Chapter 7 Punctuation

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The basic fact

The basic fact about contemporary English punctuation is that its markers can be placed only at the syntactic junctures of a text (as external sentence-markers) and at the syntactic junctures of a sentence (as internal sentence-markers).

The syntactic junctures of a text are the points between sentences. Those points are necessarily marked by external sentence-markers:

  • the full stop [ . ]

  • the question mark [ ? ]

  • the exclamation mark [ ! ]

  • the colon [ : ]

  • the semi-colon [ ; ].

The syntactic junctures of a sentence are the points where its parts meet. Those points are marked, or left unmarked, in accordance with the part-of-speech function of the coinciding parts. The internal sentence-markers are:

  • the comma [ , ]

  • the semi-colon [ ; ]

  • the colon [ : ] 

  • the dash [ -- ]

  • the double-dash [ -- ... --]

  • the brackets [ ( ... ) ]

  • the square brackets [ [ ... ] ]

Two markers, the apostrophe [ ' ] and the hyphen [ - ], are not punctuation marks because they are morphological, as distinct from syntactic, markers: They are markers of words, not of sentences.

Every punctuation mark has a specific syntactic role in a sentence. The use of each is governed by the sense a writer wants to make. The common tenet that punctuation is a matter of style is spurious: Writers who consider using or not using a comma are making more than a stylistic decision. They are checking the validity of the sentence they have composed. A common outcome of their deliberation is that they reconstruct the sentence under review.

The full stop

The full stop declares that a sentence is complete. Writers experience difficulty with the full stop only when they do not know when to stop a composite sentences. This issue is discussed in the Chapter `The Composite Sentence'.

The exclamation mark

The exclamation mark declares that an expression is used as an expletive:

Hey! Drat that! You fool!

or that it marks a statement that is uttered in an emotionally heightened way to express surprise or pleasure or to give an order:

So this is the famous clown!
Give me that!

The question mark

The question mark follows a sentence in interrogative mood:

Is he the Prime Minister of Australia?

or a sentence in the indicative (statement) mood  that is used interrogatively:

He is the Prime Minister of Australia?

The only problem that crops up with this marker is the inexperienced writer's misuse of it to mark a statement. Misled by the presence of the word `asked', this writer wrongly assumed that he is dealing with a question:

 misused question mark
The man asked whether this is the Prime Minister of Australia?

The question mark as an internal sentence marker

A popular contemporary practice uses question marks followed by lower-case letters to list a colon-introduced query items:

 Can you: manage new authors? deal with illustrators? proofread copy?

This is a good listing practice. It is certainly better than the next one, which misuses the semi-colon as a question mark:

misused semi-colons
They have to contend with the practical difficulties of literacy problems: what exactly did the agreement they just signed mean; how much change should the milk bar owner have given them; how obviously does their writing on the latest application form show up their weakness?

The Colon and the Semi-colon

A very common mistake among writers is to think that the colon and the semi-colon are much the same thing. They are not. Indeed, they are related only in their roles as external sentence markers: As such they can both be used between sentences, instead of the full-stop. But in their roles as internal sentence-markers they are not even remotely related.

The semi colon as external sentence marker

The sentence that follows the semi-colon must begin with a lower-case letter, and it must be a sentence. The particular role of the semi-colon is to indicate that two consecutive sentences relate more closely than do sentences separated by a full stop. Such a relationship exists between the next two sentences. The first says something about `Patrick's' position in the matter of `understatement'. The writer's semi-colon emphasises the humorous dichotomy of  `would be'  and  `is':

To say that Patrick was relieved would be an understatement; understatement is one thing our flamboyant friend is not famous for.

In the next sentence the semi-colon highlights the irony in being told that one may use something that is not in evidence:

We were told that people may use the paper towels; we saw none.

A full stop can be used wherever a semi-colon is used as an external sentence marker. So there is no point in arbitrarily preferring a semi-colon to the full stop. It should be used instead of the full stop only when the writer seeks to emphasise the special relatedness of two sentences.

The semi colon as internal sentence marker

It is not necessary to use the semi-colon as an internal sentence-marker. As such a marker, it usurps the role of the comma. Its only necessary use as an internal marker is in demarcating the colon-introduced items of a displayed list:

This would have meant:
(i) clear terms and conditions of  employment;
(ii) award-rated pay;
(iii) a definite career structure.

