Maia Jacomus

Punctuation Usage

It’s difficult to pinpoint any one absolute source of poor punctuation. Could it be lack of education? Laziness? Overexposure to online messaging? Minimal time spent reading and/or writing leisurely? For some, it’s all of these; for others, none. Sometimes, it’s merely a typo or oversight. But whatever the cause, incorrect punctuation can create confusion and misunderstanding in a written sentence. In her book, Woe Is I, Patricia T. O’ Conner gives a good example of punctuation-induced confusion:

Who do you think I saw the other day the Dalai Lama said my aunt Minnie.

This statement void of punctuation contains many possibilities of meaning, two of which are:

"Who do you think I saw the other day?" the Dalai Lama said. "My aunt Minnie."

"Who do you think I saw the other day? The Dalai Lama!" said my aunt Minnie.

Purely by changing the punctuation, the sentence can have two completely different meanings. Many times, by paying attention to the intention of the sentence, correct punctuation can be achieved. Even then, however, it can be difficult to understand or even remember the true rules of punctuation.

I devised a survey consisting of seven sentences. These sentences were constructed with some of the most common punctuation errors in mind, such as comma placement and apostrophes in plural words. Those taking the survey were told to read through each sentence and determine if the punctuation was correct or not. If it was correct, nothing needed to be done; if it was incorrect, they were to fix it. Not one of all those who took the survey got a perfect score, though neither did anyone get all answers wrong. Even I, who wrote up the test, got one wrong. So for their benefit and mine, I’ve done the research and discovered (more or less) how these common errors should be corrected.

I was born in the 1980's, so I used to watch He-Man, She-Ra, and Batman.

This was the very first sentence on the survey, and (as you may know) it is entirely correct as it is and does not require tweaking. All but two students understood that when using numerical symbols (such as 1980) or abbreviations (such as ASM), an apostrophe is needed before the s in order to make it plural. This especially makes sense with abbreviations, because if ASM’s were written ASMs, the plural s appears to actually be part of the abbreviation, which could cause confusion.

The comma usage put to the test in this sentence is perhaps not commonly used incorrectly, but is commonly debated. In a list of nouns, like the television shows above, the comma before the conjunction is often a preference of the writer and is generally accepted with or without. In the book Eats, Shoots & Leaves, Lynne Truss expresses that in the UK, the comma is generally left out, whereas in the US, it is generally kept in. My own preference is to put the comma in—otherwise, the final two items are joined together in a way that none of the others in the list are. In this case, it would make no sense to join She-Ra and Batman into a group together, being completely different shows. However, to group He-Man and She-Ra would be acceptable, since the two shows were made by the same studio and even with some of the same characters. But if not for that reason, there’s the simple reason of having a pause there, which is the comma’s purpose. When listing off, it’s said as: He-Man (pause) She-Ra (pause) and Batman. Without the comma, there’s further awkwardness of pairing off things: He-Man (pause) She-Ra and Batman. But again, this is how it makes sense to me, and seven of the ten students agreed with me.

After a long day of planting kumquats I like to order a cheesy pepperoni pizza.

Even just now as I was typing up the above sentence, it was difficult for me to avoid the habitual jerk to the comma key on my computer, knowing that a comma should be in that statement. But how it is displayed above is how I wrote it for the second sentence of the survey. Only two out of the ten students neglected to put the comma in for one reason or another. The clear purpose of placing a comma in this sentence is for a pause to separate the two ideas, so that it reads: After a long day of planting kumquats, I like to order a cheesy pepperoni pizza. Otherwise, it would be a run-on sentence and could be open to various interpretations, such as planting kumquats or planting kumquats I like.

The more difficult part of this sentence came at the description of the pizza: does cheesy require a comma afterwards or not? Only two students believed a comma was necessary, possibly regarding it as a list as in the first sentence. Student1, after taking the survey, asked for his "grade". After being told that no comma was needed after cheesy, he asked why. I honestly couldn’t answer him—I simply didn’t think a comma belonged there because it sounded and looked right without it somehow. I couldn’t explain why. Fortunately, Truss could accurately articulate my gut reaction for me. She first gives the following two example sentences:

He was a tall, bearded man.

It was an endangered white rhino.

In the case of the first sentence, she says, "In a list of adjectives, [...] the rule is that you use a comma where an and would be appropriate—where the modifying words are all modifying the same thing to the same degree." The sentence could be easily be rewritten as: He was a tall and bearded man. However, such an arrangement would sound awkward in the second sentence. Truss explains that, "This is because [...] the adjectives do their jobs in joyful combination." My sentence falls into the category of the second arrangement, not needing a comma since the words succeed on their own.

Since the orange’s were only twentyfive cents each I bought four of them.

