Previously published as part of Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.
Online sensation Grammar Girl makes punctuation fun and easy in Grammar Girl's Punctuation 911.
Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, is determined to wipe out bad punctuation—but she's also determined to make the process as painless as possible. A couple of years ago, she created a weekly podcast to tackle some of the most common mistakes people make with grammar. The podcasts have now been downloaded more than twenty million times, and Mignon has dispensed grammar tips on Oprah and appeared on the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today.
Now, Mignon tackles the most commonly asked questions regarding punctuation. From semi-colons to serial commas and ellipses to asterisks, Mignon offers memory tricks and clear explanations that will help readers recall and apply those troublesome punctuation rules.
About the Author
Mignon Fogarty, the creator of Grammar Girl and the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips Network, is also the author of the bestselling GRAMMAR GIRL'S QUICK AND DIRTY TIPS FOR BETTER WRITING and THE GRAMMAR DEVOTIONAL. She lives in Reno, Nevada.
Mignon Fogarty, the creator of Grammar Girl and the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network, is also the author of The New York Times bestselling GRAMMAR GIRL'S QUICK AND DIRTY TIPS FOR BETTER WRITING and THE GRAMMAR DEVOTIONAL. Her straightforward, bite-sized tips on grammar have led to features in the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and an appearance on Oprah. She lives in Reno, Nevada.
Read an Excerpt
PUNCH UP YOUR PUNCTUATION
YOU'VE BRUSHED UP ON YOUR grammar, you know how to choose the right words, and you've gotten over your writer's block by ignoring all the biddies who say you can't start a sentence with however, and, and the like. Now all you need is to string all those words together so they actually make sense. Punctuation helps with that.
Punctuation may seem like extraneous little hacks and splashes on the page, but those marks actually help readers stay on track. Punctuation is a polite gesture toward your reader: Here, dear reader, allow me to guide you through this sentence. It's a long one, and it might be a little confusing, but I've provided clues and signposts along the way. I promise you won't get lost.
We're going to start out easy with the period and work our way up to the more exotic punctuation marks like ellipses and asterisks. If we make it all the way to the interrobang, I might have to put on an evening gown!
The period is quite a straightforward punctuation mark. I think it's safe to say everyone knows that a period ends a sentence. What everyone doesn't know is how many spaces should come after a period and how to deal with periods in acronyms.
Space: The Final Frontier
If you learned to type on a typewriter, you were probably taught that you should leave two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. The space bar on a typewriter makes a space that is the same size regardless of whether you are at the end of a word or the end of a sentence, which is the reason typewriter fonts are called monospaced fonts. In order to make a strong visual break between sentences on a typewriter, you need to type two spaces.
Now that most writing is done on computers, it is no longer necessary to type two spaces after a period at the end of a sentence. Word processing and typesetting software recognizes periods at the end of sentences, and if you are using a proportional font (which most fonts are these days), font designers have already made sure a properly sized space will be inserted between sentences.
Technically, whether you put one or two spaces after a period is still a matter of style. Some editors still prefer two spaces, but most style guides recommend one space, and page designers have written in begging me to advise people to leave only one space. They have told me that using two spaces can create unappealing rivers of white space throughout a document, and that if you are writing something that layout or design people will ever get their hands on, they will almost certainly have to go through your document and take out the extra space. So I recommend using only one space.
No strict rule governs whether you should put periods after each letter in an acronym or initialism. Some publications put periods after each letter, arguing that because each letter is essentially an abbreviation for a word, periods are necessary. Other publications don't put periods after each letter, arguing that the copy looks cleaner without them and that because they are made up of all capital letters, the fact that they are abbreviations is implied.
Any shortened form of a word is an abbreviation, for example, etc. for etcetera and Oct. for October; but acronyms are special kinds of abbreviations, such as ROFL (rolling on the floor laughing) and OPEC (Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries), that can be pronounced as words. This makes them a subset of abbreviations. All acronyms are abbreviations, but not all abbreviations are acronyms.
Initialisms are another type of abbreviation. They are often confused with acronyms because they are made up of letters, so they look similar, but they can't be pronounced as words. FBI and CIA are examples of initialisms because they're made up of the first letters of Federal Bureau of Investigation and Central Intelligence Agency, respectively, but they aren't usually pronounced as words. (People have written in to tell me that insiders often say "fibby" for FBI, but it's not something I've ever heard used among the general public.) NASA, on the other hand, is an acronym because even though it is also made up of the first letters of the department name (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), it is pronounced as a word, NASA, and not by spelling out the letters N, A, S, A.
