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Punctuation ... made simple!

The fiddling little details we're looking at on this post are all about English punctuation. German, French, Spanish — every language has its own rules. Correct punctuation in English is a lot easier than the systems of grammar and punctuation used by some other languages, so you're already in luck, being a 'native' speaker.

(Incidentally, if you're speaking English as a second language, this page will be very helpful to you. We're about to demystify the whole subject of English punctuation, and this information is just as useful when you're trying to work out what in the world these weird English-speakers are talking about now! Stay with us.)

Let's make a start. Have a look at the nightmare, above left! That's original Latin. Punctuation? You're on your own! Which is one reason ancient literature isn't "available" to the general public until it's been fully translated ... meaning, "hammered into sensible English -- and punctuated!

Take another look at this:

It's not just the spaces between the words which were removed, to simulate Ancient Greek. You'll notice we took out a whole lot more. In fact, we took out everything that makes language sensible to today's readers:

    Capital letters
    Periods (full stops)
    Commas (,)
    Parentheses (brackets, like the ones around this!)
    The ellipsis (...)
    The full colon ( : )

Each of these is called a punctuation mark, also known as a punctuation point, or a punctuation symbol. Each mark performs a specific job, and there are others, too, used so commonly in English that the written language won't 'go' without them. Here are some more:

    Question marks (?)
    Exclamation marks (!)
    Emrules (—)
    Apostrophe ( ')
    Quotation marks (' ' and " ")
    Semi-colons (;)
    Hyphens (-)

You're certainly familiar with them. You use them every day in emails, to wink at people, look shocked, and so on...

:-) ;-( :-o :-P

The 'emoticon' symbols were actually pressganged by the smiley-face people, to convey facial expressions, but their real job ... the function for which they were invented, long ago ... was to break up written language. To make it easier to read.

Correct punctuation revolves around putting these marks in the right places in your written work, so let's start with a close-up look at what each mark does.

Looks like this: [ . ]
It has two basic jobs...

Brings a sentence to a complete, dead STOP, like this[.]

Correct punctuation is important. Somebody stole the telescope. Nobody cared about the old tree. Albert was eaten by a lion. The lion later threw up. Cats tend to throw up on carpets. Astronauts try not to throw up in their helmets. This example is getting gross.

Shows where a contraction has taken place. Like this

Mr. = mister
Mrs. = missus
Fr. = Father
Dr. = Doctor
St. = Street and Saint
Cr. = Crescent
Crt. = Court
Mt. = Mount
Sr. = Senior
Jr. = Junior
Col. = Colonel.
1st. = first
2nd. = second
hrs. = hours
kms. = kilometers

Looks like this: [ A,B,C ]
Its job -- come on guys, you know your alphabet!

Shows where a new sentence STARTS. Shows what is the NAME of a person, like John or Sally, or the name of a place, like London and New York. (There are other uses, but this is Basic Punctuation. Ground rules first; get fancy later.)

Looks like this: [ , ]
It's job...

Breaks up sentences into 'bite size chunks,' to make them easier to understand. (How and why sentences are broken up into those chunks is all about grammar. We'll look at that elsewhere.) For now ... this is what commas do! Like this:

Correct punctuation, if anyone is interested, isn't hard to learn.

Half a mile from home, the car broke down.

The shop had run out of purple paint, but said they could reorder.

Two lads from Bendigo, fighting in the carpark, were subsequently arrested.

The dogs and cats fought, fang and claw, till they were broken up.

The tree was old, massive, beautiful, and I wished they hadn't cut it down.

Aunt Marie said she was German, or was it Austrian? I forget.

The American Flag, known in that country as 'Old Glory,' is covered in stripes. Also stars.

Meanwhile, the Chinese flag is so red, it looks a lot like a fire engine.

Speaking of which, has anyone checked the price of plane tickets lately?

Correct punctuation, like a gift from Hermes, makes literature readable!

Commas are used in geographical locations, like this:

London, England. Paris, France. Sydney, Australia. Florence, Italy. Mos Eisley, Tatooine. Hobbiton, The Shire.

Looks like this: [ ? ]
It's job...

Shows the end of a question, either spoken or narrative; shows exactly where the voice pitches up at the very end of the wording of a question. Like this:

Why can't Butch have a romp off the leash?

Is there doctor in the house?

Where will I find the old maple syrup in the duct-taped bottle?

Anyone know where Hugh Jackman was born?

Isn't he an Aussie — or is he a Kiwi?

Have you seen the new show on TV?

Did anyone bother to read my blog yesterday?

Hey, am I bleeding?

Good grief, am I missing Doctor Who, is it on already?

Does anyone understand a word I'm saying?

Can somebody show me the correct punctuation for this?

Softly, softly, came the night, but where was the highwayman?

John looked into the shed. Was the light switch broken? No, the power was out.

The tide had raged five miles upriver. Had the sandbags held? Rachel could only hope.

Summer almost always brought bushfires. Would this year be different?

Correct punctuation is necessary. Will anyone trouble to learn it?

Looks like this: [ ' ]
It has two basic jobs...

