Using Words as Words

Often when we’re writing nonfiction we need to refer to words in such a way that the term being used is itself the subject of the discussion, rather than the concept the term describes. If I say “My Sunday school students have difficulty understanding the concept of propitiation,” it means something very different from “English is her second language, so she has difficulty understanding the word propitiation.”


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When in your writing you need to discuss the word or phrase itself rather than the concept described by the term, put the term in italics. I have seen writers try things like this:

In this study, we’ll discuss the etymology of “decimate,” “enormity,” and “nauseous.”

When terms in quotation marks like this are scattered across a page, the marks soon become distracting. Using italics instead makes for a cleaner presentation:

In this study, we’ll discuss the etymology of decimate, enormity, and nauseous.

There are some cases where you might want to use quotation marks. The example given by Chicago is when you are discussing both Spanish and English terms at the same time. Foreign words are italicized, so it might confuse the reader to italicize the English terms as well. So at 7.58, Chicago gives this example:

The Spanish verbs ser and estar are both rendered by “to be.”

What About Letters?

The treatment of letters as letters is similar:

When he leaves work for the day, he puts a red X on the calendar.

Note that Chicago says such letters are “usually italicized.” They are not in expressions like U-turn, L-shaped desk, or T-shirt, where the letter is used to represent the shape of the thing rather than the letter’s own linguistic properties.

Roman type, however, is traditionally used in two common expressions…

Mind your p’s and q’s!

dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s

—Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition, 7.59

When referring to letter grades in school, use neither italics nor an apostrophe:

She got all As this semester.

I know it looks weird. Trust me on this one. Do not stick an apostrophe in there. In context, no one is going to mistake it for the word as. The only time you need to use an apostrophe with a plural of a letter is if it is lower case:

The word llama has two l’s and two a’s.

Note that the letters l and a are italicized, but the apostrophe and the s are not.

During this discussion of Mechanics, I keep quoting from The Chicago Manual of Style, don’t I? That’s because it’s a 1,000-page book, so I can quote without exceeding fair use. Yet I said you didn’t need to buy a copy. I meant that. Do, however, pick up a copy of Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors. If you still feel you’re missing out, have a look at Chicago at the reference desk of your local library.

What Semicolons Are For

An editor once excised the semicolons from my writing with the marginal note “Death to semicolons.” He changed every one of them to a period.

Not every editor is so vehement about this much-maligned mark, but those who are may be provoked by the fact that so many writers don’t know how to use it properly.


This lack of accuracy may come about because some people learn that a comma is a pause and a period is a stop. One could readily deduce that a semicolon is somewhere in between.

Almost, but not quite.

One place this does hold true is if you replace the comma in a run-on sentence with a semicolon. A run-on, you may recall from your last grammar class, is two independent clauses joined by a comma. It is a grammatical error:

Incorrect: She knitted a sweater, he wore it.
Correct: She knitted a sweater, and he wore it.
Also correct: She knitted a sweater; he wore it.
Also correct: She knitted a sweater. He wore it.

You can join your independent clause with a comma and a conjunction, a semicolon, or a period. Both the “and” version and the semicolon version convey the close relationship between the first clause and the second. If you read them aloud, they’ll have different rhythms. So I recommend trying it each way before you make a decision.
Where you cannot use a semicolon—though many people try to—is to join an independent clause to a dependent clause. The dependent clause cannot stand alone as an independent clause can. So it must be joined more closely than is possible with a semicolon.

Incorrect: She had to stop knitting; because her wrists ached.
Correct: She had to stop knitting, because her wrists ached.

The dependency marker because prevents the clause from standing alone.
Some adverbs, like however and therefore, are termed “transitional adverbs,” and when they join two independent clauses, they should be preceded by a semicolon. One example in Chicago:

The trumpet player developed a painful cold sore; therefore plans for a third show were scrapped.

Note that no comma follows the adverb therefore in this example. If your second independent clause is a very complex one, a comma may be wise. But it is not always necessary.
Another place you’ll need a semicolon is with expressions like that is, for example, and the like. Again, from Chicago:

Keesler managed to change the subject; that is, he introduced a tangential issue.

You may have learned to use semicolons in a series. Here’s where it gets tricky, kids. You don’t need semicolons in lists unless the items in the lists have commas in them. That prevents the whole series from running together. Chicago once more:

The defendant, in an attempt to mitigate his sentence, pleaded that he had recently, on doctor’s orders, gone off his medications; that his car—which, incidentally, he had won in the late 1970s on Let’s Make a Deal—had spontaneously caught on fire; and that he had not eaten for several days.

If the semicolon continues to perplex you, don’t worry. It can often be done without, as my semicolon-averse editor demonstrated. Or you can consult a copyeditor. Use the comment form to submit specific examples you’d like edited, or use the contact form if you’d rather not take your rough draft public.

