Sunday, August 30, 2015

Punctuation Pointers

from The Practical Stylist by Sheridan Baker


1. Commas add clarity, showing which words fit together to form thoughts, and which words are separate.

Example: After the first letter she wrote again. (This sounds like a sentence fragment)
Better: After the first letter, she wrote again.

2. A single comma can change the meaning of a sentence:

3. Sometimes a comma won't make such a big difference, but will still suggest an emotion.

Example: He granted the usual permission and walked away. (He granted it without really caring.)
More Emotional: He granted the usual permission, and walked away. (It seems he was upset.)

4. Commas are used with clauses, conjunctions, some inserted words, and lists.

Clause: In the autumn, he went to Paris.
Conjunction: He was tired, so he went home.
Inserted words (a little interruption): I think, however, we still shouldn't do it.
                                                                He moved from Dallas, Texas, to Detroit.
List: I bought a suitcase, a bottle of Jack, six pairs of socks, a toothbrush, and a ticket to Vegas, baby.

5. There are special cases where a comma can join two sentences together, without a conjunction. This is done in cases of extreme, intense drama, when you feel like you need to say several things at once:

Examples: I came, I saw, I conquered.
                   She sighed, she cried, she almost died.

Note the subjects in each of these examples remains the same. Repeating and in these sentences would ruin the mood. There's no clear rule to this, you just have to feel when it's right.


1. Semicolons are stronger than commas and weaker than full stops. They take the place of a conjunction, connecting two sentences, so long as they are logically related!

Correct: Semi-colons were once a great mystery to me; I had no idea where to put them.
Incorrect: Semi-colons were once a great mystery to me; I'd really like a sandwich.

2. Semicolons are optional. So, why do we have semi-colons if they're not necessary? For variety. If all your sentences are separated by full-stops, it can feel a little staccato. Semi-colons represent a shorter pause and show readers how sentences relate to each other.

3. When two sentences use the same verb, you can even cut it out of the second:

Example: Golf demands the best of time and space; tennis demands the best of personal energy.
Better: Golf demands the best of time and space; tennis, the best of personal energy.

4. Semi-colons work well with transitional words like: moreover, therefore, then, however, nevertheless.

Example: He was tired, dirty, and lonely; moreover, his foot hurt.

5. Only use semicolons where you could also use a full stop! Don't use them with a dependent clause, That's what commas are for.


1. Colons have several functions. They can be used for lists, or to join sentences, like a semi-colon. Here's the main difference. The two parts of the sentence aren't merely related logically, like with a semicolon. The second part explains and describes the first:

Example: Sports at any age are beneficial: they keep you healthy and fit.

2. The second part doesn't need to be a stand-alone sentence. It could be a single word or a list:

Example: Pierpont lived for only one thing: money.
                 The following players will start: Smith, Jones, Baughman, and Stein.

3. Colons are also used in ratios, telling time, and book titles.


1. Hyphens are used to connect words together, specifically when two words work together as one adjective.

Example: a high-school teacher works in a high school.

Be careful to put hyphens in the right place. Five sentence-exercises are not the same as five-sentence exercises.

2. You also use hyphens for words like T-shirt and X-ray, and to add prefixes to certain words: ex-husband, anti-taxes, pro-life. You also use them for two-word numbers: twenty-one, forty-two, etc.

3. You can also use hyphens to break a word in two at the end of a line, typical in newspaper articles, so long as you follow a couple rules:

          1. You must break the word according to its syllables. If the word is one syllable, you can't break it.
          2. If the word is already hyphenated, like self-sufficient, break it along the hyphen; don't add another!


Dashes are long hyphens (just put two together), and they work like commas to interrupt the main thought of a sentence with additional information. You don't have to use them, but they add more emphasis. They're louder, and faster, indicating that the speaker is excited, and talking quickly:

Examples: If Peter wanted to go, whether invited or not, he certainly could have.
                   If Peter wanted to go––whether invited or not––he certainly could have.


These function like dashes, only where dashes shout, parentheses whisper.

Examples: Thus did Innocent III (we shall return to him shortly) inaugurate an age of horrors.
                   But in such circumstances (see 34), be cautious.


1. Quotation marks indicate the inclusion of someone else's voice, copied verbatim. Not every quote needs quotation marks. It depends on how you show it. If you add a quote directly into your paragraph, like, "All the world's a stage," then you need to add quotation marks. But, when you quote a longer passage, don't use them. Instead, add a line of space above and below, and indent it, like this:
All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms.

2. When writing dialogue, signal every change of speaker by forming a new paragraph. If one speaker goes on for several paragraphs, place quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph, but at the end of only the last paragraph.

3. When writing dialogue, if one speaker quotes someone else, use single marks within the quote.

Example: Kirk said, "A majority of the informants thought infer meant 'imply.' "

Note the space between the single and double quotation mark at the end. This makes it easier to read.

4. When quoting poetry, you typically center it on the page, not using quotations:

                                                An aged man is but a paltry thing,
                                                A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
                                                Soul clap its hands and sing. . . .

To insert this poem directly into a paragraph (entirely up to you), add quotation marks like this, "An aged man is but a paltry thing,/A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/Soul clap its hands and sing. . . ." This is also the only acceptable time to use a virgule "/" in your essay.

5. Periods and commas go inside your quotation marks, but colons and semi-colons go outside.

Examples: "This strange disease of modern life," in Arnold's words, remains uncured.
                   In Greece, it was "know thyself"; in America, it is "know thy neighbor."
                   He left after "Hail to the Chief": he could do nothing more.

ELLIPSIS   . . .

Use an ellipsis when you want to cut out part of a quotation to make it shorter. Be careful not to change the meaning!

Example: All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; . . . And one man in his time plays many parts . . . .

Note, the last ellipsis has four dots because it includes a full stop at the end.


Use brackets to insert your own words into a quotation, so it makes better sense, or to add more information.

Example: "Byron had already suggested that the gentlemen of the Quarterly Review [especially Croker] had killed John Keats."

Brackets are useful when you're quoting someone who made a mistake, and you want to show it was his mistake not yours:

Example: "On no occassion [sic] could we trust them." (occassion is misspelled)

Sic is short for sic erat scriptum, meaning, "thus it was written."

ITALICS  abcdefg...

1. Italics emphasize the importance of a word, especially reflecting how people speak in dialogue, their voices and accents:

Example: He wanted to tell them that those dead boys who had lurched and shambled their way down the spiral staircase had done something worse than frighten him: they had offended him.

Example: "Come in, my friend," a voice––not Rimer's––called.  It was followed by a tittery laugh that made Jonas's flesh creep.  He laughs like a dead person, Roy had said.

2. Also use italics when adding foreign words into a sentence, unless it's already been assimilated. Words like naïve and exposé are already common in English, so they don't need italics:

Examples: The author of this naïve exposé suffers from an idée fixe.

3. Slang, however, is best noted with quotations marks (although you should avoid slang in essays):

Examples: Some "cool" pianists use the twelve-tone scale.

A subject like jazz includes a great deal of slang, so it makes sense to explain and clarify just what the terms mean. It can't be avoided.


As stated earlier, only use this when quoting poetry. Don't use expressions like and/or.

Wrong: bacon and/or eggs.        Wrong: male/female

Right: bacon or eggs, or both.    Right: male-female

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