What are punctuation marks? Some say they’re like the stitching that keeps different pieces of fabric together. Some say they’re like traffic signs; they tell readers when to stop, keep going, slow down, or take a detour.
And nearly everyone, it seems, has trouble with punctuation.
Whatever image you like, using correct punctuation is nothing more than good manners. Unfortunately, many people find it confusing. College students soon learn that the various style guides—think AP, APA, MLA, CMS—all have different rules. Proper punctuation according to one is a mistake according to another.
Let’s look at some types of punctuation marks and try to have some fun as we try to make sense of them.
Do spaces count as punctuation marks?
We don’t often think of spaces between words as punctuation, but why not? “Punctuation” and “puncture” both come from the same Latin root: the past participle of the verb pungere, which means to prick or pierce. Spaces pierce a wall of letters.
Apparently, no one thought to put spaces between words—or differentiate between uppercase and lowercase letters—until the time of Charlemagne in the 9th century AD.
Nowadays, using all capital letters is considered bad manners. It’s like shouting. But imagine reading all caps and having to figure out where one word ends and the next one begins!
Is that “The guest of honor is now here”, or “The guest of honor is nowhere”?
American printers and editors invariably insist on putting periods and commas within quotation marks. Whether it makes any sense or not.
According to rule 6.9 of the Chicago Manual of Style, “Periods and commas precede closing quotation marks, whether single or double.” (I have the 16th edition of 2010. I doubt if the 17th edition is substantially different.)
But in 6.10, “Colons and semicolons––unlike periods and commas––follow closing quotation marks; question marks and exclamation points follow closing quotation marks unless they belong within the quoted matter. (This rule applies the logic that is often absent from the US style described in 6.9.)”
It appears that the British are allowed to follow logic even with commas and periods—excuse me, full stops––and Americans arent. But this is my blog. For once, I’ll have the courage to do as I please. Would that we didn’t have a stupid rule blocking good sense!
The comma’s two conflicting roles
Here is a quotation from a 16th-century grammar book by Richard Mulcaster, with modernized spelling, that explains the distinction: The comma is “a small crooked point, which in writing follows some small branch of the sentence, and in reading warns us to rest there, and to help our breath a little.”
Those two roles for one punctuation mark conflict. Authors who prefer to follow one role and editors who prefer the other can figuratively or literally come to blows over the issue.
The serial comma
Commas are essential in writing lists. The word “and” or “or” precedes the last element in a list. Stylebooks differ about whether a comma is required, or even desirable, before the conjunction—the so-called serial comma. Are the colors of the American flag “red, white, and blue” or “red, white and blue”?
The serial comma appears to be an issue only for punctuation in English. I’m not very good at other languages, but the ones I have studied don’t use it.
In 2014, truck drivers sued a dairy for overtime pay and won their case for lack of a serial comma in a statute. (Who said punctuation marks aren’t important or interesting?)
Ironically, the serial comma is often called the Oxford comma. The Oxford University Press style guide requires it. Why ironic? For one thing, the name first appeared in print only in 1978. For another, it looked for a while like Oxford University had stopped advocating it! (False alarm.)
In most British usage and the AP style for American journalists, the serial comma is omitted unless it’s necessary for clarity. As for me, why puzzle over whether it’s necessary for clarity? It’s easier to use it all the time. Plus it saves 29-page court decisions.
The one essential rule of commas
With all these conflicting views on how and where to use commas, just keep one simple rule in mind: Don’t use them stupidly. Here are examples of stupid comma use from Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves:
- Laura walked on her head, a little higher than usual. (The comma belongs after “on”, not after “head”.)
- The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank and swam to the shore. (Unless the vehicle swam to the shore, the sentence needs a comma after “sank.)
- Don’t guess, use a timer or watch. (A missing serial comma? No. That comma ought to be a colon or semicolon. As it stands, it forbids using a timer or watch in the same breath it forbids guessing.)
- The convict said the judge is mad. (That works well enough if the convict commented on the judge. But, “The convict, said the judge, is mad” means something else entirely! It’s an indirect quotation, so a comma after “said” wouldn’t be right. How about, “The convict said that the judge is mad”?)
Commas cause lots of people problems with correct punctuation, but everyone uses them anyway. Only confident writers, it appears, use more obscure punctuation marks such as semicolons and colons very much at all. They seem like periods and commas just putting on airs. A semicolon has a period on a comma’s shoulder.
