It’s been a little over a year since the Covid-19 pandemic made its entrance on European soil. First stop: Italy. I still remember the day the first Italian victim was announced, one Friday in late February. I had just picked up my C2 English Proficiency certificate that morning, and as I started preparing my lunch I turned on the news, which was all about Covid.
Various lockdowns and millions of face masks on, it now seems like the worst is over. Perhaps we are soon to be “reborn with a flower”, as the Italian anti-Covid vaccination programme is called. But the consequences, I fear, will be felt for many years. Not just lives have been lost: jobs, businesses, (movie) theatres, archives, trade shows, festivals, street markets…everything has been affected. Our habits have changed, too, though hopefully not for good.
Although academia was hit as hard as other sectors, especially in the Humanities, as a proofreader/translator I haven’t suffered the consequences too much. On the contrary, several returning clients and word of mouth have kept me busy for most of the past 15 months. In fact, this must have been the busiest year of my post-academic career so far!
This has also meant not being able to write new blog posts. But, now that I’ve had a chance to take a (much needed) rest, I plan to make up for this absence, starting with a new post coming up soon, on gendered language in academic writing: is gender neutrality really the key?
In the meantime, if you’ve missed any of my older posts, please check out the archive below.
New round of posts about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research, and dissemination. Episode 1: writing.
Commas save lives
I recently discovered that 24 September is National Punctuation Day. Well, in the States it is. Yes, people actually celebrate punctuation! A certain Jeff Rubin launched it, and even designed a website, which is all about punctuation: rules, gadgets, games.
I guess fetishes come in all shapes and sizes.
Right, I’m taking the mickey out of poor Jeff. Actually, punctuation is quite important. If you look up #PunctuationDay on Twitter, you get a string of Tweets featuring tons of examples of punctuation gone wrong.
The most popular seem to be in the line of “Let’s eat grandpa” or “Let’s eat grandma”. Not sure why grandparents are such popular objects in these examples, but it does prove a point: commas save lives.
In my job as a proofreader, some of the errors I most regularly encounter regard punctuation. In this blog post I want to have a closer look at commas. As easy as they may seem, they are the most common sources of punctuation errors.
So here are my top 3 tips on how to use commas correctly:
Commas are mainly used when two independent clauses are joined by words such as “and”, “or”, and “but”:
I did the exam, and I went down to the pub.
Only leave out the comma when the subject is omitted before the second verb (“went”):
I did the exam and went down to the pub.
What’s important to remember is that commas can’t join clauses by themselves, as in this sentence: I did the exam, I went down to the pub. Here it’s best to just use a conjunction word (“and”). In other cases you might need to do more, like splitting the sentence up using a period or a semicolon.
Commas are also used a lot to separate words, in a series of three or more items:
I had wine, cheese, and crackers.
Note that I’ve added a comma before “and”. This is called an Oxford (or serial) comma, and it’s used a lot in the US – less in Britain. It serves to avoid ambiguity, especially if the list already contains conjunction words. For example, in this sentence “and” is used twice: I had wine, cheese and crackers and strawberries.
As a result, it’s not clear whether cheese, crackers, and strawberries represented one dish, or were eaten separately. You wouldn’t eat a cracker with cheese and a strawberry on top, would you? If we add a comma after “crackers”, though, the situation is clearer:
I had wine, cheese and crackers, and strawberries.
Awe, brings back so many good memories of conference drinks…
A third error I often come across is when a nonessential clause is NOT set off from the main sentence. A nonessential clause contains information that you can leave out of the sentence without changing its overall meaning:
Libraries, which are full of dusty bookshelves, aren’t my cup of tea.
If we were to remove “which are full of dusty bookshelves”, the meaning of the sentence as a whole – namely that you don’t like libraries – doesn’t change. It’s not essential information, so you would use a comma to set it off from the rest of the sentence.
Things change when you’re dealing with an essential clause, also called a restrictive clause (because it restricts the noun):
I don’t like libraries that look like coffee lounges.
The restrictive clause “that look like coffee lounges” says you don’t like a certain type of library, not that you don’t like all libraries. You do, just not this kind of library! In other words, the restrictive cause gives relevant information, and without it the meaning of the overall sentence changes. It’s integral to the sentence, so it can’t be set off by commas.
So you see, commas should never be underestimated, and must be used wisely and responsibly. Not just for the sake of poor old grandma.
For more detailed explanations, examples and tests, check out these online resources:
First in a series of posts, all drawn from my own – often suffered – experience of the academic world, about the “fabulous four” core activities in academia: writing, teaching, research and dissemination (in random order). Episode 1: writing.
The truth about notes
I recently got into a discussion about punctuation rules on Twitter. Yes, people do actually debate these things, including on social media, even if many don’t have an open mind on the matter, so I found.
In retrospect, I think the question (accompanied by a short survey) that meant to spark the debate wasn’t a very useful one: “do the footnote numbers go before or after the period?” One could also tick a third box, “it depends”, and since we’re talking about punctuation a fourth box was added, about using the Oxford comma—completely irrelevant, really, to the question of where notes should be placed in the text.
In my job as a proofreader, I work almost exclusively with Italian native speakers, and one of the most common errors I come across when proofreading their works is the placement of notes before punctuation marks. I know this is common in Italian academia, but I’ve honestly never seen it in any English-language publications in my discipline.
And I have some good piece of literature to back me up: New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide (Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 2014), endorsed by the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (and highly recommended when I took my first proofreading course). It is described as the essential desk guide for all writers and editors. So what does it say on the positioning of notes, I’m sure you are dying to know?
Here it is:
The reader is referred to a footnote or endnote by a cue in the text. This normally takes the form of a superior Arabic number. The cue is placed after any punctuation (normally after the closing point of a sentence). If, however, it relates only to text within parentheses it is placed before the closing parenthesis (pp. 332-333)
Granted, my initial comment to this thread – where I replied to an Italian academic talking about different approaches being used in different languages (something I agreed upon) – must have come across in a wrong, and possibly strong, way, judging from the defensive tone she subsequently took on. In reality I only meant to vent my frustration at having to fix footnotes all too often, when proofreading English texts written by Italian academics—trust me, moving misplaced notes is absurdly boring, and a real drag when using track changes, as these will upset the numbering of the whole note system.
Apparently, though, different practices – and mindsets – exist. So, in spite of the survey resulting in a majority (45%) voting for footnotes after the period (against 32% voting before), I read several confused or opinionated replies to the thread, including a few likes and comments aimed at proving me wrong. I even got mansplained of sorts by a couple of dudes who apparently couldn’t bother to produce any constructive, or even vaguely intelligent, criticism. Instead, they cast my reference to the poor Oxford Style Guide off as “booooooring” (wrong spelling, I replicated), and pointed to a typo introduced by my phone’s autocorrect (being set to Italian rather than English). Wow, really put me on the spot there, big man!
Clearly, there is no golden rule, even when you’re writing in the same language. Whatever “God” or the Polish football manager wish to believe. UK spelling differs from US spelling, and punctuation, too, follows its own rules depending on geography and disciplinary differences. And the style guides used in those disciplines. Which is why a proofreader can be of great help.