The Quotable Guide to Punctuation 0190675543, 9780190675547, 9780190675530

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Table of contents :
The Quotable Guide to Punctuation
List of Boxes
Three Ways This Book Is Different
How I Became a Grammar and Punctuation Fanatic
How to Use This Book
Punctuation—​Who Needs It?
Reasons to Hate Punctuation
Reasons to Love Punctuation
Punctuation, Passion, and Mental Health
The Bottom Line
Defining Some Really Basic Terms
Lesson 1. Apostrophes That Mark Omitted Letters or Numbers
Lesson 2. Apostrophes That Mark the Possessive Case
Singular Nouns that End in S
The Possessive Forms of Biblical and Classical Names
Joint Possession
Compound Nouns
The Possessive Case with Italicized Words
How to Make Indefinite Pronouns Possessive
Using an Apostrophe with the Name of a Thing or a Title
Lesson 3. Apostrophes That Indicate a Length of Time or an Amount
Lesson 4. Using Apostrophes to Mark Some Plurals
Plurals of Dates, Numbers, Lowercase Letters, and Abbreviations
Plurals without Apostrophes
Other Special Cases
Lesson 5. Colons (:)
What Is a Colon Really Saying?
Colons before Definitions or Comments on Words
Colons before Lists
Should You Capitalize after a Colon?
Colons before Long Quotations
Colons before Short Direct Quotations
Other Uses of Colons
Lesson 6. Commas with Main Clauses
Using Commas to Set Off Main Clauses
Adding a Main Clause to Complete a Sentence
What If the Main Clause Comes First?
Lesson 7. When to Put Commas before And or But: Joining Two Main Clauses with And—​without a Comma
Connecting Main Clauses with a Comma plus And
When to Use a Comma before But
When Don’t You Need a Comma before But?
But . . .
Not Only . . . But (Also)
Lesson 8. Commas and Fanboys: For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So
Fanboys? What on Earth Are They?
Lesson 9. The Dreaded Comma Splice
Exceptions to the Rule
Lesson 10. The Oxford Comma
Who Doesn’t Use the Oxford Comma?
Lesson 11. Using Commas in a Series
When to Put a Comma between Two Adjectives
When Not to Put a Comma between Adjectives
Using Commas with a Series of  Three or More Words of the Same Kind: Three Adjectives, Three Adverbs, Three Nouns, Etc.
Two Adjectives Joined by And, Or, or But
Lesson 12. Using Commas after IF-​Clauses
If-​Clauses at the Start of Sentences
If in Mid-​Sentence
Lesson 13. Using Commas with Transition Words and Phrases: Actually, As a Matter of Fact, For Example, However, Incidentally, Indeed, In Fact, In Other Words, Luckily, Meanwhile, Moreover, Of Course, On the Other Hand, Perhaps, Therefore, Though, Etc.
What Are Transition Words?
Transition Words in the Midst of Sentences
When Not to Use Commas with Transition Words
Lesson 14. Commas In Front of WH-​ Words: Where, Which, Who, Whom, Whose
When Not to Use Commas before Words Like Where, Who, Whom, and Whose
Choosing between Which and That
Exceptions to the Rule About That and Which
Lesson 15. Using Commas around Parenthetical Bits in the Midst of Sentences
Lesson 16. Using Commas When Describing or Naming Somebody or Something You’ve Just Referred to
Lesson 17. Using Commas before Short Bits at the Ends of Sentences
Lesson 18. Using Commas for Clarity and Contrast
Using Commas for Clarity
Using Commas to Show Contrast
Lesson 19. Using Commas to Mark Omitted Text
Lesson 20. Commas in Direct Address
Lesson 21. Dashes
Dashes for Artistic Effect
Lesson 22. En Dashes
What Does an En Dash Do?
Lesson 23. Exclamation Points!!!!
Exclamation Points and Gender
Lesson 24. However: How to Get the Punctuation Right Every Time
However at the Beginning of a Sentence
Wait a Minute—​Isn’t It a Mistake to Start a Sentence with However in This Sense?
However at the End of a Sentence
The Tricky Part: However in Mid-​Sentence
A Stylistic Tip
Is it Okay to Leave Out the Commas?
Lesson 25. When to Hyphenate
Using Hyphens to Divide Words at the End of a Line
Using Hyphens to Join Words
Consult a Dictionary
Using Hyphens with Compounds that Modify Nouns
Using Hyphens to Avoid Ambiguity or Misreadings
Using Hyphens after Prefixes
Using Hyphens to Connect Letters to Words
Using Hyphens with Numbers
Using Hyphens with Nationalities
Using Hyphens to Form Verbs
Using Multiple Hyphens
How to Hyphenate Two Different Word Compounds that Share a Base
Lesson 26. When Not to Hyphenate
What to Do When Compounds Come after the Noun
Don’t Hyphenate Compounds in This Context, Too—​Can You Guess What It Is?
Proper Nouns
When Your Meaning is Clear without Hyphenation: Open Compounds
Judge for Yourself If Words Form Compounds
A Confession
A Challenge
Lesson 27. Parentheses and Square Brackets
Complete Sentences Inside Parentheses
Square Brackets
Lesson 28. Periods
Abbreviations, Contractions, and Numbers
Ellipses Dots
“The Angry, Aggressive Period”
Lesson 29. Question Marks
Exceptions to the Rule
Question Marks That Indicate Uncertainty
Indirect Questions
Statements, Requests, Invitations, and Demands in the Form of Questions
Lesson 30. Quotation Marks
Punctuating before a Quote
Punctuating at the End of a Quote: Commas and Periods
Quotes with Question Marks or Exclamation Points
Colons, Semicolons, Dashes, Asterisks
What If You Ask a Question Involving a Quote, but the Quote Itself Isn’t a Question?
Punctuating When You Interrupt a Quote
An Exception to the Rule
Skipping Parts of a Quoted Text
When Shouldn’t You Put Quotation Marks around Quotes?
Quotation Marks around Titles
Quotation Marks around Words or Phrases That You Want to Draw Attention to or Define
Lesson 31. Quotes within Quotes
Lesson 32. Run-​on Sentences
Lesson 33. Semicolons (;)
Using Semicolons to Connect Independent Clauses
Reasons to Love Semicolons
Wait A Minute: Should I Use a Semicolon or a Colon?
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
Semicolons in Long or Complicated Sentences or Lists
Lesson 34. Starting Sentences with And or But
Select Bibliography
Quotation Sources
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The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

‘ ’

The Quotable Guide to Punctuation STEPHEN SPECTOR


1 Oxford University Press is a department of the University of Oxford. It furthers the University’s objective of excellence in research, scholarship, and education by publishing worldwide. Oxford is a registered trade mark of Oxford University Press in the UK and certain other countries. Published in the United States of America by Oxford University Press 198 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016, United States of America. © Oxford University Press 2017 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of Oxford University Press, or as expressly permitted by law, by license, or under terms agreed with the appropriate reproduction rights organization. Inquiries concerning reproduction outside the scope of the above should be sent to the Rights Department, Oxford University Press, at the address above. You must not circulate this work in any other form and you must impose this same condition on any acquirer. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Title: The quotable guide to punctuation / Stephen Spector. Description: Oxford ; New York, NY : Oxford University Press, 2017. | Includes index. Identifiers: LCCN 2017002691 (print) | LCCN 2017028098 (ebook) | ISBN 9780190675554 (updf ) | ISBN 9780190675561 (ebook) | ISBN 9780190675547 (paperback) | ISBN 9780190675530 (cloth) Subjects: LCSH: English language—Punctuation—Handbooks, manuals, etc. | BISAC: LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Linguistics / Sociolinguistics. | LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Grammar & Punctuation. | LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Style Manuals. Classification: LCC PE1137 (ebook) | LCC PE1137 .S63 2017 (print) | DDC 428.2/3—dc23 LC record available at 1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2 Paperback printed by WebCom, Inc., Canada Hardback printed by Bridgeport National Bindery, Inc., United States of America

For Eva Su, who’s three, and who tells me that I’m not funny

Contents List of Boxes   xv Acknowledgments   xix Introduction   1 Three Ways This Book Is Different   2 How I Became a Grammar and Punctuation Fanatic   3 How to Use This Book   5 Punctuation—​Who Needs It?   7 Reasons to Hate Punctuation   8 Reasons to Love Punctuation   10 Punctuation, Passion, and Mental Health   11 The Bottom Line   14 Defining Some Really Basic Terms   17 Adjectives   17 Adverbs   18 Clauses   19 Conjunctions   21 Nouns   21 Phrases   23 Prepositions   23 Pronouns   24 Verbs   25

viii Contents

APOSTROPHES   27 Lesson 1.  APOSTROPHES THAT MARK OMITTED LETTERS OR NUMBERS   29 Lesson 2.  APOSTROPHES THAT MARK THE POSSESSIVE CASE   33 Singular Nouns that End in S   36 The Possessive Forms of Biblical and Classical Names   39 Joint Possession   40 Compound Nouns   40 The Possessive Case with Italicized Words   41 How to Make Indefinite Pronouns Possessive   41 Using an Apostrophe with the Name of a Thing or a Title   42 Lesson 3.  APOSTROPHES THAT INDICATE A LENGTH OF TIME OR AN AMOUNT   47 Lesson 4.  USING APOSTROPHES TO MARK SOME PLURALS   49 Plurals of Dates, Numbers, Lowercase Letters, and Abbreviations   50 Plurals without Apostrophes   50 Other Special Cases   51 Lesson 5.  COLONS (:)   53 What Is a Colon Really Saying?   57 Colons before Definitions or Comments on Words   57 Colons before Lists   58 Should You Capitalize after a Colon?   60 Colons before Long Quotations   61 Colons before Short Direct Quotations   62 Other Uses of Colons   62