When you have an abbreviation at the end of a sentence, don't use a second period. The period at the end of the abbreviation becomes a super period (not the technical term) that does the task of both shortening the abbreviation and ending the sentence. (If you think losing the clear ending to a sentence will confuse your readers, it's best to rewrite the sentence so the abbreviation doesn't come at the end, or write out the full word instead of using the abbreviation.) On the other hand, when you end a question or an exclamation with an abbreviation, you do include both the ending period of the abbreviation and the final question mark or exclamation point.
Squiggly always wanted to work for the F.B.I.
Doesn't Aardvark prefer the C.I.A.?
The Question Mark: Huh?
You think you already know how to ask questions, don't you? I wonder if you're right.
Everybody knows how to write a plain vanilla question: what's new? They're called direct questions. But there are trickier scenarios. What happens when a sentence seems to be half statement, half question? What if you're asking an indirect question, asking a question that also seems to require an exclamation point, dealing with a quotation that contains a question, and so on?
Questions Masquerading as Statements
Sometimes even direct questions are tricky because they can look like statements, and the only way to tell your reader otherwise is to add a question mark. There's a big difference in meaning between Squiggly went to the store. and Squiggy went to the store? Yet the only difference between the two sentences is that one ends with a period and one ends with a question mark. The question mark makes it a direct question that shows surprise. What the heck was he doing at the store?
A Question Flurry
What if you have a bunch of questions and you want to string them all together?
I love a scene in the movie Cats & Dogs where a dog realizes he can talk. It goes something like this: You can hear me? Can I have a cookie? two cookies? four cookies? twenty cookies? Those add-on questions at the end aren't complete sentences but they each get a question mark anyway. Since they aren't complete sentences, you usually don't capitalize the first letter, but the rules are vague. Some guides say to capitalize the first letter if the questions are nearly a sentence or have sentence-like status, so you have to use your own judgment. I don't consider two cookies to be nearly a sentence, but I may consider something like two cookies and a squeaking ball to chase to be nearly a sentence, which would make me consider capitalizing it.
Statements with Tag Questions
Now, what about those little questions that come at the end of a statement? You didn't forget my birthday, did you? It's fun to play maracas, isn't it?
Bits like did you and isn't it are called tag questions, and they turn the whole sentence into a question, so use a question mark at the end.
Do you have a curious nature? Do you wonder about things? When you wonder, your statements may sound like questions, but they're not direct questions, they're indirect questions, and they don't take a question mark. For example, I wonder why he went to the store. That's an indirect question — essentially a statement — so there's no question mark. I wonder if Squiggly would lend me his maracas. Again, it's not a question.
Indirect Questions Mixed with Direct Questions
It gets really crazy when you start mixing direct questions with other kinds of clauses. There are multiple ways to write something like The question at hand is, who stole the cookies? The simplest way to write that is to put a comma after the first clause and a question mark after the direct question.
Believe it or not, some style guides allow you to capitalize the first word in a direct question, even though it comes in the middle of a sentence: The question at hand is, Who stole the cookies? Supposedly, capitalizing the first word in the question places more emphasis on the question, but I think it makes the sentence look disjointed.
And if you think that looks weird, it gets even worse. If you flip the two parts around, you can put a question mark in the middle of your sentence: Who stole the cookies? was the question at hand.
It's good to know the rules, but these sentences seem so contorted that I believe it is better to try to rewrite them. I could easily convert the sentence to an indirect question: Everyone wondered who stole the cookies. Or I could use a colon to make the punctuation less odd: One question remained: who stole the cookies?
We made it to the interrobang! The fun begins, so imagine me in an evening gown. When you're asking a question in surprise such as What? it isn't appropriate to use multiple question marks or a question mark combined with an exclamation point. You're supposed to pick the terminal punctuation mark that is most appropriate, and use just one. Is your statement more of a question or more of an outburst?
I've always found that solution unsatisfactory, so I was thrilled to learn that there's an obscure punctuation mark that was designed exclusively for asking questions in a surprised manner. It's called an interrobang, and it looks like an exclamation point superimposed on a question mark.
You shouldn't use the interrobang in formal writing, but I would be delighted if people started using it on blogs and in other informal communications. If you have the Wingdings 2 or Palatino font in your word processing program, you can insert an interrobang as a special character.
