Punctuation Gets Famous


It’s great to see that copy editors are finally being given the positive attention we deserve. There are now “copyediting stars” like Mary Norris of The New Yorker; John E. McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun; Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves; and author and podcast personality Mignon Fogarty, the “Grammar Girl,” who “sparked what you might call a worldwide, syntax-driven fiesta.”

I have to admit that I am surprised as well as pleased by this trend. A while back, when I was taking a break from editing to be a substitute teacher, I wondered if texting-style spelling, the overreliance on spellcheck, and the absence of diagramming sentences in school meant that attention to proper spelling and grammar would become a lost art in the everyday world. Would people outside of scholarly publishing give a darn about, say, the serial comma?

It turns out they do. Witness the case of the Oakhurst Dairy in Maine. The Maine Legislative Drafting Manual does not approve of the serial comma; therefore, there is none in the state law regulating overtime: “The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of: (1) Agricultural produce; (2) Meat and fish products; and (3) Perishable foods.” The ambiguity created by the lack of a comma after “shipment” resulted in Maine truck drivers winning a lawsuit that could cost Oakhurst Dairy $10 million. Some folks may find the serial comma superfluous—but I say that a little symbol that could save a company $10 million is nothing to sneeze at. That fact that so many articles were written about this case show that there is an interest in such topics.—Karen Boyd

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: Is it correct to leave “post” as a separate word in the following sentence? “These activities must take place from prelaunch to post launch.”

A: In section 8.3.1 (“When Not to Use Hyphens”), you’ll see the following:

Note that when post is used as a combining adjectival form, as in postmortem examination, it is set closed up. When it is used as an adverb, as in post hoc testing, it is set as 2 separate words.

So in your example, you would not close up “post launch.” However, the meaning of this sentence is ambiguous to me.  I would suggest rephrasing it to avoid an awkward construction and to clarify exactly what interval you are talking about. How about “These activities must take place both before and after launch.”?—Cheryl Iverson, MA

The Percolating Proofreader

Editor’s Note: Here begins an occasional series by one of The JAMA Network’s favorite overcaffeinated proofreaders, David Antos. He has a deep affection for parts of speech, punctuation, and widows and orphans. (See what I did there?)

Twice in the past week I’ve done the unthinkable, which, however, I found my mind was eventually willing to grasp, as if the unthinkable could be thought through without losing its privileged status of noble ignorance. Less like a raccoon’s grasping a crayfish than a raccoon’s washing pastry till it dissolves, my mind was the beneficiary of an organic shampooing so dense and luxurious that I got a little smarter right there in the shower. No blinding insight in my trickle-down acuity, but a soft perception that there was meaning to be had in twice forgetting to close a parenthetical expression, which is the horror I’d committed.

Do you call parens open/close or opening/closing? Or left/right? I tend toward overexpression, so you can imagine I favor the suffix, but, to keep this clean and tidy, like my hair, let’s do open/close, even though “close” reminds me of “clothes,” which I was bereft of in the shower though in polite society am usually not. Which is the point my shampooed mind was shoring into, that society becomes impolite when punctuation falters. In 2 emails I’d sent that week I’d properly initiated a parenthetical expression that, when gotten to the end of, nakedly submitted itself to the rest of the sentence without so much as a stitch of close. Well, actually, the 2nd email contained a couple bracketed morsels at its conclusion, and the close paren was likely forgotten in the heat of bracketing. No excuse that, but a circumstance lending a ray of thought to the unthinkable. I’d also preemptively included in each of those emails the assertion that, in the interests of sending them in a timely fashion, I was not going back to proofread before hitting the button of no return. I had my out, yet when, after sending, I did proofread, I felt guilt, shame, inner filth, as if I were Michelangelo’s socks when he finally crept down the Sistine Chapel’s ladder. I’d poured my soul into words and left out the close parens, rendering that soul holier than the aforementioned socks. And not in a good way.

