Category Archives: Mechanics

The Em Dash, Not To Be Confused With The En Dash

The Em Dash 2Because self-publishing has grown in ease and popularity, more and more writers are producing their own work for public consumption. Hence, I see the need for more instruction in the use of grammar and capitalization and punctuation, particularly marks like the em dash that may not be well known.

This post, with some minor editorial changes, first appeared here in April 2010. It’s about time I dusted it off, so we can take another look at em dashes. But be prepared: it comes with a writing exercise at the end, for those who wish to undertake the practice.

And now, The Em Dash:

I’ve been accused (gently) of overusing em dashes, commonly referred to without the qualifying “em.” These punctuation marks [] differ in length and use from their lesser known, and shorter, cousins, the en dashes [–].

The thing about em dashes—they are incredibly versatile. They can do some of the jobs that commas do or ones parentheses do or even those that colons do. Maybe em dashes are the lazy writer’s answer to punctuation dilemmas: when in doubt, use em dashes. 😉 Well, it works for me!

Like anything else in writing (and in much of life), however, too much of a good thing becomes not such a good thing. In other words, em dashes in every other sentence may become distracting.

With that caution in mind, let’s look at specific uses of em dashes. First, they separate information that amplifies or explains from the rest of the sentence. Commas, parentheses, or a colon can do this too. Here are a few examples.

Example 1:

    The kingunable to sleepcalled for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.


    The king (unable to sleep) called for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.


    The king, unable to sleep, called for the steward to read the scrolls detailing the affairs of state.

Example 2:

    The basketball coach mapped out his plan of attacka plan he hoped would surprise the opponent.


    The basketball coach mapped out his plan of attack: a plan he hoped would surprise the opponent.

A second use of the em dash is to separate a subject (or a series of subjects) from a pronoun that introduces the main clause.

    Lewis and Tolkienthey are the founding fathers of Christian fantasy.

As noted in an earlier post, “The Ellipsis or the Em Dash,” there’s a third common use—to indicate a sudden break in thought or speech.

    Clenching her fist, Barbara stomped after him. “No matter what you

    Before she could finish her threat, Jeff slammed the door.

One more important point: no sentence should contain more than two em dashes. If further amplification is required, then commas or parentheses should be used.

But what about the en dash, that shorter little mark so similar to a hyphen? The Chicago Manual of Style says its principle use is to connect numbers (and occasionally words). For example, if you give a span of time, say, between 19992004, the proper mark between the numbers is the en dash.

So here’s an exercise if you choose to do it: First, look back at this post and see how many em dashes I used, apart from the examples, then rewrite those sentences using either commas, parentheses, or a colon. Second, identify at least one sentence each in which I used parentheses or a colon and rewrite those using em dashes.

How do you think the change in punctuation affects the sentence?


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Quotation Marks And Where They Belong

Trunk or BootBy and large, English is English regardless of which English-speaking country a person is from. There are, of course, various words that take on different meanings in different locations, but English grammar remains fairly constant. Quotation marks, however, are a different animal. There is more variation with use and placement of quotation marks than perhaps with any other English language guideline.

In this article, I’ll primarily deal with the American usage and placement, with an occasional note contrasting the difference with what is commonly referred to as the British style. For writers interested primarily in the latter, I refer you to The Oxford Guide to Style.

As you might expect, quotation marks are most commonly used with quoted material. In fiction this means in dialogue.

[Editor’s note: My apologies for the backwards closing quotes in the upcoming sections. Apparently if I use the code to create a red font, the quotation marks curl in the wrong direction. I decided more was gained by using the change of color than was lost by the backwards curl.]

    Example: Should I pack your blue shirt as well as the white one? she asked.

Note, there is a difference between dialogue and “indirect discourse” in which no quotation marks are required. In dialogue, the exact words of the speaker are quoted and therefore placed inside quotation marks. In indirect discourse, the speaker’s words are given in summary, rather than in the precise language he used, and therefore are not placed inside quotation marks.

    Example 1 (a line of dialogue): I’ve seen enough, he said.
    Example 2 (indirect discourse): He said he’s seen enough.

In nonfiction using quotation marks with quoted material means quoting another source in support of a point or to offer contrast to a particular view.

