Tag Archives: writing

Using a Style Guide for Writing and Editing

Any project containing text for public consumption—books, magazines, newspapers, websites, reports, and so on—will look more professional and read better if it adheres to a specific style standard. To achieve professionalism, writers and editors use a stylebook, or style guide: a reference manual of writing and publishing conventions that enables them to follow accepted editorial standards.

Why use a style guide?

Style guides cover in great detail topics such as spelling, punctuation, capitalization, numbers, quotations, abbreviations, indexes, and more. They help you determine how to best present your text.

Writing and editing to a style standard promotes clarity and consistency, especially when text is produced by multiple writers and editors for the same publication or company.

Kinds of style guides

Style GuidesA variety of style guides exist for different purposes. Three of the most popular style guides in use today are The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition; The Associated Press Stylebook, 56th edition; and the MLA Handbook, 9th edition. CMOS is used primarily in the publishing industry, AP for journalism, and MLA in academia. (I use CMOS.)

Niche style guides are also used in certain industries, such as Microsoft Manual of Style, 4th edition, for technical writing and communications in the software industry.

How to familiarize yourself with a style guide

Once you choose a style guide for the type of writing or editing you’ll be doing, the first thing you must do is familiarize yourself with it.

Start with the table of contents. Pick a section you’re interested in and leaf through its subsections, reading headings to learn how the section is organized and how granular the topics are. Then study a subsection of interest, perusing the text and any examples.

Do you see how the information will help you with writing or editing a manuscript?

Style guide-induced paranoia

One drawback to reviewing a style guide this way is that you’ll recognize how much you don’t know. What could happen is that you begin to question everything you write or edit. “Is this correct? How do I find out what the stylebook says?” (Hint: start with the index.) You may be compelled to look up anything and everything you’re not certain about.

Granted, it’s best to check issues you’re unsure of. For example, how do you represent the numbers 3, 86, or 700? With numerals or written out, as text? CMOS says in sections 9.2 and 9.4 that numbers one through one hundred should be spelled out, as well as larger whole numbers that can be written in two words. So, three, eighty-six, and seven hundred are correct. (AP has a different standard for numbers.)

However, no one can memorize the contents of any style guide in a few weeks.

One way to learn your style guide

Rev. Worthy SmarmingtonIt takes a lot of time—possibly years—to thoroughly familiarize yourself with a style guide. Even then, you’ll never get beyond needing to look up the guidelines for some issues.

The Rev. Worthy Smarmington, editor in chief at Protestant Chronicle1, recommends this tack: “Treat your treasured stylebook like a devotional and read a subsection every day. Two on your chosen Sabbath. Then pray you remember what you’ve read.”

If you can’t, simply look up the information again.

Consult the index—or make your own

Study the index. It’s the best way to find what you’re looking for. (In my opinion, the index in the print CMOS is easier to use than the CMOS Online search facility.)

You may even want to go through the entire guide and list all the subject and section numbers of topics you think you’ll use most now and in the future. Refer to this list as your personal, working index.


Employing these approaches will, over time, enable you to learn the guidelines for hundreds of everyday textual concerns—and make you a better writer or editor.

I’m available to edit dark fiction. For more information, see Dark Fiction Editing.


1. A fictitious expert at a fictitious publication.

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Alright vs. All Right

This sparks the first of my Wordsmithereens columns where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen.

Okay, writing bitches, today’s installment:

Alright vs. All Right

Unlike other “al” pals such as already vs. all ready and altogether vs. all together, which are both unique phrases meaning different things, alright and all right are not.

According to English Through the Ages (William Brohaugh, 1998), all right has been in use in the English language since before A.D. 1150. This two-word phrase is an:

  • Adjective meaning satisfactory, as in agreeable, correct, adequate, suitable, or proper; safe, well; good, honest, dependable (slang)
  • Adverb meaning satisfactorily; yes, agreed; beyond doubt, certainly (Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged)

Alright has been in use since before 1890 but it is not in standard usage as a substitute for all right. Dictionary.com states in various places:

Alright as an adverb meaning “just, exactly” is considered obsolete.

