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Punctuational perplexities

Are you punctilious about punctuation, or do you regard it as a hassle or a minefield? Many people, including no doubt the person who posted the example below on a social networking site, seem to share the latter view. It often appears that, rather than get it wrong, there are those who prefer to omit those pesky little marks completely:

would like to meet new friends i like most things in life im easy going [...]

This is only a snippet of a lengthy and punctuation-free profile. I’d hazard a guess that most readers, like me, lost interest and clicked away after the first few lines.

You could argue that in highly informal situations (such as instant messaging, texting, or emails between friends), punctuation isn’t vital (or even ‘cool’), as the essence of the communication in such situations is speed, casualness, or fun. However, the above example didn’t feature within that type of context – it was written by someone in order to ‘promote’ himself and so attract people as friends.

If you’re writing for public rather than private consumption, it implies that you wish to get your message across to a wide audience as effectively as possible. Introducing some judicious punctuation doesn’t necessarily involve jettisoning the informal feel, either. If the example had been punctuated as follows, it would still be suitable for the casual context of social networking but readers would have absorbed it far more quickly:

I’d like to meet new friends. I like most things in life – I’m easy going [...]

Galloping semicolonitis?

The flipside of too little, or no, punctuation is the way in which apostrophes, hyphens, and the like are either used incorrectly or to excess. In particular, commas, semicolons, and colons seem to cause a great deal of puzzlement and confusion. I was reading a book recently in which the author or copyeditor seemed to have caught a severe case of ‘semicolonitis’.  I found it distracting and slightly irritating when lists were routinely introduced with semicolons instead of colons, as in the following instance:

Three public trusts; Japanese, Chinese, and new markets.

Such misuse doesn’t really hinder understanding but, according to accepted usage, this is a case where a colon should be used:

Three public trusts: Japanese, Chinese, and new markets.

Why? Because, while both the colon and semicolon are ways of showing that there should be a longer break or pause than a comma in a sentence, the colon indicates a slightly stronger pause than a semicolon. The colon is therefore more appropriate when introducing a list of items – it’s almost as if you can imagine a speaker taking a short breath to signify that the list is about to begin.

Here’s an example of a writer knowing exactly when it’s appropriate to use a semicolon:

Reed was to write, direct and star; Blume would play opposite him.

The above sentence consists of two main clauses, each of which would be understandable as a separate sentence. However, rather than separating the clauses with a full stop and so making them into sentences (which would mark too strong a break), the semicolon allows the reader to follow the close relationship between the clauses.

And here are a couple of cases where the colon is correctly used:

The second type of podcast is the amateur one: like a blog, but with sound and/or pictures.

He was a good and faithful servant who followed one simple rule: always speak and vote your conscience.

This is because the first clause in each example introduces or explains the following content.  Note that (as in the first sentence) the section after the colon doesn’t always contain a verb.

Read more about colons and semicolons here.

It’s all relative…

Turning our attention to commas, one of the trickier aspects of their usage relates to relative clauses. These are clauses that begin with words such as who, where, whose, which, etc.  So here’s a little brainteaser: the following two sentences appear to be very similar – do you think they have the same meaning?

Paul gave Chris the bag which was full of books.

Paul gave Chris the bag, which was full of books.

The first contains a restrictive relative clause. It means that Paul had more than one bag and he gave Chris the one which was full of books. The second sentence contains a non-restrictive relative clause  It means that Paul only had one bag, it happened to be full of books, and he gave it to Chris.

It’s the comma between the words ‘bag’ and ‘which’ in the second sentence which is the key to the difference in meaning between the two examples. The comma converts the clause ‘which was full of books’ from a restrictive relative clause (telling you essential information about which of the bags Paul was giving to Chris) to a non-restrictive one. In the second sentence, the information about the bag being full of books is extra information which the reader does not necessarily need to know, because there was only one bag.

Another easy tip is that, if a non-restrictive relative clause occurs in the middle of a sentence, it should be enclosed in two commas. If the non-restrictive relative clause is a long one, it’s easy to forget that it should be followed, as well as introduced, by a comma:

Mark, who is originally from London, is married with two children, and works in telesales, has been a City fan all his life.

X  Mark, who is originally from London, is married with two children, and works in telesales has been a City fan all his life.

In the above sentences, the non-restrictive relative clause is ‘who is originally from London, is married with two children, and works in telesales’. The first example is correctly punctuated, with a comma after ‘telesales’.

Avoid getting spliced…

Finally, I’d like to campaign against the use of the ‘comma splice’. This is the common mistake of using a comma to join two main clauses:

He loves cooking, he’s great at making curries.

The correct way of writing this sentence would be to use a semicolon instead of a comma:

He loves cooking; he’s great at making curries.

or to add a conjunction (here, the word ‘and’ ) after the comma:

He loves cooking, and he’s great at making curries.

If you want to rid your writing of punctuational perplexity and never be infected by ‘semicolonitis’, all the punctuation marks used in English are demystified in this handy section of Oxford Dictionaries Online.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.