Thursday, February 15, 2007

By Popular Demand (Part 2)

So tomorrow is the big day: after spending two hours on the comma, I have one hour left in which to cover all the remaining punctuation marks. Here’s the Coles Notes version:

The Dash: Use it whenever you feel like it. It may or may not be effective, but it’s unlikely to be wrong, unless you’re writing a very formal academic paper. In that case, throw dashes around with abandon, but then go back through the essay when you’re done and replace them with properly pedantic colons and semi-colons.

The Semi-Colon: If you know how to use a period, you know how to use a semi-colon. Both come at the end of an independent clause; semi-colons come in handy, though, when you’re long-winded and/or arrogant enough to believe that the stunning complexity of your thoughts requires more than one independent clause for full clarity and persuasiveness.

The Apostrophe: Such a boring punctuation mark, the apostrophe. There’s nothing challenging about the principle governing its use: when you feel tempted to add the letter "s" to a noun, simply ask yourself, "Do I need to add ‘s’ to this word because I have more than one of it, or because something belongs to it?" Apostrophe errors are almost always the result of carelessness rather than a misunderstanding of the rules.

Whew. With those lesser punctuation marks out of the way, I can turn my attention to the underused, yet elegant and beloved colon. Most punctuation marks have very little to say for themselves. A comma says, "take a quick breath," a period says, "take a deep breath," but a colon says, "Don’t panic. I know you’re confused, but never fear: I can explain everything." Like a semi-colon, a colon always comes at the end of an independent clause, a word group that could stand alone as a sentence. Unlike the semi-colon, however, the colon can be followed by almost anything: a list, an appositive phrase, a quotation, or even another independent clause. It doesn’t really matter what grammatical form the words following the colon take; what matters is what those words do. They clarify; they explain; they offer an illuminating example.

Colons are most typically used following a cryptic statement. "Life is like a box of chocolates," Forrest claims, and we pause in bewilderment. What does he mean? In what sense can that be true? The colon stops such speculations in their tracks, and reassures us that all will be explained. Life is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.

(This adage, by the way, is particularly pertinent right now as I select a chocolate from my Valentine’s box. Hubby got it at a local chocolatier, so it doesn’t have one of those little cards that translate the swirls and swoops for you, a curlicue signalling strawberry cream, a dark chocolate ridge hinting at liquid caramel lurking below. I think I’ll pick one now, blogging in real time, as it were. It’s a milk chocolate square with three lines crossing it diagonally. Yum. It’s a Skor-bar-type crunchy toffee. Life is full of wonderful surprises, isn’t it?)

Let us resume. In its most well-known uses – to introduce a list and to introduce a quotation – the colon performs basically the same function as it does in Forrest Gump: it points toward something that explains, proves, and amplifies the introductory statement. I have a wonderful variety of candies here: chocolate-dipped caramels, almond bark, coffee cream, and coconut crisp. The list in that sentence provides a more specific version of "wonderful variety of candies," clarifying what might otherwise have been a tantalizingly ambiguous statement. Quotations work the same way: Terry Moore has proposed a 12-step program for chocoholics: "NEVER BE MORE THAN 12 STEPS AWAY FROM CHOCOLATE!"

The colon is the most sympathetic of punctuation marks; it understands your needs and promises to fulfill them. Use it often; use it well.

*****

A postscript: I promised I would post about my least favourite grammatical rule. This particular rule governs the use of a comma before a coordinating conjunction such as and, or, but, or yet. Coordinating conjunctions join together things that have equal grammatical weight: two nouns, two adverbs, two subordinate clauses, etc. A comma is required only when the coordinating conjunction is being used to link together two independent clauses. That means that the comma in the following sentence is incorrect: Charlotte ate the whole box of chocolates, but sipped a Diet Coke. That sentence is an example of a compound predicate: the coordinating conjunction "but" is used to link together two verbs ("ate" and "sipped"), both of which belong to the same subject ("Charlotte").

As I tell my students, we cannot expect Charlotte to jump over that comma to get to the second verb. To me, though, the comma feels necessary – it prepares the reader for the shift of emphasis from Charlotte’s gluttony to her senseless attempt to cut calories. I might even go so far as to use a dash, actually (and if I did I could probably get away with it, since dashes escape the scrutiny of the comma vigilantes). If we want to keep the comma and satisfy the grammar police, however, we must supply a second subject, turning the second part of the sentence into its own independent clause: Charlotte ate the whole box of chocolates, but she sipped a Diet Coke. Somehow it doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?

I’ve broken this rule at least three times in this post. Can you spot the errors?

29 comments:

Robbin said...

Yay for dashes!

I was worried that I was a completely entrenched dash-abuser.

Mouse said...

I do exactly the same thing with but, but not with and. I think it's in response to the disjunction suggested in 'but.' I've noticed writers who use the comma in the same way with and--including my grammatically fastidious supervisor.

Of all punctuation, I am most fond of the semi-colon. I have been told it is a particular weakness of people in my field; the literature we read relies heavily on long sentences that follow closely upon one another, so we tend to use the semi-colon to replicate that.

