How To Be A Punctuation Semi-Pro – Part 2

In Part 1 of this two-part series, we started to examine punctuation (and a little grammar) from the position of my experience teaching them to adult prison inmates. Which is to say, the perspective of making it straightforward and memorable. This expanded version of my lessons started with the baseline assumption that “The purpose of punctuation is to make the eyes see what the ears would hear if the sentence was spoken out loud.” We will continue this post in the same vein.

The Colon signals a list or amplification.

Aside from separating the numbers in an expression of time (3:17 p.m.), there are three main reasons for using colons: to warn that a list (like this one) is about to follow, to emphasize or expand on a connection, and to signal that an explanation is forthcoming.

  • Harriet had three reasons to marry Howard: stability, security, and desperation.
  • Orcs, goblins, and other subterranean denizens often get a bad rap: many, in fact, had troubled childhoods, and exaggerated stories of their early antisocial misdeeds have contributed to the hurtful stereotype that they become universally evil as adults.

The Semicolon: 

A semicolon is pretty much what it looks like – the mutant offspring of a period and a comma – which is convenient because it inherits some of the powers of both its parents. It separates independent clauses like a period, but can also separate “comma-ed” items in a complex list.

Returning to our original driving analogy, in which a period was like a bus-stop or stop sign, a semicolon is what we used to call a “California Stop” when I was learning to drive; it’s when you could (and maybe should) stop at a yield or stop sign, but you kind of don’t. Instead, you sort of pseudo-stop, then keep going without losing all your momentum. You feel the sentence downshift, like it does going into a period, but you really only pause, like a comma. A new independent clause begins, but since you’re on a roll you just carry your slackened speed into a new acceleration.

Semicolons usually appear in situations when the second part of a compound sentence is so closely tied to the first that a full stop between the two would be too jarring.

  • Azrael had some leftovers stuck in his teeth; dragons hate when that happens.
  • I tell everyone my kids get their good looks from me; my wife still has hers.  

A second use of semicolons is as a “super-comma” — a grouping symbol that clarifies what goes together in sentences that use multiple commas:

  • Alien abductions have occurred in Vulcan, Alberta; Paris, Missouri; and Boring, Oregon.
  • The popularity of role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons, has experienced a resurgence in recent years; the popularity of 1970’s fashion, not so much.

Quotation Marks — “What did you just say to me?”

Quotation marks mostly enclose the actual words of dialogue that story characters speak, and the exact wording of statements that are spoken or written by others.  They are like the “speech bubbles” we see in comics. Their main job is to ensure that exact transcriptions and wording and ideas are provided to an intended audience. However, unlike comic books, a fiction character’s internal thoughts are not “bubbled” between quotation marks, but are often written in italics instead. This provides a perfect transcript of inner and outer dialogue, so the reader can follow the script and have the voices in their head tell them who says what:

Catherine saw Richard’s mother turn to her from across the table and her heart leaped with anxiety. Please, no. Don’t say it.

“Would you like some more of my brussels sprouts and tripe casserole?” Madeline said, offering her the Pyrex dish with a cheery smile.

Catherine swallowed, and fought to conceal her panic. “Oh, yes please,” she said brightly as she reached for the conglomeration of oily green lumps and pale rubber and placed it before her. As she spooned some of the abomination onto her plate, next to the creamed pearl onions, she glanced around the room for her boyfriend, who had excused himself to visit the bathroom twenty minutes ago. Where is Richard? I can’t take much more of this!

Quotation marks are all about accuracy of content, but they also allow for idea-floating, sarcasm, and blame-shifting – three valuable bonus services, wouldn’t you agree?

“Idea-floating” comes in the form of quoting specific terminology or words that have been newly coined by the speaker. There may be other synonyms for these words, but the author proposes that the ones quoted should be used in the given context.

  • Inmates without a GED are required to demonstrate “good faith effort” in school before they will be considered for early release.
  • Please reheat the remaining ravioli, then “re-contain” the remnants and return them to the refrigerator.

Sarcasm quotes are the (sometimes literal) “air quotes” we put around words and ideas that we are using ironically. This also includes euphemisms we employ for humorous or stylistic emphasis.

