Crunching the numbers

Should you spell out numbers, or present them as Arabics (numerals)? Could you cheekily mix the systems without anyone noticing?

The problem with number style is its flexibility. For example, there’s nothing wrong with any of the three examples below. Each is internally consistent in its treatment of categories — i.e., age, linear measure and mathematical units. And that, basically, is the key: whatever you do, you absolutely must be consistent.

At the age of eight I stood 4 feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By nine, I had grown 3 inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run 2 miles.

At the age of 8 I stood four feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By 9, I had grown three inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run two miles.

At the age of eight I stood four feet high and knew the value of pi to 40 decimal places. By nine, I had grown three inches, knew pi to 150 places and could run two miles.

The publishers I work with tend to focus on a few core rules, which can be treated with latitude so long as consistency is applied. These rules are good for most uses besides books. Here are some of the basics and their variations.


Single/double digits, large round numbers

In non-fiction, it’s common to spell out numerals from zero to nine, then switch to Arabics for double digits upwards. Arabics are, quite obviously, suited to scientific or technical text. In fiction or more anecdotal non-fiction, such as a life story or memoir, you might prefer to spell out numbers (at least up to ninety-nine), because it fosters warmth and fluency. Usually, too, it’s appropriate to spell out large round numbers.

1) The hut still lay twelve miles away, and rain began to fall. We pressed on.
2) And so I learnt at forty-nine that my knees would not last forever.
3) Our laboratory test subset fell within the sample range of 2.4–5.0 mg.
4) Naked mole-rats typically weigh 30–35 g.
5) There must have been a thousand people at the party.
6) On our mole-rat field trip, undergraduates outnumbered fellows three to one.

Some notes on the above:
In 2 (and I’ve covered this before, I know), avoid writing ‘from 30–35 g’. Use either ‘30–35 g’ or ‘from 30 to 35 g’. The same goes for ‘between . . . and’.
In 3, the second figure includes the decimal place because ‘2.4–5’ would have been ambiguous.
In 6, you could equally have ‘. . . outnumbered fellows 3:1’.

Can you mix single and double digits? The Chicago Manual of Style says no. Rather:

  • On the research trip our party ranged in age from 9 to 16.

If you choose to override this with the zero-to-nine rule — ‘from nine to 16’ — make sure you’re consistent throughout your text.


Direct speech

Numbers in direct speech are commonly spelt out, although there are acceptable exceptions (for, e.g., years, fractions, and other complicated situations).

  • ‘I’ve been admiring your new layering technique for at least fourteen minutes,’ she murmured.
  • ‘We’ve used these Kyoto thinning scissors since 1977,’ I said proudly.
  • ‘Crikey, this mole-rat weighs 43.2 grams,’ remarked Jenkinson.
  • ‘My dog weighs sixty kilos, but he’s a big softie.’


Numbers at the start of sentences

Avoid beginning a sentence with Arabic numerals. Rearrange the sentence to avoid spelling out huge or clunky numbers — although spelling out a massive number can be effective in making a point.

  • Thirty-nine years ago, I could run up this staircase in under one minute.
  • Two thousand and thirty mole-rats live in the area. [This is clunky.]
  • The area is home to 2030 mole-rats. [This is better.]
  • Two hundred and fifty thousand citizens voted for this idiot.


Time . . .

As with other numbering issues, there’s flexibility in how you present times of the day, depending on context, tone and style, and whether you’re of a military persuasion.

  • We usually broke for tea around four o’clock, then took a stroll on the cliffs.
  • Tea will be served punctually at 4 p.m. Dinner is at 7 p.m. Do not be late.
  • Tea is at 1600 hours, final briefing at 1630.
  • At 7.10 p.m. I texted ‘Where are you?’ There was no reply. I sent a second text at 7.12, and a third at 7.21. Finally, at 10.03 p.m. came his terse reply: ‘With Jill.’

Note that in US English, punctual times use a colon in place of a full stop.


