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In This Together: Commas, apostrophes and abbreviations, oh my!
Jul 28, 2014 | 5650 views | 0 0 comments | 143 143 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MCDONALD’S is one of many business that uses apostrophes right. 
Photo by Louise R. Shaw | Davis Clipper
MCDONALD’S is one of many business that uses apostrophes right. Photo by Louise R. Shaw | Davis Clipper

I’ve been asked to set the record straight.

Someone called the front desk at the Clipper and told them we got some commas wrong.

When one person calls any place about anything, that means lots more people thought it but didn’t bother to call.

There’s only one thing worse than letting a typo or two slip into the paper, which I admit happens despite our best efforts, and that’s going through all the work of finding them and correcting them only to have people think we got them wrong. 

So, here’s an attempt to explain a few things you may not otherwise have known about newspaper style:

Whereas it is correct in some circles to separate word lists in sentences with commas all the way to the bitter end, newspaper style is to leave out the comma between the last two words, where you’ve already got the word “and.”  Hence, “They ate hot dogs, chips, and ice cream,” is not used in the newspaper world. As dictated by the Associated Press Stylebook we in the industry keep by our sides, most in the media will write instead: “They ate hot dogs, chips and ice cream.” 

On this point I am in total agreement. It’s enough to separate word lists with commas and “and.” It is overkill to separate the last two words in the list with both.

The AP Stylebook is a fun read for any interested in English. It takes things that might be OK multiple ways and sets a standard. (Yes, “OK,” not “okay.”)

While you can write “7:00 P.M.,” “7:00 PM,” or “seven o’clock in the evening,” we write “7 p.m.” Keeping it simple is the rule wherever possible.

Likewise, those who use AP style will incorporate standard state abbreviations (Calif.), capitalizations (Cub Scout but first lady) and spacing (fundraiser not fund raiser).

And if you don’t have an AP Stylebook at your desk, you might think we’re wrong and call the front desk. But it wouldn’t be us in this case.

A few more points from the writing world that might benefit those particular about such things and prevent them from misplaced righteous indignation:

For some unknown, unfathomable, inexplicable reason, it has become popular to tell people you “graduated college.” This is so embarrassing. And not just for the institution that gave you the degree.

Just like you “go to college” and “come home from college” and “learned a lot at college,” you “graduate from college.” 

The gut feeling I had on this was reinforced in a Writer’s Digest article by Brian Kelms (thank you, Brian). He explained something about intransitive verbs and prepositional phrases and such. Let’s just not do it for whatever reason. It’s wrong.

I can also thank Writer’s Digest, a monthly magazine for those who write or who think about writing, for helping set the record straight on “an historical” versus “a historical” event. They did it with a simple phrase: “A half an hour.” 

Both words start with “h,” but because you hear the “h” in half, it acts like a consonant so you use “a” before it. You don’t hear the “h” before hour, so it’s more of a vowel sound, so you use “an.” Thus it is proper to say “a historic event,” “a history lesson,” “a historical moment,” despite the credentials of those who use “an” in such cases.

While we’re at it, I must mention I have noticed it has become popular to snicker cynically whenever someone uses “literally” in a nonliteral sense, such as “I literally died when I heard he was dead.” 

Imagine our surprise to find the dictionary at lists the second definition of the word as “in effect, virtually,” explaining it as “pure hyperbole intended to gain emphasis.” 

In other words, you can literally use literally without it being literal.

So now the world is upside down for many of you. But it will soon be a better place for all of us.

I have to end on apostrophes. Because you have to know that sometimes those of us in the newspaper world use apostrophes wrong.

This is not because we want to. It’s because we have to.

It is because we’re writing a story about Zions Bank or the Wherever Farmers Market and they don’t use apostrophes so we can’t either. 

It’s their formal title, on their signs and their websites and their buildings.

And unlike Kohl’s or McDonald’s, for whom the world of apostrophe lovers owe a great debt, the organizations mentioned earlier don’t use apostrophes where they should so, true to their style, we don’t.

When you recently read a story about farmers’ markets, you may have noticed that with the official name of the group, true to their style, we didn’t use an apostrophe. When we wrote about farmers’ markets in general, we did use the apostrophe because it seems to be a market that is held for and benefits multiple farmers.

Correct me if I’m wrong.

But only if you’re sure.

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