How To Be A Punctuation Semi-Pro – Part 1

As I recently combed through the burgeoning bookshelves of my wordsmithing workshop (also known as our spare bedroom), I discovered over a dozen books devoted just to grammar, usage, and the nuts and bolts of how to use commas correctly.  Yet, even with these tools and reference manuals at my disposal, I still struggle sometimes to produce perfectly punctuated prose.

As you already know, my “day job” is to prepare prison inmates to pass the High School Equivalency test, and to teach them how to communicate in modes other than slang and profanity—the latter of which I accomplish with only mixed success. The guys I have in class have to know definitions and remember terminology, but they don’t have a lot of patience for long-winded technical. So, over the years I have had to find memorable common-sense ways to explain clauses, demystify semicolons, and clarify the use of commas. I suspect that my summarization of some these rules will benefit you, as well. So, this two-part series is the result.

Verbal versus Textual

Verbal communication has one big advantage over written text. It allows us to use pauses, tone, and deliberate emphasis to add shades of subtext to what we say. We can sound loving, sarcastic, threatening, or unsure. We can emphasize particular words or group linked phrases together by how we say them. So, how does punctuation help to level the playing field? Here’s the simplest explanation I know:

The purpose of punctuation is to make the eyes see what the ears would hear if the sentence was spoken out loud.

That’s about 95% of the battle, right there. If you punctuate by sound and meaning, you’ll be correct more times than not. Without punctuation, we severely limit our ability to communicate nuance of meaning in print.

Consider how texts can be misconstrued when we don’t add any extra symbols. Have you ever sent a message, or posted on social media, and told someone they were “a pea-brained numbskull” (or some other term of endearment), and yet you preserved the friendship by ending your abuse with an “LOL” or a “;)”? Most phone texting apps don’t permit boldface words or italics, so some people add emojis or emphasize words or phrases by placing an asterisk at each end. After all, there is a significant difference between, saying: I only said I love *you*, and I only *said* I love you. The first might get you a kiss, while the second would earn you a well-deserved punch in the kisser.

A similar problem can arise in more formalized writing if we fail to punctuate with purpose. Perhaps you have seen the following anonymous example in several online forums, as I have. How would you choose to punctuate the following paragraph?

Dear John I want a man who knows what love is all about you are generous kind and thoughtful people who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior you have ruined me for other men I yearn for you I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart I can be forever happy will you let me be yours Gloria

With varied punctuation, we get two opposing versions:

  1. Dear John, I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, and thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever if we’re apart. I could be happy forever—will you let me be yours? Gloria.
  2. Dear John: I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, and thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior! You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. If we’re apart, I could be happy forever. Will you let me be? – Yours, Gloria.

So, how do we keep track of the purpose and practice of proper punctuation?

Gilmour’s Guide to Punctuation (With Examples):

First of all, let’s get a few basics out of the way so that what follows will make sense:

  1. When we talk about sentences, we mean complete thoughts that involve a subject and predicate – a noun and a verb. Basically, they have someBODY doing someTHING. If you don’t have both, you don’t have a sentence. The subject might be implied, as in, “Hey (you), look out for that escaped rhinoceros!”, but if there is something clearly missing, it creates a sentence fragment.
  2. An independent clause is a meaningful collection of words that, if you suddenly said them to a random stranger on the street, would make sense all by themselves. Your victim might wonder why you are inexplicably talking to him, of all people, but at least he would comprehend whatever off-the-wall thought you have expressed. For example:
  • This tree appears to be made of mozzarella cheese.
  • That sousaphone won’t fit into my 1967 Volkswagen Beetle.
  • P. Lovecraft’s stories make great bedtime reading for children.
  1. A dependent clause is a meaningful collection of words (typically part of a sentence) that, out of context, would not make sense to a stranger on the street. Such a random expression of incomplete thought might cause your victim to stare at you blankly for a few seconds as she struggles to understand something like:
  • Because Mondays always make me feel moldy.
  • While Albert was polishing his collection of aluminum Buddhas.
  • Despite the fact that I have shamefully stolen several cans of tuna.

In these cases, the conjunctions (“Because”, “While”, and “Despite the fact that”) that begin each of them imply a connection to something that is missing; so, the full meaning of each dependent clause “depends” on the rest of its sentence. If you remove those conjunctions, what remains is a (still strange) complete sentence. You can end a sentence with a dependent clause (no comma needed), or you can begin a sentence with one and add a comma after it.

