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Punctuation

Lindley Murray and Goold Brown laid down cast-iron rules for punctuation, but most of them have been broken long since and thrown into the junk-heap of disuse. They were too rigid, too strict, went so much into minutiae, that they were more or less impractical to apply to ordinary composition. The manner of language, of style and of expression has considerably changed since then, the old abstruse complex sentence with its hidden meanings has been relegated to the shade, there is little of prolixity or long-drawn-out phrases, ambiguity of expression is avoided and the aim is toward terseness, brevity and clearness. Therefore, punctuation has been greatly simplified, to such an extent indeed, that it is now as much a matter of good taste and judgment as adherence to any fixed set of rules. Nevertheless there are laws governing it which cannot be abrogated, their principles must be rigidly and inviolably observed.

The chief end of punctuation is to mark the grammatical connection and the dependence of the parts of a composition, but not the actual pauses made in speaking. Very often the points used to denote the delivery of a passage differ from those used when the passage is written. Nevertheless, several of the punctuation marks serve to bring out the rhetorical force of expression.

The principal marks of punctuation are:

  1. The Comma [,]

  2. The Semicolon [;]

  3. The Colon [:]

  4. The Period [.]

  5. The Interrogation [?]

  6. The Exclamation [!]

  7. The Dash []

  8. The Parenthesis [()]

  9. The Quotation [" "]

There are several other points or marks to indicate various relations, but properly speaking such come under the heading of Printer's Marks, some of which are treated elsewhere.

Of the above, the first four may be styled the grammatical points, and the remaining five, the rhetorical points.

The Comma: The office of the Comma is to show the slightest separation which calls for punctuation at all. It should be omitted whenever possible. It is used to mark the least divisions of a sentence.

  1. A series of words or phrases has its parts separated by commas:—"Lying, trickery, chicanery, perjury, were natural to him." "The brave, daring, faithful soldier died facing the foe." If the series is in pairs, commas separate the pairs: "Rich and poor, learned and unlearned, black and white, Christian and Jew, Mohammedan and Buddhist must pass through the same gate."

  2. A comma is used before a short quotation: "It was Patrick Henry who said, 'Give me liberty or give me death.'"

  3. When the subject of the sentence is a clause or a long phrase, a comma is used after such subject: "That he has no reverence for the God I love, proves his insincerity." "Simulated piety, with a black coat and a sanctimonious look, does not proclaim a Christian."

  4. An expression used parenthetically should be inclosed by commas: "The old man, as a general rule, takes a morning walk."

  5. Words in apposition are set off by commas: "McKinley, the President, was assassinated."

  6. Relative clauses, if not restrictive, require commas: "The book, which is the simplest, is often the most profound."

  7. In continued sentences each should be followed by a comma: "Electricity lights our dwellings and streets, pulls cars, trains, drives the engines of our mills and factories."

  8. When a verb is omitted a comma takes its place: "Lincoln was a great statesman; Grant, a great soldier."

  9. The subject of address is followed by a comma: "John, you are a good man."

  10. In numeration, commas are used to express periods of three figures: "Mountains 25,000 feet high; 1,000,000 dollars."

The Semicolon marks a slighter connection than the comma. It is generally confined to separating the parts of compound sentences. It is much used in contrasts:

  1. "Gladstone was great as a statesman; he was sublime as a man."

  2. The Semicolon is used between the parts of all compound sentences in which the grammatical subject of the second part is different from that of the first: "The power of England relies upon the wisdom of her statesmen; the power of America upon the strength of her army and navy."

  3. The Semicolon is used before words and abbreviations which introduce particulars or specifications following after, such as, namely, as, e.g., vid., i.e., etc.: "He had three defects; namely, carelessness, lack of concentration and obstinacy in his ideas." "An island is a portion of land entirely surrounded by water; as Cuba." "The names of cities should always commence with a capital letter; e.g., New York, Paris." "The boy was proficient in one branch; viz., Mathematics." "No man is perfect; i.e., free from all blemish."

The Colon except in conventional uses is practically obsolete.

  1. It is generally put at the end of a sentence introducing a long quotation: "The cheers having subsided, Mr. Bryan spoke as follows:"

  2. It is placed before an explanation or illustration of the subject under consideration: "This is the meaning of the term:"

  3. A direct quotation formally introduced is generally preceded by a colon: "The great orator made this funny remark:"

  4. The colon is often used in the title of books when the secondary or subtitle is in apposition to the leading one and when the conjunction or is omitted: "Acoustics: the Science of Sound."

  5. It is used after the salutation in the beginning of letters: "Sir: My dear Sir: Gentlemen: Dear Mr. Jones:" etc. In this connection a dash very often follows the colon.

  6. It is sometimes used to introduce details of a group of things already referred to in the mass: "The boy's excuses for being late were: firstly, he did not know the time, secondly, he was sent on an errand, thirdly, he tripped on a rock and fell by the wayside."

The Period is the simplest punctuation mark. It is simply used to mark the end of a complete sentence that is neither interrogative nor exclamatory.

  1. After every sentence conveying a complete meaning: "Birds fly." "Plants grow." "Man is mortal."

  2. In abbreviations: after every abbreviated word: Rt. Rev. T. C. Alexander, D.D., L.L.D.

  3. A period is used on the title pages of books after the name of the book, after the author's name, after the publisher's imprint: American Trails. By Theodore Roosevelt. New York. Scribner Company.

