This chapter is dedicated to the most commonly used—and, misused—forms of punctuation that go inside a sentence. If you'd like to learn about end punctuation—periods, question marks, and exclamation points—consult "Sentence Moods." Answers to questions about markers—apostrophes, italics and quotation marks—can be found in "Showcased Nouns” as part of the discussion of quotations, titles, and other atypical noun phrases and clauses; bracketing and ellipsis are also part of that discussion.
If you've ever studied the movements of an orchestra conductor, then you know that the pointer means everything. A bad conductor can't properly orchestrate the complex musical sounds, phrases, and movements unless she or he knows how to point. Different methods of pointing can signal changes and actions, and the precision of such signals translates into the exacting precision of the orchestration, itself. So it is with sentence punctuation. In fact, the verb “punctuate” derives from the Latin verb meaning “to point.” Words such as “puncture,” “punctual” and “punctilious” are related because they're about being exact in the way they point—creating a specific point of entry, adhering to a specific point in time, following a specific point of law, and so on. I've been accused of being punctilious on occasion, but the point of punctuation is to point readers in the exact direction you want them to go. However, a change of “direction” in this sense could mean a lot of different things: a change of feeling, a change of idea, and change of tempo, and so on. Just as conductors need different techniques for pointing, writers need different marks of punctuation—different pointers—to direct readers correctly.
For that reason, we should begin with what students “point to” as the most common source of writing frustration and irritation, the damnable comma.
Let's all pause to settle an important existential paradox: what came first, the chicken or the comma?
The Greek verb koptein means, "to smite" or "to cut off”; it comes from the Latin capo, the root word for the verb “caponize,” meaning “castrate”—which is how a poor, emasculated rooster running around with more than just its head cut off ends up on the menu as “capon.” At first glance, the word “comma” seems unrelated to any of this, except that it's derived from the Greek komma, the process of stamping out and die-cutting coins. As a matter of fact, the Russian kopeck gets its name from koptein, the very action that snipped the rooster's coin purse. Therefore, in a manner of speaking, the blade once used to stamp out the kopecks that paid the chef who butchered the capon that turned into lunch at a restaurant in Moscow, should make us pause to reflect the humble heritage of the comma.
Sketchy as this etymological journey may have seemed, it reinforces the most important role of the comma: to “cut off” and “stamp out.” You've already picked up this idea as you've refined your understanding of parts of speech and sentence mechanics over the course of the semester, for parts of speech gather into phrases and clauses that “cut off” other clauses and phrases to “stamp out” ideas, and they often do it by enclosing themselves in—yep!—commas.
While students often correctly interpret comma usage as a pause within the sentence, they frequently misinterpret what a pause actually is. For the record, then, a pause in a sentence happens when an idea is interrupted, not when, in your mind, you stop to take a breath. Pausing is a syntactical process, a way of cutting up a sentence to stamp out and arrange discrete ideas. Take, for example, the following random phrases:
Each of these “stamps out” an individual idea; each contributes its kopeck's worth of information. If you try to combine these into a sentence, however, some of them will link together to create more complete ideas, while others will still fit into the same sentence but interrupt the flow of those complete ideas:
Whatever arrangement you make, you're forced to cut off one idea in order to stamp out another, and you need commas to let the reader know when to pause for that change of phrasing.
Phrasing and “clausing” are, not surprisingly, the main reasons to use commas. We set off direct address nouns and appositive phrases by commas, the phrasing of dates and addresses requires commas, placing of modifiers and modifying phrases before their subjects frequently resorts to commas, listing anything in a series of three or more expects commas, and the building of compound and complex sentences depends upon commas:
“Janice, pass me the bread please.”
“I'll ask Rex, the man with the answers, what we should do.”
|Dates and Addresses:||
“Max was born on December 18, 1954, in Mobile, Alabama, U.S.A.”
“Running for his life, he turned down a dark alley.”
“He stopped to rest, exhausted by his ordeal.”
“To escape a fate worse than death, he kept to the shadows.”
“At the end of the alley, he found an unlocked door.”
“Buy a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day, but teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for lifetime.”
“When the guest of honor arrives, let's all shout!”
“They missed their connecting flight, which spells disaster.”
“I'll finish this dessert for your sake, even though I don't like sweets.”
|Quotes and Dialogue:||
“She took one taste and exclaimed, 'Yuck!'”
