Proofread Along with Rhube #6: Quotation Marks and Displayed Material

Examples of quotation

I want to start this one by apologising straight up to anyone relying on a screen reader to read this article. One of the drawbacks to WordPress as a platform is that it doesn’t do a great job of displaying quotation correctly – in particular, it gets super confused by quotes within quotes. I’m therefore going to be relying on a bunch of images of text to illustrate my points. I’ll do my best to describe what I’m talking about as well, but I wanted to forewarn you as I know that images of text are super unhelpful if you can’t see the image.

OK, so, quotation. And quotation marks. And displayed quotations.

Quotation can be a bit confusing, not least because the conventions vary depending on house style. Nevertheless, there are some basic rules that always apply, and once you have these down the rest is pretty straight forward.

Quotation Marks

There are several different kinds of qoutation marks. You have double quotation marks and single quotation marks. You have curly, or ‘smart’, quotes and you have straight, or ‘typewriter’, quotes. They look like this:

Examples of the different types of quotation marksIn English (note that there are different marks and conventions for other languages) quotation marks are a pair of marks, appearing either side of quoted material, positioned in the upper portion of the line. Double quotation marks are where each of the pair contains two marks. Single quotation marks contain only one mark in each of the pair. Smart, or ‘curly’, quotation marks are distinguished as having a thick blob at one end and a curved tail. The opening quotation mark in smart quotes has the blob at the bottom, and the closing quotation mark has the blob at the top. Some fonts omit the blob and present smart quotes as less curly and more as a diagonal line – open quotation marks slanting with the bottom on the right towards the quotation, close quotation marks slanting with the bottom on the left, also towards the quotation*. Single smart quotes resemble inverted commas, and are often labelled as such. Straight, or ‘typewriter’, quotes, by contrast, are not curved. Depending on font they may simply be a straight line (or pair of straight lines), or the line may taper towards the bottom.

An illustration of the problem described in this paragraph.Part of the problem with WordPress is that it uses smart quotes, but  the use of both single and double quotation marks next to each other confuses it. So, if you’re using a quote within a quote, WordPress will insert a close single quote following the open double quote, instead of an open double quote followed by an open single quote. It’s quite distressing, as a proofreader, to have to produce work that looks like this – I know it’s wrong, but I can’t do anything about it!

Now, Word also has this problem sometimes, and part of my role, as a proofreader, is to fix this. It’s relatively easy, and if you want to make your documents look more professional, it’s a quick fix! All you have to do is go to the insert tab, click on ‘Symbol’ (it’s on the far right), select ‘More Symbols’, and you’ll be into the menu that allows you to insert any kind of character you want. If you’re not working in Word, you can still insert characters like this by accessing Character Map, which can be found at Start Menu > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Character Map**. This is a map of all characters available in all fonts from which you can select any character you like and copy and paste it into any document you like, as long as the programme you are pasting into has the characters and fonts available to it. Standard Windows programmes should be able to use all characters in the Character Map, but not all programmes have access to this, which can be frustrating, but tends not to be an issue with regard to quotation marks.

So, that’s what the marks look like and how to input them in Word, now let’s talk about how to use them.

What type of quotation mark should I use?

The short answer is: whatever your publisher likes. There’s no right or wrong of double vs single quotation marks, as long as you’re consistent. Your publisher will change whatever you use to whatever they like anyway, but if you can check what they use first it would be a big help to your humble proofreader. I frequently have to change single quotes to double and double to single, and in a novel length document this can add considerably to the time it takes to proofread or copy-edit a document. However, it is my job to do that, and it isn’t something your novel will be rejected for.

Ideally, a format change like this would take place at the copy-editing stage – proofreading should be for catching any deviations from style that were missed earlier. By the time a documents reaches a proofreader it will normally have been typeset, and resetting for a large number of changes like this can be a pain. It does vary from publisher to publisher, though.

I have found that in general British fiction publishers prefer double smart quotation marks and in general British academic publishers prefer single smart quotation marks. But the truth is that conventions vary considerably. Some guides to standard manuscript format will recommend that you only use straight quotation marks. This – like much of standard manuscript format – is a hangover from typewriter days. The reason why straight quotation marks are sometimes called ‘typewriter quotes’ is because these were the marks used on typewriters – they could save space on the keyboard if they only had one key which you could press for both close and open quotation marks, so it had to be straight. However, in the modern age where a computer can figure out whether you’re likely to be closing or opening a quotation for you, this isn’t an issue. The vast majority of publishers use curly quotes, and as a proofread and editor I’d much rather have a document full of curly quotes with the odd mistake of direction than a document full of straight quotes where I have to change every single one.

Mentions or ‘scare quotes’

Sometimes you may want to use quotation marks where what you’re quoting is not a literal word for word quotation. There are a bunch of different reasons to do this:

  1. you want to mention a word or phrase that is used frequently in a text or in speech, but you aren’t quoting any specific instance
  2. you want to roughly approximate something that was said, but you’re not literally quoting it
  3. you want to suggest that the word or phrase is in some way dubious

The first two uses are known as ‘mentions’ and the third is known as a ‘scare quote’, although the difference betwee a mention and a scare quote can be kind of blurry.

Mentions and scare quotes are different to ordinary quotes in academic texts because they do not need to be accompanied by a reference. This is less of an issue in fiction as most quotation is speech and doesn’t require a reference anyway.

Mentions and scare quotes are sometimes indicated as being different to proper quotation by using a different kind of quotation mark. So if you usually use double quotes for quotation, you would use single quotes for a mention. However, most publishers these days prefer for all instances of quotation marks to be the same – either all double or all single. This is the kind of thing that people get prissy about – everyone thinks their way is correct – but as always, house style will be applied by your proofreader or copy-editor and as an author I wouldn’t worry too much. If you’re self-publishing, however, I’d go with sticking to the same sort of quotation mark throughout, simply because this seems to be the most common style in the industry and you’ll look more professional.

Quotation within quotation

One point where people sometimes get confused is with what quotation mark to use when you have a quotation embedded within another quotation. This can happen when you’re writing speech and one character is quoting another character’s words, when someone uses scare quotes or a mention within speech, or when text you’re quoting quotes another text.

The rule is always this: whatever kind of mark you use for standard quotation, use the opposite for the embedded quote.

If you usually use double quotation marks, use single for the embedded quotation. This is true even if you are quoting a text that quotes something else. This is one of the very few instances where you can alter punctuation within a quotation. Ordinarily, you should quote a text exactly as it appears, even if it has a spelling mistake or follows a convention you’re not using in the rest of your text. Other changes should be clearly indicated as not being a part of the original text. E.g. if the original has a spelling mistake you want to correct, you should put the correction in square brackets. So, to take an example from these adorable mistakes by children:

I love Satan

can be corrected to:

I love [Santa]

But you don’t have to do this with quotation marks within quotations, or other style formatting changes, such as dash formating or ellipsis style. If your publication uses space-en-dash-space where the quotation uses em-dashes, you can just go ahead and change that. If your publication uses space-ellipsis-space and the quotation uses just ellipsis-space, you can just go ahead and make that change. And if there’s a quotation within a quotation, you just change that to the opposite of whatever style you used for the outer quotation marks. So, for example:

‘Hi,’ said Gertrude.

‘Don’t you say “Hi” to me!’ said Abed.