    Example: The author advanced his argument by saying, Act 3 begins in the next logical point on that journey.

The placement of the closing quotation mark is always after a comma or a period. Placement in regard to other punctuation marks varies based on whether the mark belongs to the sentence at large or to the quoted material. (Placement when using British English varies from these guidelines.)

    Example 1 (period always inside the closing quotation mark): She gave him an odd smile and said, I wouldn’t eat that if I were you.
    Example 2 (comma always inside the closing quotation mark): If you finish early, you may go, the teacher said with a wink.
    Example 3 (the question mark belongs to the quoted material): Her new mantra is Must you always go?
    Example 4 (the exclamation point belongs to the entire sentence): How shameful if he had to say, I can’t finish!

Quotation marks may also be used in “unspoken discourse,” commonly called interior monologue in fiction. Such discourse would also include silent prayer or telepathic conversation. When conveying any of these unspoken thoughts, the author may choose to use quotation marks or not. Note, however, that placing these in italicized type is not a standard practice according to the Chicago Manual of Style. (For more information on italicized type, see “Italics And When Not To Use Them.”)

Another common use of quotation marks is with titles of non-freestanding works such as articles in newspapers, magazines, or on blogs; individual sections of books; short stories; poems; and the individual title of an episode of a TV show.

The placement of the closing quotation mark follows the same guidelines as with other uses.

Occasionally quotation marks are required within a quotation. In that case single quotation marks, like this, are used. (Note: British style reverses the order, using a single mark predominantly and employing the double mark when needed inside a quotation.)

Example: Did Mr. McGuyre tell us to read Fog by Carl Sandburg or The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost? David whispered to the girl sitting next to him in the library.

Lastly, novelists may wonder about using quotation marks with epigrams, generally quotes from someone real or fictitious, placed before a chapter or section of the book. In this specialized use of a quote, quotation marks are not used.

Feel free to ask questions in the comments section if I didn’t cover something you’d like to know. Happy quoting. 😀


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Em Dashes Can Keep Company

I’ve looked at the basics of the em dash, commonly referred to as the dash, in “Punctuation Pitfalls–The Em Dash and Its Cousin the En Dash” and “The Ellipsis or the Em-Dash.” But I realized there’s another aspect of this handy-dandy punctuation mark that I have yet to address: how does it work with accompanying marks? Or does it?

As in so much of English grammar, the answer to the last question is, it depends. There are times the em dash should not and will never be joined with another punctuation mark, but then there are the times, it must include a companion. So which is which?

The never instances are places where the em dash replaces a comma: in complex sentences. As a refresher, a complex sentence has two clauses, or groups of words containing a subject and verb: one independent, able to stand on its own as a sentence, and one dependent, not expressing a complete thought. To review where the comma belongs in a complex sentence, see “Punctuation Pitfalls – The Comma, Part 5.”

In these complex sentences, a writer may chooses to substitute an em dash for the comma, in which case, the em dash is flying solo.

Then there are instances when it takes on passengers. Here are three:

  1. If the parenthetical information set off by em dashes is either a question or an exclamation, a question mark or an exclamation point may precede the em dash.
    Most of the politicianswho says they care?–seem to ignore the wishes of voters.
  2. If an em dash is used to indicate a sudden break in dialogue, it precedes the closing quotation mark. If the sentence continues, requiring a comma, the em dash precedes the comma.
    “Get out of my way! Get out of my–“
    “I’ve had enough of your–,” she began, but her daughter burst into tears.
  3. If the sudden break belongs to the action rather than to the dialogue, em dashes are used after and before the quotation marks to separate the dialogue from the rest of the sentence.
    “Someday you’ll be sorry,” — he poked his finger into my chest — “and don’t you forget it.”

There you have it–our em dash friend isn’t always a loner. Depending on the circumstance, he can consort with punctuation partners.


Filed under Commas, Dashes, Sentence structure

Back To The Basics: Capitalization

Texting and tweeting just might be ruining our knowledge of writing mechanics. For writers, this is a serious issue. Editors and agents want “clean” query letters and book proposals, but our ability to produce that kind of copy is being undermined by the everyday habits of informal communication.

