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A comma is used in the following ways:
To separate independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions
Coordinating conjunctions: and for or yet but nor so
Jane is experiencing some personal problems which are affecting her work, and she hopes counselling will help her.
Sam apologised, but Andy was irreconcilable.
Peter Gilford did not stand for re-election, nor did anyone expect him to.
The accused was under sixteen, so the court had no option but to refer him to the juvenile court.
It was ten years since he had left the village of his boyhood, and he had travelled much of the world, yet he still missed waking to the scent of honeysuckle wafting through his open bedroom window.
To separate two or more coordinate adjectives that modify the same noun
The ebullient, suave Mr. Todd strode across the room and slipped his arm round Lavinia’s waist.
The wet, unmowed tennis court did not look inviting.
We followed the narrow, winding road hoping it would lead to a village or farmhouse.
Tip! To determine whether adjectives are coordinate, try the following:
Join the two adjectives with and. If they make sense, they are coordinating adjectives.
Interchange the positions of the adjectives. If they can be interchanged, they are coordinating adjectives.
The wet, unmowed tennis court did not look inviting.
The wet and unmowed tennis court did not look inviting. (The adjectives can be joined with and, so they are coordinating adjectives.)
The unmowed, wet tennis court did not look inviting. (The adjectives can be interchanged, so they are coordinating adjectives.)
The old tenement building housed those that hope had long since abandoned.
The old and tenement building housed those that hope had long since abandoned. (The adjectives old and tenement cannot be joined by and, so they are not coordinating adjectives.)
The tenement, old building housed those that hope had long since abandoned. (Old and tenement cannot be interchanged, so they are not coordinating adjectives.)
To separate words, phrases, and clauses in a series of three or more coordinate elements (parallel structures)
The basket contained oranges, apples, plums, and nectarines. (words)
Exasperated, Tracy leaned back in her chair, pushed her glasses onto her forehead, and folded her arms across her chest. (phrases)
The duck waddled across the lane, it quacked at the chick that had lingered behind, and then it waddled back to the rest of the brood that was waiting virtuously on the other side. (clauses)
To separate coordinate elements that are sharply contrasted
Maria was simply young, not insensitive.
The spirit may be strong, but not the flesh.
Tom wasn’t stupid, just passive.
To set off all non-essential elements (make sure the sentence is complete without the element)
The calves, which were left out all night in sub-zero temperatures, froze to death. (non-essential modifying clause)
Ted Chambers, sitting over there in the corner, was last month’s lottery winner. (non-essential modifying phrase)
George, Eric’s son, is off to the Bahamas next month. (non-essential modifying appositive)
He wasn’t, however, too tired to play football that afternoon. (non-essential parenthetic element)
Note: Non-essential elements are set off with one comma if they come at the beginning or the end of the sentence.
However, he wasn’t too tired to play football that afternoon.
Even with her crazy dog , Sharon was the only one qualified for the job in the veterinary lab.
The main disagreement is between the president and the vice president, sitting over there in the corner.
To separate any elements that precede an independent clause
When the train arrived in Toronto, most of the passengers got off.
It being late, Mary and George decided to stay the night there.
On hearing that the team had won the championships, the mayor sent a telegram to congratulate them.
Well, I suppose he’s got a point there.
For centuries, people thought mistletoe possessed magical qualities.
To set off items in dates, geographical names, addresses, and titles after names
The confederation of Canada occurred July 1, 1867. (date)
Is that London, Ontario or London, England? (geographical names)
The British Prime Minister resides at 10 Downing Street, London. (address)
Ivan Galichenko, Ph.D., is the keynote speaker at the conference. (title after name)
To set off words in direct address
“It’s not what you say that bothers me, Jess, but the tone in which you say it.”
You might, madam, consider something in black chiffon.
You, my colleague and mentor, must join us in our endeavour to stamp out sexism and racism in this university.
To set off a question or comment tag
He’s from Japan, isn’t he?
You haven’t had much time for yourself lately, have you?
You know better than I do, do you?
To set off he said/asked/replied, etc. when it interrupts direct speech
“The day,” she said, “isn’t going as smoothly as I had thought it would.”
“Would you ever,” he asked, “consider re-marrying?”
“I’d often wondered,” she murmured, “how he’d survived all those years by himself.”
To prevent misreading
For Elizabeth, Anne would have done anything, except murder someone. (Problem—without the comma, Elizabeth Anne could be read as one name, making the sentence a fragment.)
Below, a small brook gurgled its way towards the lake. (Problem—without the comma, below a small brook is read as one phrase, making the sentence a fragment.)