Contents ix

COMMAS   65 Lesson 6.  COMMAS WITH MAIN CLAUSES   67 Clauses   69 Using Commas to Set Off Main Clauses   70 Adding a Main Clause to Complete a Sentence   72 What If the Main Clause Comes First?   72 Lesson 7.  WHEN TO PUT COMMAS BEFORE AND OR BUT: Joining Two Main Clauses with And—​without a Comma   77 Connecting Main Clauses with a Comma plus And   78 When to Use a Comma before But   80 When Don’t You Need a Comma before But?   83 But . . .   84 Not Only . . . But (Also)   86 Lesson 8.  COMMAS AND FANBOYS: FOR, AND, NOR, BUT, OR, YET, SO   89 Fanboys? What on Earth Are They?   90 Lesson 9.  THE DREADED COMMA SPLICE   93 Exceptions to the Rule   96 Lesson 10.  THE OXFORD COMMA   99 Who Doesn’t Use the Oxford Comma?   102 Lesson 11.  USING COMMAS IN A SERIES   105 When to Put a Comma between Two Adjectives   105 When Not to Put a Comma between Adjectives   108 Using Commas with a Series of  Three or More Words of the Same Kind: Three Adjectives, Three Adverbs, Three Nouns, Etc.   111 Two Adjectives Joined by And, Or, or But   112 Lesson 12.  USING COMMAS AFTER IF-​CLAUSES   115 If-​Clauses at the Start of Sentences   115 If in Mid-​Sentence   117

x Contents

Lesson 13.  USING COMMAS WITH TRANSITION WORDS AND PHRASES: Actually, As a Matter of Fact, For Example, However, Incidentally, Indeed, In Fact, In Other Words, Luckily, Meanwhile, Moreover, Of Course, On the Other Hand, Perhaps, Therefore, Though, Etc.   119 What Are Transition Words?   121 Transition Words in the Midst of Sentences   122 When Not to Use Commas with Transition Words   125 Lesson 14.  COMMAS IN FRONT OF WH-​ WORDS: Where, Which, Who, Whom, Whose   129 When Not to Use Commas before Words Like Where, Who, Whom, and Whose   131 Choosing between Which and That   133 Exceptions to the Rule About That and Which   137 Lesson 15.  USING COMMAS AROUND PARENTHETICAL BITS IN THE MIDST OF SENTENCES   139 Lesson 16.  USING COMMAS WHEN DESCRIBING OR NAMING SOMEBODY OR SOMETHING YOU’VE JUST REFERRED TO   141 Lesson 17.  USING COMMAS BEFORE SHORT BITS AT THE ENDS OF SENTENCES   145 Lesson 18.  USING COMMAS FOR CLARITY AND CONTRAST   147 Using Commas for Clarity   147 Using Commas to Show Contrast   150 Lesson 19.  USING COMMAS TO MARK OMITTED TEXT   153 Lesson 20.  COMMAS IN DIRECT ADDRESS   155



DASHES   159 Lesson 21.  DASHES   161 Dashes for Artistic Effect   170 Lesson 22.  EN DASHES   173 What Does an En Dash Do?   174 Lesson 23.  EXCLAMATION POINTS!!!!   177 OMG!!!   180 Exclamation Points and Gender   183 Lesson 24.  HOWEVER: How to Get the Punctuation Right Every Time   185 However at the Beginning of a Sentence   185 Wait a Minute—​Isn’t It a Mistake to Start a Sentence with However in This Sense?   187 However at the End of a Sentence   187 The Tricky Part: However in Mid-​Sentence   188 A Stylistic Tip   190 Is it Okay to Leave Out the Commas?   191 HYPHENS   193 Lesson 25.  WHEN TO HYPHENATE   195 Using Hyphens to Divide Words at the End of a Line   197 Using Hyphens to Join Words   198 Consult a Dictionary   199 Using Hyphens with Compounds that Modify Nouns   200 Using Hyphens to Avoid Ambiguity or Misreadings   201 Using Hyphens after Prefixes   203 Using Hyphens to Connect Letters to Words   205 Using Hyphens with Numbers   206 Using Hyphens with Nationalities   208 Using Hyphens to Form Verbs   209

xii Contents

Using Multiple Hyphens   210 How to Hyphenate Two Different Word Compounds that Share a Base   210 Lesson 26.  WHEN NOT TO HYPHENATE   213 What to Do When Compounds Come after the Noun   213 Don’t Hyphenate Compounds in This Context, Too—​Can You Guess What It Is?   214 Proper Nouns   215 When Your Meaning is Clear without Hyphenation: Open Compounds   215 Judge for Yourself If Words Form Compounds   217 A Confession   217 A Challenge   218 Lesson 27.  PARENTHESES AND SQUARE BRACKETS   221 Complete Sentences Inside Parentheses   223 Square Brackets   224 Lesson 28.  PERIODS   225 Abbreviations, Contractions, and Numbers   226 Ellipses Dots   228 “The Angry, Aggressive Period”   230 Lesson 29.  QUESTION MARKS   233 Exceptions to the Rule   235 Question Marks That Indicate Uncertainty   235 Indirect Questions   235 Statements, Requests, Invitations, and Demands in the Form of Questions   237 Lesson 30.  QUOTATION MARKS   241 Punctuating before a Quote   243 Punctuating at the End of a Quote: Commas and Periods   243 Quotes with Question Marks or Exclamation Points   244

Contents xiii

Colons, Semicolons, Dashes, Asterisks   247 What If You Ask a Question Involving a Quote, but the Quote Itself Isn’t a Question?   247 Punctuating When You Interrupt a Quote   248 An Exception to the Rule   249 Skipping Parts of a Quoted Text   250 When Shouldn’t You Put Quotation Marks around Quotes?   251 Quotation Marks around Titles   252 Quotation Marks around Words or Phrases That You Want to Draw Attention to or Define   253 Lesson 31.  QUOTES WITHIN QUOTES   259 Lesson 32.  RUN-​ON SENTENCES   265 Lesson 33.  SEMICOLONS (;)   267 Using Semicolons to Connect Independent Clauses   267 Reasons to Love Semicolons   271 Wait A Minute: Should I Use a Semicolon or a Colon?   273 A Few Things to Keep in Mind   274 Semicolons in Long or Complicated Sentences or Lists   275 Lesson 34.  STARTING SENTENCES WITH AND OR BUT   279 Notes 285 Select Bibliography  305 Index 309 Quotation Sources  315

‘’ ✻

List of Boxes

Introduction Finding Romance with Good Grammar and Punctuation  4 Punctuation—​Who Needs It? Mark Twain Orders a Proofreader to be Shot  12 Who Really Cares about Punctuation and Grammar? Or, Is Your English Teacher Neurotic?  14 Lesson 1 The Best Breakup Line Ever  31 Apostrophes in Dirty Words (Great Oaths)  32 The O’ in Irish Names  32 Lesson 2 Queens  38 Jake Arrieta—​Cubs Pitcher or Cubs’ Pitcher?  43 Mother’s Day and the Farmers’ Market  44 Lesson 3 “Mind My What?”  51 Lesson 6 Commas and Commands  74

xvi List of Boxes

Lesson 9 Justin Bieber, Woody Allen, Donald Trump, and the Comma Splice  97 Lesson 10 The Strippers, JFK and Stalin  103 My Parents, Sinéad O’Connor and the Pope  104 Lesson 11 Rachael Ray  105 Lesson 13 Are Words Like However Disappearing?  128 Lesson 18 Commas That Show Meaningful Pauses  149 Lesson 20 “It’s Time to Eat Grandma”  157 Lesson 21 “A Big, Big D”  163 “Good G—​!”  170 Endnotes, Footnotes, and Dashes  172 Lesson 23 Schoolhouse Rock!  179 Oy Vey!  179 “Stone-​Hearted Ice Witch Forgoes Exclamation Point”  182 Lesson 25 Dictionaries and the Waterbed  198 Lesson 26 Mark Twain’s Lightning  216 Lesson 28 Ellipses in Textspeak  229 Thank You. I don’t Care if You Live or Die  231

List of Boxes xvii

Lesson 29 Uptalk?  238 Lesson 30 The British Style of Using Quotation Marks  249 Rules for Journalists  253 Scare Quotes  256 Lesson 33 A Semicolon is not a Bra  272 Semicolons on the Subway  274 Semicolon T-​Shirts  275 Project Semicolon  278 Lesson 34 A Word to the Wise  283

‘’ ✻


This book is a sequel to May I Quote You on That? and I remain grateful to the people for whom I  expressed gratitude in that book. Chief among them are the professors who taught me Old and Middle English and the history of English language: Marie Borroff, Talbot Donaldson, John Pope, Traugott Lawler, and Dorothee Metlitzki. I thank, too, Paul Dolan, Traugott Lawler, and Joelle Mann, who carefully and heroically read through the manuscript of this book, making valuable suggestions and saving me from errors large and small. I thank Roger Rosenblatt for offering generous help and support with these books and in many other ways. And I’m grateful to my terrific editor, Hallie Stebbins, who saw these two books through to publication.

The Quotable Guide to Punctuation


If you’ve ever watched the sitcom Modern Family, you know that one of the main characters, Phil, can be a loveable klutz. In one episode, he gets jealous when his wife laughs at another man’s jokes, and he blurts out, Only I can take her to bed and make her laugh! Phil realizes that came out wrong, though: it seems to say that his wife laughs at him in bed. So he revises it by adding a comma before the word and (and, since he’s speaking, he actually says the word “comma”): Only I can take my wife to bed, comma, and make her laugh! Modern Family, ABC TV, “Me? Jealous?” Feb. 8, 2012

Phil knows that a comma before and creates a pause that can suggest you’re expressing two distinct thoughts. In this case, it shows that going to bed with his wife and making her laugh are two different things. My point here is that even if you’re sometimes a klutz (as I am), using the right punctuation can help you convey your ideas clearly, accurately, and sensitively. Now, the sad truth is that a lot of smart, educated people have never been taught how to punctuate, so they aren’t always confident about how to use punctuation marks. How about you? Are you always sure where to put commas and semicolons? How about the punctuation at the end of a quote? Are you always certain about whether to hyphenate 1


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

a word compound or to write it as a single word, or as two words? Can you use punctuation to capture the rhythms of natural speech? This book is designed to help you punctuate confidently and effectively. It’s also intended to be more fun than you probably expect.

THREE WAYS THIS BOOK IS DIFFERENT There are several really good popular books that deal with English grammar and usage. (Usage involves making choices between less and fewer, imply and infer, etc.) In my experience, though, people have many more problems with punctuation and constructing graceful sentences than they do with grammar and usage. Yet only a few books are specifically dedicated to teaching punctuation. And none of them applies the approach that this one does: • This book teaches the natural way, by example. The lessons begin with quotes that exemplify good punctuation and sentence structure, so you can learn from context. Reading these sentences may be enough for you to infer the rules for yourself. You may find that several of the passages are memorable, so they can serve as models for your own writing. • The quotations are funny, instructive, or interesting. Most are by great writers, celebrities, or historical figures. Mark Twain is cited often. Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Hemingway appear alongside Jennifer Lawrence, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift. Abraham Lincoln is represented, as are Muhammad Ali, George Clooney, and Oprah Winfrey. Yogi Berra appears (yes, you read that right). So do Groucho Marx, Woody Allen, Robin Williams, Billy Crystal, Jerry Seinfeld, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Amy Schumer, and many others. • There’s a mini-​essay with each lesson, telling the origin and history of each punctuation mark. They show how guidelines for using these marks have changed over time, taking the mystery



out of them. As much as possible, the discussions are in plain, natural language without jargon.

