Author Claims Punctuation Rules are Subjective – Experts Differ

Guest Post by Irene Watson

I thought I had heard everything until I got this from an author when the reviewer pointed out punctuation issues in the book:

…I have reservations on her opinion on the punctuations of the book that is subject to a variety of peoples opinion. 

For example, one teacher could teach a pupil one way on the English language, another English teacher could teach a different method–it comes down to a matter of opinion. 

[Title omitted for anonymity,] was sent for editing and punctuation.  She could be wrong on her idea of proper punctuation.

I responded saying that our reviewer is a qualified editor herself. I also explained that a book should have at least three passes by three different editors.  The author wrote back:

So she is flawless? I understand your loyalty, after all she reviews for Reader Views. 

Like I said earlier, English can be subjective, a matter of  opinion, it is not like math. I had a few people edit and check punctuations as well as myself.

I decided not to respond because it would have just added more fuel to her fire.  She obviously was so upset that I got 5 emails back-to-back with things said like:

I cannot believe you are personalizing this and are still being defensive and argumentative.

However, in my opinion, something that can be subjective such as English–some teachers, and professors teach differently–should not be said as fact unless three heads got together and agreed.  

Like religious leaders to a Bible, as far as die-hard English majors, professors etc; I am sure they will believe everyone else even their colleagues, when it comes down to the English language and some specifics, are wrong if it is not in agreement with how they teach. 

I did not respond to any of the emails she sent. The above sentences were copied as is and you can see that her grammar and punctuation are in her own style.  In an earlier email to her I gave examples of punctuation issues: (These weren’t the only issues; the book was riddled with similar problems.)

Page 21, top:
She went to my class and asked Ms. Rushmore, “Why is Deniece coming home an hour late on some days.”     
This is a question so it needs to have a question mark.

Page 26, bottom:
As I was screaming, Joan wickedly said, “You should have killed yourself with that knife.  
That is the end of Joan’s little speech, but there is no quotation mark at the end.

Page 184, bottom:
“It was as if Beethoven and Chopin were playing themselves  After I read the critic’s opinions, I went into the kitchen to get something to eat.
Missing punctuation after “themselves”, also there were several critics, so it should be critics’.

In one of the emails the author sent me was actually an email from the editor that edited her book for $900. The author approached the editor regarding our communication. (The editor was from a DYI publishing firm that offers free and paid services.) The response from the editor was:

The [company name removed] editing staff was hand-picked based upon skill level and experience. Each editor was also rigorously tested before hired.

Please note that even after authors undergo multiple rounds of editing, it is not uncommon for authors and others to still find technical (grammatical and punctuation) and stylistic mistakes in their book.  While it is our goal to help authors strive to create a perfect product, there is no “perfect” book out there in the market.

The author also commented:

I looked forward to doing more business with Reader views but your focus was solely in tunnel vision mode.  You do not care if you get repeat business or not. This is sobering.

Tunnel vision? Punctuation a personal opinion?  I don’t think so.  Considering this author’s determination in saying that punctuation is subjective and there are no rules I decided to check around to see what experts thought. I also wanted to know what people in the publishing industry felt the minimum editing errors should be in a book.  This is what I received:

Tyler Tichelaar, PhD, Freelance Editor (Tyler has spent many years teaching writing and literature at three universities and writing his novels. He has lectured on writing and literature throughout the U.S. and Great Britain.)

Punctuation rules are not subjective; there is some room for leniency, such as when to use a semi-colon instead of a period, or to use a serial comma or not, but punctuation rules do exist and should be followed. The problem with believing punctuation rules do not matter is that such beliefs usually come from people unwilling to learn the rules. It’s commonly known that you can’t break the rules without learning why they exist in the first place. To do so is like arguing against a law you haven’t read so you don’t understand what you are arguing against. A good writer will strive to be consistent and use a style manual such as the Chicago Manual of Style. And when that writer chooses to break the rules, he or she does it knowingly and to achieve a certain effect–and it is done sparingly because to break the rules all the time results in a lack of meaning or emphasis.

Ami Hendrickson, Freelance Editor
When I work as a freelance editor for publishers, I’m generally provided with the publisher’s grammar, punctuation and usage guidelines (American publishers prefer “toward,” for example, but UK-based ones use “towards”).  I go over the final proofs meticulously, but do so with the knowledge that I am not alone. At least one other editor reviews and approves all copy.

I have never had a publisher tell me to use a particular journalistic style, though I tend toward MLA myself. Instead, I’ve been given the afore-mentioned guidelines that clarified their stylistic preferences.

Walt Shiel, Publisher, Five Rainbows Services
We are a small shop — only three of us. Two of us write. Everything we write is first carefully edited by whomever wrote it, then edited by both of the other two, using Chicago, Merriam-Webster, and our in-house standards as our primary guides.

My experience indicates that there is a wide variation in skills possessed by self-labeled professional editors. I honestly think that self-publishers should devote a few hours to studying a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style so they understand what an editor should be capable of finding and correcting.

