Pondering Punctuation: Demystifying the Comma, Part Four


One of the surprising side effects of the COVID-19 pandemic has been an increased demand for cybersecurity experts. It seems every time you turn on the TV lately, there are plenty of commercials offering programs to teach jobseekers these skills. Since we’re all online so much now—for work, shopping, and just staying in touch with each other—there’s increased risk of our personal data being stolen.

Have you ever stopped to think about what goes into that personal data? Just what information is essential to identify you as an individual? How about these: your full name; your birthday; credit card numbers; your Social Security number, for you Americans out there—the list is extensive, and even depends on the part of the word you live in.

But then there are other facts about you that, while interesting and maybe even important, are true of many people: that you live in a particular town or city; that you play a particular sport; that you have a dog or cat for a pet, and so on. This type of information doesn’t single you out; you could call it extra information.

In today’s installment of our continuing series on comma usage, let’s take a look at how these types of information—essential and extra—are handled in sentences.


With relative clauses:

A relative clause is a phrase within a sentence that modifies a noun and starts with that, which, or who/whom/whose. Sometimes a relative clause contains information essential to identifying a specific person or thing, but other times it contains extra information. For example:

When we visited the mother dog and her litter, we decided to take the puppy who had a white spot on her chest.

Our puppy, who has a white spot on her chest, loves to play fetch.

Notice how in the first example, the relative clause who had a white spot on her chest is essential for identifying which puppy we selected. If you got rid of that clause, the remaining sentence wouldn’t make any sense: *When we visited the dog and her litter, we decided to take the puppy. This leaves the reader wondering which puppy we picked. (BTW, the asterisk before the sentence means that it’s ungrammatical.)

In the second sentence, however, since we don’t have to single out a particular puppy, you could leave out the relative clause who has a white spot on her chest and the sentence would still make sense: Our puppy loves to play fetch. In this case, the clause who has a white spot on her chest is extra information.

Traditionally, grammarians have called the essential type “restrictive” and the extra type “non-restrictive.” But I’ve never found those terms helpful, so I’m going to stick with these concepts of essential and extra information throughout this post.

Now, on to the role of the comma. Look again at the essential example:

When we visited the mother dog and her litter, we decided to take the puppy who had a white spot on her chest.

Note that there is no comma before who. But in the extra example:

Our puppy, who has a white spot on her chest, loves to play fetch.

There are commas around the clause who has a white spot on her chest. So the rule is: if the relative clause contains essential information, it does not take commas; but if the relative clause contains extra information, it does take commas.

Another way to look at it is that the commas are functioning almost like parentheses—they are signposts that mean “We don’t need this information to identify someone or something.”

One more example:

Every book that Chuck owns is about sports.

The book The Boys of Summer, which Chuck owns, details the history of the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers.

If we remove the essential relative clause that Chuck owns from the first sentence, we’d be left with Every book is about sports. And of course that’s not true. Notice that there are no commas, either.

But we can remove the extra relative clause—everything between the commas—from the second and it’s still a true statement: The book The Boys of Summer details the history of the early 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers. The fact that Chuck has a copy of this book is extra information.

You’ve no doubt noticed that in the first sentence the word that starts off the relative clause, but in the second it’s which. You’ll come across some traditional grammars that prescribe using that only with essential clauses, and which only with extra clauses. But this is not actually a hard and fast rule. Native speakers of English tend to automatically use that only with essential clauses, but you can use which with either type. Just go with whichever sounds better to your ear, and then check whether you need to have commas (extra) or not (essential). Chances are that if you naturally used that, it will be an essential clause, which does not need the commas.


With appositives:

Whew! I know that was a lot to absorb. But fortunately this next rule works just like the one for relative clauses.  

First of all, what’s an appositive? It’s a word or phrase which usually follows directly after a noun and provides more information about that noun—for example:

Jason’s wife, Helga, is a German citizen.

Here Helga is an appositive to—more information about—Jason’s wife.

Do you see where we’re going with this? If an appositive provides more information about a noun, sometimes that information is going to be—you guessed it—essential, and other times it’s going to be extra. And the comma rules are exactly the same as with relative clauses: no commas with essential information; commas (again, think parentheses) with extra information.

So why did we use commas in that example? Jason has only one wife, so we don’t need her name to single her out. It’s extra information. But how about this one:

Jenn’s brother Nate came to visit her. 

No commas here—which means that Jenn has more than one brother; Nate is the one who came to visit, and his name is essential in order to pinpoint him. But what if the sentence had been written this way:

Jenn’s brother, Nate, came to visit her. 

At first glance this seems to be the exact same sentence. But check out the commas—this version means that Jenn has only one brother, so his name is extra information.

One more set of examples, this one not so tricky:

Many theater lovers consider Shakespeare’s play Hamlet the greatest drama of all time.

Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, is not often performed.

In the first sentence, Hamlet is essential to identify which one of Shakespeare’s plays we’re talking about—so no commas. But in the second sentence, since Beethoven wrote only one opera, the name isn’t essential—it’s extra information.

By now your head is probably spinning—mine certainly was when I first started paying attention to this distinction. And you might even wonder why it matters. I have no answer for that, other than to say that it does: observing the rules and correctly applying (or not applying) the commas will distinguish you as a careful writer who pays attention to detail.

And some good news—this is the most subtle, most difficult application of all of the comma rules. You’ve seen the worst now, so our last installment on the comma will be a piece of cake! I’ll be back soon with those few remaining rules. Until then, as always, look for these principles at work “in the wild,” and practice using them in your own writing. And please feel free to leave any questions below! 

Pondering Punctuation: Demystifying the Comma, Part Three

Image by Sinisa Maric from Pixabay

Everyone knows the value of getting any endeavor off to a good start, whether it’s a new job, a new relationship, or even a blog post. Proverbs about the importance of beginning well abound in many languages. Personally, I’ve always liked the expression “getting off on the right foot,” which is particularly timely now that we can get out more, what with it being summer and with coronavirus restrictions easing.

And of course making a good start also applies to writing. So for today’s installment of our continuing series on commas, let’s look at some rules about correctly using commas when your sentence has an introductory word or phrase. You want the start to be powerful because that’s one of the two strongest positions in the sentence—the other one is the end.

With introductory words:

If you have an introductory word such as an exclamatory Oh or Ah; words like Yes, No, or Well; or if you’re addressing someone by his or her name—all of these need a comma afterwards:

Oh, I love your shoes!

Yes, they look so comfortable.

Jen, where did you buy them?  

red ladies' shoes

With introductory words or short phrases:

Then there are several words or short phrases that, although they’re introductory in nature, tend to pop up in the middle of sentences to clarify something, such as that is, namely, and for example. They usually follow a semicolon or dash, or are enclosed in parentheses. All of them need a comma afterwards:

Many hikers dream of becoming Appalachian Trail thru-hikers; that is, they want to walk the entire trail from start to finish in one trip.

Sports stores usually sell specialized footware—for example, golf shoes and baseball cleats.

My favorite sport (namely, tennis) also requires its own kind of sneakers.   


Now let’s look at two situations in which the introductory phrase is a bit longer: adverbial phrases and participial phrases. Don’t let the grammatical terms put you off; we’ll explain those as we go.

With introductory adverbial phrases:

A single word that’s an adverb modifies a verb, usually adding information such as when the verb happened (such as late), how it happened (slowly), where it happened (there), and so on. An adverbial phrase does the same thing, just with more words—it modifies the verb of the main sentence. Say we had a sentence like this: 

We sat down to eat dinner.

Now we’d like to add an introductory phrase to elaborate more on when we sat down. So we’ll add the phrase and then a comma before the main part of the sentence:

After walking home from the baseball game, we sat down to eat dinner.

If the introductory adverbial phrase is short, the comma may be omitted:

Until 1986 the tennis balls used at Wimbledon were white. (This is clear without the comma after the introductory Until 1986, which specifies when.)

But make sure that if you do leave it out, you don’t make the sentence unclear:

Before eating, their dogs like to go for a walk.

Here’s the incorrect version so you can compare how the reader could get off to a false start if you left out the comma:

Before eating their dogs like to go for a walk.  (Someone’s eating dogs?! Oh, wait, no…) 

Another possibility would be to rewrite this one so that the adverbial phrase is at the end: Their dogs like to go for a walk before eating.  

And finally, there’s just one “don’t” with this rule: do not include a comma if the phrase comes directly before the verb it modifies:

Through the city streets ran all the marathoners.

In this sentence the subject, the actor, is marathoners; they ran (verb) through the city streets (adverbial phrase specifying where).

men's shoe footprints

With introductory participial phrases:

The terms “participle” and “participial” sound like some serious grammar, but they’re just talking about modifiers made from verbs. Participles can be in the present tense, in which case they end in -ing, or past, usually ending in –ed. Let’s start with a main sentence:

Bryan decided it was time to buy new loafers.

Then we want to add an introductory participial phrase to modify when he decided. This will look a lot like the introductory adverbial phrases we just talked about, and once again, the phrase needs a comma after it, before the main part of the sentence:

Noticing the hole in the toe of his shoe, Bryan decided it was time to buy new loafers.

Here the participle is Noticing.

As with the adverbial phrase, there’s just one exception, and again, you have to zero in on the verb (action) of the main sentence: if the phrase comes directly before the verb (and the sentence is therefore in reverse order), no comma after the participial phrase:

Walking along the boardwalk were throngs of vacationers.

