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.