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In a Time magazine essay titled "In Praise of the Humble Comma," Pico Iyer nicely illustrated some of the

various uses of punctuation marks: Punctuation, one is taught, has a point: to keep up law and order. Punctuation marks are the road signs placed along the highway of our communication--to control speeds, provide directions, and prevent head-on collisions. A period has the unblinking finality of a red light; the comma is a flashing yellow light that asks us only to slow down; and the semicolon is a stop sign that tells us to ease gradually to a halt, before gradually starting up again. Odds are that you probably already recognize the road signs of punctuation, though now and then you might get the signs confused. Probably the best way to understand punctuation is to study the sentence structures that the marks accompany (as we do in the Basic Grammar pages). Here, beginning with the end marks (periods, question marks, and exclamation points), we'll review the conventional uses of punctuation in American English. End Punctuation A sentence may end with a period (.), a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!). Use a period at the end of a sentence that makes a statement. We find this principle at work in each of Inigo Montoya's sentences in this speech from the movie The Princess Bride: I was eleven years old. And when I was strong enough, I dedicated my life to the study of fencing. So the next time we meet, I will not fail. I will go up to the six-fingered man and say, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die." Notice that a period goes inside a closing quotation mark. Use a question mark after direct questions, as in this exchange from the same movie: The Grandson: Is this a kissing book? Grandpa: Wait, just wait. The Grandson: Well, when does it get good? Grandpa: Keep your shirt on, and let me read. However, at the end of indirect quotations (that is, reporting someone else's question in our own words), use a period instead of a question mark: The boy asked if there was kissing in the book. Now and then we may use an exclamation point at the end of a sentence to express strong emotion. Consider Vizzini's dying words in The Princess Bride: You only think I guessed wrong! That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Clearly (and comically), this is an extreme use of exclamations. In our own writing, we should be careful not to deaden the effect of the exclamation point by overworking it. End of sentence punctuation While the punctuation in the middle of the sentence is extremely important, its the punctuation at the end of the sentence that makes or breaks the writing: if the end punctuation is incorrect, the whole sentence can be incomprehensible. You have three options for the end of a sentence: period, exclamation mark, or question mark. Each one sets a different tone for the whole sentence. When were reading out loud, our tone naturally adjusts to the punctuation: a period is calm and sedate, an exclamation mark is loud and excited, and the question mark turns the end of the sentence up in wonder. In fact, you can use the same words and the same punctuation within the sentence, and change the whole meaning by using different end punctuation. I went shopping. (Ho, hum. It was uneventful.) I went shopping! (I had the best time and bought wonderful things!) I went shopping? (I must have had a black-out or something. I dont remember going shopping.) Punctuation marks are small and easy to miss, so we always follow them with a space. Some people use one space, and others use two. If you are using a particular style or format, check to see if it has any preference for one space or two.

1) End Punctuation: Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Points


There are only three ways to end a sentence: with a period (.), a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!). And because most of us state far more often than we question or exclaim, the period is by far the most popular end mark of punctuation. The American period, by the way, is more commonly known as a full stop in British English. Since around 1600, both terms have been used to describe the mark (or the long pause) at the end of a sentence. Until the 20th century, the question mark was more commonly known as a point of interrogation--a descendant of the mark used by medieval monks to show voice inflection in church manuscripts. The exclamation point has been used since the 17th century to indicate strong emotion, such as surprise, wonder, disbelief, or pain. Here are the present-day guidelines for using periods, question marks, and exclamation points. More About Periods, Question Marks, & Exclamation Points:

End puntuation Please excuse that exclamation mark in the title. Some would say that it's inappropriate in polite company--an unseemly display of emotion. Far worse, it's misleading. I'm not calling for an embargo on the marks of punctuation. I'm simply trying to make (forgive me again) a point: punctuation marks mean something. Sometimes they mean a lot. Take the three end marks of punctuation: periods, question marks, and exclamation points. They not only put the brakes on a sentence (which should be a full-time job all by itself) but also suggest its tone. Imagine you've been called in front of a Senate Select Committee to share your thoughts on how to remedy America's health-care crisis. (Bear with me now.) As you carefully spell out your one-point plan, you observe that a note is being passed among the senators. One of them reads the note and nods her head enthusiastically. Another reads it and frowns. A third reads it and grins broadly. As soon as the hearing ends, you politely ask to see the note. Here's exactly what it says: Isn't this a good idea At first, imagining an exclamation point at the end, you take the note as a compliment: somebody really likes this idea! But then, as you re-read the note with a question mark inserted, doubt sets in: what's wrong with this idea? And finally, as you head out of the room, your heart sinks as you mentally punctuate the note with a period. This is irony, you decide: they've heard this same idea a thousand times before. The system, of course, isn't foolproof. The written language can never convey all of the subtleties of meaning that the spoken language can. But surely punctuation helps. Don't you agree?