. . . and date

You see all sorts of date styles on homemade handbills and posters outside the village hall, but dates can be boiled down to two systems: British English and US English.

British English

  • The ceremony will take place on 5 September.
  • It will take place on 5 September 2020.
  • It will take place on Saturday, 5 September 2020.

American English

  • The election is scheduled for November 3.
  • It will take place on November 3, 2020.
  • It will take place on Tuesday, November 3, 2020.

As ever, there is the option of a more lyrical style. With special occasions that are known by the date on which they occur, capitals are appropriate.

  • We always celebrate the Fourth of July.
  • My birthday, on the third of July, is generally forgotten.
  • At least I’m invited to their Cinco de Mayo fiesta.
  • We’ll be shutting our dogs in as usual on the fifth of November.

Ideally, avoid mish-mashes like ‘the village fete will be on the 4th November’ — but, to be honest, no one’s likely to object.



Leading on smoothly from that topic, we normally spell out ordinals. For instance:

  • Embarrassingly, my parents finished seventh in the egg-and-spoon race.
  • Her twenty-first was a lavish event, with elephants and pink champagne.
  • ‘Blues, twentieth-century blues / They’re getting me down . . .’


A topic I’m dodging for now is the presentation of page number ranges. Too big! Another time.

Not only only, but also not only and also

Because its position in a sentence is so critical, the word ‘only’ can be a foxy shape-shifter.

Take these four examples:

  • Only Aunt Jane visits Pete on Tuesdays.
  • Aunt Jane only visits Pete on Tuesdays.
  • Aunt Jane visits only Pete on Tuesdays.
  • Aunt Jane visits Pete only on Tuesdays.

In 1, Jane is the sole person who visits Pete on Tuesdays. No one else does. (It might be more eloquent to say, ‘Aunt Jane alone visits Pete . . .’)
In 2, Jane visits him, but does nothing more, such as make him tea or take him shopping. Alternatively it could mean that Jane visits Pete, but she doesn’t do anything else, such as dig her vegetable garden or read a slim volume of verse.
In 3, on Tuesdays, Pete is the sole person she visits. She visits no one else.
In 4, she visits on Tuesdays, and not on any other day of the week.

What this shows is that ‘only’ forms a very strong bond with the word (or compound) that follows it. Only Aunt Jane. Only visits. Only Pete. Only on Tuesdays. Keep this in mind. Remember, too, that words like ‘solely’ or ‘alone’ or ‘just’ can spare you the crushing boredom of using only ‘only’.

Sometimes, the sense is obvious regardless. When Dusty sings ‘I only want to be with you’, no one grumbles that it should be ‘I want only to be with you’, or, more ambiguously and enticingly, ‘I want to be with you alone’.

Not only . . . but also

When we use ‘not only’, we should also add ‘also’ (or ‘too’). And, as above, we need to ensure our words are in the correct order and that everything agrees.

As a rule, the same part of speech that follows ‘not only’ should also follow ‘also’. In other words, if you use a noun after ‘not only’, then you should also place a noun after ‘also’. This is known as parallelism. In the first three below, the parallel parts are adjectives, verbs and nouns respectively. The fourth, tiresomely, is not strictly parallel, proving that every rule deserves to be broken.

  • She’s not only a brilliant scientist, but also a great windsurfer.
  • We not only sell vacuum cleaners, [but] we also repair them.
  • We sell not only vacuum cleaners, but also motor mowers.
  • I’m not just a pretty face, but clever too.

Some observations:

In Nos 1 and 3, and maybe 4, the comma is optional.
In No. 2, we can omit ‘but’, because the same subject (‘we’) carries through the sentence.
In No. 4, ‘a pretty face’ (qualified noun) and ‘clever’ (adjective) are not parallel. But since they can both legitimately follow ‘I am’, they’re acceptable. Also, I’ve gone for broke and used ‘too’ in place of ‘also’.

I hope you are now clearer on how to use not only only, but also not only and also.

Dash, dash and dash

There are three dashes that you need to know. They’re of different lengths. Let’s size them up.

