Thursday, 4 April 2013

D is for dots and dashes ...

And double quotation marks ... so not quite Morse

These three Ds have become prominent in my life since the editing really kicked in.

I like to think I have a firm grasp of grammar and punctuation. My parents corrected me all the time when I was growing up. One was a sub-editor, the other a teacher, both Scots. ‘Me and Janet went swimming,’ I’d say. Cue rolls of thunder and a rumbling chorus of disapproval which I can only capture in capitals. ‘JANET AND I WENT SWIMMING.’ They’d always say it together, even if they were in different rooms. As for punctuation, I wasn’t allowed to get away with a thing. ‘Full stop. Capital letter!’

My grammar improved, thanks to Latin – not English. This I ditched as soon as I could. (I think this was mainly due to Jane Austen. I apologise to her fans, but you couldn’t pay me to read it. People have tried and failed.)

Working for different newspapers assisted in my punctuation apprenticeship. Each had its own ‘house style’. Not so much guidelines, these were absolutes and adhered to on pain of death. Dot, dot, dot was frowned on, unless in speech or a fancy feature. They were always a fiddle, because in most places I worked, you had insert a ‘thin’ before the first dot, thins between the dots and final thin at the end. Luckily, our in-house computer system was sufficiently sophisticated to allow for macros, so I programmed mine up so my fingers didn't fall off. The same applied to the ‘en’ rule, or ‘nuts’. Woe betide anyone who forgot the spaces … or the second ‘en’ rule if the phrase was mid-sentence.

So, when it came to editing the first ebook, I was astonished see that no spaces were allowed – at all! I gather it gums up the digital works. See how technical I’m becoming? That’s fine by me, of course. I don’t have a preference. As a slogging ex-sub-editor, I’m happy to fall in with practice. If it's clear, fine by me.

Then I found out the ‘no-space’ rule also applied to dashes. Fine, again, but then I had to do my homework. It seems there are four dashy-type things. There’s the hyphen (-). Check. Slightly wider is the minus sign, which you find on a number pad. A lot of people use the hyphen, but the sharp-eyed among you know the minus sign is marginally wider. Then there’s the ‘en’ rule (–), and, finally the ‘em’ rule (—), called ‘muttons’, apparently. My American editors all use the long ‘em’ rule. I struggled to find it on my keyboard. When I attempted a series of keystrokes to create it, I actually converted the blinking cursor into an ‘em’ rule. How daft is that! Now I just copy it from a browser search and replace the lot in one go.

The trickiest thing to sort was the double quotation. Again, I really don’t care, as long as it’s all consistent, but I find it much faster to type the single apostrophe then constantly have to hit the shift 2 for the double. But there is a difficulty with ‘find and replace’ in this case. The close quotation (’) is the same as an apostrophe.

Aha, but I’ve outwitted the system. All you do is convert every apostrophe into a dummy character (I use a dollar sign). Then, find and replace all the single open and close quotations with double (watching out for quotations within quotations, of course), then convert the dollar sign back into the apostrophe. 

With me so far? It works, but you need to keep a clear head – and save every time you finish a round of replacing. (I learned this the hard way.) I can send you my check sheet. Really. It works.

So, after much fiddling about, I decided that I’m so used to my personal system that I shall keep typing and punctuating as I’ve always done. I’ve worked out it only takes me a focused half-hour marathon session to tidy up a 100,000-word manuscript. Yup. 

You could say I just dash it off.

Punctuation. Love it. Yes, really.

By Pamela Kelt 

PS If David 'Million-word-year' Bowman is reading this, do let me know if I've made any mistooks.


  1. Of course I'm reading it. Seeing as my punctuation control doesn't pass muster (I'm comma averse), I'll defer to others to find the mistakes.
    PS I hate the em dash.
    If you really, really want to annoy yourself on a keyboard, try swtiching regularly between Apple and PC - Apple shift 2 is an @ sign and the double quotation is shift single quote. Fun.

  2. Interesting. I am a grammar illiterate. Sure I get the periods right, but commas are my nemesis and then throw in a few ellipses, en or em dashes and you've lost me. I lean heavily on my critique group and copy editor for the correct way to do things.

  3. This was funny,Pam. One of my critique partners was a editor for magazines in another life and she taught me the space dot space configuation. I'd just done...willy nilly. So I learned my lesson and did it properly. Then I learned from my wonderful editor that's not how e-pubs do it. Interesting the quirks. Tell me the rule and I'll follow it. Though I like your idea of just subbing away all at one time at the end. I have to do that with the double space at the end of sentances. I'm about half-way converted, so still have some of those double slip thought. LOL Good post.

  4. Glad I've never had to edit an eBook.

  5. I am not that good with punctuation. I know I have to improve that side. I am still not clear how muttons works.