LABELS: apostrophe, comma, COPY EDITING, PUNCTUATION
Let’s play pin the terminal punctuation on the sentence. In each of the examples below, decide where you’d put the period or question mark.
1. He said, “I like the word ‘clandestine’”
2. Did he say, “I like the word ‘clandestine’”
3. He asked, “Is that an activity to which you would apply the label ‘clandestine’”
4. He said, “Now that’s what I call dancin’”
5. He asked, “You call that dancin’”
6. Did he say, “That’s what I call dancin’”
Hard, isn’t it? It sure is for most writers and editors I see. In fact, in the stories I copy edit, sentences like these trip up even skilled editors I work with (point being: don’t feel bad if you find them tough).
The best way to find the answers is to go very slowly and carefully, applying the basic rules for quotation marks and apostrophes.
The rules state:
- A period or comma in American English always goes before a closing quotation mark, regardless of whether it applies to the whole sentence/clause or just the quoted portion.
- A question mark or exclamation point can go before or after a closing quotation mark, depending on whether it applies to the whole sentence or just the quoted portion.
- Single quotation marks are no different: a period or comma always comes before, a question mark or exclamation point can go before or after.
- Apostrophes are different. They're considered part of the word. So they're never separated from the rest of the word by another punctuation mark.
Applying those rules, you should arrive at the following answers.
1. He said, “I like the word ‘clandestine.’” (The period comes before both the single quotation mark and the double quotation mark.)
2. Did he say, “I like the word ‘clandestine’”? (The question mark goes outside both the single and double quotation marks because the whole sentence, and not just the quoted portion, is a question.)
3. He asked, “Is that an activity to which you would apply the label ‘clandestine’?” (Here, only the quoted portion is a question. The word being singled out by the single quote marks is not a question. So the question mark goes after the single quotation mark but before the double. And, yes, that ends the sentence without need for further punctuation.)
4. He said, “Now that’s what I call dancin’.” (The mark after the N in dancin’ is not a single quote mark. It’s an apostrophe. So the quotation mark rule doesn’t apply. Think of that apostrophe as the letter it’s standing in for, G, which you would never separate from the rest of the word with a period.)
5. He asked, “You call that dancin’?” (The question mark applies to just the quote, not the whole sentence. So it comes before the closing quotation mark. But it should not separate the apostrophe.)
6. Did he say, “That’s what I call dancin’”? (The whole sentence, not just the quoted part, is a question.)
Let’s do a really tough bonus question (one that doesn’t come up much in the real world).
7. Perry said, “Joe asked, ‘Will you please stop dancin’’”
Tough, right? There’s a contraction within a quotation within a quotation within a larger statement. So take it slowly.
Which part is the question? It’s the quote within the quote, right? So we want our question mark after the apostrophe in dancin’ but before the single quotation mark. So it’s:
7. Perry said, “Joe asked, ‘Will you please stop dancin’?’”
You can see why even professional editors stumble over stuff like this.
LABELS: ADJECTIVES, COPY EDITING, hyphens
Here’s a sentence with a potentially comical word choice:
“Bob and I shared a deep connection, and as a one-time partner, he will live in my memory forever.”
I know that’s a bad sentence with plenty to object to, but the issue I’m talking about is “one-time” instead of “onetime.” The one-word form, without question, means “former.” But the hyphenated form could mean someone you hooked up with exactly once.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, which book publishing uses, allows “one-time” to mean “onetime," but only in a secondary definition. Other dictionaries don’t allow this at all, and according to them you and Bob didn’t have the relationship you think you did.
In editing we always go with the dictionary’s first choice, I would always reserve “one-time” for something that happened just once and use “onetime” for “former.”
You don’t have to do the same. But if you want readers to believe that you and Bob really had something special, you might want to think about it.
LABELS: GRAMMAR, VERBS, WORD USAGE
How’s your “lay” and “lie” savvy these days? These words can get fuzzy in the mind if you don’t exercise your knowledge often enough. So, with that in mind, here’s a little quiz on “lay” and “lie.”
1. If you don’t feel well, you should lie/lay down.
2. Yesterday, I didn’t feel well, so I laid/lay down.
3. Sometimes when I’ve felt sick, I’ve lain/laid/lay in bed for hours.
4. Lie/lay the book on the table.
5. Yesterday, I lay/laid the book on the table.
6. There have been many times over the years when I have lain/laid the book on the table.
Here are the answers.
1. If you don’t feel well, you should lie down.
2. Yesterday, I didn’t feel well, so I lay down.
3. Sometimes when I’ve felt sick, I’ve lain in bed for hours.
4. Lay the book on the table.
5. Yesterday, I laid the book on the table.
6. There have been many times over the years when I have laid the book on the table.
There are two elements to getting “lie” and “lay” right. The first is understanding the basic difference between the two words. The second is knowing where to find the past tense forms.
That last part is easy, so I’ll get that out of the way first: For the past tense forms, just look in a dictionary. Next to the main entry for any irregular verb, dictionaries always list the simple past tense form, followed by the past participle – but only if that past participle is different from the simple past tense.
So look up “lie” and you’ll see next to it “lay, lain.” Therefore, the simple past tense of “lie” is “lay.” (Confusing, I know. But if you can wrap your head around that fact, you’ve already mastered the hardest part of this.) The past participle, the one that goes with “have,” is lain.
Today I lie on the bed.
Yesterday I lay on the bed.
In the past I have lain on the bed.
For that other word, "lay," the past tense and past participle just happen to be identical: "laid."
Today I lay the book on the table.
Yesterday I laid the book on the table.
In the past I have laid the book on the table.
Notice how I keep mentioning a book with "lay" examples but not with "lie"? That brings us to the main difference between these two words. “Lay” is a transitive verb, which means it takes an object (a noun or pronoun). “Lie” is intransitive, which means it does not.
So whenever you’re laying *something* down, that’s transitive “lay.” If you’re just reclining, that’s intransitive “lie.” And if you can’t remember their past tense forms, just do what I did every time for about 10 years and consult a dictionary.
Just when I think I’ve heard every dinky language complaint imaginable, something lands in my e-mail inbox to prove me wrong.
Not long ago, it was an an e-mail from a reader who had used the term “great aunt” and – get this – was corrected by a family member who said the correct term was “grandaunt.”
That would have been rude enough had she bothered to look it up first to confirm she was right. But she didn’t. Because if she had checked Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate dictionary, she would have seen that grandaunt and great aunt are synonyms.
Also recently, I got an e-mail about the word “got”:
There are certain words or phrases that drive me crazy. As an example, when someone uses the word "got"; as in "you got money". This instead of you have money. ... I learned from my son that you almost never need the word "got".
I could have brought up a couple of my own peeves, including using “or” in place of “and,” double spacing between sentences, and periods placed after closing quotation marks.
Instead I pointed out that “got” is indispensable as the past tense of “get” (“Yes, I got your e-mail”) and that it’s also acceptable both as a past participle instead of “gotten” (“I have got into trouble before with this one”) and as an idiomatic though wordy addition to “have” (“I have a lot of pennies,” “I have got a lot of pennies”).