Punctuation the easy way
Most students tell me they are not very good at punctuation, and they are right. It is simply amazing how creative people become when they believe they should put at least a few commas somewhere. Often they end up in the most interesting places, the commas that is. This generally gets worse when it comes to semicolons. They really present a mystery to most students.
Here are some very basic punctuation rules that should help you avoid the worst pitfalls of comma and semicolon use and abuse.
To understand the following information, it helps if you have read the section on the sentence.
If you understand and follow the following rules, you should be able to avoid approximately between 92.5 and 95.7% of all punctuation errors. The rest nobody will notice anyway.
Rule No 1.
A full stop looks like this : .
A comma looks like this: ,
A semicolon looks like both put together: ;
A semicolon can replace a full stop if two sentences are closely related in meaning.
A comma cannot replace a full stop or a semicolon.
That can look like this:
The wicked stepmother looked into the mirror. She was developing a pimple on her nose.
The wicked stepmother looked into the mirror; she was developing a pimple on her nose.
Poisonous apples look very nice and delicious. They definitely give you indigestion though.
Poisonous apples look very nice and delicious; they definitely give you indigestion though.
Remember: A comma won't be enough in these cases.
Rule No. 2
Put a comma between a dependent clause and an independent clause if the dependent clause comes first.
Remember: an independent clause has a subject and a verb and can stand alone because it expresses a complete thought. It is also called "a simple sentence".
A dependent clause also has a subject and a verb, but generally contains a dependent marker, e.g. because, while, since, called a subordinating conjunction. This word makes it necessary to connect the dependent clause to an independent clause via a comma if the dependent clause comes first.
Here are some examples to make this clearer:
|Independent clause||Dependent clause|
|The shoemaker was very poor.||Because the shoemaker was very poor.|
|The little elves helped him to upgrade his business.||After the little elves helped him to upgradehis business.|
|The shares in the stock market soared.||While the shares in the stock market soared.|
Now, if you combine these sentences with the dependent clause coming first, you'll get:
- Because the shoemaker was very poor, the little elves helped him to upgrade his business.
- After the little elves helped him to upgrade his business, the shares in the stock market soared.
- While the shares in the stock market soared, the shoemaker decided to run for prime minister.
Notice the comma after the dependent clause.
Now comes the tricky part:
When the dependent clause comes after the independent clause, you don't need to add a comma. This is a secret few people know!
Now I've shared it with you.
This makes the sentence look like this:
- The little elves helped the little shoemaker to upgrade his business because he was very poor.
- The shares in the stock market soared after the little elves helped the shoemaker to upgrade his business.
- The shoemaker decided to run for prime minister while the shares in the stock market soared.
Think of it this way:
The strong independent clause can carry or lead the weaker independent clause without any help.
However, the weaker dependent clause can only pull or lead the independent clause with the help of a comma.
To remember this, you might think of the independent clause as the horses that pull the pumpkin coach without any help. The dependent clause, represented by the pumpkin coach, would need help to pull the horses.
Rule No. 3
If you have two or more independent clauses you can deal with them in four ways.
1. Use a full stop. The sentences are happy by themselves.
- Jack and Jill now take the longer way to university.
- Jack has completely recovered from his injury.
- Both have decided to use less water from now on.
- Walking up the steep hill has kept Jack and Jill fit.
2. Use a semicolon. The sentences like a bit of closeness. Even independent sentences get lonely sometimes.
Jack and Jill now take the longer way to university; Jack has completely recovered from his injury.
Walking up the steep hill has kept Jack and Jill very fit; both have decided to use less water from now on.
3. Use a coordinating conjunction and a comma. A coordinating conjunction is the big brother or sister of the subordinating conjunction. Fortunately, there are only seven of them: and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet.
Coordinating conjunctions are always preceded by a comma when they connect two independent clauses.
Always! Don't forget!
Then it can look like this:
Jack has completely recovered from his injury, but he and Jill now take the longer way to university.
Walking up the steep hill has kept Jack and Jill very fit, yet both have decided to use less water from now on.
Jill was very glad that she hadn't been hurt, and Jack had learnt his lesson about being careful when running up the hill.
4. You can also connect two independent clauses with an independent marker.
Independent markers are words such as: therefore, moreover, thus, consequently, however, since.
Using these words in your academic writing is a very good idea, especially if you get the punctuation right. Generally, in the company of one of the independent markers, you'll find a semicolon and a comma.
