Punctuation Road Signs to Direct Sentence Traffic

(Previously published 12-7-1011)

Splay24-2 Are slow children playing?

 Your mother is making broccoli chicken, peas, and carrots for dinner. So is she making one entrée and one side dish? Or is she making one entrée and two side dishes? Or two entrées and two side dishes? Confused? You might have an idea what food you will be eating, but unless you understand how the sentence is punctuated, you might not know how to interpret the menu.

In the example, broccoli chicken has no comma to separate the words, so it is one dish, like they serve at the corner Chinese restaurant. But peas and carrots are separated with a comma, which indicates that instead of one side dish of mixed peas and carrots, you’ll get a side of peas, and a side of carrots. Make sense? Punctuation can change the meaning of your sentences, and if you’re not careful, you might say something you don’t really mean.

Here is a classic illustration of altering punctuation to change meaning:

  • A woman without her man is nothing.
  • A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Both sentences are punctuated correctly, but both say very different things.

Now look at the following examples illustrating hyphenated words:

  1. You will be required to work twenty four-hour shifts.
  2. You will be required to work twenty-four hour shifts.
  3. You will be required to work twenty-four-hour shifts. 

Hyphens should be used when adverbs not ending in -ly are used as compound words in front of a noun (shifts). The first person will be working several (20) four-hour shifts because a hyphen is used between the four and hour. The second person will be working twenty-four, one hour shifts, as the hyphen falls between twenty and four. The third person will be working around the clock. I hope he gets overtime pay.

In the final examples, Jack may or may not be a good guy. Only Jill knows for sure: 

Dear Jack:

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy – will you let me be yours?


Dear Jack:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men I yearn! For you I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart I can be forever happy; will you let me be.


One final thought: punctuation – even commas – have rules of usage. There should be no guessing when or where to use any kind of punctuation. Feeling the need to take a breath or pause in a sentence does not necessarily mean you need a comma, but a comma does mean you need to pause. So as your essays are under construction, use appropriate signs to direct reader traffic, and if in doubt, look it up.

Due-Day Polishing: 6 things to do before you hand over the final draft

(Originally appeared Nov. 2011)

You’ve worked hard all quarter getting your essay in top form. You’ve outlined. You’ve taken pages of notes. You’ve peer-workshopped. Your instructor has given you feedback – and at least 100 handouts. You revised. And revised. And revised. Today the final draft is due – but is it really done?

Don’t be too quick to hand your essay over just yet. Here are a few last-minute editing tips to get your essay as perfect as it can be.

1. Did you use spell-checker? Good. But don’t trust it. Spell-checker is great if you have misspelled a word or used incorrect punctuation (sometimes). But spell-checker doesn’t work if you’ve used defiantly instead of definitely, or their instead of there, or a semi-colon instead of a colon, or – you get the picture. One quick way to find these errors is to go to the toolbar under “Edit”; click “Find,” then type in the words you have difficulty with. It will highlight them so you can confirm you’ve used these words correctly.

2.  Read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Does each paragraph focus on just one topic, or are you all over the place? See where you were beginning with the paragraph, and see where you ended up; if you went down one road and ended up on a multi-lane interstate, refocus your thoughts so the paragraph communicates one topic or point.

3.  How is your sentence variety? Do you vary the length and style to create a nice rhythm, or are sentences short and choppy? Can short sentences be combined? Do you say the same thing but in five different ways? Sometimes we spend so much time on research or MLA as we’re composing our essays that we overlook something as simple as sentence variety that can be the difference between blah and the best essay evah!

4.  Read your essay aloud to really hear the words. Reading your essay aloud is the most important thing you can do to find those difficult errors that spell-check or your peer group doesn’t catch. Read slow and deliberately. If you’ve read your essay so many times it’s too familiar, try reading your essay backward. This will slow you down and give you a different perspective on the sentences.

5.  Do you feel like you know your essay by heart? Time to take a step back. If time allows, put the essay away for a day or two. Getting some distance from your essay will give you the opportunity to read it with a fresh set of eyes.

6.  Finally, let it go. You’ve done the best you can and there comes a time when we have to let our writing go and move on. If you know you’ve done your best to make your writing all it can be, then a grade often becomes secondary to that sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when it’s complete.

What are your due-day rituals? Do you have any last-minute tips you’d like to share?


by Elizabeth Mack