To him, being accepted by his peers mattered more than anything. (Problem—without the comma, To him being accepted by his peers is read as one phrase, making the sentence a fragment.)
In general, there must be a complete thought either before or after a colon.
Note that Canadian usage is lower case after a colon, while American is uppercase. The colon is used in the following ways:
To introduce a list after a complete sentence
The writers Victoria admired most were these: Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. (Incorrect: The writers Victoria admired most were: Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, and Jane Austen—here, a complete sentence does not precede the colon.)
On her list were the following: 2lbs. sugar, 5lbs. flour, 2 cans tomatoes, 1 loaf bread, and 1 quart milk.
Kevin’s emergency kit for winter driving contained only the essentials: a parka, candles, bandages, and a bottle of brandy.
To introduce an amplification or explanation of a preceding statement or word
There was only one solution to the problem: Janus would have to go.
One thing troubled him: where had the money come from?.
Revenge: Joe lived by it, ate by it, loved by it, and finally died by it.
There is one quality you need to succeed in this business: ruthlessness.
To introduce a long and formal quotation after introductory phrases such as he said
Mark Antony rose before the crowd and cried:
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. (Julius Caesar, 3. 2. 73-77)
To separate the hour and minute figures used for time
My watch read 7:45 when I woke up this morning.
It is now 11:00 a.m.
Holmes and Watson caught the 1:15 train to Brighton.
A semicolon is used in the following ways:
To separate independent clauses not joined by and (provided a Colon is not appropriate), but, or, nor, so, or yet
Mark was tall; Peter, however, was short. (Note these two independent clauses are joined by a conjunctive adverb.)
The sky ripped open with a clap of thunder and a bolt of lightening; we ran into a doorway for cover.
Golf is suitable for those in less than good physical condition; it is only slightly more strenuous than walking.
To make for clearer reading of heavily-punctuated independent clauses that are joined by a coordinating conjunction
People will argue that educational television is vapid, predictable, and at times, misdirected; but they will not argue that commercial television is preferable.
Linda reminded Joe, Pete, and Sam about the meeting; and Sally, Jane, and Lori reminded their co-workers.
If your reader has to stop every once in a while to puzzle over your meaning, he or she will get frustrated, and so gain a bad impression; and if this happens too often, your attempt to communicate will fail.
To separate internally punctuated coordinate elements that are joined by a coordinating conjunction
The grand tour usually included Paris, France; Vienna, Austria; and Rome, Italy.
In our group at the time were Smith, a welder; Jones, a corporate lawyer; and two auditors from the tax office.
The meeting was attended by all departments: Accounting, which sent two representatives, Dennise and Jane; Personnel, which sent the manager, Greg, and a senior payroll clerk, Pat; and Systems, which sent three computer programmers, Cindy, Janice, and Karen.
In general, dashes emphasize. A dash is longer than a hyphen, and there are no spaces on either side. A dash is used in the following ways:
To indicate an abrupt shift or a break in thought
We also had a lengthy discussion about Celtic mysticism—but I won’t bore you with the details of that.
She raises chickens—much easier than raising children.
At the age of fifteen—such was her naivety—she decided she wanted to have twelve children and to become a pediatrician.
To set off an informal or emphatic parenthetical element
Alison said—I couldn’t believe this—that she wasn’t ambitious.
Tom—the cretin!—didn’t support us at the meeting.
The researchers—can you understand this?—got it wrong and submitted inaccurate reports upon which the government based its policy.
To set off a parenthetic or an appositive element that is internally punctuated
I enjoyed Le Carre’s Smiley works, but his later novels—The Perfect Spy, Russia House, and The Night Manager—had few characters with whom I could sympathise.
Her granddaughters—Alice, Meghan, and Erica—all resemble their mother, poor things.
The first experiments appeared to be a complete failure—media plates contaminated, funding lost, researchers devastated.
In general, parentheses de-emphasize. Parentheses are used in the following ways:
To enclose incidental, explanatory or parenthetical comments that are unessential to the main thought of the sentence
Someone once said (I think it was Oscar Wilde) that the only thing worse than being talked about was not being talked about at all.
The first article (What is Statistics?) discussed some of the most basic features of data.
Enclosed is a cheque for fifty dollars ($50.00).
His view is that even The New Yorker seems (apart from the cartoons) completely irrelevant.
This would mean that temperatures would drop substantially (see Diagram 1).
To enclose details, brief definitions, and examples
Despite the prices (300,000 lire for four), Ristorante Pagliacci attracts people of even the most modest of incomes.
The poet, Joseph Howe (1804-1873), was born near Halifax.
Ever since 1915, when Einstein developed his theory of gravity, physicists have assumed that gravity waves (ripples in the fabric of space-time) are radiated by any mass that is accelerating.