Thus, it’s a good idea to do a basics refresher from time to time.

Today we’ll take a look at capitalization. As opposed to punctuation, few questions come up about what and how to capitalize, yet I am beginning to see more and more capitalization mistakes in my reading.

The basic capitalization rules can be summarized by two statements:

    (1) Capitalize proper names and the personal pronoun I (which is the equivalent of the name of the speaker)
    (2) Capitalize beginnings of sentences and lines of poetry.

So far so good. Now for the but-what-about‘s–what about a person’s title, what about directions, what about seasons, what about … You get the idea.

Let’s take a few of these that seem to give the most trouble.

Capitalize a person’s title when it is used as part of his or her name. Consequently, President Obama, Dr. Tragan, Queen Elizabeth, but the senator, a professor, his pastor.

Capitalize parts of the world when they are incorporated with a name. Consequently, West Coast, the Plains Indians, the Colorado River, but the bay, an inlet, our lake.

In addresses, the abbreviations of states (or provinces) are in all caps: CA, AK, MI, IL.

Words derived from proper nouns and used as a literal reference to that name are capitalized. Consequently, American bald eagle, Christian church, Republican candidate, but biblical proportions, swiss cheese, roman numeral.

Time periods are capitalized only when they are part of a name. Consequently, the Roaring Twenties, the Middle Ages, the First Dynasty, but the twenty-first century, the colonial period, the information age.

Note, seasons of the year are not specific names of a particular time period. Hence, fall, winter, spring, summer.

In the same way, a.m. and p.m. are not the names of a particular time. However, when those designations are used without the period, they are printed in small caps.

Academic subjects are capitalized only when they are derived from or form a name. Consequently, English, Philosophy 101, Beginning Archaeology, but psychology, arithmetic, social studies.

One more. Abbreviations standing for names are capitalized. Consequently, J.R.R. Tolkien, DMV, and UPS, but rpm and mpg.

Hopefully a pattern has emerged which should help the writer decide on his own whether to capitalize or not to capitalize: If the word in question is a name or part of a name, it is capitalized.

So what questions do you have about capitalization?


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Ellipses Are Punctuation Marks, Too

Somehow I seem to have bypassed the ellipsis when I covered punctuation in these writing tips, but let me assure you the ellipsis and its friendly plural relatives, the ellipses, are punctuation marks, too.

The two primary uses of the ellipsis are (1) to indicate words left out of quoted material and (2) faltering speech in dialogue.

Before we can discuss the uses, however, let’s be clear what this punctuation looks like. We’re talking about three little dots, sometimes created with space in between (the manner favored by The Chicago Manual of Style) and sometimes created by an ellipsis character with no space other than the ones separating it from the words of the sentence.

Let me illustrate. Here’s the opening paragraph from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” retold by Rohini Chowdhury:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes. He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

To quote this material but leave some portion of it out, would look like this using The Chicago Manual of Style method:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who . . . spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

Or, if using the ellipsis character, it would look like this:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who … spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

It’s important to remember that in omitting a portion of quoted material, a writer must be certain to retain the author’s original intent. In other words I could not use the ellipsis to say something like this:

    “Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who . . . thought of nothing.”

On the other hand, the writer quoting the material has some flexibility with punctuation and capitalization. For instance, a writer can start the quoted material with a capital letter and without an ellipsis even though he isn’t starting at the same place the original author did:

    There lived an Emperor who loved new clothes.

At the same time, when ending quoted material in a different place than the author, a writer can use a period rather than an ellipsis, as long as he is not changing the intent of the original:

    He loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day.

In addition, if the quote isn’t quite right, either structurally to fit into a sentence, or factually to provide the needed content, a writer can add pertinent material inside brackets, like this:

    [The Emperor] loved clothes so much that he thought of nothing else all day.

But back to the ellipsis. If the portion of the quoted material that is omitted follows a complete sentence, the period is retained, but it is snug to the word, which differentiates it from the ellipsis:

    Once, long ago, there lived an Emperor who loved new clothes…. He thought of nothing else all day and spent all his time and money in acquiring more and more, ever more beautiful clothes.

The ellipsis can also show up in dialogue in faltering speech, not to be confused with interrupted speech.