  • After my students “work” on an assignment for 5 minutes, some of them suddenly “need” to “rest their eyes” for the rest of class.
  • The sale of pets is prohibited on social media, so some people give pets away for free and charge a “re-homing fee” instead.
  • When he saw the horned barbarian with us, the innkeeper suddenly “remembered” that he had no vacancies; however, after Azgarnach and Bruenar had a private “conversation” with him, he miraculously found us lodgings.

Blame shifting is closely related to sarcasm, and occurs when we quote the verbiage of others in a manner that allows us to claim, “He said it, not me.”  These quotation marks serve much the same purpose as writing “(sic)”, after obvious grammar and spelling errors in a quoted text – they signal to readers that the content was flawed in its original source.

I do not know why Mr. Roderick of Haverfordshire declined to attend the ball, Miss Whimple; he merely informed me of a “preferable prior dance engagement with a troll.”

The placement of punctuation relative to quotation marks follows logic. Statements end with periods, question marks are part of their questions, and an exclamation point is “how the quote was said”; in all such cases, the end punctuation goes inside the quotation marks.  In the question, Do you agree with the saying, “All’s fair in love and war”?, the quoted phrase is a statement, not a question, so the question mark goes outside the quoted content.

A good rule of thumb is to remember: “Punctuation before quotation.” End marks precede their closing quotation marks, and introductions to quotations are preceded by commas: Alberta asked, “Will you still be my friend?”

In the event a quote occurs within a quote, single marks enclose the quoted quote within the main double-marks. In the following example, Joanna’s question requests a clarification of the quoted exclamation: Joanna asked, “Did Jill really yell at Jack, ‘I will never marry you!’?”

Ellipses mean: “Just so you know, some stuff got skipped”, or “Hang on a second … I’m thinking.”

Sometimes, only parts of things really have to be quoted. The important and relevant bits need to be included, but what do we do with the extra blather?

When we write contractions in sentences like Don’t do it, or Where’d my spicy SPAM sandwich run off to?, we use apostrophes to show where the letters were omitted and words combined. In sentences and paragraphs, ellipses act like “sentence apostrophes”.  Readers can see that words from the original text were left out in the shortened quotation:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth … a new nation, … dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” – Abraham Lincoln

This allows content to be shortened, but it can also be taken to an extreme:

“I pledge allegiance … to the republic … one nation … with … justice for all.”

The resulting shorter versions must not misrepresent the meaning of the original text:

“I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me … death.”  – Patrick Henry

We also use a 4th dot (….) when at least one period is passed over in the skipped stuff:

“Hello…. Prepare to die.” – Inigo Montoya

The final use of ellipses we’ll address is the pause for thought or dramatic effect. It takes a moment to collect ourselves sometimes, and hopefully we usually think before we speak, so textually we need a way to show that delay. When such a time of reflection (or dramatic pause) is required, the sound of such silence is shown by a series of three periods.

  • “Should I save this last piece of bacon-topped apple pie for Alfred? …Nah, I don’t think so.”
  • …And the award for “Best Pandemic Beard” goes to … Joey Huffelmeister!
  • The large man massaged the knuckles of each fist in turn as he towered over Phillip. He smiled grimly. “The consequences of your unwillingness to comply with Mr. Fisk’s ‘request’ ”, he rumbled, “would be … unpleasant.”

The Hyphen and Dash

Hyphens join words together, while dashes split things apart. A lot of hyphenated combos are adjectives, such as gluten-free, solar-powered, and dragon-ravaged. When the adjective precedes the noun, it gets hyphenated, but it doesn’t when it comes afterward.

  • My out-of-town friends have never met my in-town friends. Somehow, when my out-of-town friends are in town, my in-town friends are out of town.
  • This new sound system is state of the art, but I sold my collection of 70’s top-40 records.

Some words mean different things when they are combined, so use a hyphen to avoid confusion.

  • I either need to re-pair my Bluetooth earbuds or have the store repair them.
  • “Ten-year-olds love ice cream.” versus “Ten year-olds had birthday parties this week.”
  • “Is this cave troll-free?” versus “Is this cave-troll free?
  • “Is this hotel pet-friendly? versus “Is this hotel-pet friendly?”

Dashes can signal a definition or clarification, kind of like a colon:

  • My life is one of endless wonder – mostly wondering what the heck is going on.

