When and When Not to Put a Comma Before an And

CommaDo you know when to put a comma in front of an and in a sentence?

There are several grammatical rules that apply in that situation. Some rules dictate using the comma, other rules dictate not using a comma.

In The Series Comma, I wrote about the rules involved when using and in a series of items. This article is about another common problem I see when editing people’s writing.
Here are two examples:

  1. I carried my ladder out of the garage, and I climbed the ladder to get on the roof.
  2. I carried my ladder out of the garage and climbed the ladder to get on the roof.

See the difference?

The Comma with Independent Clauses

The first example has two independent clauses joined by the conjunction and. An independent clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate and makes sense when it stands by itself. A conjunction is word such as and, or, and so that unites parts of a sentence.

The first example follows the rule of putting a comma in front of a conjunction when the conjunction is linking two independent clauses. You can tell both clauses are independent by removing the conjunction and seeing whether each sentence makes sense on its own.

“I carried the ladder out of the garage.”

“I climbed the ladder to get on the roof.”

Both of the sentences above make perfect sense by themselves, so the comma is correct. Using the comma tells the reader “You just read one complete sentence, and I’m using and to join another complete sentence to this one.”

The Comma with a Phrase

Although the second sentence in the example looks like the first, there’s a big difference. The words after the and aren’t a clause, they’re a phrase. A phrase is a group of words that does not contain a subject and a predicate.

Let’s remove the conjunction again and try each part of the second example as a separate sentence.

“I carried the ladder out of the garage.”

“Climbed the ladder to get on the roof.”

When the two parts are separated you can easily see the first sentence is an independent clause. It makes perfect sense by itself.

The second part, however, doesn’t make sense because it’s missing a subject. The sentence doesn’t say who climbed the ladder.

Not using the comma in the second example tells the readers, “You just read one sentence, and I’m telling you more about what the subject of that sentence did.”

Sometimes whether to use the comma in front of a conjunction is difficult to see. Just remember to break the sentence apart where the conjunction is and determine whether each part is a clause or a phrase. If both parts are clauses, use the comma in front of the conjunction. If one part is a phrase, don’t use the comma.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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Three Types of Editors and When to Use Each

We all make mistakesWe all make mistakes. Mistakes in writing, however, can cause major problems. While it’s the job of editors to find and correct those mistakes, did you know different kinds of editors look for different kinds of mistakes?

People often confuse one kind of editor with another and don’t realize the differences. This post gives a brief overview of three very common kinds of editors, what they do, and when is the best time to use each one.

Developmental Editors

Would you be surprised to learn there’s a kind of editor who “edits” your work before you even write your first word? If you’re writing a book or a series of smaller items like white papers, guides, or even blog posts, you might want to talk with a development editor.

A development editor can help you determine

  • What topic to write about
  • What kind and how much information should be gathered
  • How much information should be presented
  • How the information should be arranged

These editors don’t edit words so much as ideas and the development of those ideas. They help authors create and structure outlines so material is presented in a logical fashion. They also help authors use language appropriate to the intended audience.

The best time to use a developmental editor is at the beginning of your writing project. Their ideas and suggestions can save authors a lot of time and effort during the planning, research, writing, and editing stages.

Most often, however, a developmental editor is called in when the author has finished the first draft and the publisher decides the manuscript is worth publishing, but needs extensive reorganization and rewriting.

In this latter case, the development editor analyzes the manuscript and works with the author to restructure and rewrite the work. One thing most developmental editors do not do is write content, at least not without an agreement with the author or publisher. Once a developmental editor begins writing prose, they become a co-author or ghostwriter.

Copy Editors

When people think of editors, they most often think of copy editors. These editors edit writing to clean up any and all writing mistakes and make the writing more effective.

There are two kinds of copy-editing: substantive (sometimes called heavy editing) and mechanical (sometimes called light editing).

Substantive editing includes rearranging and deleting sections of text, suggesting new sections or paragraphs be written, suggesting (or even rewriting) changes to the document’s section headings, and ensuring a consistent and appropriate tone. Developmental editors and copy-editors doing substantive edit are doing similar work. The difference is that development editors work on the ideas and structure of the document before the text is written, while substantive editing is done on already written material.