Then it looks like this:
Independent clause; independent marker, independent clause.
- The fairy godmother appeared rather late; however, she did make up for it in the end.
- Cinderella loved the glass slippers; moreover, they fitted only her size 10 feet.
- The mice were at the wrong time in the wrong place;consequently, they got turned into horses.
- The pumpkin was turned into a coach; thus, its status was greatly elevated for the night.
Rule No. 4
If there is a word, a phrase or a quotation before an independent clause, you put a comma after it, before the independent clause.
It is called an Introducer comma.
This means in plain English that most information that is presented before the independent clause is followed by a comma. This can be in the form of a word, a phrase, a clause or a direct quotation.
Here are some examples:
If a word comes before the independent clause, it is followed by a comma:
Consequently, the mice have been traumatised ever since.
Well, the pumpkin tasted absolutely horrible afterwards.
Enthusiastically, the dog kept trying to drive coaches ever after.
Nonetheless, the fairy godmother had saved the day.
If a phrase comes before the independent clause, it is followed by a comma:
A phrase is a series of words that doesn't contain a subject or a verb but simply adds information.
As a result, Cinderella made it to the ball just in time.
After a day of sulking and feeling sorry for herself, she had a wonderful time at the party.
Having been warned to return before midnight, she left when the clock struck twelve.
After a night of wearing glass slippers, Cinderella vowed never to look at them again.
If a dependent clause comes before the independent clause, it is followed by a comma. We've already discussed this earlier on; however, here it is again.
Because the prince was dashing and handsome,Cinderella danced with him.
While Cinderella had a great time at the ball,the stepsisters drank too much champagne.
Since the wicked stepmother hadn't been invited to the ball, she stayed home and watched TV.
If a direct quotation comes before the independent clause, it is followed by a comma:
"Oh no," squeaked the mouse as it was turned into a horse.
"It does fit after all," said Cinderella when she finally managed of close the zipper on her new dress.
"That was close," sighed the fairy godmother.
A comma follows after a word, phrase, a dependent clause or a direct quotation that precedes the independent clause.
Rule No. 5
If you have any information left over after the independent clause, put a comma after the independent clause and in front of the additional information.
This is true for word, phrases, tag questions and direct quotations.
Then it can look like this:
If a word follows an independent clause, you put a comma in front of it.
I want to marry a prince, too.
It does have its disadvantages at times, however.
I would not want to wear glass slippers, ever.
If a phrase follows an independent clause, you put a comma in front of it.
The prince has to listen to peoples problems every day, for example.
He really wants to find the girl who stepped on his foot with that glass slipper, hurting his toe dreadfully.
He promises to buy her a pair of Hush Puppies, almost immediately.
If a tag question follows the independent clause, you put a comma in front of it.
The prince really had to get married, didn't he?
Cinderella was really bored with cleaning out fireplaces, wasn't she?
They would make a nice couple, wouldn't they?
If a direct quotation follows an independent clause, you put a comma in front of it.
The prince asked her, "Will you marry me?"
Cinderella answered, "Okay."
The wicked stepmother said to her daughters, "You'd better clean out the fireplace right now."
Rule No. 6
If you need to insert a phrase or clause in an independent clause with information that is essential to the meaning, you don't need to use any commas.
However, if the meaning is interesting, but not essential to the sentence, you put commas at the beginning and the end of that phrase or clause.
Here are some examples:
Sleeping Beauty who had been cursed by a wicked fairy had to be very careful not to prick her fingers.
(The information is essential because not all girls called Beauty have been cursed by a wicked fairy.)
Not essential information:
Sleeping Beauty, who everybody has heard about, had to be very careful not to prick her fingers.
The wicked fairy who had cursed Sleeping Beauty was very annoyed because she had not been invited to the party.
(The information is essential because not all wicked fairies get upset if they are not invited to a party.)
Not essential information:
The wicked fairy, whose name we can't reveal at this time, was very annoyed because she had not been invited to the party.
Everybody in the castle in which Beauty lived fell asleep for 124 years.
(The information is essential because it tells us in which castle this happened. Fortunately other castles were spared.)
Not essential information:
Everybody in the castle, including the fleas on the dog, fell asleep for 124 years.
So, this really wasn't so hard, was it? If you understand and apply these basic rules, you should do well and impress everybody with you grasp of punctuation. However, if you are really intrigued by punctuation rules, you will find further information in the STUDY LINK subject Grammar Essentials for Writing at University SSS024.