“What, darn it all, are we going to do now?”
|Items in a Series:||
“Of faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is love.”
For most of these, two factors, “pause” and “interruption," determine the need for commas. Nowhere is this clearer than with modifying words, phrases, and clauses. Using commas to enclose or set apart dependent clauses and modifying words and phrases often relies on whether or not they come before the subjects they modify and whether or not they interrupt the flow of ideas. If so, this creates the syntactical interruption that you can “hear” as a pause followed by a change of thought. However, when these come after their subjects and an interruption is no longer there, a comma wouldn't be necessary. Let's take several examples from the list above to illustrate this:
In these examples, moving the modifying parts after their subjects removes the interruption, and, as a result, no comma is needed. Some modifiers, however, are interruptive no matter where you put them, so they will always need commas to set them apart:
Once again, the factors of interruption and pause are at work, so commas are needed to enclose or set apart these ideas.
“Pause” and “interruption” are the rational side of comma use and, even if you can't remember the rules of commas as they apply to specific phrases, you can at least deploy commas confidently if you follow these suggestions. At other times, though, comma use is strictly a matter of convention or tradition having nothing to do with reason—how we delimit information in dates and addresses, for example. Although the absence of logic in such cases might worry you, you can still take comfort in the fact that hard and fast rules still apply to these conventions, and rules can be used consistently and reliably once you memorize them. (Yes, that's a strong hint.)
If you'd like to learn more about the conventional use of commas, see
What do magazines, monogamists, and killing sprees have in common? Other than making you think of tabloid journalism, they all come as a series: serial publications include magazines, yearbooks, and many other periodicals, serial monogamy is the practice of having only one partner at a time, and a serial murderer kills again and again, and sometimes again. And, that last sentence has a heck of a lot of series in it, as well as a heck of a lot of commas. When a series is presented in writing, you need a system of commas to separate the items in a series. You're already familiar with one of the major forms of serializing: compound sentences. Two or more independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions requires the use of a comma before each of those conjunctions. With compound sentences, though, two independent clauses are enough to imply a series. Inside a clause, however, we identify a series as three or more of—well, anything, really: three or more compound parts of speech, three or more items, phrases, even dependent clauses. Series, then, always implies three or more items arranged in a list.
The “serial comma,” also known as the “Oxford comma,” is the convention of putting a comma before the coordinating conjunction in the last item of the series:
In the example above, the compound infinitive phrases that make up the subject of the sentence have no commas to separate them, because they're a series of two, not three or more. However, “healthy, wealthy, and wise” are a triplet, so the last word in the series, “wise,” is set apart with a comma and a coordinating conjunction. (Yes, you could make a convincing argument that the verb should be "make," not "makes," but that's how Franklin wrote it—let it go for now.)
A serial comma is not always needed, nor wanted. Sometimes, your intention is to put two or more things at the end of a series that go together as a single concept. For instance,
Even though “and” appears to come right before the fourth adjective in a series, the turn of phrase “ready and willing” is of apiece, so you wouldn't want to break it up with a comma. You might, instead, put an additional conjunction in the series:
Some, however, would contend that two conjunctions this close to each other make for clumsy writing. I'm of a similar mind on this point.
On the other hand, in some cases if you omit the serial comma, you cause a double entendre, or worse:
Does this sentence mean that his mentor is also his best friend and enemy? Or, are they three different people altogether? Sometimes, without the serial comma, it's hard to know if we're dealing with an actual series or just another appositive phrase.
As you can see, the need for a serial comma ultimately comes down to the context and the type of list you're composing.
The word "colon" derives from the Latin word classifying a part of a poem, called a "strophe." (Yes, it's related to the word "apostrophe," among other things. In fact, this is probably the first time you've thought of a bowel movement as poetry in motion.) A strophe is a unit measuring structure in Greek poetry. The equivalent of this in grammar is the sentence clause. Colons play a major role in introducing other clauses and phrases, such as quotations. A full discussion of this topic can be found in "Noun Phrases and Clauses" as well as "Showcased Nouns."
