Improper Usage

by J.D. Roth

I have an editor. Each week one of my posts from Get Rich Slowly is reprinted at MSN Money’s personal finance blog, Smart Spending. I work with a woman named Karen Datko, whom I admire a great deal. She’s funny and helpful and full of advice.

Karen and I have a difference of opinion on commas, especially as they relate to quotations. I follow standard usage for dialogue, but I cannot bring myself to do so in a situation like this:

Kris Gates is always “right,” according to her husband.

That’s the correct usage, but it makes me tense. That comma does not belong inside the quotation marks. When I write, I always do the following:

Kris Gates is always “right”, according to her husband.

To me, this is not only aesthetically pleasing, but it’s also logical.

Unfortunately, Karen isn’t a fan of aesthetics and logic. She’s a fan of standard usage. “Won’t you please make an effort to fix your commas?” she asked me last spring. And I did for a while. But it’s difficult! I’ve been doing sensible commas for decades; it’s not a natural thing for me to “correct”. (Heh. See what I did there?)

Karen recently corrected another usage error that I consistently make. “‘Personal finance’ needs a hyphen when it’s a compound modifier,” she said.

She probably thought that was an innocuous statement, but to me it was a revelation. I’m not joking. I’ve been using hyphenated adjectival phrases (and adverbial phrases) a lot since starting to write full-time, but I’ve always just used my gut to tell me when to use a hyphen and when not to. As soon as Karen mentioned compound modifiers, the rule became clear!

Still, I’m not sure I can bring myself to write “personal-finance book.” I’ll probably write “personal finance book”. And Karen will weep.

Updated: 18 August 2008

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