Punctuation / 12 октября 2007 г.

Based primarily on the website The Slot: A Spot for Copy Editors, by Bill Walsh of The Washington Post

This is not intended to be a comprehensive overview of punctuation. The Canadian Press Style Book, Words Into Type, The Associated Press Stylebook, The Chicago Manual of Style and many other sources do that job quite well. Here are issues that come up most often on the job, as well as some pet peeves.


Commas don’t seem to inspire shouting matches the way hyphens do, but opinions on their proper use probably vary even more widely. Because the comma’s primary purpose is to symbolize a pause in speech, its use is subject to the vagarities of the human ear. There are hard-and-fast rules about commas, of course, but within those rules there is infinite room for nuance and interpretation. The following items address common comma problems.

Commas with and and but

How do you know whether to use a comma when the conjunctions and or but link two clauses?

If the second clause shares a subject with the first (and that subject is not restated), don’t use the comma.

Smith looked in the car but didn’t find anything.

If there’s a new subject — or the old subject is restated — use the comma.

Smith looked in the car, but Jones didn’t. (New subject: comma)

Smith looked in the car, but he didn’t find anything. (“He” is a restatement of the subject: comma)

Of course, there are always exceptions. When what comes after the “but” is an aside, a little adjunct that really has no subject, the comma is appropriate.

Smith kept looking, but not for long.

Comma conservation?

People seem eager to omit commas in sentences such as the following, but the usual rules apply.

They met at 24 Sussex Drive where Prime Minister Paul Martin pledged co-operation.

There’s only one 24 Sussex Drive, so you need a comma before “where.”

The orphans appealed to Toronto Mayor David Miller who told them to get lost.

Same principle. Add the comma.

His only friend? Just one of his many wives?

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Prince Charles has more than one friend. Therefore, don’t use a comma between “his friend” and “Camilla Parker Bowles.”

The same logic dictates that “John Smith and his wife Mary” implies he’s a bigamist.

If there’s only one friend, wife, sister, brother or whatever, the comma is needed. If there are more than one, the comma is wrong.

Jr. and Inc., not comma-Jr. and comma-Inc.

Don’t use a comma before Jr. or Inc., regardless of the person’s or company’s preference.

This is a rule at CP, whose logic — found also in The Elements of Style — is persuasive: The terms are integral parts of the name (John Smith and John Smith Jr. are two different people).

Also, introducing the “before” comma means you also have to introduce an “after” comma if a Jr. or Inc. occurs mid-sentence, which would become awfully awkward.

A comma, because

Many arbiters of usage insist that “because” should not be preceded by a comma, but it should. Negative constructions in particular often need the comma to clarify which part of the sentence “because” modifies. Observe the difference between the following examples:

She didn’t wear her raincoat, because it was too warm.

She didn’t wear her raincoat because it was raining; she wore it because it matched her outfit.

We have a distinction between an essential clause and a non-essential clause. In the first example, you can drop the clause and the sentence is still true. In the second example, the sentence’s meaning depends on the clause.

A comma, of course

There are two kinds of “of courses,” one that takes a comma and one that doesn’t.

With comma, it’s a “matter of fact” or “by the way” sort of interjection:

Yes, I can make it on Friday. Of course, I’ll have to cancel my other appointments.

Without the comma, it’s much more emphatic:

Will I be there? Of course I will.

Tip: If the word “course” is stressed enough that you could put it in italics, delete the comma.

Hi, comma

“Hi Bill!” This is fine in an e-mail message — and the prevalence of e-mail seems to be making this common bad habit even more common — but in actual writing a comma is needed after the “hi.”

The point is, use the comma

Use a comma to set off the introductory clause in sentences like “The point is, use the comma.”

There may not be a grammatical reason to do so, but the pause occurs naturally in this increasingly popular way of speaking, so use the comma in writing.

Commas and hometowns

Don’t use a comma when a hometown (or home country or home state or company, etc.) is set off with “of.”

Andy Sipowicz of New York and Maude Findlay of Brandon, Man., attended the event.

What to do when a hometown is introduced on a second reference? The issue becomes one of essential clause vs. non-essential clause. On a second reference, we’ve already been introduced to the person in question, and thus that person’s hometown is not a defining factor. In this case, the comma is necessary:

Andy Sipowicz and Maude Findlay attended the event. Sipowitz, of New York, passed along greetings from his friend John Clark Jr., who couldn’t make jt.