The Mark of Interrogation is used to ask or suggest a question.

  1. Every question admitting of an answer, even when it is not expected, should be followed by the mark of interrogation: "Who has not heard of Napoleon?"

  2. When several questions have a common dependence they should be followed by one mark of interrogation at the end of the series: "Where now are the playthings and friends of my boyhood; the laughing boys; the winsome girls; the fond neighbors whom I loved?"

  3. The mark is often used parenthetically to suggest doubt: "In 1893 (?) Gladstone became converted to Home Rule for Ireland."

The Exclamation point should be sparingly used, particularly in prose. Its chief use is to denote emotion of some kind.

  1. It is generally employed with interjections or clauses used as interjections: "Alas! I am forsaken." "What a lovely landscape!"

  2. Expressions of strong emotion call for the exclamation: "Charge, Chester, charge! On, Stanley, on!"

  3. When the emotion is very strong double exclamation points may be used: "Assist him!! I would rather assist Satan!!"

The Dash is generally confined to cases where there is a sudden break from the general run of the passage. Of all the punctuation marks it is the most misused.

  1. It is employed to denote sudden change in the construction or sentiment: "The Heroes of the Civil War,—how we cherish them." "He was a fine fellow—in his own opinion."

  2. When a word or expression is repeated for oratorical effect, a dash is used to introduce the repetition: "Shakespeare was the greatest of all poets—Shakespeare, the intellectual ocean whose waves washed the continents of all thought."

  3. The Dash is used to indicate a conclusion without expressing it: "He is an excellent man but—"

  4. It is used to indicate what is not expected or what is not the natural outcome of what has gone before: "He delved deep into the bowels of the earth and found instead of the hidden treasure—a button."

  5. It is used to denote the omission of letters or figures: "J—n J—s for John Jones; 1908-9 for 1908 and 1909; Matthew VII:5-8 for Matthew VII:5, 6, 7, and 8.

  6. When an ellipsis of the words, namely, that is, to wit, etc., takes place, the dash is used to supply them: "He excelled in three branches—arithmetic, algebra, and geometry."

  7. A dash is used to denote the omission of part of a word when it is undesirable to write the full word: He is somewhat of a r——l (rascal). This is especially the case in profane words.

  8. Between a citation and the authority for it there is generally a dash: "All the world's a stage."—Shakespeare.

  9. When questions and answers are put in the same paragraph they should be separated by dashes: "Are you a good boy? Yes, Sir.—Do you love study? I do."

Marks of Parenthesis are used to separate expressions inserted in the body of a sentence, which are illustrative of the meaning, but have no essential connection with the sentence, and could be done without. They should be used as little as possible for they show that something is being brought into a sentence that does not belong to it.

  1. When the unity of a sentence is broken the words causing the break should be enclosed in parenthesis: "We cannot believe a liar (and Jones is one), even when he speaks the truth."

  2. In reports of speeches marks of parenthesis are used to denote interpolations of approval or disapproval by the audience: "The masses must not submit to the tyranny of the classes (hear, hear), we must show the trust magnates (groans), that they cannot ride rough-shod over our dearest rights (cheers);" "If the gentleman from Ohio (Mr. Brown), will not be our spokesman, we must select another. (A voice,—Get Robinson)."

When a parenthesis is inserted in the sentence where no comma is required, no point should be used before either parenthesis. When inserted at a place requiring a comma, if the parenthetical matter relates to the whole sentence, a comma should be used before each parenthesis; if it relates to a single word, or short clause, no stop should come before it, but a comma should be put after the closing parenthesis.

The Quotation marks are used to show that the words enclosed by them are borrowed.

  1. A direct quotation should be enclosed within the quotation marks: Abraham Lincoln said,—"I shall make this land too hot for the feet of slaves."

  2. When a quotation is embraced within another, the contained quotation has only single marks: Franklin said, "Most men come to believe 'honesty is the best policy.'"

  3. When a quotation consists of several paragraphs the quotation marks should precede each paragraph.

  4. Titles of books, pictures and newspapers when formally given are quoted.

  5. Often the names of ships are quoted though there is no occasion for it.

The Apostrophe should come under the comma rather than under the quotation marks or double comma. The word is Greek and signifies a turning away from. The letter elided or turned away is generally an e. In poetry and familiar dialogue the apostrophe marks the elision of a syllable, as "I've for I have"; "Thou'rt for thou art"; "you'll for you will," etc. Sometimes it is necessary to abbreviate a word by leaving out several letters. In such case the apostrophe takes the place of the omitted letters as "cont'd for continued." The apostrophe is used to denote the elision of the century in dates, where the century is understood or to save the repetition of a series of figures, as "The Spirit of '76"; "I served in the army during the years 1895, '96, '97, '98 and '99." The principal use of the apostrophe is to denote the possessive case. All nouns in the singular number whether proper names or not, and all nouns in the plural ending with any other letter than s, form the possessive by the addition of the apostrophe and the letter s. The only exceptions to this rule are, that, by poetical license the additional s may be elided in poetry for sake of the metre, and in the scriptural phrases "For goodness' sake." "For conscience' sake," "For Jesus' sake," etc. Custom has done away with the s and these phrases are now idioms of the language. All plural nouns ending in s form the possessive by the addition of the apostrophe only as boys', horses'. The possessive case of the personal pronouns never take the apostrophe, as ours, yours, hers, theirs.