As we noted above, this could be rewritten to turn the sentence around:  Throngs of vacationers were walking along the boardwalk. But you might want to have vacationers at the end in order to emphasize it. 

I hope these few rules will help you always get your sentences off on the right foot! But if you have any questions, please feel free to leave me a comment below—these rules that allow some stylistic leeway can be confusing. A good practice is to complete your first draft without worrying about punctuation rules, then go back and look them up afterwards. And remember to take on just one rule at a time: focus on using it for several days before adding another one into the mix.

I’ll be back next time for our last foray into the complicated world of the comma!

Pondering Punctuation: Demystifying the Comma, Part Two

If you’re over the age of 45 or so, you might remember that back in the day the fast-food restaurant chain Wendy’s had several hilarious commercials containing the catchphrase “parts is parts.” Check out my favorite one of the bunch:

Unlike Wendy’s chicken sandwiches, however, many sentences are not one unbroken piece, but are made up of two or more parts. So in this installment of our continuing series on using commas correctly, let’s look at a variety of situations in which commas help mark off those parts.

With “not” phrases:

When you insert a phrase containing not to clarify a noun, set it off with commas (or just one if the phrase comes at the end of the sentence):

My friend likes mustard, not ketchup, on her burgers.

I prefer grilled chicken sandwiches, not the fried ones.

With “the more…,” “the less…” type phrases:

Usually you should place a comma between clauses (another term for phrases) that include constructions such as “the more…”, “the less…”:

Studies have proven what everyone suspects: the more fast food you eat, the more weight you tend to gain.

If the phrases are short, you may omit the comma (but it’s not wrong to still include it):

So the less you eat the better.

With questions inside a sentence:

If you want to include a question within a sentence in the form that it was originally asked—also known as a direct question—put a comma before it:

John asked himself, do I want a vanilla or a chocolate milkshake?

If the question is long or has its own internal punctuation, you may capitalize the first letter of the first word—but this is not mandatory:

The question on my mind was, Can those vegetable-based substitutes really fool people who love burgers made of meat?

But if you’re paraphrasing the question, that is, rewording it to make it indirect, then no comma or capitalization is necessary:

The question on my mind was whether those vegetable-based substitutes could really fool people who love burgers made of meat.

With quotations:

I think we all remember this one from school: when you introduce a quote in the middle or at the end a sentence, put a comma before the open quotation marks. This holds true whatever you’re quoting, whether it was written or spoken:

The newspaper’s food critic commented, “This new locally owned fast-food restaurant beats all the national chains hands down.”

Amy asked, “Are those chicken nuggets spicy?” 

But if you introduce the quotation with thatwhether, or a similar word, you don’t need the comma:

I assured her that “they’re not spicy at all.”

When the quote begins the sentence, place a comma at the end of the quoted part, just before the close quotation marks—unless the quotation needs a question mark or exclamation point:

“That was a good burger,” said Mark.

“I thought it was great!” exclaimed Dave.

With parentheses:

When you have material in parentheses that needs a comma afterwards—for example, it’s an item in a series—the comma goes outside the close parenthesis, never inside:

The order for the office included two chicken sandwiches, six burgers (four with cheese), and enough french fries for everyone.

I think that’s enough parts and commas for today, but I’ll be back soon with more. Most of these rules are pretty clear-cut, but please feel free to leave me a note below if you have any questions. The best way to start getting a handle on all these rules is to take them one at a time: choose just one and concentrate on it for several days in your writing. When you start feeling confident with that rule, take on another.  

And now I’ve gone and made myself hungry—time to get some lunch!

Pondering Punctuation: Demystifying the Comma, Part One


Commas are, without a doubt, the punctuation mark that gives everyone the most headaches. One reason is that they are the most frequently used of all punctuation. A few days ago, as I was preparing for this latest installment in our punctuation series, I decided to conduct my own informal survey. I selected five books at random from our personal library, and five pages within each book—so 25 pages in all. It turned out that there were only 4 pages out of those 25 in which the comma was not the highest frequency mark; the period overtook it in all of those. And in all five books, the average of the five sampled pages always came out with the comma as the winner.

Another cause of comma confusion is that in some places you need it, but in others it’s optional. (Does that remind you of the semicolon from last time around?) And there are many contexts where commas should or can be used: the section on the comma in the Chicago Manual of Style runs 37 paragraphs! Compare that to the period, which Chicago covers in just four paragraphs. But relax—we’re going to take the comma step by step, starting out with its most clear-cut uses and gradually working up to more complicated ones. (And no way are we going to cover all 37 paragraphs!)

I think most of us learned in school that a comma indicates a pause in a sentence, as opposed to a period’s full stop. If a period is a stop sign, you could think of a comma as a yield.