An old-fashioned belief lingers to the effect that a list must be marked by semi-colons if any part of it is marked by a commas:

Among these considerations are the size of the house, or the area to be heated; the position of the heater in relation to the positions of windows; the efficiency of the insulation; the height of the ceilings.

This sentence could simply have done without the comma that interrupts the first item of its list: `the size of the house, or the area to be heated':

Among these considerations are the size of the house or the area to be heated, the position of the heater in relation to the positions of windows, the efficiency of the insulation, the height of the ceilings.

The colon as external sentence-marker

The function of the colon as an external sentence-marker is to indicate that the statement made by one sentence, though complete in itself, is also an introduction to the statement to be made by the next sentence:

One thing tends to nag the mind: what are the professor's own views on this vexed question?

Perhaps that is not so surprising: This government is rapidly losing its ambiguity on privatisation.

There are only two structures that are not sentences but are nevertheless properly followed by a colon to introduce another sentence. One is the introducing `to' led sequence:

To hazard a guess: You are the real king.
To coin a phrase: Practice makes perfect asses.
To begin at the beginning: Mary was born in Ireland.
To put it plainly: You bore me.

The other is the `referring back' phrase:

With reference to the argument you expounded in your lecture: We do not concede its validity.
Referring to your letter of 6 August: We are pleased to advise that we can meet your requirements.
On the question of the twins: They are not up for adoption.

These two structures inevitably introduce a sentence that begins with an upper-case letter.

The colon as internal sentence-marker

As an internal sentence-marker, the colon appends a sequence to clarify a point made in the sentence that precedes it. The appended sequence must begin with a lower-case letter:

colon-appended clarifier
I want to suggest that success in schools is a language matter: a matter, that is, of achieving control of the patterns of discourse in which significant meanings are made.

Officially the wall was there to stop Westerners from getting into East Berlin, but in reality it served the purpose it was built for: to stop East Germans from escaping to the West.

The colon and letter case

Contemporary convention allows the lower-case letter to begin either the sentence or the appended point that follows the colon:

There was room in the Directorate for the satiric and the fantastical: it proved to be the hothouse in which gorgeous Ern Malley was born.

She has produced a compelling biography of Jim, making something coherent of his aetiology: relating his nightmares and dark visions to his early anarchic plays and to his later need for control.

Apologists for the lower-case letter of the colon-introduced sentence point out that it is consistent with the introducing colon. If you want the upper-case letter, they argue, opt for the full-stop. If you want the colon to declare that one sentence is introducing the following one, then lay off the upper case letter: it presumes the full stop.

Sound counter-argument is that colons always introduce quotations that are sentences beginning with an upper-case letter, and there is no compromise of their power of introduction in such instances:

He began to speak: `My dear friends, it is delightful to see you all again. ...'

Writers make their own decisions, here. Some insist upon an upper-case letter for the word that follows a colon, others upon a lower-case one.

The dash and the colon as internal sentence markers

The dash appends a point in exactly the same way as the colon:

dash-appended point
I want to suggest that success in schools is a language matter -- a matter, that is, of achieving control of the patterns of discourse in which significant meanings are made.

colon-appended point
I want to suggest that success in schools is a language matter: a matter, that is, of achieving control of the patterns of discourse in which significant meanings are made.

The dash, and the colon when it behaves like a dash, can append a point only to a sentence. This writer did not have a sentence, yet he attempted to append a point:

misused dash
The main proposition -- made yesterday, was that we should not revalue.

Wanting to say what `The main proposition' was and when it was `made', he had no use for a dash. He needed a comma. (The dash cannot perform the role of the comma):

The main proposition, made yesterday, was that we should not revalue.
Made yesterday, the main proposition was that we should not revalue.

In the next sentence, the writer was not appending a point at all. He had two sentences. The dash cannot append one sentence to another:

misused dash
The only evidence against Wallace was his affair with Jane -- for he and Jane had denied their affair.

He should either have written two sentences:

The only evidence against Wallace was his affair with Jane. He and Jane had denied their affair.

or one compound sentence:

The only evidence against Wallace was his affair with Jane, for he and Jane had denied their affair.

The parentheses

The role of parenthesis is to interpose explanatory comment without making that comment an integral part of a sentence. Parenthesis is performed by:

  •  brackets ( ... );

  • the double-dash  -- ... --;

  • the square brackets  [...] ;

  • a set of two commas.

Brackets and the double dash

Parenthesis is achieved by brackets in the first of the following sentences and by the double-dash in the second:

The suggestion that his secretary, Marcia (now his wife), had not been positively vetted and was therefore a security risk was not made publicly until today.