It is not all right to use alright in place of all right in standard American English….

The form alright as a one-word spelling of the phrase all right in all of its senses probably arose by analogy with such words as already and altogether. Although alright is a common spelling in written dialogue and in other types of informal writing, all right is used in more formal, edited writing.

In other words, you might use it in an informal email or chat message, but not in edited work such as business documents, novels, or short stories. In Write Right (2001), Jan Venolia states that alright is a misspelling of all right. The Elements of Style says it’s “properly written as two words”; thus ends the reading of Strunk and White’s Holy Word.

However, usage changes in the English language over the years, and use of this contraction may be on the rise. M-W’s Unabridged’s entry for alright says, “in reputable use although all right is more common.” And again from Dictionary.com: “alright is coming into acceptance in British English.”

My Opinion, for What It’s Worth—

alright vs. all right

If you’re writing for Americans and want your prose to appear professional, I’d stick with all right.

If you’ve been using alright in your writing, it’s an easy fix with search and replace. My advice: do it. All right?

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Besides Beside

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.

I was editing a story today, a nasty gay erotic horror tale (“Stray”), and inserting the word beside gave me pause. Was it beside, or besides? My editorial gut instinct told me there was a difference.


Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines beside as:

  • An adverb meaning in a nearby position, close by, alongside: “He dropped the towel and sat beside him on the couch.”
  • A preposition meaning:
    • at or by the side of, close to, near: “The wastecan stood beside the dresser.”
    • in comparison with: “He needs to be a Stephen King if writing overlong books is to be considered unimportant beside simply having a fresh voice.”
    • on par with: “A literary achievement that can be ranked beside that of Joe R. Lansdale.”
    • (used with “oneself,” as in “beside herself”) carried out of oneself as through extreme excitement, out of one’s wits or senses: “I was beside myself with disappointment.”

Beside = next to


M-W defines besides as:

  • An adverb, meaning:
    • in addition, moreover: “The story is excellent, and besides it costs less than a buck.”
    • otherwise, else: “He knows the rules of grammar, but little besides.”
  • A preposition, meaning:
    • in addition to: “Besides being an entertaining read, I learned a lot about cremation.”
    • other than, except: “She could do nothing besides watch him bleed out.”

Besides = in addition to, except

Shelving this new knowledge beside the old, what have you besides putting it to good use in your writing? If you don’t, I’ll be beside myself…

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To Have or Have Not

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.

Over the past few years I’ve noticed the many uses of the verb have. It’s a useful word, but often overused in prose. During editing mode, I’ve been substituting verbs that are more accurate or lend variety. For instance, “have” is often used to mean “need”:

He had to go.

could be more precisely stated:

He needed to go.

Using “needed” points up internal necessity and rules out the possible meaning of the character externally being forced to go against his will.

The following table suggests a number of alternatives to “have” or “had” that could make your writing clearer and livelier. An execption to these substitutions is dialogue. For example, “have” can mean to associate oneself with, to participate in. Someone who would say:

“I won’t have no part in that scam.”

might not say:

“I won’t participate in that scam.”

So trade only as narrative voice permits.

Alternative Words for “Have”

Here are some meanings of “have” with examples and possible substitutes. (I’ve provided relatively few; when I printed the definition of “have” from the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary [software, 2003], the printer spit out five pages.)

I’m sure you can come up with more creative rewrites, but these instances will help make you aware of the many uses of “have” that native English speakers often process without noticing—and why you might want to use a more descriptive or active verb.

