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The Power of Punctuation

If you question the necessity of punctuation, here is a story that should illustrate its power.

A professor wrote on the chalkboard: A woman without her man is nothing.
He asked students to correct any punctuation errors. While most of the male students saw nothing wrong with the sentence, most of the females rewrote the sentence as follows: “A woman: without her, man is nothing.” As you can see, meaning is often derived from punctuation.

The use of the comma can be tricky with lists, particularly when appositives are used. (Appositives are words that clarify a word or words that came before.)

Example: Her book dedication read: To my parents, Sophie and Andrew

If Sophie and Andrew are her parents, then no comma is used after Sophie. If the dedication were meant for her parents, for Sophie, and for Andrew (three sets of people), then another comma after Sophie would be needed to avoid ambiguity.

Example: They took in Maddie, a student, and a puppy.

Do we mean two beings: a student named Maddie and a puppy? If so, we should rewrite the sentence for clarity.

Example: They took in a student named Maddie and a puppy. OR They took in Maddie, a student, as well as a puppy.

If we mean three beings, then we should also rewrite the sentence for clarification.

Example: They took in Maddie plus a student and a puppy. OR They took in Maddie as well as a student and a puppy.

Posted on Saturday, August 9, 2008, at 7:59 pm


17 Comments

17 Responses to “The Power of Punctuation”

  1. Earl says:

    While on the topic of punctuation, would you please tell me the correct way to punctuate the compound-complex sentences below and why the other ways are wrong?

    Some stock to be sold was stacked on a long table, so, after setting the books aside, I dragged it to the wide middle aisle in the central area.

    Some stock to be sold was stacked on a long table so, after setting the books aside, I dragged it to the wide middle aisle in the central area.

    Some stock to be sold was stacked on a long table, so after setting the books aside, I dragged it to the wide middle aisle in the central area.

    In there, I found much of what I needed, but, most importantly, I found boxes of dehydrated camping meals.

    In there, I found much of what I needed but, most importantly, I found boxes of dehydrated camping meals.

    In there, I found much of what I needed, but most importantly, I found boxes of dehydrated camping meals.

    The shop was badly damaged, though, once he scrambled through the rubble, he found a storeroom at the back.

    The shop was badly damaged though, once he scrambled through the rubble, he found a storeroom at the back.

    The shop was badly damaged, though once he scrambled through the rubble, he found a storeroom at the back.

    The shop was badly damaged; though once he scrambled through the rubble, he found a storeroom at the back.

    In the last set of sentences has the subordinating conjunction ‘though’ the joining power, if you will, to connect this complex sentence to the simple sentence that precedes it or is a coordinating conjunction required?

    Finally, is there a difference between how the British and Americans punctuate compound-complex sentences?

    • Jane says:

      First, some definitions: a compound-complex sentence contains at least two independent clauses and one dependent clause. A clause contains both a subject and a verb. To help us punctuate your sentences, let’s take them apart.

      Some stock to be sold was stacked on a long table, so, after setting the books aside, I dragged it to the wide middle aisle in the central area.

      This sentence consists of two clauses:
      some stock to be sold was stacked on a long table
      after setting the books aside, I dragged it to the wide middle aisle in the central area

      “after setting the books aside,” is just an adverbial phrase — not a clause — as it has no subject and no verb. The participial phrase “setting the books aside” acts as a noun. Long adverbial phrases at the beginning or middle of a sentence do take commas, so I recommend writing:

      Some stock to be sold was stacked on a long table, so, after setting the books aside, I dragged it to the wide middle aisle in the central area.

      You could also use a semicolon before “so”:

      Some stock to be sold was stacked on a long table; so, after setting the books aside, I dragged it to the wide middle aisle in the central area.

      The second sentence is also a compound sentence containing two independent clauses:

      In there I found much of what I needed, but, most importantly, I found boxes of dehydrated camping meals.

      Independent clauses:
      in there I found much of what I needed
      most importantly, I found boxes of dehydrated camping meals

      Here, “most importantly” is an adverbial phrase, not a clause, and takes commas. Because “in there” is a short adverbial phrase at the beginning of the sentence, its comma is optional.

      In there I found much of what I needed, but, most importantly, I found boxes of dehydrated camping meals.
      In there, I found much of what I needed, but, most importantly, I found boxes of dehydrated camping meals.

      The last sentence is a true complex-compound sentence, provided we interpret “though” as “but”:

      The shop was badly damaged, though once he scrambled through the rubble, he found a storeroom at the back.

