One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand. –Quintilian, Roman rhetorician (c. 35 – c. 95)
Punctuation marks break up a block of writing, making it easier to understand. They can help to show the relationship between ideas.
The rules of punctuation addressed in this lesson are neither the most basic nor the most difficult. They have been selected for their frequency of use — and misuse.
Many people think that a run-on sentence is a very long sentence, one that runs on and on. Actually, a sentence could go on for pages and not be a run-on — or a sentence of just a few words could be a run-on. A run-on sentence is determined not by its length but by its construction. A run-on sentence is “two or more independent clauses without proper punctuation between them.” (An independent clause is “a group of words containing a subject and a verb, and expressing a complete thought.” It can stand alone as a complete sentence. If you have difficulty finding subjects and verbs in sentences, it would be worthwhile for you to review the following topics in your English handbook: sentences, complete; clauses, independent; clauses, dependent; subject; predicate; fragments [might be a subpoint under “sentences”]; and run-ons [might be a subpoint under “sentences”]. If you cannot identify subjects and verbs, you will simply be guessing at independent clauses — and at their punctuation.)
There are three ways to correctly punctuate independent clauses. (Therefore, if your independent clauses are not punctuated in one of these ways, you have a run-on sentence.)
1. Make two sentences by ending one clause with appropriate end punctuation (period, question mark, or exclamation point) and starting the next with a capital letter.
2. Separate the two clauses with a semicolon, starting the second clause with a lowercase letter. (The semicolon should always be used to separate equal elements. It is often used erroneously, such as after a dependent clause.)
3. Separate the two clauses with a comma plus a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet). Notice that then, a frequent culprit in run-on sentences, is not on this list.
A sentence punctuated using method 2 or 3 is called a “compound sentence.” The following equation will help you remember these punctuation rules:
; = , + and
A semicolon is stronger punctuation than a comma. A comma requires the help of a coordinating conjunction to do what a semicolon can do alone. While the semicolon should not be overused, it can be very effective in joining closely related clauses. Noticing how the semicolon is used in the explanatory material in these lessons can help you understand how to use it in your own writing.
These examples show punctuation of independent clauses:
The incumbent favors increased spending for education, her opponent would rather spend the money on highways. [run-on]
1. The incumbent favors increased spending for education. Her opponent would rather spend the money on highways.
2. The incumbent favors increased spending for education; her opponent would rather spend the money on highways.
3. The incumbent favors increased spending for education, but her opponent would rather spend the money on highways.
Each of the three methods of punctuation works well in that instance. The third method has the advantage of using but to point out the contrast between the ideas. Notice, though, that in each example the two ideas are given equal weight. This is always the case in compound sentences because they contain independent clauses.
Special Note on Importance of Ideas
Often your writing will be more effective if you emphasize one idea over another. Notice the difference in emphasis between these sentences:
Although the incumbent favors increased spending for education, her opponent would rather spend the money on highways.
Although her opponent would rather spend the money on highways, the incumbent favors increased spending for education.
Instead of a compound sentence with two independent clauses, we now have a complex sentence with a dependent clause followed by an independent clause. Since the independent clause is the strongest part of a sentence grammatically, a sentence will be most effective when the independent clause also contains the most important idea.
Using However and Therefore
The incumbent favors increased spending for education, however, her opponent would rather spend the money on highways.
What is your educated opinion on the preceding sentence? Is it correct or a run-on? (Does it contain more than one independent clause? If so, are they connected in one of the three acceptable ways?)
If you recognized the sentence as a run-on, you are doing a good job of applying the information in this lesson. However and therefore are very useful for showing the relationship between ideas. However, they are not conjunctions; the two independent clauses must be punctuated according to one of the three rules studied previously. However is simply set off with commas:
The incumbent favors increased spending for education. However, her opponent would rather spend the money on highways.
The incumbent favors increased spending for education; however, her opponent would rather spend the money on highways.
The incumbent favors increased spending for education. Her opponent, however, would rather spend the money on highways.
The word therefore is punctuated in exactly the same way.
Using Other Marks with Quotation Marks — Inside or Outside?
If a question mark or exclamation point is part of the quoted matter, it goes inside closing quotation marks:
“Who Has Seen the Wind?” was written by Christina Rossetti.
If quoted matter is part of a question or exclamation, the question mark or exclamation point goes outside the closing quotation mark:
Did you memorize “Paul Revere’s Ride”?
This is very logical. (This is also the end of the logic regarding these marks.)
Question marks, exclamation points, periods, and commas are seldom used right next to each other. A period would be sacrificed in favor of a question mark or exclamation point; a comma would be omitted unless it was needed for clarity. When a quoted question occurs at the end of an exclamation, retain the mark you consider stronger (sometimes this is simply a matter of opinion):
Did you memorize “Who Has Seen the Wind?”