Hyphen –
en-dash –
em-dash —


The hyphen

At its best, the humble little hyphen can punch above its weight in the war on ambiguity. For example:

  • Janice is a small arms dealer.
  • Cesare is a hot pool attendant.

Is Janice petite, or does she trade pistols? Does Cesare work at the thermal baths, or does he have pecs appeal? Without hyphens in ‘small-arms’ and ‘hot-pool’, who’s to know?

Beyond these more clear-cut tidy-ups, hyphenation can be a fuzzy issue. Some writers love them, others hate them. Winston Churchill called the hyphen ‘a blemish to be avoided wherever possible’ – which is a bit rich, considering his full surname.

It helps to follow the rule of hyphenating before the noun. A real-estate agent. A camp-oven salesman. A dead-funny comedienne. (Adverbs ending in ‘-ly’ are an exception: there’s no hyphen required in ‘closely observed trains’.) But ultimately it comes down to readability. For all I care, you can have ‘much loved aunt’, over ‘much-loved aunt’, because there’s no ambiguity. And yet ambiguity is hard to spot in your own writing, however many times you reread it, which is why it’s good to employ a proofreader. Just sayin’.


The en-dash

The en-dash is the Goldilocksian bear, the one in the middle. It has two main uses. It serves as a substitute for an omitted conjunction, and it can mark off a parenthetical clause (as can the em).

1) The en as a substitute

As a stand-in for ‘to’, signifying a span:

  • Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (1874–1965) hated hyphens.
  • Iggy Pop (1947–) fronted the Stooges.
  • See pages 34–55.
  • I left my favourite hat on the Masterton–Wellington train.
  • Lost property is open daily, 2–4 p.m.*

    * Please, please avoid the following construction: ‘Lost property is open daily, from 2–4 p.m.’ If you use ‘from’, it absolutely must be paired with ‘to’, and not with a dash.

As a stand-in for ‘and’, implying a connection:

  • The Mason–Dixon line dates from the 1760s.
    [It was surveyed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.]
  • A difficult father–son relationship often surfaces in Spielberg’s movies.

En-dashes also replace hyphens when preserving the unity of a compound noun:

  • Ken is an ex–British Rail driver.
  • The New Zealand–born lexicographer Eric Partridge was wary of hyphens.
  • Jenna sings in a post–death metal band.

The en-dashes impress on us that Ken isn’t ex-British, Eric wasn’t Zealand-born, and Jenna’s genre wasn’t post-death.

2. Ens (and ems) around clauses

When you want to add tangential information or an explanation to a sentence, but you don’t want to use parentheses (brackets), dashes can be handy. As mentioned, either of the longer dashes can perform this function, so I’m going to fudge this section to cover them both.

There are three punctuation options, all of which are equally acceptable. Number 3 below—closed-up ems—is standard in American English.

1) Spaced ens: The governor – a mechanical device on the engine – limits the RPM.
2) Spaced ems: The symptoms — itching, headaches, rashes — are very annoying.
3) Closed ems: The Britpop bands—Oasis, Blur, Pulp, and so on—were my favourites of the nineties.

When marking off a clause at the end of a sentence, there is just one dash:

  • She played it flawlessly – just as we knew she would.

Here, the dash is basically replacing a comma and adding some oomph.

In a similar vein, the dash can denote an abrupt change:

  • The adagio was her favourite movement – how could it not be?
  • Could you – should you – eat another muffin?

Functioning rather like a colon, it can connect a string of elements to a concluding phrase:

  • Porches, glasshouses, conservatories – we can glaze them all.
  • Oasis, Blur, Pulp, Elastica, Menswear – these were my favourite Britpop bands.


The em-dash

The em-dash’s name derives from its length, which used to equal the height of the metal type pieces, known as ‘sorts’, in old-school printing technology. When I was a cub editor in the 1980s, our designers still used the point/em/pica measurement system for typesetting. (Gosh, that makes me feel old.) An em-dash is twice the length of an en.

As noted above, the em serves to mark clauses, but there are other uses also.

