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How to punctuate a sentence

How to punctuate a sentence
Sentence

Last month I showed how to unstuff a sentence by removing unnecessary words. This month I’ll offer a quick-and-dirty guide to punctuating a sentence. Nothing that follows is meant to substitute for the nuanced explanations of what’s usually called a writing handbook, the sort of book that college students purchase in a first-semester writing course. These five rules though have the virtue of being manageable, which is difficult to say of a 1,000-page book. In each paragraph that follows, the sentences illustrate the punctuation rule involved. Note that I’m avoiding almost all grammatical terminology. Instead, I’m emphasizing a small number of sentence patterns.

Rule one
If your sentence begins with an introductory element, put a comma after it. Even if it’s a short element, put a comma after it. In time, you’ll be putting this comma in without having to think about it.

Rule two
Any element which interrupts the movement of the sentence, whether it’s big or small, should be set off with commas. This sentence, like the first, also has an element set off with commas. An element that appears at the end of the sentence should also be set off with a comma, as I’m showing here.

Rule three
Items in a series should be separated with commas. What do I mean by “items in a series”? Wine, women, and song. Life, love, and laughter. Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.

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Rule four
Complete sentences that are joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet) need a comma before the coordinating conjunction. That might seem obvious, but this comma frequently gets left out. Putting it in makes a sentence more readable, and any reader appreciates that.

Rule five
Complete sentences that are joined without a coordinating conjunction need a semi-colon instead of a comma; the semi-colon shows the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next. Semi-colons are often followed by a connecting word or phrase; however, a connecting word or phrase is not necessary. Sentences joined with only a comma are called comma splices; they’re among the most common errors that come up in college writing.

(Note: In the next-to-last sentence in the previous paragraph, there’s a comma after however because it’s an introductory element in the second sentence.)

Fixing comma splices requires familiarity with two recurring sentence patterns. The first involves a complete sentence, a semi-colon, and another complete sentence:

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[complete sentence]; [complete sentence].

Some examples:

Your argument is persuasive; it addresses every objection I had.
His research paper is plagiarized; he is going to fail the class.
The novel is a relatively recent literary form; it’s not nearly as old as epic poetry and lyric poetry.

The second pattern to look for involves a complete sentence, a semi-colon, a connecting word or phrase, a comma, and another complete sentence:

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[complete sentence]; [word or phrase], [complete sentence].

(Again, the comma after the connecting word or phrase is appropriate as that word or phrase is an introductory element in the second sentence.)

Some examples:

I decided not to take the job; instead, I’m going to graduate school.
The proposal is flawed; as a result, we’re sending it back for revision.
She did well in the class; in fact, she did much better than she had expected.

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How can you tell whether you have two complete sentences or one sentence with an interrupting element at its end? With an interrupting element (something less than a sentence in itself), the parts of the sentence can be switched and still make sense:

I’ll go to work, even though I’m sick.
Even though I’m sick, I’ll go to work.

But with a second complete sentence and a word or phrase such as instead, as a result, or in fact, the parts cannot be switched and still make sense.

Those are the basics of punctuating sentences with commas and semi-colons. I know from working with many students that any writer can get better when it comes to punctuation. The key is the ability to recognize a handful of familiar patterns. Look for the patterns in your sentences, and you too can get better. With some practice, you’ll be able to see the parts of your sentences falling into place, and punctuating correctly will become, believe it or not, a habit, one that you’ll be happy to have acquired.

Colons, by the way, function as arrows or pointers: see what I mean?

Michael Leddy teaches college English and blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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Last Updated on July 3, 2020

30 Small Habits To Lead A More Peaceful Life

30 Small Habits To Lead A More Peaceful Life

In today’s world, true peace must come from within us and our own actions. Here are 30 small things you can do on a regular basis to increase your overall sense of harmony, peace, and well-being:

1. Don’t go to every fight you’re invited to

Particularly when you’re around those who thrive on chaos, be willing to decline the invitation to join in on the drama.

2. Focus on your breath

Throughout the day, stop to take a few deep breaths. Keep stress at bay with techniques such as “square breathing.” Breathe in for four counts, hold for four counts, then out for four counts, and hold again for four counts. Repeat this cycle four times.