HOW I BECAME A GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION FANATIC In 1972, when I was hired to teach my department’s required course on the English language, I  made a shocking discovery:  our English majors dreaded taking the course. They were especially worried about  the month that we would spend on grammar, usage, and punctuation. Most of them had never been taught how to apply the rules of formal writing. Bright seniors about to graduate, many of whom wanted to teach or do graduate work, were poorly prepared in that respect. Most still are. Almost all of them need help with commas, for example. They use too few or too many, often in the wrong places. Comma splices are probably the most common writing mistake I see in student papers. Many students don’t know when to use a semicolon. And they need instruction about using punctuation with quotation marks and parentheses. No wonder many of them were nervous about taking the course. Since students typically hate memorizing grammar terms and rules, I  immersed the class in funny sentences that illustrate the lessons. Only then did I present the rules, using no more grammar terminology than was necessary. The result was surprising, especially to the students: they learned the rules and developed a sense of confidence about their writing. A lot of them said that they loved the experience. The course became one of the most popular in the department, and many students from other departments tried to enroll, specifically to learn grammar, usage, and writing mechanics. I’ve taught nearly 5,000 students in that course over the years, and, in their course evaluations, many or most of them have said that they wished they’d learned this material earlier in their college careers. In response, my department


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

changed the rubric of the course so it would be one of the first courses our majors take. I use the same approach in this book. It has another unusual feature, too: it’s linked to an online workbook with drills to identify problems and reinforce learning. The online workbook is available at: 

Finding Romance with Good Grammar and Punctuation In the world of, OkCupid, and other dating sites, it may be harder to attract someone smart and educated if your grammar and punctuation aren’t great. A national survey in 2013 found that single men and women say that good grammar is one of the most important qualities that they judge when they choose a romantic partner.1 Of course, even a writer on grammar and punctuation has to agree that romantic attraction is a mystery. But being a careful writer can help. Consider this, too: a survey in 2015 found that nearly two-​thirds of American adults are annoyed when they see spelling and usage errors. Their top complaints are about the misuse of apostrophes in contractions. People aged 18 to 34 are disturbed by that more than any other age group, and young women are bothered by it most of all: an amazing 79 percent of them said that they’re irritated by language errors on social media!2 In fact, an analysis of messages on eHarmony found that if a man makes just two spelling errors, women are 14 percent less likely to respond positively to him. So it’s not surprising that there’s now a service called eFlirt that has graduates in English and journalism rewrite online dating profiles. And there’s an app called the Grade that checks messages for writing errors and assigns grades from A+ to F.3 The moral is, if you’re looking for love, it pays to write well. Even dashes and semicolons can make a difference (love is very mysterious, after all): “I went out with a guy based on his dashes once,” says the writer, critic, and multimedia journalist Jessica



Bennett. “Within moments of our first interaction—​over text message—​I was basically in love.” What impressed her was that the man used a proper em dash. To do that, he had to hold down the dash button on his iPhone until the true em dash appeared. “I don’t remember what his messages actually said,” Bennett recalled, “but he obviously really liked me.” (Check out the lesson on dashes on pages 161–72.) Jennifer Miller, a writer from Brooklyn, was browsing through the less-​than-​literate personal listings in online dating sites when an email message on OkCupid caught her eye. “He used a semicolon correctly,” she said. “That was enough to get a drink with him.” Two years later she and the writer of that lucky semicolon were married.4 (See the lesson on semicolons on pages 267–78.)

HOW TO USE THIS BOOK This book is divided into short lessons on very specific topics. That way you can do quick checks on particular questions you may have. I suggest that you read all of the quotes at the top of each lesson carefully, and be sure to notice the underlined bits in each passage. They’ll show you how to use the punctuation being discussed even before you get to the mini-​essays. If you want to get to the rules and guidelines for each lesson quickly, though, go to the boldfaced statements. To check whether you’ve learned the rules, do the quizzes at the bottom of the lessons. Then you can go to the online workbook for drills. They’ll diagnose if you have any problems and will give you practice to be sure you’ve got it right.

Punctuation—​Who Needs It?

Let’s face it: writing isn’t a natural act. Our ancestors may have started speaking between fifty thousand and two million years ago, but it was only five thousand years ago that people started to write. Three thousand more years passed before they began to use a system of little points that eventually evolved into our modern punctuation. Then it took centuries for those punctuation practices to develop. To put that in perspective, let’s say that humanity has existed for twenty-​four hours. By traditional estimates, more than twenty-​three of those hours passed before people invented writing. And punctuation didn’t come along until closer to midnight.1 So, from a historical point of view, our modern system of punctuation is an extremely recent development that’s subject to change. What’s more, our punctuation practices derive from two very different traditions:  one aims to make grammatical sense, while the other tries to reproduce the rhythms of speech. We’ve inherited both approaches. You want your meaning to be clear, of course, but you also want your sentences to sound natural. It’s a matter of getting the balance right, for clarity and correctness, and for your personal style. So punctuation is an art as well as a science. You’re often free to make your own choices—​and that’s one reason that people aren’t always sure how to punctuate.



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

REASONS TO HATE PUNCTUATION If you’ve ever been anxious about punctuating, you’re definitely not alone. Those pesky little marks have driven even some great authors crazy. William Wordsworth and Charlotte Brontë, for example, both asked their publishers to correct their punctuation for them. And Lord Byron, calling himself “a sad hand at your punctuation,” asked for the name of anyone who could help him with commas.2 Punctuation has frustrated and annoyed other famous writers, too. Apostrophes are a favorite source of stress. George Bernard Shaw despised them. He called apostrophes “uncouth bacilli” and refused to use many of them in his play Pygmalion. Its dialogue included “That aint proper writing,” “Wont you sit down,” and “Who said I didnt?” (He did use the spellings he’ll and it’s, though, probably to avoid confusion with hell and its.) Shaw didn’t have much respect for dashes either: he called them “the great refuge of those who are too lazy to punctuate.”3 Gertrude Stein went even further: she renounced almost all punctuation. Question marks are fine when used to brand cattle, she said. But in writing anybody should know that a question is a question, so who needs a question mark? She thought exclamation points and quotation marks are unnecessary and ugly. Stein considered commas to be servile. And she thought that colons and semicolons are basically just pretentious commas.4 People today may not think that commas are servile, but lots of us seem to feel that we can do without them in tweets, texts, and other online messages. As the linguist John McWhorter says, texting is “fingered speech.” It doesn’t necessarily conform to the conventions of formal writing, and people often think that they don’t need commas in their short digital messages. The scholar Anne Curzan adds that periods and ellipses are being repurposed in tweets and texts, but commas aren’t: periods now can imply seriousness or anger, and ellipses are being used to convey skepticism or unhappiness. But commas just signal that you’re being formal in an informal context, and they’re being purged. McWhorter argues that if we did without commas altogether,

Punctuation—Who Needs It? 9

even in formal writing, we wouldn’t lose much clarity. Traditional grammarians, including William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White in their famous Elements of Style, have instructed us to use commas in certain contexts. But McWhorter denies that those are actually rules. Strunk probably also wore spats, he adds.5 Exclamation points have been with us in their modern form for over 600 years, but several writers and commentators have warned that using them is more than a failure of style—​it’s also a sign of bad taste, and maybe even poor character. “An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke,” said F. Scott Fitzgerald. David Marsh, who edits the style guide for the British newspaper The Guardian, says something similar: when a newspaper uses an exclamation point in a headline, it invariably means, “Look, we’ve written something funny.” The physician and man of letters Lewis Thomas wrote that seeing exclamation points “is like being forced to watch someone else’s small child jumping up and down crazily in the center of the living room shouting to attract attention.” If a sentence has an important point to make, Thomas concluded, it doesn’t need a mark to point it out. Lynne Truss, author of the best-​ selling Eats, Shoots & Leaves, adds that in the punctuation family, “the exclamation mark is the big attention-​deficit brother who gets overexcited and breaks things and laughs too loudly.”6 Elmore Leonard, the great crime novelist and screenwriter, concluded that one of the main rules of good writing is that you’re allowed no more than two or three exclamation points for each 100,000 words of prose. Those of you who use lots of exclamation points in your digital messages may find this hard to believe, but for a long time, typewriters didn’t even have a key for that mark. If people insisted on using one, they’d have to type a period, a backspace, and an apostrophe.7 The semicolon has especially irritated several writers. Some authors have actually hated them.8 Kurt Vonnegut said that the first rule in creative writing is “Do not use semicolons.” He called them “hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show that you’ve been to college.” That was pretty intense, but a column by the journalist James J. Kilpatrick made it seem tame. The semicolon, Kilpatrick declared, is odious and worthless, “the most pusillanimous, sissified, utterly useless


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

mark of punctuation ever invented.” E. L. Doctorow also detested semicolons.9 And the Pulitzer Prize-​winning author Cormac McCarthy has done his best to eliminate them altogether. He once volunteered to edit a biography of a famous physicist—​as long as he could delete all of the semicolons and exclamation points.10 By the way, you don’t have to be a writer to hate semicolons. Former New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia called bureaucrats who created red tape “semicolon boys.”11

REASONS TO LOVE PUNCTUATION When we speak, we use nonverbal signs to help us get our point across. Without even thinking about it, we pause or change our intonation or loudness to help express our meaning, emphasis, and tone. We also use facial expressions, our gaze, hand gestures, and other signals. But when we write, we can’t do those things. We need a different set of tools instead, and that’s where punctuation comes in. Punctuation helps us replace some of the nonverbal signals that we use when we talk. It’s only dots, squiggles, and slash marks. But without it, our writing would spill across the page and readers would have to try their best to figure out what we’re trying to say. Punctuation helps us express our meaning clearly. It helps us create order within sentences, and between them. It also establishes the rhythm of our writing, capturing the pauses and emphases of speech. We’ll see in this book that punctuation can convey uncertainty, excitement, anticipation, urgency, skepticism, drama, and even comic timing. It also can serve as vocal stage directions: a question mark can suggest the inflection of a speaker’s voice. Parentheses can be the equivalent of an aside. And an exclamation point can signify a surprised, rising tone of voice.12 The language expert Robert Allen says that punctuation is to writing what stitching is to clothing: just as stitches hold a garment together and help give it shape, punctuation helps hold our words together and gives form to our writing.13 It’s a good analogy, since style is important in both

Punctuation—Who Needs It? 11

clothing and writing. What’s more, both dress and punctuation habits have shifted over time as fashions have changed. For example, imagine for a moment that you’re leading a job search and a candidate shows up for his interview dressed like Ben Franklin. What do you think of him? How hard is it for you to pay attention to what he’s saying? In the same way, if he wrote his job inquiry in the style that many people used during Franklin’s lifetime, his heavy use of punctuation would be conspicuous and distracting. And if he capitalized common nouns, as the Preamble to the United States Constitution does, his chances of landing the job would be even worse. You get the idea. You want your punctuation and mechanics to enhance what you’re saying, not to distract from it. In fact, as Allen says, the key test of good punctuation is whether your readers are aware of it or not. The less they notice it, the more successful you’ve been.14 But isn’t it difficult to stitch words together? And how many of us are master tailors anyway? Here’s the truth: the basic rules for punctuation and mechanics aren’t hard. You already know some of the most important ones. We’ll explore them—​and some of the more nuanced rules—​in this book. When you apply these rules and guidelines, keep in mind that punctuation is partly a matter of your personal style. In 1939, one prominent grammar book said that punctuation is “governed two-​thirds by rule and one-​third by personal taste.”15 I’m not sure that we can quantify it that precisely, but our punctuation practices give you a lot of latitude to make personal choices. And some of the greatest writers have regarded their choices as an essential aspect of their art.