To enclose letters or figures used to enumerate points in a text
Athabasca University and Frontier College began discussions in February 1993 that will result in a mutually beneficial partnership, enabling (1) Frontier graduates to pursue post-secondary studies, (2) prospective AU students to upgrade their reading and writing skills, and (3) existing AU students to become involved in literacy initiatives in their own communities.
Do not use any punctuation (comma, semicolon, colon, dash) before sentence elements enclosed in parentheses (singular—parenthesis).
Researchers in Grenoble, France, reported observations of superconductivity at temperatures as high as 250 Kelvin (–23°C) in both bismuth-based and mercury-based materials.
Researchers in Grenoble, France, reported observations of superconductivity at temperatures as high as 250 Kelvin, (23°C) in both bismuth-based and mercury-based materials. (Note the unnecessary comma preceding the parenthesis.)
Among other things, I weeded a border full of nettles (which made my eyes very sore when I foolishly rubbed them) and cut a finger almost to the bone with my shears.
Among other things, I weeded a border full of nettles, (which made my eyes very sore when I foolishly rubbed them), and cut a finger almost to the bone with my shears. (Note the item in parentheses is also set off with commas.)
Place the comma or period outside parenthetical material that is part of the sentence.
When he became captain (1903), he abandoned his rebellious ways.
When he became captain (1903,) he abandoned his rebellious ways.
Each paragraph or section of the paper is a major category in the outline and has a Roman numeral (I, II, III, and so on).
Each paragraph or section of the paper is a major category in the outline and has a Roman numeral (I, II, III, and so on.)
Place the end punctuation inside the parentheses when the parenthetical material is a separate sentence.
After twenty-two months of teaching, Washoe (a chimpanzee) could use twenty-four words correctly in the appropriate circumstances. (She was only counted as knowing a word if three observers independently saw her use it correctly and without prompting.)
—From Language and Animal Signs by Claire and W. R. S. Russell
After twenty-two months of teaching, Washoe (a chimpanzee) could use twenty-four words correctly in the appropriate circumstances. (She was only counted as knowing a word if three observers independently saw her use it correctly and without prompting).
Brackets are used in the following ways:
- To enclose any editorial remark in material that is quoted
“When it [the pain] gets extreme, the animal will try to chew off the diseased limb,” said Kendrick.
According to the demographer, “The [US. government’s] goal of population stabilisation is clearly considered inoperative at home.”
With sic (thus it is) to indicate that the error or irregularity in the material appears in the original text
Ms. Mullen replied, “My sediments [sic] exactly.”
The article quoted Mr. Johnston as saying “It’s a can of squirming worms ready to burst at the scenes [sic].”
On that day, he recorded in his diary “My mother expects me to be a dolting [sic] son, which I’m not.”
Ellipsis marks are used in the following ways:
To indicate any editorial omissions in quoted material
In the month when hundreds of thousands of people are buying a certain volume of memoirs, let me quote from another:
Given the political climate . . . could we have advanced more? The answer is probably yes. Perhaps I did not grasp the opportunity firmly enough. Perhaps I did not realise it could be there . . . Looking back I fear I was not sufficiently on the offensive.
—From Why Jo Grimond was too good to be Prime Minister by Charles Moore
- To indicate a full line of poetry that has been omitted
Break, break, break
. . .
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
—From Break, break, break by Alfred Tennyson
Quotation marks are used in the following ways:
To enclose direct quotations
On the other hand, van Duren (1986) observes that “concern has often been raised about handling disagreement” in computer conferences and notes that in the “medium of computer conferencing the protocols for dealing with [disagreements] have not yet been fully realized.” (Note that the commas used in direct speech, or dialogue, are absent here.)
On the other hand, van Duren (1986) observes that “concern has often been raised about handling disagreement” and “using the medium of computer conferencing the protocols for dealing with them have not yet been fully realized.” (Because only parts of the original sentences have been used, errors have been introduced. The quotation must be a grammatically correct sentence element.)
In discussing the problems that arise when students are not sufficiently computer literate, Holt (1996) distinguishes between “those students who do not know the fundamentals” and those who “appear to be unable to transfer the fundamentals into using applications” efficiently.
In discussing the problems that arise when students are not sufficiently computer literate, Holt (1996) distinguishes between “there are those students who do not know the fundamentals” and those who “some students appear to be unable to transfer the fundamentals into using applications” efficiently. (The quotations are not grammatically correct sentence elements.)
To enclose direct speech
“If we don’t guard our Grand Banks against overfishing,” said the Minister of Fisheries, “there won’t be any fish left for anyone anywhere.”