3. Get organized and purge old items

A cluttered space often creates a cluttered spirit. Take the time to get rid of anything you haven’t used in a year and invest in organizational systems that help you sustain a level of neatness.

4. Stop yourself from being judgmental

Whenever you are tempted to have an opinion about someone else’s life, check your intentions. Judging others creates and promotes negative energy.

5. Say ‘thank you’ early and often

Start and end each day with an attitude of gratitude. Look for opportunities in your daily routine and interactions to express appreciation.

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6. Smile more

Even if you have to “fake it until you make it,” there are many scientific benefits of smiling and laughing. Also, pay attention to your facial expression when you are doing neutral activities such as driving and walking. Turn that frown upside down!

7. Don’t worry about the future

As difficult as this sounds, there is a direct connection between staying in the present and living a more peaceful life. You cannot control the future. As the old proverb goes, “Worry is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.” Practice gently bringing your thoughts back to the present.

8. Eat real food

The closer the food is to the state from which it came from the earth, the better you will feel in eating it. Choose foods that grew from a plant over food that was made in a plant.

9. Choose being happy over being right

Too often, we sacrifice inner peace in order to make a point. It’s rarely worth it.

10. Keep technology out of the bedroom

Many studies, such as one conducted by Brigham and Women’s Hospital, have connected blue light of electronic devices before bed to adverse sleep and overall health. To make matters worse, many people report that they cannot resist checking email and social media when their cell phone is in reach of their bed, regardless of the time.

11. Make use of filtering features on social media

You may not want to “unfriend” someone completely, however you can choose whether you want to follow their posts and/or the sources of information that they share.

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12. Get comfortable with silence

When you picture someone who is the ultimate state of peace, typically they aren’t talking.

13. Listen to understand, not to respond

So often in conversations, we use our ears to give us cues about when it is our turn to say what we want to say. Practice active listening, ask questions, process, then speak.

14. Put your troubles in a bubble

Whenever you start to feel anxious, visualize the situation being wrapped in a bubble and then picture that sphere floating away.

15. Speak more slowly

Often a lack of peace manifests itself in fast or clipped speech. Take a breath, slow down, and let your thoughtful consideration drive your words.

16. Don’t procrastinate

Nothing adds stress to our lives like waiting until the last minute.

17. Buy a coloring book

Mandala coloring books for adults are becoming more popular because of their connection to creating inner peace.

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18. Prioritize yourself

You are the only person who you are guaranteed to live with 24 hours a day for the rest of your life.

19. Forgive others

Holding a grudge is hurting you exponentially more than anyone else. Let it go.

20. Check your expectations

Presumption often leads to drama. Remember the old saying, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.”

21. Engage in active play

Let your inner child come out and have some fun. Jump, dance, play, and pretend!

22. Stop criticizing yourself

The world is a hard enough place with more than enough critics. Your life is not served well by being one of them.

23. Focus your energy and attention on what you want

Thoughts, words, and actions all create energy. Energy attracts like energy. Put out what you want to get back.

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24. Assign yourself “complaint free” days.

Make a conscious decision not to complain about anything for a whole day. It might be harder than you think and the awareness will stick with you.

25. Surround yourself with people you truly enjoy being in the company of

Personalities tend to be contagious, and not everyone’s is worth catching. Be judicious in your choices.

26. Manage your money

Financial concerns rank top on the list of what causes people stress. Take the time each month to do a budget, calculate what you actually spend and sanity check that against the money you have coming in.

27. Stop trying to control everything

Not only is your inner control freak sabotaging your sense of peace, it is also likely getting in the way of external relationships as well.

28. Practice affirmations

Repeat positive phrases that depict the life and qualities you want to attract. It may not come naturally to you, but it works.

29. Get up before sunrise

Personally witnessing the dawn brings a unique sense of awe and appreciation for life.

30. Be yourself

Nothing creates more inner discord than trying to be something other than who we really are. Authenticity breeds happiness.

Featured photo credit: man watching sunrise via stokpic.com

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