Suzanne said...

I tend to enforce the no comma rule when I'm editing, but in my mind the presence of the commas totally depends on the flow/intent/euphony of the sentence. Sometimes the comma slows down the sentence for no good reason; other times the pause is necessary. This is, I suppose, yet another example of how ill-advised it is to uniformly apply a grammatical rule.

Great post!

Mimi said...

Ok. I'm too lazy to go back to find the errors, but your post makes me think about two ways we can approach punctuation--two philosophies of punctuation, if you will.

First, computer-nerd me likes punctuation to be rigorous and to serve a disambiguating function. That's why I'm all for serial commas, for example, while most Brits are not. (and for the hyphenation of the entire modifying string, as in, 'overeducated-computer-nerd me') In this model, punctuation is part of a regimented system of written expression. Perfect. Subject to inflexible rules of correct composition.

Second, animated-blogger me is much more a fan of a slap-dash (and dash-happy) punctuation much more in keeping with the breezy, written-like-you-say-it tone of these kinds of informal online materials (well, most of your posts are op-ed worthy, but mine, MINE are silly and ill-formed). This would have a more 18c flavor--commas where you think you mights pause for breath if you were speaking aloud.

So. Are we punctuating written language? Or are we punctuating monologues?

Dunno. Anyhow. Thanks for such a fun lesson.

Nancy said...

Like Robbin, I'm also happy to hear that I'm not too blatant a dash-abuser. It's definitely my favorite type of punctuation.

Blog Antagonist said...

That was very informative. Thank You! But what about "..." I tend to abuse that, I believe. I use it in the written word to mimic natural pauses in spoken language, no doubt incorrectly. Aside from superfluous commas, its one of my biggest downfalls.

bubandpie said...

Mimi - By "serial commas," do you mean the Oxford comma (the one before "and" at the end of a list)? I'm a big fan of that one myself. Me likey the hyphens, too - in my last punctuation post I spent a truly absurd amount of time hesitating over whether I should hyphenate "milk-chocolate" in my milk chocolate Toblerone bar example. I would have done it, too, but it served my purposes better in that case to leave the hyphen out so that I could demonstrate the absurdity of scrambling the adjectives.

BA - In academic writing, the ellipsis is used primarily to indicate where material has been omitted from a quotation. In any other kind of writing, though, I think it falls into the same category as the dash: it may or may not be effective in a given context, but it isn't wrong. Mimi's distinction probably applies here, too: the ellipsis, as you use it, is designed to lend animation to your writing rather than to serve a technical purpose.

Andrea said...

Here's one: "stops such speculations in their tracks, and reassures" (add an "it" before reassures or take out the comma).

You certainly do like the Oxford comma. I caught a few of those, too. (I try not to use them, personally, except where they seem necessary for the rhythm of a sentence.)

I'd also like to say that I admired your placement of the dig at the semi-colon directly after a semi-colon. Nice touch.

This was very Lynn Truss-y. It's not easy to make punctuation amusing.

metro mama said...

I often omit the comma before the coordinating conjunction.

Dashes rock!

Love you grammar lessons.

gingajoy said...

I am a big fan of the dash myself. Commas are not my friend. When I started grad school in the States I got reamed for my bad punctuation--and I *swear* I never had a formal lesson on comma usage in the UK. Run on sentences are the biggest culprit, and I see them all over the place in English authors--ask a Brit what a "run on sentence" is or a "fragment" and get a blank look. Well, that's my excuse anyway!

Mimi said...

Yes, yes, the Oxford comma! If you don't use it, then how can you read this without having to read it twice: "I like knitting, drinking and driving." Or, "I like knitting, baking and eating cookies and drinking" (What are the terms that go together? baking and eating cookies? or eating cookies and drinking? And how inefficient to do all this disambiguating by context! The Oxford comma covers all cases!!!! (pant, sputter))

This sort of thing keeps me up at night. Really

Beck said...

I like dashes. Probably because of too much reading Emily Dickinson at an early age and also because I'm lazy.

penelopeto said...

Throwing dashes around willy-nilly? Unlikely to be wrong? Do not even get me started on the proper use of hyphens, en-dashes and em-dashes. I mean it.

BTW - one of your errant commas appears in that passage. And what of the serial comma? Controversial, to say the least.

nomotherearth said...

As you know, I am a self-diagnosed dashaholic. I can't help it - it just seems to give one's writing a sense of urgency and forward motion - you know what I mean?

Your grammar lessons are fun!

bubandpie said...

Penelopeto - The comma before "unless" in that paragraph was not strictly necessary, I admit, but the commas before coordinating conjunctions were all okay (independent clauses all around). As for the hyphen - do not suppose that my willingness to give carte blanche to willy-nilly dash usage extends to the hyphen. No indeed. The hyphen is another matter entirely.

Denguy said...

I'm just laughing at the real-time chocolate interlude.

Gwen said...

Note to self: copy these posts for use upon return to teaching high school English. Wait, scratch that. My high school students will still be stuck on verbs and nouns. Oxford commas? good lordy!