I generally use single quotation marks for blog posts, so when I quote Abed, I use single quotation marks for his speech. However, when Abed mentions Gertrude saying ‘Hi’, I use double-quotation marks. This is to make it clear to the reader that it’s still Abed speaking – the quote of him hasn’t ended.

Where it gets extra confusing is when someone is quoting someone who is quoting someone else. For example:

‘Don’t you say “Richard said ‘No'”!’ said Abed.

The quote within a quote within a quote uses the opposite style of mark to the quotation in which it is embedded, which is istelf a quotation whose marks are the opposite in style to the uber-quotation in which it is embedded. Basically: whatever the style of the quote in which your quote is embedded, you use the opposite of that.

Displayed material

Sometimes you want to separate a quote from the main body of the text. This is usually for one of two reasons: a) the quote is very long, or b) you want to display it for the reader’s reflection. We call this ‘displayed material’.

One usually only uses displayed material in non-fiction, although it is sometimes used in fiction, either for emphasis, or to represent that what is being quoted is in a different medium to the main body of the text – e.g. where a letter or poem is introduced into prose fiction. By contrast, long speeches in prose fiction are not usually displayed.

How long is too long for a non-displayed quote can vary from publication to publication, but the Oxford Manual of Style says anything over 30 words, and that’s what I go with. Standard convention for displayed material is as follows:

  1. the material is set on a separate line to the preceding paragraph
  2. extra line space is inserted before and after the material
  3. the material is indented horizontally
  4. the next line following the displayed material is not indented, even if it would otherwise be a new paragraph

Some conventions also suggest putting the displayed material is a smaller font, and some will put the displayed material in italics. Please note, however: the vast majority of publishers will not want displayed material to be in italics. What’s annoying is that a lot of programmes (including WordPress!) set displayed material as italic by default. This is contrary to all standard rules which emphasise not changing the italics of quoted material and urge the preservation of the original text in all but a few ways, as outlined above.

One reason you might use italics for displayed material is where you are representing a different medium. So, it you run across one of the poems or songs in Lord of the Rings, this will be set as displayed material and in italic, to emphasise that it is another text within that text, and that we have shifted to poetry rather then prose. Italics is also often used to indicate handwriting. Letters embedded within novels are thus usually italic for two reasons – that they are a different medium to the prose style of the rest of the novel, and to indicate that they are handwritten. Perhaps this is why so many programmes default to italic for displayed material.

You may have noticed that I myself use italics for displayed material in these articles. Well, online writing conventions are an evolving phenomenon, but the prevalence of certain style conventions imposed by the programmes in which we write affects how we write. It is becoming the convention to italicise all quotations that are displayed online. I’ll admit that I don’t like it – having been a university tutor it gives me a headache when I see this convention carried over to students’ academic writing – but it’s a pain in the behind to individually correct every time I want to post. And given that online conventions are going this way, I have joined the throng. After all, style conventions are only that: conventions.

So, online writing is an exception. If you work for a company that has a style guide (and many do these days) for your web output, follow that. Otherwise, it’s up to you, but you may wish to bare in mind that italics for displayed material is becoming prevalent.

Long quotations in fiction

I noted above that long quotations in fiction are not presented as displayed material. This is because the quotation is dialogue – speech. We don’t separate that out from the rest of the prose text because it would make the prose stilted. We’re not ‘displaying’ the text for specific reflection and, unlike in academic writing, it’s unlikely that the reader will lose track of whether what they are reading is the author’s writing or somebody else’s. Our imaginations are engaged. When we see an open quotation mark we imagine it in someone else’s voice. Displaying long speeches is neither practical nor necessary.

However, sometimes speech is written such that the character speaks for more than one paragraph. Depending on how naturalistic you want your dialogue to be, you might want to question the plausibility of your characters speaking for that long a period of time. With the exception of people literally making speeches, real live people rarely monologue without interruption. But you may not wish to be strictly naturalistic, or you may have a rare occasion where a character does have cause to talk for that long. OK. This is where we have an odd little quirk of punctuation: where dialogue from a single character in fiction goes on for more than one paragraph, there is no close-quotation mark at the end of the paragraph, but there is an open-quotation mark at the beginning of the next paragraph.

The reason for this is that we want to be clear that it’s still the same person speaking and that they are still speaking. Dialogue is usually between two or more characters, and change of speaker is indicated by starting a new paragraph. So, usually, when you see an open quote at the beginning of a new paragraph it means that we have changed speaker. Removing the close-quote at the end of the pargraph indicates to the reader that this hasn’t happened. But we don’t want to leave the next paragraph without an open-quotation mark because that might read as though no one is speaking anymore.

This styling is kinda irritating if you’re a completionist – it can be annoying that we have an uneven number of close and open quotation marks – but it really is the best for clarity. If you don’t follow this rule your reader will assume someone else is speaking, and that’s super confusing.

Remember: even if the rule seems weird, clarity is the goal!

And that’s about it for quotations. There is always more that could be said, but these are the basics and cover just about everything you’re likely to encounter in ordinary writing. Go forth and punctuate!

*To add to the confusion, the ‘prime’ symbol used in maths, science, and logic, looks a lot like a single close quotation mark rendered in a font where ‘smart’ just means ‘angled’. Usually it is differentiated by being at a slightly different angle. If it’s not a symbol you use, however, don’t worry about it. The ‘prime’ symbol usually has to be specially selected from the ‘symbols’ menu in Word, so you won’t end up using it by mistake.

**On a Windows PC. I’m afraid I’ve barely ever used anything else, so this is all I can comment on.

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Proofread Along with Rhube #5: That/Which

This is one that confuses a lot of people. For many,  ‘that’ and ‘which’ seem completely interchangeable, and it can be confusing to find that in some cases they are not. Not to worry, I am here to help! Once you understand the reasons behind the differing uses, it’s actually pretty easy to work out what you need to do.

It all comes down to restrictive and non-restrictive clauses. ‘That’ is always restrictive, but ‘which’ is non-restrictive (usually).

Restrictive and non-restrictive clauses

‘But what the hell is a restrictive clause?’ you may be thinking. Restrictive clauses restrict the type of thing (noun, or class of nouns) being talked about. By contrast, non-restrictive clauses simply provide some additional information.

Take the following examples:

Moon rocks that are really made of cheese are yellow in colour.

Moon rocks, which are really made of cheese, are yellow in colour.

The first sentence contains a restrictive clause, ‘that are really made of cheese’, telling us that the ‘moon rocks’ being referred to are only those moon rocks that are made of cheese. Other moon rocks may or may not be yellow, but we’re not talking about them. We have restricted the scope of the term ‘moon rock’ to refer to only cheese-based moon rocks.

By contrast, the second sentence is saying something much larger in scope. Because ‘which are really made of cheese’ is non-restrictive, ‘moon rocks’ is unlimited in scope. We are talking about all moon rocks and asserting that they are all yellow, and merely adding the additional information that moon rocks are made of cheese.

Punctuation helps us out. Non-restrictive clauses function as ‘asides’ or parenthetical clauses – you could remove them without changing the meaning of the main (independent) clause – and this is indicated by the use of parenthetical commas: the one before ‘which’ and the one after ‘cheese’. We don’t use these with the restrictive clause because it would change the meaning of the sentence if you were to remove ‘that are really made of cheese’ – the scope of ‘moon rocks’ would no longer be limited to cheese-based moon rocks. Far more moon rocks would need to be yellow in order for the sentence to be true.