Shows possession, or how something is owned. A thing can be owned by one person, or by two or more people, and (makes you shudder, but sink your teeth into this) the "apostrophe of possession" changes position to indicate whether that possession is singular or plural!

It works like this:
SINGULAR: John's dog. Sally's chapeaux. Mom's taxi. Bobby's worst habit. Heaven's waiting room. The burger's grease. My yarn store's manager. Dad's pet peeve. Jim's famous foibles. Frank's worst disaster. America's oil crisis. His master's voice. Her mother's anger. Our grandfather's will. Suzie's correct punctuation stunned us all.

PLURAL: The kids' bags. The actors' voices. The pilots' aircraft. The tourists' worst fears. Our gymnasts' Olympic dreams. Their parents' employment. The musicians' last gig. Our cats' gardens. Their dogs' exercise. The trees' branches. The boys' correct punctuation was greatly appreciated.

Shows where a contraction occurs. In English, we frequently mash words together to make shorter (more speakable) versions of them. These 'contractions' are indicated by an apostrophe, which shows up where letters have been removed. Like this:

Is not = isn't.
Are not = aren't.
Do not = don't
Can not = can't.
Could not = couldn't.
Had not = hadn't.
Should not = shouldn't.
Shall not = shan't.
Was not = wasn't.
Were not = weren't.
Have not = haven't.
Might not =mightn't
I am = I'm.
You are = you're.
He/she is = he's/she's
I will be = I'll be
You will be = you'll be.
We are = we're.
They are = they're.
We will be = we'll be.
They will = they'll.
These will = these'll.
He is = he's.
She is = she's.
You would = you'd
I would = I'd
She/he would = she'd/he'd
We would = we'd
There is = there's.
There is not = there isn't.
There are = there're.
There will be = there'll be.
There are not = there aren't.
This will = this'll.
This will not= this won't.

Looks like this: [ US = "/", UK = '/' ]
It's job...

Shows the beginning and end of dialog. The marks enclose only the actual words. Notice how a comma appears at the end of speech, inside the second speech mark — unless the whole sentence ends along the the dialog! If both the sentence and the dialog end together, you'd use a full stop. Like this:

"I can't do that," Bobby grumbled.

"Now," said the guard, "bring me my sword."

The barbarian demanded shrewdly, "Where lies the castle?"

The old man coughed and said, "To whom does this garbage belong?"

"Can I help you, madam?" the waiter asked with feigned politeness.

The assistant blanched, croaked, "Help!" And promptly fainted.

"Correct punctuation," said Miss Prim, "will score you three extra points!"

"If I could do that," he said hotly, "I wouldn't be here in the first place."

Looks like this: [ ! ]
It's job...

Shows where an exclamation has been made. Like this:

"Get the hell out of my dadblasted cabbage patch!"

"The blasted rabbit just ate all my carrots!

"Holey moley!"

Smash! The glass shattered out of the window.

"Whew! I thought you people were done for!"

"A plane just crashed! Can you hear me? The engines exploded!"

With a massive thuddd! the warehouse doors rolled down and locked.

Jim was dying! What was I going to do?

He cared nothing at all about correct punctuation! I was appalled.

"Correct punctuation, ya varmint? I hate all kinds of punctuation!" Yosemite Sam was steaming mad.

PARENTHESIS (brackets)
Looks like this: [ ( / ) ]
Their job...

In creative writing, is used to insert a related idea into an existing sentence. Can also be used in formatting documents, to separate indicators, such as numbers, out from the text. Use them like this:

(1) Under no circumstances whatsoever will there be tarryhooting in the hallways. (2) There will be absolutely no yelling on the stairs unless, or until, (3) a fire has broken out, and it had better be a big one!

a) The restoration of the Grand Hall
b) Studies regarding the foundations
c) Concrete quotes from local companies
ci) other concrete quotes
cii) alternatives to concrete
ciii) consequences of using alternatives

And while I'm on the subject of correct punctuation (which should be high on any writer's agenda), let me just add one more point.

Sonny was a daughter of the Earth (also of Rosie and Bob, but everyone knew that), and she wanted to do something about the environment.

Zipping down the freeway much too fast (Jack would obviously have disagreed), the driver missed the last, long curve and plowed into the hay field.

The 747 is a monument to modern engineering (even if it has played a terrible part in the destruction of the atmosphere), and will be honored with a museum.

The year before Rick was born, Martin (so his mother always swore), spent one long, hot summer in the village ... make of it what you will!

The ocean broke higher up the beach every year, and even within Judy's lifespan (and that of her mother, which had been recorded in so many journals), the changes in the shoreline were obvious.

Save for the efforts of the local Community Action group (we'll be getting to them later, with a special award), the whole area would have been devastated.

Just before Christmas, when the nights are longest and coldest (for some reason, my favorite time of the year! I love winter), my family gets together at the old house in Maine.

Correct punctuation (said Miss Prim with a look on her face that made you want to feed her the inkwell), was the most important thing she knew. We all decided she needed to get out more.

