Writer's toolkit

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
Justimaginelifewithoutthewordspace! Not impossible - the Greeks managed without it, but the Romans invented it and never looked back. We don't talk about it much, but we would be lost without it and use it all the time; in fact, most of us are pretty good at putting in word spaces.

ICT puts the word space centre stage. The word-space key is by far the biggest one on the keyboard, and forces clear yes-or-no decisions where handwriting used to allow fudge and vagueness. In handwriting, who cares whether there's a space after each initial in a name such as J. K. Rowling? But a keyboard requires a decision one way or the other.

A lot of these spacing decisions are about as trivial as you get, and fall into the mysterious realm of publishers' house styles - not the kind of thing that key stage 3 pupils need to worry about. But there is one area where they really matter, and where some KS3 writers clearly need help.

This is the question of how word spaces combine with punctuation. When you put a comma between two words, what happens to the space that would normally separate them? And does the comma need another space of its own, like a separate word? In other words, which of the following is right? (Keep your eye on the spaces round the comma!) (1) When I came in, I saw it.

(2) When I came in ,I saw it.

(3) When I came in , I saw it.

Of course you know the answer, and of course it's obvious - to you, a highly literate writer. But how many KS3 writers know for sure, and how many could explain the general principle? The general principle boils down to two rules:

* Rule 1. A punctuation mark doesn't need an extra space.

* Rule 2. If a punctuation mark combines with a space, the mark comes first.

The trouble with sentence (2) is that the space and the comma are in the wrong order, which infringes Rule 2; and sentence (3) is wrong because there are too many spaces, contrary to Rule 1.

These two rules are very general. They apply to almost every punctuation mark, and not just to commas; but they do have exceptions. For example, dashes and bullets are exceptions to Rule 1 because they do have extra spaces, and opening brackets or speech marks break Rule 2 because they follow the word space.

As ever with grammar, rules will never quite solve all our problems. But they help to illuminate an interesting issue and one which - especially where speech marks are concerned - has conventions that pupils can struggle to grasp.

Richard Hudson is professor of linguistics at University College, London Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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