Yield sign

This analogy will be helpful especially when we get to the more complex uses of the comma. Just as you wouldn’t want too many yield signs in one short stretch of road, you don’t want to overload your sentences with commas, which could make your writing jerky. Yet you want enough to manage the flow of your traffic, er, sentences properly. The end goal, as with everything in your writing, should always be to make your meaning clear and easy to read.

All the uses of that comma that we’ll look at today are mandatory.

One of the most basic is the commas in pairs rule: whenever a comma sets off an element such as the year in a date or the name of a state or country after a city, there must be another comma following that element:

After conducting the informal punctuation survey on May 28, 2020, I began writing the blog post.

The yield sign picture was taken in Orlando, Florida, in the neighborhood where I live.

Image by shilin wang from Pixabay

You also need a comma when you want to join two independent clauses with a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Remember that “independent clause” is just another name for a complete sentence, which has a subject (an actor) and a verb (an action or a linking verb). So you could take two sentences such as:

Some drivers almost come to a stop at yield signs. Others hardly slow down at all.

…and make them one:

Some drivers almost come to a stop at yield signs, but others hardly slow down at all.

The important points to remember are that you must be joining two independent clauses, and you need both the comma and the conjunction. If you leave out the conjunction, you have the error called a “comma splice”:

Incorrect version of the above example: Some drivers almost come to a stop at yield signs, others hardly slow down at all.

Available at boredwalktshirts.com! And yes, I bought one.

 Just as you might have heard of the “comma splice,” maybe you’ve encountered the term “Oxford comma.” It sounds fancy, but it’s simply this: when listing three or elements in a series, with a conjunction before the last one, there should be a comma between all the elements and before the conjunction. This is also known as the serial comma rule, and here’s what it looks like:

Among the books I sampled were a novel, a history book, and a business book.

You could argue that this is our first optional use of the comma, because some style guides do not require the last comma before the conjunction—which would look like this:

Among the books I sampled were a novel, a history book and a business book.

However, I agree with The Chicago Manual of Style that consistently using the serial comma prevents misunderstanding. What if you had a sentence like this:

The authors included collaborating academicians, Cialdini, and Dostoevsky.

This sentence that includes the serial comma is clear that we’re talking about three separate entities: 1) the group of academicians, 2) Cialdini, and 3) Dostoevsky. But if you omit the final comma after Cialdini, you get:

The authors included collaborating academicians, Cialdini and Dostoevsky.

This version could be interpreted to mean that the names of the collaborating academicians are Cialdini and Dostoevsky—just two entities, in other words. So using the serial comma keeps everything clear.


Finally for today we have the use of the comma between two or more adjectives (descriptive words) before a noun. Sometimes you need it; sometimes you don’t. But don’t worry—there are two tests to help you figure this out: if you can put the word and between the adjectives and the sentence still makes sense, then you need a comma between them. Or, if you can reverse or rearrange the order of the adjectives and the sentence still makes sense, then again, put a comma between them:

Cialdini’s Influence is an interesting, accessible book.

If you run the tests, you get the following, both of which make sense—so a comma goes between interesting and accessible

Using and instead of a comma: Cialdini’s Influence is an interesting and accessible book.

Reversing the order: Cialdini’s Influence is an accessible, interesting book.  

And again:

Crime and Punishment has a complex, detailed plot.

Apply the tests—again, this one passes, so it needs the comma:

Using and instead of a comma: Crime and Punishment has a complex and detailed plot.

Reversing the order: Crime and Punishment has a detailed, complex plot.

Here are some sentences that don’t pass the tests, so no comma goes between the adjectives:

Dostoevsky is considered one of the masters of nineteenth-century Russian literature.

Try the tests—compare how they don’t work here the way they did above—so no comma:

Using and instead of a comma: Dostoevsky is considered one of the masters of nineteenth-century and Russian literature.

Reversing the order: Dostoevsky is considered one of the masters of Russian nineteenth-century literature.

And again:

We have many yield signs in our town to control the heavy neighborhood traffic.

Try the tests:

Using and instead of a comma: We have many yield signs in our town to control the heavy and neighborhood traffic.

Reversing the order: We have many yield signs in our town to control the neighborhood heavy traffic.

This sentence clearly fails test number one. The result of test number two isn’t bad, but it doesn’t sound as natural as the original version. At any rate, since it definitely failed one test, no comma here.

Whew, I think that’s quite enough for one day! Take some time over the next two weeks to start looking for places in your writing that would require these rules, and be on the lookout for examples “in the wild.” A good way to master these rules is to focus on just one for several days; when you feel you’re getting more confident applying it, add another. If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment below. I’ll be back soon to unravel more mysteries of the comma!

Pondering Punctuation: Colons and Semicolons

I mentioned previously that my husband and I have sons who are twins, but unfortunately I didn’t have space in that post to talk more about them. They’re grown up now (I can’t believe they’ll be 30 in July!) but raising them was quite an experience. We gave them similar names, and they look a lot alike, though not as much now as when they were kids. Yet despite having many common interests, they have distinctly different personalities. 