Colons are sometimes used after salutations and other notations in formal and business- style letters, but even in this case the purpose is to spotlight and introduce:
Frequently, though, a colon comes at the end of an independent clause for one of two noble purposes: 1) to spotlight one major thing; or 2) to introduce a series of things. To understand this, you simply have to think of colons as the emcees of punctuation. At the crucial moment, an emcee does the job of announcing and introducing, using remarks like, "Ladies and gentleman, please help me welcome...!" Sometimes the show has only one main guest, in which case the emcee relinquishes the spotlight so that the main act takes over—that's that. Other times, though, an emcee has to play host to a series of guests and must introduce them as separate but related acts; then, the emcee is responsible for coordinating the parts of a show, and making sure each part follows the same format.
Colons do the job of announcing and introducing, too. Sometimes they spotlight just one main idea, building up a bit of anticipation for it:
At other times, colons introduce a series of ideas, in which case the colon is responsible for coordinating each item, and making sure each follows a parallel format:
By "coordinating" and "parallel format," I'm obviously referring to arranging elements in a series with parallel structure, which uses the same grammatical template for all the elements in the series. In the last example, above, each element in the series is a brief clause consisting of a color as its subject, the transitive verb "contrasts," another color as its object, and an appositive phrase renaming the object:
subj. noun [color] + trans. verb "contrasts" + obj. noun [color] + appos. phrase
Colons are not interchangeable with semi-colons, even though they're closely related. This is a common point of confusion, and knowing how to navigate past it depends upon your understanding of the part each plays in a sentence that includes a series. To put it succinctly, a colon classifies, and a semi-colon divides.
Semi-colons are a cross between a colon and a serial comma. (We could have coined them “commons” or “colas” if those words weren't already taken, so the less-than- imaginative “semi-colon” will have to do.) “Semi” implies that a semi-colon does part of the work of a colon: while colons measure the full clause, semi-colons measure the elements within that clause (such as words and phrases). The sort-of exception to this rule is the compound sentence: semi-colons can sometimes replace coordinating conjunctions and their commas, when two or more independent clauses are joined together into a compound sentence. Though it's by no means a law, in most cases a conjunctive adverb follows the semi-colon, to reinforce the close connection between one clause and the next:
As with serial commas, serial semi-colons are used only when three or more listed elements need separating. This is why I say, a semi-colon divides while a colon classifies. The colon tells us that what's to come on the list is a collection of separate elements all deserving the same classification, but the semi-colon does the job of breaking down that classification into constituent parts. You can still use commas after a colon if the list is short and simple, but, with a colon, you're granted the permission to use semi-colons instead. In the example above, the semi-colons could just as well have been commas, because it's pretty clear where one item on the list ends and the next one begins:
Simple lists like the one in the example above can, without much confusion, be included as appositive phrases. (The list above renames "four qualities.") However, with four or more items in the series, it's a courtesy and a practicality to use semi-colons instead of commas. When you're arranging a list of complex phrases, for instance, often you're already using commas in other ways, so you need a different punctuation mark to show readers where these items are segregated from one another. Consider the following example:
Because of how many commas are used in this long-ish example, the sentence is not only comma-spliced in places, it's rambling and confusing. Semi-colons would be a practical way to sort this out, separating the individual elements from one another in the list and letting the commas do other jobs within those elements:
One of the more confusing points when you're choosing between commas and semi- colons is the role of coordinating conjunctions. With compound and serial elements separated by commas, the last element takes a coordinating conjunction (usually "and"). Semi-colons, however, are generic substitutes for coordinating conjunctions, so using a semi-colons alongside a word like "and" is, technically speaking, redundant and wrong. That doesn't change the fact that the absence of a conjunction still sounds awkward. Let's take another look at an earlier example:
I'm not any happier than you about the word "talent" being plunked on the end of that sentence. It needs a finishing touch—a flourishing "tuh-duh!" that only a coordinating conjunction can provide. If coordinating conjunctions are not allowed, then what other part of speech like a coordinating conjunction would work? Hmmm. Let me think. Aha! Conjunctive adverbs! These are transitional words and phrases—like "However,..." "Finally,..." and "Next,..."—placed at the beginning of a sentence or right after a semi- colon separating clauses in a Compound Sentence. You can pair one of these with the last semi-colon in a series:
While it's not one hundred percent grammatically correct, you're allowed to fudge a little and use a coordinating conjunction such as "and,..." "but,..." "yet,..." and "so,..." as you would a conjunctive adverb, as long as you remember to punctuate it as you would a conjunctive adverb and follow it with a comma:
It's not exactly a law-abiding solution, and punctuation is, after all, supposed to be used with exactitude. Depending on how formal the tone of your writing should be, you may wish to avoid appearing too “chillaxed” about this rule and adopt a more punctilious attitude, which would make me beam with pride, but not every teacher is as nerdy and fussy about such points as I. Ask your instructors first if they care (or even understand the issue).
