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Prose Parade
Grammar and writing basics


Everyone knows how to use periods, exclamation marks and question marks, but the other punctuation marks seem to be a complete mystery.  Let’s start with the comma, the poor brutalized, innocent comma that never did anything to anyone.


Commas  , , , , , , , ,


Essentially, the comma is used to group words that belong together and to separate those that don’t belong together.


Commas are hard for most people; I know that. I know they don’t know it. So, let me make it plain. There are seven uses for commas—period! Commas are not used to show where you pause for breath. If I never hear that cheerful explanation again, we’ll all be happy because I’ll either explode in front of you, or if I’m feeling polite, I’ll wait until you’re gone, then explode. Commas are not salt, used to add flavor.


1. Commas are used in dates, addresses and terms of address.


Example: Sept. 16, 1972

By the way, it’s never September, 1972; it’s September 1972. See: no comma there.


1234 Sky Blue Water Tr., Palm Springs, CA


Dear Santa,


2. Compound sentences. A compound sentence is two complete sentences joined together by the words and, but, or, nor, for, so and yet. The comma goes in front of the joining word.


Example:     I ran to the store, and I bought bread. (Two complete sentences with subject and verbs.) If you write, “I ran to the store and bought bread,” there’s no comma before and because there’s no subject in the second part. This is a compound verb not a compound sentence, so no comma. Got it?


We rarely use for as a word that joins (conjunction) anymore, and yet, when used as a conjunction, means the same as but.


Example:     I ran to the store, but I forgot the bread.


                     You can run to the store, or I can. 


For crying out loud, would someone just go to the store.


3. Words in a series.

OK, this is the tricky one. Words in a series means a bunch of words strung together that have some relationship to each other and to another word.


The words strung together can be any part of speech.


Example:        Dopey, Sleepy, Doc, Bashful, Happy, Sneezy and Grumpy. (nouns, proper ones at that)


                     We ate hungrily, desperately, quickly and loudly. (adverbs)


                     We hungered for, craved, desired and lusted after mint chocolate chip ice cream.


                     We were hungry, thirsty, dirty and sleepy. (adjectives)


A word about commas and adjectives. If there are two or more adjectives equal in importance describing a noun, then the adjectives are separated by a comma.


Example:     It was a hot, dusty day.


Another word on the same topic. If the adjective modifies another adjective, then there’s no comma.


Example:     She had on bright red lipstick. (No comma between bright and red.)


A final word on commas and words in a series: the serial comma. The serial comma is the comma before the and, or, etc. in words in a series. You can use it or not, but be consistent. The AP Style Guide says never use it. The Chicago Manual of Style says be consistent. I don’t like it, but I’m a comma minimalist.


Example:     We were hungry, thirsty, dirty, and sleepy. (Uses it)

                     We were hungry, thirsty, dirty and sleepy. (Doesn’t use it.)


It all depends on what you think works best for your reader. Some editors think the serial comma works best, and, of course, they’re wrong. Remember, I hate it.


4. Nonessential clauses. If the clause is not necessary to complete the sentence. It may be nice to have in the sentence, but it isn’t essential, so it’s set off by commas. And, of course, the opposite of this is that an essential clause has no commas.


Example:     The money that I earn goes to rent. (Essential)

                     Dick Dixon, the only forward to have six children, went to the net and scored two points. (Nonessential)


Some phrases that start with a form of a verb (ending -ing or –ed) are called participial phrases (because the grammar police want to confuse and annoy you). When this phrase is used, it’s usually considered nonessential.


Example:     Running down the court, Dick Dixon tripped on his untied shoelace and broke his face. (-ing and at the beginning of the sentence)


                     Dick Dixon, frightened by the crowd’s roar, went screaming into the locker room. (-ed and in the middle of the sentence, so two commas)


5. Introductory phrases or words. Quite often, at the beginning of sentences there are words, phrases and clauses that need to be set off by a comma.


a. Use a comma after words such as well, yes, no, why, when they begin a sentence.


Example:     Yes, Dick Dixon is inept.

                     Well, that’s a very deep subject.


b. Use a comma after an introductory participial phrase.


Example:     Behaving like a spoiled child, Dick Dixon stamped his foot and wailed.


c. Use a comma after several introductory prepositional phrases (Remember the ones that start with small words such as on, like, at.)


