Punctuation for College Writing: Characters and Characteristics
Goals • Learn the names and functions of English punctuation marks • Practice using the marks in college-level writing contexts • Ask and answer your questions • Enjoy ourselves while doing the above
Punctuation . . . • Is based on grammar, not speech. • Is not interchangeable—each mark has a role to play. • Is used according to an author’s purposes.
Cast of Characters • The Basics: • period • apostrophe • question mark • exclamation point • Controversial: capitals • The Intermediates: • colon • semicolon • hyphen • parentheses • The Advanced: • quotation marks • square brackets • dash • ellipsis • Controversial: italics Coming Soon: Punctuation Part Two— Commas!
Period: The Sentence Sheriff The sentence sheriff says, “Stop. This idea about your subject is finished. You’d better have a new subject and action before you proceed further.”
Periods end sentences, including indirect questions: • I wondered whether I would be late or not. • It was a question if she would be on time. Periods are used in abbreviations: For example, Mr. Mrs. Ms. Dr. B.A. i.e. e.g. etc. a.m. p.m. Note: When an abbreviation ends a sentence, use only one period. We returned from our fact-finding mission at 2:35 a.m.
Apostrophe: The Placeholder The apostrophe takes the place of a letter or letters in contractions, or marks the place for the idea of “has” in possessive case.
Apostrophes are used for possessive nouns: Lois’s sister spent last year in India (314). Her article presents an overview of Marx’s teachings (314). The beach’s sand was burning hot. Use just an apostrophe when a noun is plural and ends in -s: Both my bicycle tires’ rims were bent. In instances of joint possession, use -’s or -s’ on the last noun only: I haven’t tried Ben and Jerry’s latest new flavor. For individual possession, put -’s on both: Hernando’s and Maria’s expectations of marriage couldn’t have been more different (315).
Question Mark: The Scientist A scientist inquires, wanting to know more.
A question mark is for direct questions: The interviewer demanded, “Where were you, and what did you know?” Polite questions (as in a business letter) and indirect questions take a period: Would you please send me five copies of Edward Lear’s Complete Nonsense with an invoice. I was asked who would be attending with me at the conference. Questions in a series may be written with question marks, even when not complete sentences: Where would I go at this time of night? To my friend’s house? To a hotel? To my mother-in-law?
Exclamation Point: The Wrestler The exclamation point is for shouting and cries of shock or delight. For a calm, restrained academic discussion, don’t invite the wrestler. “Grrr!”
Controversial 1: Capitals Most consider capitals an element of mechanics rather than punctuation. Capitals are used for official identification, and at the start of a sentence, like the start of a journey.
Capitals • Titles as (or part of) names:Madam Prime Minister, Dr. Jekyll, Ms. Janssen, Aunt Judy, Mom and Dad • Beginning of sentences:We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . • Titles of works:The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Of Mice and Men, The Warrior Woman,“Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” • All proper nouns, including course titles, particular place names, historical periods: Geography 206, the Southwest, the Middle Ages Never to merely emphasize
Mini Quiz: The Basics This mark is used when a character yells or cries out. • I wonder what we’re having for dinner tonight? Add, Delete, No Error, or Revise: Dr Welbys medical license has expired . I’m majoring in fire science; my first class is fire science 100 on Tuesday nights.
The Colon: A Fanfare After a complete independent clause, a colon signals a formal entrance of a list, an appositive, or a quotation.
IC: a list, an appositive, or a quotation. • I have three essentials for a day in the sun: a hat, sunscreen, and water. • My roommate is guilty of two of the seven deadly sins: gluttony and sloth (312). • Consider the words of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” (312).
IC:IC (if the second IC explains) Faith is like love: It cannot be forced (312). Note: a capital after a colon is APA format; for CMS or MLA, use lower case letters. Other uses of the colon: a salutation in a formal letter, a ratio, title and subtitle, and between city and publisher in documentation Dear Sir or Madam: The ratio of women to men was 2:1. The Glory of Hera: Greek Mythology and the Greek Family Boston: Bedford, 2005
The Semicolon: The Hybrid The semicolon has qualities of a period, a comma, and a colon. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Toyota_Prius.jpg
IC; IC. • Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice. –H.L. Mencken (307) • IC; transitional expression, IC. • Transitional expressions (TE) include • conjunctive adverbs:besides, consequently, subsequently, next, now, etc., • transitional phrases:as a result, for example, in fact, on the other hand, and so on. • IC; subject, TE, predicate. • Most singers gain fame through hard work and dedication; Evita, however, found other means (308).