So, it’s actually a lot easier than it sounds. If you’re just adding some additional information about the thing (noun or class of nouns) you’re talking about, use ‘which’. If the extra information you’re adding restricts the meaning of the thing (noun or type of nouns) you are talking about, use ‘that’.

Using ‘which’ in a restrictive clause

Where it gets confusing is that some style guides allow for the use of ‘which’ in a restrictive clause. Oxford Dictionaries, for instance, says that both are correct. Fowler’s Modern English Usage bemoans that the distinction has not been neatly preserved, but concedes that both ‘which’ and ‘that’ are used for restrictive clauses. By contrast, Grammar Girl is very clear that ‘which’ should only be used for non-restrictive clauses.

I’m amused to have seen both US and UK grammar guides accuse the other of being more eager to exclude ‘which’ from restrictive clauses – beware of anyone who says of a grammar rule ‘Oh, it’s an Americanism’ or ‘Oh, the British do that, but we don’t’ – they’re often using the specter of trans-Atlantic conflict to support a personal prejudice. At the end of the day, there’s nothing strictly wrong with using ‘which’ in a restrictive clause, and it’s not a new, strictly British, or strictly American, habit. Fowler’s is nice for this, because it goes into a bit of history of usage, rather than simply asserting a rule, and we have this nice quote from the 1926 edition:

The relations between that, who, and which, have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, and plainly show that language has not been constructed by a master-builder

quoted in R W Birchfield (1996), Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Third Edition, p. 774

Here’s what I think about it:

As a writer, one’s duty is to convey one’s ideas to the reader in the most effective way possible, which usually means as clearly as possible. Why not stick to ‘that’ for restrictive clauses and ‘which’ for non-restrictive clauses? It saves your reader the trouble of wondering if you maybe made a mistake and meant the one thing rather than the other.

As a proofreader/copy editor, my duty is to the publication. I’ll follow whatever rule they prefer. And it might surprise you. Academic publications often prefer to respect authorial choice on the basis that the writer is themselves treated as an authority. By contrast, fiction publishers often don’t say anything on the matter, or prefer whatever makes the reading experience smoother, so sometimes prefer to keep only to ‘that’ for restrictive clauses. But if I haven’t been told otherwise, I just leave it be if it’s permissible.

One thing to be clear on, though: one should never use ‘that’ in a non-restrictive clause. In the simplest possible terms: if there needs to be a comma before it, you should only ever use ‘which’. Or: if it’s an aside, not integral to the sentence, always use ‘which’ and always put a comma before it.

I hope this helps to clarify things. Once you get the hang of it, it’s dead easy, I promise. In the meantime, you can refer back to this guide when in doubt 🙂 .


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Proofread Along with Rhube #4: em-dashes, en-dashes, and hyphens

The three dashes.

A screencap from Word, because WordPress doesn’t believe in differentiating dashes.

If you’re anything like I was, you learned everything you know about these babies from reading, and you just think of all of these things as ‘dashes’. When you write stories or papers and you want to use a dash, you just type ‘ – ‘ and let Word either change it to a longer or a shorter dash as it wills, and occasionally wonder what kind of arcane mysteries govern its decisions. You may also have seen some people type ‘- -‘ and either not known why they were doing that, or assumed that they were privy to some mystery of Proper Writing that is lost on you.

So, here it is, I’m gonna let you in on the arcane mysteries. Like so many things, it turns out they’re pretty mundane. But you can’t know this until someone tells you.


First up, let’s get the low-down on what terms apply to what. We’ll do this in size order (which will be a little frustrating, as Word Press only believes in one size of dash, but bear with me.)

Hyphens: ‘Smith-Jones’, ‘non-fat’, ‘well-adjusted’, ‘pp. 37-40’

Hyphens are the smallest of the dash family. Their purpose is to join two words or to suggest a very close relation between the two, whilst preserving some sense of distance. There are a host of rules of usage (some disputed), but for now, just get a hold of the kind of thing we mean – the smallest dash, used to join two or more words in a relationship closer than they would have separately.

En-dashes: ‘Jensen – for that was his name – yelled dramatically:’, ‘I don’t know – you see… I give up,’, ‘pp. 37-40’, ‘mind-body distinction’

Illustration of hyphen vs en-dash in joinging words.

Illustration of hyphen vs en-dash in joining words.

These are represented as longer than a hyphen, but shorter than an em-dash, and are usually presented with a space on either side. Their role is chiefly parenthetical, or used to indicate a break in conventional punctuation. However, they are also sometimes used in page ranges (e.g. ‘pp. 37-40’), instead of a hyphen, and they can be used to join two words in a way that indicates tension and opposition. So, if I were engaging with the philosophical debate about whether the mental and the physical are two distinct substances, I would use an en-dash for writing about ‘the mind-body distinction’, in contrast to talking about ‘mind-body identity’, where I would use a hyphen . This is one of those niceties of grammar that is rarely engaged with online, as many platforms, like Word Press, do not make it possible to visually indicate the difference between tension and association, and it can be easily worked out from context. If I’m proofreading an academic article, though, this is one of the things I look out for.

Em-dashes: ‘Jensen-for that was his name-yelled dramatically:’, ‘I don’t know-you see… I give up,’

Illustration of em-dashes in use.

Illustration of em-dashes in use.

Unfortunately, the length of the dash really is important when you get to em-dashes. An em-dash is the longest of the dashes, and is used to mark parenthetical statements and breaks in conventional punctuation. It is presented without a space on either side, which makes it look a bit strange if the programme you’re using doesn’t believe in distinguishing dashes by length. This is why you’ll see some people writing ‘- -‘ when they mean to use an em-dash. It used to be standard manuscript format to use two dashes to represent an em-dash, which is a hold-over from typewriters. Typewriters typically did not have distinct keys for the type of dash to be used, but printers still distinguished between hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes. So authors would use ‘- -‘ as a way of indicating to the typesetter and/or copy-editor that they meant an em-dash. This has led a lot of people to suppose that two-dashes-with-no-space is an em-dash, but it’s not. It’s a representation of an em-dash. Very few publishing houses now want to see ‘- -‘ when what the author wants is an en- or em-dash, as most writing programmes allow authors to insert the correct symbol directly into their documents. But as with anything, if you’re unsure, check what the submission guidelines say.

When to use what

We’ve covered a little of this, but there’s a difference between when you can use a symbol and when you might want to, and why.

Em-dashes are pretty straightforward. They are usually used in place of curved brackets, ‘(‘ and ‘)’, or parenthetical commas, or to indicate a break in conventional punctuation. So, let’s call these uses ‘parenthetical em-dashes’ and ‘break em-dashes’. (Note: these points also apply to en-dashs, ‘ – ‘, where the en-dash is performing a parenthetical role or grammar breaking role.)

1. Why would I use a parenthetical em-dash?

Well, a parenthetical remark is one that explains or qualifies the main subject matter of the sentence, but is set off from the main subject matter of the sentence itself. You could remove the parenthetical remark and the rest of the sentence would be unchanged. Traditionally, parenthetical remarks are indicated by parentheses, also called ‘brackets’, because they ‘bracket’ the remark as separate to the rest of the sentence. You’ll be familiar with the following brackets from your keyboard: (), {}, [], <>. In most forms of non-technical writing you will only see curved brackets, ‘(x)’, and square brackets, ‘[x]’. Square brackets are less common, and are typically used to introduce clarificatory additions to quotations whilst making it clear that the inserted text didn’t appear in the quotation itself. For example, if the quotation is ‘He said it was free!’, but I want to make it clearer who ‘he’ is, I might write, ‘[Angus] said it was free!’ or ‘He [Angus] said it was free!’.