Just as colons are not interchangeable with semi-colons, and semi-colons are not interchangeable with commas, dashes and parentheses are not interchangeable.
Dashes may be unfamiliar to you, but you should get to know them because, like commas and semi-colons, they showcase phrases and clauses—not in a way that coordinates them, but, rather, in a manner that segregates them.
Dashes [— or --] are twice the length of a hyphen. In the world of editing and publishing, a hyphen is called an “en” dash because it's the width of the letter “n,” so a dash is written either as two en-dashes or one, longer em-dash (a dash the width of the letter “m”).
Dashes are also commonly used for attribution of authorship in inscriptions (those quotations sometimes placed at the beginning of an essay, chapter, or book):
Attribution marked by a dash should never be confused with contextual citation marked by parentheses. (See below.)
Dashes have a variety of rhetorical functions, one of which is a “pregnant pause,” useful when you want to “land a punch line," “set up a drum roll” or “drop a bomb,” rhetorically speaking:
Your first instinct in such examples might be to use ellipsis (…) instead of a dash, but ellipsis is used strictly to signal an omission, not a pregnant pause. When the effect is a temporary break, not a total abandonment or omission, a dash is required.
The most common use of a dash, however, is for a statement that breaks from the syntax and hijacks the direction of your sentence.
Have you ever watched a movie or a TV program where a cast member breaks character and talks directly to you? This is sometimes called, “breaking the fourth wall,” because the audience watches the action from behind an invisible wall or window. Dashes break the fourth wall, because they interrupt the coherence of the sentence:
You can test the appropriateness of using dashes by temporarily replacing them with commas. If the resulting sentence is awkward or comma spliced, then dashes were probably the right choice in the first place:
The example above is not grammatically correct (it's comma-spliced), which assures you that dashes were, in fact, necessary.
Parentheses are curved enclosures: (xxx). If you understand how “air quotes” allow you to pantomime a change of voice, you can extend the analogy and imagine how “air parentheses” cup a pair of hands around an idea. As a general form of punctuation, it's called “parenthesis,” but when we refer to a pair of marks, together they're called “parentheses.” Parentheses shouldn't be confused with square brackets [xxx] or angled brackets <…>, which serve very different purposes.
Parentheses can enclose entire sentences, or they can enclose material within a sentence, because their function is to segregate secondary content from primary content. Probably the most readily available example of parenthesis in college writing is the contextual citation. Whenever an instructor insists that you cite a last name and page number after your quote, instead of using a footnote, you enclose it in parentheses to distinguish it from the surrounding sentence. What lies outside parenthesis is content of primary and immediate importance to the topic of your sentence or paragraph, but what's tucked away inside the parenthetical citation is data secondary and non-essential to understanding your topic. So, one obvious purpose for parenthesis is to organize information hierarchically.
Citation info is deserving of a parenthetical citation because, on the one hand, it's included as a courtesy or an afterthought, and, on the other hand, the voice used for it is so much more clinical than the surrounding tone. That's a clue as to the job of parenthesis. Sometimes a writer wants to maintain one kind of tone in writing, but then occasionally break from that voice to state something in another voice. As parenthetical citations illustrate, that voice can go very clinical, or, as the following example illustrates, it can be more casual:
The above example illustrates how the shifting of voices is partly responsible for determining what goes inside parenthesis. Not yet getting it? Then, let's stick with Hollywood for the time being.
Have you ever heard a television character say something to himself that other characters don't hear? Script writers denote this in their directions as sotto voce, literally meaning, “under the voice” (or, “under their breath”). It's spoken in character and in context as an aside, but it's not meant to be within earshot to anyone else except the audience (who aren't really there, after all, except as eavesdroppers). Parentheses serve the same purpose. They make sotto voce statements in the sentence, and they don't break character or context. They're meant to be read as asides or digressions, something of secondary importance only, snuck into the sentence:
You can test to see whether you're using parentheses correctly by replacing them temporarily with commas. Changing parentheses to commas should have little or no impact on the sentence structure, because you're simply converting secondary content into primary content:
The sentence above is acceptable; adding commas hasn't caused a comma-spliced or awkward sentence, so the parentheses used in the original version did correctly enclose an aside or a digression, after all.