To mark an interruption:

‘But Bill,’ insisted Ted, ‘why can’t you just—’
‘Just what?’ snapped Bill.
[Some people use an ellipsis here, but the dash is much punchier.]

In place of missing letters (two ems):

  • The headstone was barely legible: Here lies C——t Dr——a.

As a ditto in a bibliographic entry (three ems):

Christie, Agatha, N or M? London: Collins Crime Club, 1941.
———, By the Pricking of My Thumbs. London: Collins Crime Club, 1968.



Are we misrelated?

Misrelated participles or dangling modifiers sound desperately dull, but they pop up all the time, and they sow much confusion. Consider this sentence:

Tiny, velvet-furred and with the cutest twitchy nose, Paul realized the rabbit would make the perfect pet for Jasmine, his little sister.

Reading the first clause (‘Tiny . . . nose’), we make assumptions about what is to come, and then we are dealt a surprise. Although we soon correct our misunderstanding, it can be seen how the misrelated participle causes the reader to stumble.

Here’s a clearer way of expressing it, in which the ‘Tiny . . .’ clause is now properly related:

Paul looked with approval at the rabbit. Tiny, velvet-furred and with the cutest twitchy nose, it would make the perfect pet for Jasmine, his little sister.

And here are more examples, kicking off with a howler from Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

  • ’Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard, / A serpent stung me.
  • Being a qualified accountant, this type of work is right up my street.
  • Boasting a five-screen cinema, a library and a games arcade, you will never be bored at our amazing new mall.

You could argue that these are petty errors, and that the meaning is still clear, and perhaps also that if Shakespeare did it, why can’t we? But there’s still a cognitive hurdle to overcome, and this kind of sloppy writing invites unnecessary criticism.

The playwright Anton Chekhov once (deliberately, to make the character look ill-educated) wrote the line, ‘Approaching the railway station, my hat fell off my head.’



Broadly speaking, there are two main comma modes. One is pretty chilled, the other quite uptight. A Grateful Dead fan versus a pernickety traffic warden.

At its most relaxed, a comma is little more than a lilt in a sentence, a gentle pause. This is what the Chicago Manual of Style calls ‘the smallest interruption in continuity of thought or sentence structure’, considering its use to be ‘mainly a matter of good judgment, with ease of reading the end in view’.

Fiction writers will sometimes push this freedom to its limits. Cormac McCarthy once said that ‘if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate’, and James Joyce tiresomely ended Ulysses on a twenty-four-thousand-word soliloquy containing only one comma and two full stops.

For most of us, though, these relaxed commas create pauses in which to draw breath; they help the reader ride the peaks and troughs of our rolling prose.

One way to sea-test your writing is to read it out loud. Seek out the natural pauses: these are often the places that deserve commas, which will usually help make your writing buoyant and intelligible. As a rule of thumb, you could add a comma at the points where subjects change in a compound sentence — for instance:

Three o’clock came and went. Fido nosed in the shrubbery for a bone that he had lost a week earlier, and I had a third cup of green tea to wash down the rather stale cake.

With shorter sentences, the comma becomes less necessary:

Three o’clock came and went. Fido searched the bushes for a lost bone and I had some more tea and cake.

A comma is omitted when two or more verbs share the same subject:

• Fido is forgetful in his old age and loses almost every bone we give him.
• Jamila drives a flashy new Peugeot and takes evening classes in postmodernist architecture.


In their more uptight mode, commas perform more critical functions.

You can use clauses and adverbial phrases.

• Jenny, who doesn’t suffer fools at the best of times, was livid.
• In readiness for the march, I put on my loudest pair of socks.
• Tomorrow, weather permitting, we’ll tour the new premises.
• Having polished off the cake, I went to help Fido.
• The bone, which lay among the dahlias, was grubby and smelly.*

*In this last example, the commas remove ambiguity. Without them, it might be assumed the writer was being restrictive in specifying a particular bone: this one among the dahlias, rather than that one among the lupins. (But this point also leads us astray on to questions of ‘which’ versus ‘that’, which warrants a separate post.)

