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Punctuation and Sentence Structure

For many people, punctuation is a mystery. These writers fling commas onto the page intuitively like an abstract painter; semi-colons and dashes are handled like a hot potato--either they aren't picked up at all, or if they are, the writer throws them down almost anywhere. If you are a writer even something like this, take a deep breath and tell yourself, "I can learn to punctuate." I'm here to tell you that it is easy. The first key to punctuation is simple: "punctuation is used to capture the human voice." If you look at this page, these words are black ink marks on a flat, two-dimensional surface. How do we infuse into writing the three-dimensional properties of the human voice with all its pauses and intonations?--with punctuation, of course!

Consider this analogy: You as a writer are like a musical composer. Your essay is like the sheet music, and your reader is like the violinist who will play the music (at some later time). Punctuation, then, is like the musical notations which tell the violinist how fast to play the piece, when to pause, or when to hold a note for more than a single beat. The first step in punctuating correctly, then, is to begin using it to capture your voice. Listen to how you would meaningfully "say" your writing, and use punctuation to signal that meaning. (John Trimble says to read your writing out loud in your "best radio voice" to hear how it sounds.) The second key to using punctuation correctly is to learn a little about sentence structure and these five functions that punctuation performs related to sentence structure. Punctuation helps you to DO these things in your writing:

1) To connect sentences (also called INDEPENDENT CLAUSES).

A) Use a comma and a coordinate conjunction
(To remember the coordinate conjunctions just remember FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.)

example: He went to the park , yet he left his dog behind.
--------------(INDEP. CLAUSE) ---- + ---- (INDEP. CLAUSE)

Quiz on Using Commas with Coordinate Conjunctions

B) Use a semi-colon

example: He went to the park ; she went to sleep.

More on using semi-colons | Quiz covering semi-colon usage

The quick test to see if you need to use either of these methods (or if you have done them correctly) is to test each side of the semi-colon or the coordinate conjunction. If each side could be a sentence on its own, then you need the comma or the semi-colon.

2) To separate introductory elements
Introductory elements come before the core of the sentence (the independent clause) and could be either a transitional word, a phrase, or a dependent clause. Use a comma before the introductory element to separate it from the main clause.

Transition words However, we will meet the public's demands.
Phrases In the morning, the usual routine is to eat by eight o'clock.
Dependent Clause After I shower in the morning, the first thing I do is get some coffee.

If you read these sentences aloud, you can hear the pause that comes at the end of the introductory element. The comma captures and signals this pause.

Quiz on using Commas with Introductory Elements

3) To separate interrupting elements (also called non-essential elements)
Interrupting elements are any extra information that is placed in the middle of the sentence which could be taken out without upsetting the "core" of the sentence. There are three ways to separate:

Using Commas George Washington, our first President, liked to chop down trees.
Using Dashes If I knew where to go--which I don't--then we wouldn't be lost.
(site on using dashes)
Using Parenthesis
(this is like a whisper in your reader's ear)
When Hardy died (it's a pity he had to), he left no will.

Notice that each of these interrupting elements could be pulled out of the sentence and it would still make sense (e.g. When Hardy died, he left no will).

4) To separate items in a list. There are two ways:

A) Using commas
example: I went to the store and bought eggs, milk, and butter.
** The comma between the last two items is optional.**

B) Using semi-colons (usually used to separate longer items that contain commas within them)
example: In the past five years, I have lived in a grey, two-story house; a white, one-story house with a pool; and a two-bedroom apartment.

More on using semi-colons--powerpoint

5) To point your reader's attention to what you wish to highlight
Most often this involves a colon used to set up a list or to direct readers to explanations, examples, or significant phrases or words. Colons and dashes are used to focus the reader's attention on what follows.

A) Using colons

My house is a mess: the outside needs paint, the roof needs to be repaired, and the air-conditioning is broken.

There is one hope for our team: we need to win.

Site on using colons | Quiz on using colons effectively

B) Using dashes
The dash can also be used for a concluding statement, especially one which you want to emphasize. (more on dashe)

There is one hope for our team--we need to win.
Sometimes we forget what Hamlet was asked to do--murder.

The sense of these sentences is that the first half of the sentence sets up something which the second half of the sentence completes. Before the colon or dash, it must be a complete sentence, but afterwards it could be a fragment.

The most important key to remember is to listen and use punctuation to capture your voice. Although many finer points to punctuation exist (and I recommend you consult your Handbook for a more detailed review), studying these five typical signals will help you on your way to punctuating correctly.

Video guide on editing using this guide on punctuation and sentence structure. See also one page "Doing! Punctuation" version of this guide.

See these additional links: Comma Usage from Grammar and Writing. Also, see this site on Punctuation.


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