Mechanical editing is the most basic kind of editing. It focuses on grammar, spelling, word choice, punctuation, and formatting. At this level the editor is looking at individual sentences to ensure they make sense and won’t confuse readers. Making sure numbered graphics like illustrations and tables are properly numbered, internal references are correct (e.g., see section 4), words are used consistently, and facts are checked are part of mechanical editing.

Proofreaders

Proofreaders are a special kind of editor. For those outside the writing industry, proofreading and copy-editing are often used interchangeably. There’s actually a difference. Copy-editors edit the author’s words, proofreaders edit the proof.

What’s a proof? The proof is the final version of the document before it’s published. In the print world, the proof is created by the printer using the final version of the manuscript. The proofreader compares the final manuscript version to the proof to ensure a problem wasn’t introduced during the printing process. Some of the things proofreaders check is that lines of text aren’t accidently dropped from pages, page numbers and references to page numbers are still accurate, and words are hyphenated correctly.

The Clash of Editors

It’s ironic that while the number one goal of editing is ensuring meaning is clearly communicated, there is often disagreement about what to call the different kinds of editing, the work each kind encompasses, which editing rules should be followed, and how much rewriting editors are allowed to do on their own. So while the topic of editing seems pretty straightforward, it’s actually a cauldron of clashing ideas. If you want to hire a professional editor, be sure you talk about and agree on what kind and extent of editing is to be done.

Sometimes even professional editors have different definitions for the terms used here. Some use developmental editor and substantive editor interchangeably. You may ask a copy editor to edit your work and be surprised he or she did mechanical editing when you expected substantive editing.

About Writing Jim

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers is a freelance writer and editor. He helps small business owners use writing more effectively. His clients gain sales by him improving their marketing content. His clients reduce costs by him writing guides that help them systematize their business and remove employee confusion and misunderstanding. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For help with your print or online content (either writing or editing) or help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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The Ins or Outs of Ending Punctuation with Quotation Marks

Quotations-2Sometimes quotation marks at the end of a sentence are a problem. Do you put the period, question mark, or exclamation point inside or outside the quotation mark?

Like many rules of punctuation, the answer depends on what meaning you want to convey.

Periods

For periods the answer is somewhat arbitrary and depends on which style you follow. If you follow American style, the answer is the period almost always goes inside the quotation mark.

Clarice didn’t tell Rudolph he looked “sick.”

If you follow British rules the answer is the period always goes outside the quotation mark.

Clarice didn’t tell Rudolph he looked “sick.”

There are a few exceptions, however to American style. One exception is that if the quoted material is the title of something, the period goes outside the quotation mark.

John finished reading “War and Peace”.

Another is if you are using the quotation marks for emphasis. In this case, the Chicago Manual of Style recommends following the British convention of placing the period outside the ending quotation mark. But the Associated Press Stylebook recommends placing the period inside the ending quotation mark. See Using Quotation Marks for Emphasis for more information.

Question Marks and Exclamation Points

For question marks and exclamation points, the answer depends on whether the quotation or the sentence containing the quotation is a question or exclamation. If the quotation marks enclose a question or exclamation, the question mark or exclamation point goes inside the quotation mark.

1. The police officer asked, “Where were you last Thursday night?”
2. The police officer shouted, “Stop thief!”

But if the entire sentence is an question or exclamation, the ending punctuation goes outside the quotation mark.

3.  Did the police officer really ask, “Where were you last Thursday night”?
4. How dare you tell me, “I didn’t hear you shout, ‘Stop this instant’ “!

Notice the two sentences above weren’t written this way:

5. Did the police officer really ask, “Where were you last Thursday night?”?
6. How dare you tell me, “I didn’t hear you shout, ‘Stop this instant!’ “!

Why not? The reason is to avoid confusing the reader with unnecessary punctuation. Both 3 and 5 convey the same information, but 5 causes the reader to stop and decipher the odd ending punctuation. The same with 4 and 6.

If the tone of the quotation and sentence differ, however, each must have its own appropriate ending punctuation.