End Punctuation
A sentence may end with a period (.), a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!). Use a period at the end of a sentence that makes a statement. We find this principle at work in each of Inigo Montoya's sentences in this speech from the movie The Princess Bride: I was eleven years old. And when I was strong enough, I dedicated my life to the study of fencing. So the next time we meet, I will not fail. I will go up to the six-fingered man and say, "Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die."

Notice that a period goes inside a closing quotation mark. Use a question mark after direct questions, as in this exchange from the same movie: The Grandson: Is this a kissing book? Grandpa: Wait, just wait. The Grandson: Well, when does it get good? Grandpa: Keep your shirt on, and let me read. However, at the end of indirect quotations (that is, reporting someone else's question in our own words), use a period instead of a question mark: The boy asked if there was kissing in the book. Now and then we may use an exclamation point at the end of a sentence to express strong emotion. Consider Vizzini's dying words in The Princess Bride: You only think I guessed wrong! That's what's so funny! I switched glasses when your back was turned! Ha ha! You fool! You fell victim to one of the classic blunders! The most famous is never get involved in a land war in Asia, but only slightly less well-known is this: never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Clearly (and comically), this is an extreme use of exclamations. In our own writing, we should be careful not to deaden the effect of the exclamation point by overworking it.
How to punctuate Last month I showed how to unstuff a sentence by removing unnecessary words. This month Ill offer a quick-and-dirty guide to punctuating a sentence. Nothing that follows is meant to substitute for the nuanced explanations of whats usually called a writing handbook, the sort of book that college students purchase in a first-semester writing course. These five rules though have the virtue of being manageable, which is difficult to say of a 1,000-page book. In each paragraph that follows, the sentences illustrate the punctuation rule involved. Note that Im avoiding almost all grammatical terminology. Instead, Im emphasizing a small number of sentence patterns. Rule one If your sentence begins with an introductory element, put a comma after it. Even if its a short element, put a comma after it. In time, youll be putting this comma in without having to think about it. Rule two Any element which interrupts the movement of the sentence, whether its big or small, should be set off with commas. This sentence, like the first, also has an element set off with commas. An element that appears at the end of the sentence should also be set off with a comma, as Im showing here.

Rule three Items in a series should be separated with commas. What do I mean by items in a series? Wine, women, and song. Life, love, and laughter. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Rule four Complete sentences that are joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) need a comma before the coordinating conjunction. That might seem obvious, but this comma frequently gets left out. Putting it in makes a sentence more readable, and any reader appreciates that. Rule five Complete sentences that are joined without a coordinating conjunction need a semi-colon instead of a comma; the semi-colon shows the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. Semi-colons are often followed by a connecting word or phrase; however, a connecting word or phrase is not necessary. Sentences joined with only a comma are called comma splices; theyre among the most common errors that come up in college writing. (Note: In the next-to-last sentence in the previous paragraph, theres a comma after however because its an introductory element in the second sentence.) Fixing comma splices requires familiarity with two recurring sentence patterns. The first involves a complete sentence, a semi-colon, and another complete sentence: [complete sentence]; [complete sentence]. Some examples: Your argument is persuasive; it addresses every objection I had. His research paper is plagiarized; he is going to fail the class. The novel is a relatively recent literary form; its not nearly as old as epic poetry and lyric poetry. The second pattern to look for involves a complete sentence, a semi-colon, a connecting word or phrase, a comma, and another complete sentence: [complete sentence]; [word or phrase], [complete sentence]. (Again, the comma after the connecting word or phrase is appropriate as that word or phrase is an introductory element in the second sentence.) Some examples: I decided not to take the job; instead, Im going to graduate school. The proposal is flawed; as a result, were sending it back for revision. She did well in the class; in fact, she did much better than she had expected.