Meaning Example Alternative to “Have”
Own: to possess as property She has a car. She owned a Honda Civic coupe.
Contain, include: to consist of The pond had some large bluegills. The pond contained some large bluegills.
Carry, bear, support The windows had awnings. Canvas awnings hooded the windows.
To feel compelled, obligated, or required She had an email to write. She needed to write that email.
Must Drake had to do it now. Drake must do it now.
Obtain: to acquire, to get possession of Mother Hubbard found there was nothing to be had in her cupboards. The cupboards all empty, Mother Hubbard found nothing to give to her dog.
Gain He had a lot from the trip. He gained much from the trip.
Receive She asked the clerk if he had any information. She asked the clerk if he’d received any information.
Achieve They believe a settlement can be had between the two factions. They believe the two factions can achieve a settlement.
Exhibit, show, manifest Gertie had the courtesy to fetch him a glass of water. Gertie showed the courtesy to fetch him a glass of water.
To experience by sumitting to, undergoing, being affected by, enjoying, or suffering She had a painful mammogram. She suffered a mammogram.
Cherish: to entertain in the mind or feelings She had much affection for the kittens. She expressed much affection for the kittens.
To permit or suffer Mikey would not have his brother treat the dog so cruelly. Mikey would not let his brother treat the dog so cruelly.
Know, understand: to be marked by an intellectual grasp of Having no German, he could not communicate with the Bavarians. Knowing no German, he could not communicate with them.
To be able to handle adequately The work was so easy that, by the end of the day, he had it. The work was so easy that, by the end of the day, he mastered it.
Outwit, outplay, outmaneuver Evgeniy had his chess opponent in three moves. Evgeniy beat his chess opponents in three moves.
Trick, cheat, fool, bamboozle His new “friends” had him and abandoned him, penniless. His new “friends” cheated him, leaving him penniless.
To be in control of, be responsible for Amartha has overall command of the starfleet. Amartha holds overall command of the starfleet.
Eat, drink: to partake of I have coffee every morning. I drink… I enjoy coffee every morning.
Smoke He had a cigarette. He smoked a cigarette.
To associate oneself with, participate in Wellington refused to have any part of the chicanery. Wellington refused to take any part in the chicanery.
Control, dominate: to cause to do one’s bidding Naturally, any man with a gun would have him. Naturally, any man with a gun could control him.
Buy, bribe They could be had for a price. They could be bought for a price.
To engage and hold The carnival huckster had the interest of the onlookers. The carnival huckster held their interest. Better: The carnival huckster enthralled them.

To have or have not? You don’t always need to substitute, but when you notice that your narrative contains too many forms of this verb meaning a number of different things, feel free to swap a few for something stronger.

Until my next snit fit, write on, my friends, write on…

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Cut Unnecessary Details

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.

We can overwrite, giving more information than necessary. But sometimes we also belabor the obvious by being unnecessarily specific. This post is about cutting unnecessary details.

Consider this paragraph from a first draft:

Charlie turned off the ignition, opened the driver’s side door, picked up the gun with his left hand, got out, and walked up the concrete sidewalk to the house. He pushed the doorbell with his finger, and waited. He pressed his right ear against the door. Hearing no one from inside the house, Charlie opened the front door.

When you’re self-editing, you need to look at your work critically to trim the fat, leaving juicy, lean prose. Here’s what my inner editor says as I notice the italicized words from the previous example:

  • If you’re driving, what door would you obviously open other than the “driver’s side door”?
  • Does it matter which hand he uses to pick up the gun?
  • Aren’t sidewalks usually made of concrete? If this one isn’t, is it necessary to the story to describe what kind of sidewalk it is? Probably not.
  • What else would he push the doorbell with?
  • What would you do with the rest?

Too many unnecessary details, and you’re slowing down your prose. Excise them. Here’s the edited paragraph:

Charlie turned off the ignition, picked up the gun, and got out of the car. He walked up the sidewalk to the house, then pushed the doorbell and waited. He pressed his ear against the door. Hearing no one, he opened the door.