7. Are you sure the police officer shouted, “Stop thief!”?
8. I’m quite sure the police offer didn’t ask, “Stop thief?”!

Example 7 indicates a question, while example 8 indicates an indignant tone.

Hopefully this article has helped clarify how to use ending punctuation with quotation marks for you. For addition comments about quotation marks, see “Two Uses for Quotation Marks.”

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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Write Like a Second Grader

At School We LearnHow do second graders write? They use small words and short sentences. Writers who want their writing read and understood should do the same. In fact, one of the simplest ways to make your writing more understandable is to use small words and short sentences. Notice I said simplest, not easiest.

Especially for writers in the business world, using multi-syllable buzz words like leverage, synergy, and multifunctional and long, complex sentences seem to be a kind of safety blanket. Perhaps using big words and long sentences make people who are unsure of their writing ability feel professional. It may make them feel professional, but it makes their readers feel sleepy.

The purpose of writing is to convey information. In fiction writing the information conveyed creates a story in the reader’s mind. In non-fiction writing the information is meant to inform, persuade, or give direction. But if readers don’t read or understand the information, the information is lost like smoke signals in a storm.

One of the most basic of business writing skills is to exchange impressive yet ambiguous buzz words for common, well-understood words and chop long, complex sentences into shorter, simpler sentences. Writing short sentences improves communication in these three ways: improved reader engagement, increased reader comprehension, and prolonged reader interest.

Engage Readers

Hello. Take my hand and follow me. One of the simplest writing techniques to arouse interest is to start with one or more short sentences. This technique is especially popular with copywriters. If advertising and other copywriting doesn’t immediately capture the reader’s interest, the reader won’t read past the first sentence. Engaging the reader is so important, copywriting guru Joseph Sugerman said that was the first sentence’s only purpose: to get the reader to read the second sentence. In fact the only purpose of the lead paragraph (sometimes called the lede within the journalism industry) is to get the reader on a “slippery slope” that carries them through the rest of the copy and ends with some kind of call to action.

Increase Reader Comprehension

Do you want readers to understand your writing? Unless you’re a spy or writing a very private diary, I assume the answer is yes. If so using short sentences will help you to more clearly convey your intended meaning to your readers.

A short, simple sentence is big enough to clearly communicate only one idea. Compound sentences, with multiple subjects and predicates, and complex sentences, with one or more subordinate clauses, are information rich, and they require readers to expend extra effort to parse out the ideas and make sense of them.

Want an example? Compare the two sentences in the preceding paragraph. The first sentence was easy to understand. In the second sentence, however, I bet you slowed down and had to think about the information a bit before it made sense.

Adding more information to a sentence increases its word length and information density. As the length and density go up, so does the effort required from the reader to pick apart the information and understand how the ideas within the sentence relate to each other and the surrounding sentences.

Keep Readers Engaged

Don’t only use short sentences. Unless you’re writing for young children. It’s choppy. It creates impatience. It insults your readers, so don’t do it. (Previous sentences written for illustrative purpose only; no insult intended.) Once you’ve gotten your reader’s attention, keep that attention focused on what you’re communicating. Don’t let that attention wander to the style and techniques used to put the words together. Wandering attention leads to confusion which leads to your reader leaving. Good writing–business writing, anyway–doesn’t call attention to itself.

One of the easiest ways to keep readers engaged is to vary the length of sentences you write. Using a mixture of short and long sentences creates a nice variation in rhythm. Using only short sentences creates a staccato hammering on the reader’s inner ear. At the other extreme, using only long sentences exhausts the reader as he or she struggles to understand the sentence as described above. It also creates the monotonous sound of the high school teacher who put everyone to sleep. Short sentences punctuate meaning with bursts of clarity and give readers’ comprehension a chance to catch up.

In Summary

If you’ve been worried that using short sentences makes your writing look unprofessional or juvenile, I hope I’ve laid those fears to rest. Using short sentences helps you capture your readers’ attention, and a mixture of short and long sentences helps keep readers interested in your content. Using short sentences is also an excellent way to clearly convey key information. Using short sentences improves communication. Isn’t that a big part of being professional?

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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The Bubble of Parentheses

Like bubbles, parentheses have a wonderful curve to them. Perhaps that curve is what led to the primary use of parentheses—setting off information by wrapping it within a typographic bubble.

