Perfect Punctuation – Part 2
Part 1 covered exclamation marks, semi-colons, em-dashes, ellipses and question marks. This week we’ll look at commas, quote marks, hyphens and apostrophes.
The comma, like the exclamation mark, is probably the most misused of all punctuation marks. While full stops (periods) end a sentence, commas can highlight an extremely short pause within the narrative, they can separate clauses or they can separate items in a list of three or more. Commas also help join two independent clauses with a conjunction, which are necessary if you start a sentence with a dependent clause.
Beginners often misuse commas by placing them in the wrong place within sentences, using them incorrectly or by not using them at all. The following examples show correct use:
'You know, I figured that was going to happen.’ (Signifies short pause).
She collected mint, sage, oregano and parsley. (Separates items in a list).
One common result of incorrect comma use is the comma splice. This happens when the writer uses a comma in place of a full stop or without a conjunction to make the sentence make sense, for example:
He got out of the car, walked to the house.
There are two clauses separated by a comma, where there should be a full stop. Or the sentence can be written with a comma to separate the clauses with use of the conjunction ‘and’, for instance:
He got out of the car, and walked to the house.
To avoid comma splices, place either a full stop to create two independent clauses or use a comma with a conjunction (sometimes also known as an Oxford comma).
Always use a comma after starting a sentence with a dependent clause, as this provides clarity to the reader, for example:
After they arrived in town, they went for a coffee.
One thing that lack of correct comma placement can do with certain words within the sentence is cause ambiguity. So, to eliminate confusion, place the comma correctly, for instance:
Jan, you will know. (Correct)
Jan you will know. (Incorrect)
‘Good morning, Jane.’ (Correct)
‘Good morning Jane.’ (Incorrect)
Use commas carefully to separate words to ensure sentences flow correctly, especially with more complex sentence structures, for example:#
He was always punctual, but disliked anyone else who displayed tardiness.
He was, as always, punctual, and disliked anyone else who displayed tardiness, particularly his grandchildren, Sophie and Greg.
The sentence structure for each example becomes more complex, but correct comma placement allows the narrative to flow without causing the reader to trip up over the sentences.
Another problem is run on sentences, where two sentences are placed together without any punctuation – usually a full stop, semi-colon or a comma and conjunction, for example.
He only comes round once a week he never tells me he’s coming.
With correct punctuation, the sentence becomes less confusing. In this case, a full stop, a semi-colon or a conjunction can change the way the sentence reads.
He only comes round once a week. He never tells me he’s coming.
He only comes round once a week; he never tells me he’s coming.
He only comes round once a week, but he never tells me he’s coming.
Learn to use commas correctly – where they should be, not where they shouldn’t be – so as not to overburden the narrative, nor underwhelm it. Too many commas can create overly long sentences that can make the narrative stutter. Too few commas can create ambiguity or run on sentences, which makes it hard for the reader to understand the narrative. Learn to spot run on sentences and comma splices.
Study how commas should be used; especially when constructing longer or more complicated sentences, and know when to use them to your advantage.
Quotation marks seem to cause headaches for some writers. These are used to denote dialogue. In the US, double quote marks are used, “for example”, while in the UK, single quote marks are acceptable, ‘like this’.
Anytime a character speaks, use the quote marks, for example:
‘This is the part I hate,’ David said.
Lisa looked downcast. ‘I know, but you have to tell her.’
“Hey! That’s not fair.”
‘Life isn’t fair,” John said. “I don’t need to tell you that.’
Hyphens (rather than a dash), are very easy to use. They connect two or more words together that have a combined or shared meaning and we use them to avoid word confusion, for instance, crash-landed, auto-injected, year-on-year, father-in-law, semi-automatic, or non-hyphenated.
If asked, most writers will probably say that apostrophes are a pain to get to grips with and they cause the most problem. Apostrophes denote plurals and abbreviated words, and while abbreviations - such as cannot /can’t, we will/ we’ll - don’t pose problems; it can be confusing for writers to know where to place the apostrophe with plural and possessive nouns, for example:
Singular nouns – add apostrophe + s:
The children’s room.
The boy’s team.
Plural nouns – add an apostrophe after ‘s’:
Ten days’ holiday.
The dogs’ blankets.
The parks’ visitors.
If there is a proper noun that ends with s, the convention is to add the apostrophe after the ‘s’, for example ‘Over at the Jones’ house.’ There are some complicated rules over apostrophes, and even experienced writers have to look their use from time to time.
Correct punctuation not only helps to tell the story, but it also structures it. Without it, or if done incorrectly, the storytelling becomes messy, confusing and not worth reading.
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