“What would you do if you received a pink slip?” she asked.
“I try not to think about it,” he replied.
“Look at that!” she shouted, pointing at the gargoyle leering at them from above the door.
To enclose the titles of short works (short stories, short poems, essays, articles, one-act plays, songs, speeches, and titles of parts of longer works)
There are several versions of Saki’s “The Open Window.”
When I first heard the Beatles’ “Come Together,” I remarked that it was totally different from anything I’d heard before.
Although it is the fifth chapter of The Brothers Karamazov, “The Grand Inquisitor” is often studied as a piece in itself.
To enclose words from particular vocabularies, or words used in a special way
We all laughed when the newly-elected treasurer asked whether keeping the Board’s books was going to be a “taxing” job.
I no sooner got used to using “access” as a verb when I had to do the same with “impact.”
He discovered that the window frame was completely rotten and that there were cracks on a couple of panes, so he’s gone out “window shopping.”
Commas and periods are placed inside quotation marks.
He said, “I’d sell my soul for a pound of gold.”
“The time will come,” she said, looking angrily at him, “when you’ll regret having said that.”
“It’s time I went for my swim,” she said unenthusiastically.
Note: British and some Canadian authors place the period or comma after the closing quotation mark.
Semicolons and colons that are not part of the quotation itself are placed outside quotation marks.
Beate said that her English class was like a “turkey sandwich”; by that, I think she meant it was boring.
She asked me to bring “whatever you can spare”: a saucepan, some dishes, a broom, a couple of tea towels, and a whole lot of other things—the list was as long as my arm.
A dash, question mark, or exclamation point is placed inside quotation marks when it applies to the quotation.
“Have you seen Harry lately?” she asked.
“So here you are at last,” she said, smiling at him. “What do you want to do—no, I’ll decide, shall I?”
“Watch out!” he cried as he pulled her back from the curb.
A dash, question mark, or exclamation point is placed outside quotation marks when it applies to the whole statement.
Wasn’t Mandy Rice’s famous reply “You would, wouldn’t you”?
“You’ve got school tomorrow”—then she stopped herself and said, “It’s your decision as to whether you go out or not; you are over eighteen.”
She actually sang “Amazing Grace”! I was flabbergasted!
A dash, question mark, or exclamation point is placed inside quotation marks and used only once when it applies to both the quotation and the statement.
What kind of question is “How come?”
They actually dared to shout “Coward!”
Does this sentence answer the question “Which student comes from Cambodia?”
The rules for punctuating clauses and phrases are applied when quoted material is interrupted by explanatory words such as he said, she said, etc.
“I am exceedingly fond,” she said, lifting up her glass and smiling, “of good cognac.” (phrase; note the comma after she said applies only in dialogue, i.e., only in direct speech.)
“The price is too high,” he said. “Hank can find you a car like this for half the price.” (independent clause; note the period after he said.)
“Imelda will go far,” Nancy observed: “she has brains, ambition, and tenacity.” (independent clause; note the colon after Nancy observed.)
Single quotation marks are used to set off a quotation within a quotation
At the meeting last night, I heard James actually say, “As my pappy once told me ‘If you’re going to do a job, do it right.’ ”
Indentation is used to set off prose quotations of more than four lines.
Through his art, Paul unconsciously expresses his inner thoughts which Miriam alone can interpret for him, so that his work takes on newer dimensions:
He was conscious only when stimulated. A sketch finished, he always wanted to take it to Miriam. Then he was stimulated into knowledge of the work he had produced unconsciously. In contact with Miriam he gained insight: his vision went deeper (D. H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers).
Note: Indentation is made from the left-hand margin. In typewritten work, indentation of quoted material is 10 character spaces from the left. Some style manuals require that lengthy quoted material be double-spaced. Many students are asked to use single space, but the rest of the prose should be double spaced.
- Quotations of two or three lines of poetry may be either enclosed in quotation
marks and run into the text or indented 10 character spaces from the left.
Vincent was struck by Prufock’s anguish at the thought of growing old, and recited the lines that he found most poignant: “I grow old . . . I grow old . . ./ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”
Vincent was struck by Prufock’s anguish at the thought of growing old, and recited the lines that he found most poignant:
I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers old. (120-121,15)
Note: Slashes (/) are used to indicate line divisions for poetry that are enclosed in quotation marks and run into the text.
- Indentation is used to set off poetry of more than three lines.
Vincent is struck by Prufock’s anguish at the thought of growing old, and recites the lines that he finds most poignant. He then begins to recite other passages. Olivia gazes out the window and recalls the lines that had once moved her:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning to the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.” (106-110, p.15)