MEMOS for Developmental Writers

Punctuation 2

19 June 2006

Punctuation: Basic Rules

End punctuation: periods, exclamation marks, question marks
Internal punctuation: semi-colons, commas, dashes, colons
Special punctuation: apostrophes, quotation marks


End punctuation

Periods: One Rule

Period Rule 1: Declarative sentences end with periods. LBH 27a
Some instructors and textbooks refer to periods, exclamation marks, and questions marks as terminal punctuation, but that's just Latinate English for the marks that go at the ends of different kinds of sentences. There are four basic kinds of sentences in English:

Sentences that make statements : declarative sentences : periods : . LBH 27a
Sentences that express surprise or strong emotions : exclamatory sentences : exclamation marks : ! LBH 27e-f
Sentences that ask questions : interrogative sentences : question marks : ? LBH 27c
Sentences that express commands : imperative sentences : periods : . LBH 27a
For this course, you just need to remember that we'll be writing, almost exclusively, declarative sentences. And declarative sentences end with periods. You won't be asking questions in your essays; you'll be answering questions. You won't be expressing surprise in your essays; you'll be sharing knowledge. You won't be commanding; you'll be analyzing. So use periods.

Internal punctuation

Semi-colons: Two Rules

Semi-colon Rule 1: Semi-colons link independent clauses not connected by a coordinating conjunction. LBH 29a
Good writers use semi-colons [;] to separate independent clauses that are closely related to one another. Here's an example:

The dog barked; the cat jumped.

Most readers, being familiar with stereotypical dogs and cats, quickly make a connection between the dog's barking and the cat's jumping and infer that the dog's bark caused the cat's jump.

Semi-colon Rule 2: Semi-colons link independent clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs, which are then followed by a comma. LBH 29b
To make the relationship between the dog's barking and the jumping explicit rather than implicit, many good writers place a conjunctive adverb that names the relationship after the semi-colon:

The dog barked; as a result, the cat jumped. [Note the comma after the conjunctive adverb.]

For more information on semi-colons, visit Professor Charles Darling's page about semi-colons.

Commas: Five Rules

Here are the five major comma rules that you'll be expected to follow this semester and the next and the next....Get the idea?

Comma Rule 1: Place commas after introductory elements in sentences: LBH 28b

First, successful college students spend more time studying outside class than listening in class. [introductory transition]

For example, Ernest Hemingway began his professional writing career as a Midwestern newspaper reporter. [introductory prepositional phrase]

When the cat's away, the mice will play. [introductory dependent clause]

Reading silently, the students in the library lost track of time. [introductory participial phrase]

Therefore, the Reds lost to the Cardinals. [introductory conjunctive adverb]

Many experienced writers, including some who are actually paid for their writing, don't always put a comma after a short opener. [Example: "When I first came to Memphis it was late summer, and the fields lying eastward from the river were green." - Samuel Hynes] In your academic writing, you will be expected to include that comma.

Comma Rule 2: Place commas after items in a series: LBH 28f

We watched silently as the red, white, and blue flag was carried down the street.

Good baseball players must be able to run, throw, and catch the baseball.

Eating, sleeping, and reading were her three favorite activities.

Most successful college students have three characteristic abilities that separate them from those who merely play at being students: they have the ability to motivate themselves, they have the ability to organize themselves, and they have the ability to set goals for themselves.

Comma Rule 3: Place a comma before a coordinating conjunction [remember the FANBOYS?] that connects two independent clauses: LBH 28a

Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them. - James Baldwin

He had been an ape once, but a hairdresser and a surgeon had fixed that. - Graham Greene

Comma Rule 4: Set off nonrestrictive (nonessential) and parenthetical elements with commas: LBH 28c

As a general rule, don't use parentheses in academic writing. Here's a list of non-restrictive and parenthetical elements and examples:

Appositives: Dr. Joseph Smith, Director of the Institute for Advanced Linguistics at Southwest Tennessee Community College, reported that thirty-two percent of students at the college didn't use commas to punctuate appositives.

Relative clauses: I left him to his thoughts, which were probably as small, ugly and frightened as the man himself. - Raymond Chandler [Note the missing comma after the series item ugly. Chandler got paid for his writing.]

Note that commas separate the nonessential elements from the essential elements.

If the nonessential element begins the sentence, a comma comes after it. [For example, Smith passed the test.]

If the nonessential element comes in the middle of the sentence, commas are placed on either side of it. [Smith, for example, passed the test.]

If the nonessential element ends the sentence, a comma comes before it and a period or other end punctuation after it. [Smith passed the test, for example.]

As a general rule, don't set off relative clauses beginning with that with commas because they are considered restrictive, essential elements.