Example:     In the middle of the night at the edge of the forest, we could hear Dick Dixon howling. (By the way, if you use four or more prepositional phrases in a row like the example, rewrite the sentence or at least write “at the forest’s edge.”)


d. Use a comma after an introductory adverbial clause.


Example:     After Dick Dixon went to sleep, he had nightmares.


6. Words that break up the continuity of the sentence.


a. Here’s a new word: appositive. It’s a word, with or without modifiers, that follows a noun and identifies or explains it.


Example:     Dick Dixon, the well-know basketball player, wrote his autobiography with the help of a ghost writer.


Exception: If the word and its appositive are closely connected, don’t use a comma.


Example:     My pal Dick.


b. When you’re speaking to someone directly.


Example: Tell me, Dick, who wrote your book for you?


c. Parenthetical expressions. Don’t be alarmed about the word parenthetical; mostly it means ummm words such as by the way or after all.


Example:     Dick, however, meant no offense, I’m sure. (Ooooo, two of them.)


                     On the other hand, you never know with Dick.


That’s it. These are the only uses for commas. See, no stopping for breath commas.


7. Before a direct quotation that’s a complete sentence. (See the entry at quotations)


Example:     He said, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”


Apostrophe  ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’ ’


The apostrophe is used for three things:


1. to show a letter is missing


Example:     can’t (cannot)


2. to show possession


Example:     Mary’s car (The car belongs to Mary.)


3. to show plurals of numbers, letters, symbols and some abbreviations


Example:     ABC’s


It is not, not, not used to make general plurals! It isn’t the Smith’s, for heaven’s sake; it’s the Smiths.


Also, when the apostrophe comes at the beginning of a word, it does not change shape. What happens is that neither PC nor Mac word processing programs can figure out that it’s an apostrophe. They think it’s an open single quote. What you have to do for Macs is use a special character: option shift ] (bracket).For PCs type any old letter, type the apostrophe, delete the letter. You’d think the programmers could think of a simple and elegant solution. But no.


Quotation Marks “” “” “” “”  ‘’ ‘’  ‘’


First of all, all periods and commas always go inside the quotes (in American English; in British English, they go outside; go figure.)


Second, there are two kinds of quotation marks: double quotes and single quotes. Double quotes are used to set off all quotations; single quotes are used to set off a quotation within a quotation.


Example:     Ilsa Lund said, “You think for both of us, Richard.”


                     He said, “I believe Rick Blaine said, ‘Play it for me.’ “


Notice the comma after said. A direct quotation is set off from the rest of the sentence by some form of punctuation such as a comma, a question mark or an exclamation point except if the quote is a phrase, not a complete sentence. The quotation begins with the first word capitalized only if it’s a complete quote.


Example:     Rick said he believed that this was “the start of a beautiful friendship.”


If the quote is divided into two parts by some kind of expression such as he said, the second part begins with a lower case letter unless the second part is a new sentence.


Example:     “The Germans were in gray,” Rick Blaine said, “and you were in blue.”


                     “You played it for her,” Rick Blaine said. “You can play it for me.”


Punctuation marks other than a period follow these rules.


1. Commas if they’re part of the quote always go inside the quotes.

2. Semi-colons, colons, dashes, question marks and exclamation points are put inside the quotes only when they are part of the quote. They go outside when they’re part of the whole sentence.


If the quotation is more than one paragraph, the first paragraph has the beginning marks; the end of the paragraph doesn’t. The beginning of the second paragraph has beginning quotes. The end quotes aren’t used until the end of the quotation.


Quotes are also used to enclose titles of chapters, articles, short stories, poems, songs and other parts of books or periodicals.


Example:     Dooley Wilson sings “As Time Goes By” in Casablanca.


Note: Movies titles, book titles and magazine names are italicized.


Use quotes to enclose slang words, technical terms and other expressions that are unusual in standard English.


Example:     Linda thinks the movie Casablanca is “fly.” (If this isn’t the most recent slang, so what. You get my meaning.)


Note: After a technical term is first used and quoted, it isn’t necessary to use the quotes again.


Indirect quotations


Indirect quotations paraphrase what the speaker said, so they don’t have quotation marks.


Example:     Rick Blaine said the Germans wore gray, and she wore blue.