Interrupted speech:
“I don’t care what you think,” Danny shouted, “you can’t take my –” His brother slammed the door and stomped down the steps.

Faltering speech:
“Let me see.” Jill tapped a finger to her chin. “I can’t remember if I’ve . . .” She shrugged. “What did you ask?”

Notice in the last example that the quotation mark comes directly after the last dot of the ellipsis, and would do so even if the ellipsis character is used.

Those are the basics. Now you can chop up those quotes for your blog posts with integrity. And your characters can stumble over their words or forget their lines as much as you desire. 😀


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Period. End Of Subject.

Of all the punctuation marks, periods are perhaps the most basic. Chances are we learned about periods back in primary school when we first began to string words together on paper to form sentences.

Not much has changed with the period since then, but there are a few tidbits that bear review and a few uses that occur only on occasion, so they might need clarification.

First, the basic function of the period is to end a statement or a command. However, in less formal writing and in fiction, incomplete sentences have become an accepted part of writing. These too end with a period. One popular (and annoying) (over)use along these lines is a string of single word “sentences,” each followed with a period.

    Example: Heat flushed her face. “I. Did. Not. Say. You. Could. Leave.

The forced stop which the period creates is actually an effective way to create clipped speech. However, like so many new creations, many rush to imitate and the sheer volume renders what had been fresh and innovative, tired and cliched.

I suggest writers moderate their use of this unique construction. Save it for the right moment when no other way can capture the irritation your character feels.

Questions sometimes arise concerning placement of periods. When used with quotation marks, Chicago Manual Of Style places them inside a closing quotation mark. Always. (OK, I just couldn’t resist — sorry. 😉 But while I was teasing with the single word construction, I am serious about the fact that the period always belongs inside the closing quotation mark.)

A similar question arises regarding periods and parentheses. The placement here is not as rigid. When a parenthetical expression enclosed in parentheses ends a sentence, the period belongs outside the closing parenthesis. If the parenthetical material is an entire sentence, however, and appears after another completed sentence, the period belongs with the parenthetical sentence and therefore goes inside the final parenthesis.


    * My brother is a lawyer (and he’s the best). [The parenthetical material appears as part of the existing sentence, so the period belongs to the sentence and goes at the end.]

    * He practices law in Los Angeles. (Eventually he hopes to join the district attorney’s office.) [The parenthetical material is a separate sentence, so the period belongs to the material inside the parentheses and is also placed there.]

The next most common use of the period is in abbreviations. Again using Chicago Manual Of Style, the rule is to omit the period for abbreviations all in capitals but to use a period after lower case abbreviations. By the way, should an abbreviation requiring a period end a sentence, you do not then add another period. The one does double duty.

    * vs.
    * a.m.
    * esp.
    * CEO
    * AARP
    * ACLU
    * NASA

When given names are abbreviated, a period always follows the capitalized letter.

    * C. S. Lewis
    * J. K. Rowling
    * J. R. R. Tolkien
    * G. K. Chersterton

As you might guess, there are numerous exceptions for specialty situations, so if in doubt, check a style manual or ask your nearest editor. 😀


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Italics And When Not To Use Them

Some writers, in particular, novelists, become “italics happy.” Once they’ve discovered the slanty writing, it’s as if they’ve struck it rich. More accurately, they have stumbled on fools gold. Using italics in fiction or non-fiction is much more specialized and a lot rarer — or should be — than many know.

Don’t get me wrong. Italics do have their purposes. Here are their major legitimate uses.

First, italicize a foreign word or phrase used in isolation. If an expression comes up frequently, only its first use needs to be italicized.

In my fantasy series, The Lore Of Efrathah, for instance, I use a number of “foreign” words (actually words of an imaginary language), and some are repeated throughout. Consequently, on their introduction, I put the words in italics, but thereafter they appear in regular roman type. Here’s an example from Book 1, Hunted, with a little extra so you can see in context what the word means:

Alán!” Eljosh cried. “Bring him alán!”

Those close to Mikkán moved back to make room for a light-haired council member rushing forward. From a pouch at his side, he yanked out a pinch of dried leaves, then grasped Mikkán’s forearm and crushed the leaves into a powder he sprinkled over the burn.