Em-dashes cannot be used to replace square brackets – you wouldn’t be able to tell which em-dashes were originally part of the text and which were not! But you can use them to replace curved brackets. In the example above, we could just as easily have written:

Jensen (for that was his name) yelled dramatically:

This has become less fashionable. Using curved brackets has come to feel ‘formal’ and for some readers comes across as breaking up the sentence too harshly. Other writers think that em-dashes are inappropriate for formal work, and would only use parentheses. Unless your style guide says otherwise (and I’ve never seen one that did) both are fine. I use both, generally making decisions based on tone – how ‘cut off’ from the rest of the sentence do you want your aside to feel? – or clarity.

Unlike brackets, em-dashes don’t have to come in pairs, and nothing in the symbol differentiates an open-em-dash from a close-em-dash. It’s just a line. If your aside comes at the end of a sentence you can just finish with a full-stop. As em-dashes are also used for non-parenthetical reasons, the use of the em-dash is worked out from context. For these reasons, you should never use em-dashes within em-dashes. For example, this is too confusing to read:

Jensen – for that was his name – a very fine name at that – yelled dramatically:*

By contrast, with brackets, you can do this:

Jensen (for that was his name – a very fine name at that) yelled dramatically:

I mean, don’t get me wrong, this is not a great sentence and if you’re using parentheses within parentheses you should always consider whether there’s a neater way to accomplish what you’re after, but one of these sentences is easier on the eyes than the other.

Another alternative to using em-dashes for parenthetical statements is the humble comma. This is absolutely fine:

Jenson, for that was his name, yelled dramatically:

Some people have a deep aversion to anything but commas, believing that even em-dashes break up the flow of a sentence too much. For simple cases like the above, that’s fine, but for complex sentences an em-dash can be a blessed relief to a puzzled reader. The trouble is, commas perform many roles, and it isn’t always obvious whether a comma is ending a clause, separating a list item, or performing a parenthetical role. Take this, for example, from one of my WiPs:

The light level rose – courtesy of the computer, she supposed – and Verity stood and waved a hand.

If we replaced the em-dashes with commas, we get this:

The light level rose, courtesy of the computer, she supposed, and Verity stood and waved a hand.

You can read it, but it’s just more helpful for the reader if you make it clearer that the ‘and’ is conjoining ‘Verity stood and waved a hand’ to ‘The light level rose’ and not ‘courtesy of the computer’ or ‘she supposed’.

As with all writing, you want to think about the impression you want to make on your reader, and you want to convey that impression with the least interruption. Choosing commas, brackets, or em-dashes to indicate your parenthetical remark is all about what impression you want to create.

2. Why use a break em-dash?

This style of writing owes a lot to Emily Dickinson. Although dashes had been used in writing before – punctuation was pretty free-form before the 19th Century – Dickinson used dashes in her poems deliberately as a way of breaking free of the strictures of society – particularly male-defined society. This use – using dashes to indicate a deliberate break in grammatical sentence structure – has become very popular since then in fiction, although it is generally regarded as less appropriate for formal non-fiction and academic writing.

Whilst the usage is rarely an attempt to undermine the patriarchy in quite the manner Dickinson intended, using a dash to indicate a break in your character’s train of thought or speech pattern can be very effective. It can also be useful if your writing has a more poetical tone – leaping from point to point in a disconnected fashion can convey a sense of urgency, or disconnectedness, or confusion. Some examples from my WiPs:


“I – I was gonna ask you if you were interested in catching a coffee, or something, sometime – or, well obviously not a coffee, but, you know, a drink – I could have a coffee, and you could have a frappuccino, or – or something.”

Poetic/sudden break:

Shadows shone with dry desert light in a rubbish of glass-song gibberish that clutches in the broken images and –

And gone again.

One final point: both em- and en-dashes are sometimes used to indicate a break at the end of a paragraph, usually in speech. With em-dashes, this is straightforward. You just put an em-dash immediately after the last word in the paragraph. With en-dashes, you face a choice: put the en-dash immediately after the word, or insert a space between the end of the word and the en-dash. And if it’s speech, you also have to decide whether to put the quotation mark immediately after the en-dash, or to insert a space between them:


and –


and- ”

and -”

and – “

I’d say either of the first two is fine, and the third and the last are fine. You’re basically deciding between treating it like an ordinary en-dash, with a space either side, or not.  A space only on one side doesn’t make sense. Apart from that… either option is fine, but your publisher will have a preference. As a writer, just be consistent. Your copy-editor will do the rest. But I would make a plea for you to use an en-dash, and not a hyphen, in these cases.

So, that’s em-dashes (and most en-dashes) for you. Let’s talk about hyphens.

Hyphenated words. Non-fat. Well-adjusted. Anti-deontologicalism. Kestrel-like.

OK. Like so many things with grammar, there is disagreement, and if your publisher says one thing, you do that thing. Some publishers really like solid compounds and want you to use them wherever possible. Some really like hyphens, and will want you to use them wherever possible. You probably have some intuitions about this yourself. But where does this ‘wherever possible’ come from? Well, the dictionary. Some words are just solid compounds and some just aren’t. Werewolf isn’t were-wolf, but were-cat might be either, depending on preference. Well-adjusted is never welladjusted.

So, here are a few helpful rules. As usual, my touchstone is the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors.


ODWE prefers for ‘non’ to by hyphenated in most compounds, but not all. When in doubt, get down your dictionary of choice and see what it says! As a writer, consistency is what will make you look professional.


Hyphenate when attributive but two separate words when used with participal adjectives after the verb. Ugh. That’s technical. Here’s the trick: look for the verb – the doing word – and see where the ‘well’ is in reference to that. If the ‘well’ compound is after the verb, it’s two separate words, no hyphen; when it’s before, it’s hyphenated. Some examples:

He is well adjusted.

‘is’ is the verb, so two words, no hyphen.

Well-adjusted teenagers become happier adults.

‘become’ is the verb, so a hyphenated compound.


This varies, so I really would check the dictionary when in doubt, but in general: forms a solid compound where the compound is sufficiently established to be regarded as a thing in its own right (e.g. antibody, antibiotic), but where the meaning is established purely as against some established thing, use a hyphenated compound (e.g. anti-abortion, anti-racist, anti-deontologicalism).


Solid compounds where the word is established (e.g. lawlike, lifelike), except where the first part ends in an ‘l’. For novel compounds, hyphenate (e.g. Kestrel-like).

Apart from that… the dictionary is your friend. Don’t be afraid of looking things up!

But how do I make Word behave?

Word is not reliable at following the rules for hyphens/en-dashes/em-dashes. It’s just a computer programme. If you want your writing to come out neat and profressional, I recommend getting the hang of your keyboard shortcuts. These are the default keys to press:

Em-dash: ctrl, alt, and the ‘-‘ symbol on the number pad.

En-dash: ctrl and the ‘-‘ symbol on the number pad.

Hyphen… is just your usual ‘-‘ symbol on the main part of your keyboard.

Now, not every computer has a number pad, but you can set your own computer short-cut in the following way:

In Word, go to the ‘Insert’ tab and click ‘Symbol’ on the far right. Select ‘More symbols’ from the drop-down menu. A window will appear. Click the ‘Special characters’ tab. Select the symbol you want to change and click ‘Shortcut key…’. Select the shortcut you want to change, then enter the keys you want for your shortcut into the ‘Press new shortcut key’ box.  Click ‘Assign’. And you’re done.

