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Punctuation marks are an integral part of the written communication. As readers, we rely on them heavily in trying to grasp the writer's thought quickly and accurately.
As writers, however, many of us are not willing to master the limited number of principles that would guide us in giving our readers the help they need.
And readers do NEED punctuation marks. These marks are substitutes for the gestures, facial expressions, and voice inflections which make most of our oral communications more effective than our written.
Isn't it modern to use fewer marks of punctuation?
Certainly. But whether we use—or do not use—marks of punctuation depends on the length and construction of our sentences. Verne Samson, a well known writing consultant, expresses the thought very well in what is perhaps the understatement of the year:
The modern tendency to reduce punctuation to a minimum presupposes a clear, simple, closely knit style of writing which
is not always found in Government communications. If your sentences are relatively short and if they progress smoothly from beginning to end, you will need a minimum of punctuation marks.
But many of our sentences, even relatively short ones, require some punctuation. Some longer sentences pertaining to the law must be punctuated—and punctuated correctly—if they are to get correct meaning across.
How we use punctuation marks
First, a quick review—we use punctuation marks to separate one part of the sentence from another; to enclose words or groups of words that should be set off from the rest of the sentence. • To separate—we use a period, a semicolon, a colon, a dash,
or a comma. • To enclose —we use a pair of dashes, a pair of parentheses,
or a pair of commas. The mark we choose depends on the degree of separation—and on what other marks we have already used to indicate the separation or pairing of ideas.
Commas are the principal mark of punctuation, of course—though dashes may be used effectively if they are not overworked. Parentheses should be reserved for comments which we do not want the reader to consider an integral part of the discussion.
The four main rules
Master these rules—and you'll have the major problems of punctuation under control.
1. Don't use a comma to separate two main clauses—either of
which could be a complete sentence. Use a period or a semi
between subject and verb, verb and object, modifier and words
related and we want the reader to know they are.
ever, consequently, otherwise, in fact, when they connect two
main thoughts. Don't enclose them by commas. 4. Use commas around modifying expressions that do not re
strict meaning; don't use them around restrictive expressions. The meaning of the sentence is seriously affected by this
punctuation. Let's take them in turn.
Don't use a comma to separate two main clauses
You want the reader to recognize that you are giving him two main thoughts. Unless the clauses are very short, so that the reader can see the entire sentence at a glance, he will be confused by the comma. Substitute a semicolon if you want to signal the reader that the thoughts are closely connected. Or use a period if you want to give him more of a “breather” between thoughts. Like this: Poor : Mr. Doe stated that neither he nor Mr. Smith was
familiar with the deposit procedure, he therefore asked
that we forward a memorandum outlining the problem. Better: Mr. Doe stated . . . deposit procedure; he therefore
asked ... Or : Mr. Doe stated . . . deposit procedure. He therefore
Don't use one punctuation mark between related words
When your reader sees ONE COMMA or ONE DASH, he assumes that all the words TO THE LEFT of the mark belong together and are to be considered separately from those to the right of the mark.
Confusing: The taxpayer who asked for a photostat of his return,
failed to enclose a remittance with his request. The comma separates the subject "taxpayer" from the verb “failed”. Certainly we do not intend to have the reader consider that the comma separates two main thoughts—and that's what we have signaled.
NO COMMA IS NEEDED HERE.
Use a semicolon before such linking words as HOWEVER,
When such linking words connect two main thoughts, they are usually called “conjunctive adverbs.” But, no matter what they are called, they do not take the place of a real conjunction—and, but, etc.
Use a semicolon before them and, with words that indicate contrast (however, otherwise, on the other hand), use a comma following. With words like therefore, consequently and so; the use of the comma following is optional. Consider these examples: Poor: We have studied the data you submitted and would like
to give you an immediate answer, however, it will be
necessary to investigate the matter further. Better: We have studied . . , immediate answer; however, it
will be necessary ... Poor : This form letter is neither clear nor courteous, therefore,
it requires revision. Better: This form letter is neither clear nor courteous; therefore,
it requires revision.
Unless we use a mark, like a semicolon, that signals a break between the two clauses, the reader may assume from the punctuation that the "however” or “therefore” goes with the first part of the sentence. In most cases, if this happens, the reader can “figure it out”; but he must pause in his reading and sort out the meaning before he can go on. Punctuation marks correctly used can save him this unnecessary work.
Use commas around modifying expressions that do not restrict the meaning
A group of words which adds some descriptive or explanatory material is set off by commas. If we omitted such clauses, the sentence would still make sense. We do not "restrict” the meaning when we use these expressions.
But be sure you understand the difference in meaning a pair of commas can make in your sentence.
This group of accounts, which is outstanding, must be taken
care of first. Here the commas tell us that the material enclosed is merely descriptive about the accounts, NONE OF WHICH HAVE BEEN PAID. But suppose we omit the commas:
This group of accounts which is outstanding must be taken care of first.
Without the commas the expression “which is outstanding" limits (restricts) the meaning to this group of accounts; other accounts may be taken care of later.
Employees who wish to change the number of exemptions claimed
should file a new certificate, Form W-4. If we set off the "who" clause by commas, we say that all employees must file new W-4's. Without the commas we say that only those who need to change the number of claimed exemptions must file a new W-4.
Before you put commas around a modifying expression, ask yourself these questions:
Does this expression add information, or is it vital to the sense of the sentence? If it adds information—you need commas. Could I split this sentence into two complete (and sensible) sentences? If you can—you need commas.