3 - First birthday
First birthday, July 1991

Which brings us to the latest installment of our punctuation survey: the colon and the semicolon, which would seem to be the twins of the punctuation world. Like our sons, they have similar names. And each is made up of two other punctuation marks: a colon is two periods stacked up, while a semicolon is a period over a comma. But despite the similarities, colons and semicolons are used very differently.

First, a quick grammar definition which will help with the following explanations. Remember that for a string of words to be considered a complete sentence, it needs a subject (an actor) and a verb (an action or a linking word). Another name for a sentence is an independent clause:

Scientific researchers often use identical twins as subjects.  

I can’t imagine what it would be like to have triplets or more.

Some cultures consider the birth of twins to be good luck.

Be on the lookout—you might see some of these independent clauses again soon. And now that we have that out of the way, let’s get started.

The easiest way to remember what a colon does it to think of it as meaning “as follows.” You can use one at the end of an independent clause to indicate that the words following will explain, illustrate, or amplify what you said before the colon. The material after the colon can be another sentence or a list:

Scientific researchers often use identical twins as subjects: their matching DNA profiles allow the scientists to control for one variable.  

Parents need three attributes for raising twins: flexibility, a positive attitude, and endless patience. 

And as a matter of fact, you can even include the words “as follows,” or other such introductory words, before a colon:

I always give new parents of twins the following advice: don’t sweat the small stuff, and remember that most of it is small stuff.

Just one caution with the colon: always remember that it should come after an independent clause—that is, a compete sentence. Don’t use a colon when you have a list within a sentence:

Incorrect: Our sons’ common interests are: languages, video games, and martial arts.

This is incorrect because the bit before the colon—Our sons’ common interests are—is not a complete sentence without a complement after the linking verb are. Here’s how it should look:

Correct: Our sons’ common interests are languages, video games, and martial arts.

14 - Christmas
Christmas 1997 or 1998-ish

While the colon is pretty straightforward, the semicolon can be a bit trickier because its use is often optional. Some writers love it, while others never use it at all. For hardcore grammar nerds (like me) there’s even a whole book about the use and abuse of the semicolon throughout the history of English literature and prose. (I am not an Amazon affiliate and do not receive anything for this endorsement.)  

So let’s take it one step at a time. The easiest way to use a semicolon is to join two independent clauses without a joining word (conjunction) when the writer wants to make a close connection between them:

Raising twins wasn’t easy; I can’t imagine what it would be like to have triplets or more.

Identical twins share 100% of their DNA; fraternal twins share just 50%, the same as regular siblings.

In both these cases you can see why the writer would opt to link the independent clauses; they are clearly related. But you could instead join them with a comma and a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, or so):

Raising twins wasn’t easy, so I can’t imagine what it would be like to have triplets or more.

Identical twins share 100% of their DNA, but fraternal twins share just 50%, the same as regular siblings.

Or you could make them two separate sentences:

Raising twins wasn’t easyI can’t imagine what it would be like to have triplets or more.

Identical twins share 100% of their DNAFraternal twins share just 50%, the same as regular siblings.

So this is a stylistic choice. All these options are grammatically acceptable, but each has a different feel to it. To me, the last option—making them two sentences—seems choppy. But sometimes that might be the effect you want to create.

You can also include an introductory word or phrase after the semicolon and before the second sentence. Words and phrases commonly used in this situation include however, therefore, indeed, thus, hence, accordingly, besides, that is, for example, namely, etc. Be sure to include a comma after the introductory word or phrase and before the second sentence:

Some cultures consider the birth of twins to be good luck; however, others regard it as a bad omen.

Our sons have rather different personalities; nevertheless, they are very close.

The last main use of the semicolon is for a series of phrases which contain internal punctuation, usually commas. (And yes, I couldn’t resist sneaking in more colons as well):

My mother-in-law sewed many wonderful things for the boys: their white, traditional christening gowns; little sports coats in their customary colors—one red, one blue; and several Halloween costumes.

Our sons had an interesting assortment of possessions growing up, such as: sturdy, slanted drawing boards; comfortable, black, waterproof boots for playing outside; and a vast collection of Lego blocks.

Once again, this is not mandatory; if the list is unambiguous punctuated with commas, you can do it that way instead:

Our sons had an interesting assortment of possessions growing up, such as: sturdy, slanted drawing boards, comfortable, black, waterproof boots for playing outside, and a vast collection of Lego blocks.

20 - Koln cropped
Spring 2014

Currently the boys live in separate states and can get together only every few months. Since I can’t reunite them right now, I’m going to at least get the punctuation twins back together. The one remaining similarity between the colon and the semicolon is that they are both placed outside quotation marks and parentheses: 

Here’s an interesting fact about the two members of the 80s group The Proclaimers, whose one big hit was “I’m Gonna Be”: they are identical twin brothers.