Hopefully now you’ll be free to use hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes with confidence 😀

*I’m using space-en-dash-space here as that’s clearer to read online.


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Proofread Along with Rhube #4: Colons and the Rules of Grammar

An excerpt from The Legend of Catherine of GawthwateMost people find colons to be more intuitive than semi-colons, but even so, it helps to have a clear idea of when to use them, rather than just a general feeling. Some confuse them with semi-colons, or have a general uncertainty about which is appropriate and, where intuitions are confused, it’s easy to go wrong. There are also a number of myths about colons. All of which can turn something that’s actually quite straightforward to use into an intimidating nightmare.

But never fear! Rhube is here!

What I’m gonna do, first off, is give you the rules of colon use. If you follow these, you’ll be doing it right. But I’ll also go on to debunk some of the myths about colons that might be floating around confusing you about which rules are the real rules. Then I get into what this rules business is about, anyway, and my thoughts on how to walk the line of creativity vs intelligibility in the matter of using and breaking the ‘rules’.

Colons: the Rules

When to use a colon:

1. to introduce a list (such as this list)

2. to introduce an explanation or example that clarifies the clause that precedes it

The example in my excerpt from The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate (above) performs both these functions (lists often perform an explanatory or expansive role for some aspect of the clause that precedes them):

Calith learnt all the skills he was going to need in battle: sword fighting, lances, archery and that sort of thing

This is both a clarification of the kind of skills Calith needs in order to go into battle, and a list of those skills.

Note that sometimes (usually only in non-fiction works) a colon can be used to introduce what is called ‘displayed material’. It’s ‘displayed’ in the sense that it’s set off from the rest of the text – typically by being placed on a separate line (or lines), with extra line space before and after, and often also indented (set further into the page horizontally), as is the case with the quotation above. Displayed material will perform one of the two roles listed above, but note that listed items are usually only displayed where they constitute a full proposition (statement/independent clause), rather than a single word or brief phrase. Quotations are usually only set as displayed material if they are quite long, or if they are of a form where parts of the text are divided by ‘lines’ (i.e. poetry, lyrics, plays).

Styles differ as to how displayed propositions should be treated. These can be numbered (‘1, 2, 3…’, ‘i, ii, iii…’, ‘a, b, c…’) or bullet-pointed. Bullet points are less accessible (they are harder for screen readers, used by blind and visually impaired people, to process), so I try to avoid those. If you do use bullet points, some people will tell you to put a semi-colon at the end of the bullet point. Grammatically, this is wrong. Bullet points are used for independent clauses, just like semi-colons, but they render the semi-colon unnecessary – they perform the same role. However, I have been told that bullet points are made more intelligible to screen readers if used in conjunction with semi-colons, so then you have to choose between style and accessibility. I prefer not to use them at all to avoid the conflict.

Numbered lists introduced by a colon also should not have terminal punctuation. A lot of people want to use a full-stop at the end of each one. This doesn’t make sense, in that each is part of a list introduced by the colon, so they’re all part of the same sentence, and therefore shouldn’t be punctuated by full-stops. You also really ought not to include more than one sentence in one bullet point or numbered proposition (where introduced by a colon) – it’s supposed to be just one point you’re making, and if you’re using more than one sentence, you’re making more than one point. If you really feel the need, try a semi-colon instead, but where possible, consider if the point doesn’t really deserve it’s own line. Also, consider that numbered lists permit of more than one level. Your first level can be numbered ‘1, 2, 3…’, and then you can have sub-lists of points dependent on 1, or 2, or 3, numbered by ‘a, b, c…’ or ‘i, ii, ii…’ (convention is to avoid using the same type of numbering more than once in your list, as this confuses the reader and inhibits your ability to refer back to numbered statements later on). Some people like to put a full-stop at the end of the final numbered statement, ending the ‘sentence’. I prefer not to. I follow OUP style, which treats displayed lists as a break in conventional punctuation, but I can see the argument the other way, and have worked with style guides that recommend that.

At the end of the day: if it’s up to you, and there is disagreement amongst style guides, pick what you like and stick to it; if you’re working for a company or person with a specific style guide, you follow the style guide, regardless of person feelings.

Colons: myths

A lot of people think that you need a capital letter after a colon. You do not. The thinking is that, when it comes to colons and semi-colons, you obey the dot at the lower level. I.e. colons have a point at the bottom, so they should be treated like full-stops, and the next letter has a capital letter; semi-colons have a comma at the bottom, so they should be treated like commas. This is misguided. There are no full-stops or commas in either colons or semi-colons. They are their own symbols, they merely resemble commas and full-stops in form. If you’re using a colon or a semi-colon then you are making the decision that you want whatever follows to be treated as part of the same sentence as what has gone before. So you don’t use a capital letter after a colon as though you were starting a new sentence.

EXCEPT, where  a colon introduces displayed material that is the start of a new sentence (typically only in quotation), OR where a colon introduces a question. Not all style guides agree on these exceptions. But the thinking is that sometimes a colon allows you to introduce a whole new sentence. This is typically only in the case of questions, because the tone of the independent clause following the colon is entirely different to the tone of the sentence prior to the colon. Prior to the colon is not a question, after the colon is, and we indicate that by using a capital letter as though it were a new sentence.

Personally, I’m inclined to never use a capital letter after a colon. However, when I’m editing, I follow the guide given. It’s like the golden rule of editing and proofreading: house style always trumps personal preferences.

Another myth is that you can also use semi-colons to introduce lists and explanatory clauses. I don’t know where this one comes from, but I suspect it originates in a desire to use semi-colons combined with an uncertainty about when to use them. Some people seem to view semi-colons as anathema, others as though they are a mark of sophistication. At the end of the day, they are neither. Colons and semi-colons are tools, and to be effective they need to have discrete roles.

Rules, flexibility, and creativity

You may be concerned about this laying-down-of-rule-ness. Didn’t I say in my first post that it’s all just convention, and a lot of the conventions conflict? Well, yes. All of language is convention, and language is by nature fluid and dynamic and always changing. The flipside of that is that we need to hold some stuff still in order to make sense of the rest of the moving masses. And, actually, as much as language is fluid, the vast majority of it is widely agreed upon within the language – that’s what distinguishes one language from another. In English, we all agree that a cat is a ‘cat’, whereas in French it’s a ‘chat’, and whilst those are similar, they are distinct, and we distinguish ourselves as language users by which group of rules we broadly stick to. And whilst larger groups of languages share similar punctuation rules, there can be some variation, there, too. So, where the English use quotation marks, the French use guillemets: « »

So, some of it is about making sure we’re all doing enough the same to be understood. Most writers are in the business of wanting to communicate with their readers as easily as possible, so it’s best to follow the central conventions of your language. When I say that something is a ‘rule’, that’s what I’m saying: that if you don’t follow it it will be jarring and/or confusing to your reader.

Sometimes, you may have a specific reason for wanting to do something even though it might be jarring to the reader – or even because it will – especially if you’re into experimentation with form and style. You just need to be sure you know why you’re doing it, and what affect you’re trying to achieve. Emily Dickenson made heavy use of the ‘dash’ in place of conventional punctuation, both to give her poems a sense of urgency and as a deliberate violation male, patriarchal restriction on female creativity. e. e. cummings’s use of lowercase and avoidance of full-stops also represent a break with tradition and a rejection of artificially imposed absolutes. These are interesting and creative innovations that have changed the way we view language today. But if you think using a semi-colon where a colon is needed sends a similarly important message, you may wish to check with yourself whether the message you intend is going to clearly come across.

