Punctuation Dragons

Raphael - Saint George and the DragonThose wee things called punctuation are probably the most important things in writing; they are the proverbial insects of the writing world, for without them the entire system would disintegrate.  At the same time, they can sometimes be as daunting as fighting a dragon.

So without further ado, below is a brief breakdown of the most familiarly-confusing punctuation marks.  There may be a few discrepancies between various dialects / regional rules, but these are the basic rules – if you have these firmly in hand and use them consistently, you’ll recognize those rules that differ to what you learned in school; just apply whichever rules you use with consistency.  Feel free to copy / paste the post and print it out to keep handy (with that goal in mind, I’ll keep it comment-free)!

 Commas:

Where possible, leave out.  Where confusing, put in.

  • Separate elements in a series.
  • , + small conjunction (i.e. and, but, or):  If in doubt, use it here.
  • To set off introductory elements.  The comma can be omitted for short elements unless it makes the meaning unclear or confusing.
  • To set off parenthetical elements (added information that, if removed, does not affect the meaning of the sentence).
  • To separate coordinate adjectives (e.g. tall, distinguished woman)
  • To set off quoted elements:  , “(quote/dialogue).”  OR  , “(quote/dialogue),” (prose).
  • To set off contrasting expressions.
  • To avoid confusion.
  • Never use only one comma between a subject and its verb! (Only one would constitute a splice – see below)
  • Typographical reasons (i.e. dates, numbers, location references, etc.)

Comma Splice:  When a comma is misplaced between two independent clauses or randomly in the middle of a sentence, or between the subject and its verb.

Semi-Colon:

  • Use to join two independent clauses (e.g. “My wife would like tea; I would prefer coffee.”)
  • Use to separate items in a list that includes other punctuation (e.g. “The people present were Jamie, who came from New Zealand; John, the milkman’s son; and George, a gaunt kind of man.”)

 Apostrophe:

  • To express the possessive (e.g. Jane’s book)
  • To signify contractions (e.g. It’s cold outside.)
  • Some proper names use an apostrophe (e.g. O’Donnell, O’Malley)
  • Apostrophes are NEVER to be used to form a plural.  Never.  It’s CDs, not CD’s; DVDs, not DVD’s; the 1980s, not the 1980’s; 100s, not 100’s.  This may be a controversial “never” as they are common mistakes – so common that some writers perceive them as correct (just because some people use them does not make them correct usage… jumping off a cliff and all that).  The only exception to this “never” is when there may be the possibility of misreading.

 Hyphen (-) vs. en-dash (–) vs. em-dash (—)

Hyphen:

  • To join two words into a single meaning (e.g. decision-maker), or linked as an adjective before a noun (e.g. decision-making process).

En-dash: (Key: Ctrl + number – / Alt+0150)

  • To join two words that are separate but related, for example as a substitute for and or to.

Em-dash:  (Key:  AltGr + number – / Alt+0151)

  • Used to form parenthetical phrases.  These are used, for example, if there is the risk of confusion when other punctuation is used in the same sentence – for example commas.

The general rule of thumb in the UK seems to be as follows:  Use the en-dash within dialogues and prose, but end abrupt, interrupted dialogue with an em-dash.

There is a fourth dash called the Horizontal Bar.  It is usually used to set off quotation sources.  it is generally the same length as an em-dash, so this is often used instead. The main difference between the two is that some software may insert a line break after an em-dash but not after a quotation dash.

Parentheses / Brackets:

  • Order of usage:  (…[…{…}…]…).
  • Use to contain material that could be omitted without altering a sentence’s meaning, and where commas used elsewhere may lead to confusion if too many are used.  Any punctuation inside the brackets is independent from the main sentence.
  • […] Square brackets/crochets are used to mark omitted material from a quote of an original, more complete text.

Ellipsis:  … / . . . aka “Suspension Point”

  • Use for intentional omissions or an unfinished thought.
  • Use for unstated alternatives (implied by context).  E.g. “I’m on a… special diet.” (Edward Cullen, in Twilight)
  • Use for a slight pause.
  • Use for a nervous or awkward silence.
  • Use at the beginning or end of a sentence to inspire feelings of melancholy or longing.
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