PUNCTUATION, PASSION, AND MENTAL HEALTH Many writers are impassioned about their punctuation. Mark Twain was one of them. He insisted on choosing his own punctuation marks, including a liberal sprinkling of semicolons in the right places. He even instructed his stenographers which punctuation to use while he was dictating text to them.16 And Twain objected fiercely if anybody tried


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

to change any of his punctuation choices. He laid down the law to one publisher: Let the printers follow my punctuation—​it is the one thing I am inflexibly particular about. For corrections turning my ‘sprang’ into ‘sprung’ I am thankful; also for corrections of my grammar. . . . But I like to have my punctuation respected. . . . It’s got more real variety about it than any other accomplishment I possess, & I reverence it accordingly. Correspondence, Aug. 16–​22, 1881

Twain actually corrected other writers’ punctuation and grammar—​ even in books that were already published. He scribbled comments and alterations in many books that he owned, including one by his friend Rudyard Kipling. In one case he went so far as to change one of Kipling’s commas into a semicolon. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he corrected the Bible and Shakespeare,” said a collector who owns many books from Twain’s library.17

Mark Twain Orders a Proofreader to Be Shot Twain once wrote to a friend: Yesterday Mr. Hall wrote that the printer’s proof-​reader was improving my punctuation for me. . . . I telegraphed orders to have him shot without giving him time to pray. Correspondence, Aug. 21, 1889 It’s no wonder that Twain wrote a few years later, “In the first place God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made proofreaders.”18

Punctuation—Who Needs It? 13

Oscar Wilde also went to extremes in choosing precisely the right punctuation marks. He once said that he’d spent an entire morning taking a comma out of one of his poems, then that whole afternoon putting it back in.19 Other writers have declared their devotion to semicolons. George Bernard Shaw thought that writers who use semicolons are psychologically healthy. He affectionately accused T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) of not using enough semicolons in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom. “You practically do not use semicolons at all,” Shaw chided him. “This is a symptom of mental defectiveness, probably induced by camp life.” Shaw also chastised Lawrence for throwing colons about “with an unhinged mind.”20 Some French authors and linguists also say that using semicolons indicates good judgment and the capacity for complex thought. One French writer and language historian pleaded in 2003 for authors to protect the semicolon, not abandon it.21 In 2008, a French news website claimed that the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy was requiring all official documents to include at least three semicolons per page. It was an April Fool’s joke, but it struck a chord with Frenchmen who value the semicolon (le point-​virgule in French). A prominent French expert on the art of punctuation went on France’s main radio network and lamented that the semicolon is disappearing. She and other French commentators blamed writers in English, with their short, direct sentences, for the semicolon’s demise.22 The French are not alone in their appreciation of this punctuation mark. The Czech writer Milan Kundera once left a publisher who tried to change his semicolons to periods.23 Even Kurt Vonnegut, a poster boy for the anti-​semicolon club, appreciated the way that the semicolon makes you pause, then consider what comes next. That’s how Vonnegut thought of aging. “When Hemingway killed himself,” he said, “he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon.”24


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

THE BOTTOM LINE As we’ve seen, punctuation is personal as well as a matter of standard practice. It’s often up to you to decide which mark to use—​or not, depending on the situation. Mark Twain, as usual, said it as well as anyone could: Cast-​iron rules will not answer. . . . What is one man’s comma is another man’s colon.25 Atlantic Monthly, June 1880

There are rules, though. It’s one thing for George Bernard Shaw or Gertrude Stein to ignore convention or punctuate eccentrically. They could get away with it. It’s another for most of the rest of us to try it in formal writing. Ernest Hemingway used an analogy with golf to argue that you should use punctuation as conventionally as you can: The game of golf would lose a good deal if croquet mallets and billiard cues were allowed on the putting green. You ought to be able to show that you can do it a good deal better than anyone else with the regular tools before you have a license to bring in your own improvements. Correspondence, May 22, 1925

This book will address the regular tools of punctuation, and try to make them fun.

Who Really Cares About Punctuation and Grammar? or, Is Your English Teacher Neurotic? Will people think less of you if you write its when you should write it’s, or your when you should write you’re? Well, yes, some probably will. But a recent study shows that certain people are less

Punctuation—Who Needs It? 15

b­ othered than others, depending on their psychological makeup. In an experiment, subjects took personality tests to determine whether they were agreeable, open, introverted, extroverted, ­conscientious, or neurotic. Then they were asked to evaluate emails that were supposedly from someone who was applying to be their housemate. The question was, would they want to share a home with somebody who makes writing mistakes? The most important factor in their decisions turned out to be how inherently agreeable the people reading the emails were. Participants who scored high in that category tended to approve of the emails—​errors and all. Less agreeable people were more sensitive to the grammar and punctuation mistakes, and were less likely to want to live with anyone who made them. Introverts were more ­sensitive to the errors than extroverts were. Interestingly, ­neuroticism had no impact one way or the other.26 So don’t go around accusing your English teachers of being neurotic just because they mark up your writing mistakes. You can find a better reason than that.

Defining Some Really Basic Terms

If you’re like most of my students, you don’t love grammar jargon. I don’t either. When I teach, I use only the terms that my students really need to know in order to learn how to write well in formal contexts. I take the same approach in this book. The lessons don’t always define basic grammar terms, though, so let’s review some of them here.

ADJECTIVES It’s hard to make animated movies because they’re basically puppet shows. It’s a gigantic, insane puppet show. Jerry Seinfeld, on CNN Larry King Live, Nov. 1, 2007

About George Clooney: He’s as charismatic in person as anyone alive, as charming and gracious. But the private Clooney, 50, is also a revelation. He lives with chronic pain (the result of a devastating accident from 2005); makes his home on the “wrong” side of the Hollywood Hills. . . . In other words, his life is disturbingly like yours. Joe Pugliese,, Feb. 15, 2012



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Adjectives modify nouns or pronouns:  they tell us something about the person or the thing they modify. In the first quote above, for example, Jerry Seinfeld uses three adjectives to describe making his 2007 animated film, Bee Movie: animated, gigantic, and insane. The adjectives in the second passage are charismatic charming gracious private chronic

devastating wrong other

In “his life” the word his is called a possessive adjective.

ADVERBS Adverbs modify verbs. In this passage, desperately modifies the verb wished: A husband sent his wife a postcard from Hawaii, saying, “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were her!” Later, he desperately wished he’d proofread the card before sending it. Adverbs also modify adjectives. In this quote, really modifies the adjective close: I have really close girlfriends, but they are guys like me—​girls who eat and don’t know anything about fashion. Jennifer Lawrence, quoted in, from the June 2014 issue of Marie Claire

Adverbs modify other adverbs, as very modifies the adverb seriously here: My first job is big sister and I take that very seriously. Venus Williams, quoted in, July 5, 2008

Defining Some Really Basic Terms 19

Adverbs also can modify phrases, clauses, or whole sentences: Later, he desperately wished. . . . 

CLAUSES ✻✻ MAIN CLAUSES I love glamor. Lady Gaga, in John Dingwall, Daily Record (Scotland), Nov. 27, 2009

Every time I start feeling sexy, I trip. Lena Dunham, tweet; quoted in, Nov. 15, 2010

Winter is coming. Sean Bean as Eddard Stark, Game of Thrones (2011)

The first time I see a jogger smiling, I’ll consider it. Joan Rivers, quoted in, Sept. 4, 2014

Curry revolutionized the game this season. About Stephen Curry,, May 10, 2016

A main clause has a subject and a verb and expresses a complete idea. It can stand as a sentence by itself. Since it’s independent in that way, it’s also called an independent clause. In formal writing, every sentence should contain at least one of them: I trip I’ll consider it Many sentences consist of only a main clause: I love glamor Curry revolutionized the game this season


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

✻✻ SUBORDINATE CLAUSES Whenever [I]‌hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally. Abraham Lincoln, speech, Mar. 17,1865

When the end of the world comes, I want to be in Cincinnati. Attributed to Mark Twain, who allegedly explained that everything comes to Cincinnati 20 years late. The joke is old, however.

A friend doesn’t go on a diet when you are fat. A friend will babysit your children when they are contagious. A friend will threaten to kill anyone who tries to come into the fitting room when you are trying on bathing suits. Erma Bombeck, The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank, ch. 10 (1976)

If men had to have babies, they would only ever have one each. Diana, Princess of Wales, while pregnant; quoted in The Observer, July 29, 1984

Britney Spears, saying that she doesn’t have time to sit down and write: When I think of a melody, I call my answering machine and sing it. Quoted in Observer, Jan. 9, 2005

A subordinate clause has a subject and a verb but doesn’t express a complete idea. It’s also called a dependent clause because it depends on a main clause to complete the sentence. Subordinate clauses often begin with words like after, although, because, before, if, since, though, unless, when, whenever, where, or while: Whenever [I]‌hear anyone arguing for slavery, When the end of the world comes, when you are fat If men had to have babies, When I think of a melody,

Defining Some Really Basic Terms 21

See the discussion of CONJUNCTIONS below, and the lesson on COMMAS WITH MAIN CLAUSES on pages 67–75.

CONJUNCTIONS If you ever listened to the song “Conjunction Junction” on the show Schoolhouse Rock, you know that conjunctions are words that hook up other words, phrases, and clauses. Now, to be more specific, coordinating conjunctions, including and or but, can connect two nouns, two adjectives, two verbs, two phrases, or two main clauses. They even can join two sentences.1 Now, what’s a subordinator? No, it’s not a repressive dictator. A subordinator is a subordinating conjunction. Subordinators include words like after, although, as, as far as, as if, as long as, as soon as, as though, because, before, even if, even though, if, once, since, so that, though, till, unless, until, when, whenever, where, wherever, and while. See the lessons on STARTING SENTENCES WITH AND OR BUT and COMMAS AND FANBOYS on pages 279–84 and 89–91.

