Eats, Shoots & Leaves is the best-selling book by Lynne Truss. Did you know that there are 17 different uses for the humble comma?
The motivation for me to have picked up this book is because I'm taking my GRE exam tomorrow and I needed to know how to write graduate level essays. Not that you need to have perfect punctuation to score well in the GRE, but this was the perfect excuse and impetus for me to find out (among several things that have been bugging me for a long time):
- How to use the semi-colon. ";"
- How to use the comma at certain times.
- Is it "Jesus's disciples" or "Jesus' disciples"?
- Do you put the full stop in dialogue inside the quotation marks or outside of them?
Lynne Truss's book is a delightful read, weaving emotion and character into punctuation marks such as the comma (likening it to Babe the sheep-pig, or in this case, the sheep-comma), the boisterous apostrophe and the dutiful full-stop. Humourous situations are created with examples of poor punctuation making the book a breeze to read through in a week.
If you want to teach kids punctuation and not let it fall into a list of humdrum rules, you'd do well to use this as a textbook for secondary school kids.
Here are the notes for the things that often confound me:
- For singular possessives: The boy's hat. The First Lord of the Admiralty's rather large front door.
- For pluaral possessives (if it doesn't end in 's'): The children's playground. The women's movement.
- For plural possesives (that do end with 's'): The boys' hats. The babies' bibs.
- Time/Quantity indicator: In one week's time. Four yards' worth. Two weeks' notice.
- Omission of Figures/Dates: In the summer of '68.
- Omission of Letters: We can't go to Jo'burg. It's your turn.
- Indicator of Non-Standard English: "Yer'd better 'ave the key."
- Irish Names: O'Neill. O'Leary.
- Plural of Letters: How many P's and L's are there in Philippines?
- Plural of Words: What are the do's and don't's?
Special Rule: For modern names ending with 's', we put in the extra 's'. E.g. Keats's poems. St. Jame's square. Alexandra Dumas's The Three Musketeers.
Ancient names are special. Achilles' heel. Moses' tablets. Jesus' disciples.
However, proper names/brands are up to the namer to punctuate: St. James' park. (Newcastle United's playing ground). St Andrews.
Double possesives are allowed: "A friend of the footballer's." as well as "A friend of the footballer." Because you could never say "a friend of you" but "a friend of your's".
However, inanimate beings are excluded. "A friend of the British Museum".
Common Error: "It's" is the contraction for "it is" or "it has". If it can't be expanded that way, then it should be "its".
Humourous example: Pupil's entrance. (This school is trully selective indeed). Nude Reader's Wives. (A polygamous naked man.)
Still some questions need to be answered: What's the difference between: "its self" and "itself".
They are optional in most cases. And some people never even use them.
But they convey meaning by joining related sentences together.
Only full sentences should be joined by the semicolon. (Though it can be abused sometimes to join fragments; rather worrying; I think.)
Linking words like "however", "also", "nevertheless", "consequently" and hence require a semicolon, not a comma.
It also provides an extra breath when reading, about twice the length of pause than a comma.
Between two related sentences where there is no conjunction such as "and" or "but", and where a comma would be ungrammatical.
I loved Opal Fruits; they are now called Starbust, of couse.
You could use a dash, but the semicolon suggests a connection between the two sentences whilst the dash has less of a direct connection.
It is used as a hint to the reader that the two sentences are related to the same one idea.
It is also used to put some sense when commas become too confusing.
Fares were offered to Corfu, the Greek island, Morocco, Elba, in the Mediterranean, and Paris. Margaret thought about it. She had been to Elba once and had found it dull, to Morocco, and found it too colourful.
Fares were offered to Corfu, the Greek island; Morocco; Elba, in the Mediterranean; and Paris. Margaret thought about it. She had been to Elba once and had found it dull; to Morocco, and found it too colourful.
- Used for lists. The colours of the rainbow are red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. The rule is, to use a comma when an "and" can be substituted for it. But make sure not to split adjectives from what they are describing. The endangered white rhino. (The rhino isn't white and endangered). My big fat Greek wedding. (The wedding isn't big AND fat AND Greek).
- Used for joining; where words like "and", "or", "but", "while" and "yet" can be used.
- Used for filling gaps. John had jet-black hair; Sally, white.
- Before direct speech. He said, "Shut up!"
- Setting of interjections. Blimey, what would we do without it?
- In pairs; to mark out weak interjections. I am, of course, going nuts.
- Finally, don't use it stupidly. The convict said the judge is mad. The convict, said the judge, is mad.
More confusing stuff
I never knew when writing dialogue, whether to put the terminator inside or outside the quotation marks.
Lynne says that it is a difference between American and British punctuation.
American is inside the quotes even at the end. Sophia asked him if he was "out of his senses". (British). Sophia asked him if he was "out of his senses." (American).
- When a piece of dialogue is attributed at its end, conclude it with a comma inside the inverted commas. "You are out of your senses, Lord Fellamar," gasped Sophia.
- When the dialogue is attributed at the start, conclude it with a full stop inside the inverted commas. He replied, "I'll never do it."
- When the dialogue stands on its own, the full stop comes inside the inverted commas. "Let me do it."
- When only a fragment is being quoted, put punctuation outside the inverted commas. She recognized the "effects of frenzy", and stopped.
- When the quotation is a question or exclamation, it comes inside the inverted commas.
- When the question is posed by the sentence, rather than the speaker, the question mark goes outside. Why didn't Sophia see at once that his lordship doted on her "to the highest degree of distraction"?
- When the quoted speech is a full sentence requiring a full stop (or other terminal mark) of its own, and coincidentally comes at the end of the containing sentence, the mark inside the inverted commas serve for both.
The basic rule is straightforward and logical: when the punctuation relates to the quoted words it goes inside the inverted commas; when it related to the sentence, it goes outside. Unless you're American.
The dash is like a whisper, that follows the rhythm of the sentence. And as for the double dash versus the double commas – the double dash keeps the aside part of the train of thought.
Italics are used for:
- For titles of books, newspapers, movies, etc.
- Foreign phrases.
- Emphasis of certain words.
- Examples when writing about language.