I really hate the oft-asserted idea that you ‘need to know the rules before you can break them’. There’s a strong whiff of elitism about it, and I feel like it introduces an extra layer of uncertainty that inhibits creativity. Most of us have successfully internalised the majority of the rules of grammar. Human beings are really startlingly good at understanding one another and how to use at least their first language. I think if you tell people that they need to know the rules before they can break them there’s an implicit attempt (conscious or not) to control who gets to be an innovator.

I don’t think most people who say ‘You need to know the rules before you can break them’ consciously mean to inhibit other people – I think there’s a deeper, better truth, which is what they intend to convey, bundled up with this uncomfortable baggage. And this is the truth that there is a difference between making a deliberate violation of traditional grammar and simply ignoring the rules because you think they don’t matter.

It’s a fine line. It’s difficult to provide a rule for when it’s ‘OK’ to break the rules, which is why I think people go for the overly restrictive version – it’s easier to encapsulate. What is the difference between a deliberate violation of traditional grammar and simply thinking that grammar doesn’t matter? Is not thinking that traditional grammar doesn’t matter itself an act of rebellion? I think the answer is ‘In some cases’.

How I would make the judgement call is based on how likely your aim is to come across to your reader. At the end of the day, language is all about communication. You can choose to stop trying to use the form of language – the signs and syntax that are usually used for words and sentences – to try to convey meaning, but at that point, you’re no longer engaging with language at all. You just look, superficially, as though you are. As long as you’re still trying to convey something to your reader, the success of that act is still going to play a role in determining whether your methods were suitable to the task.

Text-speak is widely criticised as laziness and a failure to learn rules – always be wary of criticisms of language innovation that go in the direction from privilege and age towards the less privileged and youth, especially where they use words like ‘laziness’. But what we see is actually the development of new rules designed to facilitate a specific purpose: quick and easy communication. The users of this language group are often criticised from outside by complaints of ‘But I can’t understand a word you’re saying!’ It’s tempting to see this as satisfying my criterion of failure-to-convey-meaning, but the crucial point is that the ones who are failing to understand are not the intended recipients of the meaning. Text-speak has its own grammar and rules – rules which are understood by those who use it. Those who will not take the trouble to learn those rules when they wish to communicate with those who use it, they are the ones who are being lazy. Or, perhaps more accurately: disingenuous. For if they had really wanted to communicate, they could have learnt the rules – they are not that complicated. The ire comes not from the laziness of text-speak users, but from a frustration with being expected to learn new rules when one has already learnt a set of rules for a shared language, and from the sense that one is being excluded from communication by those to whom one expected to be able to communicate with ease.

Which, of course, is one of the purposes of text-speak: to exclude parents and the uninitiated. One can have legitimate reasons to be frustrated with being excluded from a conversation, but falling back on elitism to try and bully the other person into talking in a way you can understand is an action one should be wary of.

'Hello, world' rendered in leet-speak, lolcat, and doge.What I find particularly wonderful is that from functional adaptations, like text-speak, and deliberately exclusionary languages, like 1337 (AKA ‘Leet’), we see an evolution of language experimentation, and joyful play in other internet-languages, like lolcat, and, more recently, doge. There have even been translations of The Bible into lolcat, and a LOLCODE coding language. These are breakings of the rules of grammar with the intent to forge new ones, and for which an expression of joy and playfulness is a central component of most communications using these rules. Laziness? No, not in translating the Bible into lolcat, or devising a whole computer code in lolcat. But there is a definite intent and the rules have been broken and reforged with purpose.

And note that, although people have since retro-analysed lolcat and doge for grammar rules, these evolved organically. You can break the traditional rules of grammar without either trying to or even necessarily being able to articulate the traditional rules yourself.

But if you want to be a successful communicator with some audience, you should think about whether the way you break old rules or forge new ones is likely to communicate the desired effect upon the reader. Even if you only think about it in such as way as ‘If cats spoke, it would be with imperfect grammar and spelling’ or ‘If dogs spoke, it would be with great enthusiasm and they would be easily distracted’. Playing with languages doesn’t have to be stressful or overthought, but understanding the rules can help you to make informed judgements about when to break them.

Proofread Along with Rhube #2: Clauses, Sentences, and Paragraphs

A dissection of what's wrong with the opening sentence of The Legend of Catherine of Gawthwate.

It’s tempting to jump right in and just tell you about the things that a) people are asking me about, and b) I see come up most often in manuscripts. But I believe that understanding the whys and wherefores of a thing not only helps you to make the best judgement calls, it also makes the rules (even where you choose not to obey them for stylistic reasons) easier to remember. I could tell you that one of the uses of a semi-colon is to join two independent clauses, but if you’re anything like me, that’s just gonna make your eyes glaze over at the impenetrability of an unfamiliar language.

So, we’re going to talk a bit about the nuts and bolts before we get on to the big headliner pieces, like when you should use a semi-colon, as opposed to a colon or a comma or a full-stop. There will be thrills, there will be chills*, but not quite yet. Like I said in my first post, this is all about demystifying grammar and spelling and what constitutes good style.

Today, what I’m going to be talking about are the main ways that we divide things up. What are the chunks of things that we use when we’re writing? Clauses, sentences, paragraphs… One of the really unhelpful things that teachers can say to pupils trying to master these basic building blocks is that a clause should be ‘just one thought’, or a sentence should be ‘just one thought’, or that a paragraph should be ‘just one thought’. Teachers say things like this because they don’t want to confuse you with technical terms, and because, from a certain point of view, all of these statements are true. The trouble is that the way in which we’re using the word ‘thought’ is vague. With my philosophy hat on, I know that the idea of singling out a single ‘thought’ is something of a ludicrous fool’s errand – the concept is vague, and our brains don’t work like that. If you read and write enough, then you do get a kind of a sense of what it is for a sentence to be ‘just one thought’ as opposed to a paragraph being ‘just one thought’. But the vagueness of this understanding is such that when you come to a moment when you’re not sure if you need a comma just there, if what you’ve written should be one sentence or two, if your paragraph needs splitting up, you’re just not able to make a decision with confidence.

So, what I’m gonna be talking about today is how to divide things up.


We’re not going to delve too deep into clauses in this first round. There are lots of different types of clauses – independent clauses, subjunctive clauses, dependent clauses, and many more – don’t worry about learning all that just yet. The important thing to get behind is the basic structure of a clause. So, let’s have some definitions:

The essential nature of a clause is that it should have a subject… and a predicate

The New Fowler’s Modern English, Third Edition, R W Burchfield (ed.)

Wonderful. Now, what’s a “subject”? What’s a “predicate”? Well, just as there are different types of clauses, there are different types of subject – Wikipedia has a nice table of the different types of subject – but don’t worry about the niceties too much. The main thing to remember is that the subject is what the clause is about, and the predicate tells us something about the subject. We also sometimes say that it ‘modifies’ the subject. Typically, the predicate is formed of a verb and an object. So, another way of describing a clause is to say that it’s something that has a subject, a verb, and an object (this is what Grammar Girl goes by).