Looks like this: [ ... ]
Its job...

Used to show where text is missing; also used to indicate where a speaker has paused, or hesitated. Can also be used to do the job of parentheses (brackets). Like this:

Mr. Carmody stated that unless the changes in the legislation were ... comprehensive and prompt, further action would be undertaken.

The river has been in gradual decline since the ... drought of the 1970s.

Most schools report an increase in the unruly behavior of ... students in general.

"I don't know," she said slowly, thinking over every word, "but I'd have to guess ... maybe seventeen at the most."

He gazed at the distant, blue line of the hills. "They remind me of home, and sometimes I ... I get a little sad." "Your house feels like home. Or ... like my home used to be," he admitted. She spoke through a rush of tears. "He was my friend for eight years, and ... okay, he was a dog, but don't you dare say only a dog!" Mary and Jean were in the backyard ... the far backyard, where the willows overhung the river ... and he heard the distant murmur of their voices.

The radio was playing quietly ... songs of another era, another people, her own folk ... but she was no longer listening.

She called herself Delilah ... perhaps like the traitorous wife in that only song, sung by Tom Jones? ... yet one felt the goodness inside her.

One misses the simple things in life ... like correct punctuation.

Looks like this: [ ; ]
Its job...

Breaks up items in a list — replaces the words 'and' and 'but' (which are called conjunctions because they link together various ideas). The 'lists' of things that can be separated out by the semi-colon can also include ideas, the narrator's thoughts, and parts of the sentence. Like this:

He was from Austria, in the mountain country; I never knew him before he arrived in San Francisco.

Five gold rings; four mocking birds; three French hens; two turtle doves, but unfortunately the partridges were out of stock at the Christmas tree store, and won't be available till the January truck arrives.

The launch of the first starship of Earth was greeted with mixed reactions; for myself, I was thrilled — my brother scorned it.

Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World; it's also true that Portuguese money was integral to the voyage.

Shadows and highlights; confused illumination from the overheads; muted, stormy daylight from the filthy windows, all gave her little chance to see the wolf properly before he showed himself.

Roger could hardly believe it; sheer incredulity stopped him in his tracks.

Correct punctuation had vanished from literature; it was sorely missed.

Looks like this: [ : ]
Its job...

Most often used in formatting to indicate the time, also to separate out 'bullet points' in numbered and categorized lists. In creative writing, is used for emphasis, indicating that a summary, or conclusion, or emphatic statement follows right after it. Like this:

Part Two: The Creek and Cherokee Peoples

14d: Rights and responsibilities of elected members.

I don't know much about the situation, but I can tell you this: Susan is a certified, card-carrying idiot.

Like a meteor, the spaceplane plunged into the atmosphere, streaming coolant from smashed engines: she was done for, long before the inevitable impact.

The fear of rats had haunted him since childhood, and he had always known he must face it: confront it, once and for all, and defeat it.

Religion has been called the 'opiate of the masses,' and here is the problem: they were doped out of their wits on it when they turned on Europe's women and burned thousands of them as witches.

He was a freak of nature: no other human in the world could run so fast.

The bottom line is this: if you don't get the hang of correct punctuation, it will be very difficult to find a professional publisher to take you on.

EMRULE (long dash, or double-dash)
Looks like this: [ — or -- ]
Its job...

Joins ideas that are directly related; is used to insert a related idea into an existing sentence instead of using parentheses (brackets, which can be intrusive). Can also indicate where text or dialog is missing, especially at the end of a line of dialog that has been cut off. Like this:

She ran out of the mill as if the devil himself were behind her — and for all she knew, he might have been.

The two boys had just stepped off the train — dressed in their Sunday best and looking faintly ridiculous among the sheep shearers.

Her name was Mavis — God, what a name!

My favorite day was always Sunday — it was the only day we got to sleep in.

Johnny was half-Mexican — his mother, so people said, had made her way north from a tiny town in Tijuana.

North of the Orkney Islands — where the North Sea is wide and wild — a small boat can be sunk without trace.

Marianna had never liked Richard — he was too loud and obnoxious — but she loved his brother at first sight.

Coming around the corner — where the old church hunched like a troll cast in granite — the wolf stopped to scent the air.

"Wait for me," he panted, "I can't —"

"Phonecall for you," Alan shouted, "It sounds like —"

Thunder rolled down the valley for long minutes, and then — rain, as I had never seen rain before.

"Correct punctuation — ha! You might as well say 'fly to the Moon.' He's not paying attention."

HYPHEN (short dash)
Looks like this: [ - ]
Its job...

Glues words together to make 'superwords' ... splits them apart at the ends of lines to make them appear more attractive in a typeset. (There are more uses, which we'll look at elsewhere. For now, the basics will suffice.) Like this:

heavily-bearded guy
well-tempered trumpet
painted-on tattoos
text-based websites
character-driven plots
pug-nosed charm
nasty-minded people
fan-damn-tastic! (slang)
un-damn-believable (slang)
heavy-handed justice

1 comment:

  1. Careful--you refer to the question mark and "it's job" in an article on correct punctuation.


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