Now, let’s address some varied points of punctuation. As we do so, I’ll give you the brass tacks version and then elaborate further on some of them. To be honest, this is more detail than I would give my students but it’s still not everything there is to know. (I figure you can handle it.)

A period is a full stop.

Sentences usually end with periods. You probably aren’t mishandling these, so you already know that using periods is like driving a bus—your sentence moves forward a few phrases to the next assigned stopping point, the bus stops completely, the passenger list of words changes somewhat, and a capital letter starts the next section of the route.

Tedious trips have excessive periods. They have stop signs at every cross street. The bus never gets out of first gear. The sentences are short. They don’t build up momentum. They don’t have time to. They become monotonous and boring.

On the other hand, without pauses or stopping points a simple bus ride can become a runaway series of words that accelerate and fly right past the stop where you expected to get off and cause you to imagine to your horror that the bus might not slow down or stop anytime soon but will instead eventually explode like the booby-trapped bus in the movie Speed, a 1994 blockbuster starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, which I haven’t actually seen.

So, how long should sentences be? I love the storytelling advice given to The White Rabbit by the King in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”  I take this to mean, don’t end a sentence before you should, but when you do get to the end: stop. My own tendency (you have probably noticed) is toward writing sentences that are longer and more complex than my spoken ones. I suppose that makes my short sentences more impactful. I hope so.

Rather than too-frequently stopping and starting, or writing sentences so long they potentially crash and burn, try to use a blend of simple and complex sentences that vary in length. This will make them easier and more enjoyable to read. Genre has an impact on sentence length and complexity, as well. Non-fiction writing, like this blog series, is usually composed of longer complete sentences. Fiction and poetry employ shorter sentences, and may not even use complete sentences every time – especially in dialogue. Seriously, how many people do you know that always speak in grammatically correct complete sentences?

Question marks end actual questions. (I know; shocking, right?)

We typically use question marks to signal uncertainty. We might be seeking information we lack (How much did you spend on new pens and notebooks?), or maybe we are unsure about the information we have ($150? $200? I’m not sure, it all happened so fast.). You know how some people’s voices tend to rise at the end of sentences and make most of them sound like questions? (Welcome to Francisco’s? …I’ll be your server? …Tonight’s special is the Fettuccine Carbonara? …Please enjoy your meal?) If you use “punctuation by sound” as a generalization, you’ll see we tend not to write like that.

Do use a question mark when you are actually asking a question. “Will you marry me?” is a literal yes or no proposition. On the other hand, “I’m wondering if you will marry me?” sounds like a reaction to someone trying to read your mind. (That’s amazing! How did you know I was deeply contemplating our relationship? What number am I thinking of right now?)

Don’t use a question mark with indirect questions, or statements that only look like questions. “I’m wondering if you will marry me” may contain an intended question, but it hits the ear as a statement. A literal-minded potential fiancé could teasingly reply, “There’s only one way to find out: ask me!”

Exceptions to this rule include indirect requests that are couched as unintended direct questions. When my wife asks me, “Do you mind helping me bathe the cat?” I tell her, “No.”  Her momentary confusion is alleviated, however, as I turn up my sleeves. She rolls her eyes when she realizes that I am not refusing to help, but rather answering her literal question: “Do you mind helping me?” I am agreeing to her real request—that I assist her in wrangling a superpowered hydrophobic feline with murderous claws.

Rhetorical questions that don’t really anticipate an answer often don’t need question marks:

“Would you please knock it off, I’m trying to sleep.”

“Why don’t you take a break now, and I’ll cover for you.”

However, sometimes they do:

“That was a very ill-timed belch; do you want the cave trolls to find us?”

“That powdered sugar in your beard isn’t from my missing doughnut? How gullible do you think I am?”

Exclamation Points show excitement or emotion — but don’t overuse them.

Exclamation points are used for emphasis that goes beyond a run-of-the-mill unusual statement. Exciting sentences, such as: “Get out of the back of my hearse right now, you big faker!” and “Sir Reginald, your skills are our only hope against that horde of radioactive were-hamsters!” would end with such punctuation. However, some events are not as heart-stopping as others. (“Wow! What a thrilling event my oil change and 29-point automotive inspection has been!”) Most interjections inject just enough oomph into a sentence to get the reader’s attention, and employ a comma. (Hey, could you please move it along? My yoga class starts in 20 minutes.”)

