Personal Journeys with Gramma

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American English Punctuation for Those Who Hate It!


“My only question is how do you use a capital comma?”  Yes, there are many people who are forced to write in English who have no clue what the peculiar markings that decorate sentences are supposed to do or why they have to have such strange names.  I sympathize wholeheartedly.  Punctuation is supposed to help you tell people who read what you write how to read it so they know what you meant.  Allow me to provide a simple directory you can use if you’re tired of text messages that run together.

1.  Periods (.).  “You will not pierce your nose with a ring, PERIOD.”  As you already know, periods are those dots that tell people you’re done.  Conversation over.  No more.  Unfortunately, some people like the look of periods and let them settle in the middle of sentences.  “Sarah is going.  To have a baby.”  What?  If anyone thinks the story is over at “going,” she won’t know what the heck is happening.  Where is Sarah going?  Does she need a ride?  And what’s this about a baby?  Please don’t let your periods loose until you’re finished with what you’re trying to say.  Period.  “Sarah missed her period.  She’s having a baby.”  : )

2.  Commas (,).  Commas were invented to make written sentences make sense.  “After getting sick Sarah and Tom left over the bridge.”  Do you know someone called Sick Sarah?  Is Tom a leftover?  Did he take Sick Sarah with him?  Oh, the drama!  “After getting sick, Sarah and Tom left over the bridge.”  The comma pauses for a reason.  It’s trying to help you see that Sarah got sick, but she’s really a nice person except that she left with Tom and went over the bridge.  Is Tom sick, too?  We really don’t know.  Maybe we should write the whole darned sentence over.  “After getting sick, Sarah left with Tom who took her over the bridge.”  When you punctuate yourself into a mess, don’t try to punctuate your way out.  Just start over.

Some people think commas are meant to function like breathing, so they should pop in whenever the sentence is growing dull.  “Sarah, left with Tom, who took her, over the bridge.”  That sentence sounds like gasping.  It could be someone’s last words–really boring last words.  Commas are like bling: use them too much and they get in your way and make you look tacky.

Magazines and newspapers got sick of commas that seem to slow, the sentence, down, don’t you think?  They never use commas unless the sentence is too confusing without them.  “Let’s eat Tom.”  Yuck.  That’s cannibalism.  “Let’s eat, Tom,” calls him to dinner, which is far more civilized unless you’ve seen how Tom, who lacks manners, eats.  English teachers have lots of rules to share about how to use commas in more ways.  Fear not.  We won’t go over all of them now.

We should note here that the English language loves rules–even American English that is rebellious and a little self-satisfied.  I’m not sure if English has more rules than other languages, but it breaks them all at one time or other–like a badly behaved rock star in a cheap hotel.  That’s the exciting part.  What’s proper can change.  However, English is like art.  If you’re going to be a great artist, you should know the rules before you break them, so you know what you’re doing and don’t look silly.  You don’t have to know all the rules of English, because many of the rules don’t make sense and you’d be hard-pressed to find a native English speaker who knows them all.  (Perhaps foreigners made them up?)  You do need to know that commas are supposed to make sentences easy to understand, so when they just lie all over the place like dirty clothes on the bathroom floor or if they’re missing like boards in a rotted wooden deck, they are bad news.  Someone could get hurt.

3.  Semicolons (;).  The “semi” part should make you think of those long trucks that haul all kinds of stuff and have really great multiple tires.  Those trucks come in two parts: the front and the back.  Semicolons come in two parts, too.  The top part looks like a period–our friend.  The bottom part looks like a comma.  Oh woe.  What the heck are they doing hanging out together?  Is this something kinky?  Are we done or not?  Do they sound like the sexy tease who says, “Come here; come here; go away; go away?”

There are several cool ways to use semicolons, but in the interest of saving space, I’ll tell you to use a semicolon when deep in your heart you know you should be using a period.  After all, you finished.  The sentence is done, yet you want more than anything to add another little sentence on so that people will read them together as though you had used only a comma for a pause.  You stick a semicolon between the little glued-together sentences–like duct tape.  Duct tape always sticks; you’re good.

4.  Apostrophes (‘).  Yes, these are the “capital commas” that one of my students renamed.  Honestly, I think his name for them was more descriptive than the real name which is dreadful to spell.  Apostrophes (the “ph” sounds like an “f” which is your first clue that these guys are going to behave oddly) do two jobs.

First, apostrophes work with letters you get sick of writing.  “It is odd,” you write.  You’re tired of writing out “it is.”  The “i” in “is” says, “Hey, Apostrophe.  I need to take a break.  Hold my place for me.”  The apostrophe, really a team player, nods and steps in.  Now you can write, “It’s odd” without getting into trouble.  You can write words that sound more like the way you talk, which is the reason some teachers won’t let you use them in school papers.  Teachers call the words shortened with apostrophes “contractions,” but they have nothing to do with going into labor.  They’re more like what you look like when you suck in your stomach really hard.  “You are” becomes “you’re.”  “I am” becomes “I’m.”  Apostrophes are great–when they aren’t confusing.

The second job apostrophes do is help you label who owns what:  Sarah’s baby.  (You knew we weren’t finished with Sarah, didn’t you?)  Is it Tom’s baby?  Drama again!  “It’s Tom’s baby.”  That’s settled.  But what if we’re talking about a puppy?  “The puppy wagged its tail.”  What happened to the apostrophe?  Is this some kind of cruel joke?  If we put an apostrophe in “its,” we’re writing a contraction.  We like “it’s” as “it is,” and we don’t want to use it as a label and goof everyone up.  So we give up using an ownership apostrophe for things we call “it”–with the possible exception of Cousin It from the Addams Family.

Yes, I know this is giving you a headache.  I don’t feel too well, either.  Maybe we should stop for now.  We can chat about colons (not the kind you see a doctor to check) and dashes (no running shoes required) and hyphens and a whole lot more another time–if we wish.

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