My mother-in-law sewed many wonderful things for the boys: their white, traditional-style christening gowns; little sports coats in their customary colors (one red, one blue); and several Halloween costumes.

Hopefully this has helped demystify the colon and semicolon at least a little bit—but please feel free to contact me at steph@tightprose.com if you have any questions! They’re really not so daunting, and remember too that a semicolon is usually optional. If you choose to join the ranks of those who don’t use it, you’ll be in good company with writers such as George Orwell and Kurt Vonnegut, to name just…two! 

Pondering Punctuation: Exclamation Points and Question Marks

About a week ago, just as some of the coronavirus restrictions began to loosen up here in Florida, my husband and I welcomed a new member of the family:

Cutest closeup ever

This is Maddie the Labrador Retriever, who is now ten weeks old, and a real sweetie! My husband and I haven’t had dogs for a while since we’d been moving around, but we’ve trained many puppies over the years. One part of it that came right back to me was how much your tone of voice matters: “Come!” should always be happy and enthusiastic; “No!” always needs to be very emphatic and serious.  

So it seems fitting to continue our punctuation survey this time around with two marks that, in addition to being straightforward and easy to use, are important in conveying the writer’s intended tone of his or her words: exclamation points and question marks.

We’re all familiar with both of them. When we were learning to write as children, we probably learned them right after the period; it’s easy to grasp the idea of a marking to convey tone of voice. I’ve always been fascinated with the convention in Spanish, where, in addition to an exclamation point or question mark at the end of the sentence, there’s also an upside-down one at the beginning, so the reader knows right away how the sentence should be read. (By the way, does anyone know if any other languages do that? Just my linguistic curiosity.)

Anyway, let’s start with the exclamation point. Its name tells you exactly how to use it: to mark an exclamation—any kind of utterance that is loaded with strong emotion:

Our new puppy is so cute!

I can’t believe all the toys available for dogs these days!

Just one word of caution when it comes to exclamation points: there has been a growing tendency in the digital age to overuse them, thus robbing them of their punch. It’s an easy habit to fall into—but at least in more formal writing, it’s best to use exclamation points sparingly.

The name of the question mark also speaks for itself: it’s used to indicate a direct question:

Do you like dogs?

How much should I feed my puppy?

You can even use a question mark in the middle of a sentence when embedding a direct question—that is, if the question is in the same form as when it was originally asked. The remainder of the sentence doesn’t need a capital letter:

Is it a good time to get a dog? they wondered.

However, if it’s an indirect question—a paraphrase, in other words—no question mark is necessary:

They wondered whether it was a good time to get a dog.

Besides being indicators of tone of voice, exclamation points and question marks have something else in common: they are both treated the same way when it comes to combining them with quotation marks or parentheses. They are placed inside if they apply to the material inside the quotes or parentheses, but if not, then they go outside. Some examples will make this clearer:

The vet asked, “Has your puppy been sleeping well?”

In this sentence, the material inside the quotes is a question, so the question mark goes inside. Compare to:

 Have you read that blog post called “Training Your New Puppy”?

Here, the title of the post is “Training Your New Puppy” (no question mark). The question is whether the reader has read the article, so the question mark goes outside the quotes.

Same goes with parentheses:

Maddie loves her new teddy bear toy. (She never lets it out of her sight!)

The exclamation mark belongs with the second sentence inside the parentheses. But:

Puppies love to chew (maybe because they’re teething)!

Here the exclamation mark emphasizes the whole sentence, but especially the first part of it. The material inside the parentheses is just a speculation on the reason for the chewing and would not by itself require an exclamation mark.

So be on the lookout for interesting uses of exclamation points and question marks “in the wild.” Can you find examples of them inside and outside of quotes and parentheses? Please share your examples below! 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think Maddie needs to go outside. 😊

Pondering Punctuation

When you bring up the subject of grammar, punctuation is probably what most people think of. There’s definitely a popular conception of the “grammar police” as the folks who tell you that you have all your commas in the wrong places.

Yet ironically, most of the time we don’t give punctuation too much thought. At least not until we come across a piece of writing that clearly doesn’t adhere to the norm, such as this excerpt from Ulysses by James Joyce that has…no punctuation whatsoever. When we struggle to make sense of a passage like this, we realize the importance of punctuation, which The Chicago Manual of Style explains well: “to promote ease of reading by clarifying relationships within and between sentences.”

So let’s take a few installments to review the most common punctuation marks. But don’t worry—I’m not going to overwhelm you with every obscure rule from every style manual ever written. (If I did, I’d be writing these posts until the end of time.) We’ll keep Chicago’s wisdom in mind by keeping just to the most commonly used rules, the ones that do most of the work in making texts clear and easily readable. 