Commas are for pauses and avoiding confusion

Commas are probably the most frequently misused punctuation marks on the page. They have so many interrelated uses we don’t have time or room here to go into all of them, but here is a shortcut to most of them: in keeping with the sight = sound guideline, their placement can be said to signal a verbal pause or change of some kind.

Try reading a long series of phrases or sentences out loud in a monotone, without slowing, stopping, or pausing for breath. I’m betting it sounds awkward and rushed. Generally, if you sense that you would naturally pause or take a breath at a particular point in a sentence, a comma probably goes there. In fact, (word nerd trivia alert!) in the 3rd Century, the Greeks used a vertically centered dot called a komma in their texts. Its size and position was a breath mark, and an indication to speakers of how much air they were going to need to fluently read the next chunk of text out loud.

Another reason we pause is to change tone and emphasis. Remember, the purpose of punctuation is to show the eye what the ear would hear. When you speak out loud, your voice changes to signal sidebar comments, clarifications, and parenthetical info. It doesn’t change in the same way if the information is not optional. Notice the sound-difference between saying, “My aunt, Susan, makes great enchiladas” and “My Aunt Susan makes great enchiladas”. In the first sentence, I am telling you that one of my aunts is a great cook (by the way her name is Susan); in the second, her capitalized title and name are an important part of the message.

We also chunk stuff together with commas when it’s related, and when not using such punctuation would create alternate meanings:

“Someone is trying to poison me, Sharon! A hobgoblin ate my lunch and died, which came as a surprise to be sure.” (I am informing Sharon that someone is trying to assassinate me, and that a hobgoblin surprisingly died after pilfering my pizza.)

“Someone is trying to poison me! Sharon, a hobgoblin, ate my lunch and died, which came as a surprise, to be sure.” (I am in danger. My hobgoblin friend, Sharon, ate my lunch to test it, but perished.)

This also applies when we are naming different items in a list, or separating clauses in a sentence. Each item in a list of three or more is typically separated by commas, such as when we go to the store for “butter, milk, chocolate, and eggs”. That way, we don’t accidentally purchase buttermilk, milk chocolate, or chocolate eggs.

In such situations, we often see the “Oxford Comma”—the one that comes before the “and” in a list. Not everyone agrees we should use it, but I’m in the ” pro-Oxford” camp because it helps us to avoid confusion. Otherwise, I might write, “I’m going to leave my vast fortune to Nathan, Victor and Steve.”, leading to a nasty lawsuit following my death, in which seemingly disinherited Victor and Steve sue Nathan for part of the wealth. With the second comma, after Victor, it’s clear that all three are my heirs.

When excessive commas become confusing, a kind of “super-comma”, the semicolon, may also come into play. (More on that in Part 2.)

Another quick way to test for correct comma usage is to figuratively “chop” the sentence with a big rusty meat cleaver at the locations of two consecutive commas, remove the words between them, and suture the two ragged edges together. If the sentence still makes sense and doesn’t change in meaning, then the amputated clause was “nonrestrictive” and the commas were placed correctly: “Jonathan, who ruined the Star Trek t-shirt I loaned him for Comic-Con last month, decided to pack a lunch that day.” can be condensed to, “Jonathan decided to pack a lunch that day” without any loss of meaning. But if the meaning of a sentence is harmed by such a surgery, then the removed clause is “restrictive” and doesn’t need commas. For example, commas are incorrectly placed in the sentence, “Poets, who write only in iambic pentameter, are increasingly seen as old-fashioned.” The comma-enclosed part is not an accurate clarification of “poets”, because not all of us write that way. The sentence cannot be correctly condensed to, “Poets are increasingly seen as old-fashioned.” because only the iambic pentameter ones are apparently fading into history (Debatable). Vital info, by definition, isn’t parenthetical, so we don’t use commas to parse it out. That is why it is better to ask your bestie, “How are you, my friend?” versus, “How are you my friend?” – that is, unless you want them to become an EX-bestie.


In Part 2 of this series, we’ll talk more about the internal punctuation of sentences, and how these little smudges on the page can have a huge impact on content and meaning.




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