Later, I washed my hair and, as a person does when feeling hair and contemplating sin, reflected on the week that was and the week that will never be. I thought of the close parens that were not allowed to see the light of another’s eyes and of the violent omissions recounted in the week’s headlines, and it began not to seem out of place to think that faulty punctuation is at the heart of a world gone wrong. Not that a sloppy email is to blame for unthinkable atrocities, but the sense of purpose, order, and unblinking inclusion punctuation provides mirrors the sense of moral rectitude we only occasionally achieve in our dealings with each other. Punctuation is never evil, just misplaced or missing, and as I stepped out of the shower I cheerfully anticipated my next trip on public transportation, for I would no longer regard the other commuters as merely people but as pieces of punctuation, possibly shoveled into a seat of crumbs or wedged pielike into each other, but innately good, even angelic. —David Antos

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: I would like to know how to reference a Kindle book.

A: This question was addressed on this very blog on May 7, 2012. We love questions, though, so feel free to send them in as well as using the search box on the top right corner of the blog home page. Also, we are working now on revising the manual for the next edition and we will be including lots more examples of online reference styles.


Q: How should an “e-pub ahead of print” reference be cited in the reference list?

A: There are a few examples in the current manual, but we plan to include many more examples of citing electronic documents in the next edition—and we are deep in discussions (some might say “arguments”) about a style change, so stay tuned!  See 3.15.1, examples 14 through 17. Note, however, that we have now dropped the words “ahead of print” in the phrase that appears in brackets.   Here is an example from JAMA Pediatrics:

Keren R, Shah SS, Srivastava R, et al. Comparative effectiveness of intravenous vs oral antibiotics for postdischarge treatment of acute osteomyelitis in children [published online December 15, 2014].  JAMA Pediatr.  doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.2822.

Q: How would I introduce an abbreviation that first appears in a compound word? For example, if my first use of traumatic brain injury was in TBI-related complications?

A: I would recommend the following: traumatic brain injury (TBI)–related injuries. (That’s an en-dash before related.)—Cheryl Iverson, MA

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: We are having a discussion about –ic and –ical. Dictionaries often use both. Where does the AMA Manual stand on this?

A: Please refer to the Correct and Preferred Usage chapter in the manual. You’ll see an entry on this very subject. In addition, there are entries on some of the pairs of words where the meaning of the –ic version is different from that of the –ical version (eg, classic/classical, historic/historical).

Q: Does AMA style advise against using a period after the abbreviation Inc?

A: Yes, we advise against using a period after the abbreviation Inc. This is addressed in section 14.7.

Q: In the course of developing a manuscript, an author has retired. Should we delete her affiliation? Or perhaps indicate something about her retirement in parentheses?

A: I would list the author’s affiliation, assuming she was affiliated with this institution while working on the paper. Then, follow the guidance about Author’s Affiliation (section 2.3.3) if a person has moved. This would mean adding an indication that Dr X is now retired. The style used for this notation will depend on the design of the journal involved. —Cheryl Iverson, MA

Quiz Bowl: Comma

“Let’s eat Grandpa.”

“Turkeys gobble Grandma.”

“She finds inspiration in cooking her grandchildren and her dog.”

As the saying goes, “Commas save lives!” Just the simple addition of commas to the above sentences and Grandpa, Grandma, the grandchildren, and even the family dog are all free to live another day.

“Let’s eat, Grandpa.”

“Turkeys gobble, Grandma.”

“She finds inspiration in cooking, her grandchildren, and her dog.”

In an effort to end the scourge of comma-related fatalities, this month’s Style Quiz addresses the use of the comma.

Edit the following sentence based on your understanding of section 8.2 of the AMA Manual of Style.

The investigators performed a double-blind placebo-controlled patient-initiated 2-armed parallel clinical trial.

Highlight the text box for the answer: The investigators performed a double-blind, placebo-controlled, patient-initiated, 2-armed, parallel clinical trial.

In a simple coordinate series of 3 or more terms, separate the elements by commas (§8.2.1, Comma, Series, pp 337-338 in print).