Ric Williams, Senior Editor, Dalton Publishing
The mean absolute error (MAE) is a quantity used to measure how close forecasts or predictions are to the eventual outcomes. The mean absolute error is given by

for every hundred pages.  We would like no more than 2 and even then we wince.

Vicki Liston, Book Reviewer
I’ve established my own baseline because of this. Five and under get no mention in my reviews; anything over five, in my opinion, is enough to warrant mention.

Elizabeth Burton, Zumaya Book Publishing
The goal is always–or should be–zero, which is why I doubt anyone has ever set an arbitrary level of what’s acceptable. And it’s not just limited to grammar and punctuation, which is the mistake many self-publishing authors and even some editors make. There are errors of continuity, chronology and fact that need to be reviewed as well. Sadly, too many people doing editing lack the broad range of knowledge needed to catch the latter–and in some cases aren’t even aware that fact-checking is an essential part of the job.

Cleone Lyvonne Reed, Robert D. Reed Publishers
We aim for EXCELLENCE.  Perfection seems to be an impossibility, even after several edits. [Publisher uses Chicago Manual of Style.]

Want to hear what the author also did?  She reported me to the Better Business Bureau saying:

Reader views was very combative, unfriendly, unprofessional, and taunting me through e-mail, all because I disagreed with her. Poor customer service. The Reader views representative was very unprofessional, defensive, combative, and condescending.

She continued saying that punctuation rules are subjective.

BBB, in their letter, said:

Enclosed is a copy of correspondence sent to the BBB. It does not appear as though the nature of the dispute and/or the requested resolution currently falls within the guidelines for processing.

Yes, there are all kinds of people in the world and some of them disguise themselves as authors.  All in the daily life of a book review service!

Your thoughts? Comments?

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.


Posted on June 5, 2011, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. If you want to really piss off a maniacal Reader and get a gigantic, ugly, "torpedo review" that will sink your sales page, just you go ahead and screw up on punctuation. See what happens.

  2. mark Whiteway

    "I also explained that a book should have at least three passes by three different editors."Nice idea Irene. However, back in the real world, I wonder how many independent authors could actually afford that?The truth is, even some traditionally published works I have read have a lot more errors in them than your experts suggest, including plot, continuity etc. I suspect that these publishers may have "cut a few corners", with an eye on cost. Whilst it is true that punctuation has established rules, editors seem to disagree strongly among themselves on a number of points. For example, the editor of my first book insisted that there mus not be spaces before or after a long dash (emdash) but a later editor advised me that there should be. It's no wonder we authors are confused.Editing can be a minefield where even the "experts" can't agree where all of the mines are! Mark Whiteway, author of the Lodestone Series

  3. Now I know why I have been confused as to whether I should use toward or towards.

  4. Mark Whiteway

    Oops. "must" not "mus". Sorry. See, nobody's perfect!

  5. Quoted from above, "Editing can be a minefield where even the 'experts' can't agree where all of the mines are!" However, I am sure all the experts don't have a problem with properly placed periods and question marks which fall under the KISS principal (Keep It Simple Stupid).

  6. Kathryn Klos

    I was raised by two English teachers at a time when spelling, grammar, punctuation, and handwriting mattered. I self-edit because I am on Social Security and can't afford an editor, and because I have found I am better at grammar and punctuation than most people. I've written gratis articles and editors will have helpful suggestions on word order, but I know my lie and lay, bring and take, etc. better than many do. It's laziness that causes people not to notice when spell check underlines something or Word tells them their sentence is incomplete. My personal pet-peeve has to do with the preponderance of incomplete sentences, which, in my opinion, belong in dialog and in few other places. (Did I use too many commas in that last sentence?)I grew up loving E.B.White and if we ever have a "Fahrenheit 451" situation in this country, I get to be "Charlotte's Web"– sorry if you like that one too, but I had my hand up first. I will also be his book "The Elements of Style" because I personally feel that good writing deserves good punctuation, and all the other aspects that seem to be going by the wayside as folks have come to believe they can write without ever having read a book– or, if they read, they don't observe where the comma goes when initiating a sequence of dialog,etc.I admit to having a problem with ellipsis; however, these days we have a magical tool called the internet, and all the rules of using such things are there for anyone to follow, providing one is not lazy.Maybe this "code talking" people do on their phones is what helps the lazy stay lazy. After all, if you can write "u" for "you", why bother with all the extra letters? Why bother saying "why" when you can say "y" and have the same understanding– as long as you are writing to persons who aren't insistent upon quality in writing.Some writers probably take it personally when they are edited, which seems the case with this person. Perhaps if she'd learned the reasons behind the rules of punctuation– to assist the reader's understanding– she wouldn't take having been edited quite so personally.I will shut up now. This has been a nice discussion, albeit scary.

  7. Susan Oleksiw

    I recognized some of the author's comments from my years editing The Larcom Review and freelancing. I try to explain to beginning writers that punctuation and grammar exist in order to facilitate communication and meaning to the reader, and without them the reader is going to be confused and probably will drop the book. Over the years I accepted that writers who wanted to be professionals and accomplish something were open to criticism and suggestions, and others weren't (and I don't know what they wanted except to win an argument).