NOUNS Suppose you were an idiot. Now suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. Mark Twain, in Albert B. Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography (1912)

Politicians are a lot like diapers: they should be changed frequently—​and for the same reasons. Robin Williams, quoted in, Aug. 14, 2014

Sheryl Sandberg, describing the 1960s: Back in those days, people used to say that with all the long hair, how do we even tell the boys from the girls? We now know the answer: manbuns. Commencement address at Berkeley, May 14, 2016


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

To me, power is making things happen without asking for permission. Beyoncé, interviewed in, Apr. 5, 2016

Since the beginning of the great unfinished symphony that is our American experiment, time and time again, immigrants get the job done. Lin-​Manuel Miranda, commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania, May 16, 2016

The word noun comes from the Latin for “name,” and that’s what a noun does: it names. A noun names or identifies a person, place, thing, idea, or quality:2 idiot member politicians diapers reasons days people hair boys girls answer manbuns

power things permission beginning symphony experiment time immigrants job

When the noun names a specific person or a unique thing, it’s called a proper noun: Congress Sheryl Sandberg

Defining Some Really Basic Terms 23

PHRASES A phrase is a small unit of related words that lacks a subject, a verb, or both: She was the People’s Princess, and that is how she will stay . . . in our hearts and in our memories forever. Tony Blair, speaking of Lady Diana, quoted in Times (London), Sept. 1, 1997

PREPOSITIONS A preposition shows a relationship between other words in a sentence. Many prepositions indicate position or direction. One way to remember them is to fill in the blank in this passage: Superman flew _​_​_​_​_​_​_​ the clouds. Many prepositions can complete this sentence, including above, across, against, along (with), among, around, at, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, by, from, in, inside (of ), into, near, next to, off of, on, onto, on top of, out ( from), out of, outside, over, past, through, to, toward, under, underneath, up, upon, with, and within. Prepositions also relate to time, for example, about, after, before, during, following, since, throughout, till, and until. Prepositions can indicate many other kinds of relationships, too: for indicates support, for instance; against shows opposition; and with denotes accompaniment. Other prepositions that show relationships include according to, as, as for, aside from, because of, concerning, despite, except, except for, in addition to, in front of, in spite of, instead of, like, of, on account of, plus, regarding, unlike, and without.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

PRONOUNS Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand. Mark Twain, “The Mysterious Stranger,” written 1897–​1908

The rule is perfect: in all matters of opinion our adversaries are insane. Mark Twain, Christian Science (1907), bk. 1, ch. 5

One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I don’t know. Groucho Marx, in the 1930 film Animal Crackers

Robin Williams as the Genie, after being released from the lamp: Oy! Ten thousand years will give you such a crick in the neck! From the 1992 film Aladdin

Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded. Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book (1998)

Stephen Colbert, describing Northwestern University: The library contains 5 million books and 100,000 periodicals, none of which anyone reads because they’re not on an iPad. Commencement address at Northwestern, June 17, 2011

I was the best man at a wedding one time and that was pretty good. . . . If I am the best man, why is she marrying him? Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in (in New York Post), Apr. 17, 2014

Sex? Someone explain to me what it is. Jennifer Lawrence, quoted in harpersbazaar,com, Apr. 7, 2016

The term pronoun comes from the Latin for “in place of a noun or a name,” and a pronoun is a word that you can use instead of a noun. Personal pronouns refer to specific people or things:

Defining Some Really Basic Terms 25

I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their Some pronouns don’t refer to anyone or anything specific. Since they’re not definite about whom or what they refer to, they’re called indefinite pronouns. They include anybody, anyone, anything, each, everybody, nobody, none, nothing, and someone: nothing can stand Nobody goes there anymore Someone explain to me what it is

VERBS Steve McQueen looks good in this movie. He must have made it before he died. Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book (1998)

My mother loved me unconditionally, so I felt safe enough to dream. Beyoncé, interviewed in, Apr. 5, 2016

Prince Never Apologized for Who He Was. For That, He Was an Inspiration. Headline, Washington Post, Apr. 21, 2016

Verbs describe actions and occurrences: have made died loved dream apologized Verbs also describe states of being and sensations.


‘ ’  Lesson 1 

Apostrophes That Mark Omitted Letters or Numbers

’Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1, First Folio (1623)

’Twas the night before Christmas, and all thro’ the house. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” attributed to Clement Clarke Moore (1823)

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves /​Did gyre and gimble in the wabe. Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky,” in Through the Looking Glass (1871)

All we want are the facts, ma’am. Jack Webb, as Sgt. Joe Friday on the TV series Dragnet, 1951–​59, 1967–​70 (often paraphrased as “Just the facts, ma’am”)

Middle age is when you’re faced with two temptations and you choose the one that will get you home by nine o’clock.1 President Ronald Reagan, quoted in David Gergen, Eyewitness to Power (2001)

Christian Bale comes to the bar dressed in a regular-​guy windbreaker and looking much more scruffy and handsome—​charming, rakish, ne’er-​do-​well, with a piratical mustache and goatee—​than he ever lets himself look in movies. John H. Richardson,, Nov. 15, 2010 29


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

The Brooklyn Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon is a fun, urban New York race coupled with live bands and entertainment along the course.

Apostrophes have baffled people for centuries. It took hundreds of years to decide how to use them, and even now the rules are inconsistent and in flux. Apostrophes do two main jobs. The first is to show that letters or numbers have been omitted. In fact, that’s how this mark got its name: the word apostrophe derives from the Greek for “turning away,” which gave it the sense of “leaving something out.” That’s the way Greek and Latin scribes in the classical period used apostrophes when they wrote manuscripts: to abbreviate words by leaving letters out. So a scribe would record the Latin word tercius (meaning “third”), for instance, as t’cius.2 Medieval scribes had their own ways of abbreviating. Then, in the 1500s, printers in Europe revived the use of apostrophes to omit letters. In England they dropped letters that represented sounds that weren’t pronounced, including silent e’s, as in wish’d in the passage from Hamlet above. They left out consonants, too, as in e’er (“ever”) and i’faith (“in faith”). Spellings like those are archaic now, but other early spellings with apostrophes have survived. For instance, the contractions he’s, she’ll, I’ll, I’ve, and can’t had emerged by the 1600s, and they’re still with us.3 The other main job of apostrophes is to mark the possessive case in nouns. That came much later, and we’ll get to it in the next lesson. We’ll focus here on their role in showing omissions. Apostrophes indicate the omission of letters in words: ’tis ’twas thro’ ma’am Sgt.

“it is” “it was” “through” “madam” “Sergeant”

Apostrophes That Mark Omitted Letters or Numbers 31

nor’easter o’clock ne’er-​do-​well rock ‘n’ roll

“northeaster: a storm with strong winds blowing from the northeast” (see the quote below) “of the clock” “never-​do-​well, good for nothing, worthless” “rock and roll music”

They also show the omission of figures in dates: Soul of the ’60s

CD featuring the Isley Brothers, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Ben E. King, the Four Tops, Ray Charles, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, and the Supremes

About the nor’easter that hit the Atlantic coast in December 1992: This storm hit while shore residents were still trying to rebuild the beaches after the October ’91 and January ’92 storms. hurricanes-​blizzards-​

The Best Breakup Line Ever To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the writer John O’Farrell “discovered” a “lost” scene from Romeo and Juliet. It depicts what might have happened if the two young lovers hadn’t died in the play. In it, Juliet eventually gets fed up with Romeo’s constant romanticism, says she wants to be just friends, and drops him with this line: “’Tis not you; ’tis me.”, Apr. 21, 2016


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Apostrophes in Dirty Words (Great Oaths) Two of the most potent early English swear words were sometimes spelled with apostrophes: ’Sblood (“God’s blood”) and ’zons (or zounds, “God’s wounds”). In English and other languages, the concept of dirty words originated in religion. That made words like ’Sblood and zounds powerful. They were called great oaths and were thought to recrucify Christ. Over time, though, dirty words often become clean, just as clean ones become dirty.4 So damn, which was still taboo a hundred years ago, can now be heard on network sitcoms. And some of our most powerful obscenities today were mild enough in Chaucer’s time to be used in mixed company—​and they were, by the pilgrims in the Canterbury Tales.

The O’ in Irish Names Do you know what the O’ in Irish names like O’Malley and O’Neill stands for? It isn’t an abbreviation of the word of. Instead, it comes from the Irish for “grandson” or “descendant,” as Lynn Truss points out in Eats, Shoots & Leaves (p. 45).

‘ ’  Lesson 2 

Apostrophes That Mark the Possessive Case

It takes much to convince the average man of anything; and perhaps nothing can ever make him realize he is the average woman’s inferior—​yet in several important details the evidence seems to show that that is what he is. Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)

By trying, we can easily learn to endure adversity. Another man’s, I mean. Ibid.

I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. Martin Luther King Jr., speech, Memphis, Apr. 3, 1968

There’s room for boys’ and girls’ football in the world. That’s what I believe. David Beckham, after a girl told him she wasn’t allowed to play football (soccer) on the boys’ team at her school. Quoted in news., Sept. 23, 2006

Want some real-​world scientific theory behind Iron Man’s armor? Get it now. “Marvel Science: Iron Man’s Armor,”, Apr. 12, 2010 33


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Crap at My Parents’ House is a laugh-​out-​loud celebration of all the weird, odd, and unfathomably tacky stuff that our moms and dads accumulate. Book description,

Actress Ellen Barkin is engaged to Amal’s co-​worker, whom she met at the Clooneys’ wedding., Feb. 4, 2015

Justin Timberlake’s Son Is Adorable. Headline,, Apr. 19, 2015

About Taylor Swift: “She is the most powerful person in the music industry,” said David Lowery of the bands Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, and an advocate for artists’ rights. Quoted in Ben Sisario,, June 22, 2015

Quick, is the holiday to honor mothers called Mother’s Day, Mothers’ Day, or Mothers Day? The answer is near the bottom of this lesson. One main job of apostrophes is to show the possessive case. Keep in mind that apostrophes don’t only signify ownership. They also can show association, affiliation, or some other sort of relationship. As David Marsh, the editor of The Guardian newspaper’s style guide, points out, the phrase David’s book shows David’s ownership, but David’s favorite football team doesn’t.1 In the same way, Iron Man’s armor refers to the armor that Iron Man owns. But the average woman’s inferior indicates a relationship or association. Using apostrophes this way seems so natural that you might think that writers have always done it. In fact, it took a long time before this became the regular practice. English printers began to use apostrophes to mark the possessive case of singular nouns in the late 1500s, but it didn’t really catch on for a century. The First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623), for example, uses ’s to mark the possessive case only four percent of the time. It does use it in the word Romeo’s, but it also includes

Apostrophes That Mark the Possessive Case 35

spellings like Gods (for God’s). Only sixty years later, though, things had changed. Printers had begun to use the ’s so regularly to mark the possessive case of singular nouns that the Fourth Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1685) uses it fairly consistently. But it took another hundred years for people to start putting apostrophes after the s in plural nouns.2 So it’s been a long slow process for people to accept this way of marking possessive nouns, and even now it’s continuing to evolve. Still, the rules for marking possessive nouns have been more or less set for over 150 years, and you need to get them right in formal writing. The main rules are simple: To make most singular nouns possessive, add ’s: the average woman’s inferior another man’s God’s will Iron Man’s armor Justin Timberlake’s son Amal’s co-​worker To make most plural nouns possessive, add just an apostrophe: boys’ and girls’ football My Parents’ House artists’ rights the Clooneys’ wedding Add ’s to plural nouns that don’t end in s, including children, men, people, and women: Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits. Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894)

Of house-​elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, ch. 35 (2007)


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Be open to collaboration. . . . Other people’s ideas are often better than your own. Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you . . . and it will change your life. Amy Poehler, commencement address at Harvard, May 25, 2011

Men’s Fitness magazine, mocking a report that women like “dad bods,” ran an article on “The High Intensity Anti-​‘Dad Bod’ Workout.”, June 18, 2015

About the Broadway show Hamilton: The Tony Award-​winning smash musical on Tuesday night welcomed the US women’s gymnastics team—​Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, Madison Kocian, and Laurie Hernandez—​who gave the show a standing ovation and greeted the cast onstage afterward. Associated Press, Aug. 24, 2016

SINGULAR NOUNS THAT END IN S Here’s where the rules start to get tricky: My Boss’s Daughter

2003 film starring Ashton Kutcher, Tara Reid, and Terence Stamp

Tyrannosaurus’s massive skull was balanced by a long, heavy tail.” Promotional copy for the Walking with Dinosaurs show,

London is as much a character in Charles Dickens’s novels as Nicholas Nickleby or David Copperfield is. Elaine Saunders, (Christian Science Monitor), Jan. 28, 2004

Octopus’s Garden.