You can address people.

• ‘Let’s eat, Grandpa.’
(Now try that sentence without the comma!)
• Cheers, Aunt Betty, I really wanted a pet pig.

You can list things.

Carefully, though. Here are two well-known examples of comma abuse:

  1. ‘To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.’
    This (invented!) book dedication conjures an alarming mental image. To make good, we could add a comma after ‘Rand’, or reorder the dedicatees — for instance, ‘To God, Ayn Rand and my parents’.
  1. ‘Peter Ustinov retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.’
    This is a genuine TV listing from the newspaper. Mandela was many good things, but he wasn’t a centuries-old demigod with a penchant for sex toys. Again, a second comma or a reordering would clarify the sentence.

You can string together coordinate adjectives . . .

. . . but I won’t go too far into this because I reckon it deserves a blog post all of its own. Let’s just note for now that commas can often be omitted for fluency, as in the comment below by Clive James; ditto if the final adjective has a close relationship with the noun (e.g., ‘Berkshire pig’ or ‘pork sausage’, below).

‘Michael Howard looks like a small brown sausage.’
Bertie was a Berkshire pig. He was a beautiful Berkshire pig. He was a beautiful, big black Berkshire pig.
I ate three delicious pork sausages.

You can use appositives.

A term or phrase in apposition to a noun is separated by a comma.

• The school principal, Smedley, tried to soothe my irate mother.
• I sold it to my brother, Bill.*

*Watch out for restrictive appositives. In that second example, the comma tells us the writer has only one brother (‘. . . to my brother, who is Bill’). But if she had two brothers (say, Bill and Ted), the noun would need to assume a restrictive function and we would remove the comma: ‘I sold it to my brother Bill.’ By the same token: ‘I sold it to my brother Bill, and not to my brother Ted.’ ‘I sold it to my brother Bill, and not to my other brother, Ted.’


Commas doing other stuff

Commas feature in direct speech . . .

• ‘Bertie,’ said Betty wistfully, ‘was such a nice pig.’
• ‘Bertie was such a nice pig,’ said Betty wistfully.

. . . and in indirect questioning:

• I asked myself, would I have done the same?

Commas follow abbreviations such as ‘etc.’, ‘i.e.’, ‘e.g.’, ‘that is’:

• You’ll find knives, forks, spoons, etc., in the left-hand drawer.

Commas set off geographical terms:

• We wound up in Paris, Texas, rather than the French capital.


And, finally:

Q. What do commas and chinchillas have in common?

A. Soft pause.

Lost in lists?

A list can de-waffle your text by stripping it down to the basic points. At the very least, lists can inject life, drawing the eye into passages that otherwise would look daunting. They’re also, of course, useful as a preparatory tool for working out the structure of an essay.

Lists can be planned in from the start, and they can be retrofitted. But you can’t just chop copy into chunks, add numbers/letters/bullets/dashes, and expect seamless fluency and comprehension. Lists must obey rules! Here are some basic pointers on how to line up your ducks.

(By the way, the indents below are all over the place. I struggled to sort them out, but eventually gave up. You’ll just have to live with the mess.)


  1. All entries within a list should follow a common construction. For example:

Here’s what we can offer you:

    • A transparent process.
    • A single point of contact.
    • Monthly feedback.
    • Great discounts on bulk orders.

Each of the four entries is essentially the same: a noun group. (In effect, each entry is the object of the sentence – ‘We can offer you a transparent process,’ ‘We can offer you a single point of contact,’ and so on.) This structural uniformity makes the list easy to read.

An alternative approach would be to use complete sentences:

Why do business with us?

    • We use a transparent process.
    • You liaise with a single point of contact.
    • We provide monthly feedback.
    • You enjoy great discounts on bulk orders.

Again, there’s consistency here.


