The Well Bred
An Intensive Study of Sentence Construction and Punctuation
© Sophie Johnson
The Well Bred Sentence (Table of Contents)
Chapter 7 Punctuation
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 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:
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 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 declares that an expression is used as an expletive:
or that it marks a statement that is uttered in an emotionally heightened way to express surprise or pleasure or to give an order:
The question mark follows a sentence in interrogative mood:
or a sentence in the indicative (statement) mood that is used interrogatively:
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:
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:
This is a good listing practice. It is certainly better than the next one, which misuses the semi-colon as a question mark:
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':
In the next sentence the semi-colon highlights the irony in being told that one may use something that is not in evidence:
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:
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:
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':
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:
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:
The other is the `referring back' phrase:
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:
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:
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:
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 appends a point in exactly the same way as the colon:
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:
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):
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:
He should either have written two sentences:
or one compound sentence:
The role of parenthesis is to interpose explanatory comment without making that comment an integral part of a sentence. Parenthesis is performed by:
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 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:
This writer cannot have meant to say that this country is commonly known as stagflation. He should have placed the parenthetical expression thus:
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:
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'):
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
drama-script square brackets
In drama scripts, the square brackets enclose directions that interrupt the text to be spoken by actors:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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 morphological functions of the hyphen are:
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:
Obligation to hyphenate occurs only when a sequence of words compounds to make one noun:
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:
The hyphen and adjectives
The hyphen makes adjectives in several ways. It enables a compound noun to perform as an adjective:
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:
But the hyphen is not appropriate when an adjective of this formation is the only adjective:
nor when it is a predicate adjective:
It compounds an adjective that quantifies (measures size, extent, etc.) with a noun:
or with a word that can perform like a predicate adjective:
The hyphen is not appropriate in this formation when it is a predicate adjective:
There is a practice, frowned-upon by some, that will make a compound adjective of the subject and verb of a verb basic sentence:
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 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:
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'.