When Vue Thaow asked his parents when he was born -- meaning his birthday -- they replied: `When the French were leaving'.

The parenthesised sequences now his wife and meaning his birthday can be removed from both sentences without damaging their meanings. That parenthesis can be removed without adverse consequence to the meaning of a sentence is the basic criterion of its correct use. The second is that the parenthesised sequence immediately follow the element of the sentence that is to be given explanatory comment. Failure to insert a parenthesis after the element to be commented upon is a drastic failure, as the next sentence will illustrate:

misplaced parenthesis
The plan advanced no solution of the twin problems of rising unemployment and inflation in this country (commonly known as stagflation).

This writer cannot have meant to say that this country is commonly known as stagflation. He should have placed the parenthetical expression thus:

The plan seemed to have no answer for the twin problems of rising unemployment and inflation (commonly known as stagflation) in this country.

A substantive bracketed sequence

A remark parenthesised by brackets is a remark that it very much an `aside'. It is additionally and trivially informative, thus expendable in the sentence. But when the purpose of a sentence is to make two statements about the subject there is no expendable remark. Parenthesis by brackets or the double dash is wrong in it:

wrongly used brackets
Worried doctors - told that the Olympic competitors were using six giant packs of loo rolls a day - feared an outbreak of dysentery.

Parenthesis here demarcates the sentence: `Doctors were told that the Olympic competitors were using six giant packs of loo rolls a day', which is foreshortened as: `told that the Olympic competitors were using six giant packs of loo rolls a day'. Such a demarcation must be performed by commas. (It is unreasonable to foreshorten a sentence and embed it into another only to parenthesise it by brackets that declare it a mere `aside'):

Worried doctors, told that the Olympic competitors were using six giant packs of loo rolls a day, feared an outbreak of dysentery.

A substantive comment is properly parenthesised by brackets rather than by the comma only when the parenthesised sequence is secondary in a statement. In this sentence the statement made by the relative phrase:

which those of us in politics at the time remember with a bitterness that the years have not healed

is secondary to the statement made by the compound sentence. Given the length of the sentence and its complicated compounding framework, the writer helps his readers by bracketing his secondary remark:

All these stories, absurd and false though they were, found  their way into the minds of visiting journalist and laid the ground for the theory (which those of us in politics at the time remember with a bitterness that the years have not healed) that our very timid Labour ministers were agents of the Kremlin.

Sometimes whole sentences are bracketed. Such parenthesised sentences pick up a detail in a statement in order to expand upon it without interfering with the main thrust of the statement:

Jenkins did not give up. Jenkins never gave up. (There was a tradition of giving up in his family which Jenkins completely failed to respect. His brothers rather resented him for it.) He decided to put his case to the Top Man.

The square brackets

Contemporary print is quite sparing in its use of square brackets. It is in standard use only as the container of acronyms and in drama scripts.

acronym container

Acronyms are used to alert the reader to a fact that a cumbersome, longish name will be referred to in a text by its initials. They immediately follow the full name:

That Annual General Meeting [AGM] was held when the whole nation was in turmoil. The AGM should be remembered in the light of this, and we should not think of it as this Company's typical AGM.

There is no point in providing an acronym unless the noun it abbreviates is going to be referred to on several occasions in a text. Also, the ordinary bracket is nowadays more commonly used to contain the acronym:

That Annual General Meeting (AGM) was held ...

Drama-script square brackets

In drama scripts, the square brackets enclose directions that interrupt the text to be spoken by actors:



[Waxing boredom, but his eyes scan the room methodically.] If you wish.




But surely you want to sell this thing? Surely you're keen to show me how it works ... that it works. That it works better than anything else of its kind! [Stops short, suspicious, and eyes the pedlar sternly.] You are an accredited salesman with this firm? Hey! [alarmed now] Who sent you?

A closely related and highly practical use of the square brackets is where the writer interpolates the sequence he quotes with a remark of his own:

He said: 'I think our campaign is going extremely well and [his embarrassed little laugh betrayed his unease] I know we will win the day'.

He wrote to say that I am his sole [sic] mate. Do you think I should ask which shoe of his wants me attached [very sick]?

Linguistics, Philosophy and other language-intensive disciplines sometimes use square brackets to distinguish words that establish a template of meaning from the actual words of the sentence under analysis:

[If] He goes, [then] I go.