  1. We could put some flesh on our list by qualifying every entry with an explanation:

Here’s what we can offer you:

    • A transparent process. We disclose all of our financial terms before you sign the contract, and we supply a full breakdown of every invoice.
    • A single point of contact. When you sign up, we appoint a project manager who will liaise with you through to completion.
    • Monthly feedback. We report at month’s end with a progress chart and a running budget update.
    • Great discounts on bulk orders. We give a rising scale of discounts on purchases of 10, 50 and 100 units.

Each entry has now become two-tiered, but, again, it still has a uniform structure and a systemic logic, so it remains easy to comprehend.

3. For a more fluid approach, you could create a list from a single expanded sentence:

We offer

    • a transparent process,
    • a single point of contact,
    • monthly feedback, and
    • great discounts on bulk orders.

Again . . . this works because each item in the list is grammatically similar.


  1. Numbers in lists help you place things in a logical sequence. This may seem painfully obvious, but some people will insist on using numbers to list random stuff that deserves nothing more than bullets. (Eat lead, you pesky list!)

Here is a list that deserves its numbers:

To fry an egg:

    1. Heat a frypan and add a slab of butter.
    2. Once the butter has gone quiet, crack an egg in.
    3. Fry till crispy-edged, and gently flip (if you like eggs over easy).


With subdivided lists, use common sense when choosing numbers, letters, and so on. Let’s run the egg instructions through a kitchen control-freak:

To fry an egg:

    1. Prepare the frypan.
      i) Place it over a medium-high heat.
      ii) Add a little dob of butter.
      iii) Wait till the butter has stopped sizzling before going further.
    2. Add the egg.
      i) Crack the egg on the pan rim.
      ii) Hold it low when opening, to avoid breaking the yolk.
    3. . . . etc., etc.

Lists can be subdivided almost indefinitely, so long as you stick to your chosen numbering system.


In summary, lists that are internally consistent will express their contents clearly.

Serial disagreements

There’s a particular error that crops up everywhere, from corporate documents to national newspaper articles and weighty books. It’s commonplace, subtle, and easy to overlook. There’s probably a fancy name for it, but I’m going to call it a serial disagreement.

A serial disagreement is what happens when you try in vain to make one word (such as a preposition or verb) govern a series of three or more terms. If that sounds confusing, here are two examples:

My magazine is on sale in bookstores, cinemas and at newsstands.

This lizard can be found among plants, rocks and in tree hollows.

In the first example, the preposition ‘in’ applies to ‘bookstores’ and also, by virtue of that comma, to ‘cinemas’. So far, so good.

Now, in these circumstances we expect a preposition to apply also to the third term in such a list. (For example: ‘I am partial to apples, bananas and oranges.’) But wait! The writer has inserted a second preposition — ‘at’ — before ‘newsstands’, and now the syntax falls apart at the seams. Confused, we look back at the start of the sentence, with its orderly promise of three terms governed by the ‘in’, but it’s been sabotaged by that pesky ‘at’.

A corrected version would read:

‘My magazine is on sale in bookstores and cinemas and at newsstands.’

. . . or, a bit less clunkily,

‘My magazine is on sale in bookstores and cinemas, and also at newsstands.’

As for the other example:

This lizard can be found among plants and rocks and in tree hollows.

The simple addition of ‘and’ has broken the list of three into two separate parts, each governed by its own preposition.

Here’s another example, uttered by US politician Nancy Pelosi:

‘This decision is dangerous, illegal and will be swiftly challenged.’

This time, it’s the use of two verbs — ‘is’, and then ‘will be’ — within a single list that offends the syntax. It would have been neater to stick with three adjectives, such as ‘… is dangerous, illegal and open to challenge’, but Pelosi was probably too angry at the time to think about syntax. (Go fight the big battles, Nancy; the grammar can wait.)

Quote unquote

Quite a few authors and editors go wrong when punctuating direct speech. I freely admit there are a number of ways to swing this cat, but we can at least nail down some ground rules. (That’s a terrible mix of metaphors, I know.)

There are differences between British English (BE) and American English (AE), so I’ll base this post mainly on BE and then give AE variations.