Oh, and now I have a diagnosis for my use of semi-colons: arrogance. That pretty much sums it up, for me. :)

I get horribly confused around quotation marks and parenthesis. Does the punctuation go before? after? in the middle? I usually just hope my writing is so brilliant, my readers are blinded by its magnificence and therefore miss my inability to punctuate.

Hmmm ... guess I'd better learn to punctuate correctly.

Kelly said...

I love these lessons!

But I've come to the unpleasant conclusion that I'm both long-winded and arrogant. I'm in love with the semi-colon!

Andrea said...

Reason #524,078 Why I am a Geek:

I keep checking back in hopes of seeing an answer key.

Is there an answer key? Will there be an answer key? My brain will not rest until you admit to the location of the other two misplaced commas.

(That's why there are so many reasons for my geekitude.)

bubandpie said...

Okay, answer key time. The other two are not really as good as the one Andrea identified (which was a bona fide compound predicate).

1) In the Apostrophe section, the comma before "or" is incorrect because it links together two subordinate clauses (both beginning with "because") rather than two independent clauses. This is the one that inspired me to plant the other two - because I really want that comma before "or" and I think its presence makes the sentence easier to follow.

2) In the paragraph right after the Apostrophe, the comma before "yet" is wrong because it's joining together two adjectives ("underused" and "elegant"). I could get away with it, though, if I put a second comma after "beloved," turning the "yet elegant and beloved" into a parenthetical interjection.

Andrea said...

Phew! Raging curiosity receding ... vision returning ... ah. Much better.

Interesting. For #1, I agree--but what was your other option? I suppose you could eliminate the comma, but that would make it awfully long.

(See? Geek!)

bren j. said...

Never mind finding your errors - I just want some chocolates!!

Mary-LUE said...

Changing the topic from commas, etc. What do you do with periods and commas in relation to parentheses? I was taught that punctuations marks such as commas and periods go inside parentheses and that question marks, semi-colons and colons go outside parentheses. I very rarely, if ever, see anyone do that. I only do it sporadically because sometimes it just looks too, too wrong. Help me, Obi-wan-BubandPie.

bubandpie said...

Mary-LUE: Okay. When you put an entire sentence inside the parentheses, you can end that sentence with whatever punctuation seems appropriate and the punctuation goes inside. (Do it this way.)

Most of the time, though, parentheses occur within a sentence (either at the end or in the middle). In that case, you place the end punctuation (a period, question mark, or exclamation point) after the parentheses.

If the parentheses occur in the middle of the sentence (as above), there may or may not be a comma afterwards - that depends entirely on how the sentence would be punctuated if you removed the parentheses (and everything inside them) altogether. See?

Lisa b said...

fantastic post
I feel smarter already

Mary-LUE said...

Thanks for the clear instructions (and perfect modeling of) parenthetical punctuation!

Mary-LUE said...

Um... I am completely red-faced here B&P. I realized tonight, days later, that I wasn't confused about parentheses but about quotation marks. I really am completely so embarassed, I can't make the equivalent of blogging eye contact with you! However, now I really need to know the answer to my previous question only replace quotation marks wherever I wrote parentheses. I can only plead that my daughter has been sick for over a week and my brain cells need recharging.

bubandpie said...

Mary-LUE: That's funny. I just taught quotation marks yesterday, and when I was reviewing the rules about colons and semi-colons I remembered your question about parentheses - I just thought maybe you'd mixed the two sets of rules up. Here goes:

Question marks can go either inside or outside of the quotation marks depending on who is asking the question:

1) John asked, "Can I go to the bathroom?" (It's John's question, so the question mark goes inside the quotation marks.)

2) Was it John who said, "All men are children at heart"? (Here, John made a statement but I am asking a question about it - the question mark belongs to the entire sentence, not to the quotation itself, so the question mark goes outside the quotation marks.)

Same rules go for exclamation points:

3) John shouted, "Get out of the way!" (It's John's exclamation, so the exclamation point goes inside.)

4) I can't believe John said that "All men are children at heart"! (The whole sentence is an exclamation so the exclamation point goes outside.)

When you use a quotation at the end of a sentence, you can put a period inside the quotation marks, even if in the original text the quoted words were followed by a comma, colon, or semi-colon. (It's only "interesting" punctuation marks like question marks and exclamation points that you keep.)

If, however, you wish to continue the sentence after the quotation using a semi-colon or colon, those punctuation marks do go after the quotation, and the original punctuation is omitted:

5) John claims that "All men are children at heart"; however, he refuses to acknowledge that most men are little more than infants.

This is not a commonly used construction, nor is it an especially effective one most of the time, but that's how you would punctuate it.

GSpontak said...

Though I come quite late to the party, I wanted to thank you for the excellent explanation of where to place punctuation in relation to parenthesis. I've been under the impression for some time that I was doing it incorrectly, but I could never find a reference for the rule. (OK, I admit it. I never looked very hard.) Now I find that, as you mentioned about commas, my instincts are generally correct - it's when I try too hard that I mess it up. I guess all that reading growing up did come in handy. Thanks from a new reader!