Punctuation can be a tricky beast. There are so many potential pitfalls and rules that should be followed, but there are some easy wins, some minor tweaks you can make that will elevate the standard of your writing. Here are four easily rectified errors I come across a lot. And they are errors to watch out for even if you are going to work with a copy-editor – or perhaps I should say especially if you are going to work with a copy-editor. If I look through a manuscript and see I don’t have to make these corrections all the way through, I’m going to charge less. So, let’s grab that low-hanging and money-saving fruit.
Ellipses that aren’t
Ellipses are the ‘three little dots’ that are used to indicate an omission or a trailing away of speech. In typeset text an ellipsis is not usually represented by three separate full stops – an ellipsis is a single symbol.* (You can see in the example image that the spacing is different.) When you are typing in Word, the software will probably autocorrect your three full stops to the ellipsis symbol. If it doesn’t, you should insert the symbol yourself (Windows users can press and hold the ALT key and then type in 0133). The main reason for doing this is to make sure that the dots don’t get split up over two lines; we want the three dots to be next to each other, or it’s going to look really weird. I frequently find that four full stops have been keyed in, which leaves us with an ellipsis and an extraneous full stop. Sometimes I’m faced with two full stops, and I have to decide if an ellipsis was intended, or query it with the author – which is time we could both spend on more important things.
*Some styles do represent an ellipsis using three full stops, but they are joined by non-breaking spaces – which means they operate like a single symbol but are more fiddly to insert.
Apostrophes are used to mark omissions or indicate a possessive; I’m sure you know that. But I see ‘reversed’ apostrophes in nearly every manuscript I work on – in fact, I expect to see them. Reversed apostrophes often occur in the case of omissions, particularly things like rock ‘n’ roll or ’tis. It’s so common, you might not even realise it is an error (look at rock ’n’ roll again). Apostrophes are only one way round – the reversed apostrophe is actually an opening single quote mark. It can be hard to spot this error, and I’d recommend being alert to it as you are typing. Do not trust Word to know whether you wanted an apostrophe or an opening quote mark.
Please note, however, that there are some marks that look like reversed apostrophes but are not. You’re likely to run into these when using Arabic, Greek and Hebrew names and phrases, so do double-check if in doubt.
Hyphens used as dashes
Hyphens connect words and bits of words together. They are not a substitute for a dash. I often see a hyphen in number ranges (like this: 15-20) and used as a parenthetical dash (like this: the cat-the one with a bushy tail-was on the mat). En rules are used between elements that form a range (like this: 15–20). En rules (with a space either side) or em rules (without a space either side) are used as parenthetical dashes (like this: the cat – the one with the bushy tail – was on the mat. Or this: the cat—the one with the bushy tail—was on the mat). Word will often autocorrect spaced hyphens to spaced en rules, but lots of them slip through. The ALT code for an en rule is 0150 and the code for an em rule is 0151.
Double quote marks inside double quote marks or single quote marks inside single quote marks
It doesn’t really matter which style of quote mark you use – single or double – but it does matter that you don’t use the same style for quoted text within quoted text. If you have, for example, a character quoting someone else, the quote marks should be used like this:
Applying these simple fixes
Ideally you will have read this post before your novel reached 80,000 words, you’ve completed your edits, and you are about to show your manuscript to someone, but life is not ideal. Make use of Word’s Find function – but be wary when using Find and Replace. Check each change before you make it and resist the temptation to hit ‘Replace all’.