Nowadays, writers aren’t allowed to write really long sentences. Well, they can, but tools like Hemingway Editor flag them as very hard to read. Use enough of them, and tools like the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Test declares only someone in graduate school can read what you wrote.
Back in the days when people naturally wrote long sentences, the semicolon provided the energy to keep them aloft. A single sentence by Virginia Woolf, quoted by Truss, occupies a dozen lines of print and contains five semicolons.
Today, when all the experts prefer mostly short sentences, a semicolon can still have a role. For one thing, it can combine two related clauses into a single sentence. I remember a poster that showed a chimpanzee in a suit, carrying a briefcase. “Once, I couldn’t spell salesman; now I are one.” A comma would be wrong there.
No one has to use a semicolon. After all, simply replacing the semicolon with a period makes two separate sentences; but the semicolon highlights the relationship between the two clauses.
In addition, the semicolon can serve as a police officer in a crowd of commas. Suppose I want to mention all four of my blogs in a sentence. This one has two commas in its name. If I use only commas in the list, its identity gets lost in the shuffle. So I have to use semicolons to keep the peace when I list Musicology for Everyone; Grace and Judgment; Reading, Writing, Research; and Sustaining Our World; which I originally called Sustainable Future, Green Home. There’s another list item that contains a comma.
Like a period, a colon nearly always follows a complete sentence: except the sentence isn’t quite complete. The colon leaves the reader wanting more. I came across an article on how to get people to stick around when they land on one of my sites.
The author calls attention to an old copywriting tip:
Write a short sentence that occupies its own line, but instead of ending with a period, end it with a colon. To my taste, the author overuses it, but I can see how it works. The colon boldly announces that some new thought is on the way.
A colon can introduce lists. George Bernard Shaw wrote, “I find fault with only three things in this story of yours, Jenkins: the beginning, the middle and the end.”
If I wanted to introduce bullet points here, I would use a colon at the end of this line.
Also, use a colon to set a book title apart from the subtitle: I highly recommend Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss.
A typical keyboard has a key for a hyphen. To make a dash, you use two hyphens. Simple enough? Not to the style guides.
Under the heading Hyphens and Dashes, Rule 6.75 of the Chicago Manual of Style says, “The hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash are the most commonly used. Though many readers may not notice the difference—especially between an en dash and a hyphen—correct use of the different types is a sign of editorial precision and care.”
I hope I did that right. On an Apple keyboard, an en dash is Option + hyphen; an em dash is Option + Shift + hyphen. I had to measure the mark on the page to figure out which dash it considered correct punctuation in that instruction. Why editorial precision and care requires using punctuation marks in a way no one but a careful editor will notice is quite beyond me.
A hyphen is used within or between words, although not as much as it used to be. So-called phrasal adjectives require hyphens:
- a noun + adjective before a noun: merchant of pickled herring but pickled-herring merchant. Without the hyphen, it looks like the merchant, not the herring, is pickled
- adjective + participle before a noun: question that is open ended but open-ended question
- adverb + participle before a noun—but only if the adverb doesn’t end in -ly: a rule that is little understood but a little-understood rule. Did you notice that I had to use a hyphen before the detached suffix -ly?
- gerund + noun before a noun: running shoes but running-shoe store. Again, you’ve never seen a running store.
- and so on . . .
Hyphens avoid ambiguity in other ways. A coop holds chickens. A store owned by its users, then, has to be spelled co-op. Reform usually means moral improvement. When a group disbands and then reunites, it is not reformed but re-formed.
Where a hyphen connects (or separates) words, a dash connects (or separates) phrases. Unless you have to satisfy a careful editor, you needn’t bother about what length dash to use.
In texting, people tend to use dashes to replace all other punctuation marks. At least they’re easier to see than periods or commas.
Most often in more traditional uses, dashes come in pairs. In that way, they act much the same as parentheses or other kinds of brackets. This post has already grown a lot longer than I planned. Since I never intended it to be a comprehensive guide to punctuation marks, I’ll say no more about the dash.
For that matter, I have nothing to say about periods, question marks, or exclamation marks––except to note that people tend to overuse exclamation marks. (Oh! I found a way to use a single dash!) It’s another way of shouting. Some things are worth shouting about. Too many exclamation marks have the effect of a child demanding attention while the adults are trying to have a conversation among themselves.