Children’s book by Ringo Starr, dedicated to octopuses everywhere (2014)

Apostrophes That Mark the Possessive Case 37

Allure Cover Girl Rachel McAdams’s Beauty Secrets. Headline,, July 22, 2014

Hugh Grant . . . has officially exited the highly anticipated third installment of the Bridget Jones’s Diary Series. Rachel McRady,, Oct. 11, 2014

The Hunger Games franchise is about to come to its epochal conclusion with the release of Mockingjay 1 and Mockingjay 2, the final two installments of the saga based on Suzanne Collins’s hugely successful young-​adult trilogy. Sam Kushner,, Nov. 2014 cover story

Congress’s Approval Rating No Longer Detectable by Current Technology. Headline, Andy Borowitz,, Mar. 13, 2015

The rules get messy when it comes to singular nouns that end in s. When a singular noun, including a name, ends in s, most authorities agree that you should follow the usual rule: add ’s to show possession.3 My Boss’s Daughter Tyrannosaurus’s massive skull Charles Dickens’s novels Octopus’s Garden Rachel McAdams’s Beauty Secrets Bridget Jones’s Diary Suzanne Collins’s hugely successful young-​adult trilogy Congress’s Approval Rating Henry James ➞ Henry James’s C. S. Lewis ➞ C. S. Lewis’s Dr. Seuss ➞ Dr. Seuss’s But this varies. Robert Allen, for example, gives this very sensible advice: if you add the sound of an extra s when you say the name out


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

loud, you should add ’s when you write it. But if you pronounce the name without an extra s sound, add only an apostrophe: Mars’ Xerxes’ Allen adds that you should add ’s to French names ending in s or x:4 Dumas’s le Roux’s The Associated Press Stylebook (2009), by contrast, says that you should add only an apostrophe to proper names that end in s. So, according to the AP style, the spellings Dickens’ novels and Tennessee Williams’ plays are correct. Newspapers often follow this model, adding only an apostrophe to a name that ends in s: Random House Children’s Books said Wednesday it will publish a recently discovered manuscript with Dr. Seuss sketches, called What Pet Should I Get? . . . The main story stars Seuss’ faithful elephant, who confronts a crafty and manipulative insect., Feb. 18, 2015

Journalists aren’t consistent about this, though. In fact, several of the quotations above are from newspapers and magazines, but they don’t follow AP style on this point.5 Journalists should follow their house style guide or the style manual of their profession.

Queens Have you ever noticed that place-​names and the names of large stores and banks don’t always follow the rules for using apostrophes? St. John’s (Newfoundland and Labrador) does, but Queens

Apostrophes That Mark the Possessive Case 39

(New York), Pikes Peak, and Harpers Ferry have lost their apostrophes. Macy’s has kept an apostrophe, but Barneys New York, Harrods, and Barclays Bank haven’t.6 Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the loss of apostrophes in the names of organizations, publications, and place-​names has accelerated. There are some exceptions that reverse the trend, though: Martha’s Vineyard lost its apostrophe in the late nineteenth century when a presidentially appointed Board on Geographic Names tried to regularize the spelling of place-​names. In response to local complaints, though, the Board reversed its decision and restored the apostrophe.7

THE POSSESSIVE FORMS OF BIBLICAL AND CLASSICAL NAMES Style guides also disagree about how to show possession with biblical and classical names that have two or more syllables and end in the sound zus or eez: Moses, Jesus, Socrates, Euripides, and so forth. The Chicago Manual of Style says that you should follow the usual rule and add ’s. Other authorities say that an apostrophe alone is enough.8 I advise you to choose one style and stick with it. Either member or these pairs is fine: Moses’ Jesus’ Socrates’ Euripides’

or or or or

Moses’s Jesus’s Socrates’s Euripides’s


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

JOINT POSSESSION Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits (1972) There is hardly a celebrity bromance out there as well known as Seth Rogen and James Franco’s. Kelly Lowler,, Nov. 25, 2014

Pictures of Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis’s bundle of joy, three-​ month-​old daughter, Wyatt Isabelle, have at last emerged, and they were just as cute as we expected them to be., Jan. 9, 2015

When two or more people share possession of something, put only the last one’s name in the possessive case: Simon and Garfunkel’s Seth Rogen and James Franco’s Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis’s If they possess things individually, put their names in the possessive case individually: Jon Stewart’s and Stephen Colbert’s comic styles are very different from each other.

COMPOUND NOUNS About Mother-​in-​Law’s Kimchi: Launched in New York City . . . an artisanal kimchi made with the fines ingredients and chili peppers. Mother-​in-​Law’s Kimchi page on Facebook

Apostrophes That Mark the Possessive Case 41

In compound nouns like mother-​in-​law, the final element usually takes the possessive form: Mother-​in-​Law’s Kimchi

THE POSSESSIVE CASE WITH ITALICIZED WORDS The Colbert Report’s final episode aired on December 18, 2014. Use a roman apostrophe and a roman s to form the possessive of an italicized noun: The Colbert Report’s

HOW TO MAKE INDEFINITE PRONOUNS POSSESSIVE Everybody’s youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness. How pleasant then to be insane! F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Diamond Is as Big as the Ritz,” June 1922

Nobody’s life is bed of roses. We all have crosses to bear and we all just do our best. Yoko Ono, quoted in, May 6, 1990

The hardest thing about skateboarding is consistency. The slightest flick of your foot or gust of wind can send your board flying, so it’s really anybody’s game out there. Shaun White, quoted in, Dec. 6, 2011

Add ’s to produce the possessive form of indefinite pronouns: anybody’s, everybody’s, everyone’s, nobody’s, somebody’s, and so forth.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

These pronouns don’t refer to any specific person. Since they’re not definite about whom they refer to, they’re called indefinite pronouns. DON’T use apostrophes with hers, his, its, ours, yours, or theirs. They’re already possessive. That’s why they’re called possessive pronouns. Be especially careful not to write it’s when you mean its (and vice versa). Which version below is correct? (A) Robin Williams’s 25 Best Quotes from TV and Film (B) Robin Williams’ 25 Best Quotes from TV and Film Headline,, Aug. 12, 2014

Okay, this is a trick question. Either version is correct, depending on whether you normally add ’s or just an apostrophe to show the possessive form of nouns ending in s. Unless you’re a journalist, I advise you to write Williams’s.

USING AN APOSTROPHE WITH THE NAME OF A THING OR A TITLE When you’re deciding whether or not to use an apostrophe with a name or title, here’s what I suggest: • First, check a good dictionary or style guide. The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-​Webster both list Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, for example, and Merriam-​ Webster has an entry for Veterans Day. • If you don’t find the name or title there, see how the organization or group spells it and follow what they do. The Diners Club and Publishers Weekly websites, for instance, spell their names without apostrophes.

Apostrophes That Mark the Possessive Case 43

• If that doesn’t help, use an apostrophe if the name suggests ownership. Don’t use one if the name modifies the noun that follows. The Chicago Manual of Style notes that the line is sometimes fuzzy between a possessive form and a noun that’s just modifying another noun. It’s especially tricky with plurals. Here are a few examples of how to decide between the two: The word Beatles modifies records in I listened to Beatles records. So it doesn’t take an apostrophe there. But it’s a possessive noun in a sentence like “The Beatles’ first appearance on American television was on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.” Mets modifies fans in this shocking sentence: “Mets fans make the most grammatical errors.” But it’s a possessive noun in “The second-​most mistake-​prone fan base belonged to the Mets’ NL East rival Philadelphia Phillies.”9

Jake Arrieta—​Cubs Pitcher or Cubs’ Pitcher? If you’re not sure whether to use an apostrophe after a word ending in s, the Washington Post’s Bill Walsh has a way for you to double-​ check: use an equivalent word that doesn’t end in s. In a phrase like Cubs pitcher Jake Arrietta, for example, you could say baseball instead of Cubs. Would you say baseball pitcher Jake Arrieta or baseball’s pitcher Jake Arrieta? You’d say baseball pitcher, without the apostrophe, right? That’s because Cubs isn’t possessive in this case; it’s a descriptive label. So write Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta, with no apostrophe. Now, what if you refer to Jake Arrieta as the Cubs’ Cy Young Award winner? Do you use an apostrophe in that case? Try substituting the word team for Cubs. You’d call Arrieta the team’s Cy Young Award winner, with an apostrophe. This means that, in this instance, Cubs’ is right.10


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

• A HINT: With men, women, and children, use ’s. Men’s hockey team, women’s Olympic gymnastics team, and children’s museum sound natural to the ear. Men hockey team, women Olympic gymnastics team, or children museum would sound funny, don’t you think?

Mother’s Day and the Farmers’ Market At the beginning of the twentieth century, a woman named Anna Jarvis campaigned for a national day to honor mothers in the United States. In 1914, President Woodrow Wilson signed a proclamation creating Mother’s Day as a new national holiday, to be observed on the second Sunday in May each year. Jarvis insisted that it be spelled Mother’s Day, in the singular possessive, since she wanted each family to honor its own mother, not all mothers. That’s the spelling that President Wilson used in his proclamation. Jarvis had done a lovely thing for moms, but she died bitter, hating the idea that the holiday had become commercialized. Father’s Day was established later, using the same singular possessive form. The Oxford English Dictionary uses the singular form April Fool’s Day; Merriam-​Webster, by contrast, has the possessive plural s’—​presumably because for Americans the day is about playing jokes on all of us fools, not on specific ones. And Veterans Day has no apostrophe at all. The Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs actually offers an official explanation for that, saying that it’s a day for honoring veterans, not a day that belongs to them. That may be good enough for government work, but how does that differ from Mother’s Day and Father’s Day?11 In those cases, the possessive case signifies an association or relationship, not ownership. It’s sometimes a matter of personal judgment whether to use the possessive case, and reasonable people can disagree. Consider the phrase farmers’ market—​or is it farmers market? Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl, settles on farmers market because it’s a market that farmers use but don’t own. So she thinks farmers here

Apostrophes That Mark the Possessive Case 45

serves as an adjective. Mary Norris, by contrast, prefers farmers’ market.12 The Chicago Manual of Style also chooses farmers’ market. As a general rule, it recommends using an apostrophe except with capitalized names (often corporate names) like Diners Club or Publishers Weekly that don’t use them, or where there’s clearly no possessive meaning.

