Usage tip for 9/17: Omit the word, keep the hyphen

“But Karen, that makes no sense!” Not yet, it doesn’t, because I haven’t told you what it means. Hold yer horses; we’re going for a little ride.

It’s covered in the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Ed., under section 7.84: Omission of part of a hyphenated expression. “When the second part of a hyphenated expression is omitted, the hyphen is retained, followed by a space.” That is a concise statement, but doesn’t really explain the why of the practice.

You know how I like to go on about GUM issues. Heh.

I’ll use an example from some of the work I’ve done in the last couple of days. The writer nailed it out of the gate; I made no correction (I didn’t need to!) or comment, but she queried me anyway. Nothing wrong with doing that. Also, there was nothing wrong with her writing. So, here we go.

“Make it a two- or three-course meal.”

What’s that hyphen doing after “two?” It’s indicating that there’s an understood word (one that’s not physically present, but that is contextually present) attached to “two,” and it appears later in the sentence attached to another similar word (in this case, the word “three”). Rather than repeating the same word twice (or more, in some cases), you can eliminate it and retain the hyphen from the full construction to indicate the actual sense to the reader.


Rather than saying “Make it a two-course or three-course meal” you can remove the first “course” but retain the hyphen attached to “two.” “Make it a two- or three-course meal.” It works backward for a reader. When you see a hyphen attached to a word in that way, you have a signal that there’s a word later in the sentence attached to another similar word in the same way, and that will give you the full sense of what’s being said.

And of course now I could go for a three-course meal. Indian or Thai?


Style manuals are your friends. Honestly, they are.

It occurs to me that many of the questions writers ask in editorial forums (such as the Writer’s Discussion Group at G+) could be answered by a little research. I’m not saying it’s not good to ask; I’m saying that research is a highly useful skill, and writers would do well to practice it. When you want to know how to spell a word, you use a dictionary. (Maybe you even use a misspeller’s dictionary, if you have a serious problem. That’s what they’re for, after all.) When you have a question about how your text should appear, you consult a style manual (or two, or three). If you’re working “to spec” there’s no question about which manual you should use. You use the one you’re told to use, period.

How many spaces after terminal punctuation? Do I use single quotes or double for direct speech? How do I form a possessive of a name that ends in -s?  Are names of restaurants italicized, or enclosed in quotation marks (or perhaps something different from either of those)? What’s the difference between an em dash and an en dash, and how are they used? Should there be terminal punctuation after items in a bulleted list? Should I use “noon” and “midnight,” or “12 p.m.” and “12 a.m.?” And are there periods in those abbreviations, or are they set in small capitals? What about a range of times? Do I have to put the abbreviation after each time, or only the last one?

All excellent questions, and all answered by any one of the major style guides out there. Used copies are readily available if you don’t want to shell out for a new one. If you’re writing fiction, chances are you’ll lean toward CMoS (the Chicago Manual of Style). That might be your best option for nonfiction, unless that nonfiction is medical in nature; then perhaps you’d want to look at the AMA (the American Medical Association) style manual. If you’re writing for the education field, it’s a good bet that you’ll need to check the Modern Language Association’s guidelines (MLA). And, if you’re doing general research work in an academic setting, chances are good you’ll need an APA (American Psychological Association) style manual.

My “day job” consists of copyediting and proofreading content for social media sites for a national supermarket chain and its subsidiaries. I use the AP (Associated Press) manual for that, per the company standards. (AP is used for many news outlets; it’s a very spare style, focused on getting the maximum information into the minimum space.) The company I work for also has a house style guide for the things that AP doesn’t cover, and that document is constantly undergoing revisions (mostly because the two of us who freelance for them ask questions and push for answers, to make it easier on both their in-house staff writers and us). This guide covers not only the social media posts, but also Powerpoint presentations for clients, internal reports, and blog entries. What kind of revisions, you ask? Just this week, it was determined that the word “Associate” should always appear with an initial capital letter when it refers to someone employed by one of the companies (as in “Ask one of our friendly Associates about the rewards card program!”). A couple of months ago, the team decided that tweets should always use an ampersand (&) instead of the word “and,” but should never use “w/” instead of the word “with.” AP style says lists should use dashes, not bullets; the house guidelines supercede the AP version and say always use bullets.

You’ll need to do a little research before you do your research, you see, but I promise you it’ll be worth it in the long run. And if you’re a freelance editor, don’t be surprised if you wind up with a copy of each one on your reference shelf. The only ones I’ve never had call to use are AMA and MLA, but that’s just the luck of the draw. I even went so far as to get a copy of The New Oxford Style Manual for working with British writers, just in case. (I’ve become convinced that British writers can do pretty much whatever they please, as long as they’re consistent. I’m still happy I have that book, though. Makes a great paperweight.)

Number 2 in a series?

Regular readers of this blog might remember a magazine ad I ran that contained a gotta-see-it-to-believe-it typo. Well, I recently found myself forced to flip through the Crate & Barrel summer catalog (since it was the only reading material available near the, er, place where I was sitting), and the very first page that I happened to look at contained the same typo, albeit in a smaller font.

Just like in the other magazine ad, the people responsible for this error can’t fall back on the excuse that it’s easy to miss a repeated word that occurs at the end of one line and the beginning of the next line (which is true, by the way). And most spellcheckers catch repeated words, so apparently this copy wasn’t subjected to even that lowly level of care.