All of this has nothing to do with images you may have seen on Facebook or elsewhere of people with semicolon tattoos. That trend is part of a movement to prevent suicide and self-harm. For more about it, see Project Semicolon.

How to Use Quotation Marks

On my to-do list was a note to write you a post about the correct use of quotation marks. Then I discovered that Jonathon Owen over at Arrant Pedantry had already done so. His article is useful and thorough, so I’ll send you over there to learn How to Use Quotation Marks. He even has a nifty flow chart.

quotation marks

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I especially like Owen’s comments about scare quotes. Those are the quotes people put around a word to draw attention to it for … well, no good reason, actually, as Owen explains. Whenever you are tempted to put scare quotes around a term, I want you to imagine you are speaking to an audience and when you get to that part of your writing, you make “air quotes” with your “fingers” every time you put “scare quotes” around a term.

Because, yeah. That’s how useless and annoying they are.

Use Single Quotation Marks Properly

What Owen does not address is the single quotation mark, which I find people also don’t know how to use. I often see single quotes used as scare quotes. Those just come right out.

Single quotation marks are used around terms in some specialized fields—Chicago identifies philosophy, linguistics, and horticulture among them—but if you are writing for the general market, this is not an appropriate style choice.

To draw attention to a term when you define it, use italics: Horticulture is from the Latin hortus, which means garden.

In a book written for the general market, the only place you’re likely to need single quotation marks is within a quotation. You may remember this Bible excerpt from the article on Scripture quotations:

Then the prophet Shemaiah came to Rehoboam and to the leaders of Judah who had assembled in Jerusalem for fear of Shishak, and he said to them, “This is what the Lᴏʀᴅ says, ‘You have abandoned me; therefore, I now abandon you to Shishak.’”—2 Chronicles 12:5 (NIV)

There are no quotation marks around the excerpt because it is a block quotation. Shemaiah’s dialogue is in double quotation marks, and the line in which he’s quoting the Lord is in single quotations. If this were being run into text, it would get even more interesting, because then I would have to put, “…and he said to them, ‘This is what the Lᴏʀᴅ says, “You have abandoned me; therefore, I now abandon you to Shishak.”’”

You see what happened there? I have one set of double quotation marks around the excerpt. Within that is a set of single quotation marks around the part Shemaiah speaks aloud, and within that there are double quotes around the line in which he’s quoting the Lord. Like nested boxes.

Which is why I originally set it as a block quotation.

What to Do with Hyphens

The guidelines for hyphenation are complex and inconsistent. At least copyeditors are kept in business, but it can be frustrating for a writer to understand when to hyphenate and when not. Hyphenation errors are among the most common spelling problems I see. Yes, spelling. Hyphens are often thought of as punctuation, but matters of hyphenation are correctly classified under spelling, as they are in Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors and The Chicago Manual of Style. At the risk of sounding like your mother, most of what you need to know about how to spell a word can be found by looking it up in a dictionary. Chicago recommends Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

Student with doubts and gaps in matters

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Compounds may be spelled in three ways: open, hyphenated, or closed. Open compounds appear in a single dictionary entry. Yes, you can look up make and then up, but you can also look up make up. If you do, you’ll see it’s a verb. Makeup is a noun. The hyphenated form make-up is not dictionary listed and would appear only if you needed an adjectival form.

I often see constructions like this: She put on her make-up. But try to look up make-up and you will be directed to choose make up or makeup or some other word.

Make up as a verb has several meanings. Makeup as a noun also has quite a few, including the sense of cosmetics. So you would write She put on her makeup. You might sometimes see the verb form hyphenated when it’s used as a modifier, e.g., He took a make-up test. But one of the noun senses of makeup is a test “in which a student may make up for absence,” so He took a makeup test would be acceptable, and is the far more common form.

If you’re not sure whether a word requires a hyphen or not, look it up.

Prefixes and Compound Modifiers

One of the places English gets most confusing is in the realm of compound modifiers. You would think that the adjectival phrase would be hyphenated wherever it appears, but no. It is hyphenated only before the noun, but not after: The wind was ice cold but the ice-cold wind. This is a very general rule and there are exceptions. For example, the term well-being is a hyphenated compound and will therefore always be hyphenated: He taught a well-being seminar and He taught a seminar about well-being.

The Chicago Manual of Style contains a ten-page chart of hyphenation guidelines, and it still doesn’t cover every possible English construction. Nevertheless, it will cover almost every possibility, so it’s worth grabbing.

Pay particular attention to the rules for prefixes. Most of the time, prefixes such as non, pre, post and semi do not require a hyphen. A prefix, by definition, may be joined to just about any English word. Yet your spell checker will not contain an ad hoc construction like I was semiexhausted, and will flag it as misspelled. It will probably prompt you to insert a space, but that will look wrong, so you’ll stick a hyphen in and call it good. But in Chicago style, semiexhausted would be the correct form. Spell checking software doesn’t know everything.

