Nordquist is a freelance writer and former professor of English and Rhetoric
who wrote college-level Grammar and Composition textbooks.
December 28, 2018
Punctuation is the set of marks used to regulate texts and clarify their meanings,
principally by separating or linking words, phrases, and clauses. The word comes from the Latin word
punctuare meaning "making a point"
The use (and
misuse) of punctuation affects meaning—sometimes dramatically—as seen in
this "Dear John" letter, where the change in punctuation from one to
the next, drastically alters the meaning.
I want a man who knows what love
is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you
admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I
yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can be
forever happy—will you let me be yours?
I want a man who knows what love
is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like
you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men,
I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I can be
forever happy. Will you let me be?
The Basic Rules of Punctuation
Like many of
the so-called "laws" of grammar, the rules for using punctuation
would never hold up in court.
These rules, in
fact, are conventions that have changed over the centuries. They vary across
national boundaries (American punctuation, followed here,
differs from British practice) and even from one writer
to the next.
the principles behind the common marks of punctuation should strengthen your
understanding of grammar and help you to use the marks consistently in your own
Robinson observes in his essay "The Philosophy of Punctuation" (in Opera,
Sex, and Other Vital Matters, 2002), "Punctuation has the primary
responsibility of contributing to the plainness of one's meaning. It has the
secondary responsibility of being as invisible as possible, of not calling
attention to itself."
goals in mind, we'll direct you to guidelines for correctly using the most
common marks of punctuation: periods, question marks, exclamation points,
commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, apostrophes, and quotation marks.
End Punctuation: Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation
There are only
three ways to end a sentence: with a period (.), a question mark (?), or an exclamation point (!). And because most of
us state far more often than we question or exclaim, the period is by
far the most popular end mark of punctuation. The American period, by
the way, is more commonly known as a full stop in British English. Since
around 1600, both terms have been used to describe the mark (or the long pause)
at the end of a sentence.
Why do periods
matter? Consider how
these two phrases change in meaning when a second period is added:
"I'm sorry you can't come
This is an expression of
"I'm sorry. You can't come
The speaker is
informing the listener that s/he may not accompany the group.
Until the 20th
century, the question mark was more commonly known as a point of
interrogation—a descendant of the mark used by medieval monks to show voice
inflection in church manuscripts. The exclamation point has been used since the
17th century to indicate strong emotion, such as surprise, wonder, disbelief,
several examples of how comma usage can change the meaning of sentences.
Commas With Interrupting
Democrats say the Republicans will lose the election.
Democrats, say the Republicans, will lose the election.
Commas With Direct
fool if you wish.
fool, if you wish.
With Nonrestrictive Clauses
passengers who were seriously injured were taken to the hospital.
passengers, who were seriously injured, were taken to the hospital.
Commas With Compound
break your bread or roll in your soup.
break your bread, or roll in your soup.
is dedicated to my roommates, Oprah Winfrey, and God.
is dedicated to my roommates, Oprah Winfrey and God.
comma usage from Doug Larson:
the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be
Labor Day Weekend."
Semicolons, Colons, and Dashes
marks of punctuation—the semicolon (;), colon (:), and dash (—)—can be effective when used
sparingly. Like the comma, the colon originally referred to a section of a
poem; later its meaning was extended to a clause in a sentence and finally to a mark
that set off a clause.
semicolon and the dash became popular in the 17th century, and since then the
dash has threatened to take over the work of other marks.
Dickinson, for instance, relied on dashes instead of commas. Novelist James
Joyce preferred dashes to quotation marks (which he called "perverted
commas"). And nowadays many writers avoid semicolons (which some consider
being rather stuffy and academic), using dashes in their place.
Here, the use
of colons and commas completely changes the meaning of the sentence.
A woman without her man is
A single woman is worth nothing.
A woman: without her, man is
A single man is worth nothing.
Example of dash
usage from "The Secret Sharer" by Joseph Conrad:
and wherefore of the scorpion—how it had got on board and came to select his
room rather than the pantry (which was a dark place and more what a scorpion
would be partial to), and how on earth it managed to drown itself in the
inkwell of his writing desk—had exercised him infinitely."
semicolon examples by Disraeli and Christopher Morley respectively:
three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."
"Life is a foreign language; all
men mispronounce it."
The apostrophe (') may be the simplest and yet
most frequently misused mark of punctuation in English. It was introduced into
English in the 16th century from Latin and Greek, in which it served to mark
the loss of letters.
The use of the
apostrophe to signify possession did not become common until the 19th century,
though even then grammarians could not always agree on the mark's
As editor, Tom
McArthur notes in "The Oxford Companion to the English Language"
(1992), "There was never a golden age in which the rules for the use of
the possessive apostrophe in English were clear-cut and known, understood, and
followed by most educated people."
