I originally wrote this article for myself alone. It served as my way of learning the rules of language.
The fact that it got some attention mostly bothers me, to be honest, as I wasn’t intending for this to become some sort of authoritative source by any means. I worry this might be the case for a few, which I’m ashamed of as it was nothing more than practice and play for a literary child.
Reading through the comments makes two things clear: little, some, much, most of what is here is wrong. Secondly, what is right and what is wrong is subjective.
You would be much better off finding a much more substantial and educated opinion -– might I suggest The Elements of Style by Strunk & White? The Maira Kalman illustrated edition is quite lovely.
When you know the correct way to structure a sentence, the world becomes a scary place — you start to notice how many people get it painfully wrong. The ease of content creation that the web now affords us is making the problem worse, so why not get a basic understanding to help make your text a little more professional?
Before we get into this, let’s establish two things.
- A lot of these ‘rules’ are different country to country, decade to decade.
The way a proof reader or typesetter might lay out a page in Britain is different to how it might be done in America. How it’s done in 1985 is different than how it might be done in 2005. The styles of typesetting can change over time and throughout different regions.
- Always be consistent, even if it might not be ‘correct’.
Some companies will have certain ways they layout text, even if it might be considered wrong for their geographic location. But they are consistent with how they lay their text out and that is the most important thing. You don’t want your audience to get half way through a piece of text and get confused because you changed the way you laid something out.
Never use them. Ever. Your high-school teacher was wrong, don’t ever use them.
An apostrophe is inserted when letters are removed.
Let’s go to the race. (Let us go to the race.)
It’s going to be a great day. (It is going to be a great day.)
The other use of the apostrophe is to show ownership.
The runner’s shoes.
Mayor Swanks’ opening speech.
Tip: If the last letter of the owners name ends in s, place the apostrophe on the end without adding the extra s.
Ah the lovely comma. A comma can help you set the pace of your text, but don’t go crazy.
He ran faster and faster, faster still, his muscles burnt, his face dripped.
Is more interesting than:
He ran faster and faster. His muscles burnt and his face dripped.
There are also a few rules when using a comma:
- Use it to divide items in a list (of three or four items), when in a run-on sentence.
- Use with and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.
She ran as fast as her body would let her, yet it wasn’t enough.
- Use to separate contrasting parts of a sentence.
She felt she couldn’t summon the energy to run the fastest, she was wrong.
- Use in a similar way to parenthesis, but when you don’t want to break the flow.
She smashed her feet on the pavement, not realising the damage she was doing, in an effort to win.
This can be a problem on the web, as apparently the ‘enter’ key is a little hard to find. We’ve all seen those sites, where someone posts an article that isn’t broken into paragraphs correctly. The problem with this is that your text needs to breathe, flow well and look smooth – a lot of this is achieved by well spaced paragraphs. A couple of simple guidelines:
- Stick to around 5 sentences
The reality is that you can have as many sentences in a paragraph that you feel is needed to get your point across, but for arguments sake, let’s save five or six is somewhat of a limit.
- Keep each paragraph topical and relative.
Don’t make two distinct points in one long paragraph when two short ones will work better.
The British will use single quotes, then double quotes, when there is a quote within a quote.
‘I can’t forget I “can run as fast as lightning” for as long as I need’ Samantha told herself.
While the Americans will do this the other way around.
“I can’t forget I ‘can run as fast as lightning’ for as long as I need” Samantha told herself.
The British idea is that single quote marks are less obtrusive, the American idea is that double quotation marks are more noticeable. So really, they have their preference for the exact same reason. However, as I am an Australian, I go by the British standard of singles first.
Punctuation in Quotes
If the question mark, full stop or any other punctuation is part of the quote, then include it within the quotation marks.
He raised an eyebrow and scoffed, “Did you hear that Samantha is ‘going to run me into the ground’ at today’s race?”
If the quote is part of a sentence, and the punctuation isn’t part of the quote, then keep the punctuation on the outside.
To think, he thought he could win, he even went as far as to say ‘you aren’t even a blip on my radar’, in that cocky I’m-a-prick tone of his.
If the whole sentence is a quote, then keep the punctuation inside of the marks.
‘I won, I won, I won, even with this athletes foot, I won! Whooo!’
Hyphens & Dashes
There is a difference here and this is probably the thing most people get wrong on the web.
The hyphen is essentially used to join two words together, without space on either side.
Dashes are different. There is either the en dash or the em dash. An en dash will be the width of the capital N in any given font, while the em dash is the width of a capital M in said font, and they both have different usages.
Em Dash (in HTML:
You would use an em dash instead of a comma or brackets as it helps give emphasis and is the typographical equivalent of the dun-dun-da music. Just make sure you never have space on either side of an em dash.
The race was almost over—but it was only really beginning for Sam.
The race was almost over—it has been a hard hour for all—and it was only down to a few contenders.
En Dash (in HTML:
The en dash is used between a range of numbers, while kept closed, and is best used when the span is part of a list.
1—5 runners are expected to fail.
10—25 runners will be hurt.
However, if the span is part of running prose, then it’s generally nicer (phonetically and typographically) to use from and to, but use your own judgement on this.
One to five runners are expected to fail.
The mini-Olympics will run from the 29th until the 30th.
The temperature is expected to have a top of 20—25 degrees on the day of the race.
Another use of the en dash is when you want to offset a phrase, but without the sudden hit of an em dash. Use it with a space either side.
Winning a race can be very hard work – I knew I could do it.
Tip: An easy way to easily insert the correct dashes into your writing, if using a CMS or something similar is to type out — for en dashes, or — for em dashes. Then perform a find and replace and presto, you’re done.
This is nice and easy – numbers up to ten are typed in full, 11 and beyond are numerical. However, sometimes it’s nicer to spell them out.
Runners eight and 17 broke their legs.
The first place winner won two million dollars, second place received $158.
There you have it! A quick list on how to use some basic grammar that will set you apart from most schlumps who don’t know their ems from their ens. This list is quite basic and isn’t enough for perfect writing, but it’s enough to make you look like you actually care about your content, and you do care, don’t you? Yeah, that’s what I thought. The two books I used for guides, both of which you should already own or pick up eight copies of each of were;
Type it Write. A Voice project.
The Elements of Typographic Style – Robert Bringhurst.
I’m willing to bet you own the second book, or currently waiting for it to arrive (seriously, this thing is the typographic bible), but the first may be a little obscure to some of you. It’s a small book that was put together by the Voice group from Adelaide, Australia. It’s an awfully handy little thing and well worth grabbing a copy, whenever you see it.
29/08/2008 – A very special thank-you to those in the comments for letting me, and anyone else who is reading this article, know of the mistakes originally made. It is greatly appreciated!