Punctuation Check-up: The Doctor Will See You Now!

Oct 16, 2021 | Craft

Terminal Punctuation Disease

Fortunately, there’s help for terminal punctuation disease – it needn’t be fatal, after all. You won’t find it in an online pharmacy, but you don’t have to cross the border. Just sit back and pay attention.

Ending, or terminal, punctuation marks always go inside quotation marks. For example:

“John said he’d do that on Tuesday,” said Mary.

The quoted line of dialogue ends in a comma, since the sentence isn’t really finished until the period after Mary. The word said is not capitalized.

“Where are you going?” asked Jane.

Jane is asking a question; therefore, you can’t substitute a comma for the quesiton mark without losing meaning. You still don’t capitalize the word asked.

“I’m going to check up on him.” Mary grabbed her keys. “I want to be sure he’s done it.”

Here, the word Mary starts a new sentence. The periods in the quoted lines of dialogue go inside the quotation marks.

Like every other rule in English, there are exceptions:

Have you ever seen a “jackalope”?
I’ve never seen a “jackalope.”

In American English (because of fairly archaic typographical conventions), a period always goes inside all quotation marks. Cultural norms vary, so don’t be telling the Brits they’re wrong about this, just nod and go along with them. They think they invented the language. But a question mark that is not part of the phrase or sentence inside the quotation marks rightfully belongs on the outside, even if you’re a Yank.

Get Your Annual Semicolon Checkup Here!

I’m not sure why the poor semicolon gets such a bad rap, and is so underused, overused, and generally abused by writers. It’s simple, really.

First, we’ll look at different ways to join two independent clauses. Independent clauses are basically phrases that could stand alone as sentences in their own right, but are so closely joined in thought that they ought to be married, or at least shacking up. For example:

Mary loved her red shoes. They made her feet look dainty.

There is nothing at all wrong with leaving these individual sentences alone, except that one completes the other, and apart, they look choppy.

Next, you decide how you want to join them:

  • with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so);
  • with a semicolon by itself;
  • with a semicolon, a conjunctive adverb (however, therefore, nevertheless, finally), and a comma; or,
  • with a semicolon, a transitional phrase (as a result, in other words, for example, in fact), and a comma

Joining them with a comma, by itself, creates the dreaded comma splice.

“And what is so awful about that?” you ask.

A comma splice is awkward, because the reader gets halfway into the second sentence before it dawns on them that the first sentence is completed. A comma, alone, isn’t designed to signal the transition from one completed thought to the next.

So, you could write either of the following:

Mary loved her red shoes, and they made her feet look dainty.
Mary loved her red shoes; they made her feet look dainty.

There are other uses for the semicolon, of course. You can use it to separate complex list items. Perhaps you have the following on your grocery list: a pat of butter; two pounds of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream; three pounds of chopped walnuts, lightly glazed; and so on. This is very useful when the list items, themselves, contain commas. Try writing the previous list, using commas instead of the semicolons, and you’ll see what I mean. Do I want two pounds of chocolate? A bottle of vanilla extract? How much strawberry ice cream? Or do I want two pounds of chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry ice cream?

Semicolons do have their detractors. It’s only fair to warn you that some writers could happily live their entire lives without employing the hard-working semicolon.

Better a Colon than a Fleet Enema

Did you notice that I introduced that grocery list, above, with a colon? Slipped that in on you, didn’t I? Might as well cover the colon while we’re at it because it’s even simpler than the semicolon, and it’s quite useful at times. Think of the colon as the ambassador of punctuation, introducing the reader to a word, a phrase, a whole sentence, a quotation, or a list. For example:

Joe said he only wants three things for Christmas: world peace, a healthy baby, and a new MP3 player.

Jayne said it best: “My friends will always come first, for without them, there’s no joy in life.”

He excels in only one thing: procrastination.

Note this carefully: you must never use a colon right after a verb. If you say “My favorite TV shows are ER, C.S.I., and Little House on the Prairie,” the verb are is performing the introduction, so the semicolon would be redundant. Try saying “namely” in place of the colon. If the sentence reads fairly smoothly, then chances are, you’re using it right. If it reads as smoothly as a pig walks on stilts, try eliminating the colon or rephrasing the sentence.

Dieresis

If you read “dieresis” and thought I was going to discuss kidney ailments, just close the browser and back away slowly… If you know what a dieresis is, you’re good to go – you can take off the little paper gown and pay the receptionist on your way out.

The dieresis is a diacritical mark (two dots) placed over the second vowel in a pair of vowels to indicate that it is pronounced as a separate and distinct sound, rather than as a diphthong (two vowels blended together like sour cream and onion) or a silent vowel; for example, coördinate. This isn’t critical knowledge for the modern writer of English, and people will no doubt look at you oddly if you make a habit of using the dieresis, which looks a lot like the umlaut (for you German speakers) but serves a completely different function. It does, however, aid in pronunciation, and I think The New Yorker is right to continue using it.

There now. I’ll bet your writing is feeling better already! Now head on over to the Grammar Mood Doc and let’s deal with that Past Perfect, Perfectly Passive-Aggressive Voice

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle, illustrated by Jordan Vinyard; A Puppy, Not a Guppy, illustrated by Ryan Shaw; and the newest release: A New Leaf for Lyle, illustrated by Carrie Salazar. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young-at-heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.

6 Comments

  1. 4A-HEALTHY-BMI

    I’m hungry now, after reading that grocery list!

    I need clarification, however, about whether we need separate packages of chocolate, strawberry and vanilla ice cream, or whether a couple of pounds of Neapolitan will do? 🍨😉
    4A-HEALTHY-BMI recently posted…Canning a little bit of summerMy Profile

    Reply
    • Holly Jahangiri

      If you’re buying and bringing, I will take off my editor hat and grab us a couple of bowls and spoons. Porch light’s on…

      Reply
  2. Jill E Ebstein

    Nice job: thoughtful, detailed, and entertaining.
    I don’t see dieresis in my future.

    Reply

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