I know, I know, more terms. What’s a verb, then? It’s sometimes called a ‘doing word’. In fact, ‘to do’ is a super interesting verb, as its function is to stand in the place of any other verb. Like, if I’m not sure whether you’re touching your toes or tying your shoelaces, I might say: ‘What’s she doing?’. The wonderful word ‘do’ allows me to ask about your activity whilst not even knowing what it is. The downside of this is that to define a verb as a ‘doing word’ is to define it by reference to a particular verb whose function is to stand in place of other verbs, which is circular, and thus not very helpful. Another way of putting it is to say that it’s an action word. Verbs, then, relate subjects to objects, in the sense that the verb is the action the subject is taking on the object.

I love you

I = subject | love = verb | you = object

So in this sense we can understand the subject as the thing that acts, and the object as the thing that is acted upon, whilst the verb is the action. Note that action, here, doesn’t have to be physical action. In one sense, there’s nothing I’m physically doing when I love you. I might be sitting perfectly still, with a blank face, thinking wistfully about you. Mr Darcy loves Elizabeth Bennett, but from a certain perspective (hers) he doesn’t act as though he does for most of the novel. Nevertheless, he holds the attitude of love towards her, and his holding of that attitude is a kind of action.

So, a clause needs to have a subject, a verb, and an object.

‘But,’ you may be thinking, ‘I am sure I have seen things that are called clauses that do not have all three of those things! Was I just being fed nonsense?’

Maybe. You might have gleaned, or been told, that commas are used in a sentence to delineate clauses. In which case, you might look at something like ‘or been told’ (in the previous sentence) and go ‘Well, I think I can see the verb, but where’s the subject? Where’s the object? Who has been told what?’ This is where complex sentences become… complex. Because what’s going on is that this sentence has more than one clause. It’d be helpful, here, to say something about what a sentence is.


In a simple, technical sense, we can say of a sentence that it should have a subject, a verb, and an object. But ARGH – that’s just what we said clauses were! Don’t worry. The key thing is that some sentences are just one clause long. These are called ‘simple’ sentences. ‘I love you’ is both a simple sentence and a single clause. So is ‘Do you love her?’ and ‘You will love me’ – sentences don’t have to be statements; they can be instructions, questions, commands, and so on. Complex sentences combine one or more clause. For example: ‘You love her, don’t you?’. ‘You love her’ is the main clause of the sentence, and it is an independent clause, because it could be its own sentence. Strictly speaking ‘don’t you?’ could not be a complete sentence; it depends for some of its content on the first clause. The verb that ‘do’ is standing in for is ‘love’, and the object is ‘her’. A full version of this clause would be ‘Do you not love her?’, but we can save time and space by making this clause parasitic on the first clause, and putting it in the same sentence.

I say ‘strictly speaking’ that ‘Don’t you?’ is not (in a technical sense) a sentence. But, of course, in practice, a lot of our sentences (or what we think of as sentences) are just like this. Because conversation, and even prose, can become quite stilted if every sentence has to explicitly spell out its subjects and objects and verbs. In practice, ‘Don’t you?’ doesn’t actually have to be in the same sentence as the verb and object that would complete it in order to make sense. In fact, you could be the one saying ‘I don’t love her!’ and I could be responding ‘Don’t you?’, and we both still know what I’m talking about, even though the object and  (proper) verb weren’t even spoken by me at all. The context fills in the gaps, and we’re perfectly happy to allow such incomplete sentences into our language.

So, that’s one reason you might have a multi-clause sentence: to speed up talking. It might also be because you want to make a lot of modifications to the same subject all at once. So, for instance, if I’m describing a character and saying ‘Brienne was tall, and broad shouldered, with blue eyes, and impressive skill with a sword’ I could say ‘Brienne was tall. Brienne had broad shoulders. Brienne had blue eyes. Brienne had impressive skill with a sword.’ Technically, there’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s rather tiresome to read. So, I have a stylistic motivation to put it all in one sentence; moreover, I’m doing the same thing in all these sentences: describing Brienne; so I can quite easily make these separate sentences into dependent clauses, taking the verb and subject from the first clause. Why can’t I just do that for a whole paragraph, then?


I might want to say, in a single paragraph:

Jaime had conflicted feelings about Brienne. Brienne was tall, and broad shouldered, with blue eyes, and impressive skill with a sword. There was much to be admired in her. She could hardly be called feminine, though. Not in the way that Cersei was.

(This isn’t a quote from A Song of Ice and Fire, by the way – I would never slight George R R Martin by suggesting his prose could ever be so prosaic.)

OK, so, these sentences all belong in the same paragraph. Why? Well, they’re all involved in making the same point: that Jaime has conflicted feelings about Brienne. Why split them up into discrete sentences, then, if they’re all about doing the same thing? Well, let’s try it (just using the tools at hand, for the time being**):

Jaime had conflicted feelings about Brienne, Brienne was tall, and broad shouldered, with blue eyes, and impressive skill with a sword, there was much to be admired in her, she could hardly be called feminine, though, not in the way that Cersei was.

Ugh. That’s a bit of a mess to read, isn’t it? But why is it a mess? It’s because we’ve got a bunch of competing subjects and verbs and obejcts and it’s not entirely clear which bits should relate to what. We move from Jaime feeling conflicted to a description of Brienne, to a remark about the description of Brienne, to an unrelated criticism of Brienne, and finally, to a comparison of Brienne with Cersei. And that’s because there are a bunch of independent clauses, and a bunch of dependent clauses, but what is and is not dependent on what has not been clearly delineated. This is what your teacher meant when they said that each sentence should be a single thought. Identify the main thing your sentence is about: what subject, what verb, what objects that verb relates that subject to. Anything that relates to a different subject or verb should be given its own sentence. (There are, of course, exceptions to this, but just get the hang of this basic principle for now.)

This not only makes for easier reading, it makes it easier to see the relations between the sentences. That ‘There was much to be admired about her’ is a comment on all the attributes assigned to Brienne in the sentence whose focus is on describing her. And by grouping all these points together in a paragraph we can see how they support the central claim of the paragraph: that Jaime was conflicted in his feelings towards Brienne. He notes certain things about her. He likes those things. He notes another thing about her. He notes that he doesn’t like that aspect of her so much. He likes someone else better who exhibits the opposite. We divide these points off from some other points that may come before or afterward (maybe regarding what Brienne is currently doing, maybe about what Jaime wants her to do) because it’s easier to see how they support this central point if they are separated out from things that do not relate directly to that point.

Now, you may be thinking, ‘Oh God, I can’t be doing with thinking about all this shit every time I write a paragraph!’, and that’s fine. A lot of this stuff you have absorbed subconsciously without even knowing. Where this will help you is when you don’t know what to do. When a sentence or paragraph feels wrong, but you don’t know why. If the paragraph is really long, ask yourself what its central point is. If you realise that there is more than one, separate out which sentences support which point and put them in different paragraphs respectively. If a sentence is confusing, identify the main clause. If you think there might be more than one, separate out the clauses into different independent clauses (ones that could be their own sentence), and those clauses that are dependent on each of those independent clauses.

But remember, there are stylistic reasons why it can be OK to not follow these rules exactly. Maybe you want to have a paragraph that’s just one sentence and the sentence is simply ‘No’. You could do this if the previous paragraph makes it clear what is being negated. For example:

‘I know you love me! Tell me you love me!’