‘ ’  Lesson 3 

Apostrophes That Indicate a Length of Time or an Amount

Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired. Mark Twain, Notebook, 1903

A Hard Day’s Night.

Beatles album (1964)

The movies people don’t talk about or remember after six months’ time don’t really matter. Eric Bana, discussing his role in the film Munich; quoted in, Dec. 29, 2005

Use an apostrophe when the time period modifies a noun: the week’s work A Hard Day’s Night six months’ time



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

DON’T use an apostrophe when the time period modifies an adjective: And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters was upon the earth. Genesis 7:6 (King James Version)

The company’s iPhone6 and 6 Plus, which shattered iPhone sales records when they were launched, are already 10 months old. “Apple Gives Weak Forecast, Shares Fall Nearly 7 Percent,” Reuters, July 21, 2015

six hundred years old 10 months old

‘ ’  Lesson 4 

Using Apostrophes to Mark Some Plurals

Quick, what’s the plural of the lowercase letter i? It’s got to be i’s, right? The spellings is and ts in a sentence like “Dot your is and cross your ts” would only confuse people. It’s much clearer as “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.” That’s one context in which we need apostrophes to mark plurals. But using an apostrophe to show plurality is usually a classic error. Spellings like apple’s, potato’s, and tomato’s for plural nouns are such common errors on handwritten signs at grocery stores that British grammarians invented a name for them: the “greengrocer’s apostrophe.” That’s a little too snarky for me, but you should certainly avoid that error: WRONG: RIGHT:

potatoe’s $2/​pound potatoes $2/​pound


a bunch of banana’s a bunch of bananas

You especially don’t want to make a mistake like that when you apply for a job or for college admission. In formal writing, don’t pluralize nouns with ’s, except in rare cases when it’s necessary for clarity.



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

PLURALS OF DATES, NUMBERS, LOWERCASE LETTERS, AND ABBREVIATIONS Apostrophes can mark certain plurals that aren’t in the possessive case. That was done with many words from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, and it was considered perfectly respectable then.1 But it’s very rare today. So you won’t need to do this very often, but use an apostrophe to mark the plurals of words or letters if they would be confusing without one. To show the plural forms of numbers (including dates) or abbreviations, you can add either ’s or just s. The main consideration is that your meaning should be clear, but keep in mind that the trend is to use the s without an apostrophe. I recommend that you don’t use an apostrophe in these contexts unless you need one to avoid confusion.

PLURALS WITHOUT APOSTROPHES If someone thinks that peace and love are just a cliché that must have been left behind in the ’60s, that’s a problem. Peace and love are eternal. John Lennon, quoted in, Dec. 8, 2014

I go to Wal-​Mart all the time. . . . The one in my hometown of Hendersonville, Tenn., is open 24 hours, so I go there a lot to buy DVDs. Taylor Swift, quoted in (Women’s Wear Daily), Jan. 29, 2009

the 1960s, the ’60s, the sixties, The B-​52s, CDs, DVDs, IOUs, ABCs, SATs.

Using Apostrophes to Mark Some Plurals 51

“Mind My What?” Did your mother ever tell you to mind your p’s and q’s? If she did, she probably meant something like “Mind your manners, be on your best behavior.” But what are p’s and q’s anyway? The truth is that no one knows for sure. E. D. Hirsch, in his New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, cites the popular explanation that this maxim came from grammar school teaching: “When learning to write, children often reverse these letters, so the teacher would admonish the students to be extra careful when writing them.” Another theory is that this saying was originally a warning to typesetters in print shops to be careful. They had to recognize letters backwards, and that could make p and q easy to mistake for each other. There are other theories, too. One is that it may have referred to pints and quarts (p’s and q’s). In that case, it may have warned customers in pubs and taverns not to drink too much. Or it may have cautioned landlords or innkeepers not to serve their customers pints but charge them for quarts. Still another guess is that p’s and q’s stand for “pleases and thank yous.” Say thank yous out loud and you’ll see why (than-​KWEWS). Unfortunately, there’s no evidence to support these explanations one way or the other.2

OTHER SPECIAL CASES Some rare words need an apostrophe when you pluralize: I told you so’s Use an apostrophe if the plural of short words is unfamiliar and might be confusing without one. Which versions of the passages below are correct? (A) I’ve had grand piano’s that are more expensive than . . . a year’s worth of rent.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

(B) I’ve had grand pianos that are more expensive than . . . a year’s worth of rent.” Lady Gaga, quoted in (New York Magazine), Mar. 28, 2010

(A) I would fly to Los Angeles just for a cheeseburger with pickles and tomatoes from In-​N-​Out. (B) I would fly to Los Angeles just for a cheeseburger with pickles and tomato’s from In-​N-​Out. Zoe Kravitz, quoted in O (The Oprah Magazine),, June 2013

As a general rule, don’t use an apostrophe with a plural noun that’s not in the possessive case. In Lady Gaga’s quote, version B is correct. In Zoe Kravitz’s, version A is. The only exceptions are rare and unfamiliar short words like those discussed above.

‘ ’  Lesson 5 

Colons (:)

Samuel Johnson gave a famous description of second marriage: “The triumph of hope over experience.” Quoted in James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791); entry for 1770

I have a scheme for stopping war. It’s this: no nation is allowed to enter a war till they have paid for the last one. Will Rogers, quoted on Will Rogers Memorial Museums site,

There it was impossible to enter and Frodo accepted Gollum’s advice: to seek a ‘secret entrance’ that he knew of, away south in the Mountains of Shadow, the western walls of Mordor. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Synopsis (1955)

Women are like teabags: you never know how strong they are until they get into hot water. Eleanor Roosevelt, attributed by Hillary Clinton; quoted in New York Times Magazine, Aug. 26, 2007



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

About Marilyn Monroe: It was like going to the dentist, making a picture with her: it was hell at the time, but after it was all over, it was wonderful. Billy Wilder, quoted in Earl Wilson, The Show Business Nobody Knows (1972)

And my parents finally realize that I’m kidnapped and they snap into action immediately: they rent out my room. Woody Allen, quoted in Eric Lax, Woody Allen and His Comedy (1975)

People go to casinos for the same reason they go on blind dates: hoping to hit the jackpot. But mostly, you just wind up broke and alone in a bar. Sarah Jessica Parker, as Carrie on the HBO TV series Sex and the City (2002)

Men want the same thing from their underwear that they want from women: a little bit of support and a little bit of freedom. Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in, Apr. 29, 2013

Black women have always been dominant figures in American popular music, but no one, not even Aretha Franklin, has reached the plateau that Beyoncé occupies: pop star colossus, adored bombshell, “America’s sweetheart.” Jody Rosen,, June 3, 2014

Joan Rivers, on her parents’ desperation for her to get married: My parents had a sign: “Last girl before throughway.” Joan Rivers, quoted in, Sept. 4, 2014

Colons (:) 55

A lesson from Aziz Ansari’s book on dating: We learn the answer to one of the puzzling questions of our time: Why millennials do not like to answer the phone. Here it is, according to a woman they talked to: “Phone calls [expletive] and they give me anxiety.” Sarah Lyall,, July 6, 2015

Why comedians are drawn to the Mets . . . comes down to one word: suffering—​something all Mets fans know intimately. Jared Diamond,, Oct. 7, 2015

Wisdom for the opening of a new baseball season: It’s an ironclad rule of baseball: player or fan, you’re allowed to conclude nothing from an April win or four, or a loss or five. Michael Powell,, Apr. 8, 2016

Jennifer Lawrence, on women asking for equal pay: You don’t have to take away the wonderful traits that come with being a woman: we are sensitive, we are pleasers, we’re empathetic—​ all those things that can keep you from asking for what you want.1, Apr. 7, 2016

About Stephen Curry’s 402 3-​point field goals, a National Basketball Association record: The record . . . defies most comparisons, but here is one: It is the equivalent of hitting 103 home runs in a Major League Baseball season., Apr. 16, 2016


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Now, be honest: How many colons have you used in the last year? The truth is that colons aren’t as versatile as commas, and you’ll use them a lot less often. But they have valuable functions:  a colon can help you to establish the order, clarity, and rhythm of your writing. It can show how you’re developing your ideas, and it can illustrate or emphasize your point. Believe it or not, a colon also can help create suspense and even surprise. The term colon comes from the Greek word for a clause or the first part of a section of a poem. Since the sixteenth century, though, a colon has been a punctuation mark that separates and joins parts of a sentence. It does that in a special way:  a colon makes the reader stop for a moment in expectation of what’s coming next. It can precede a definition, an example, a restatement, a summary, or a list. A colon also can mark a logical step forward from an introductory statement to a main idea or from a cause to an effect. So a colon often shows that you’re about to say something you’ve led up to in your first clause. When you use a colon, think of it as standing for namely, that is, or here’s what I  mean by that. Everything in front of the colon builds up anticipation. What comes after it is a revelation. To use the language of the HGTV home improvement shows that my wife loves, a colon can introduce the big “reveal.” Or, as Fowler put it long before the age of cable TV, the colon is a sign that you’re about to deliver the goods.2 You can use a colon to introduce a word, a phrase, or a clause. The colon can precede a definition or an illustration. This creates suspense and draws attention to the definition or illustration: a famous description of a second marriage: “The triumph of hope over experience” one word: suffering Use a colon between two clauses if the second clause is a step forward in what you’re saying: if it interprets, or amplifies, or illustrates

Colons (:) 57

the point you were leading up to in the first clause. That means that you can use a colon to move from an introduction to a main idea or from a premise to a conclusion.

WHAT IS A COLON REALLY SAYING? This is worth repeating: when you use a colon, think of it as standing for namely, that is, or here’s what I mean by that. Here’s an example: Why does man kill? He kills for food. And not only food: frequently there must be a beverage. Woody Allen, “Selections from the Allen Notebooks,” The New Yorker, Nov. 5, 1973

Woody Allen could have used a semicolon here to show that the second idea is linked to the first. But the colon signifies something more than that. By implicitly saying here’s what I mean by that, it indicates that the second clause clarifies the meaning of the first.

