I will always stick to British (Australian) spelling, but the rules of punctuation vary more subtly between British- and American-English; I’d like to pluck the most common sense rules from both.
This is an absolutely incomplete, personal reference. When something is in question, I plan to document the opinions of multiple books, drawing my own conclusions and setting my own rules for style.
There are many uses for an apostrophe, but they are most commonly used for contractions (don’t, can’t, won’t) and to express possession. For example, if something is possessive it is Andy’s car, Gareth’s cats or the dog’s bone. This shouldn’t be confused with pluralisation; just because you add an s doesn’t mean you need an apostrophe (e.g. books, bananas, cats, toys).
The Elements of Style says add an ’s to a possessive singular, even if the final character is s, e.g. Charles’s. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage agrees, but recommends omitting the s “when a word ends in two sibilant sounds (the ch, j, s, sh, ts or z sounds) separated only by a vowel sound: Kansas’ Governor; Texas’ population; Moses’ behalf”.
Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers says:
Personal names ending in any letter other than s take a simple apostrophe s. […] For personal names ending in s, the situation is problematic because of the different ‘rules’ that are variously invoked. […] Given this confused situation, the most straightforward course of action is to add apostrophe s to any name ending in s, however long or short it is and however it is pronounced. Thus:
The Elements of Style says:
Pronominal1 possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and ours have no apostrophe. Indefinite pronouns, however, use the apostrophe to show possession.
somebody else’s umbrella
A tricky one to remember from Eats, Shoots and Leaves:
[An apostrophe] indicates time or quantity:
In one week’s time
Four yards’ worth
Two weeks’ notice (Warner Brothers, take note)
This is a bugbear of Lynne Truss’s; the Warner Brothers movie title example surfaces many times in her book. However, the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers disagrees:
It was previously conventional to use an apostrophe in expressions of time involving a plural reference […] The apostrophe is now often left out. Again, the sense of these phrases tends to be more descriptive than possessive.
When the time reference is in the singular, however, the apostrophe should be retained to help mark the noun2 as singular:
a day’s journey
the year’s cycle
The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage also says:
The expression months pregnant does not take an apostrophe; it is similar to years old.
Plural possessives often put the apostrophe after the s. The girls’ dresses has it after because there are multiple girls, who have multiple dresses. But when the word is already plural (without the addition of an s) the apostrophe goes before the s. For example children is already the plural of child; therefore children’s playground has the apostrophe before the s. Same goes for women’s.
John Gruber in regards to pluralising iPhone 5:
… This is tricky because of Apple’s “just add an S to the name of the previous model” naming scheme for the iPhone 3GS and 4S. It’s potentially ambiguous to write “iPhone 4s” when referring to multiple iPhone 4 units — and in the context of an all-cap headline or sub-head style, completely ambiguous. And then how do you pluralize iPhone 4S? iPhone 4Ss? iPhone 4Ses? Eww. That’s why I follow the NY Times Manual of Style and Usage’s edict:
Use apostrophes in the plurals of abbreviations and in plurals formed from letters and figures: M.D.’s; C.P.A.’s; TV’s; VCR’s; p’s and q’s; 747’s, size 7’s. (Many publications omit such apostrophes, but they are needed to make The Times’s all-cap headlines intelligible and are therefore used through the paper for constancy.) Unlike abbreviations, shortened word forms do not take the apostrophe in the plural: co-ops; condos. Also omit apostrophes in the plurals of “words as words” (that is, words that are themselves under discussion): ifs, ands or buts; dos and don’ts.
Hyphens should never be used in place of an en-dash or em-dash (unless using a double hyphen to represent an en-dash or a triple hyphen to represent an em-dash, e.g.
---). Em-dashes are so called because they are the width of a capital M: They are the correct punctuation character to use when punctuating prose—like this. En-dashes are so called because they are the width of a capital N: They are most commonly used as a replacement for the word to, for example: 9am–6pm or Monday–Friday.
Some typefaces don’t draw a clear enough distinction between en- and em-dashes.
Parenthetic expressions3 can use a pair of commas, em-dashes, or brackets. While brackets set the parenthetic expression back (it’s just additional information), em-dashes draw more emphasis than commas.
Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers agrees with me and goes into more detail:
The style recommended for the standard dash in Australian government publications is an unspaced em rule; this eliminates any possibility of confusion with the spaced en rule.
The em rule, or dash, has three main uses:
- to signify an abrupt change
- to introduce an amplification or explanation
- To set apart parenthetic elements
Beware of using em rules too frequently. Overuse could indicate that there are too many qualifications and a lack of structural clarity.