We’ll start today with arguably the most basic punctuation mark: the period.

I often think of these birds as the period of the avian world. These are Sandhill Cranes, and they’re everywhere in the Florida suburbs. They seem to like nothing more than hanging out in the middle of a street in such a way as to bring traffic to a complete stop (much to drivers’ chagrin).

Likewise, a period signifies a full stop at the end of a sentence:

The Sandhill Cranes don’t seem bothered at all when drivers honk their horns at them.

The drivers, however, are usually boiling over with impatience.

The only time that the placement of periods can get a little confusing is when they’re combined with material inside parentheses. There are two possibilities:

If the words inside the parentheses form a complete sentence—that is, they have a subject (actor) and verb (action)—then the period goes inside the closing parenthesis. Look just a couple of paragraphs back up the page to see an example:

(If I did, I’d be writing these posts until the end of time.)

This is a complete sentence, so the period is inside the parentheses. If, however, the words inside the parentheses do not form a complete sentence, then no period is necessary within the parentheses. There should be only one at the end of the larger sentence. Again, look back up the page for an example:

They seem to like nothing more than hanging out in the middle of a street in such a way as to bring traffic to a complete stop (much to drivers’ chagrin).

This time, the words inside the parentheses do not form a complete sentence because there is no verb (action); the phrase merely elaborates briefly on the drivers’ reaction to the cranes. So the period goes outside the parentheses, at the end of the larger sentence.

The last major use of periods is in forming abbreviations. Did you know that there are different sets of rules about how to use periods in abbreviations? Some style guides, such as Chicago, advocate generally not using periods in abbreviations formed of all capital letters: MD, US, HIV, YMCA, NAFTA, JFK. But there are a few guides that do call for periods in abbreviations such as these: M.D., U.S., H.I.V., etc. So the bottom line is: if you’re writing according to a particular style guide, be sure to follow it. If you’re not using one, it doesn’t really matter which you do—but please pick one way and be consistent. (Personally, I go with no periods, per Chicago rules, since that’s what I’m used to.)

So let’s get some discussion going on this! Please feel free to comment below on any or all of the following: 

  1. Out “in the wild” can you find examples of periods in abbreviations versus no periods?
  2. Which way do you prefer? Why?
  3. Are there any infuriating traffic-stopping birds (or other wildlife) in your part of the world?

Take a Break…and Breathe

Today let’s take a break. No writing, no editing, no grammar.

Stop for a few minutes. Forget about everything going on in the world right now. Forget news broadcasts and social media.

Let go of worry.

Take a deep breath and be thankful. We now appreciate that just being able to breathe is a precious gift. So take a moment to breathe.


Breathe again. Think of your family and friends. Enjoy the company of those you’re with. Be thankful also for those not with you. In a little while, give them a call or drop them a line.  

Breathe again. Think of your home. It might seem like a prison at the moment, but now more than ever it’s your safe place. Your home is truly your castle now, its walls protecting you and your family. 


Breathe again. Think of all those fighting the scourge: doctors, nurses, first responders, scientists, and so many others behind the scenes. Remember that everyone is doing the best they can with the resources they have.

Breathe again. Think of the future. Think of what you’ll do once this crisis is over. Think of how much you’ll appreciate freedom once you get it back.  


Breathe again. And just keep breathing. Every day, every hour, every minute until this is all over—we’ll get there one breath at a time.

And it’s OK to do this too

As we’ve seen in our past few installments, myths, both grammatical and otherwise, often arise from misunderstandings or incomplete information. This is certainly true of the current situation surrounding the novel coronavirus. Because there are gaps in our knowledge about this new virus, there is a lot of confusion, which has in turn led to a lot of myths.

Many of you are no doubt familiar with the fact-checking website Snopes. Of the top 50 trending claims they have recently investigated, only 12 are not related to the coronavirus. Some of the more interesting ones include several supposed predictions of the outbreak in various books or media; a method to check yourself for infection by holding your breath; and the allegation that Corona beer sales have suffered because some people believe that the beer is connected to the virus.

Our grammar myth for today also comes from incomplete information and confusion. I’d bet that many of you (like me) were taught in school not to begin sentences with conjunctions. These are the little words that are used to link words, clauses (parts of sentences), and even complete sentences: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. According to the spurious “rule,” the second sentence in each of these examples is incorrect (the conjunction is underlined):

I looked everywhere for toilet paper, with no luck. And my neighbor said that the grocery store was out of disinfectant wipes.

There are many cases of COVID-19 in the New York metropolitan area, so it is locked down very tightly. But here in Florida, restrictions vary county by county.

Start looking for this and you’ll find it everywhere, because . . . there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Look back at what I said above about conjunctions: they are words that link other words, clauses, and even complete sentences. That’s a paraphrase of the guidance in The Chicago Manual of Style, one of the most respected and widely used style guides in the English-speaking world. And other style guides that I consulted agree.

