Whenever I hear people talk about the conniving, scheming nature of the media, it just makes me laugh.

I spent enough time working at news organizations to know the closest thing true journalists have to an agenda is the desperate desire to meet brutal deadlines in understaffed newsrooms while figuring out how they'll pay their rent once talking heads and TMZ finally run real news-gathering organizations out of business.

Manipulating the masses doesn't exactly figure prominently on the average reporter's list of priorities.

But today I'm here to tell you that there is, in fact, a media conspiracy — just not the one you think. It's not limited to news media and it's not about pushing this or that political agenda. Instead, this cross-platform conspiracy is a partnership between news, book and other publishers. And its agenda is much simpler: to torment anyone who wants to use punctuation well.

Take, for example, the word "aftershave." Then take "after-shave." If you were reading an article mentioning, say, one of the "Jersey Shore" guys (or perhaps the entire aromatic Jersey Shore), chances are you'd see it written with a hyphen. But if you were reading a book you'd see it written "aftershave."

You probably wouldn't notice the discrepancy till you needed to write the term yourself, at which point you'd notice that both look kind of "right."

Or imagine you're writing an email and want to mention a meeting time. You might try 9 AM, then 9 a.m. and decide that they both look right.

And what about aka vs. a.k.a, or co-worker vs. coworker, or 1980s vs. 1980's, or e-mail vs. email? Or, how about the doozy of them all: whether to put a comma before "and" in "red, white and blue"?

If you find these punctuation choices baffling, it's because you're constantly being inundated by all of the above, with the conflicting choices appearing in some of the most credible and influential publications in the country. None of them can agree on whether there are spaces between periods in J.R.R. Tolkien or even if there are periods in U.S.

Or so they say. The fact is that in a world where one newspaper style calls for 1980's and everyone else says it's 1980s, or where you can read about health-care policy and healthcare policy, their "We can't agree" story doesn't wash. The only sane, reasonable explanation is a worldwide print media conspiracy angling for world domination through a strategy of making the masses' brains explode.

Worse, the cyberverse has since joined in the conspiracy by starting a trend of placing periods and commas after closing quotation marks. Until now, the only thing the American publishing world could agree on was to never do that.

So if you want your writing to look professional, here are few tips. First, pick a dictionary and stick with it. News media favor Webster's New World College Dictionary, while book publishers favor Merriam-Webster's Collegiate. Because they disagree on matters like "after-shave" and "aftershave," this should be the first place you check for how to hyphenate nouns and verbs.

For every other matter, including whether to hyphenate modifiers, consistency is king. So just pick your style. You can have 9 a.m. or 9 AM in a company memo — your choice — but you don't want both. You can salute the "red, white and blue" or the "red, white, and blue," as you decide on a case-by-case basis.

Easier yet, you can let the AP Stylebook or the very different Chicago Manual of Style make the calls for you.

Whatever you do, don't put a period or a comma after a closing quotation mark. Put it before. Otherwise, the conspirators win.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.