Here are a few more observations:

  • A small frown appeared on her face. (Where else do frowns appear?) She frowned.
  • He squinted his eyes. (What else do you squint with?) He squinted.
  • She shrugged her shoulders. (What else do you shrug?) She shrugged.
  • The boy nodded his head. (What else do you nod with?) The boy nodded.
  • After she pulled up the chair, she sat on the seat. (Naturally…) She pulled up the chair and sat.
  • An unknown stranger appeared at the door. (Are there any known strangers?)
  • Their voices echoed back and forth in the dark corridor. (That’s what an echo does.)
  • When Rocco was alone again, he muttered to himself, “I’ll never do that again.” (If he’s alone, who else would he be muttering to?)
  • That’s not right, she thought to herself. (Who else do you think to, unless you’re telepathic?)
  • “I’m through with you!” Joyce yelled. “You—”
    “Don’t say that,” Kevin interrupted.
    (The exclamation point tells us she’s yelling. The dash tells us that Kevin has interrupted her, so there’s no need to use the attributions. Stick with “said.”)

If reviewing these examples is lighting a bulb above your head, why not sit down with your current WIP and practice them?

Cut unnecessary details, and your prose will soar.

If you need an editor, I’m available for the dark fiction varieties.

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Undangling Your Participles

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.

Many fledgling writers have trouble with dangling participles. But before you can undangle them, you must recognize them in your writing.

What’s a Participle?

A participle is an action verb that acts like an adjective and usually ends in “-ing.” For instance, “write” is the infinitive form of the verb, and “writing” is the participle. Dangle/dangling. Snicker/snickering.

Like adjectives, participles modify nouns:

Participle   Noun
Writing desk
Dangling participle
Snickering sophomores

For example:

I hung my head and passed the snickering sophomores.

The participle is underlined; the participial phrase is italicized.

Participial Phrases

“Snickering sophomores” is the participial phrase in the previous sentence. It uses a participle that is not dangling, meaning it’s in its proper place and used correctly. Here are a few examples with the noun (subject) in bold.

Reading the story, I winced at the dangling participles.

“Reading the story” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “I.”

Driving the stake through Krako’s heart, the vampire hunter realized how much she loved her night job.

“Driving the stake through Krako’s heart” is the participial phrase that modifies the subject, “the vampire hunter.”

These examples show participial phrases—we’ll call them “PPs” for short—close to the subjects they modify. But PPs can pop up elsewhere in sentences and modify direct objects and objects of prepositions:

Krako whistled for the bats, hanging in the dark cave.

This PP modifies “bats,” which is the object of the prepositional phrase “for the bats.” Notice the noun and the modifying PP are close together. The following says something different:

Hanging in the dark cave, Krako whistled for the bats.

It’s not necessarily incorrect if, in fact, Krako survived the vampire hunter and is the one hanging from the cave ceiling. The participial phrase modifies the noun it is closest to.

When Participles Dangle

What about this sentence?

After rotting in the cellar for weeks, Mother brought up some shriveled apples.

Unless Norman Bates is narrating and Mother has reanimated, we’ve got a dangling PP here. Beware dangling PPs! They’re more insidious than zombies or vampires. (But not half as badass as giants.)

The subject of the sentence is “Mother.” The PP, “after rotting in the cellar for weeks,” is misplaced. It actually modifies “some shriveled apples.” (I’ve found, the best way to modify shriveled apples is to make apple butter…)

Mending Your Danglers

How to fix this? If Mother is actually a zombie, aim for the head. If she’s alive and merely wants to make apple butter—or rid the house of those pesky fruit flies—you could recast the sentence this way:

Mother brought up some shriveled apples that had been rotting in the cellar for weeks.

This correction puts the phrase next to the noun it modifies (“apples”).

Sometimes, though, there’s no subject in sight, as in this retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk:

Grinding bones to make his bread, the dog danced wildly.

Fee, fi, fo, fum… Snickering sophomorically, I smell a dangling PP!