A semicolon may also be used between items in a series containing internal punctuation: Classic science fiction sagas are Star Trek, with Mr. Spock and his large pointed ears; Battlestar Galactica, with its Cylon Raiders; and Star Wars, with Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Darth Vader (308).
The Hyphen: The Linker Connects two or more words functioning together as one kind of word.
Hyphens link two or more words functioning together as an adjective before a noun: Mrs. Douglas gave Toshiko a seashell and some newspaper-wrapped fish to take home to her mother (339). Richa Gupta is not yet a well-known candidate (339). Hyphenated words may be written in a series: Do you prefer first-, second-, or third-class tickets? (340).
Other Uses of the Hyphen Fractions and compound numbers (21–99):one-fifth, two-thirds, twenty-three, fifty-six, ninety-nine Prefixes all-, ex-, and self-, and the suffix -elect: I met my ex-patriot friends in the all-encompassing category of the self-help books section. Always check a dictionary for suspected compound words.
Parentheses: The Whisperers Used when a phrase is outside of the important elements of a sentence.
Use parentheses to enclose supplemental material, minor digressions, afterthoughts, and letters or numbers labeling items in a series. After taking her vital signs (temperature, pulse, and blood pressure), the nurse made Becky as comfortable as possible (328). There are several things which could end a sentence: (1) a period, (2) a question mark, or (3) an ellipsis. In MLA formatted research documents, the parenthetical citation is usually placed at the end of a sentence containing information paraphrased or directly quoted from a source. When reading a text, Diana Hacker advises us to “Note details that surprise, puzzle, or intrigue you” (58). However, the citation may also occur at a natural clause break in the sentence: Hacker goes on to say, “[T]he views of an expert can contribute to the force of your argument” (71), but you should always lead the reader through your own logic and only use experts to illustrate your point.
Mini Quiz: The Intermediates What is the main difference between the use of a colon and that of a semicolon? Add, delete, or no error: One fifth of all writers think they are great, but ninety-nine percent of their readers know if they are. When asked if we want to know a secret (and who among us doesn’t, many of us will lean closer to the speaker.
Quotation Marks: The Gossips Gossips pass on the words or information of others. So I said, “Blahdee blahdee blah.” And she said, “No!” And I said, “Yes!”
Enclose direct quotations with quotation marks whether spoken or written • Jaimie walked into the kitchen. “Hey, can I ask you a question?” • “Shoot,” I said, drying my hands. • “What’s the difference between ‘pretense’ and ‘pretentious’?” • “The first is a noun, the second a verb.” • “Shakespeare change[d] nouns into verbs (film and champion), verbs into nouns (dawn and scuffle), verbs into adjectives (hush), or adjectives into nouns (accused)” (McQuain and Malless ix).
Put quotations around the titles of short works: • Newspaper and magazine articles • Poems • Short stories • Songs • Episodes of television and radio programs • Chapters or subdivisions of books • One of my favorite episodes of Lost was “Dead is Dead,” which answered many viewers’ questions. Quotes may be used around words discussed as things The words “accept” and “except” are frequently confused (320).
Other Punctuation with Quotation Marks Periods and commas inside end quotes, whether single or double quotes “This is a stick-up,” said the well-dressed young couple. “We want all your money” (320). Colons and semicolons go outside quotation marks Harold wrote, “I regret that I am unable to attend the fundraiser for AIDS research”; his letter, however, contained a substantial contribution (321).
Other Punctuation, continued Put question marks and exclamation points inside quotation marks unless they apply to the sentence as a whole. (All of the following are from page 321.) Contrary to tradition, bedtime at my house is marked by “Mommy, can I tell you a story now?” Have you heard the old proverb “Do not climb the hill until you reach it”? In MLA, a quoted question with a parenthetical citation still ends with a period Rosie Thomas asks, “Is nothing in life ever straight and clear, the way children see it?” (77).
Quotations in Sentences Formal introduction IC: “Quotation.” Morrow views personal ads in the classifieds as an art form: “The personal ad is like a haiku of self-celebration, a brief solo played on one’s own horn” (322). He said or she said expressions take a comma Stephen Leacock once said, “I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it” (321). Blended quotations use either a comma or nothing, depending on the sentence structure The future champion could, as he put it, “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” (322). Charles Hudson noted that the prisoners escaped “by squeezing through a tiny window eighteen feet above the floor of their cell.” (322)
Quotations in Sentences, continued Quotations at the beginnings of sentences take a comma, unless they require a ? or ! “I love lemon drops,” said Grandma, looking at me wistfully. “Why were you late?” I asked, dreading the answer. Interrupted quotations use commas for explanatory words “A great many people think they are thinking,” wrote William James, “when they are merely rearranging their prejudices” (322). . . . unless it is more than one sentence in succession “I was a flop as a daily reporter,” admitted E.B. White. “Every piece had to be a masterpiece—and before you knew it, Tuesday was Wednesday” (323). Note: smart quotes “ ” versus straight quotes " ' “Hi,” said the 5' 9¾" white rabbit. “Have you seen a little girl?”