(A quick word on single versus double quote marks. If you pick up an older novel, it’ll typically use doubles; but these days, singles are much more commonly used. That’s not to say you can’t use double quote marks if you prefer them.)

When you quote a complete sentence, it earns the right to its own punctuation. Thus in the following examples, the second quote mark goes outside the full stop.

Al Alvarez writes: ‘To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully.’

Al Alvarez writes: ‘To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped . . . clears the head wonderfully.’

‘To put yourself into a situation,’ writes Alvarez, ‘where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully.’

Note also how a colon precedes the direct speech. A comma is fine, too:

Jane said, ‘There’s someone at the door — quick, shut the dog in the kitchen.’

The same ‘outside’ rule applies even if you quote only the opening part of a sentence and then continue in your own words or in indirect speech:

‘The male stripper attempted a rapid escape,’ began the sergeant, who went on to describe the man’s unfortunate injuries.

If, however, we quote a sentence that is incomplete and lacks its opening words, a new rule applies:

Alvarez loved climbing, not least because it pits us against the forces that threaten us and, in so doing, makes us feel fully alive. Putting your own life on the line, he asserted, ‘clears the head wonderfully’.

The sergeant explained how the strippergram had ‘attempted a rapid escape after the dog bit him in the nethers’.

Now, it is the contextual sentence that rules the roost and earns the right to its own punctuation. So the full stop is outside the final quote mark. Note, too, that the quoted material must obey the syntax of the surrounding sentence.

Direct speech (American English)

In AE, quote marks always fall outside of the punctuation marks:

“To put yourself into a situation where a mistake cannot necessarily be recouped, where the life you lose may be your own, clears the head wonderfully.”

Putting your own life on the line, he asserted, “clears the head wonderfully.”

Note, too, how AE uses double quote marks.

Quotes within quotes

In BE, a quote within a quote is set in double quote marks — assuming, that is, the outer marks are singles — and it follows all the rules given above.

‘Most of what makes a book “good”,’ says Alain de Botton, ‘is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.’

In AE, you switch the double quote marks with the singles:

“Most of what makes a book ‘good,’” says Alain de Botton, “is that we are reading it at the right moment for us.”

See also how the comma following ‘good’ sits inside the single quote mark. This agrees with the rule above about AE direct speech.

There are, as ever, a few curveballs with direct speech punctuation, but for brevity’s sake I’ll cover them in a separate post.

Also, quote marks have other uses beyond bracketing direct speech. They frame the titles of essays, newspaper/journal articles and book chapters, among other things. They also, unfortunately, pop up as scare quotes.

Passive aggressive: using the right voice

‘Mistakes were made.’

This well-known example of the passive voice demonstrates how the construction can be used to protect the guilty party. Tracks have been covered . . . because no one wants to admit mistakes.

What is the passive voice? The voice is the relationship of the verb to the agent (the do-er) and the patient (the done-to), and it can be active or passive. (Another way of looking at it is this: in the active voice, the subject of the sentence acts. In the passive, the subject is acted upon.)

In our example, the mistakes are the patient, and the agent is anonymous. Change it to ‘I’ve screwed up’, and suddenly we have an agent (‘I’), who can be blamed for those mistakes. (We could throw in a patient, too – the budget, the relationship, the dinner.)

The passive voice has other benefits than ass-covering. For instance:

    • Your daughter has been officially cautioned for dying her hair pink.
    • Though she was proclaimed queen in February 1952, Elizabeth was not crowned until June 1953.
    • My dog has twice been spotted using the pedestrian crossing.

In the first, although we could find out who snitched on the daughter, it doesn’t really matter, because the focus of the sentence is her caution. The second is similar: given that the queen is the focus, flipping those passives into actives would make no sense, because it doesn’t really matter who signed the official paperwork and/or lowered the crown on her head. In the third, we may not know (or, again, indeed, care) who spotted the dog; the focus is on its uncanny use of the crossing.

Keeping your focus in mind will help you judge whether to use active or passive.