Semicolons: The Sentence Splicers
Semicolons separate things. Most commonly, they separate two main clauses that are closely related to each other but could stand on their own as sentences if you wanted them to. I think of semicolons as sentence splicers: they splice sentences together.
It was below zero; Squiggly wondered if he would freeze to death.
It was below zero. Squiggly wondered if he would freeze to death.
One reason you may choose to use a semicolon instead of a period is if you wanted to add variety to your sentence structure; for example, if you thought you had too many short, choppy sentences in a row, you could add variety by using a semicolon to string together two main clauses into one longer sentence. But, when you use a semicolon, the main clauses should be closely related to each other. You wouldn't write, "It was below zero; Squiggly had pizza for dinner," because those two main clauses have nothing to do with each other. In fact, the other reason to use a semicolon instead of a period is to draw attention to the relationship between the two clauses.
Semicolons with Coordinating Conjunctions
An important thing to remember is that (with one exception) you never use semicolons with coordinating conjunctions such as and, or, and but when you're joining two main clauses. If you're joining two main clauses with a coordinating conjunction, use a comma: It was below zero, and Squiggly wondered if he would freeze to death.
The one exception is when you are writing a list of items and need commas to separate items within the list.
This week's winners are Herbie in Des Moines, Iowa; Matt in Irvine, California; and Jan in Seattle, Washington.
Because each item in the list requires a comma to separate the city from the state, you have to use a semicolon to separate the items themselves.
Semicolons with Conjunctive Adverbs
Finally, you use a semicolon when you use a conjunctive adverb to join two main clauses. Conjunctive adverbs are words such as however, therefore, and indeed, and they typically show some kind of relationship between the two main clauses. Examples of words that can be used as conjunctive adverbs include the following:
Subordinating conjunctions join subordinate clauses to other clauses. Following is a list of common subordinating conjunctions:
Aardvark is on vacation; therefore, Squiggly has to do extra work in this chapter.
Squiggly doesn't mind doing the extra work; however, he would like to be thanked.
Sometimes people find it hard to remember to use commas with coordinating conjunctions and semicolons with conjunctive adverbs, so if you can't keep the difference straight in your head, a quick and dirty tip is to remember that commas are smaller than semicolons and go with coordinating conjunctions, which are almost always short two- or three-letter words — small punctuation mark, small words. Semicolons are bigger and they go with conjunctive adverbs, which are almost always longer than three letters — bigger punctuation, bigger words.
The Colon: I Can't Wait to Read What Comes Next
One of my favorite language books, Punctuate It Right, has a wonderful name for the colon: the author calls it the mark of expectation or addition. That's because the colon signals that what comes next is directly related to the previous sentence.
Colons in Sentences
Colons can be used in a variety of situations, such as in titles, ratios, and writing out the time. But when you are using colons in sentences, the most important thing to remember is that colons are only used after statements that are complete sentences. Never use a colon after a sentence fragment. For example, it's correct to say that Squiggly has two favorite Thanksgiving dishes: stuffing and green-bean casserole. That's correct because Squiggly has two favorite Thanksgiving dishes is a complete sentence all by itself.
Notice how the items after the colon expand on or clarify what came before the colon. I referred to Squiggly's favorite dishes before the colon and then specifically named them after the colon. A quick and dirty tip for deciding whether a colon is acceptable is to test whether you can replace it with the word namely. For example, you could say Squiggly has two favorite Thanksgiving dishes, namely, stuffing and green-bean casserole. Most of the time, if you can replace a colon with the word namely, then the colon is the right choice. Nevertheless, there are also instances where you can use a colon and namely doesn't work. For example, The band was wildly popular: they sold out the Colosseum.
Going back to the complete sentence point, it would be wrong to say Squiggly's favorite Thanksgiving dishes are: rolls and cranberry sauce because Squiggly's favorite Thanksgiving dishes are is not a complete sentence by itself. You can often fix that problem by adding the words the following after your sentence fragment. For example, it would be fine to say Squiggly's favorite Thanksgiving dishes are the following: stuffing and green-bean casserole because you've made the thing before the colon a complete sentence by adding the words the following.
Colons in Lists
For some reason, people seem to get especially confused about how to use colons when they are introducing lists, but the good news is that the rules are the same whether you are writing lists or sentences: you use a colon when you could use the word namely and after something that could be a complete sentence on its own.
Excerpted from "Grammar Girl's Punctuation 911"
Copyright © 2008 Mignon Fogarty.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Punch Up Your Punctuation,
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