      Independent clauses:
      the shop was badly damaged
      he found a storeroom at the back

      dependent clauses:
      once he scrambled through the rubble

      In this sentence, “though,” which usually acts a subordinating conjunction, here works like “but,” a coordinating conjunction. “Though” usually means “in spite of the fact that,” as in,

      The shop was badly damaged though the central beam was three feet thick.
      The shop was badly damaged in spite of the fact that the central beam was three feet thick.

      If your sentence were using “though” to mean “in spite of the fact that,” we would have:
      The shop was badly damaged though he found a storeroom at the back.
      The shop was badly damaged in spite of the fact that he found a storeroom at the back.

      But I think what you really mean is

      In spite of the fact that the shop was badly damaged, he found a storeroom at the back.

      which could either be written as:
      The shop was badly damaged, but he found a storeroom at the back.
      or
      Though the shop was badly damaged, he found a storeroom at the back.

      Back to the whole sentence and your punctuation question, we don’t put commas between two conjunctions unless we would insert a pause when speaking the sentence aloud. I recommend writing:

      The shop was badly damaged, but once he scrambled through the rubble, he found a storeroom at the back.

      I don’t know that there’s a difference between British and American English punctuation rules for complex-compound sentences, but there may be a difference in the use of “though” as a coordinating conjunction. I’m sure I’ve heard “though” used as a coordinating conjunction in informal speech, and perhaps that usage is more widespread, but I can’t find a usage manual that mentions it.

  2. Jose M. Blanco says:

    I remember seeing the sentence “A woman without her man is nothing” in an English class when I was an undergraduate. I had forgotten about it. I think I will use it with my students this fall. Thank you!

    • Jane says:

      The purpose of this sentence is to show how punctuation can determine meaning. If you write, “A woman without her man is nothing,” you are likely to upset a lot of women (understandably). However, if you add a pair of commas to the sentence, you have a sentence about which many women would cheer: A woman, without her, man is nothing.

  3. Buddy says:

    I saw a commercial advertising a specific brand of television, but the television is not what interests me the most. It is the way the slogan is punctuated: “You have to see it, to see it.” What is the comma’s function?

  4. Buddy says:

    Should a comma be placed before the word “too” (“too” meaning “as well”) when it ends a sentence? (Example: I am going on vacation, too.)

    Should a pair of commas surround the word “too” (“too” meaning “as well”) when it is in the middle of a sentence? (Example: I, too, purchased a new car from that dealer.)

  5. Buddy says:

    If you do not mind, could you explain why it is placed there?

  6. Buddy says:

    Please tell me if the following is a legitimate function of the comma and, if so, if it is necessary: Brad went to his soccer game; Randy, the mall; and Mark, his friend’s house.

  7. Christa says:

    I edit court reporter transcripts and often wonder about placing commas after states and dates as in years. In the question, “Were you in Texas when you got out of the military?” should there be a comma after “Texas”? Also, in the statement, “I have an October 15, 1993 letter that explains….,” should there be a comma after the year? What about if the sentence says, “I have a 1993 letter that explains….”?

    • Jane says:

      You would not need a comma after the state in the example you gave. You would need the comma if the city and state both appeared: “Were you in Dallas, Texas, when you got out of the military?”

      You would use a comma to separate the day of the month from the year and after the year.

      I have an October 15, 1993, letter that explains…

      If any part of the date is omitted, leave out the comma.

      I have a 1993 letter that explains…

  8. Carmen Fructuoso says:

    Hello, Jane. I have the same question as Christa and need to understand why a comma has to separate the date and the noun that it is specifically referring to? All the secretaries here at my work drops that comma when describing a specific article or meeting, except one secretary that is currently taking English. Did the rule change in recent years, as she has explained? News reporters seem to drop that comma as well.

    • Jane says:

      Commas are needed to offset the year whenever the full date is expressed in American format. Both the Chicago Manual of Style and AP Stylebook recommend offsetting the date in this case. Chicago Manual of Style’s rule states, “Whenever a comma is used to set off an element (such as “1928” in the example below), a second comma is required if the phrase or sentence continues beyond the element being set off.

      June 5, 1928, lives on in the memories of only a handful of us.

      AP Stylebook says, “When a phrase refers to a month, day and year, set off the year with a comma: Feb. 14, 1987, is the target date.”
      Seems that the secretary who is taking English learned the correct rule.

  9. Jane says:

    It’s just the rule.

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