They are also used to show parenthetical expressions, breaks in thought, self-interruptions, and interruptions from others:

  • I had planned to bypass that shop, but the smell of doughnuts – it drew me in.
  • “I sense something; a presence I’ve not felt since —” (Darth Vader)
  • Two types of cheese – Muenster and Gruyere – make great grilled sandwiches.
  • The tree —which had been slowly dying for years — finally collapsed on the house.
  • “Listen you fool; I’m only trying to warn you about —”
    “ — I’m well aware of the ambush planned for us, but you underestimate our —”

“ — Stupidity? You can’t possibly survive against that many!”

Parentheses are for unnecessary incidentals.

Content added to sentences, inside parentheses, can be useful and clarifying, or incidental and unnecessary. But whatever material you place inside the parentheses, it has to be “skippable”. If you read your sentence without the parenthetical content, it should remain grammatically correct.

The sprawling compound and mansion was built in 1954 by Gael Garson (1912–2016), the mysterious tech baron and patron of science.

Jimi Heseldon (owner of Segway Inc.) died in 2010, after driving a Segway scooter off a cliff in England.  (True story.)

The funeral of American short story author, William Sydney Porter, better known by his pen name, O Henry (no connection to Nestle’s Oh Henry! chocolate bar, which was invented 10 years after Porter’s death), was ironically double-booked with a wedding, (which the author would likely have found hilarious), so mourners held an abbreviated service as the happy wedding guests audibly milled about outside the church.

If you use an acronym, or a name that has an established acronym, you can explain the “other name” within parentheses after using it the first time:

The League of Low Aptitude Millennial Acrobats (LLAMA) will be performing a benefit show this Thursday at the Municipal Auditorium in support of WACKY (the Western Association of Canadian Kyakers and Yodellers).

BONUS: The Interrobang and The Snark – unfortunate casualties of formal grammar.

Last of all, are two points of punctuation that we almost never see, because nobody uses them anymore. However, they perfectly illustrate the idea of “punctuation by sound” and of having marks that signal unspoken intent.

The interrobang is meant to indicate inquisitive surprise or shock, and was first proposed in 1962 as a question mark superimposed over an exclamation point and sharing its lower dot (‽). It hasn’t entirely disappeared from informal writing, and some word-processing fonts still include it, but in practice it is usually written as ?!, !?, !?!, or ?!?. In formal writing, double (or triple) punctuation is discouraged, so, when two punctuation marks “need” to appear at the same location, the stronger one typically wins and the lesser is dropped. A passionate statement would employ an exclamation point and the period would be overruled. If an incredulous question is asked, such as: “You’re shoveling snow at 40-below zero in the middle of a blizzard?”, using a simple question mark feels a little underwhelming. An interrobang would be a perfect way to punctuate by sound and show the eye what the ear should hear: “Are you out of your mind‽”

The snark is a means of signifying sarcasm or irony – of being “snarky” – in a way that is hard to miss. It involves adding a “period-tilde” combo (.~) to the ends of sentences that are intended to be humorous, sarcastic, or at least not taken literally. The downside is that sarcasm and passive-aggressive communication can be hurtful to their recipients, but the upside is that consistent use of the snark would help alleviate miscommunication and help people to see when they are being insulted.

  • That being said, how likely do you think it is that “snarky” folks would actually communicate their mockery so transparently, instead of concealing it beneath their typical false sincerity?.

The snark mark is literally the same kind of “winking” emoji we discussed in part 1 – it’s a single, lifted eyebrow; the same ironic reaction I wish I could pull off in real life. Although it was promoted as such, it never caught on. Perhaps as Truthspeakers, intent upon lifting and promoting goodness, it’s just as well that writers do not have frequent access to a tool designed to encourage “snark”.

Conclusion: “Making the Eyes See What The Ear Hears” Is Not Enough.

As I finish this two-parter, I feel it’s necessary to point out that my advice and suggestions are meant to illustrate that punctuation doesn’t have to be a bugaboo for writers (or prison adult education students, either). As I mentioned from the start, the oversimplifications I present to my tudents (and the possibly over-complex expansions I’ve given you) are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg

If all you need is a simplistic explanation of a few uses of the main points of punctuation, I hope this has been useful. If you need more in-depth examples and explanations, there is a plethora of punctuation pages available online and in the library reference section. Maybe these summaries will help demystify what you’ll encounter when you visit them.

Until next time,





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