Several parentheses together

Some writers use square brackets to distinguish neutral explanations from remarks. The brackets in the following sentence enclose the writer's remarks and the square brackets his neutral explanations.

Within the hour he had his answer ready (as expected) and though he did not actually say as much, it was clear that he thought the Alliance [Only-Under-Eighteens' Alliance for Dignified Independence] little more than a joke (a bad one).

There is a practice, fortunately not a common one, of embedding a parenthetical statements into a statement that is already made parenthetically. It is quite hard on the reader:

She barely touched upon the real issues, though her [`theme is that children (American-born children of Greek extraction) have a right to an effective bilingual-lingual and bicultural education' (as Greek Americans - not only as Greeks nor only as Americans - ). ]

This writer enclosed with square brackets everything that is `her' theme and his commentary upon it. Within this enclosure he put a first parenthesis by means of brackets to explain what `her theme' means by `children'. A second parenthesis by means of brackets in the same enclosure explains what `her theme' means by `bicultural education'. The double dash enclosed by the second parenthesis by brackets explains what `her theme' means by `Greek Americans'. At the end of the sentence all three sets of parentheses are conscientiously closed. There is, as a result, this accumulation of markers: - ). ] . This sort of antic is fine if the writer is preparing a text for encoding in mathematical language. But for the purpose of writing in order to be read, it is sheer nonsense.

The hyphen and morphology

The morphological functions of the hyphen are:

to make one described noun (compound noun) of two or more nouns;
to make one adjective of two or more words;
to attach a prefix (`re-', `anti-') or a suffix (`-wise', `-like') to words.

The hyphen and compound nouns

The compound noun is rapidly dying out in English. Some time ago a noun made up of two nouns was hyphenated as a matter of course: business-man, stock-broker. But frequent use has seen them become single-word nouns: businessman, stockbroker, hairdresser, seaman.

Other compound nouns simply remain two words, such that the first of them becomes the adjective that describes the second: work clothes, regulation gear, freedom fighter, fortune hunter, Christmas tree. Despite the occasional claims to the contrary, it is never obligatory to hyphenate these `noun-turned-adjective + noun' combinations:

The work clothes we wear are strictly regulation gear.

Obligation to hyphenate occurs only when a sequence of words compounds to make one noun:

bric-a-brac, lady-in-waiting, ack-of-all-trades, know-it-all, stick-in-the-mud,

and when words string in a way that makes it difficult to tell which is functioning as a noun and which as an adjective. Of this string: a happy news reader, one cannot tell whether the named entity (the noun) is a `happy reader of news' or a `reader of happy news'. The hyphen eliminates the ambiguity:

a happy news-reader 
a happy reader of news

a happy-news reader
a reader of happy news.

The hyphen and adjectives

The hyphen makes adjectives in several ways. It enables a compound noun to perform as an adjective:

My man-scalper instinct is as good as new.
Her freedom-fighter brother was warmly welcomed.
Christmas-tree lights twinkled in every room.

It compounds a word that can perform like an adverb with a word that can perform like a verb and makes this compounding the first of a series of adjectives:

That happily-married eye surgeon retired to spend more time with his family.

But the hyphen is not appropriate when an adjective of this formation is the only adjective:

That happily married surgeon retired to spend more time with his family.

nor when it is a predicate adjective:

This surgeon is happily married.

It compounds an adjective that quantifies (measures size, extent, etc.) with a noun:

For him these are larger-than-life values.

or with a word that can perform like a predicate adjective:

The long-awaited event is to take place tomorrow.
Only English-speaking people were able to take part.

The hyphen is not appropriate in this formation when it is a predicate adjective:

The event to take place tomorrow is long awaited.
The only people able to take part were English speaking.

There is a practice, frowned-upon by some, that will make a compound adjective of the subject and verb of a verb basic sentence:

This girl-led march was a huge success.
Girls led a march that was a huge success.

The frowned-upon smokers didn't mind at all.
The smokers who were frowned upon did not mind at all.

The purpose-betraying paragraph of the document amused us.
The paragraph that betrayed the document's purpose amused us.

Those who like such adjectives are entitled to them, so long as they keep them in check. This, for instance, really is a bit much:

The by-then-gone-over-the-top part of her performance damaged her reputation.
Her performance that had gone rather over-the-top by then damaged her reputation.