Here ‘”No.”‘ is standing in for ‘”No, I do not love you. No, I will not tell you that I love you.”, but it’s more dramatic, firmer, if it just reads: ‘”No.”‘. We can tell what the full sentence would be from context, though, so it’s fine. It can be an incomplete sentence (what Word likes to call a ‘fragment’), and it can be a paragraph of only one sentence, because the point of the paragraph (to deny that the speaker loves the previous speaker) is obvious, and the subject, object, and verb are implicit from context.

So, them’s the bare bones of how to divide up your prose. Go forth and punctuate!

*Subject to availability.

** We could use semi-colons to make this a bit better. It would still suck, though, and I just want to illustrate why separating with commas will not do, right now.

(Read Proofread Along with Rhube #1)


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Proofread Along with Rhube #1

A screenshot of a proof read document, with track changes and comments

How one might proofread my Teenage Wasteland text.

This is the first in a series of articles I’m going to be doing, providing a proofreader’s perspective on spelling, grammar, and manuscript preparation. The purpose will not be to lecture, but to inform and to help. I want to provide the answers I wish someone had given to me in school. Lots of us grew up under a teaching philosophy that held that we should pick up a lot of the niceties of spelling and grammar by osmosis. And the problem with that is that a) we didn’t, really; b) a lot of what we picked up was conflicting; and c) a lot of what we picked up has changed since we picked it up. All of which can lead to a lot of uncertainty and mistakes and anxiety.

I plan to do a bunch of short articles on common misunderstandings, problems, and puzzles from the perspective of someone who proofreads and copy-edits both fiction and academic writing for a living. And I’m going to start with a bit of demystifying of the ‘rules’ and what exactly it is that proofreaders and copy-editors do. My hope is that this will make your approach to writing ‘correctly’ a less anxious process.

But first, a bit about me, and why you should listen to anything I say in the first place.

About Rhube and her Profreaderly Pedigree

I’ve been a writer all my life and actively engaged with writing critique groups since I first came to university, thirteen years ago. This has made me both good at picking stuff up and sensitive to the fact that there are a lot of different writing styles, and a lot of different opinions about the ‘correct’ way to write. Prior to that, at A Level, I had been taken to task because the content of my essays was good, but my writing style was rubbish. My sentences were a paragraph long, my paragraphs could last a page, and I didn’t really understand about the purpose of introductions or conclusions. It was hurting my grades, so I sought help, something I think a lot of intelligent students don’t do. There’s a culture of believing that if you’re good enough, you’ll pick it up on your own, and whilst you can get part of the way there on your own, a little direction and a willingness to admit you might be wrong really helps.

Learning to write well was a process. A process that was informed by the twice-weekly Creative Writing Group I attended, feedback from essays, and self-reflection. Some of the stuff I ‘figured out’ along the way I have since learnt was wrong, but somewhere between being taken to task for my hopelessly confused grammar and style at A Level, and beginning my Masters, I became someone who routinely received feedback on how much easier to read my writing was than other students. Most attributed this to my undergrad having been a joint honours with English Literature. Which was, of course, complete bollocks.

There’s an odd assumption that being good at reading and analysing other people’s work necessarily involves being good at writing yourself. I think it goes back to the myth of learning-by-osmosis. Alas, just because you read a lot and understand a lot of what’s going on in fiction, doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand how to write. I learnt to write by going to critique groups a lot, writing a lot, revising a lot, critiquing other people, and looking things up when I wasn’t sure. But whatever the reason, people noticed that I wrote well, and when I started my PhD, in 2006, a lecturer friend of mine suggested my name to a friend of a friend of his as an English language proofreader for the European Journal of Analytic Philosophy, and I had my foot in the door.

After proofreading for EuJAP for a year, I was offered work on the journal edited by my department, Mind, which is published by Oxford University Press (OUP). I started proofreading reviews and occasional articles, and eventually I was offered copy-editing work, too. Of all the things that have taught me about the nuts and bolts of writing, my work for Mind has probably been the most significant. OUP is exacting, and our editor is meticulous. I’m very grateful to him, both for his extensive style sheets, and for his personal guidance. I learnt to look things up, to check and double-check; I learnt that many of the rules I had learnt were either wrong, or simply not Mind style. And whilst I learnt to be exacting about house style, I also learnt to respect authorial style.

Meanwhile, I had kept up with my own fiction writing and had come to know Lee Harris, senior editor at Angry Robot (AR), via the writing group I joined after the university one I had attended for years died a death. Lee knew of my work for Mind, and in December 2012 he asked if I’d like to do some work for Angry Robot. I applied and was accepted and completed proofreading my first novel in January 2013. A year later I have begun to support myself solely based off my proofreading and copy-editing work.

What I’ve Learnt Along the Way

I’ve learnt a lot. The biggest thing I have learnt is that there is no one truth about grammar, style, or even spelling. It’s not just national differences, like the US/UK spelling variations; the Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries differ on some of their spellings. There are different conventions dependent on house style and even different mediums within the same house. An article may have different requirements to a review. Authorial styles vary, and how much leeway you give to an author varies dependent on house style, too.

This doesn’t mean that there are no rules, and it doesn’t mean that anything goes. It does mean that if you and your friend disagree about whether it should be ‘learnt’ or ‘learned’, there is no objectively right answer. Some consider ‘learnt’, ‘dreamt’, ‘smelt’ etc. to be somewhat old fashioned, but it’s not obsolete, it’s still permissible. I like it, so I use it. If I submitted work to one publisher, they might let me go with that; if I submitted it to another, they might change ‘learnt’ to ‘learned’. The important point is that no one is going to turn down your work simply because you used a different spelling convention to the house style. That’s what they employ people like me for: to make your writing fit their style.

You should, of course, read any guidelines provided by the publisher you want to submit to. But those guidelines are highly unlikely to get down to the nitty-gritty of spelling conventions. They might have a blanket statement to the effect of ‘We use UK spellings’, but that’s rare. Two of the publishers I have worked for have respected authorial choice concerning US/UK/Canadian etc. spellings. OUP, unsurprisingly, insists on using the spellings as indicated in the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors. But even there, no article is rejected for using US spellings; we just change all the spellings by force at the copy-editing stage.

Of course, you want to look professional. If you chop and change between different spelling and grammar conventions enough, your writing will look sloppy, and that might affect the acceptance of your piece. The key is to be consistent. Use the Oxford (serial) comma, or don’t. Spell it ‘learnt’ or ‘learned’, and stick to your choice. It’ll make you look more professional, and it’ll be easier on your proofreader – if she has to make changes, then it’s easier for her to change all of x-spellings to y-spellings, as opposed to keeping track of your varied options and making a call about which you use more.

Not everything is just a convention. Well, all spelling and grammar are just conventions in the strictest sense, but some things are widely agreed to be wrong in professional writing. It is ‘a lot’, and not ‘alot’. When in doubt, look it up. There are some good texts you can buy that have status and reliability. My two favourites are:

Fowler’s Modern English Usage, first edited by H W Fowler, third edition edited by R W Burchfield

New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, edited and compiled by R M Ritter

These things get updated periodically, so make sure you have the most recent edition.

There’s also a wealth of advice online (like this series – hi!) but a lot of it is people asserting or debating their personal favourites or ‘feelings’, so be careful. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips are a great, reliable, and clear resource.

So that’s the main lesson to take away from this, our inaugural  session: don’t worry too much, just be consistent and, when in doubt, look it up!


Index to other Proofread Along with Rhube pages.

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