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Answering Your Questions About Specifics

October 14, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified February 2, 2016

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been asked a lot of questions regarding specifics, especially in terms of punctuation and grammar.

I’m going to post some of those questions and answers in a series of articles so that you can see questions that other writers and editors have and see options for solving those grammar and punctuation problems.

But first, let’s look at resources that can help you with those problems.


Like most of you, I don’t have every grammar or punctuation rule at the tips of my fingers (or the tip of my brain), and sometimes when I seek answers from multiple sources, I find that those answers contradict one another. I’m left trying to figure out the differences between the suggestions, rules, and/or opinions. I’m sure you run into the same quandary. Yet usually we can determine why there are seemingly contradictory recommendations.

Sometimes a rule will work under one condition, but not another.

Sometimes a rule is specific to nonfiction and won’t be the right rule to apply to fiction (or vice versa).

Sometimes a rule is restricted to British English (BrE) or American English (AmE) and proves to be the wrong choice for the other.

In fiction, we sometimes flat out get to ignore rules. For example, in dialogue, almost anything goes because people (even fictional ones) say the darnedest things. They don’t care about grammar when they’re tied to the figurative railroad tracks with the Evening Star out of control and racing straight toward them.

I try to include explanations and exceptions in my responses to questions, especially when the experts don’t agree. Yet sometimes I don’t include all the exceptions. If you’ve got a reference source that provides specifics about any rule we cover—especially the exceptions—please feel free to jump in with your rule and your source for that rule. The more accurate information we have as writers and editors, the clearer our communication can be.

Let me also recommend that you not only check trusted sources but that you check a variety of sources as well. I usually provide information on fiction, so my first choice for style matters is The Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS).

Yet maybe your first choice should be a dictionary. An up-to-date dictionary gives definitions, current spelling (great for evolving compounds) and correct punctuation, and it also identifies which part of speech the word is (noun, adjective, adverb, and verb—transitive or intransitive or both).

Before we look at some of the reader questions I’ve seen recently, allow me to list resources where you can find answers to your style and usage questions.


Resources for Style, Grammar, and Punctuation

There are many great resources available for writers and editors, and I permanently feature several in the left sidebar. Yet for this article I’m going to focus on style guides and other rule books that deal more with punctuation, grammar, and style and usage than with the elements of fiction.

I’ve provided links to Amazon.* Most of these resources are available in multiple formats, although I tried to link directly to print versions. I also linked to the most current version, although there are often older versions still available. It’s likely you can get many of these secondhand. (I paid $4.99 for my hardback of Garner’s Modern American Usage and $5.00 for a paperback of Fowler.)

The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition
I’ve already mentioned CMOS. If you’re a fiction writer or an editor, this is a necessary resource for you. I even recommend CMOS for writers and editors who follow BrE rules. The topics are wide ranging, and the examples are typically easy to understand.

New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide
Hart’s covers rules specific to BrE. For those who use BrE rules, check Hart’s as well as CMOS. CMOS covers a lot more ground, but Hart’s can help you apply the rules for BrE.

The Elements of Style
Strunk and White’s book is short, but it does have more than a few specifics in it. Worth thumbing through every so often.

The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style
This is Bryan Garner’s concise version of his Garner’s Modern American Usage. The Oxford version might be easier to work with since it’s smaller and lighter (at least my softcover is), but both have great information. Those odd rules that weren’t even covered in school or those that you didn’t pick up on? They’re here.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage
Some argue that the older versions of this classic are better—I don’t know that that’s true. But do consider acquiring this style guide. Those odd usage rules are covered here too.

The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications
This resource contains exercises as well as rules, so it’s a bit different from CMOS and Hart’s. Still, lots of great specifics and clear examples.

Lapsing Into a Comma : A Curmudgeon’s Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong in Print—and How to Avoid Them
Bill Walsh’s guide is fun to read and has some rules you may not be familiar with. His stress is on newspaper writing, but if your focus is fiction and you’ve read other guides, it’s likely that you’ll know when his recommendations are specifically for news stories.

Associated Press Stylebook 2015 and Briefing on Media Law
I haven’t used the AP Style Guide, but if you write news articles or nonfiction, this one should be on your desk.

The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, 5th Edition: The Official Style Guide Used by the Writers and Editors of the World’s Most Authoritative News Organization
This one’s on my Christmas list. I don’t know what it has that CMOS doesn’t cover, but I want it anyway. (Update: I treated myself to one.)

The Gregg Reference Manual: A Manual of Style, Grammar, Usage, and Formatting Tribute Edition
This is a guide for business writing, yet I’ve found references online to usage questions whose answers can be found only in Gregg. The newest version seems to be a special edition. New, this one is pricey. You might want to try to find a used spiral-bound edition. (Update: I got myself one of these too.)

Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (11th Edition)
This is a recommendation from a reader. Amazon reviews are mostly positive.


I’ll leave you with these references for now. We’ll get into  specific questions and answers in the next article. In the meantime, use your dictionary, your grammar books, and these resources to help you find answers for those unusual questions.

Note: While I love to answer questions, I don’t always have the time and ability to get to questions and answers right away. This is especially true when the answers aren’t simple. (Or when I’m on a deadline.)


