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University of Toronto St. George
Innis College Courses
Roger Riendeau

Punctuation Many students do not take full advantage of punctuation. They never venture beyond the comma and the period—the two punctuation marks that nobody can do without. Some are afraid that if they use other forms of punctuation, they will do so incorrectly, so they never take the risk. Learning to punctuate effectively does involve learning the rules, and this handout summarizes the most important of them. But learning to punctuate is about much more than rules. Punctuation, when skillfully deployed, provides you with considerable control over meaning and tone. Try to experiment with all forms of punctuation in order to expand your expressive range as a writer. And observe closely how accomplished writers use punctuation to good effect. This handout limits itself to punctuation that occurs within sentences: commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, and parentheses. Commas Commas are the most frequently used form of punctuation and probably the hardest to master. Using commas well is a science and an art: though there are well-defined rules, there is plenty of room to manouevre as well. Both the science and the art of comma use have changed with time. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers, for example, used commas unsparingly. But do not think that comma problems boil down to whether we use too many commas or too few. It is best to learn the rules—and to know which ones can be broken and when. You should break the rules for a purpose and consciously. Intuition is not always the best guide. In particular, the sometimes serviceable practice of choosing a comma whenever you would pause in speech can get you into trouble, especially if you write long sentences and lose your breath easily. Here are a few basic rules to guide you in your comma use: 1. Commas after many introductory phrases are optional. When the introductory phrase is short, you can often omit the comma; when the phrase is longer, a comma will help your reader recognize where the main clause begins: In the early 1960s Murray Gell-Mann and George Zweig independently tried to reduce the tremendous complexity of the zoo of particles then known at the tim(Steven Weinberg, Dreams of a Final Theory) After much preliminary speculation and a few unsuccessful hypotheses, he achieved his central insight while reading an apparently unrelated work for recreation.ephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin) When the introductory phrase includes a participle (a verb form ending in -ing or -ed), always add a comma: Sitting in traffic, a plumber can't plumb and a deliveryman can't de(Elizabeth Kolbert, “Don’t Drive, He Said”) Make sure also to add a comma after an introductory clause (any grammatical unit that contains a subject and a verb): As the train straightened after a long curving tunnel near Lhasa, a nomad emerged from his tent on a hillside(Pankaj Mishra, “The Train to Tibet”) 2. When joining two independent clauses (clauses that could stand alone as sentences) with a coordinating conjunction (and, or, nor, but, yet, for, so), you normally place a comma before the conjunction: Sweetness is a desire that starts on the tongue with the sense of taste, but it doesn’t end there. (Michael Pollan, The Botany of Desire) This rule can occasionally be broken. The shorter the two independent clauses are, the more appropriate it is to break the rule. Examples are more likely to be found in fictional prose where the style is deliberately terse: It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes. (Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants”) 3. When joining mere phrases, you usually do not provide a comma: There have been great civilizations in which the peculiar balance of mind required for science has only fitfully appeared and has produced the feeblest results. (Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World.) In this example, the conjunction and joins two verb phrases. This rule is frequently broken, particularly when the writer wants to convey surprise or to add an afterthought: Each of our internal organs has a personality of its own, and a mythology too. (Sherwin Nuland, The Mysteries Within) We cannot remain absolutely free, and must give up some of our liberty to preserve the rest. (Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty”) Just make sure that whenever you break the rule, you do so for a reason. 4. Place commas between each element of a list of three or more parallel words, phrases, or clauses. Writers often place a comma before the conjunction (and or or) preceding the last element in the list: The history of interactions among disparate people is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and genocide. (Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel) Some writers, however, choose not to place a comma before the last element: The material consequences in the East of the German occupation, the Soviet advance and the partisan struggles were thus of an altogether different order from the experience of war in the West. (Tony Judt, Postwar) Though either method of punctuating is acceptable, try to choose one method and stick with it. A comma before the final element is less likely to produce unintended ambiguity. 5. Surround interrupting or parenthetical clauses or phrases with commas. Such clauses or phrases are not essential to the sentence. If you removed them, the central point of the sentence would remain: Dr. Johnson’s Lives of the Poets, as Boswell tells us, was written at the urging of the London booksellers. (Leon Edel, Writing Lives) Richard Lester, the director of Petulia, is a shrill scold in Mod cloth(Pauline Kael, Going Steady) Remember to add commas on both sides of an interrupting phrase or clause: don’t forget the second comma. The interrupting element in the last example is an appositive. It restates the meaning of the noun phrase it follows. An appositive can, however, narrow down rather than simply restate the meaning of a noun or noun phrase. When an appositive restates meaning, surround it with commas; when it narrows down meaning, do not: Hillary Clinton's daughter, Chelsea, has been called the Greta Garbo of presidential children because she shuns the limelight. (CBS News Report) Charlotte Bront ë’s sister Emily used weather to great effect in her novelWuthering Heights .(Karen Odden, Introduction toHard Times) Hillary Clinton has only one daughter; Charlotte Brontë had more than one sister. Chelsea is therefore not essential to the sentence, whi
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