Semi-colon ; ; ; ; ; ;

1. Ok, remember all that stuff in commas about joining two independent clauses (really, two separate sentences) with a comma and the words and, but, or, nor, for, yet? Well, you can substitute the comma and the joining word with a semi-colon.


Example:     I ran to the store, and I bought bread. (joined with a comma and the word and)

                     I ran to the store; I bought bread. (joined with a semi-colon)


However, if the two sentences are joined by a transitional word such as for instance, and other expressions like it, then use a semi-colon before the expression.


Example:     I ran to the store; furthermore, I bought bread. (Notice the comma after furthermore. Furthermore is a parenthetical expression, so use a comma.)


Note: Sometimes when the parenthetical expression comes in the middle of the sentence the comma isn’t used.


Another note: Here’s a list of the most frequently used parenthetical expressions: for instance, for example, that is, moreover, nevertheless, however, otherwise, consequently.


2. Words in a series. If the words in the series have additional commas, then use the semi-colon to separate the series.


Example:     The cast consisted of Ilsa Lund, the romantic heroine; Rick Blaine, the hero; Captain Renault, the cheerfully amoral prefect of police; and Colonel Strasser, the Nazi.

Colon : : : : : :


1. Use a colon when stating the time.


Example:     2:00 p.m.


2. Use a colon in the salutation of a business letter.


Example:     Dear Ms. Wolf:


Those two are not important to writing, but they do use a colon.


3. To show a list, especially when you use the word the following, or as follows.


Example:     Your camping gear must include the following: sleeping bag, high-protein snacks, clothing, sunscreen and mosquito protection.


4. To introduce a long quote.


Example:     Walt Whitman wrote in his poem “I Sing the Body Electric”: Blah, blah, blah….


5. When there are two joined sentences, but one is an explanation of the other.


Example:     Peter has a philosophy: it’s my way or the highway.

The Mad Dashes – – —


There are three short horizontal lines used in punctuation: a hyphen (-), an en dash (–) and an em dash (—). They serve three different functions.


Hyphen (-)

Hyphens are like quicksand. The more you struggle to understand, the more you sink. There are simply no really hard and fast rules, but here goes


1. used to show a break at the end of a line. The word processing program does this for you, but it follows the spell checker, and the spell checker isn’t always right, so watch it.


Note: Make sure therapist is ther-a-pist, not the-rapist. (Some word processing programs do it that way.) Messing that one up will get you into a world of hurt.


2. used to show a compound word (two word joined together), often used as an adjective, but not always.


Example:     dog-tired (adjective)


                     Eye-lid (noun) (but it can also be eyelid because English is treacherous.)


3. used with some prefixes, usually ex, self, all and the suffix, elect.


Example:     self-assured




                     Ex-Marine (Although if you ask them, they’d probably say they’re never ex. Semper Fi)


I’m not going to write anymore because English is you know what. Some compound words are jammed together, some are separate, some are both. Use the dictionary; it’s your only chance of surviving.


En dash (–)

An en dash is half the length of an em dash. That’s quite the little tidbit you want taking up room in your brain, isn’t it.


I think en dashes are fussy, but some style guides say they’re used in dates, page numbers (I’d use the word to) and in compound adjectives if one part of the compound is two words.


Example:     April–June (I’d write April to June)


                     6:00 p.m.–8:00 p.m.


                     post–Civil War period (This example comes right out of the Chicago Manual of Style, 13th edition; it considers Civil War a two word adjective, well it is, sort of; I’d use a hyphen anyway.)


Em dash (—)

An em dash indicates a long pause. If you use it in the middle of a sentence, there have to be two unless the sentence ends with this separate but equal thought.


Example:     He said—no, he yelled—he was mad and wasn’t going to take it anymore.


                     He spoke—no, he yelled.


I know it has such a dramatic effect, doesn’t it, but for the most part, I like commas to do the job most of the time. In the example em dashes actually are needed.


Parentheses () () () () ()

Parentheses are used to add extra or explanatory information to a sentence, the info isn’t important enough to be part of the sentence.


Example:     Read the chapters on world economics (pages 123 to 148).


Brackets [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ] [ ]

Brackets are used inside a quote when it isn’t part of the quote.


Example:     He said, “I was referring to the job loss chart [Chart B] not the job gain chart [Chart C].”


They’re also used inside parentheses.


Example:     I was talking (in re: job losses [Chart B]) about depressing numbers.