Parentheses are not the only punctuation mark used for enclosing ancillary information. According to the Chicago Manual of Style, commas can be used to enclose words that provide extra, but unnecessary, information. For example,

Historians have come to believe that Vikings, medieval Norse, were the first Europeans to discover North America.

But for words that you really want to set off, either because they will be interesting to only a few readers or will be jarring to many readers, Chicago recommends using parentheses. Readers understand they can ignore the contents within the parentheses and still get all the information they need to know.

The Associated Press Style Book (another gold standard style book of publishing), on the other hand, states “Parentheses are jarring to readers. Because they do not appear on some news service printers, there is also the danger that material inside them may be misinterpreted.”

Why does one style guide recommend using parentheses to avoid jarring readers and the other guide recommends the opposite for the same reason? I don’t know. What I do know is that parentheses are sometimes useful, sometimes overused, and sometimes used incorrectly. This article will  help you in knowing when to use these handy punctuation tools.

When Parentheses are Useful

Because commas are used for so many purposes, it’s sometimes helpful in complex sentences to exchange a pair of commas containing ancillary information and replace them with parentheses. Doing so helps readers navigate through a sentence, like this one, and understand what’s critical (and what’s not critical) to know.

Sometimes a writer wants to include information not grammatically connected with the rest of the sentence and wants to avoid giving readers a grammatical slap to the head. Want an example? Imagine you’re reading a paper on chemistry. Which of the two sentences below more adroitly conveys its information?

  • The ancient Greeks’ belief in four elements Fire, Earth, Air, and Water influenced alchemists from ancient times through to the Renaissance.
  • The ancient Greeks’ belief in four elements (Fire, Earth, Air, and Water) influenced alchemists from ancient times through to the Renaissance.

Did you notice a slight mental hiccup while reading the first sentence? You probably had to pause and sort through word combinations before you were able to equate four elements to Fire, Earth, Air, and Water. In the second sentence, the parentheses automatically indicated the named elements were separate from the rest of the sentence.

When Parentheses are Overused

While parentheses have the ability to signal readers the enclosed information is optional, considerate writers will not fill their sentences and paragraphs with unnecessary information. For example,

This paragraph (written to illustrate a point) uses parentheses correctly. But even using parentheses to enclose optional material (here’s more parenthetical information) still requires the reader to work a little (not much, but a little) more to keep sense of the information presented. Readers who have ever braided hair (macrame or rope) know it’s harder to keep the weave correct as more and more strands are added to the pattern.

Having to read around the word bubbles is a bit like having a conversation with someone who keeps going off on tangents when you just want to understand the main point. If you want to continually show off your knowledge, use footnotes or similar techniques to direct readers to where the extra information can be found. A little restraint in the main body of text will help you convey your points more clearly to your readers.

When Parentheses are Used Incorrectly

The most common misuse of parentheses that I see is at the end of sentences. Luckily it’s not hard to properly place the ending parenthesis (note the spelling change) once you know these two rules:

  • If the parentheses enclose only some of the words in the sentence, then the ending mark goes outside of ending parenthesis. You want to indicate the end of the entire sentence (not just the end of the extra information).
  • If the parentheses enclose the entire sentence or span across multiple sentences, then the ending mark goes inside the ending parenthesis. (You’re basically putting a bubble around the entire thing.)

I hope this post has given you some helpful tips on using parentheses in your own writing. The Chicago Manual of Style, which is my preferred main style guide, does recommend other uses for parentheses. Using them to set off information, however, is by far their most common use in business writing.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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How to Get More Time as a Business Owner

Three businessmen passing juggling clubs to a fourth

Three businessmen passing juggling clubs to a fourth

Do you know how to get more time in your day? I know several ways, but one way slapped me upside the head so hard my ears are still ringing.

I’m relating this story from personal experience and with more than a little chagrin. It’s a humbling experience to realize just how much I should be taking my own time management advice. Although as many “time management” experts point out, you can’t really manage time. It ticks by second by second, and there’s nothing we can really do to change how fast those seconds tick by.

