Advertising
Advertising

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.

Advertising

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:

Advertising

[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:

Advertising

[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.

Advertising

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.

More by this author

How to Plan Your Life Goals and Actually Achieve Them in 7 Simple Steps 6 Simple Steps to Make Progress Towards Achieving Goals Seven Budget-Friendly Things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico 6 Easy Ways to Treat Yourself A Random List of Unique Gifts

Trending in Communication

1The Gentle Art of Saying No 217 Ted Talks for Kids to Inspire Little Minds to Do Big Things 310 Toxic Persons You Should Just Get Rid Of 4Striving Towards Secure Attachment: How to Restructure Your Thoughts 5Being Self Aware Is the Key to Success: How to Boost Self Awareness

Read Next

Advertising
Advertising

The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

Advertising

But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

Advertising

What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

Advertising

But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Advertising

Read Next