Notice in the examples that using a conjunction at the beginning of the second sentence can be an effective way to create a smooth transition. In the first example, the second sentence starting with And amplifies the first. The use of But in the second example emphasizes the contrast between the sentences. If you were to make either example into one sentence, it would be very long and cumbersome—what is sometimes called a run-on sentence.

So why were we taught not to do this? One of the most popular explanations I’ve encountered in my research is that teachers use it as an easy way to keep students from writing sentence fragments, which lack either a subject (an actor) or a verb (an action), and could look something like this:

When the lockdown is over, I want to go to out to eat. And to the beach.

The second sentence here is not a sentence at all, but a fragment, because it contains no verb. A corrected version would be:

When the lockdown is over, I want to go out to eat and to the beach.

Once I learned as an adult that using conjunctions at the beginning of sentences is OK, it became one of my favorite transition devices. You might have noticed this in my previous posts, so I’ve decided to make this a contest! Count the sentences in this post and in the previous two (St. Patrick, Snakes, and Split Infinitives; Busting Grammar Myths) that start with the conjunctions for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.  Drop me an email at steph@tightprose.com by April 10 with your total to enter. And yes, there’s a prize—a copy of The Sense of Style, a fabulous book on writing and English usage. The winner will be announced on April 14! 

I hope everyone is doing well—stay healthy and safe!

St. Patrick, Snakes, and Split Infinitives

Even if you’re not of Irish ancestry, I’m sure you’ve heard the legend that there are no snakes in Ireland because St. Patrick drove them out. Although my husband swears that his great-great-great-grandfather helped the saint with this chore, the story is just that—a story. There have been no snakes in Ireland since the last Ice Age. 

Legends and myths abound in all aspects of life, including grammar, so last time around we set out on a mission to explode some of the most common ones. You might remember “rules” that you learned in school but maybe haven’t thought about in years. Turns out a lot of them aren’t hard and fast laws; they’re more like guidelines. Today let’s look at the spurious prohibition against splitting infinitives.

First of all, what’s an infinitive? It’s simply the word to plus a verb (action word): to love; to write; to play, etc. In grammatical terms, it is the uninflected form of the verb—that is, it describes the action itself. In these examples, I’ve underlined it:

I’d like to go to the pub for green beer tonight.  

St. Patrick used a shamrock to illustrate the theological concept of the Holy Trinity.

So far, so good. The problem can come up when we want to add some sort of descriptor to the infinitive. If you put that description word or words between the to and the verb, that is a split infinitive:

The attendance at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is expected to more than double.

Some scholars continue to adamantly maintain that St. Patrick had no role in the conversion of Ireland.

There is no way to rewrite the first example to unsplit the infinitive without it sounding strange: The attendance at this year’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade is expected more than to double.

In the second example, you could move adamantly: Some scholars continue adamantly to maintain–but that could make it unclear whether adamantly goes with continue or maintain. Or you could go with Some scholars continue to maintain adamantly… That’s not bad, but adamantly has a lot more punch when it comes right before maintain, doesn’t it?

So these are some cases in which you might want to preserve a split infinitive—and again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing that.

But getting back to legends and myths: one of the reasons they stand the test of time is that they usually contain at least a kernel of truth. In the case of St. Patrick and the snakes, many historians agree that the story is likely an allegory for the saint’s success in removing what was considered an evil—paganism, represented by the snakes—from Ireland.

The kernel of truth in the “rule” about infinitives is that, even though you can split them, it’s not always a good idea. As with many other topics we’ve covered, such as the use of adjectives and adverbs, you should think carefully about exactly what you want to say, as well as the style and tone of your writing. In more formal writing, it’s generally better to not split infinitives if possible. (See what I just did there? 😊 )

Fortunately, in some cases keeping the infinitive unsplit turns out to be the better option. Here’s a sentence with a split infinitive:

Some people of Irish ancestry are searching for ways to more authentically celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

And with the infinitive unsplit:

Some people of Irish ancestry are searching for ways to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day more authentically.

Fixing this split infinitive makes for a better sentence because in the original there’s a lot of distance between to and celebrate. Moving more authentically to the end also highlights it more, because the end of a sentence is the position that gets the most emphasis.

Sometimes it just comes down to a matter of which way sounds more natural. Imagine a mother saying this to her teenage daughter on the morning of March 18th, after the latter discovered that some drugstore hair color was not quite as temporary as she had thought:

I told you not to dye your hair green.

That just sounds better than I told you to not dye your hair green, doesn’t it?

So be on the lookout for split infinitives in the wild, and please feel free to comment below with your thoughts on whether they were used effectively!

And no matter your ancestry, happy St. Patrick’s Day! (But no green hair for me, thanks.)