The Elements of Fucking Style on the dash:
It can introduce an abrupt introduction or a summary, or be used as a less formal substitute for the colon. The key word to remember when using a dash is informal…
…The dash implies a separation more forceful than a comma, and more relaxed that a colon:
The cocktail was a thick, foul-smelling concoction—a mix of tequila, ouzo, sour mix, and lime.
It’s important not to go overboard with your dashes, though. The grammatically correct choice is not to use a dash when another form of punctuation will work:
Her concerns about my debauchery were well founded. It was not from a public urinal that I caught chlamydia; it was from a common whore. (right)
Her concerns about my debauchery were well founded—it was not from a public urinal that I caught chlamydia—it was from a common whore. (wrong)
Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers explains that the en-dash essentially serves as a linking device. There are two types of en-dash; spaced and un-spaced. The spaced en-dash should be used when linking more than two words:
A Victoria – New South Wales partnership
But if you are linking only two words it should remain un-spaced:
A Victoria–Queensland partnership
The words you are linking should remain parallel in structure. So it should not be:
A Victorian–Queensland partnership. Victoria would be the correct word to use (as above).
The most common use for an en-dash is to replace the word to:
9am–6pm, Monday–Friday or 24–28 Sydney Road.
It’s also used to link prefixes to more than one word. In this instance it should remain un-spaced:
non–English speaking countries or anti–government sentiment.
Ellipsis points should have a space before and after, and according to the Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers:
With the exception of quotation marks, question marks and exclamation marks, no punctuation mark precedes the first point of ellipsis or follows the last.
‘The new system will simplify current tax arrangements …’
Double and single quotation marks are used differently around the world. Americans use double for the quote, and single for a quote within a quote. Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers says:
Single quotation marks are recommended for Australian government publications—in keeping with the trend towards minimal punctuation. Double quotation marks are then used for quotes within quotes.
In Australia, if punctuation at the end of a quote is part of the quote, it should sit within the quotation marks; if it is not, then it should sit outside them.
A couple of examples from Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers:
Telegraphy has been called ‘the Victorian internet’; it was the first practical application of electricity.
She laughed and said, ‘It’s great fun. I love being an advocate’.
Eats, Shoots and Leaves quoting Lewis Thomas’ The Medusa and the Snail:
The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added […] The period [or full stop] tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out and now you have to move along. But with the semicolon there you get a pleasant feeling of expectancy; there is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.
The Elements of Style introduces it in a typically confusing manner:
If two or more clauses4 grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction5 are to form a single compound sentence, the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon.
Which translated into layman’s English means: if you have two strings of words that could be separate sentences—but they are linked enough to want to join them—you could do so with words like and, but, or if; however, it would be better to use a semicolon.
Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers has the most succinct introduction to the semicolon I’ve read:
The break provided by a semicolon is stronger than that provided by a comma but weaker than that created by a full stop. The semicolon can therefore be used to link two clauses that could be treated as separate sentences but that have a closer logical link than such separation would imply. Another important use for the semicolon is in separating a series of phrases or clauses that also contain commas. Although the semicolon is often neglected, it is a very useful punctuation mark and, properly employed, can bring elegance and variety to your writing.
It goes on to explain:
A semicolon can be used between two parts of a sentence that are closely linked in meaning, provided there is at least a full clause on either side of the semicolon:
We expect ministerial approval next week; the work can then start immediately. Alternatively, these statements could be joined by and or they could be made into two short sentences. But neither option would produce the same emphasis or rhythm.
Sometimes the second clause is introduced by a connective expression, such as however, nevertheless, alternatively, that is or therefore, to underscore the connection between two statements. In such instances, be sure to choose a semicolon, not a comma:
Rain is forecast; however, there are no clouds to be seen.
Rain is forecast, however there are no clouds to be seen.
If items, in an otherwise comma delimited list contain commas; use semicolons instead. An example from Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers:
Participants came from Benalla, Victoria; Wellington, New South Wales; and Longford, Tasmania.
If you are abbreviating Fish and Chips, or Rock and Roll, you put an apostrophe on both sides on the ‘n’, e.g. Fish ’n’ Chips, or, Rock ’n’ Roll. This is because ‘and’ is abbreviated on both sides, dropping ‘a’ from the start and ‘d’ from the end.
Guns N’ Roses only has one apostrophe, but it should have two. Also, because ‘and’ would not normally be capitalised in a title, ‘N’ should probably be lowercase too. However, abbreviating words is informal; it’s a matter of style, and Axl can do whatever he wants.
Sweet Child o’ Mine only has one apostrophe—as it’s only abbreviating the end of the word—replacing the ‘f’ in ‘of’.
Capitalise all words in titles, except short words like: the, a, an, and, for, of, on, in. For example, The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage.