There are a couple things going on here. The participial phrase is meant to modify a subject that is not mentioned in the sentence—the giant that Jack came to kill. And while the big gourmand is grinding bonemeal for bread to spread with Mother’s apple butter, his little dog is dancing wildly, probably hoping for some of Jack’s scraps. Rephrased:

The giant ground Jack’s bones to make his bread as the dog danced wildly.

You can often use “as” to fix these problems.

After dinner the giant pulled the bread plate closer and said, “I ate his liver with some magic beans and a nice Chianti. Now pass the apple butter, Mom.”

“Please,” she insisted.

Please,” he said, patting the dog.


Dangling participles modify the wrong nouns. You fix them by ensuring that there’s a proper subject in the sentence, and placing the participial phrase right next to it.

Giants rule and zombies drool, bitches. Now, go write right!

If you need an editor, I’m available for the dark fiction varieties.

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The “Al” Pals

Wordsmithereens is a whenever-I-feel-like-it column where I blast the hell out of some nitpicky topic pertaining to diction, editing, self-editing, or writing. Why? Because I’m anal-retentive with a hyphen, that’s why.

Today’s edition continues where we left off last time with the remaining “al” pals: altogether vs. all together, already vs. all ready, and alot vs. a lot.

Altogether vs. All Together

Pants on the Ground

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines altogether as:

  • A noun meaning nude (used with the): “He dropped his drawers and stood there in the altogether.”
  • An adverb meaning wholly, completely, thoroughly; in all, all told; on the whole, in the main, as a whole: “We were altogether shocked.”

As two words, all together means in unison: “We marched down the street all together, arm in arm.” You can split up the two words (instead of keeping them all together, har-har), and the sentence will still make sense: “We all marched down the street together.” You can’t do this with altogether: “We all were together shocked.” Nuh-uh.

Altogether = entirely
All together = collectively

Already vs. All Ready

M-W defines already as an adverb, meaning, prior to some specified or implied past, present, or future time; by this time; previously; so soon, so early; now. “He dropped his drawers already” (previously). “Would you stop looking so shocked already?” (now).

“All ready” (two words) means everything is prepared, as in “We were all ready to turn our backs.” You can split the phrase, and the sentence will still make sense: “We all were ready to turn our backs, but we just stared.”

Already = previously
All ready = prepared

Alot vs. A Lot

A lot as two words means a bunch, a great deal, many, much. “We liked his knees a lot.” Like alright, alot ain’t even a word. Don’t use it, please.

Alot = not a word
A lot = much, many

And there you have it, Al. Use them wisely and be a pal!

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Eliminating Little Words

To make your writing more concise, it pays to eliminate little words.

For readers, each word is like a step across the sentence. If you take big steps, you’ll reach the period faster. If you’re forced to take many small steps, the trip is long and laborious.

Take this sentence for example:

The carriage came to a stop, and Wilhelmina stepped out onto the cobblestones.

Whenever a preposition is paired with a direction word, often one of them is unnecessary: Sat down in the chair. Pushed off of the dock. Climbed up onto the ledge.

We can dispense with one of the words:

  • Sat on the chair.
  • Pushed off the dock.
  • Climbed onto the ledge.

To make our first example even more concise, we could shorten “came to a stop” to simply “stopped”:

The carriage stopped, and Wilhelmina stepped onto the cobblestones.

Scour your text for opportunities to cut little words, and your prose will skip along.

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Hyphenation 101: Hyphenating Compound Adjectives and Adverbs

Sometimes when more than one adjective is used to modify a noun, the adjectives must be hyphenated to make the meaning clear. But lets start with a case where hyphenation is unnecessary.

  • dangerous bacterial infection
  • sprawling suburban plan
  • polite postal workers

Dangerous, sprawling, and polite are adjectives, and infection, plan, and worker are nouns. The words in the middle are also adjectives, but in these uses they combine with the final nouns to create a compound nouns that express a single concept. In each case, the first word modifies the next two. Dangerous modifies bacterial infection. Whether or not postal workers are polite is beyond the scope of this article.