As a general rule, relative clauses that begin with which are usually set off with commas, but only when they are nonrestrictive, nonessential elements.

We'll discuss the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive in class, but to get more information now, go to Prof. Darling's page on clauses.

Comma Rule 5: Set off quotations with commas: LBH 28h & LBH 31g

Here are two simple examples that cover probably ninety percent of all comma-quotation situations:

Professor Black said, "Use a comma after the attribution phrase that introduces a quotation." [comma outside and before quotation marks when quote follows attribution phrase]

"Use a comma after the quotation if the attribution phrase comes after the quotation," said Professor Black. [comma inside final quotation marks when quotation precedes attribution phrase.

There are many, many more rules about commas than the ones I've listed above. More information about commas is, of course, available in The Little, Brown Handbook.

Dashes: Two Rules

I have only recent begun to relax my rule prohibiting students from using dashes in their drafts. The reason for the prohibition is that many students become dependent upon using dashes and use them to the exclusion of commas, semi-colons, colons - even periods! As the previous dash example illustrates - I hope - the best use of the dash is for emphasis and clarity. Some examples:

Dash Rule 1: Use dashes to set off an appositive that contains commas: LBH 32b

"Living space for the four of us - my mother, my brother, my father, and me - was a kitchen and a bedroom." - Richard Wright, Black Boy

Dash Rule 2: Use dashes to set off interrupters that require emphasis: LBH 32b

"Her short-cut hair - it was nearly black - lay smooth and shiny as enamel on her round head." - Dashiell Hammett, The Glass Key

Colons: One Rule

Colons can be used to introduce many kinds of structures within sentences, can be used between hours and minutes and Biblical chapters and verses, and can even be used to connect independent clauses in certain kinds of sentences. We'll be concerned with only one type of colon usage:

Colon Rule 1: Use a colon to introduce a series that follows a complete statement, as in a three-part thesis statement: LBH 32a

College students who are not successful typically exhibit three self-defeating behaviors: chronic tardiness, chronic absenteeism, and chronic excuse-making about the two previous behaviors.

Special purpose punctuation

Apostrophes: Two Rules

The good news: Only two basic rules for apostrophes, and you already know them, don't you? The bad news: Lots of exceptions, only a few of which are covered on this page.

Apostrrophe Rule 1: Use an apostrophe to indicate omitted letters or numbers when you form contractions: LBH 30c

verbs plus not : are not = aren't is not = isn't and so on
pronouns and verbs : I am = I'm they will = they'll and so on
subject and verbs : Elvis has left the building = Elvis's left the building
in place of first two numerals of a year : '66 Mustang class of '05

Apostrophe Rule 2: Use an apostrophe to form the possessive case (to show ownership) of nouns and pronouns: LBH 30a

singular nouns : Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn
singular indefinite pronouns : everyone's friend

Some apostrophe exceptions:

plural nouns ending in -s or -es take only the apostrophe : the Jones' house
joint owners take the -'s only at the end of the last owner's name : Twain and Howell's novel The Gilded Age
personal possessive pronouns never take a final -'s : Its relevance is unclear (not It's relevance is unclear) Is that book yours (not Is that book your's?) That book is theirs (not That book is their's)

Quotation Marks: Two Rules

Quotation marks have many uses, but this semester we'll restrict our employment of them to enclosing direct quotations and enclosing certain kinds of titles.

Quotation Rule 1: Use quotation marks to set off direct quotations : LBH 31a

According to Wilson Mizner, "If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research." or "If you steal from one author, it's plagiarism; if you steal from many, it's research," according to Wilson Mizner.

Don't use quotation marks with indirect quotes:

Professor Rogers said that only one student finished on schedule.

The key word in this sentence is the word that. The relative pronoun that indicates that the exact words of the speaker or writer are not being used; therefore, the quote is indirect. If the quote were direct, as in the example sentence below, we'd use a comma and quotation marks in place of that:

Professor Rogers said, "Only one student finished on schedule."

Quotation Rule 2: Use quotation marks to set off the titles of magazine and journal articles, short stories, essays, short poems, book chapters, and specific episodes of television programs : LBH 31d

Montaigne's "Essay on Cannibals" Mark Twain's story "The Mysterious Stranger"

Use italics to set off the titles of longer pieces of writing, such as novels, textbooks, magazines or journals, television programs, movies, plays, epic poems, and more: LBH 34b

Moby Dick (the novel by Herman Melville), The Little, Brown Handbook (a textbook), Time (the magazine), The Simpsons (the television show by Matt Groenig), The Seven Samurai (the movie by Kurosawa), Hamlet (the play by Shakespeare), Paradise Lost (the epic poem by Milton).


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