According to Grammarist:
… titles of books, publications, and works of art should always be capitalized—for example, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, The New York Times, There Will Be Blood. Use up-style capitalization in these cases; that is, capitalize the first letter of the first and last words and of all words besides short (fewer than five or so letters) articles, conjunctions, and prepositions. Short verbs, nouns, and adjectives are capitalized; for example, in There Will Be Blood, Be is capitalized because it is a verb.
HTML Decimals & Shortcuts
|Punctuation Mark||Example||HTML Decimal||Mac OS X Key Combination|
|Quotation Mark (single opening)||‘||
|Quotation Mark (single closing)||’||
|Quotation Mark (double opening)||“||
|Quotation Mark (double closing)||”||
|Square Bracket (left)||[||N/A|
|Square Bracket (right)||]||N/A|
Commonly misused words
The Elements of Fucking Style:
affect, verb6: have an influence on.
effect, noun: a change that is the result of something.
I am going to affect politics in this country by blowing up a building.
After the bombing, new curfew laws were put into effect.
Comment by user Precise Edit on DailyWritingTips quoting Which Word Do I Use?:
Effect is a noun that approximately means “result.” You can write “the effect,” “one effect,” and “an effect” because “effect” is a noun…
Caffeine has a soothing effect on children with ADHD.
Effect is sometimes used as a verb to mean “cause” or “create,” as in “We will effect a change.”
Affect is a verb that approximately means “alter.” You can write “affects,” “affecting,” and “affected” because it is a verb. [It] is a transitive verb, meaning it is done to something…
The new legislation will affect the way we buy cars.
Cold weather conditions have affected zoo attendance.
Affect can only be used as a noun when you are writing about an emotional response. A person’s affect is his or her emotional state. In all other cases, it is a verb.
If you’re not sure which one you need, and you can’t decide whether you need a noun or a verb, try replacing the word with “result” and then with “alter.” Which one is grammatically correct and approximates what you are trying to say? If “result,” then use “effect.” If “alter,” then use “affect.”
Center is American; centre is correct in the rest of the English speaking world.
E.g. is an abbreviation of the Latin exempli gratia. It means for example.
I.e. is an abbreviation of the Latin id est. It means that is, or, in other words.
Elude means evade or escape from, typically in a skilful or cunning way; or, fail to grasp or remember an idea or fact.
Allude means to suggest or call attention to indirectly; hint at.
Alan Hogan on App.net:
Every day, I see people misuse “everyday” as an adverb. It’s an everyday mistake.
It’s is a contraction of it is or it has. Its is possessive. The simple rule is: if you can’t replace it’s in a sentence with it is or it has, use its.
Comment by user Precise Edit on DailyWritingTips quoting Which Word Do I Use?:
Lay: To put or place something.
In its most common uses, lay is a transitive verb. This means that this is an action done to something. You lay something down, even if that something is yourself.
Lie: To be in a horizontal, prone, or resting position. It also means to tell a falsehood.
In its most common uses, lie is an intransitive verb, which means that it does not use an object. Remember: Something lies on something else.
Theater is American; theatre is correct in the rest of the English speaking world.
There indicates a place or position, e.g. Move it over there, or, there’s the cat.
Their is possessive, e.g. Their cat is really fluffy.
To is used in many different ways. It can be the opposite of from, e.g. We’re going to the shops. It can also indicate direction, range and contact, e.g. From Melbourne to Sydney, 28 to 32, and Pedal to the metal.
Too can indicate a higher degree, e.g. His pants are too tight, or, Her pants are too big. Too also indicates addition, e.g. Is Sharon coming to the shops too?
- Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Third Edition)
- Style Manual for Authors, Editors and Printers (Sixth Edition, Australian)
- Eats, Shoots and Leaves
- Type it write (First Edition, Australian)
- The Elements of Style
- The Elements of Fucking Style
- The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage
- The Associated Press Stylebook
Pronominal: relating to or serving as a pronoun. Pronoun: a word that can function as a noun phrase used by itself and that refers either to the participants in the discourse (e.g. I, you) or to someone or something mentioned elsewhere in the discourse (e.g. she, it, this).↩
Noun: any member of a class of words that can function as the main or only elements of subjects of verbs, as “A dog just barked,” or of objects of verbs or prepositions, as “to send money from home,” and that in English can take plural forms and possessive endings, as “Three of his buddies want to borrow John’s laptop.”↩
Parenthetic expressions: These are words, phrases or clauses that are inserted in a sentence but remain grammatically independent of it—that is, they could be removed without affecting the sentence structure (like bracketed text).↩
Clause: a unit of grammatical organisation next below the sentence in rank and in traditional grammar said to consist of a subject and predicate.↩
Conjunction: a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause (e.g. and, but, if).↩
Verb: a word used to describe an action, state, or occurrence, and forming the main part of the predicate of a sentence, such as hear, become, happen.↩