A second legitimate use of italics, more common in non-fiction, is to set off a word used as a word rather than as that which it means.

For example, someone may ask, “Do we capitalize president?”

In such an instance, the writer is referring to the word “president,” and not the person which such a word represents. The proper way to punctuate that sentence would be to italicize president, as I did here because I too was using the word as a word.

A similar use of italics exists for individual letters used as letters, with the exception of letters used for grades. Here’s an example:

    I often mistakenly type b when I mean to type p.

A fourth use of italics is for titles of “free standing” works such as books, magazines, movies, the name of a TV series, plays, and so forth. Consequently,

    I read an article in Time magazine entitled “Go For The Gold.”

Other titles that are set in italics are art works, formally titled art exhibitions, and photographs. Specific names of ships, planes, and trains (but not names of their makes, classes, or models) are also italicized.

One last legitimate use of italics in general writing (there are others in specialty publications such as scientific journals when writing about genes or genuses): Italics may be used sparingly for emphasis. From Chicago Manual Of Style:

Overused, italics quickly lose their force. Seldom should as much as a sentence be italicized for emphasis and never an entire passage (7.49, 15th edition).

Along this line, in non-fiction a key term may be italicized on its first occurrence to draw attention to itself. From that point on, it would be set in roman type.

Fiction writers may think I’ve left off one of the most significant uses of italics: when writing interior monologue. Not so. I haven’t left it off because interior monologue, or what Chicago terms “unspoken discourse” (which would include silent prayer) does not require italics. Instead, quotation marks are used, or no identifying punctuation at all.

Here’s another example from Hunted:

Jonathan crossed to the alcove. “I know you must be disappointed.”

Without looking up, Jim nodded. “Disappointed” was the G-rated version of what he was feeling, but could anyone blame him for a twinge of despair? He might never see his parents again, might not reconnect with his sister or teach his hero-worshiping nephews, Matt and Allen, his signature crossover dribble and stop-on-a-dime jump shot.

There you have it. Italics ought to be rare nuggets, not flashy baubles too common to do any good. Authors, use them sparingly.

– – – – –
If this article was helpful, you might also be interested in “Quotation Marks And Where They Belong.”


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Exclamations And Their Points

When I first started writing full time, I received a shock: all that I knew about punctuation wasn’t necessarily so. As an English teacher, I had approached punctuation in a clinical, analytical, black-and-white manner. There was a right way, called “standard” in the textbook, and a wrong way, referred to as “nonstandard.”

Then I discovered that writers working for newspapers used a different “style book” (and what was a “style book,” I wondered) from the one schools typically used. Fiction editors favored a third different style book. According to those guides, the “right” way wasn’t always right.

For example, from different writing instruction books such as Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King I learned that the fiction style books discouraged the use of the exclamation point. Discouraged it!

When I began my work as an editor, with the latest and greatest style book recommended for fiction, The Chicago Manual of Style, Fifteenth Edition, I found this statement about exclamation points: “An exclamation point (which should be used sparingly to be effective) marks an outcry or an emphatic or ironic comment” (6.76, emphasis mine).

The craft books explained the rationale. A good fiction writer chose words that conveyed emotion and didn’t need to rely on punctuation to tell the reader how to interpret the text.

I filed this piece of information away and proceeded to stop using exclamation points. Until one day I received a comment from a critique partner about the matter. My dialogue, she said, indicated great emotion, but the use of a comma instead of an exclamation point seemed to contradict the words.

She was right, I realized.

When in the writing world, I wondered, did “use sparingly” become “never use”?

Imagine my happiness when The Chicago Manual of Style tweeted the link to an article about the use of exclamation points: “The exclamation point revisited”. The author of this Chicago Tribune opinion piece, Nancy E. Anderson, experienced a similar exclamation-point journey to mine and has now made peace with its use, at least in more informal communication formats such as email.

I agree with Ms. Anderson and even think exclamation points may have a purpose in blog posts or comments. But one thing I’d like to hold to—that exclamation points don’t come in multiples (!!!), especially in fiction, even in YA fiction in which the characters and the readers might not be over fifteen (see the article mentioned above for the context to fully appreciate that line 😉 ).