And, of Course, an Exception

Because this is English, it can’t just end there. Because compound modifiers are hyphenated, you might be inclined to hyphenate a phrase like duly-noted additions. But adverbs ending in -ly are the exception to the hyphenation rule. So it would be duly noted additions. Note that not all -ly words are adverbs, so family-owned business would still be hyphenated. Unless you write The business was family owned.

At about this point most folks are ready to throw in the towel. Hang in there. The rules are strange but not impossible to master. And if you really get fed up, you can always hire a copyeditor.

Two Kinds of Dashes and How to Use Them

One of the finer points of punctuation is the use of dashes. In casual writing, we often use them willy-nilly, but when you are writing nonfiction for publication, take care to use them properly.

Fiction writers only need concern themselves with one kind of dash. They will rarely have use for the other. But nonfiction writers need to understand the differences and when to use them.


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The first and most common dash is the em dash—so called because in a proportional font it’s about the same width as the letter M. There’s one in the previous sentence. The em dash is used in nonfiction much as it is in fiction: for an abrupt break that’s not suitable for other punctuation.

I often see writers using semicolons to separate clauses in a sentence like the one at the beginning of the previous sentence. But when the second part of the sentence (the part after the dash above) is not a complete sentence, a semicolon is inappropriate. In other words, if you use a semicolon in a sentence, the parts before and after it should be independent clauses—that is, they could stand as complete sentences if you used a period instead. The use of a semicolon instead of a period shows that they are closely related. If they are not, use a dash.

She worked hard all day; there was a lot to do. [Correct]
She worked hard all day; so much to do. [Incorrect]
She worked hard all day—so much to do. [Correct]

Another use for an em dash is in place of parentheses. When you insert into the middle of a sentence—like this—a phrase that is not grammatically necessary to the sentence, you can enclose it in em dashes. This is seen as less formal than parentheses. Which you choose will depend on your audience. If you are writing for the scholarly market, parentheses are unobjectionable and often preferred. But if you are writing for the general market, parentheses can look stuffy.

Some editors feel em dashes are too casual for formal prose, so be judicious in your use of them if you are seeking traditional publication.

When typing your dashes, leave no space on either side, unless you are writing for a publication that uses the Associated Press Stylebook.

The Other Dash

Less often used is the en dash, which you may guess is so called because it is the width of the letter N. Its primary use is in ranges, such as historical dates and page number citations.

He fought in the 1914–18 war.
The information is on pages 78–81.
The apostle Paul cites the marks of a Christian in Romans 12:9–21

As Chicago puts it, you would use the en dash where you might also use the word to.

A less common use is to form a compound adjective when one of the parts of the compound is a set phrase.

Let me explain. Normally, to form a compound modifier, we hyphenate the parts of the compound, such as in war-torn years (war + torn form a compound adjective modifying the noun years). But if part of the compound is a set phrase, as in Chicago’s example, the post–World War II years (CMOS 6.80), the en dash serves as a sort of superhyphen to bring the whole modifier together.

Well, now the topic has drifted into hyphenation, which is a whole other topic. Next time, friends.

Typing special characters

Nonbreaking space in Word for Windows: ctrl + shift + spacebar
Ellipsis character in Word for Windows: alt + ctrl + period
Em dash in Word for Windows: ctrl + alt + minus key (on the numeric keypad)
En dash in Word for Windows: ctrl + minus key (on the numeric keypad)

Nonbreaking space in Word for Mac: option + spacebar
Ellipsis character in Word for Mac: option + semicolon
Em dash in Word for Mac: option + shift + hyphen
En dash in Word for Mac: option + hyphen

Review Last Year, Set Goals for Next Year

Last year at about this time, I suggested you set some goals for the new year. How did you do? What went right? Take time to celebrate your successes. That will give you hope and inspiration for the future. It will also help you set new goals that stretch you.

What went wrong? More importantly, why did things go right or wrong? And what are you going to change next year?

Goals for 2016

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Using Ellipses Properly in Nonfiction

The rules for ellipses in nonfiction differ slightly from those in fiction. In fiction, ellipses signal a hesitation or trailing off of speech. But in nonfiction, they indicate omissions from quoted material. If you’re writing a memoir or other narrative nonfiction, you may use ellipses the way they’re used in fiction.

When you use an ellipsis to indicate an omission, you must take care not to misrepresent the original text. Using ellipses to get around parts of a quoted work that oppose your argument while leaving the bits that support it is cheating the reader. For similar reasons, don’t use an ellipsis to join sentences from passages that are widely separated in the original.


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