A word, please

This is a column about nothing. It’s kind of like a show about nothing, just less entertaining – and a lot less lucrative.

The nothing we’re talking about is the blank space around punctuation. And for a whole lot of nothing, these blank spaces sure are something. A lot of people struggle with how to space after periods and around ellipses and dashes. But if you just note a few simple facts, it’s easy.

Remember how back in the days of girdle-bound typists you were supposed to double space after every sentence? Well, that made sense back in girdle times. Old typewriters printed in “monospace” – a system that gave the same amount of space for every character, be it a tiny period or a capital W. In this technology, double-spacing after every sentence kept each paragraph from looking like one big run-together blob. Those days are long gone. Word processors now make sentences distinct and easy to read. But a lot of people are living in the past.

One recent Thanksgiving, Slate.com writer Farhad Manjoo asked a group of highly educated dinner guests what they considered to be the “correct” number of spaces between sentences. “Everyone – everyone! – said it was proper to use two spaces,” he reported in a 2011 Slate piece.

Manjoo didn’t mince words: “Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly and inarguably wrong.”

I don’t share Manjoo’s passion, but I agree with the principle. So does every professional publisher I know of. These days, there’s no reason to double space after sentences. News and book editing styles call for a single space to separate sentences. Academic and scientific publishing manuals allow for double spacing, but they also allow single spacing.

When it comes to ellipses, I do get a little emphatic. An ellipsis without spaces around it looks terrible. It can make a whole paragraph look amateurish, probably because it’s so out of sync with the look of professional writing, in which style guides require a space on either side of an ellipsis: “Ask what you can do for your country.”

Spacing around ellipses can seem tricky when the text before the ellipsis is a complete sentence. In those cases, here’s what most news media do. End the sentence with a terminal punctuation mark, most likely a period. Then insert a space. Then type the ellipsis. This technically makes for four dots in a row, though the first dot is separated from the other three. “We cannot walk alone. We cannot turn back.” Some word processing programs might make that look as if there’s no space between the period and the ellipsis. But as long as you typed one there you’re safe.

Spacing around dashes is more controversial. When a dash is used in a sentence, either indicating an abrupt change in sentence structure or setting off parenthetical information, a lot of news outlets put spaces around the dash: “This day – a day we thought would never come – is a great day.” But the Chicago Manual of Style prefers no spaces, and most book and magazine publishers follow suit. But for dashes or hyphens outside of running text, for example in date ranges, time spans, lists or tables, no clear rules apply.

When you’re writing about a person who uses initials in place of a first name, styles disagree on whether to put a space between the initials. News style prefers no spaces. W.E.B. DuBois. Book publishing prefers spaces. W. E. B. DuBois.

So with initials and dashes you can often make your own spacing choices. Around ellipses spaces are best. And after a sentence just one space is best.

See? Nothing to it.

June Casagrande is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

A word, please

By June Casagrande

Special to the Sun-Gazette

The handsome, articulate, intelligent man wore a bright green midriff peasant blouse.

Not really. No intelligent person would do that. But I offer up this sentence not as an example of fashion sense or IQ testing. It’s an example of a comma situation that confounds many people yet is surprisingly easy to handle.

Did you notice that, in our sentence, there are commas between some adjectives but not others? If not, it could be a good thing: It means that the punctuation didn’t leap out at you, which means it seems natural, which means you already have a sense of how to use commas between adjectives.

Of course, now that I’ve called your attention to those commas, you may be wondering if that sentence is punctuated correctly. It is. But that raises the question: How is it possible that some adjectives before a noun are separated with commas and some aren’t?

It’s because of the difference between coordinate and noncoordinate adjectives.

Coordinate adjectives modify a noun in the same way and to the same degree. None is more closely connected to the noun than others. This is how “handsome,” “articulate” and “intelligent” function here. None is more integral than the others in understanding what kind of man this is. He’s a man, a regular man, who is intelligent, articulate and handsome all at once. Their equal footing makes them coordinate adjectives. And, according to the rules, coordinate adjectives are separated with commas.

Noncoordinate adjectives don’t have such equal relationships with the noun. “Peasant” is a prime example. A peasant blouse is a specific thing, so “peasant” and “blouse” have a special relationship. “Green” and “blouse” aren’t as tight. Sure, “green” tells us about a quality of the blouse, but it’s less integral to the blouse’s nature than it is to a noun like “light”: a green light is a specific thing with the special meaning of “go.”

Now consider the relationship between “bright” and “green.” In our example sentence, they sort of build on each other. In “a bright green blouse,” the adjective “bright” isn’t modifying the noun “blouse” so much as it is modifying the adjective “green.” They’re a pair with a special, almost cumulative relationship. So these are called noncoordinate adjectives and the rule is that noncoordinate adjectives that come before a noun are not separated with commas.

All this may seem abstract and difficult to put in use. But in fact, there’s a litmus test – two, really – that can help you get these right with no brain strain at all. The name “coordinate adjective” is the clue. It hints at coordinating conjunctions, namely “and,” which is the only tool you need to punctuate adjectives right.

When in doubt, try putting “and” between the adjectives. If it works well, separate the adjectives with commas. A handsome and articulate and intelligent man is a handsome, intelligent, articulate man. But don’t use commas anywhere ands seem unnatural: “a bright and green blouse” isn’t what we mean by “a bright green blouse.” “A midriff and peasant blouse” isn’t exactly what we mean when we talk of a “midriff peasant blouse.”

When this trick leaves you uncertain, just try changing the order of the adjectives. If they’re interchangeable – as in an articulate, intelligent, handsome man – they’re coordinate. If they’re not interchangeable – as in a peasant, green, midriff, bright blouse – they’re not.

In rare cases, you could go either way: “a beautiful, sunny day” and “a beautiful sunny day” are both right, depending on the writer’s intended emphasis. Is it a day that’s sunny and beautiful? Or is it a sunny day that’s beautiful? In these cases, it’s up to you.

June Casagrande is the author of “It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.