A Word, Please

Ask June

This week’s mailbag has some great questions about spacing around dashes, capitalization after a colon, dangling modifiers and the dizzying forms of “wake” and “awake.”

We’ll start with Glendale News-Press reader Carol’s question about this sentence from one of my recent columns: “Here’s a tip for using parenthesis: Always note …”

Here’s Carol: “I once read that after a colon the next word begins in lowercase,” she wrote. “Have I been wrong all these years or can it be both upper and lowercase?”

It depends editing style as well as what, exactly, follows the colon. In Chicago style, which you see in books and magazines, the only time you capitalize a letter after a colon is when the colon introduces two or more complete sentences. “Note the weather: The sky is blue. The sun is shining.”

In AP style, just one complete sentence warrants a capital letter. “Note the weather: The sky is blue.”

But in either style, anything less than a complete sentence after a colon starts with a lowercase letter. “Note the color of the sky: blue.”

Reader Richard asked about dashes. “There seems to be no convention in publishing these days about spaces around dashes. Some authors use them, some don’t. I still prefer the look without the spaces. What do you think?”

I don’t get paid to think. Not about this, anyway. When I’m copy editing, I just do what my style guides tell me. AP style says to insert a space on either side of an em dash: “So many guests showed up — Mary, Bob, Elaine, Jim — we needed extra chairs.” But the Chicago Manual of Style says to omit those spaces. And be careful not to confuse dashes with hyphens, shorter marks that connect two words to form a compound, as in a well-liked man, or connect a prefix with a word, as in anti-immigrant sentiment.

Here’s a sentence that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, catching the eye of reader Steve: “In November, Californians will vote on raising the cigarette tax for the third time in a decade.”

“That sounds to me as if the tax went up two times this decade already,” Steve wrote. But as he read on, he learned that wasn’t the case. “It’s the third attempt at a vote, not the third raising of the tax, but the way the sentence is constructed gives the wrong impression. Seems to me the sentence structure should have been like this: ‘In November, Californians will vote for the third time in a decade regarding raising the cigarette tax.’ “

I agree.

This problem is called a dangling modifying phrase. The prepositional phrase “for the third time” dangles because it’s not next to the verb it’s modifying, “vote.” It’s closer to the verb “raise,” making it seem as though it was the third time the tax would be raised instead of the third time it would be voted on.

Reader Deane had an even tougher question: “A grammar problem that occasionally troubles me concerns to verb ‘to wake’ or ‘awake.’ The past tense ‘woke’ or ‘awoken’ just doesn’t resonate with me. Help me out.”

The past tenses of the verbs “wake,” “awake” and “awaken” confuse almost everyone. I suspect that’s why “wake up,” with its easy past tense, “woke up,” seems to be nudging the others out. But if you don’t want to limit yourself, here are the past forms.

“Wake” gives you several options. For the simple past tense, “woke” and “waked” are both correct: Yesterday I woke/waked. The past participle also has two forms: In the past I have waked/woken.

The verb “awake” also lets you choose. Yesterday I awoke/awaked. In the past I have awaked/awoken.

Unlike the others, the verb “awaken” is not irregular. So just add “ed” for both forms: Yesterday I awakened. In the past I have awakened.

June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.