Quote Don’ts Don’t use quotes with well-known slang, to distance yourself from cliché expressions, or to seem self-consciously ironic The young “hipster” tried to be cute by using “air quotes.” NO! The young hipster tried to be cute by using air quotes. Your own essay titles should not have quotes around them.
Square Brackets: Bodyguards Bodyguards can get people safe passage by forcing their way in and holding back the crowd.
Square Brackets Brackets are placed around words or phrases inserted into direct quotations in order to clarify or make a sentence blend effectively into your writing. Audubon reports that “if there are not enough young to balance deaths, the end of the species [California condor] is inevitable” (329). Brackets are also most commonly used around “sic” to indicate an error in a source is being reproduced exactly. “When your [sic] not sure how a word is spelled, look it up in a dictionary!” proclaimed an exasperated—and irony-impaired—blogger. Use [sic] rarely—no one likes a language snob.
The Dash—The Drama Queen The dash is all about dramatic breaks and shifts in thought. It takes skill and practice to use it effectively.
The Dash Use a dash to set off parenthetical material that deserves emphasis Everything that went wrong—from the peeping Tom at her window last night to my head-on collision today—we blamed on our move (327). Set off appositives that contain commas to be clearer for readers. In my hometown the basic needs of people—food, clothing, and shelter—are less costly than in a big city like Los Angeles (328). Other uses: a list, a rewording, or a dramatic shift in tone or thought Along the wall are the bulk liquids—sesame seed oil, honey, safflower oil, [and] maple syrup . . . (328).* Consider the amount of sugar in the average person’s diet—104 pounds per year, 90 percent more than that consumed by our ancestors (328). * Kiere took a few steps back, came running full speed, kicked a mighty kick—and missed the ball (328). *Could have used colons for more formality
Use a dash to set off an abrupt break or interruption and to announce a long appositive or summary (Strunk and White, 9). A dash is a mark of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses. His first thought on getting out of bed—if he had any thought at all—was to get back in again (9). The rear axle began to make a noise—a grinding, chattering, teeth-gritting rasp (9). Use a dash only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate.
The Ellipsis: The Fade-out Nothing says you’ve left something unsaid like an ellipsis—unless you’ve just lost your train of thought. . . . . . .
The Ellipsis (plural: ellipses) The ellipsis is a set of three spaced periods used to show an omission from a direct quotation. The sentence remaining must still be grammatical and have enough information to make sense. Reuben reports that “when the amount of cholesterol circulating in the blood rises over . . . 300 milligrams per 100, the chances of a heart attack increase dramatically” (320). MLA now says brackets unnecessary, but they help to distinguish insertions from ellipses in source material.
The Ellipsis, continued If a whole sentence is left out (or more), put a period BEFORE the ellipsis. No need to start a quote with an ellipsis, but if the end of a final quoted sentence is left out, finish with an ellipsis. Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, points out that “by 1987, employers were administering nearly 2,000,000 polygraph tests a year to job applicants and employees. . . . Millions of workers were required to produce urine samples under observation for drug testing . . .” (405).
Controversial 2: Italics Also considered by many to be an element of mechanics, rather than punctuation Works as a signaling device for • Titles of long works • Emphasis • Names of transport vehicles • Foreign words • Words as things • Internal monologue If unable to underline or italicize on a computer, use underscores before and after titles:I’m reading a critical analysis of _Some Like It Hot_.
Mini Quiz: The Advanced Marks In a quoted passage of text, these show you are inserting a change for clarity or grammar. Add, delete, or no error: Not everyone has watched Everybody Loves Raymond or Everybody Hates Chris. Accepting the check for her lottery winnings, Juanita said that “she would give half the money to charity” (323). Knowing Howard—an exceedingly driven man—like I do, I was surprised when he quit his job and went to live on a boat in Oregon.
Works Cited Hacker, Diana. A Writer’s Reference. 6th ed. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. McQuain, Jeffery and Stanley Malless. Coined by Shakespeare: Words and Meanings First Penned by the Bard. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1998. Strunk, William and E.B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. San Francisco: Longman, 2000.