Grammar and Punctuation Peeves

Aside from the numerous poetry books I’ve written, edited, or published, I’ve edited hundreds of trade books, one of which was #1 on the USA Today business books bestseller list. The subjects have ranged from 3D computer animation to plywood manufacturing to memoir to herbal medicine, not to mention many dense and detailed technical computer subjects. As a professional editor, I have many pet peeves that move well beyond the standard myth of people typing two spaces after punctuation (professional typesetting calls for just one space).

One of my preferences, following the Chicago Manual of Style, is to use the serial comma (also called the Oxford comma)—the comma that appears just before the “and” or “or” when listing several items in a series. The Associated Press Style Guide usually omits the serial comma because newspapers and most other publications it applies to are usually very limited in space. But anywhere else, the serial comma is king—or should be—and nearly all style guides agree. Without it, you can end up with such grossly far-fetched claims as “I’d like to thank my parents, Ayn Rand and God.” +

Look closely at the caption for the accompanying photo. Who knew that Merle Haggard was married to Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall?!? See the discussion of serial commas at the Making Light blog (but beware some surprising errors in the discussion). See also Arlene Miller’s Bigwords101 blog and PZ Myers’ Pharyngula blog. This is not really a problem with commas, but the order of items listed in the text. The professional editor catches these gaffes.

Another of my pet peeves is the omitted hyphen in compound modifiers (a problem that haiku poets succumb to far too frequently—there’s a difference between a “late-spring moon” and a “late spring moon,” the latter of which is technically impossible, because the moon can’t be late for anything, because it is what it is). In most cases, no one will misunderstand when such hyphens are omitted—or, as I like to remind myself, no small children will die. But to me such omissions still look unpolished. Adding the necessary hyphen removes all doubt of correctness and also assures a correct meaning, so why not include it? Of course in some cases the deliberate lack of hyphens can change the meaning of particular phrases (usually when they’re not compound modifiers, but might look like it), so at times you do want to make sure you hyphenate—or not—to say what you really mean. As you can see, the meaning is significantly different in the following pairs of phrases, but incorrect meanings nearly always arise from the omission of necessary hyphens in compound modifiers rather than the inclusion of unnecessary ones.

a little-used car a little used car

cross-complaint cross complaint (really, it’s angry?)

third-world war third world war

fine-tooth comb fine tooth comb (do you know anyone who combs their teeth?)

In some cases, the text is better recast, such as when writing about a used car that’s little in size. In haiku and other poetry, I wince every time I see an omitted hyphen in a compound modifier. It’s one thing to take it out deliberately (I can imagine a case where doing so might be useful for poetic purposes, especially in concrete poetry), but it’s quite another to not even realize that it’s an error to omit it. Read the Grammar Diva summary of this issue. Meanwhile, a related pet peeve is when anyone thinks a hyphen is need after an adverb, as in a “lightly-covered” meatball. No—the hyphen is incorrect there. Learn why.

I have many other editorial peeves, not to mention other pet peeves, but also recognize that mistakes (and typos) can be a source of humour. Needless to say, I’m a great fan of the following websites, and similar sites on Facebook, even if a couple of them have nothing to do with grammar or punctuation. I could add so many more!

—15 January 2012