Rules of Punctuation

It would be nice if punctuation could be reduced to a set of clear, simple directions: always use a comma here, a semicolon there, a dash in such-and-such a place. But it cannot. Much depends, as we have just seen, on what you want to do. In fact, punctuation is a mixed bag of absolute rules, general conventions, and individual options.

For example, a declarative sentence is closed by a period: that is an inflexible rule. On the other hand, placing a comma between coordinated independent clauses ("The sun had already set, and the air was growing chilly") is a convention and not a rule, and the convention is sometimes ignored, especially if the clauses are short and uncomplicated. And occasionally a comma or other mark is used unconventionally because a writer wants to establish an unusual stress or rhythm (like the commas in the sentences by Bishop and Fleming).

But while punctuation as actually practiced by good writers may seem a melange of rule, convention, and idiosyncrasy, it does not follow that anything goes. To punctuate effectively you must learn when rules are absolute; when conventions allow you options (and, of course, what the options are); and when you may indulge in individuality without misleading the reader. Moreover, you must keep the reader in mind. Younger, less experienced readers, for instance, need more help from punctuation than older, sophisticated ones.

In the discussions of the various punctuation marks that follow, we shall far as it is distinguish among rules, conventions, and unconventional but possible uses. At times the distinctions may seem a bit confusing. It is no good, however, making up easy rules about how to handle punctuation. Such directions may be clear, but they do not describe what really happens. Instead, we must look at what skillful writers actually do. To diminish some of the confusion, just remember that clarity of communication is the one simple "rule" underlying all effective punctuation.

Remember, too, that punctuation is not something you impose upon a sentence after you have written it out. Commas, semicolons, and the other marks are an intimate part of grammar and style. Often mistakes in punctuation do not simply mean that a writer broke an arbitrary rule; rather they signify his or her confusion about how to construct a sentence. To write well, you must punctuate well; but to punctuate well, you must also write well.

The Two Categories of Punctuation

It is convenient to divide punctuation into two broad categories: the stops and the other marks. Stops take their name from the fact that they correspond (though only loosely) to pauses and intonations in speech, vocal signals which help listeners follow what we say. Stops include the period, the question mark, the exclamation point, the colon, the semicolon, the comma, and the dash. We look at these

Then we look at the other marks. These more purely visual signals do not mark pauses (though on occasion some of them signal voice intonations). They include the apostrophe, the quotation mark, the hyphen, the parenthesis and bracket, the ellipsis, and diacritics (marks placed with a letter to indicate a special pronunciation). Along with these marks we consider capitalization and underlining (or use of italics), though, in a strict sense, these are not matters of punctuation.


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