Aside from the sound grammatical reason, “Sipowitz of New York” has an awfully medieval sound to it, like “Theodoric of York.”

Serial commas

You could make a strong argument for using serial commas — commas at the end of a series of items — but Canadian Press disdains the practice and so should you.

He had toast, juice and eggs for breakfast.

But the serial comma is sometimes necessary, even in CP style. You should use it if any item in a series already contains the word “and” (or “or,” as the case may be):

He had toast, juice, and ham and eggs for breakfast.


The semicolon (;) is used to separate parts of a sentence or list and indicate a pause longer than a comma but shorter than a period.

The semicolon is difficult to use and ugly, and so should be avoided whenever possible.

Sometimes it kicks in as a “supercomma” of sorts to separate items in a series.

Semicolon or comma?

Here’s the hierarchy to follow when deciding whether serial commas are necessary and when to use semicolons instead of commas.

Commas, no serial comma

I had toast, juice, milk and Trix.

Use a serial comma if an item in the series contains “and”

I had toast, juice, and ham and eggs.

Also use a serial comma if the items are awkwardly long, or if each item — whatever the length — would stand as a complete sentence

I like Trix, I like Lucky Charms, and I like Cocoa Pebbles.

Use semicolons if an item in the series contains a comma

I got up; had toast, juice and milk; and brushed my teeth.

Exception: Stick with commas alone in series where ages are the only intervening element.

John Smith, 36, Mary Jones, 24, and Bob White, 22, were arrested Friday.

Use a semicolon when two sentences are fused together without the word “and.”

I looked outside; the weather was not nice.


A colon (:) is used to divide distinct but related elements in a sentence — clauses in which the second clause elaborates on the first or to introduce a list, quotation or speech.

Don’t break up a perfectly good sentence with a colon just because a number of items are about to be listed.

Lists need to be preceded with colons only when they are introduced with “the following” or “as follows” or “here are,” or something like that. Those forms usually are unnecessary, making the use of the colon irrelevant.

Don’t use the colon after “the problems include” or “the members of the task force are.”

If you have a long list, it’s best in newspaper writing to set it up with boldface bullets — •.


Ah, the hyphen. This is the punctuation mark (-) used to link elements in a compound word or phrase.

Compound modifiers must be hyphenated.

A 24-year-old woman registered for first-year Journalism.

She wore a light-blue dress and open-toed shoes.

He carried a 25-pound, black-and-tan backpack.

Adverbs and other “-ly” words

Hyphens should not be used to link adverbs to the words they modify, even when the two words make up a compound modifier.

An easily led group.

The badly behaved child.

But beware: Not all words that end in “-ly” are adverbs.

family-run business,

Likely to cause confusion are adjectives ending in the suffix “ly,” such as “friendly,” “masterly” and “manly.”

Remember that with adverbs, “(blank)ly” means “in a (blank) manner.” Apply that test to the above examples and you get nonsense (“in a friend manner,” “in a master manner,” “in a man manner”).


An s does not always a possessive make

Proper nouns ending in the letter s take an ’s when they are possessives but not when they are simply labels.

Incorrect: Autoworkers’ president Buzz Hargrove
Correct: Autoworkers president Buzz Hargrove

Incorrect: Argos’ quarterback Damon Allen
Correct: Argos quarterback Damon Allen

Tip: When in doubt, substitute an equivalent word that doesn’t end in s and see if it would sound better as a possessive.

Would you say union’s president John Smith or union president John Smith? The latter, right? So it’s Autoworkers president Buzz Hargrove.

Would you say team’s quarterback Damon Allen? No — it would be team quarterback, just as it would be Argos quarterback.

There are, of course, plenty of legitimate possessive constructions.

Correct: The Argos’ quarterback, Damon Allen (the team’s quarterback)

Correct: The Autoworkers’ president, Buzz Hargrove (the union’s president)

Pregnant or on probation: Apostrophes? Hyphens? Both? Neither?

Use no hyphen and no apostrophe in constructions such as “seven months pregnant.” it’s descriptive, not possessive.

