Consistency Is Key

Hi Folks,

First, credit where credit is due. The catalyst for this post was Terry Odell’s excellent post on “Tips for Using Apostrophes.”

Say you have a character whose name ends in S, for example Thomas. At issue is whether to add another S after using the apostrophe at the end of the character’s name.

I never do. In the same manuscript, I’ll write “I went to Thomas’ house before I went to John’s house and then on to Bill and Susan’s house.”

I would never write “Thomas’s house” because to me the added S sounds awkward. But that’s just me. Writing it either way is correct.

The key is to be consistent within the story (of any length). If you write “Thomas’ house” once, omit the extra S from after the apostrophe on any other character names that end with S.

(Yes, I note the LACK of consistency in not adding the S after “Thomas'” but adding it after names that do not end in S (“John’s”) but I don’t care. The focus of my consistent pattern is narrower in this case.

There’s also a “rule” to never use an apostrophe to indicate a plural. Yet one exception is to write “Billy got two A’s, three B’s and two C’s on his report card.” Or to write “Always cross your T’s and dot your I’s.”

Using the apostrophe after the A and the I avoids reader confusion (with the words As and Is, respectively). But because you use an apostrophe after the A and I, for consistency you have to also use one after B, C, and T.

There’s an ongoing argument among people who care and think they can change other people’s minds regarding the “Oxford” comma, the third comma in a series, generally coming before the “and.”

Some use it, some don’t. I most often don’t. But again, be consistent. If you use it, use it throughout a single work (or series). If you don’t, don’t. Just be consistent.

And hyphen use…

A couple of days ago in a review of one of my nonfiction books, a reader took exception to my personal rule of writing “A three year old boy was standing in the yard” vs. the Chicago Manual of Style’s rule to write it like this: “A three-year-old boy was standing in the yard” or “A three year-old boy was standing in the yard.”

I don’t omit the hyphens to be contrary. I omit them because I use the area directly above my neck for something other than a place to rest my hat. I am frequently a practitioner of an Original Thought Process. Which basically means I take responsibility for my writing. I, the writer—not some other person who contributed to a “style” manual—determine whether a piece of punctuation is necessary for clarity in my work. If it isn’t, I omit it.

Reading “a three year old boy” is clean, and I’ve never heard of anyone becoming confused as a result of the missing (and to me, unnecessary) hyphens.

The hyphen has one effect: it forces the reader to read two or three words as if they are one word. Hence, I sometimes sit in the back seat of a car, where occasionally I am a back-seat driver. I occasionally go into the back yard of my home, where we used to have a back-yard swingset for the children.

Today, of course, the hyphen has been dropped, so those single words are now “backseat” and “backyard,” which has had the effect of confusing some writers. “Backseat” and “backyard” are adjectives, not nouns. To this day, I cringe whenever I read that a character got into the “backseat” of a car or went into the “backyard.”

Punctuation is a tool you use to direct the reading of your work. As such, it is something that should be used as necessary, but only when necessary and always with a thought in mind as to how it will directly affect the reader.

In my nonfiction book Punctuation for Writers, I didn’t regurgitate the rules of punctuation. I suppose if I had, the reviewer I mentioned above wouldn’t have had a problem with it.

Instead, I based my advice on scientific principles of how those tiny black marks directly affect the reader. And they do affect all readers in exactly the same way.

Some punctuation forces the reader to take a long pause. Those marks are the period, the colon, the exclamation point and the question mark. Some force the reader to take a medium pause. Those are the semicolon and the em dash.

Remember in school the teacher said to use a colon after a complete thought to introduce a list that follows the thought? That’s why, because the colon forces a long pause to ready the reader to receive the list.

But if the list comes before the complete thought, you use an em dash. The medium pause gives the reader a break, but rushes him sooner to the “important” information that explains the significance of the list.

And one bit of punctuation, the comma, forces a short pause.

None of the other punctuation marks (parens, en dash, apostrophe, quotation marks) create a pause at all. For lack of a better term, I call those “spelling” punctuation.

If you have trouble with punctuation, or if you think of it as a necessary evil rather than a tool to use to direct the reading of your work, I encourage you to give my Punctuation for Writers a try. You can find it wherever ebooks are sold.

The point is, whether you choose to use or not use the possessive apostrophe after a name that ends in S or to use or not use the Oxford comma or to use the hyphen as intended (or blindly follow someone else’s “style” guide), do so consistently.

Consistency is the key to less-confusing writing.

‘Til next time, happy writing!


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