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New Chicago Rules – Capitalization

A month ago I went over some of the punctuation rule changes listed in the latest edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, the preferred guide for fiction and for much commercial non-fiction.

There are some notable capitalization changes too.

1. Rather than capitalizing “web” Chicago now prefers the use of the lowercase for web, website, web page, and so on. However, World Wide Web is still capitalized, as is Internet.

2. Southern California has long been recognized as a particular region, requiring a capital S. In this new edition of Chicago, Northern California is now recognized in the same way, and therefore needs a capital N.

3. In proper nouns which include a general noun (Washington Blvd., Colorado River, the Rocky Mountains), the general noun is also capitalized. However, in the fifteenth edition of Chicago, that changed if the general noun was plural. No more. Now in the sixteenth edition, even general nouns that are plural are capitalized. For example, the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans (rather than Atlantic and Pacific oceans), Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, and Greenleaf and Whittier Avenues.

4. Brand names beginning with a lowercase letter, such as iPad, should now remain as is, even when beginning a sentence.

Example: iPads come in several sizes.

5. Capitalizing titles using headline style.

a. Capitalize the second element in a hyphenated number such as Twenty-Two, Fifty-One, or Eighty-Six.

b. Capitalize even the “short or unstressed” words; in other words, capitalize the articles a, an, the and all prepositions.

I admit this one makes a lot of sense. Uniformity is easier to remember and at least some word processing programs already make this sweeping capitalization in “title mode.” For me, however, it takes some getting used to. I often remember the new rule when I title my blog posts, for instance, then revert back to old habits when writing the content.

c. When a title includes quoted material, those words are now capitalized headline style, just like the rest of the title.

That’s it, I think. But I recommend becoming a fan of the Chicago Facebook page where you can receive brief rules tips regularly.

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New Chicago Rules

The Chicago Manual of Style, used widely by fiction writers and editors and by many working with non-fiction, recently came out with their newest edition—number sixteen.

The hardback guide isn’t cheap, though Amazon has reduced the price to something more manageable. However, an alternative to buying the book might be to access the online edition. The yearly individual subscription fee is still cheaper than the incredible Amazon discount (but then you won’t own the book).

As part of the freebies offered at the CMoS web site is a list of the most significant changes that occur in the sixteenth edition. Some affect authors preparing a manuscript for publication (others pertain more to Internet writing, magazine writing, or scholarly journals), so I plan to review those over the next few posts.

Today I’ll address punctuation changes.

1. Punctuation after a title. Most titles don’t contain end punctuation, but when a question mark or exclamation point comes at the end of a title, CMoS, edition sixteen, says essentially to ignore it and put whatever other punctuation the sentence requires in addition to the end mark contained in the title.

    Previously: His book, Are You Sure? was on the best-seller list for a month.

    Change: His book, Are You Sure?, was on the best-seller list for a month.

2. The use of the apostrophe in a “specialty plural.” I’m terming the plural of a word or phrase in quotation marks a “specialty plural.” The old rule said to use an apostrophe and add s to make such words or phrases plural. The new rule does away with the apostrophe.

    Previously: How many “specialty plurals” did she use?

    Change: How many “specialty plurals” did she use?

3. The use of an apostrophe when forming a possessive of a name ending in s though it is not pronounced. The changed rule says to form the possessive in the same way that possessives for other singular nouns are formed—by adding an apostrophe and s.

    Previously: Albert Camus’ novels expressed his philosophical views. (This punctuation was an option).

    Change: Albert Camus‘s novels expressed his philosophical views.

4. The use of an apostrophe when forming a possessive of a name ending with an “eez” sound. The rule change says to add an apostrophe and s in the usual way.

    Previously: Xerxes’ reputation preceded him.

    Change: Xerxes‘s reputation preceded him.

5. The use of a hyphen in a color compound before a noun. Like other compound adjectives, color words must now be hyphenated.

    Previously: The emerald green water was cool and inviting.

    Change: The emeraldgreen water was cool and inviting.

There are a couple specialty punctuation changes, too, but these are the ones a novelist or an author of commercial non-fiction will most likely need.


Filed under Punctuation, Resources, Writing Rules