Punctuation and the fundamentals of how to use it can be confusing for many new writers. Most grammar books and style guides are difficult to understand and seem intimidating. What follows is only a quick guide, a “How-To Guide for Basic Punctuation.”
The many convoluted laws of grammar can make the literary universe a chaotic place. Commas can be tricky because some applications are open to interpretation. However, the most basic laws of comma use are not open to interpretation.
Two things we never do:
- Never insert commas “where you take a breath” because everyone breathes differently.
- Do not insert commas where you think it should pause, because every reader sees the pauses differently.
Commas and the fundamental rules for their use exist for a reason. If we want the reading public to understand our work, we need to follow them.
The Fundamental Laws of Commas:
Commas join two independent clauses. The independent clause is a complete stand-alone sentence.
- Boris worships the ground I walk on, but his adoration tires me.
Dependent clauses are unfinished and can’t stand on their own. They should be joined to the sentence with a conjunction.
- Boris worships the ground I walk on and brings me my coffee.
You do not join independent clauses (clauses that can stand alone as separate sentences) with commas as that creates a rift in the space/time continuum: the Dreaded Comma Splice:
Comma Splice: Boris kissed the hem of my garment, the dog likes to ride shotgun.
The dog has little to do with Boris, other than the fact they both adore me. The same thought, written correctly: Boris kissed the hem of my garment. The dog likes to ride shotgun.
Comma splices? Don’t do it! The universe will grind to halt, and everyone will die, and it will be your fault.
Would it be better if we used a semicolon? No. That would create a nuclear holocaust of the literary persuasion.
The dog riding shotgun is an independent clause and does not relate at all to Boris and his adoration of me.
I have said this before, but semicolon in an untrained hand is a needle to the eye of an editor.
Remember: Semicolons join independent clauses, which are clauses that can stand alone, but which relate to each other.
Your best bet is to avoid using them except under extreme duress as they can create some lo-o-o-o-ong, run-on sentences.
But what if you absolutely, positively have to use a semicolon, or your skin will melt? Trust me, it won’t happen, but there are rules for using this type of punctuation, and the wise author will follow them:
Two clauses that are joined together with a semicolon should be
- complete sentences that relate to each other
- if they don’t relate to each other, make them separate sentences and reword them so they aren’t choppy.
Two separate ideas done wrong: Boris attempted to kiss the hem of my garment; my boot was in his face.
The first sentence is one whole idea—Boris adores me. The second sentence is a completely different idea—my boot was someplace inconvenient.
Two separate ideas done right, assuming the mention of my boot is important: Boris attempted to kiss the hem of my garment, but my boot was in his face.
I don’t dislike semicolons as some editors do, but I generally try to find alternatives to them. I think they are too easily misused because people forget the simple rule:
Semicolons (;) should be used only when two stand-alone sentences or clauses are really short and relate directly to each other.
We like people to understand exactly what we mean, so we ALWAYS use the Oxford Comma, also known as the Serial Comma.
If there are only two things (or ideas) in a list, they do not need to be separated by a comma. If there are more than two ideas, the comma should be used as it would be used in a list.
Dogs, cats, rabbits, and birds.
Colons (:) head lists but are never to be used in the literary narrative, so YES, we DO use serial commas to prevent confusion when we are listing things. You’ve all seen the memes—and you’ve heard the arguments.
On a personal level, I do love cooking my pets and my family. (But not in the same pot.) They’re happy that I use serial commas. Argue against the Oxford comma all you want–you will never change my mind.
I want to thank my parents, Ralph and Maggie Johnson and Poseidon.
Although the dog thinks I’m a goddess, I am not really the daughter of Poseidon. Parents, when named, are a single unit. A comma after Johnson would eliminate confusion.
We use a comma after most common introductory clauses.
After dark, Boris would change into his bat form and go hunting for insects.
To wind that up, commas tame the chaos that our words can become. They are the traffic signals, signifying a pause or a joining.
>Periods, also called full stops, end sentences.
In dialogue, all punctuation goes inside the quote marks. A comma follows the spoken words, separating the dialogue from the speech tag, and the period (or question mark, or exclamation point) ends the sentence.
“I agree,” said the editor.
If you follow these simple rules, your work will be readable.