What we can do is manage the activities we spend those seconds on. We can decide NOT to do activities. We can prioritize activities. We can delegate activities. The last is my favorite suggestion. As a freelance writer satisfying the written communication needs of business owners, I offer several benefits to my clients. One of the most important is that by delegating writing tasks to me, they gain the time they otherwise would spend writing their own marketing copy and documenting their business processes.

Good writing takes a lot of time. When my clients delegate their writing projects to me, they gain time to work on other activities. But notice I said writing. Not working with numbers.

I’m a very good writer. Alas, working with numbers, especially in areas beyond basic math, is not one of my strengths. I managed to pass algebra and geometry in high school, but not counting a college minor in statistics, that was as far as I got in math. Why I enjoyed working with statistics I don’t know. What I do know is that filling numbers into existing formulas is a lot different than rearranging the variables within those formulas.

So there I was at my office desk a few days ago, trying to remember how to rearrange the variables in a very basic algebra problem. I couldn’t do it. Even after devoting two hours of patient, logical thinking to the problem. I needed to plug the formula into a spreadsheet I was working on.

There comes a time, however, when the light bulb brightens in even the most patient–i.e., obstinate—individual. I decided to follow my own advice and delegate my task to someone much better at algebra than me. My wife.

After dinner I asked my wife for help. In five minutes she solved the algebra problem I’d been struggling with for 120 minutes. Delegate activities you’re not good at. Now I need to see a hearing doctor about my ringing ears!

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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Fold Your Business Card to Improve Your Marketing

In a recent networking meeting I met Lisa Grey of Step 1. Lisa provides concierge, professional, and administrative help to small business owners. She said she’d seen my business card on the desks of several of her clients and was curious to meet me. I inwardly gave myself a high-five. Over the last two or three years I’ve made networking my primary marketing tool. It’s gratifying to know my business cards are out there and getting noticed.

Later, I began wondering whether the shape of my card made it so notable. It’s not a standard business card—it’s a fold-over card.

The Business Card That Stands Up
Bus Card Front

A fold-over business card is the same size as a standard card but twice the thickness. The top of the card is a fold that when opened doubles the size of the card. My experience is that fold-over cards rarely lie flat. The fact that they pop up like a tent is actually an advantage. They garner more attention that way.

The marketing guru Jay Conrad Levinson devoted a couple pages to talk about business cards in his book, Guerrilla Marketing Weapons: 100 Affordable Marketing Methods for Maximizing Profits from Your Small Business. He wrote

These days, you can employ fold-over business cards; the front has the old-fashioned information, and the rest is like a mini-brochure. People appreciate having complete information right on one small item along with the convenience of a business card.

His book was published in 1990 and his comments about the mini-brochure capability of the business card are as true now as they were then. The front of my business card has my business name, logo, tagline, and contact information. The old-fashioned information as Levinson puts it. Since I deal often deal with middle-aged networking partners, I decided to make the text large so it’s easy for older eyes to read it.

The Golden Space Inside

Bus Card InsideWhen a standard size,  fold-over business card is opened up you get a page that’s 3.5″ wide and 4″ tall. While it’s true that’s not a lot of space, to a creative marketing person that space is a golden opportunity. It can be used to highlight the person’s or the company’s background information; talk about potential business opportunities, products, or services; provide space for illustrations or photos; pretty much whatever you want to convey.

Because business networking is a big part of my marketing, I decided to place my standard elevator talk on the inside. That way my card not only conveys important information about me, the inside copy becomes a mini portfolio piece of my copywriting skill.

Don’t Forget the Back

Most business cards only use the front side to convey information. That makes the back side a wasted marketing opportunity. Some enlightened individuals and companies put an appointment form or QR code on the back side of the card. Good ideas. Numbered/bulleted lists, taglines, or inspirational quotations are other possibilities. Want to leave the space empty for notes? That’s fine, if that’s your intent. Just remember the space is available.

Bus Card BackOn the back of my business card is this statement, “I believe in helping clients through networking with power partners. If you know any of these professionals, please introduce us.” I then list some of my best power partners, such as business coaches and web designers.

