Grammar: Punctuation 101

Without correct punctuation, meaning can be lost.

February 5, 2010 17:30
4 minute read.
The Jerusalem Post

harrison ford 311. (photo credit: Bloomberg)

If style is the man, then punctuation is the traffic signal that alerts the reader to the right ideas flowing in the correct direction. Punctuation marks tell you when to slow down, when to stop, when to pause and even when to ask a question. Like traffic signs, they can warn you of what lies ahead. Without correct punctuation, meaning can be lost.

Try making sense of this: “Who do you think you are Minnie Mouse Harrison Ford asked Minnie Driver.” It doesn’t make sense, does it? Let’s try this instead: “Who do you think you are – Minnie Mouse?” Harrison Ford asked Minnie Driver.

Here are the principal punctuation marks you should be able to use wisely:

Sentence marks
Used principally to mark the end of a sentence
1 – Period (.) Found at the end of the sentence and after abbreviations, in decimals, dollars and cents and marking divisions in literary references and electronic addresses.
2 – Question mark (?) Comes at the end of an interrogation. A direct question (Are you warm?) always ends in a question mark. An indirect question (I wondered if you are warm) does not receive the question mark.
3 – Exclamation mark or exclamation point (!) This comes at the end of an exclamation (Oh!) or a vigorously stressed sentence (And I mean it!).
4 – Long Dash (–) Comes after a statement that is interrupted (And I said to her – oh, hello, Jane, how are you?).
5 – Ellipsis (...) After a statement that is left uncompleted, or a speech that is allowed to die away. (Old soldiers never die, they just...)

Internal marks
Used to separate or indicate the relations between elements within a sentence
1 – Comma (,) The most common mark, basically a mark of slight separation between words, phrases or clauses.
2 – Semicolon (;) Indicates a degree of separation greater than marked by a comma and slightly less than a period.
3 – Colon (:) A mark of anticipation, pointing to what follows. It is used after the salutation of a business letter and to introduce formal quotations, explanatory statements or series too long or too heavy to be prefaced by commas.
4 – Dash (–) A mark of separation more intense than a comma. It is used when the construction of a sentence is abruptly broken and when a note of surprise or feeling is indicated. Two dashes (– –) may set off a parenthetical expression.
5 – Parentheses ( ) Sometimes called curves, used to enclose an explanatory statement not built into the construction of a sentence.
6 – Brackets [ ] These are used to enclose matter that has been inserted in quotations and as parentheses within parentheses.
7 – Quotation marks  (“”) Used to enclose speeches in real or imagined conversation and any short quoted words or statements.

You are in charge of your own writing and it is your decision how you punctuate your writing endeavors. I try to stick to the rules as closely as possible, but sometimes I tear off in my own direction, especially when it comes to using dashes, commas and semicolons. Remember, you are the judge of what you want your writing to look like. You are the one who envisions the reception your words will receive and don’t let anyone take that power away from you.

I’m not saying you should be the romantic sophomore female who uses exclamation marks to excess. (She’s the one who draws hearts over her “I”s also. Ugh.) Also I’m not saying you should emulate e e cummings (that’s right – no periods) who hated any punctuation at all in his writings. He’s the only one I know who could get away with such roguish behavior.

When you talk, your voice, with its pauses, stresses, rises and falls, shows how you intend your words to fit together. Read your writing aloud and intonations scream at you how to punctuate the sentence. If you are stuck in a writing assignment, stop and read what you have written aloud. Quickly you can determine if the sentences fit together, if your punctuation is appropriate, and if the whole thing makes beautiful sense. Fall in love with your writing: I dare you. You can do it!

The writer is an author, teacher and body language expert.

Thank you for your letters, dear readers, and I’m pleased you are sending questions and requests. I need to remind you that I use Standard American English as my guide. Sometimes you may not agree with my lessons, but I try to teach as I was taught. Fowler, Perrin, Kirszner & Mandell, Elliott, Bernstein and even the Oxford Dictionaries Team are some of the noted sources I lean on for help. I’m sure you have favorite experts who help guide you also. Perrin was my graduate text and I think of him as my scholarly professor. Please keep the comments coming!

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