How can you tell whether you have two complete sentences or one sentence with an interrupting element at its end? With an interrupting element (something less than a sentence in itself), the parts of the sentence can be switched and still make sense: Ill go to work, even though Im sick. Even though Im sick, Ill go to work. But with a second complete sentence and a word or phrase such as instead, as a result, or in fact, the parts cannot be switched and still make sense. Those are the basics of punctuating sentences with commas and semi-colons. I know from working with many students that any writer can get better when it comes to punctuation. The key is the ability to recognize a handful of familiar patterns. Look for the patterns in your sentences, and you too can get better. With some practice, youll be able to see the parts of your sentences falling into place, and punctuating correctly will become, believe it or not, a habit, one that youll be happy to have acquired. Colons, by the way, function as arrows or pointers: see what I mean? Punctuation Below is a description of the most common punctuation marks and their proper usage. They are listed in functional order, starting with those that end sentences, followed by those that fall in the middle of sentences, and finally those that fall in the middle of words. period | exclamation point | question mark | comma | colon | semicolon | apostrophe

The Period A period looks like this: . It is used to end a sentence. You should not use a period for anything other than ending a sentence. (A period also makes up part of an ellipsis, but that's another story.)

The Exclamation Point An exclamation point looks like this: ! Like the period, the exclamation point is used to end a sentence, but it also adds emphasis. When you're writing dialogue and a character is shouting, you might want to end the sentence with an exclamation point. Example:: "Gabrielle, look out!" yelled Xena.

The Question Mark A question mark looks like this: ? Like the period and exclamation point, the question mark is used to end a sentence, but only when the sentence is a question. Example: "Xena, where are we going?" asked Gabrielle.

The Comma Ahhh, now things are getting a little more complicated. A comma looks like this: , Commas have several uses:

Commas serve to separate two ideas in a sentence. The two ideas are so closely related that they can't each stand alone; if they could stand alone (that is, if each idea could be its own sentence) you should either use a semicolon or a period. (The preceding sentence is a good example of this.) Especially look for words like "and," "but," "or," etc. Example: Gabrielle was tired, but she kept walking.

Commas separate multiple adjectives that are describing the same thing. Example: Gabrielle ran her fingers through Xena's long, soft hair.

Commas separate lists of three or more. Examples: Gabrielle ate chicken, fish, and berries for lunch. Xena jumped up, spun around, and drew her sword. Note that if any of the items in the list use commas, the list separator becomes a semicolon: Xena jumped up; spun around; and drew her sharp, shiny sword.

Commas set off subordinate clauses that qualify the main clauses. Example:

Seeing Gabrielle fall, Xena hurried forward. Since she was hungry, Gabrielle ate some berries. If you love chocolate, you should try Oreos. Commas come after exclamations or other one-word interjections. Examples: Dammit, Xena abandoned Gabby again. No, I'm not hungry. Oops, I broke the frying pan. Commas set off non-essential clauses in the middles of sentences. ALWAYS USE THESE COMMAS IN PAIRS! Examples: Xena, who is from Amphipolis, is sitting next to you. BUT The woman sitting next to you is from Amphipolis. Note the difference between the two sentences above. In the first, the main point is that Xena is sitting next to you. The fact that she's from Amphipolis is not important. If you have constructed the sentence properly, you should be able to remove everything between the commas and still have a coherent sentence. In this case, it would be "Xena is sitting next to you." In the second sentence, the fact that she's from Amphipolis is the main point of the sentence, hence no comma is used. There are three general types of word/phrase that should go between these commas: Descriptive phrases that are not strictly necessary, such as "who is from Amphipolis" in the above example. o Names. "It's your fault, Xena, that I'm all wet." o Non-essential comments or qualifiers such as "however," "nevertheless," "so to speak," etc. Commas come after "he said," "she said," and other speaking verbs when they are in the middle of the spoken quotation. Examples: "Xena," said Gabrielle, "what are you doing?" "I don't know why," said Xena, "but I feel like cuddling." BUT "I'm tired, Gabrielle," said Xena. "Let's get some sleep." Note that in the third example, a period follows the speaking verb rather than a comma. This is because two sentences are spoken: if you had moved the speaking
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verb to the end, you would have "I'm tired, Gabrielle. Let's get some sleep," said Xena. Also note that after a spoken quotation, the next word should ALWAYS be uncapitalized, unless of course it is a name. The following examples are ALL incorrect: "Gabrielle, stop it." cried Xena. "Gabrielle, stop it!" Cried Xena. "Gabrielle, stop it," Cried Xena. The correct forms would be: "Gabrielle, stop it," cried Xena. "Gabrielle, stop it!" cried Xena.