The prefix and running together

There is consternation about when prefixes such as anti-, pro- and counter- are run into a noun or hyphenated with it. Advice to consult a dictionary in this matter is not much use to the irritable. (`Hang it, it is just a hyphen!') Their attitude hardens when they find the dictionary apparently inconsistent with itself. For instance, why `counterirritant' but `counter-intelligence', `countercharge' but `counter-claim', `counterpoint' but `counter-tenor'?

The source of the apparent inconsistency is our phonetic system. If we had `antisemitic', its tise  would be reminiscent of the frequent occurrence of `i  + consonant + e'  in which the i is pronounced as the i in size. The hyphen intercedes between anti and Semitic, therefore, to retain the sound i (as  i in `in') of `anti-'. Similarly, `antihero' would encourage the pronunciation of the i  in tiher  as the i  in `tire'. The prefixes re-, co-  and de- fare similarly: The hyphen intervenes when a collision of letters threatens a change of sound: re-enter, co-operate, de-emphasis. When there is no such threat, the prefix is simply run into a word: reconstruct, decommission, coincidence.

Very commonly, morphology explains why a prefix is not attached by means of a hyphen: There are nouns of which anti is a part. Some of them are: antibody, antidote, antipodes. (`Anti-body' does not make sense; there are no such noun as `dote' or `podes'

Unfortunately though, our phonetic and morphology  won't wear all of the blame. Genuine inconsistencies do occur. For instance, the upper-case is kept in `Semitic' as it is before all proper nouns in which anti- is a prefix: anti-Communist, anti-Cartesian, anti-Catholic. But then, we find antichristian. Why not anti-Christian? Why not indeed! The writer who prefers it to antichristian must feel free to use it.

The hyphen and over-

There are perplexing pieces of dictionary reasoning about some prefixes. The prefix over- is one of them. One would think that, like anti- and the other prefixes, it would run into a word rather than hyphenate with it wherever possible. But no: It sometimes hyphenates: over-exercised, over-abundant, over-anxious, over-many, and sometimes does not: overvalue, override, overindulge, overestimate, overexert. Casting about for justification, one might light upon the possibility that over- is hyphenated when it is the prefix of an adjective. Other `measurement' adjectives hyphenate:

a too-exaggerated kindness
a one-in-a-million chance
a one-off occurrence
two-meter rod.

But then, there's overripe. Why not over-ripe? (Here again, anyone who prefers `over-ripe' can use it.)

The hyphen and meaning

The real issue in the use of hyphens with prefixes is meaning: When we read `re-cover', we know that there is something to do with `putting a new cover' on something. `Recover' tells us that there is something to do with someone `getting better' or something's being `got back' or `retrieved'. And we know that an `extra-national' issue is one that is `outside a national parameter', and that an `extra national issue' is an `additional national issue'.

When there is no issue of meaning, hyphenation is not something a writer need lose sleep over: Nothing heinous is committed in writing pre-medical, post-industrial, etc, even though the dictionary records premedical and postindustrial.  Using a hyphen unnecessarily - `post-prandial' (postprandial) - is better than running in something like `postmodernism' (post-modernism) or dangling a prefix: `non proliferation' (non-proliferation), `pre therapy' (pre-therapy). Common sense prevails in this usage. Simply, the suffix is part of a noun that is a standard word: ladylike, clockwise. When a word is somehow a customised adjective: a John-like character, an Australian-style solution, it is hyphenated.

The hyphen as line breaker

Another role of the hyphen is the purely pragmatic one of breaking a line of words at the point set by the right-hand margin of a page. The hyphen in this role is wholly avoidable. The writer need only disable the automatic-hyphen facility of his writing programme.

Line-breaking is a printer's, and sometimes an editor's, business. Its basis is `syllabification': the art of demarcating the syllabic parts of a word in order to decide which point between its syllabic parts is also the point where a line break can occur. Exactly what constitutes a syllabic part is yet undecided. Or rather, there have been several decisions about it, but no consensus. Printers choose the syllabification system they favour and break lines in accordance with its rules. So we see, for instance, `significant' broken thus: signif-icant and thus: signi-ficant.

The merits of the various approaches to syllabification need not engage writers even when they put their work up for publication. Their concern should be that line breaks are not so many on a printed page that they irritate the reader, and even more, that lines are not broken in a way that interferes with reading comprehension. For instance, reading  char-  at the end of a line and mentally pronouncing a sound such as `char' in `chart', the reader is flummoxed when the beginning of the next line gives him acter and the quite different sound of `character'.