Did you hear someone yell, “Fire!”
Semicolons and colons always go outside closing quotation marks. You have seen examples of this in the text of these lessons.
And now the frequent error that is the main reason for including this section: Commas and periods should always be tucked inside closing quotation marks. Whether they are part of the quoted matter is irrelevant. In popular writing you will probably see this wrong at least as often as you see it right. Do not let the uninformed masses sway you, however. (The British system of punctuation differs from the American system on this point. The British apply to periods and commas the logical guidelines that we apply to question marks and exclamation points.)
Using a Colon to Introduce a List
The colon can provide an effective introduction to a word, phrase, or clause that follows it. You might think of the colon as a trumpeting herald saying, “And here it is!” Even so, some introductions are appropriately followed by a colon; others are not. A colon should always be preceded by an independent clause (something that could be a sentence by itself):
Four U.S. Presidents are depicted on Mount Rushmore: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. [Notice the independent clause preceding the colon.]
The four U.S. Presidents depicted on Mount Rushmore are George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. [No colon is used after are because the sentence to that point is not complete.]
Material that follows a colon begins with a lowercase letter unless there is another reason for capitalizing it (as in the example above):
I need these supplies for school: pencils, pens, and paper.
This principle is known as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. [The D is capitalized because it begins an independent clause.]
Parentheses signal the reader that you are taking a detour from your main path. (Furthermore, the reader knows that a closing parenthesis will mark the end of the detour.) Be careful not to overuse parentheses. They distract and interrupt your reader. Often the parenthetical information can be either eliminated or incorporated into the main part of your sentence. Also be sure your sentence would be intact (with its same basic meaning) if the material in parentheses were removed.
Faulty: You are an even better (more versatile player) than I realized.
Correct: You are an even better (more versatile) player than I realized.
Parentheses should always be used in pairs — even if you are just enclosing the number or letter of items in a list. Material within parentheses begins with a lowercase letter unless there is another reason to capitalize it.
If you insert parenthetical material where you would use a comma or another punctuation mark, punctuation goes after the closing parenthesis:
When you go through customs (a necessity when entering most countries), your luggage might be inspected.
You would use punctuation before an opening parenthesis only if the material in parentheses clearly limits the words that follow. This occurrence is quite rare.
Using Restrictive and Non-Restrictive Modifiers
As its name suggests, a restrictive modifier (which could be a phrase or a clause) is necessary to limit meaning. A non-restrictive modifier contains extra, rather than necessary, information. It can be omitted from the sentence without changing the sentence’s basic meaning:
Meat that has been unrefrigerated for several days is unsafe to eat. [The restrictive clause here is that has been unrefrigerated for several days. It interrupts the independent clause Meat is unsafe to eat. The restrictive clause is necessary to limit the meat that is indicated. When that clause is omitted, the meaning of the sentence changes considerably. Notice, too, that restrictive clauses are introduced by that (rather than which) and are not set off by commas.]
Freedom of Speech, which is guaranteed in the U.S. Bill of Rights, is interpreted in different ways by different people. [The dependent clause which is guaranteed in the U.S. Bill of Rights is non-restrictive. Instead of being necessary to limit the meaning of Freedom of Speech, it is providing extra information. When the non-restrictive clause is omitted, the basic meaning of the sentence remains unchanged; we just don’t have quite as much information. Notice that non-restrictive clauses are set off by commas and are introduced by which (as opposed to that).]
Being familiar with the rules of punctuation will enable you to edit your writing more quickly and more confidently. Correct punctuation will make your message easier to understand and will create a favorable impression.
Next Week: Editing III: Conciseness
Assignment (Refer to your handbook as needed.)
A. Study the sections of your handbook that have to do with punctuation and sentences. Be sure you understand the concepts presented in this lesson and other concepts as well.
B. Edit your composition for the following, focusing on one at a time:
1. Correct punctuation of independent clauses (including commas in compound sentences)
2. Most important information in independent clauses
3. Correct punctuation of however and therefore
4. Correct placement of other marks with quotation marks — especially periods and commas tucked inside
5. Appropriate introduction of a list (with or without a colon)
6. Appropriate use of parentheses
7. Non-restrictive modifiers set off by commas and introduced by which
8. Restrictive modifiers not set off by commas and introduced by that
C. If you are not familiar with these topics, study them in your handbook and/or discuss them with someone knowledgeable about them:
1. Using commas to set off appositives
2. Using commas to set off interrupters
3. Using a comma after an opening dependent clause — but not before a dependent clause that follows an independent clause
D. If there are areas of your composition about which you are uncertain, discuss them with your conferring partner or someone else who is knowledgeable in this area.