This is possibly the hardest one. A comma is also used to prevent confusion when there is more than one possible interpretation of a sentence. Example A: Above the mountains rose like purple shadows. Try putting a comma in different parts of the above sentence and see how different the meanings are. Example B: My sister Sarah has a cat. My sister, Sarah, has a cat. The first sentence implies that I have more than one sister. The name Sarah indicates which sister I am speaking of at the moment. The second sentence implies that I have only one sister. The commas setting off her name indicate that the name is a nonessential qualifier. (Remember, try removing everything between the commas.) Example C: Sarah, my sister, has a cat. Sarah, my sister has a cat. The first sentence is, again, an example of nonessential qualifier. I could say "Sarah has a cat" and presumably you know that Sarah is my sister. The second sentence is addressed to Sarah. I am telling Sarah that my sister, whose name is not specified, has a cat.

For more explanation of the proper uses of commas, with rather a lot of technical language (what the heck is a "terminal-position adjective cluster"?!), see The Colon A colon looks like this: : It appears at the end of a clause and can do one of three things.

A colon can introduce a list. Be sure that what comes before the colon could stand as a complete sentence on its own. Correct: Xena has many skills: running, jumping, fighting, and sewing. Incorrect: Xena's skills include: running, jumping, fighting, and sewing.

A colon can introduce a restatement of the previous clause. Xena is a warrior: she spends a lot of her time fighting battles. A colon can introduce an elaboration on the previous clause.

Gabrielle was in pain: she had just sprained her ankle. Note that the distinction between restatement and elaboration can sometimes be subtle. Also note that some people like to capitalize the first letter of the first word after the colon: They believe it is more stylistically appropriate. The previous sentence is an example. Whether or not to capitalize is up to you; just be careful to be consistent. (Read my note on consistency.) The Semicolon A semicolon looks like this: ; Semicolons have essentially two uses.

A semicolon separates items in a list when the items themselves have internal punctuation. Gabrielle likes oranges; cherries; and red, yellow, and green apples. A semicolon separates two closely related clauses. In this function, it is slightly stronger than a comma, but weaker than a period. The clause before the semicolon and the clause after the semicolon should be complete sentences on their own; you should be able to replace the semicolon with a period and have two grammatically correct sentences. The previous sentence is an example.

The Apostrophe An apostrophe looks like this: ' In general, apostrophes have two uses: replacing removed letters in contractions, and indicating possession.

Removed letters: Consider the word "isn't." We all know this is a contraction of two words, "is not." The apostrophe in "isn't" replaces the letter O in "not." Similarly, the apostrophe in "can't" replaces the letters NO in "can not," the apostrophe in "we're" replaces the letter A in "we are," and so forth. Possession: "This is Xena's whip." In this case the apostrophe does not replace a letter; it indicates possession, i.e. "This whip belongs to Xena." Possessives get really tricky when you apply them to multiple people. For example: This is Xena's and Gabby's whip. This is Xena and Gabby's whip. Translation: This whip belongs to Xena and Gabby. Translation: This is Xena, and this is a whip belonging to Gabby.

The exception to the possessive rule - and the one which gives most people a lot of trouble - is the word "its" meaning "belonging to it." Unlike most possessives, "its" does not contain an apostrophe. It is just one of the many cases where the English language is unnecessarily complex. The trouble with English is not that it has too many rules - it's that there are too many exceptions to the rules. But "its/it's" is a case wherein it's good to remember Case 1 from above. If the word is "it's," ask yourself, "What letter has been removed?" The answer clearly is "i." The letter i from "it is" has been replaced by the apostrophe. So, to clarify: Its = belonging to it. "The frying pan has a dent in its handle." It's = it is. "It's not my fault the frying pan is dented!" Titles T: titles require either italics, quotation marks, or no punctuation. If your teacher marks "T," you have punctuated a title incorrectly. Do not just change it; state which of the rules below applies (for example, "Use quotation marks for titles of short stories"). QUOTATION MARKS: SHORTER WORKS

ITALICS: BOOK-LENGTH WORKS

NOVELS: War and Peace LONG POEMS: The Odyssey NONFICTION BOOKS: Up from Slavery

SHORT STORIES: "Revelation" SHORT POEMS: "The Road Not Taken" CHAPTERS: "The Whiteness of the Whale"

COLLECTIONS: The Canterbury Tales RECORD ALBUMS (OR CDs): Abbey Road PLAYS: Romeo and Juliet MUSICAL COMPOSITIONS: Messiah OPERAS AND BALLETS: Swan Lake WORKS OF VISUAL ART: Mona Lisa FILMS: The Wizard of Oz SOFTWARE: PowerPoint MAGAZINES: Newsweek NEWSPAPERS: The Honolulu Advertiser TV AND RADIO PROGRAMS: Sixty Minutes SHIPS, TRAINS, AIRCRAFT: Queen Mary

