Category Archives: punctuation

I like it, I use it, and I recommend it

The serial comma — the comma before and in a series, as in the title of this post — aids in understanding. It clarifies. It makes reading more effortless for the reader.

The Chicago Manual of Style supports the serial comma’s use. (The comma is sometimes referred to as the Oxford comma.) The AP Stylebook does not, in most situations.

Roy Peter Clark, the distinguished writing teacher at the Poynter Institute, prefers the serial comma. In an essay here, Clark goes so far as to say the AP Stylebook should adopt the comma.

This clever infographic from outlines the issue.




Filed under punctuation

Altered states

Say what you want about the U.S. Postal Service; it knows how to run an effective promotional campaign. At least it did 50 years ago: That’s when it introduced the zip code. Along with the zip code, the Postal Service issued new two-letter state abbreviations.

Before the roll-out, people addressing mail wrote out state names in full, or abbreviated them using a style they had memorized in school: Tenn. and Calif. and W. Va.

In 1963, the Postal Service introduced two-letter state abbreviations, with uppercase letters and without punctuation. The Postal Service ran an ad campaign that lodged the new abbreviations into people’s brains.

zip all
The campaign, featuring the memorable character Mr. Zip, was one of the most successful in American advertising. Over time, the two-letter state abbreviation became so ingrained that people not only used the style for addressing their mail; they began using it every time they wrote the name of a state. Even in sentences.

That’s when people entered a state of confusion.

The two-letter, all-caps, punctuation-free state abbreviation was intended for the outside of envelopes and packages, to speed processing. Postal abbreviations do not belong in sentences.

When the name of a state stands alone in text, writers should spell it out:

The people of California have seen extreme weather lately.

When a city and state are referred to together, until now AP Stylebook advised writers to abbreviate the state using the traditional style:

The climate in Hollywood, Calif. is drier than the climate in Hollywood, Fla.

For the 2014 edition, AP Stylebook changed that. The “journalist’s bible,” as it calls itself, now advises writers to spell out state names in the body of stories. AP says the abbreviations should continue to be used in datelines, lists, tables, photo captions, and such.

The Chicago Manual of Style prefers spelling out the state name, even when it follows the city name. (In tables, bibliographies, and lists, Chicago prefers the two-letter postal abbreviation, allowing the traditional style as an option.)

Here are the traditional state abbreviations:

state abbrevs

By the way, did you know ZIP is an acronym for zone improvement plan? AP Stylebook still tells us to write the 50-year-old ZIP in uppercase letters. Chicago uses lowercase letters for zip code, like it does for the acronyms radar and scuba. (This blog follows Chicago style. Some house styles use Zip, with an initial cap.) The AP Stylebook has accepted far newer usages – don’t get me started on the 2011 Stylebook’s hyphenless email – and I think it’s time for AP to put its stamp of approval on the lowercase zip code.


Filed under abbreviation, editing, punctuation

Hyphen nation

Everyone knows that hyphens are used at the end of a line of type to indicate that a word continues on the next line.

Beyond that use of hyphens, some people run into confusion.

Some get downright grumpy when it comes to using hyphens in phrasal adjectives.

The journalist Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a humorous book about punctuation, explains that the hyphen joins words to aid understanding. Her chapter on hyphens defends the honor of sober pickled-herring merchants who have never touched a drop.

Without a hyphen, the phrase “long term plan” might leave a reader wondering whether there is something called a term plan, and he’s reading about a long one. With a hyphen, the phrase “long-term plan” lets the reader be sure he is reading about a plan for the long term.

The rule is this: If two consecutive words work together as an adjective to modify a noun that follows them, those two words should be hyphenated.

The rule is not just for two words; it is the same when any number of words work together as a modifier before a noun:

an easy-to-reach shelf

the head-over-heels-in-love couple

No hyphen is necessary if the noun does not follow the modifying words:

the up-to-date report

the report is up to date

An exception to the hyphen rule applies when the first word in the compound adjective ends in –ly. In that case, the meaning is clear without a hyphen. For example:

an openly hostile environment

a clearly attainable goal

Hyphens have other uses, too. We’ll save those for another day.


Filed under clear writing, editing, grammar, punctuation

AP is choosy about punctuation, too

The Washington Post seems to have made another error while graphically illustrating copy editors’ marks. (This is the second time this summer that the paper has illustrated editors’ marks. Here’s the other:

This time, the problem is single quotation marks where double quotation marks should be.

Double quotation marks are called for when we are writing a sentence and we want to refer to a word rather than use it functionally.

Single quotation marks are used in headlines. But this graphic depiction of a 20-word complete sentence with punctuation does not look like a headline to me.

That’s not a headline, is it?

The Post used its graphic (below) to illustrate a profile of David Minthorn, the grammar and style expert at the Associated Press. According to the article, Mr. Minthorn’s distilled wisdom is the AP Stylebook, the highly regarded and only guidebook for newspaper correspondents and editors. Mr. Minthorn and two colleagues are the Stylebook’s editors. For the past four years, Mr. Minthorn has also been the author of AP’s “Ask the Editor” feature at

The AP Stylebook calls for double quotation marks. The Chicago Manual of Style does too, when italics can’t be used. (Chicago prefers italics in usage like this, but acknowledges that, in some electronic environments, quotation marks may be more portable or otherwise practical than italics. That refers to correspondents’ transmission of news stories. The transmission can’t handle italics. It’s why AP style calls for quotation marks instead of italics.) Neither guide recommends that single quotes be used.

The Post made the blunder while discussing the very style guide that would have instructed it to use double quotation marks.

Er, unless that’s a headline.

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Filed under editing, punctuation, sloppiness I couldn't help but notice