Opinion: quotation marks

Last week we discussed preferred styles of parenthetical dash. You might be interested to know that the use of spaced en rules is currently winning (at 58% of votes). The poll is still open if you would like to join in!

Quote marksThis week I would like to ask you the following:

Do you prefer single or double quotation marks for ordinary use?

This might be a difficult question to choose one answer for, so please let me know your thoughts in the comments. It’s also worth recognising that we have to use single and double when quotations within quotations occur.

Single with double inside is usually the preferred British style:

‘Do you know what a “stickleback” is?’

While double with single inside is usually the preferred American style:

“Do you know what a ‘stickleback’ is?”

I believe Canadians and Australians tend to prefer doubles and South Africans tend to prefer singles – is that your experience?

I am British but I prefer double quotation marks, particularly because they help to avoid any confusion if the quoted matter contains an apostrophe. However, single quotation marks are typically regarded as easier to read on a screen. As usual, I’d love to know what you think!


  • New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide
  • The Penguin Guide to Punctuation
  • Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage

Opinion: parenthetical dashes

Last week we discussed the use of serial commas. I was slightly surprised to find the poll currently shows that 60% of respondents agree with my stance – I thought the ‘always use serial commas’ camp would win it. The poll is still open if you would like to join in.

Dash2My blog’s style sheet is beginning to take shape, but I have another style decision to put to you:

Do you prefer parenthetical content to be marked by en rules or em rules? (If you have opted for dashes instead of commas or brackets.)

My preference is to mark it with spaced en rules like this:

The paint – a horrible shade of green – dripped on the carpet.

But it is also common to mark it with closed up em rules like this:

The paint—a horrible shade of green—dripped on the carpet.

I think spaced en rules look cleaner, and many British publishers use them. However, most US publishers use closed up em rules.

What do you think? It’s poll time! (Please vote – it makes me happy.)


  • New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide

Opinion: serial commas

CommaI have a confession to make: I haven’t put together a style guide for posts I make on this blog. The consistency of style leaves a lot to be desired. It’s time to take my own advice and develop a style sheet.

And I would be very interested to receive your opinions on what you would like to see. Do you prefer a certain style? Do you find some style choices distract you or make the content harder to understand?

I’m going to start with punctuation and perhaps one of the most controversial of style differences – the serial comma. The serial comma is also referred to as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma.

The serial comma is the comma that follows the penultimate item in a list of three or more things and comes before the and or or:

I like cake, biscuits, and ice cream.

I don’t think it is necessary there. It isn’t serving a meaningful purpose (in my opinion). The sentence could be punctuated as below and make perfect sense:

I like cake, biscuits and ice cream.

However, I would use a serial comma here:

The restaurant serves chocolate cake, cookies and ice cream, and mango sorbet.

My preference is to only use serial commas when they help to avoid ambiguity. But what do you think? Please vote in the poll below and/or leave a comment. Thank you!

Possessive apostrophes

Trask writes that possessive apostrophes are the most troublesome of apostrophes, and apostrophes are the most troublesome of punctuation marks. (I think commas must give apostrophes a run for their money.)

The basic rule for possessive forms is that ’s is added to the end:

Henry's book

If the noun ends with s, the same rule usually applies:

Charles's shoe

The first exception is for a plural noun that already ends in s:

my parents' holiday
the ladies' bathroom

These words are not pronounced with an extra iz sound, and so we don’t indicate an extra s in writing.

This brings us to the second exception. If the possessive form of a noun ending in s is not pronounced with an extra s, it only takes an apostrophe:

Aristophanes' plays
Bridges' marmalade

The final exception is for pronouns:

Whose is this? 
The essay is hers

But this does not apply to possessive indefinite or impersonal pronouns:

one's conscience
someone's lunch

I have previously covered its as a possessive form, and it is perhaps the pronoun most commonly incorrectly assigned an apostrophe.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage gives a comprehensive breakdown of exceptions and usage in more complicated situations, and I highly recommend it if you are worried about using apostrophes correctly.


I have previously covered how to use an en dash (–) and an em dash (—). Now to turn to the thing they are not: a hyphen.

A hyphen (-) shows that the matter it is attached to is not a complete word by itself. It should not be used with a space at both ends, although sometimes it is appropriate for it to have a space at one end.

The use of hyphens is often a matter of style. But they are used to do the following things:

  • join compound words
  • join compound modifiers
  • attach prefixes
  • indicate a piece of a word
  • indicate a word break at the end of a line

You might have heard of soft hyphens and hard hyphens. Soft hyphens are those that indicate word division at the end of a line. Hard hyphens are those that indicate words or parts of words are joined together to form compounds. There’s no difference in size or shape.

Hyphens are also used to indicate stammering or paused speech:

'W-w-what are we to do?'

And they indicate the omission of the second part of a hyphenated expression or solid compound:

three- and five-door cars
over- and underpaid employees

If you would like to find out more about when to use a hyphen, I can recommend the Penguin Guide to Punctuation for a thorough and simple explanation.