* I’m an Amazon affiliate, so if you click on a link, go to Amazon, and buy something there, I receive affiliate compensation.



Tags: , , ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Grammar & Punctuation

15 Responses to “Answering Your Questions About Specifics”

  1. M G says:

    One thing to keep in mind is that use of AP style is very specific. In other words, it is almost exclusively used for news content (and decried by academics). It also changes every year and has some really oddball rules. The other point I’d make is that consistency within a single document/book/essay etc., is more important that following this or that specific style guide. For instance, if you can make a good argument for using an Oxford comma in AP style, do so. Clarity and consistency should rule!

  2. Bill Norton says:

    Can’t believe your list excludes Joseph Williams’ “Style: 10 Lessons in Clarity and Grace.” This books demonstrates “how” to write with grace, surpassing “Elements of Style,” which I find too didactic. Williams advocates precision rather than concision, a flaw I find in “Elements.” I have the NY Times style manual and found it most useful if one needs to know the idiosyncracies of writing for The Times. If not writing for the Times, AP covers everything necessary for news writing.

    • Bill, I’m unfamiliar with Clarity and Grace. It looks to be a recommended resource for academic writing and for use in the classroom. Is that your take on it? Are there any special sections or details that you find especially useful or that can’t be found in other sources?

      Thanks for the tip. I’ll add a link for this one.

  3. Excellent list of resources. Some I have and some I still need to get. Thanks, Beth!

  4. Jake Houck says:

    Beth, check out this link when you have time. It’s the brand-new New York Times Manual of Style, 5th Edition. I think their style is more elegant and sophisticated than The AP Stylebook. You said it was on your wish list, so take a peek. If I were your neighbor I’d buy it for you and hand-deliver it to your doorstep as a token of my appreciation for all you have done for me on your blog.

    Here’s the link at Google Books:


  5. Phil Huston says:

    I’ not sure where to ask this, or if I should the member site for a forum, but I have looked high and low. CMOS 16, MLA, Oxford creative Writing, Self editing – and I know none of those have the titles entered correctly.

    I have a character, who, when aggravated, uses “Mister,” and strings adjectives and more following it.

    “So I should be like you? Be Mister smarty knows everything, here’s how I’d do it?”

    How much of what follows Mister gets caps? How much, if any, gets hyphens? Consider a shorter one.

    “Mister knows more feminist literature than I do.”

    Any thoughts? She does this when she argues, and any budding feminist in the Seventies argued. A lot. So I need to fix “several” of these.


    • Phil, I’m sure I’ve never seen any rule regarding this issue—it’s likely to be a style choice.

      I just did a quick check of a half dozen reference books, but found nothing. And that pretty much tells me that there’s no rule. Otherwise we’d find it.

      Still, I’ve seen things like Mr. So-and-So and Mr. Know-it-All. But we typically hyphenate those compounds anyway. Mr. Stick-in-the-Mud? I’d probably capitalize and hyphenate. I think you could safely hyphenate and capitalize. Treat the compound as a hyphenated last name—Mr. Jones-Smythe.

      Logic would indicate that if you’re treating the whole compound as a name that you should probably capitalize all the words, but I might make exceptions for some prepositions. And since hyphens join words, using hyphens make sense.

      So for your first example:

      “So I should be like you? Be Mr. Smarty-Knows-Everything-Here’s-How-I’d-Do-It?”

      The same for your second example:

      “Mr. Knows-More-Feminist-Literature-Than-I-Do.”


      Of course, this character quirk could get annoying fast—for characters and readers. You may want to use it sparingly. And maybe you could interrupt the speaker at least once so that she doesn’t complete one of her long names. Or have another character complete it for her so that the long string of unbroken words is actually broken into two strings.

      I can’t see any reason not to hyphenate the whole string and, as I said, treat it like a compound name.

      I’m sorry I couldn’t be definitive in terms of rules, but I couldn’t find even one.

      • Phil Huston says:

        Thanks!! I’m almost tempted to treat it conversationally, a if she replaces ‘you’ or ‘you’re’ with ‘mister.

        So what, you’re a regular fix everything sort of guy?
        Oh,so now it’s mister gonna fix everything guy?

        For me, as a character trait, it almost works best without all the intimidating hyphens and caps that chop it up and blast it. The way it is usually presented is almost a term of endearment, even when she’s cheesed off. Does that make sense. Capping and hyphenating adds an extra edge that’s not really there. All that would be great for addressing a letter to someone, but just sitting at an outdoor table at a burger place where somebody is about to get blasted with ketchup it’s almost to formal and doesn’t roll. I don’t hear it delivered all barky and chopped up.

        Or drop the Mister?

        “So I should be like you, huh? A smarty pants who knows everything, here’s I’d do it girl? That is so not me.” To me, visually, it’s just conversation, not a big deal. Would inner quotes work, just to set it off maybe but not make a huge presentation out of it?

        Thanks again for all of your hard for all of us!

  6. Ann says:

    Quick question: I know one shouldn’t capitalise ‘you’ normally, but what about in the sentence “come on you!” (as in a close friend trying to motivate another), should it be ‘You’ or ‘you’? I have tried getting the answer to this one elsewhere, but cannot find definitive answer. No rush with the answer, whenever you have a spare moment. Thanks.