On the other hand, “two years” is possessive in “two years’ probation,” so the apostrophe is needed.

Quote marks

With other punctuation

Commas, like periods, always go inside quotation marks.

“She said 'I shot him,’” the policeman testified.

Semicolons and colons never go inside quote marks.

He said he couldn’t “stomach it”; watching the surgery was just too gruesome.

Question marks and commas don’t mix. If there’s a question mark, leave out the comma. Quotes ending in question marks never take a comma, either inside or outside.

“What’s wrong with you?” she asked.

Question marks and exclamation marks can go either inside or outside, depending on the meaning.

“What about 'the world’s tallest free-standing structure’?” he asked.

His response to everything was “Huh?”

Can he really sing like “Old Blue Eyes”?

Single quotes

In North American English, single quotes have only two roles:

They’re used when a quotation occurs within another quotation. (“She said, 'I shot him,’” the policeman testified.)

They’re used as a matter of typographical style in headlines and other headings.

Some writers seem to think “minor” quoted matter is not worthy of the full quote treatment and thus gets single quotes, but they are mistaken.


Canadian Press style calls for brackets, not quotation marks, around nicknames.

Avoid identifying people as Lawrence (Larry) Horn or Robert (Bob) Smith. Pick Lawrence or Larry, Robert or Bob.

Let the full reference stand with parentheses around a nickname that’s not just a diminutive, for example Carmine (The Big Ragoo) Ragusa, or one that bears no relation to the real name, such as William (Scott) Jones.

When a nickname is used without the person’s real name, omit the brackets.

Carlos the Jackal, but lllich (Carlos the Jackal) Ramirez.

Former U.S. speaker Tip O’Neill, but Thomas P. (Tip) O’Neill.

Magic Johnson, but Earvin (Magic) Johnson.

“I wonder . . .” is not a question

Use no question mark after a statement like “I wonder if it’s going to rain today.” There’s an implied question within, but the speaker is stating that he wonders about something, not asking whether he does.

Similarly, though questioning tone of voice is used when a person says “Guess what,” that is also not a question. It’s an imperative sentence, a command that the other person should guess.


Ellipses are used to indicate the omission of one or more words from a quote or text and consist of three dots: . . .

The three dots may or may not be preceded by a period, depending on whether the omission is in the middle of a sentence. So it’s four dots if the ellipses come at the end of a sentence.

There is no need to use ellipses at the beginning or end of a quote, except perhaps to create the feeling of a trailing-off at the end (“I thought I did the right thing, but then again . . . .”).


Brackets ( ) are used to indicate the insertion of words in quotes. They are meant to help the reader, but they can become ugly and distracting.

If you find yourself needing to use many brackets in a quote, it’s better to remove the quotation marks and paraphrase the quote to make it clear and easily understood for the reader.

1) Don’t do this

The single parenthesis is not a legitimate punctuation mark. In newspaper writing, lists should be set up with boldface bullets:




If you need to use a list in mid-sentence, use full parentheses:

She likes her copy-editing job because (a) the lack of a lunch break discourages overeating, (b) the salary discourages frivolous spending on material goods and (c) the crusty old men she is forced to work with make messy office romances a non-issue.


The most common problem with bulleted lists is an absence of parallel construction — the device with which two or more phrases or clauses in a single sentence have the same construction.

If the first bullet is a declarative sentence in the present tense, the rest should also be declarative sentences in the present tense. Each item must match the introductory sentence (note how the bullet items below do just that).

The following is purely a matter of style, but it’s nice to see bulleted items that:

Are introduced with a colon.

Begin with a capital letter and end with a period (not a semicolon), even if they aren’t complete sentences.

Are indented (or not, as the case may be) just like other paragraphs.

Avoid the annoying “and” that list-makers of the semicolon school like to insert after the second to last item.


The slash, or virgule, is a punctuation mark of last resort. It should be left in proper names and trademarks, if it’s clear that that’s what was intended, but in most other cases it can be replaced by a hyphen or a perfectly good English word such as “or” or “of” or “for.”

Ridiculous titles such as “vice-president/academic” should be recast as “vice-president for academic affairs.”

“And/or,” however, should get the slash, in the rare case that it can’t be replaced by something more elegant.

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