Compound adjectives

But what about these?Hyphen

  • gay rights advocate
  • minor league umpire
  • live action directing

These first words are adjectives and the third ones are nouns. However, the middle words are nouns that combine not with the following nouns, but with the adjectives that precede them. These are compound adjectives. The first refers to an advocate for gay rights, not a general advocate for rights who happens to be gay. It’s the league that’s minor, not the umpire. So we need to clarify the meaning and indicate proper compounding by connecting the first two words: gay-rights advocate, minor-league umpire, live-action directing.

We can also have two or more adjectives modifying a final noun:

  • short black hair
  • sweet young lady
  • stout little man

None of these combinations need to be hyphenated because their meanings are clear. The hair is short and black; the lady is both young and sweet; the man is little as well as stout.

Hyphenating multiple adjectives

But what about the following?

  • exported vegetable products
  • offensive language patterns
  • stone carving blade

Are the middle words supposed to combine with their preceding adjectives, or with the final nouns? There’s a difference between products made of exported vegetables and vegetable products that are exported. Are the patterns studied those of offensive language? Or are the language patterns themselves offensive? Is the blade meant for carving stone, or is the carving blade made of stone? You must make the meaning clear by correctly combining the words with a hyphen: stone-carving blade, etc.

Five week old kittens are beginning to get frisky. Are there five kittens only a week old? (Five week-old kittens…) Or an indeterminate number of kittens that are five weeks old? (Five-week-old kittens…)

To indicate how multiple adjectives modify a noun, you must clarify meaning with commas or hyphens. For instance, in the garden you see a red striped lizard and post about it on Facebook. Is it a red lizard that is striped (red, striped lizard), or a lizard with red stripes (red-striped lizard)?

Hyphenate to prevent confusion

You must also hyphenate compound adjectives that precede a noun if, unhyphenated, would lead to ambiguity or confusion. The new student questionnaires will be distributed on the first day of school. Are the questionnaires for new, incoming students? (The new-student questionnaires…) Or are the student questionnaires changed from the old ones? (The new student-questionnaires…)

Hyphenating adverbial compounds

When verbs are modified with adverbs that end in “-ly,” the compound should not be hyphenated.

  • Incorrect: The abattoir was run by a highly-skilled team of butchers.
  • Correct: The abattoir was run by a highly skilled team of butchers.
  • Incorrect: Add a pinch of freshly-chopped basil.
  • Correct: Add a pinch of freshly chopped basil.

However, the exception is that, if an “-ly” adverb is used with a preceding compound adjective that has at least two other components, use a hyphen: She rattled off what sounded like a quickly-made-up story. Another exception is to drop hyphens when the same words follow the noun being modified: She rattled off a story that sounded like it was quickly made up.

When a non-“-ly” adverb is used in a compound adjective preceding a noun it modifies, link them with a hyphen: The well-written novel is a bestseller. Drop the hyphen if the modifying words come after the noun: The bestselling novel is well written.

The suspense is hyphenating me

A final use for hyphens is as a shortcut to abbreviate a repeated base word that uses different modifiers. Confused? An example should help.

At times she both undercompensated and overcompensated for her actions. Two fat, repeated words could be trimmed down like this: At times she both under- and overcompensated for her actions.

A suspension hyphen lets readers know that there’s something intentionally missing. The suspension hyphen can also be used to precede a repeated compound word: The secretary took minutes of the Day-1 and -2 proceedings.

Are we done yet?

There are a few more rules and exceptions, but frankly, I’m exhausted. So we’re done with hyphens, okay?

Next up, more about problematic participles and misplaced modifiers. Nothing at all about alliteration.

Source: Anne Stilman’s Grammatically Correct: The Writer’s Essential Guide to Punctuation, Spelling, and Grammar (Writer’s Digest Books, 1997).

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How to Work with an Editor

This was some good advice for all you writers paling at your editor’s comment balloons and tracked changes.

Bill and Dave’s Bad Advice Wednesday: “How to Work with an Editor.”

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