When you’re writing you have to remember that people don’t have the tone and inflection of your voice to help them to understand what you’re saying. None of us really write the way we speak – although many people think they do. Listen carefully to people talking; they stop and start, change tack in mid-sentence, leave sentences half finished, alter what they started to say, with ‘umm’s and ‘er’s galore!
You can’t do that when you’re writing. That’s why good grammar and punctuation is important as it helps people to understand what you’re getting at.
The dratted inverted comma!
However, there is helpful punctuation and excess punctuation. When editing books I find myself deleting dozens of those dratted ‘inverted commas’ – and there’s an example of incorrect usage. Everyone knows what inverted commas are; there is no need to enclose them in – er – inverted commas!
People use them to highlight words, when italics or bold would do the job much better. Technically, they denote a word (or words) used to imply a different meaning than usual. For instance: She was demonstrating her ‘knowledge’ at every opportunity. This implies that her knowledge was quite poor. However, people pop inverted commas in for all kinds of words – that don’t need them! Of course, publishers (not publisher’s) often use them in place of quotation marks, which just makes things even more confusing.
He said ‘I hope you follow the ‘do’s and don’ts’.’ Of course, Dos is plural and shouldn’t have an apostrophe at all, but somehow everyone bungs one in, just to confuse the issue!
The humble comma
In fact, the humble comma is extremely powerful for such a tiny mark. It changes the sense of any sense, depending on whether you leave it out, put it in and where it’s placed.
Commas are used for listing, joining, gapping and bracketing – confused?
Listing commas replace and or, sometimes, or.
e.g. Freya speaks English, Italian, French and German.
Joining commas connect two thoughts together, one usually qualifying the other. These could be written as two separate sentences.
e.g. They are planning to stay at the event until the end, but they won’t be going out to dinner afterwards.
The gapping comma replaces words that have been left out.
e.g. Italy is famous for opera, Russia, for ballet and England, for football.
If this had been written in full it would be:
Italy is famous for opera, Russia is famous for ballet and England is famous for football.
Bracketing commas are simply a means of isolating an interruption to the sentence. They are often used inaccurately, but the secret of checking if they are used correctly is to read the sentence without the words between the commas. The sentence should make perfect sense.
e.g. When it comes to getting things done, even the small things in life, it’s a good idea to have an action list.
And when do you use a colon – or a semi-colon? Or will dashes do instead of commas? And what the **** is an ellipsis and what does it do?*
It’s all there to help the reader to understand your message – but what chance have they got when most of us struggle to understand the complicated rules of punctuation?
a) A semi-colon can be used in place of a joining comma when the second sentence qualifies the first. A colon usually introduces a list.
b) Dashes can replace bracketing commas, but don’t overdo it.
c) An ellipsis is those three dots … and they don’t replace a dash, but indicate there is some missing word (or words). There are only three dots in an ellipsis, not more.