The first error in this sentence always makes me cringe, and it pains me to report that three students didn’t fix it. (I hope that it was simply an oversight.) The only way a possessive form on orange would be correct would be, perhaps, if there were a previous sentence which declared that something belonging to the oranges were on sale, such as their peels. And, in retrospect, I could have made it more clear that I meant for orange to be plural and not possessive. But each of the sentences in the survey stand on their own, and as this sentence stands, the possessive form would make no sense. At least those who took the apostrophe out of 1980's also took it out of orange’s, which shows more confusion in the plural form of numbers, which is not as commonly or widely used as regular plural nouns. And yet, despite how commonly they’re used, people are still inclined to wedge apostrophes into them. I wonder if results may have been different had I added in a possessive noun in one of the sentences—if the 1980's would have influenced them less.

The second error may have been trickier for some to catch if they were concentrating on existing punctuation and/or gaps where punctuation was missing. Even though in some languages—like Spanish—double-digit numbers are all one word, most aren’t in English. Twentyfive as it stands isn’t a word, and the spell checker would underline it in red (as mine is now). A way to think of it is twenty-and-five, or as they used to write in earlier centuries, five-and-twenty. The majority of students caught and fixed this error with a hyphen.

The final error lies near the end of the sentence where, for the same reasons as the previous sentence, a comma is necessary as a pause to separate the two ideas. Most managed to place the comma correctly after each.

Watch out—that pan is hot.

Both O’ Conner and Truss agree that the dash and exclamation point are overused punctuation marks, both of which I believe belong in the above sentence. The only "error" to fix was to exchange the period for an exclamation point. Watch is a word generally accepted as an interjection when used in the beginning of a sentence (as it is in this case), and most—if not all—interjections require the emphasis of an exclamation point. If a child were reaching for a pan of freshly baked cookies, the mother would not likely be standing by and nonchalantly cautioning that the pan is too hot to touch. The lack of an exclamation point robs the sentence of its importance and urgency.

Though the dash didn’t need to be changed, some students made creative changes to it. Some put a comma or semicolon in place of the dash, which are both incorrect approaches. If anything, the dash could be equally exchanged for a full-out colon. Then there were a few students who actually turned the sentence into two separate phrases, separating it into either Watch out! That pan is hot. or Watch out! That pan is hot! Though separation wasn’t necessary, it wasn’t an incorrect approach either, because the meaning and delivery are still the same.

I wonder how long it will be until my package comes?

Sentences such as the above often irritate me. It’s a statement, not a question, and therefore should not have a question mark. That was always my view on it, but I was never certain whether the question mark was actually grammatically incorrect or if it simply depended on preference and inflection. Even after delving through several grammar books, I wasn’t provided with a conclusion. It wasn’t until I asked an English professor that I discovered that the question mark is, in fact, grammatically incorrect and not just an antagonist of my personal logic. But what is it about I wonder phrases that inspire those rogue question marks? Is it because they’re usually said with an inflection? Perhaps I should have added a Why? portion to the survey (though that was somewhat my intent in asking about what English classes the students had taken and in asking about their online messaging experiences).

Bushwhacking is fun (as long as there are bushes to whack).

This is the only other sentence in the survey that was originally correct and didn’t require changes—but that didn’t stop people from making changes to it. Those who did "fix" it took out the parentheses and added a comma after fun. As in Watch outthat pan is hot, a comma doesn’t quite satisfy the sentence. The only other punctuation that could have succeeded would have been a dash: Bushwhacking is funas long as there are bushes to whack. The dash carries the sentence along smoothly while still separating the ideas of the sentences.

I asked her if I could borrow her machete, and she said "Sure, just be careful with it".

This sentence was used to determine the students’ understanding of punctuating dialogue. Most people understood that it should be: she said, "Sure, just be careful with it." Though, looking back, I never recall throughout any level of education ever actually being taught how to punctuate dialogue correctly—the only way I learned it was by reading novels. Though that doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me, since students at any level are more accustomed to writing essays and research papers rather than memoirs or fiction. And, as possibly proved by several instances in this research paper, I’ve had difficulty grasping whether or not the final period should go inside or outside of the quotation. As I suspected, it depends on the placement of the quotation within the sentence, and I have Truss to thank for that clarity.

"You are out of your senses, Lord Fellamar," gasped Sophia.

In this instance, the quotation is followed by the declarative verb and subject. But the comma would only replace an ending period and would not replace an exclamation point, nor a question mark.

Sophia recognized in Lord Fellamar the "effects of frenzy", and tried to break away.

Lord Fellamar possesses "effects of frenzy"!

The two above sentences are the only instances in which the punctuation mark would be placed outside of the quotation: In the first sentence, this is because the quotation is in the middle of the phrase; in the second sentence, because the quotation is not actively being stated.

Many people, including those who took my survey, aren’t very concerned with whether or not they use grammar correctly—some, because they’re lazy; others, simply because they don’t understand how to use it correctly. And I can understand those feelings about it, because it can be difficult to learn. Even I—a grammar stickler who has spent years reading and writing for leisure—am always learning new things about grammar. While researching for and writing this paper, many hazes of confusion have been lifted from me, and I hope that the students who took the survey will also be grammatically enlightened from reading this.

For further reading:

O’ Conner, Patricia T. Woe Is I. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. New York: Gotham Books, 2004.

My Best-Selling Books