But if you tend to use the passive voice a lot, consider this. First, too much of it can render your writing soft and flabby. Whereas the active voice is briefer and more decisive, the passive uses more words to say the same thing, and it is less direct, and thus a more boring read. Second, the passive can begin to annoy the reader because it suggests sloppy research — as though you either don’t know or don’t care about the identity of the agent(s) in your sentences.

I see this sort of thing a lot in, say, company histories, where the writer/researcher is handling fuzzy old source material, or is trying for a serious tone, but it just comes out pompous or dull. For instance, ‘A decision was made in 1958 to establish a complaints committee so that staff grievances could be voiced and addressed.’ And just think! They could have had this: ‘From 1958, a complaints committee addressed staff grievances.’

Don’t feel you should never use the passive, though. Clearly there’s a place for it. Just keep an eye open as you write, always testing passive sentences to see if they can be flipped, and you’ll inevitably tighten up your style. And that’s not to be sniffed at.

Avoiding apostrophe catastrophe

We sell apple’s and orange’s!

Is there a more abused punctuation mark than the apostrophe? I doubt it. It was the notorious howler above, spotted on shop signs, that gave rise to the scornful term ‘greengrocers’ apostrophes’.

But hey, let’s give grocers a break. The apostrophe is a nightmare! These days everyone screws up the curly little sod, and there’s even a book — Fucking Apostrophes, by Simon Griffin — to help people vent their rage on it while surreptitiously swotting up on its proper usage.

So how do we nail this evil chunk of jelly to the wall? Let’s look at the three main flashpoints.

1) The apostrophe (almost) never creates plurals.

• Kids stave off doctors with apples, not apple’s.
• Wannabe lawyers study for their LSATs, not their LSAT’s.
• We’re going to dinner with the Masons, not the Mason’s.

I say ‘almost’, because there are exceptions — ‘Mind your P’s and Q’s’ is one — but such breaches are so rare that this rule is almost sacrosanct.

2) The apostrophe can represent an omission, as when two words are run together.

  • There’s [there is] a hole in my bucket, dear Liza.
  • Abdul’s [Abdul is] my best friend.
  • It’d [It had] better by finished by teatime or you’ll [you will] be in trouble.

So if you’re forever confusing its and it’s, just remember that it’s is short for ‘it is’.

3) The apostrophe creates possessives.

• Charlie’s Angels; Jane’s Addiction; Fat Freddie’s Cat
• mummy’s boy; girls’ changing room; Achilles’ heel

Most people know the basics, but tend to come adrift in two messy areas: plural possessives, and nouns ending in ‘s’ or ‘z’.

Plural possessives are much easier to fathom once you know for certain whether your usage is singular or plural. Let’s return to those hapless old greengrocers who touted their ‘apple’s’. They were plural greengrocers. So we write greengrocers’ apples, with the plural noun left fully intact before we tack on the apostrophe. If, instead, we consider the fruit sold by Mrs Chaudhury in her village shop, it will be our local greengrocer’s apples, with the apostrophe coming after the singular noun.

Generally, this distinction can be trusted. For example:

The morning sun glinted off countless spiders’ webs on the dewy grass, and I praised the tiny spinners for the poetry of their engineering. Later, by the boathouse, I blundered into a spider’s web. Damn the horrible creatures!

Nouns ending in ‘s’ or ‘z’ behave differently depending on syllables and stresses, but the general rule is that you add an apostrophe + s:

  • Morticia adored the profile of Gomez’s nose.
  • Sadly, we have scratched the Joneses’ new car.

(The plural of the Jones family is the Joneses. So the plural possessive is not Jones’s or Jones’, but Joneses’.)

Exceptions are made in two instances: with Jesus and Moses . . .

  • In Jesus’ name; Moses’ staff

. . . and with polysyllabic names ending in a Greek-style long ‘–ees’:

  • I have an Achilles’ heel [though Achilles heel is also acceptable]
  • Aristophanes’ ballet for mice is seldom performed in a formal setting.