Apostrophes With Contractions:
Who is master,
man or dog?
dog knows its master.
dog knows it's master.
Apostrophes With Possessive
Nouns: Whether the
butler is rude or polite, depends on the apostrophe.
stood by the door and called the guests names.
stood by the door and called the guests' names.
Quotation marks (" "), sometimes
referred to as quotes or inverted commas, are punctuation marks
used in pairs to set off a quotation or a piece of dialogue. A relatively
recent invention, quotation marks were not commonly used before the 19th
criminal," says the judge, "should be hanged."
criminal says, "The judge should be hanged."
quotation marks from Winston Churchill:
reminded of the professor who, in his declining hours, was asked by his devoted
pupils for his final counsel. He replied, 'Verify your quotations.'"
The History of Punctuation
of punctuation lie in classical rhetoric—the art of oratory. Back in ancient Greece and
Rome, when a speech was prepared in writing, marks were used to indicate
where—and for how long — a speaker should pause. Until the 18th century,
punctuation was primarily related to spoken delivery (elocution), and the marks were interpreted
as pauses that could be counted out. This declamatory basis for
punctuation gradually gave way to the syntactic approach used today.
(and eventually the marks themselves) were named after the sections they
divided. The longest section was called a period, defined by Aristotle as "a
portion of a speech that has in itself a beginning and an end." The
shortest pause was a comma (literally, "that which is
cut off"), and midway between the two was the colon—a "limb,"
"strophe," or "clause."
Punctuation and Printing
introduction of printing in the late 15th century, punctuation in English was
decidedly unsystematic and at times virtually absent. Many of Chaucer's
manuscripts, for instance, were punctuated with nothing more than periods at
the end of verse lines, without regard for syntax or sense.
mark of England's first printer, William Caxton (1420-1491), was the
forward slash (also known as the solidus,
virgule, oblique, diagonal, and virgula suspensiva)—forerunner
of the modern comma. Some writers of that era also relied on a double slash (as
found today in http://) to signal a longer pause or the start of a
new section of text.
One of the
first to codify the rules of punctuation in English was the playwright Ben
Jonson—or rather, Ben:Jonson, who included the colon (he called it the
"pause" or "two pricks") in his signature. In the final
chapter of "The English Grammar" (1640), Jonson briefly
discusses the primary functions of the comma, parenthesis, period, colon, question mark (the
"interrogation"), and exclamation point (the
Talking Points: 17th and 18th Centuries
In keeping with
the practice (if not always the precepts) of Ben Jonson, punctuation in the
17th and 18th centuries was increasingly determined by the rules of syntax
rather than the breathing patterns of speakers. Nevertheless, this passage from
Lindley Murray's best-selling "English Grammar" (over 20 million
sold) shows that even at the end of the 18th century punctuation was still
treated, in part, as an oratorical aid:
Punctuation is the art of dividing a
written composition into sentences, or parts of sentences, by points or stops,
for the purpose of marking the different pauses which the sense, and an
accurate pronunciation require.
The Comma represents the shortest pause; the Semicolon, a pause double that of
the comma; the Colon, double that of the semicolon; and a period, double that
of the colon.
The precise quantity or duration of each pause, cannot be defined; for it
varies with the time of the whole. The same composition may be rehearsed in a
quicker or a slower time; but the proportion between the pauses should be ever
Increasing Importance in Writing: 19th Century
By the end of
the industrious 19th century, grammarians had come to de-emphasize the elocutionary role of punctuation, as
John Seely Hart noted in his 1892 "A Manual of Composition and
"It is sometimes stated in works
on Rhetoric and Grammar, that the points are for the purpose of elocution, and
directions are given to pupils to pause a certain time at each of the stops. It
is true that a pause required for elocutionary purposes does sometimes coincide
with a grammatical point, and so the one aids the other. Yet it should not be
forgotten that the first and main ends of the points is to mark grammatical
Current Punctuation Trends
In our own
time, the declamatory basis for punctuation has pretty much given way to the
syntactic approach. Also, in keeping with a century-long trend toward shorter
sentences, punctuation is now more lightly applied than it was in the days of
Dickens and Emerson.
guides spell out the conventions for using the various marks. Yet when it
comes to the finer points (regarding serial commas, for instance), sometimes
even the experts disagree.
fashions continue to change. In modern prose, dashes are in; semicolons are out. Apostrophes are either sadly neglected or tossed
around like confetti, while quotation marks are seemingly dropped
at random on unsuspecting words.
And so it
remains true, as G. V. Carey observed decades ago, that punctuation is governed
"two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste."
Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols,
and Other Typographical Marks (W. W. Norton, 2013)
Parkes, Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West (University of
California Press, 1993).
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