If, like us at the AMA Manual of Style, you are determined to play a role in ending the epidemic of flagrant and dangerous comma misuse, check out the full quiz at www.amamanualofstyle.com.—Laura King, MA, ELS

Quiz Bowl: Forward Slash


Thanks to an astute reader (gold star for Regina Scaringella) who noticed that our use of the forward slash in patient/physician relationship contradicted page 345 of the stylebook, we have revised this post. The following terms are correct: obstetrics/gynecology and patient-physician. (updated 2/3/14)

It should be easy, right? The use of the forward slash, that is. However, every time I encounter a forward slash in a manuscript, I know I’m headed for a fight. It’s me against the sinister solidus. Is it obstetrics/gynecology, obstetrics-gynecology, or obstetrics and gynecology? Is it male/female ratio, male-female ratio, or male to female ratio? I won’t let it defeat me! I shall tame the villainous virgule, and you can too. Below are 2 examples from this month’s Style Quiz that will help you fight the forward slash foe.

Edit the following sentences for appropriate usage of the forward slash based on your understanding of section 8.4 of the AMA Manual of Style.

The male/female ratio was 2/1.

Use your mouse to highlight the text box for the answer: The male to female ratio was 2:1.

Although a forward slash may be used to express a ratio (eg, the male/female ratio was 2/1), the preferred style is to use a colon to express ratios that involve numbers or abbreviations (the Apo B:Apo A-I ratio was 2:1) and the word to to express ratios that involve words (the male to female ratio) (§8.4.5, In Ratios, p 354 in print; see also §8.2.3, Colon, Numbers, p 342).

But what about that pesky relationship between obstetrics and gynecology? Maybe this will help.

The study examined academic performance in undergraduate obstetrics/gynecology clinical rotations. to achieve an effective patient/physician relationship was a top discussion priority at the annual meeting.

This example is correct as is. When 2 terms are of equal weight in an expression and and is implied between them to express this equivalence, the forward slash can be retained (§8.4.1, Used to Express Equivalence or Duality, pp 353-354 in print).

We hope these examples have helped arm you in the battle for mastery over the forward slash. If not, the full quiz (available to subscribers at www.amamanualofstyle.com) provides more guidance on the formidable forward slash.—Laura King, MA, ELS

Questions From Users of the Manual

Q: How should columns with mixed units of measure indicate the unit of measure?

A: In a table with mixed units throughout, use a table footnote for the most common unit of measure, eg, “Unless otherwise indicated, data are expressed as number (percentage).” and specify in the stub or column head only those units that are different. In a table with mixed units in a single column, use the most common unit in the column head and only provide another unit in the table cell for those entries that have a different unit of measure.

Q: Because of the change from the 9th to the 10th edition in the way number and percentage are handled in running text (see page 832 in the 10th edition), should column headings in tables also be changed to read, for example, “No. of Girls (%)” rather than “No. (%) of Girls”?

A: No. The style “No. (%) of Girls” is still an acceptable table column head as here both “number” and “percentage” apply to “of girls,” whereas in the example on p 832, the percentage is given as more of an aside to the numerator and denominator and hence follows: “Death occurred in 6 of 200 patients (3%).”

Q: What recommendations do you have for the preferred typeface of a punctuation mark that follows copy set in something other than roman type?

A: Some specific recommendations are outlined below:

• If an entire sentence is set in a typeface other than roman (eg, italic, bold), any punctuation in that sentence would take the typeface of the rest of the sentence.

• If part of a sentence is set in a typeface other than roman, even if it’s the end of the sentence, the ending punctuation would be roman.

• For heads, sideheads, entries in a glossary, the punctuation would follow that of the preceding word (so, in Correct and Preferred Usage of Common Words and Phrases, the commas between the word pairs are boldface, like the words).

• For parentheses and brackets, unless the entire sentence is set in a typeface other than roman, the parentheses or brackets are roman (see the example with “[sic]” on p 358).—Cheryl Iverson, MA