ESSAYS OR ARTICLES: "Self-Reliance" SONGS: "Here Comes the Sun"

NO ITALICS OR QUOTATION MARKS

UNTITLED MUSIC: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor SACRED BOOKS: the Bible, the Koran BOOKS OF THE BIBLE: Esther, Psalms LEGAL DOCUMENTS: the Constitution BRAND NAMES: Honda, Kleenex

If your word processing program does not make italics, or if you write by hand, indicate italics with underlines. Underlines should be continuous, not broken. WRONG: The Woman Warrior RIGHT: The Woman Warrior Leave a title that appears within a title unitalicized: A Preface to Paradise Lost A Preface to Paradise Lost Back to top. End Punctuation EP: end punctuation. If your teacher marks "EP," identify which error you made: 1. Do not forget to write the necessary punctuation mark at the close of a sentence. The error occurs most in long questions when a writer forgets the original sentence structure: WRONG: How could I be so cruel to someone who had been my friend for years. 2. Do not confuse indirect discourse with direct discourse: INDIRECT: I wondered how he could be so cruel. DIRECT: How could he be so cruel?

3. Use only one end punctuation mark. Using more makes your writing look like a comic book: "How did he know?!" Even if you are using quotation marks, use only one end mark: RIGHT: "How true!" he exclaimed. RIGHT: She asked, "Are you serious?"

WRONG: "How true!," he exclaimed. WRONG: She asked, "Are you serious???"

4. Do not overuse exclamation points: OVERUSED: Suddenly the phone rang! I jumped up and answered! It was a wrong number! Back to top. Dashes D: dashes. If a teacher marks "D" on your paper, identify the rule that applies. 1: use a dash to mark an abrupt but temporary turn of thought. A dash is less formal than a comma, colon or parenthesis. Think of it as a Pause button. It tells readers, "Don't lose the thread of my sentence, for I need to add something before I go on." When a period or another dash appears, readers know it is time to return to the original train of thought: The nutritional value--if the term can even be applied to Spam--is minimal. Spam does little good for the consumer's health--not to mention the pig's. Dashes can set off appositives (noun phrases equivalent to other nouns in the sentence): Just reading the ingredients--Spam, Velveeta, mayonnaise--can raise your cholesterol. The most common error is the omission of the second dash. A dash may follow a question mark or exclamation point but not a comma or period: RIGHT: Her questions--"What day is it?" "Which way is up?"-revealed her confusion. WRONG: His nicknames--Slowpoke, Slug, Leadfoot,--did not strike fear into opponents. RIGHT: His nicknames--Slowpoke, Slug, Leadfoot--did not strike fear into opponents. 2. DT: typography. A dash is not the same as a hyphen. If your word processing program does not allow you to use a dash, indicate one by typing two hyphens--as in this sentence--with no blank spaces. Never divide the hyphens at a line break. If you write by hand, do not write two hyphens; use an unbroken line longer than a hyphen. HYPHEN: The word-dividing hyphen is a shorter mark that goes within words. DASH: The dash--a longer mark--goes between words and divides sentences. Back to top.

DX: use dashes sparingly. Careless or excessive dashes make a page ugly and give the impression of scatterbrained thinking. Back to top. Parentheses Paren: use parentheses to set off an interruption. Without the parenthesis in the sentence below, readers might think one uncle served dishonorably: Three of my four uncles served with honor in the war (the other was too young to enlist). 1. Punctuation with parentheses. As in the model sentence above, periods and other end punctuation go outside the close of a parenthesis. No punctuation mark can precede a parenthesis, but a comma can follow one: Like three of my four uncles (the other was too young), my father served with honor. Occasionally a parenthesis stands on its own as a sentence; if so, capitalize the first word and place end punctuation inside the parenthesis. Three of my four uncles served with honor. (The other was too young to enlist.) A question mark or exclamation point, if it is part of the parenthetical material, can go inside a parenthesis, but another punctuation mark is needed to close the sentence: Miranda's frequent exclamations express pity ("O, woe the day!" "O the heavens!" "Alack, for mercy!") and wonder ("O, wonder!" "O brave new world!"). 2. Conventional uses. Parentheses also set off publication dates in bibliography entries, and dates of birth and death: Waslaw Nijinsky (18901950). They are used following quotations to cite page references (see QL: Quoting Literature in Part Five). Back to top. Paren X: use parentheses sparingly. Like dashes, they make a page ugly and give the impression of carelessness. If something is worth mentioning, it deserves a sentence of its own.