For the record, I’d also hyphenate “powder-coated” (as they did, correctly, with “Weather-resistant”). However, the trend these days is to close up compounds, so I won’t hold it against them. I mean, yeah, I think they’re wrong in this case, but their hearts were in the right place. And at least they didn’t have “powder coated” as two separate words.

So now I’ve found two recent instances of “the the” in print. Is this the beginning of a series? Stay tuned to find out!

From soup to nuts (with a proofreader)

A dear friend of mine just purchased a franchise from Zoup! (They use the exclamation point the same way our blog does, as part of the name.) I jokingly commented to him to please tell me their menus will be professionally edited and proofread–and then, of course, I went to the franchise’s site to see a menu for myself. My friend won’t have any control over what’s printed on his restaurant’s menu, sorry to say.

It’s nowhere near the eyesore provided by Alice Cooperstown, but it’s not perfect, either.

The first question I have is: If the name of the place is Zoup!, why isn’t “soup” spelled that way as the menu category? It’s probably some copyright/licensing issue, but it really looks odd to me. I expected to see the “cute” spelling carried through. They’ve replaced the “s” on “greens,” and the “es” on “sandwiches,” so why not the “s” on “soup”?

I won’t pick the whole thing apart, but I’ll speak to it in generality. Numerous hyphens are missing from compound adjectives (like “tomato-based” or “low-fat”). Nouns and adjectives are randomly capitalized (look at the kinds of breads, and the types of salad dressings). Then there are the other inconsistencies: Are the “Raspberry Balsamic Vinaigrette” and the “Raspberry Vinaigrette dressing” the same, or different? If they’re the same, they should be worded the same. Otherwise picky editors like me ask picky questions like this one. Parentheses are also apparently random. Some entries use the format “(prepared this way on that kind of bread)” and others use “prepared this way on that kind of bread.” (Add the random capitalization to that and you have a right mess.)

What’s with that “.” before “cobb” (sic)? If it’s supposed to be a joke of some kind, I don’t get it.

These are the things that keep this copy editor/proofreader from falling asleep easily. Menus are in need of correction somewhere in the world!

Will this keep me from visiting my friend’s restaurant? Not on your life. I won’t even take my red marker with me. (He’s been a friend too long for me to antagonize him that way–and as a former member of the legal profession, he’d find a way to get back at me. I’m kidding. He wouldn’t do that. At least I don’t think he would.)



No Holiday for Maverick Editors

Before I go any further with this, I have to say one thing. I did not knowingly pattern that blog title after “No Time for Sergeants,” starring the late Andy Griffith. My brain did it of its own volition. Blame the brain.

Now then, on to my holiday rant. It’s a holiday rant because, while maverick editors don’t get holidays, I’m not combing teh intarwebz as I normally would because it’s a holiday for most other folks and I don’t want to do that much work (I’m trying to show solidarity, ok?). I want to rant. I don’t want to work. It’s too hot to work, but that’s perfect for ranting. And babbling semi-coherently. Lucky you, readers.

I’ll take these things in the order in which they occurred to me, which is in no way significant. Not at all. It just happens to be the order in which they occurred to me, nothing more.

“Center-parted bun.” Why was I even looking at a style-oriented site? I don’t remember—it probably had something to do with another page I was vaguely interested in, and I clicked on a link. Anyway, about this “center-parted bun.” I know what it means. The hair is parted in the center, and gathered into a bun. The problem is: Buns don’t have parts. They’re buns. This bothers me far more than it probably should, but I’m admitting my issue publicly.

“Foreward.” I could barely make myself type that. It’s not even a word, let alone something that should ever see the light of day in a book (digital or otherwise) or on a website. The portion of a book is a foreword. The direction in which one can move is forward. (I will dutifully remove the “s” from the end of that, along with those tacked onto “backward” and “toward,” whenever they appear in a file I’m editing. You have been warned.)

And while I’m on the subject (sideways, I admit): Does a book really need a foreword, a prologue, AND an introduction? Really? Does it? Surely there’s a better way to organize a novel than by these conventions. I don’t have the answer handy, but I can tell you that seeing all of these things before I even get to Chapter 1 isn’t a big turn-on for me.

Hyphens. When they’re missing, I notice. Especially when they’re missing from adjectival constructions like “85-foot boat” or “four-year-old child.” Even if you can’t afford a real, live, breathing copy editor or proofreader, a grammar checker should flag these. If it doesn’t, it’s even worse than I would’ve thought. Do yourself a favor and make sure they’re used when they should be. I don’t think any print-on-demand service charges by the character, right? Hyphens won’t cost extra, but their omission will cost you plenty in the eyes of readers who care.

Possessives. I know part of the problem here goes back to our school days. We had hammered into our brains the “rule” about “never form a possessive plural by adding apostrophe-s.” Well—most of the time. And worse, we overgeneralized it until we stopped using apostrophe-s in places where we should, like “Jesus’s” or “Pythagoras’s.” The Joneses’ house has a really nice back yard. Apostrophe after the plural form, no additional s. Cool. But Mrs. Jones’s car has a flat tire. Yes, the name ends in s, but it’s just Mrs. Jones—so you need to add the apostrophe-s for the proper possessive.

My brain is full of grammar so there’s no room left for algebra. I just figured that out. Now I can explain it better when people ask me. Bonus!