A Word with Beth about Puzzling Punctuation

Old Style Question and AnswerWelcome to the first post of my new monthly Question and Answer series on grammar and word usage, “A Word With Beth.” In this series, I will do my best to answer questions sent to me by you, my readers, on the grammar and word use questions that have been perplexing you.

To send a question, just email me at mail (at) flubs2fixes (dot) com and I’ll get back to you with the date you can expect to see your question featured. The series will run on the 3rd Monday of every month. The questioner will remain anonymous.

I received a great question for this inaugural post, and it has taken some thought to come up with an answer. Here’s the question:

Let’s say the character is reading an ad from a newspaper. In the text, the ad would be presented like it would appear in the newspaper, one line at a time. I included an example without punctuation. So, what is the correct punctuation, including quotation marks?

Since it is being spoken by the character, thus treated as dialog, would you use a period at the end of each line along with quotation marks? I know in picture books that incomplete sentences are fairly common.

Needed-One Blue Ox

See Tall Paul

#4 Pine Top Circle

This is a very good question, and I’ve given it quite a lot of thought. I’m offering a couple of takes on the answer.

Note that in both my suggestions, I’ve replaced the hyphen after the word Needed with a colon. A hyphen would join the two words. A dash — which is longer than a hyphen and has spaces before and after it — would have separated them, but a colon is stronger.

Suggestion 1: I am assuming because of the way the question was presented that this is an example to be considered as part of a picture book manuscript. As such, the publisher will have the last word about how the words are set up to resemble a quotation from a newspaper. The writer’s job in preparing a manuscript for submission is to make the manuscript as clear and understandable as possible.

If there is something in the text prior to this indicating that the character is reading from a newspaper, I think it would be simpler to make the newspaper ad appear as one paragraph, thus:

       “Needed: One blue ox. See Tall Paul, #4 Pine Top Circle.”

I have indented it as a paragraph. I have not capitalized Blue Ox. This doesn’t seem to be asking for a specific blue ox, such as Babe, the Blue Ox, in which case capitals would be appropriate. For a generic blue ox, pink flamingo, or orange elephant, capital letters would not be used. In contrast, I have assumed that Tall is part of Paul’s name, so the capitalization has been left as is. The O in One can be either capitalized or not, but in this context, I have left it capitalized.

Creating two sentences from the words of the ad makes it easy to read, and still keeps the feel of a newspaper want ad.

Suggestion #2: If the writer definitely wants to keep the text lines separate, each line would be indented as if it were a new paragraph. This makes it appear as if it were a list, such as a bulleted list, which it is not. Bulleted lists made up of sentence fragments should not be punctuated. To make sense of this newspaper ad example, however, I believe it is best to punctuate in the same way as suggestion #1 above.

       “Needed: One blue ox.

         See Tall Paul,

         #4 Pine Top Circle.”

In this variation, you will notice that I have used only one set of quotation marks, opening the quotation at the beginning of the full ad, and not closing it until the end of the ad. Using quotation marks around each portion of the ad might make them appear like separate statements, or even alternate lines of dialogue spoken between two characters, and would create unnecessary confusion.

Although the ad could be displayed in this way in the manuscript, I think there would be less possibility of confusion for the reader if it were presented in one paragraph as in my first suggestion.

 

I hope this has helped the person who sent in the question.

Readers, please feel free to share your thoughts on these suggestions, or offer your own, in the comments.

 

I look forward to answering further questions in the months to come. Please submit any grammar or word usage quandary you may have to

mail (at) flubs2fixes (dot) com

 

Disclaimer: I answer questions to the best of my ability, consulting various grammar resources, but would never suggest that my way is the only way to do things. That said, I do try to answer as accurately as possible, and hope the answers found here are helpful.

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Comments

  1. Very clear and thorough answer to a puzzling question! Thank you, Beth :)

  2. Well done! Great points! :D

  3. Great takes on this Beth. And what would you suggest if the character was reading silently to himself? Would italics be appropriate?

  4. Beth, thanks so much for your thorough answer! I appreciate the information! Very helpful :-)

  5. Love how you look at alternatives, Beth, very helpful.

  6. I love this series idea! That was a tough one – you explained it so well!!

  7. Nice work! A real puzzler of a question indeed!

  8. What an enlightening post! i like that you provided 2 options. It’s nice to know that there may be options in grammar.

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