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Commas, apostrophes and more

I’ve been indulging too much in frivolous stuff; it’s time to get back to the proper focus of this blog: the trivial.

These questions have come in during the past few days.

From Maurice Collins:

Recently I have noticed a new form of punctuation. Some journalists are using '--' instead of a comma.

Here's an example regarding our highly corrupt Irish Prime Minister. ... "Pressed on unexplained payments that were showing in his accounts -- and his long previous time without a bank account -- Mr Ahern said the latter had arisen because of his marital separation when estranged wife Miriam had sole access to their previous joint account."

The usefulness of the dash is to indicate a sharp break in thought or continuity. It’s like an aside. Though this is perhaps not the example I would have chosen, the dash has been overused in journalism where, as Mr. Collins suggests, commas would serve perfectly well. Or parentheses. Dash-happy journalists have robbed the punctuation device of much of its impact. Lamentable but hard to resist.

From Joy-Mari Cloete:

Please help. I am confused about the following: '1940's style of dress' and the European Union are'. 

Some copy editors (in South Africa, at least) write '1940's skirt', as they maintain it is to show a possessive. Is this correct, or should it be '1940s skirt'? [One writer says] that British grammar dictates one should write about certain companies as though they are plural. Is this so?

I don’t see the numeral as a possessive. If you wrote that Winston Churchill said something in “a 1940 speech,” you wouldn’t use a possessive. What is clear is that the style comes from the decade of the 1940s, and the apostrophe can be safely omitted. (Some manuals would make the decade plural by adding and apostrophe and an s, but I think that the plural form without the apostrophe is dominant.)

It is true that British practice is to understand words like government as a plural, a collective encompassing the many constituent individuals. U.S. usage is to consider such words as a singular. Since the practice is entirely arbitrary, you should treat European Union in the same way as your publication treats NATO or any similar grouping of states.

From Bob Erlandson:

Why is it that reporters insist on allowing criminals/terrorists to "claim credit" for their crimes?

And why is it that copy readers let them get away with it instead of changing it to "claim responsibility.…"?

The latest example is in this morning’s AP story about the very tenuous relationship between Barack Obama and William Ayers, a leader in the 1970s terrorist group Weather Underground.

The first sentence under the "Facts" part of the article says, "Ayers was part of the Weather Underground, a radical group that claimed credit for explosions at the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon and more."

Ah, Bob, I was in the slot that night and overlooked it. You’re right, of course.

And last, from a Sun colleague: If the New York Times lets its blog commenters say "suck," should we?

Three or four Sun managing editors ago (I lose count), suck was prohibited as “vulgar street language.” As commonplace as it is now, it has lost that kind of impact. Older readers might still associate it with fellatio, but younger readers are apparently mystified by their elders’ preoccupations in this area, as in so many others.

I don’t particularly care for it myself and wouldn’t encourage it. Perhaps I’m mistaken, and the way for newspaper journalists to attract those elusive younger readers is to write the way Bart Simpson talks, but skepticism endures.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:53 AM | | Comments (8)


The one that truly bugs me is the use of the "--" instead of a comma when writing an appositive.

It's becoming the norm in journalism and all of writing. The appositive is sophisticated syntax and makes for beautiful, concise writing. Simply renaming your noun is not a break in thought, which as you mentioned is one of the acceptable uses of the "--" .

I'm not sure what your final thought is here. Should I

a) Let a commenter say "Starbucks' coffee sucks"

b) Post the comment, but insert asterisks, as in "Starbucks' coffee s***s"


c) Deep-six the comment on moral grounds in spite of the fact that the commenter will always think I did so because I personally adore Starbucks' coffee.

Also, wouldn't the terrorists say they were claiming credit for the crime as opposed to responsibility? Doesn't to report that more accurately reflect what they said?

Sheesh! Not many blogs can squeeze in commas, terrorism, Churchill, fellatio, dashes, apostrophes and corruption into one post! Incidentally, what;s your stance on copy editor (AP) versus copyeditor (other sources)? And copy editing versus copyediting?

Copy editor

Copy editing

Though these preferences are far from universal.

EL - so you don't personally adore Fourbucks coffee?

Would you agree it tastes a little burnt?

Whenever a violent event occurs, some offical is asked by a reporter whether he thinks that "terrorists are responsible."

Just once, I'd like that official to say, "No, I think that terrorists are incredibly irresponsible!"

Whenever a violent event occurs, some official is asked by a reporter whether he thinks that "terrorists are responsible."

Just once, I'd like that official to say, "No, I think that terrorists are incredibly irresponsible!"

Yes, and only after I hit the "Post" button did I notice that Safari had flagged my spelling of "official." For a column on this subject I must admit my error.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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