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Punctuation Made Easy for Writers

For good or bad, punctuation will make your writing stand out from the crowd.

(There, I managed to use two hackneyed phrases in a single sentence!)

COMMAS

The purpose of using commas is to separate out individual concepts. It has nothing to do with “taking a breath”, other than incidentally. Let’s kick off immediately with an example:

The old house, which was painted white, stood in a field.

Why are there two commas in that sentence and what determines their positions?

Let’s look at it again:

The old house (which was painted white) stood in a field.

Now you can see that the concept of the house’s being white is not essential. It can be omitted and the sentence still makes sense:

The old house stood in a field. (The house was painted white.)

So, a very simple test for the use of commas is:

If the phrase separated by commas can be removed and leave a meaningful sentence, the commas are correctly placed.

Another example:

He put on his coat and, in case the weather was cold, his old Trilby hat.

You can see that this passes the test. Remove the phrase between the commas and it leaves:

He put on his coat and his old Trilby hat.

Two more examples:

He ate the meat, which had been on the plate for a week, and felt rather sick.

It’s obvious that, in order to make beer, you need hops, sugar and yeast.

Commas are also used to create a slight pause where you’ve used a word that, for example, adds nothing to the meaning of the sentence.

Incidentally, I forgot to tell you about Mary.

Also where it follows a verb and might otherwise be confusing:

As you can see, above.

They are also used to separate a description associated with a name; for example:

Mary, the bride, wore a white dress and veil.

John, my brother, wore a grey suit.

Commas are also used in lists:

Please buy carrots, turnips, potatoes and bread.

FULL STOPS (American: periods)

Full stops are used to end a sentence. Many people have problems in distinguishing where one sentence ends and another begins. Here’s an example, which arrived in my mail recently:

Sadly we cannot treat animals from outside the county if anyone is found to be bringing animals in for others outside the area we will not work with you again the town hall may bill you for treatment.

Please do not contact the veterinary clinic for the free sessions they cannot accept bookings.

Local animal welfare organisations have invested time, money & goodwill into this contract please do not jeopardise the project by trying to circumnavigate the contract terms.

We have outstanding equipment in particular cat carriers belonging to John please either leave at the veterinary clinic or drop off at the cattery.

These are all examples of “double sentences”. Each one contains two or three sentences run together. You might have to read each one more than once in order fully to appreciate the meaning. That’s a BAD thing. You mustn’t “stall” your reader. Nothing is more frustrating than to be forced to re-read a sentence because the meanings or associations (who did what) are unclear.

SEMICOLONS

Semicolons may be used to separate two sentences where the concept has not changed. A full stop might be too harsh.

Please do not contact the veterinary clinic for the free sessions; they cannot accept bookings.

Please do not contact the veterinary clinic for the free sessions. By the way, I have a grey dog.

That’s a rather trivial example, which attempts to show that a semicolon may be used where the subject or concept remains the same. A full stop should be used to separate two different subjects or concepts.

Semicolons are also used in lists:

Please get me: potatoes, carrots and chicken for the main course; sugar, flour and eggs to use in the baking; bananas to go with the ice cream and a dozen apples.

You can also see examples of the use of a colon, above. It is used when introducing an idea or concept; when the information following it is directly related to the opening phrase.

FINALLY

It’s easy to write a book full of rules (and exceptions) but really difficult to remember them all. So my goal was to keep this brief and to explain the basic concepts. That way you can figure it out for yourself. Some professional editor will probably read this and tell you “ah, but that’s wrong if such and such” or “that breaks Findlay’s second rule.. “. OK, some publications have a “house style”; if that’s the case then you might have to modify your text to comply. However, in 99% of cases, my suggestions, above, will create text that flows and doesn’t cause the reader to “stall”.

My advice is to bash out your words without worrying about style or punctuation, initially. BUT – once you have your ideas typed out – ALWAYS re-read the text and correct it. Remove any possibility of confusion for the reader.

Martin Pickering has a degree in Electronics Engineering. In his early teens he used to read five books per week and, since starting his own mail-order business in 1995, has had to answer customer enquiries where unambiguous English is essential. He writes a monthly blog and has published several technical eBooks for Amazon Kindle. He believes that making your articles easy to understand is more important than adhering strictly to the “rules” of grammar. Martin offers a copy editing service and can be contacted at http://www.your-book.co.uk/copyedit/

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Onibalusi

Welcome! I'm Bamidele Onibalusi, a young writer and blogger. I believe writers are unique and highly talented individuals that should be given the respect they deserve. This blog offers practical advice to help you become truly in charge of your writing career.

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