Em rules

Last week I posted about en rules. An em rule (—) is twice the length of an en rule (–). They are also referred to as en dashes and em dashes.Book

You will often see em rules used closed up (no spaces on either side) as a parenthetical dash; this is usually the preferred style for US publishers (instead of spaced en rules).

A spaced em rule can indicate the omission of a word; a closed-up em rule can indicate the omission of part of a word. It can also be used closed up in written dialogue to indicate a sudden break or interruption:

'You probably shouldn't put your knife in the toast—'

It is unusual but you might see some writers use a single closed-up em rule to set off dialogue instead of using quotation marks:

—Will he make it for dinner tonight?
—Not in this weather!

You may also see a closed-up em rule between an introductory noun (or nouns) and the pronoun introducing the main clause:

Cars, thunder, the neighbour's cat—nothing disturbed the plucky dog.

Em rules are used in indexes to indicate a repeated word, and they are sometimes used to indicate a repeated author’s name in consecutive bibliographic entries.

En rules

KeyboardYou are probably familiar with two types of dashes: the en rule and the em rule. Neither is to be used as if it is a hyphen.

The en rule (–) is longer than a hyphen (-) and half the length of an em rule (—).

You will often see it used with a space either side as a parenthetical dash; this is usually the preferred style for British publishers (the alternative is a closed-up em rule).

When considering the other uses, it might be helpful to think of the en rule as meaning (roughly) and or to.

The en rule should be used closed up (with no spaces either side) in elements (usually figures) that form a range:

pp. 18–25        1865–72        Monday–Friday

The en rule should also be used at the end of unfinished number ranges.

It is important to remember to always write from xxxx to xxxx or xxxx–xxxx. Do not use a combination of the two. The same applies when writing between xxxx and xxxx.

An en rule can be used closed up to express connection or relation between words, to express an alternative (in a similar way to a solidus) or to indicate joint creators (a hyphen between the names would suggest it was only one person).

En rules can also be used to indicate individual missing letters:

'The utter b – – – – – – !' she shouted.

It isn’t common to see this any more; people tend to be able to cope with seeing rude words spelt out.

Punctuation..? by User Design

User Design has very kindly sent me a free copy of Punctuation..? to review. (I haven’t had any previous involvement with User Design and I am not receiving any kind of payment for this review.)

Punctuation..? aims to explain the functions and uses of 21 punctuation marks. The intended audience seems to be broad, but the content is focused on the British English use of punctuation.

It is a slim book at 36 pages. It is staple bound (or saddle stitched) with the title of the book on the spine.

Used with permission from User Design.

Image used with permission from User Design.

Printed on good quality paper, it feels nice in the hand. However, I don’t think this can help to justify the £10 price tag.

The illustrations are idiosyncratic but charming. They are the main selling point of this publication. Readers who are easily bored should find the often amusing drawings enough reason to keep reading.

I was very pleased to see en dashes and em dashes touched on as well as hyphens. I was also interested to see guillemets, interpuncts and pilcrows included.

Unfortunately, the book is let down by errors, clunky prose and a lack of clarity. I find some of the explanations to be unhelpful or slightly misleading. This is a shame because Punctuation..? could be an excellent introductory guide after a little polishing.

Image used with permission from User Design.

Image used with permission from User Design.

The book is ideal if you want to spark someone’s interest in punctuation. It would also be ideal for a child who finds the topic of punctuation difficult or intimidating.

For adults, you might enjoy it as a quirky primer. But if you want to know how to use punctuation correctly, I can’t recommend anything more than Trask’s Guide to Punctuation.

‘Its’ and ‘it’s’

When I am proofreading, I often find that it’s is used when its would be correct. I https://pixabay.com/en/notepad-pen-paper-writing-business-926046/think that this occurs because the writer is thinking about apostrophes as a way to show possession. However, its is a possessive pronoun. It doesn’t need an apostrophe because it is already the possessive form of it.

Its means ‘belonging to it’.

It’s means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’.

The following are also possessives and don’t require an apostrophe: hers, his, mine, yours, theirs and ours.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Jeremy Butterfield (ed.)

This is my latest book recommendation. I consult this book regularly and it rarely lets me down. Respected and authoritative, it is a book with a sensible and measured approach to the English language.

The 7,500 entries are displayed in an A–Z fashion (like a dictionary, as per its name) with clear explanations and examples. It covers grammar, syntax, spelling, word choices and meanings, punctuation, and differences in English usage around the world. Fowler’s is my favourite source for identifying myths and ‘rules’ that are unnecessary and that damage good writing.

I referred to it in my previous post on ending a sentence with a preposition, and I have directed clients to it when discussing preferred forms of words. I even flick through it occasionally just to see what interesting entries I stumble across.

My hardback copy of the latest edition has 928 pages – you probably won’t want to carry it around with you! But it is an excellent publication to add to your collection. And (to my chagrin) it seems to be a lot cheaper to buy now than it was when I bought it.