(What’s a power partner? It’s a special kind of referral partner. Since the term is unfamiliar even to some experienced networkers, I defined it on the card: professionals who have the same kind of clients, but don’t do the same kind of work.)

Why that statement? I wanted to capitalize on these two benefits of networking:

  • I want to develop relationships to people who have complementary services to mine. I like to offer my clients several people they can contact or consider hiring for services I don’t offer, such as business law advice or graphic design. That way I become a greater resource to my clients.
  • It helps me connect with people who have clients who might want my services. No business owner is good at everything. If the business owner already recognizes it’s prudent to hire my referrer, they may be willing to hire me to help with their copywriting or copy-editing needs.

I love how networking creates a win-win-win situation for the client and both power partners.

The Networking Advantages of Fold-Over Business Cards

Several referral partners of mine were impressed when they first saw my business card. Some by the thickness of the card stock before realizing the card was folded over. Others by the fact that my elevator talk was printed inside. They can read exactly what I do, who I do it for, and who I want to meet. It’s all there on the card. No need for them to scribble tiny notes on the back. Even if we never meet or talk again, they’ll have that information. And if they give my card to someone else, that person can read my elevator talk and determine whether it makes sense to contact me.

One thing I’ve learned about business networking is that effective networking requires multiple contacts to deepen relationships. Networking’s mantra of “Know, like, and trust” takes time and effort. Simply exchanging business cards isn’t enough. But my little brochure business card helps me make a great first impression. The fact that a fold-over card  doesn’t lie flat on a desk, helps it keep making an impression for me months later.

If you do a lot of networking as part of your marketing tactics, I encourage you to borrow one of Jay Conrad Levinson’s guerrilla marketing weapons: the fold-over business card.

 

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.
For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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How to Use Ellipses Incorrectly and Correctly

Do you like using ellipses? Are you sure you’re using them correctly? Are you afraid of using them because you’re not sure? If so, this post was written especially for you.

I’m seeing a lot of ellipses these days. I’m editing a book for a client who frequently uses them, and I recently received a brochure that uses ellipses in a letter to the reader. Since ellipses are not commonly used punctuation marks, I did some research to refresh my memory of their use. Here’s what I found.

What Are Ellipses?

An ellipsis is the three dots or periods usually used to indicate missing words from a quotation. Ellipses is the plural version of ellipsis and indicates multiple such marks—not the multiple dots that form one ellipsis.

When those three dots are used to indicate faltering or interrupted thoughts, the punctuation mark is sometimes called a suspension point. The fact there is disagreement on what to call the punctuation mark is a clue to how tricky its proper use can be. Some people straddle the fence and use both terms interchangeably.

There is also disagreement among styles guides about how to create these punctuation marks. The Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) recommends putting a space between each dot and before and after the mark itself. The Associated Press Style Guide (AP) recommends no spaces between dots and using a space before and after the mark.

  • Chicago: . . .
  • AP: …

In my writing I generally follow the Chicago Manual of Style, so in this post I’ll follow Chicago’s recommendation.

The Incorrect Use of Ellipses

I often see people use ellipses in place of commas or em dashes when they want to emphasize something. The brochure I recently received is a good example.

“Our training is committed to giving you the confidence you need…and deserve.”

The sentence actually breaks two style guide rules: using an ellipsis in place of a dash for emphasis and not placing a space before and after the ellipsis.

People who use an ellipsis to build suspense or emphasize a point are probably in the camp that use punctuation as pause marks (For more information, see my Do You Breathe When You Punctuate post.) If so, they are merging the use of ellipses to emphasize into the usage of commas and dashes. (If using dashes for emphasis is foreign to you, check out my When to Use the Dash post.)

The Correct Use of Ellipses

Both CMS and AP say there are two primary uses for ellipses:

  • Indicate words have been omitted in a quotation
  • Indicate hesitation in speech or writing

Ah ha! you say. Ellipses can be used in place of dashes! Well, yes if the hesitation is to indicate faltering thought or confusion. If you want to emphasize words, however, both CMS and AP recommend using dashes. Using the brochure example above, would you agree using the dash as shown below makes a stronger impression?

“Our training is committed to giving you the confidence you need—and deserve.”

