Answers to Questions About Formatting

By Mark Nichol

Three questions from readers about various aspects of formatting content, and my responses, follow.

1. Is it bad form to indent the first sentence of an email paragraph?

Email programs may not preserve indentations, and using a line space instead makes the format more visually appealing (and the line space and the indentation are redundant for indicating a transition from one paragraph to the next).

2. Facebook does not support italicized fonts. What is a good substitute to imply a gentle emphasis on a word? “I ‘love’ you”? That’s too wrong.

Framing the word or words to be emphasized with asterisks — “I *love* you” — is a common method for indicating emphasis, but it’s not necessarily subtle — more, in this case, suggesting a squeal by one person smitten with another.

In nonamorous contexts, asterisks can still be somewhat forceful: “You are *so* in trouble!” But they can also suggest a softer emphasis: “Be sure to pull the lever *gently* so that it doesn’t break.”

A more neutral option is to frame the word or phrase with _underscores_ (Shift+Hyphen).

3. Which is the correct way to format time in the case below?

(a) 9:30 – 11:15am
(b) 9:30 – 11:15 am
(c) 9:30 – 11:15a.m.
(d) 9:30 – 11:15 a.m.

Do I leave a space after the last number for the am to follow, or not? Do I use periods, or not? Should I use the am after 9:30 as well as after 11:15? Is a dash OK to use to mean to? Or should I use “9:30am to 11:15am”?

The lack of a letter space between the closing time and the abbreviation am in (a) and a.m. in (c) is problematic because the abbreviation appears to apply only to the closing time. (However, the convention is that abbreviations for “before noon” or “after noon” appear after only the second time element unless one time is before noon and the other is after noon, or vice versa.)

Also, periods in initialisms are becoming obsolescent, though The Chicago Manual of Style recommends retaining them when they follow a lowercase letter — Mr., etc., and so on but not MD, DC, and so on — so either (b) or (d) is correct.

Also, speaking of letter spaces, no space should precede or follow the hyphen in the time range (and the hyphen technically should be an en dash, though some newspapers and websites use the simpler symbol). A more formal piece of content such as a book is likely to spell out to within a time frame, but in most other contexts, the symbol is appropriate. The best choices, therefore, are (formally) “9:30–11:15 a.m.” and (less formally) “9:30–11:15 am.”

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5 Responses to “Answers to Questions About Formatting”

  • Jenn

    I just found your blog and love it. Your posts are so useful and easy to understand. Many thanks.

  • opsimath

    Hello – I would like to add some observations from the UK.

    Here, it is standard practice to omit the full stop after words such as Mr and Mrs and Messrs and Mesds.

    They are also normally omitted from such as Dr, Fr and any word which ends with the final letter of the abbreviation.

    For instance, Col would be correct UK usage and so would Maj. – Lt would be correct as would be Capt.

    Sgt would not have a full stop whereas Corp. would.

    The English subset of English can be a strange thing, I’m sure you will agree.

    Thank you once again for these informative little essays – I begin every new day’s computing by checking Daily Writing Tips.


  • Marci Lindsay

    You don’t say whether the space before “am” is necessary if it’s not following a range; you say only that with a range the space makes it clear it refers to both starting and ending times. What about “Dinner is promptly at 7 pm.” Still need the space? Thanks.

  • Bill

    Not to pick, but obsolescent means “becoming obsolete,” so …

  • Mark Nichol


    Always insert a space before am or pm or its punctuated equivalent.

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