  8. Martha Hannah

    Oh my! A kettle of fish! Editing, schmediting. Sounds like her heated and retaliatory response is really about not being able to handle any negative critique whatsoever. I would assume the author is doing a book on self-help therapy.

  9. Grammar is never subjective – it's an international language. That's what I learned when I took Russian classes.

  10. Excellent post, Irene. With regards to being edited, I was once told this (which ,for me, sums it all up): "Remember, an editor is NOT your friend. He or she is not there to make you feel good. An editor IS there to make you look and sound good. So, when reviewing what an editor has suggested, sit down with a glass of wine in one hand and a box of tissues in the other, if needed, and take serious note of what he or she has to say to you."

  11. Diana Bastine

    I have had this argument with other writers so many times it makes my head ache. I think the most salient argument is that, like any other discipline, you have to have a grasp and understanding of the basics/rules before you can throw them out the window. Some authors accept the criticism gratefully, striving to become better at the technical details of their craft, while others say it doesn't matter and continue on their way. This author clearly falls into the second category but, for some reason, has decided to take what should have been a private dispute and turn it into a public battleground. I can only say this: Speaking as a reader, as well as a writer, if a book is that poorly written or edited, I won't read/finish it. If it's extreme, I will possibly throw the book across the room. Yes, I'm one of those English majors and a grammar stickler, but I can forgive lapses, especially when they're clearly unintentional. But you can usually tell the difference between an "oops" and someone who's just lazy or sloppy. The simplest reason for the rules is to ease understanding. If I can't figure out what you're trying to say because your grammar and syntax are so poor, I'm not going to waste my time trying to figure it out. I'm just going to move on to something better. That's just my personal preference — but I read an awful lot and I won't recommend something to others if it's that poorly written.

  12. I have found that online criticisms of products and services are wholly unreliable unless the criticisms are overwhelmingly in one direction. I have been to restaurants that one or two persons castigated for particular aspects which I found delightful. The editor who explained that some rules of punctuation are a matter of style is right: semicolon versus period and the one regarding serial commas, for example. But omitting a period at the end of a sentence, using a period when a question mark was required, and failing to close a quote are violations of rules that leave the reader confused. Defending such obvious mistakes indicates that the author has a problem — and not one that is limited to his or her writing.

  13. Wow, the author was irate when punctuation mistakes were displayed to her? I wonder how she took the criticism of her text. I pity the reviewer.Yes, punctuation has it rules, just like grammar and spelling, and those rules can be bent only on rare occasions when artistic license is clearly understood in those sections.Another book I would higly recommend other than the Chicago Manual is "The Oxford Guide to Writing: A Rhetoric and Handbook for College Students" by Thomas S. Kane. (1983) This guide not only shows you how to write gracefully, but also how to punctuate, (and a whole lot more). A big book, but it has small chapters and is easy to understand so you may fully grasp the art of writing. It may be out of print, but it's worth searching for a second hand copy. Just an observation: the concept of correct punctuation seems to be measured by cultural usage as well. Look at novels written a hundred years ago, more often more commas, etc. Our culture is shaping punctuation again for I've noticed a recent change–the ommission of a period after abbreviated titles such as Mr. Mrs. Prof. Dr. It was a rule that abbreviations had to have a period after them, but in college (not so long ago) they started telling us periods after titles like those I just mentioned are no longer considered necessary and correct. Where did that new rule come from? Is it true? People are now adopting it, when for years, abbreviations had to have a period! Are we too lazy to add one dot?To return to the article at hand, perhaps your angry author thought she was effecting a new cultural shift in punctuation?

  14. James Brazier

    Authors or those who hope to be, should never be afraid of critiques meant to accomplish their one all consuming goal meaning, an excellent book. Keep up your great work Irene. Love reading your reviews and posts.

  15. If a writer objects to help with punctuation, you can imagine what attention has been given to grammar. Can you guess what the plot line and the character development will be like? Writing is a demanding craft. You must master the fundamentals.

  16. I suspect that the real burr under the complainer's saddle has little to do with punctuation. Her arguments parallel those of the group that lobbies against speed-detecting cameras. Their real problem is that they simply don't want to be told they must slow down. As editor for an educational publishing company, I arbitrarily established a goal for my editors and proofreaders to shoot for – no more than two errors (punctuation, spelling, or syntax) per 100 pages. I was delighted to see that one of the contributors to this donnybrook agreed with me. Since retiring from the corporation I have re-retired from editing. My last client didn't want his book edited. He simply wanted a stamp of approval that I could not give. Too bad. (Note: no subject, no verb) The story could have been delightful . . . if written by a writer. A few hours spent studying and inserting chapter tabs in the Chicago Manual will get those free-fallers who care back on track.

  17. Ah, yes, William Strunk and his 'Little Book'. I know it well…Riveting stuff and a great post.

  18. Irene,To think, I was planning to work with R.V. until I noticed how disgruntled and uncooperative you can be! haha I'm completely joking. Some people's kids, eh? 🙂 Looking forward to joining your list of happy authors.Mark Elswick

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