Indicate Words Have Been Omitted in a Quotation

The most common use of ellipses is to indicate where words have been omitted in quoted material. Using an ellipsis for omitted words in the middle of a quoted sentence is pretty simple. Begin the sentence normally, replace the omitted words with an ellipsis, and continue the sentence.

When omitting words at the beginning or end of a sentence or paragraph, how to use ellipses correctly get a little complicated. One rule of thumb to follow is to keep a space between periods and each ellipsis. The period is used to end the abbreviated sentence —regardless of whether the original sentence ended there. Another rule of thumb is to capitalize the first word of an abbreviated sentence even if you omitted the first part of the original sentence. Confused?

In the example below, Abraham Lincoln’s entire Gettysburg Address (all 271 words) is shown verbatim. See how the italicized words in the first quotation are replaced with ellipses in the second, abbreviated quotation using CMS guidelines.

Original

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

With Ellipses

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation . . . dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war.  . . . [and] are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field . . . for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.  . . .

“. . . We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain . . . that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Notice even with ellipses each abbreviated sentence is still a complete sentence. This is important—unless you are going for a special effect with quoted material—be sure your sentences make sense to the reader. Also note that when the end or beginning of a paragraph has been omitted, an ellipsis is used to indicate the omission. A paragraph indentation is used to indicate the beginning of a paragraph has been omitted.

Finally, be very careful you don’t change the meaning of the quotation when you omit words from the original.

Indicate Hesitation in Speech or Writing

A less common use of ellipses (or suspension points as CMS calls them in this usage) is to suggest the halting speech used by someone confused or insecure.

“You mean . . . I don’t . . . that can’t be right!” exclaimed Martha.
George sighed, “I suppose . . . if the boss really said so . . . I’ll get these reports done tonight.”
“Sometimes,” Ralph murmured, “the music just carries me …”

If you avoided using ellipses for fear of displaying grammatical ignorance, I hope this post gave you the knowledge you needed. If you use ellipses to set off a word or phrase for emphasis, I hope you’re suitably chastened. And if this post did nothing but confirm your knowledge of ellipses, I hope you got a chuckle when reading the “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here” line in Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I know I did.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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How to Use Colons

Does using the colon frighten you? Do you avoid it as though it’s an evil, possessed Jack-in-the-box waiting to spring out and point out an unintended grammatical faux pas? Or are you comfortable with using those two little dots stacked one atop the other?

In this post I’m going to write about three pretty common uses of the colon: introducing a list (as I just used it); as a label separator (Name: ); and to introduce a quotation. I’m also going to show how the colon is commonly misused in the writing I see as an editor.

Introducing Lists with Colons

Using a colon to introduce a list is very common. The problem is people also commonly misuse it when they use it with a list. Just because you have a list of items doesn’t mean you have to use a colon just before the list. How the list is introduced dictates what, if any, punctuation mark should be used. For example, it would be incorrect to write this:

The first three days of the week are: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

Why? Because when you use a colon to introduce a list, the colon must be at the end of a complete sentence. The first three days of the week are is not a complete sentence. There’s no predicate.

However, if you add the pronoun these and move the verb are you can create a complete sentence.

These are the first three days of the week.

Sure it sounds funny, and you want something to follow it. But even though it sounds strange, it is a complete sentence. The subject is the pronoun These, the verb is are, and the predicate is the first three days of the week. Since the sentence so clearly wants a list to follow after it, let’s add it.

These are the first three days of the week: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

One trick I’ve learned with colons and lists is to think of the colon as an equal sign in an algebraic formula. In order for the equation to work there has to be word on the left side of the colon that acts like a variable to represent the list on the right side. So long as there’s an x that equals the y, then it’s okay to use the colon. When there’s no word (like These in my example) that represents the items in the list, then you should just write the list right after the verb as shown below.

The first three days of the week are Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.

Colons as Form Field Separators

Colons are often used on forms as a kind of marker to separate a field label from the space you’re supposed to fill in. For example,

Name: ________________

is a very common use of the colon. Notice in this case the colon kind of works as the equal sign explained above. The form says Name and you write in the words that equal your name.