Dashes and parentheses may seem a lot alike, because they are. The difference is subtle, but it's easy enough to memorize and recognize.
Let's say you and your friend are playing a game of checkers. (Let's hope you know what a game of checkers is.) A ladybug has gotten inside your house and alights on your game board, and your friend implores you to do the humane thing and put it outdoors where it belongs. You have two ways to do this: 1) you can grab an empty glass nearby and trap it; or, 2) you can pick up the entire checkerboard with the ladybug still on it, and carry it to its freedom. What happens to the game-play in these two scenarios? In the first, nothing happens, because the ladybug is contained and set aside so that the players, even though they may be distracted, are not other-directed by the bug; the board remains a board, and the game goes on. In the second scenario, the entire game is interrupted because the purpose of the board temporarily changes, and the players aren't just distracted, they're other-directed. So it goes with parentheses and dashes:
A dash other-directs.
Parenthesis is part of the grammar of the sentence.
A dash sets apart a statement with separate grammar.
Parenthesis is a change of voice.
A dash interrupts with an intellectual change of idea.
Parenthesis temporarily subverts the sentence.
A dash temporarily diverts from the sentence.
Many of the U.S. presidents who took office before the age of fifty—there have been a total of seven in all—continued to serve in politics long afterward (except, of course, for those who died while in office).
If you still don't get it, avoid it. As you read, take some time and effort to notice how other writers use these punctuation marks to their advantage, and then gradually emulate these in your own writing.
These two forms of punctuation are covered at length under “Showcased Nouns” in the context of quotations and how to mark them correctly. While it merits repeating that brackets and ellipsis should never be used to change the meaning of a quote, the following offers an overview of the most significant points. Here's an example to use as a point of reference:
Bracketing is not parenthesis. Brackets are square, not curved, and are used in direct quotations to denote your intentional addition or alteration to an author's words. These alterations are for the following purposes:
Ellipsis is not the same as a dash. The three "periods" together form one mark of punctuation; most word processing programs insert ellipsis as a single keystroke Ellipsis is used in dialogue and verbatim quotations to tell readers that you have intentionally omitted some part of the author's words. Omission is allowed for the following reasons:
draws together two or more salient points from different parts of the author's text,
abbreviates or reduces longer quotes, and
parses unnecessary content to highlight the most salient points.
I've always been a “word game” kind of person. When I was growing up, I loved the brainteasers and word puzzles published in the daily paper, and often my day wouldn't end without finishing them. Sometimes, I'd even go on to make my own word games and puzzles, because challenging myself to make a word game also taught me the process from the inside out. Even now, because of the attitude toward grammar, language, and punctuation that was cultivated in my youth, I'm prone to bursting into spontaneous word games with my spouse. It's one of those little things that makes us work in harmony.
At the beginning of this chapter, I likened punctuation to the delicate dance of an orchestra conductor's baton pointing at sections of the orchestra and coordinating them into precise and beautiful music. Okay—I know, I know. No one who's new to music theory gets up to an orchestra podium and begins conducting a symphony orchestra! That doesn't mean that a musician doesn't pretend in the privacy of his or her own room. Pretending may be just play-acting, but a lot of important life lessons come out of play-acting, and it doesn't have to be any different for things like grammar and punctuation.
Play around in the privacy of your own room or your own thoughts—it don't matter. What does matter is that you try to enjoy the concept of grammar and punctuation, so that you don't stress out about it so much when it comes time to writing an actual essay. A lot of what passes for a “battle to master punctuation” really just comes down to being more relaxed about it. Try some games with the things you read and write, and imagine different punctuation, or moving around the punctuation that's there, to test what sorts of changes it makes, problems it causes, and so on. Laugh when the results are dumb. Let your curiosity be piqued when they're not. Think of it all as brainteaser and flex your grey matter. Have some fun! Seriously.
"A Handbook of Usage and Tone" copyright 2015, Karl J. Sherlock. Written and graphical contents of this site may not be used for profit. Unauthorized use, whether whole or in part, is prohibited. Direct inquiries and comments to the author. Thank you.