Go to the Source

After a recent extraction of a decayed tooth, my dentist prescribed antibiotics for me. The paperwork that came with the pills instructed me to take one pill every six hours, four times a day. Even after my Novocain-induced mental fog lifted, I couldn’t figure out how to follow those instructions without setting an alarm to wake myself up in the middle of the night just to take a pill. And that didn’t seem logical.

So I went online and did a search. I found numerous forums where people asked the same question I had. Some said the “every six hours” was most important, even if that meant taking just three pills a day. Others said “four times a day” was most important, even if that meant less time between pills. A few people said both were equally important and a middle-of-the-night dose was crucial enough to set that alarm.

Frustrated, I did what I should have done in the first place: call the pharmacy. In far less time than it took me to search the Web for people’s opinions, I got the official answer. (Four times a day, spread out over the course of my waking hours … which made the most sense.)

This experience reminded me of what many writers do when they’re not sure how to punctuate a sentence. I’ve been on numerous author e-mail loops and seen countless posts with punctuation questions. The answers almost always differ from one another because they’re based on personal opinion and experience. “Here’s how I’ve always seen it done …” “Here’s what makes the most sense to me …” “This is what my neighbor who teaches high school English told me …”

Those things drive me nuts. Because there’s a definitive source for punctuation questions: The Chicago Manual of Style (for books and popular-style magazines) or The Associated Press Stylebook (for newspapers and journalistic-style publications). Since those resources can be cumbersome or confusing, I wrote Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors, which highlights the punctuation, usage, grammar, and spelling rules that most authors struggle with and provides answers from the US publishing industry’s standard reference books. (It also contains tips from multi-published authors on how to proofread for typos and inconsistencies.)

The next time you find yourself wondering how to properly punctuate a sentence, don’t just ask a bunch of people who have the same question you do. Consult the industry-standard resource. Then you’ll know you have the definitive answer. And you’ll actually get it more quickly!