Introducing a Quotation

One very impressive way to use a colon is to use it instead of a comma when you are introducing a quotation. Traditionally, the colon is used this way in formal settings when you are introducing a long quotation. Look at the difference the colon makes in the examples below.

Abraham Lincoln said, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal”.

Abraham Lincoln said: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal”.

Does the colon in the second example have any effect on you? Did you pause a little longer as if for emphasis?

Colons are often used in scripts as a kind of blend of the second use (field separator) and third use (introduce quotations). For example,

Jack: Let’s run up the hill
Jill [interrupting]:  To get a pail of water.

Incorrect Use of Colon

One way I often see colons used incorrectly is to end a heading in a document. For example,

Incorrect Use of Colon:

I’m not sure why people use colons to end a heading. I suspect it has something to do with using the colon to separate the heading from the text below it. If you use a colon that way, please write me to explain why. I’m really puzzled by it.
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Simplify Sentences With Periods

Since this is my last post of 2013, what better way to end the year than with a post about the period? Used to mark the end of declarative and imperative sentences, the period is the most commonly used punctuation mark. Unfortunately, some writers are reluctant to use periods until their sentences are so full of ideas the sentences become overstuffed suitcases bursting at the seams.

When a suitcase seam breaks, some of the contents come out. When a sentence seam breaks, the meanings it contains become lost. Consequently, knowing when to stop a sentence is important. Stopping sentences too late confuses readers, and makes it harder for them to understand what you’re trying to communicate.

Simple Sentences

The simplest way to convey information is to use a series of simple sentences. Simple sentences have a single subject and a single verb. They are easy to understand. Unfortunately, long series of simple sentences are boring. Readers’ minds want to see variety in sentence structure. Without that variety they lose interest in what they’re reading. They stop reading. The communication between the writer and reader ends.

Compound Sentences

An easy way to add more variety to sentences is to use compound sentences in a paragraph. A compound sentence is a sentence formed by two or more simple sentences joined by a conjunction (and, or, but, etc.). This is one subject and verb, and this is another subject and verb that together form a compound sentence.

Run-on Sentences

While having a long series of simple sentences makes readers bored, combining all those sentences into a compound sentence (called a run-on sentence) can make it hard for readers to understand the sentence. Here’s an example.

I just wrote that a compound sentence has two or more simple sentences joined together, and this sentence is a good example, because this sentence contains four simple sentences, but it’s getting harder and harder to understand the sentence’s meanings. Why?

Each sub-sentence (called an independent clause by grammarians) in the previous paragraph expresses its own idea. When a sentence expresses more than one idea, it becomes harder to understand. Most people can understand a sentence containing two or three ideas, but as each idea is added to a sentence, it becomes more difficult for readers to keep the ideas straight in their minds.

Variety Is the Spice of Life

It’s often said that variety is the spice of life, and this is definitely true in written communication. The next paragraph is the simple sentences paragraph rewritten to include some compound sentences.

The simplest way to convey information is to use a series of simple sentences. Simple sentences have a single subject and a single verb, so they are easy to understand. Unfortunately, long series of simple sentences are boring. Readers’ minds want to see variety in sentence structure, and without that variety they lose interest in what they’re reading. They stop reading, and the communication between the writer and reader ends.

Which paragraph held your attention better?

Punctuation Helps

Punctuation marks guide readers through words and sentences like road signs. Slow down, merging lane, intersection ahead. As more ideas are added to a sentence, the greater the need for punctuation to help readers navigate through the ideas.

The period (like its fellow ending marks: the question mark and exclamation point) is a crucial punctuation mark. Like December 31st, the period marks an end. It says, “Stop and absorb the meaning(s) of the words you’ve just read. There’s something new about to come.”

Next year, I’ll write about complex sentences which offer a Pandora’s box of sentence variety.

As Writing Jim, Jim Driggers provides copywriting and business process writing to owners of small and medium-sized businesses. His clients gain sales through marketing text that better resonates with their customers, and they save money when their employees follow guides rather than impulses. His clients give themselves the time to focus on what they do well when they leave their writing to Writing Jim.

For copywriting help with your print or online content or for help systematizing your business processes, contact Writing Jim at [email protected] or 925-231-5825. Visit www.writingjim.com for more information.

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