Saturday, 2 November 2013

Getting to grips with simple punctuation – Part 1


Some things might seem simple to most writers, but sometimes the prospect of executing correct punctuation can bring many writers out in a cold sweat.
We all have different abilities and weren’t all born with the ability to execute perfect written English. That said, there are plenty of writers who have fallen into bad habits with their punctuation and wrongly assume an editor will correct all their mistakes for them. They won’t. That’s the job of the writer, so it pays to get on top of punctuation.

This simple checklist below is there to help those writers who struggle with punctuation. It shows how and when to use it, with examples of correct usage.
Full Stops/Period

It’s the single most important punctuation mark and yet the least understood by many writers. That’s because they don’t fully understand its significance to sentences, or how to use it to their advantage.
Full stops in the right places can not only change the tone of sentences, but they can alter the pace and flow and they can add or detract impact for the reader.

The most common mistake among new writers the use a comma in place of a full stop.  That means the comma becomes overused and sentences become overly long or clunky.
We all know that full stops indicate the end of a sentence. But how they’re used makes all the difference. Full stops in the right places show assertiveness. They show breadth. Depth. Pace. They create better sentences.

Now, if I had written the above paragraph differently, without the full stops placed strategically, and I’d used more commas, then it would look like this:-
We all know that full stops indicate the end of a sentence, but how they’re used makes all the difference, because full stops in the right places show assertiveness, they show breadth, depth, pace, and they create better sentences.

While there is nothing too wrong with the above paragraph, other than being longer, the construction loses impact. There is no pace, no tone and certainly no assertiveness created by the first example.
Here’s another example. Which do you think is the better strategic full stop placement?

David reached for the light, felt the darkness invade his senses, pressing against him heavily.
David reached for the light. He felt the darkness invade his senses. It pressed against him, heavy.

Where sentences are concerned, writers should consider their construction, and what they really want to convey to the reader. Placing full stops in the right places helps them achieve that.
Commas

A comma indicates a short break within a sentence, a pause for breath, before continuing. They add clarity to sentences by grouping together or separating words or phrases, or they can separate a clause from the main sentence. For example:

One, two, three, go!
I used carrots, onions, parsnips, potatoes and leeks in my stew…
He was alone, afraid, so I went to help.

It’s where the writer places the comma that demonstrates the right impact for the reader. Take these examples:

You can have it, too.
You can have it too.
You can, have it too.

Grammatically speaking, the first example is the correct one. It’s clear in intention and doesn’t show any ambiguity. The construction of the other two examples isn’t good, so the sentences are weakened. The last example is grammatically incorrect, so don’t make this kind of mistake in your narrative.

There are many different commas, too, like vocative commas and series commas.
Vocative commas are used when someone is addressed.  ‘Morning, John’, ‘Hi, Sue’ or ‘Welcome, Doctor.’ The comma separates the greeting from the person being greeted.

The thing with commas is that it’s also very easy to create ambiguity if placed incorrectly in the sentence.  For example, many writers (beginners and experienced alike) fall for this type:
What’s on, Pedro?
What’s on Pedro?

The first one is correct because the comma denotes a short pause while asking Pedro a question. The second one is asking what’s on him.  A piano?  A sheet? A huge spider?  See how the lack of comma creates ambiguity and shows how the sentence can change in meaning? Be careful to avoid this.

The series comma, which is sometimes referred to as the Oxford comma, is a comma placed before the co-ordinating conjunction (and, nor, or) when there is a series of words. It is often used to give an extra pause in longer sentences so that they read better. I used an Oxford comma in an earlier example:

…because full stops in the right places show assertiveness, they show breadth, depth, pace, and they create better sentences.

The series comma has been placed directly after the word ‘pace’ and before the co-ordinating conjunction of ‘and’.
The thing to remember with commas is to use them only when necessary.  Don’t overuse them – that’s what other punctuation is for. 

Apostrophes
Apostrophes can cause lots of confusion, but there’s no real need to fear them.

They are used to contract words such as can’t (cannot), won’t (will not), don’t (do not) etc. They also show possession – Jane’s car, the boys’ lockers, David’s toy, the car’s interior.  In these examples, the car belongs to Jane, the lockers belong to the boys, the toy belongs to David and the interior belongs to the car.
One of the most simple contractions causes the most confusion – it’s and its. 

Always remember that it’s is a contraction of ‘it is’, whereas its means ‘belonging to it’.  Writers should always double check if it is the contracted form by reading the sentence aloud, for instance:
It’s raining outside – This is correct use.  It’s is contracted from ‘it is raining outside’.

Its eyes closed – This is correct. If you read the sentence as though it were a contraction, you’ll see it doesn’t look or sound right - ‘It is eyes closed.’  Therefore, ‘its’ is the correct form.
What about these examples? Correct or incorrect?  (Answers at the foot of the article).

It’s all in the genes.
It’s wrath became stronger.
Its time we got going.
It’s unlikely to happen again.
The bit between its teeth.
Hope its okay for you.
It’s time you knew your apostrophes!

It seems all fairly simple enough, but here’s where it gets a little more complicated.

Apostrophes are also required even if the noun is inanimate; for instance, the car’s engine, the pub’s door or two years’ probation.
It’s also worth noting that where plurals are concerned, apostrophes are not required, even if a noun ends in a vowel.  That means words such as bananas, tables, aeroplanes, vegetables etc, don’t have an apostrophe.

Take the earlier example of the boys’ lockers. The apostrophe is placed after the ‘s’ because in this sentence, boys is plural.  If it had been singular, it would be the boy’s locker. This denotes possession of the locker by the boy. 
If you’re still unsure, here are some other examples:

The girls’ dormitory – girls is plural.  The dormitory belongs to several girls.
The girl’s dormitory – girl is singular. The dormitory belongs to her.
The dogs’ walk – dogs is plural. There are several dogs walking.
The singer’s studio – Singer is singular.  The studio belongs to the singer.
The Managers’ meeting – managers is plural. There are several managers in the meeting.

It’s understandable that apostrophes, especially possessive ones, cause confusion, but the more you work with them, the better you understand them.

Answers to the apostrophe examples:-

It’s all in the genes P
It’s wrath became stronger (Should be its) Ò
Its time we got going Ò     (Should be it’s)
It’s unlikely to happen again P
The bit between its teeth P
Hope its okay for you Ò     (Should be it’s)
It’s time you knew your apostrophes! P

Next week: Getting to grips with simple punctuation – Part 2
 

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