the space bar, that is an excellent time to also train yourself to only hit the space bar once. But it’s absolutely no trouble to change two spaces to one, so there is no need to bother re-training your typing habit if you don’t feel like it.

Also, the best way to do ellipses is space … space, and the reason for that is twofold.

First, if you open them up space . space . space . space, then when right-and-left justified, the spaces between the dots is going to get stretched out weirdly and that is going to happen not just occasionally, but all the time. Also, when the text is re-sized in ereaders, you are certain to wind up with two dots on one line and the other dot on the next line, and that looks stupid. Keeping the three dots together will prevent both of those problems.

Second, if you close them all the way up with no spaces on either side of the ellipse, then longword…longword is going to screw up the spacing of words and lines in the ebook when the font is re-sized. His tendency toward, what is the right term…sesquipedalianism…could be somewhat exasperating, she thought. Look at that. With no spaces, term…sesquipedalianism…could is going to be forced onto one line in many ereaders and that is going to look just terrible. Spaces on both sides of the … prevent that from happening.

That is also why I really, honestly prefer dashes with spaces, and to avoid them being so long, en-dashes with spaces. But that is never done, so I resignedly use em-dashes with no spaces even though this also screws up word and line spacing on ereaders. But for ellipese, there’s no set-in-stone standard and you can get away with different choices, so space … space is allowed and that is what looks best, and I am not going to change my mind about that.

Let me see, what else do we have in this post … oh, a lot about quote marks. Yes, well, sometimes the thing to do is not type this:

“But can I believe him when he says, ‘I didn’t do it’?”

but rephrase to avoid the question of (a) whether the question mark goes inside or outside which quote marks, and (b) whether that will look wrong to readers even if it is correct. If it’s even plausible that your weird quote marks might look wrong to a significant number of readers, just write:

“But can I believe him when he says he didn’t do it?”

and poof, no problem.

My main pet peeve with punctuation is none of the above. My main problem is my phone’s autocorrect function choosing whether to include or exclude apostrophes at random, especially if I’m not wearing reading glasses and may therefore miss the switch of the correct “its” for the wrong “it’s.”

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6 thoughts on “The Pain of Punctuation”

  1. LE Modestit uses ellipses incessantly and it is…so…annoying. I read several of his books. The stories were good but the writing was so atrocious I could not continue.

  2. Ha! I think LE Modestit is a man. Have you ever posted about the difference between and women fantasy/sci fi writers? I’d be curious to read what you have to say.

  3. He is a guy. Leland, um, Exton Modesitt. No wonder I didn’t remember that middle name.

    I don’t think there’s a reliably identifiable difference between male and female authors, although I do think there are tendencies.

    Remember that James Tiptree Jr was actually used as an example of masculine writing. Let me see … right: “It has been suggested that Tiptree is female,” Robert Silverberg wrote in the introduction to a 1975 collection of stories by James Tiptree, Jr. “[It is] a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” Silverberg was a good critic and a good writer, but oops. This particular mistake ought to make everyone pause before deciding there’s anything ineluctably masculine or feminine about certain styles of writing.

  4. I actually thought the correct thing to do with ellipsis was to replace the 3 dots with the special ellipsis character? Maybe that’s just a Word thing? Pro: no splitting up across newline.

  5. Lise, if you type space … space, Word does replace the … with a different … that I guess is the “special ellipsis character.” You can see it happen, though after the fact it looks exactly the same. And yes, that’s what keeps the ellipsis from splitting. Which is why I REALLY do not understand advice to put in space dot space dot etc. Why in the world would that ever be preferred? Ugh.

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