COLONS BEFORE DEFINITIONS OR COMMENTS ON WORDS When you define or comment on a single word or phrase, you don’t need a complete sentence in front of the colon. Admiration: our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves. Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)

Acquaintance: a person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to. Ibid.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Blog: [the] worst word of the twenty-​first century. Jerry Seinfeld, AOL Unscripted, Moviefone, “Unscripted with Jerry Seinfeld and Renee Zellweger”

Gaffe: when a politician tells the truth. Attributed to Michael Kinsley, who actually said he was quoting others, Time, Feb. 8, 2007

COLONS BEFORE LISTS There are three faithful friends: an old wife, an old dog, and ready money. Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, June 1738

It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them. Mark Twain, Following the Equator, “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar,” ch. 20 (1897)

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe. Attributed to Albert Einstein in various versions, starting in the 1940s

You’ll meet a lot of people who . . . don’t know what they’re talking about. In 1970 a CBS executive famously said that there were four things that we would never, ever see on television: a divorced person, a Jewish person, a person living in New York City, and a man with a mustache. By 1980, every show on television was about a divorced Jew who lives in New York City and goes on a blind date with Tom Selleck. Aaron Sorkin, commencement address at Syracuse University, May 13, 2012

Colons (:) 59

When you use a colon before a list, be sure that it follows a complete sentence: It’s okay to put a colon after an expression like as follows, the following, or including these. BUT . . . Since you want to write a complete sentence before a colon, don’t place a colon right after expressions like for example, including, that is, namely, for instance, or such as:

WRONG: His has many heroes, including: Batman, Superman, and Frodo. BETTER: He has many heroes, including the following: Batman, Superman, and Frodo.He has many heroes, including Batman, Superman, and Frodo. As a rule, don’t place a colon between a verb and the rest of the sentence:

WRONG: Strangely enough, for dinner I enjoy: pizza, guacamole, and lemon meringue pie. BETTER: I have a very strange favorite meal: pizza, guacamole, and lemon meringue pie. or

Strangely enough, for dinner I enjoy pizza, guacamole, and lemon meringue pie. Don’t place a colon between a preposition and its object:

WRONG: She is especially fond of: goatees and mustaches. BETTER: She is especially fond of two kinds of facial hair: goatees and mustaches. or

She is especially fond of goatees and mustaches


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

SHOULD YOU CAPITALIZE AFTER A COLON? Capitalize the first word after a colon if it’s a proper noun or the start of a direct quotation, a direct question, a slogan, a motto, a subtitle, or a speech in dialogue form. Otherwise, if you put a phrase after the colon, lowercase the first word. If you write a clause or a complete sentence after the colon, though, authorities disagree about whether you should capitalize the first word. The Chicago Manual of Style calls for lower case in most instances. The Associate Press Stylebook, by contrast, recommends capitalizing the word if it starts a complete sentence. Journalists do capitalize it often, but not always. So either form in the passages below is acceptable, depending on the style guide you follow. The first capitalizes after a colon; the second doesn’t: It confirms what I always thought about her: She is very good, she is really a talented girl. Woody Allen, describing Miley Cyrus’s singing on Saturday Night Live, quoted in hollywoodreporter, May 4, 2016

His power toppled the mighty foes and his intense light shined on America and we were able to see clearly: injustice, inequality, poverty, pride, self-​realization, courage, laughter, love, joy and religious freedom for all. Billy Crystal, eulogy for Muhammad Ali, quoted in, June 10, 2016

Even writers who normally use the lower case in this context tend to capitalize the first word if two or more sentences follow the colon.3 If your profession uses a style sheet, follow it. If not, choose a style and be consistent.

Colons (:) 61

COLONS BEFORE LONG QUOTATIONS Use a colon before long quotations. I recommend that if you’re quoting more than three lines of poetry or two or more sentences of prose, you write it as a block quotation. Introduce it with a colon, indent the quotation from the left margin, and don’t put quotation marks around it. If you follow a style sheet, consult it about indenting, line spacing, and other specific details. If there are quotes within the long quotation, surround them with quotation marks. Will Rogers turned his sly and subversive humor on the income tax when he observed: The income tax has made more liars out of the American people than golf has. Even when you make one out on the level, you don’t know . . . if you are a crook or a martyr. Will Rogers, The Illiterate Digest, “Helping the Girls with Their Income Taxes,” 1924

Speaking to Congress about immigration, Stephen Colbert’s testimony dripped with irony when he said: This is America. I don’t want my tomato picked by a Mexican. I want it picked by an American, then sliced by a Guatemalan and served by a Venezuelan in a spa where a Chilean gives me a Brazilian. Stephen Colbert, testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee; quoted in Frank James, “Stephen Colbert Gives ‘Truthiness’ Jolt on Capitol Hill,”, Sept. 24, 2010

For more examples, see QUOTATIONS AND QUOTATION MARKS, pages 241–58. As a matter of style (not grammar), Garner recommends that you write your lead-​in to the quotation so that it engages the reader. Your


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

biggest challenge, he says, is to make sure that the quote actually gets read. If you begin with something bland like “So and So said,” your reader may skip it. To avoid that, Garner says, your lead-​in should evoke the gist of the quote. I  tried to do that with the two block quotations above. Did they get your attention or did you skip the quotations?

COLONS BEFORE SHORT DIRECT QUOTATIONS If the quotation is short, it’s more usual to use a comma, but a colon is okay. Which version of the quotation below is correct? (More than one may be right.) (A) Oscar Wilde wrote “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” (B) Oscar Wilde wrote, “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” (C) Oscar Wilde wrote: “To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” An Ideal Husband, Act 3 (1895)

Version A lacks a comma or a colon before the quotation, so it’s incorrect. Versions B and C are right.

OTHER USES OF COLONS Americans use a colon after a greeting in a formal letter: Dear Sir: Dear Mr. Zuckerberg: Dear Governor Palin:

Colons (:) 63

The British customarily prefer a comma. See pages 249–50. Use a colon between a title and subtitle: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King 2003 film

Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as Told by Christian Book by E. L. James (2015)

Use a colon in biblical citations or other textual references: My favorite Bible verse is Psalms 37:4: ‘Delight thyself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart. Oprah Winfrey, quoted in O, The Oprah Magazine,, May 2010

God creates woman in Genesis 2:21–​24. That refers to ­chapter 2, verses 21 through 24 of the Book of Genesis. Use a colon in ratios or proportions: On the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the ratio of single young women who live alone to single young men is nearly 2:1., Feb. 11, 2013

Most young people know this from digital watches and clocks, of course, but use colons to separate hours from minutes:4 Class ends at 2:30 In a bibliographic reference, put a colon between the city in which a book was published and the name of the publisher: (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press)


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

•  When Tolkien wrote,

“Frodo accepted Gollum’s advice: to seek a ‘secret entrance,’ ” what he meant was, “Frodo accepted Gollum’s advice [namely,] to seek a ‘secret entrance.’ ” •  When Billy Wilder said about Marilyn,

“It was like going to the dentist, making a picture with her: it was hell at the time, but after it was all over, it was wonderful,” what he meant was, “It was like going to the dentist, making a picture with her [here’s what I mean by that]: it was hell at the time, but after it was all over, it was wonderful.” •  When Seinfeld said,

“Men want the same thing from their underwear that they want from women: a little bit of support and a little bit of freedom,” he was actually saying, “Men want the same thing from their underwear that they want from women, [namely,] a little bit of support and a little bit of freedom.” • Finally, “one of the puzzling questions of our time: Why millennials do not like to answer the phone.”

means “one of the puzzling questions of our time [namely,] Why millennials do not like to answer the phone.”


‘ ’  Lesson 6 

Commas with Main Clauses

When in doubt, tell the truth. Mark Twain, Following the Equator, ch. 2 (1897)

Whatever it is, I’m against it. Groucho Marx, in the 1932 film Horse Feathers

For the first year of our marriage, I tended to place my wife underneath a pedestal. Woody Allen, “My Marriage,” comedy routine, Mar. 1964

Before I refuse to take your questions, I have an opening statement. Ronald Reagan, speech, March 1986

Rather than live on in the hearts and minds of my fellow man, I would rather live on in my apartment. Woody Allen, quoted in Paris Review, Fall 1995

After climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, ch. 114 (1995)

Since I’m married, single people look absolutely ridiculous to me. Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in, Sept. 15, 2002



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

If you’re laughing, I defy you to be afraid. Stephen Colbert, saying you can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time, quoted in Parade Magazine, Sept. 23, 2007

When I was a kid, I always wanted to talk to Elvis. Oprah Winfrey, quoted in O, The Oprah Magazine,, May 2010

When I was in school, you would still see anti-​Semitic signs. Mila Kunis, on being a child in Ukraine, quoted in, Dec. 20, 2012

Jessica Simpson, on her favorite stage in a baby’s development: When babies get to be about four to six months old and can engage with you, it’s awesome to see their personalities come to life., ca. Nov. 2013

About Taylor Swift: In case you didn’t know it before, she truly has become [one] of the most powerful women in show business. Emily Yahr,, May 17, 2015

Sheryl Sandberg, speaking about resilience: Like a muscle, you can build it up. Commencement address at Berkeley (a year after her husband’s death), May 14, 2016

The word comma comes from an ancient Greek term meaning “a short piece of text separated (cut off ) from the rest of a line or sentence.” For the last 400 years and more, though, the term has referred to the modest little punctuation mark that creates short pauses by separating clauses, phrases, and single words from each other. Frankly, the comma isn’t very imposing as punctuation marks go. Periods, question marks, and exclamation points are much more formidable: they separate whole sentences by putting a full stop at the end

Commas with Main Clauses 69

of them. The colon and semicolon also stop the action, though they do that within the utterance, not at the end. Commas can’t do any of those things. What commas can do, though, is subtle and versatile. The comma’s job is to insert short pauses that create order and clarity within sentences. We use commas to clarify the structure or meaning of the sentence by separating its grammatical elements. In fact, the comma is normally the only punctuation mark that does that right down to the level of single words. That’s one reason that we use commas more often than any other type of punctuation—​even more than periods.1 We also use commas in the other main role of punctuation: to reproduce the natural rhythms of speech. In that sense, the comma can help you orchestrate the music of your writing. The way you use commas is often a matter of your style and your intention. There are few absolute rules, but there are very predictable general guidelines. In this lesson we’ll deal with one of the most important of them: using commas to set off main clauses.

CLAUSES Let’s start by reviewing a few terms: • A main clause has a subject and a verb and expresses a complete thought. It can stand as a sentence by itself: I’m against it I have an opening statement I defy you to be afraid I always wanted to talk to Elvis you can build it up

It’s also called an independent clause because it can stand independently. A subordinate clause also has a subject and a verb. But it doesn’t express a complete thought, so it can’t stand by itself. It’s also called a


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

dependent clause because it depends on a main clause to complete the sentence. Subordinate clauses often begin with words like after, although, as, because, before, if, since, though, unless, until, when, whenever, where, or while, as several of the passages above do: Before I refuse to take your questions, If you’re laughing, When I was a kid.

USING COMMAS TO SET OFF MAIN CLAUSES Take another look at the quotes at the top of this lesson. The main clauses are all underlined. Notice that each of them could be a complete sentence in itself and they’re all separated from the other grammatical elements by commas. If you say the quotes out loud, you’ll find that you would pause between the main clauses and the other elements in the sentences. Here’s a two-​part test for when to use commas to set off main clauses. Use a comma if it does these two things at once: (1) It sets off the main clause from the other elements of the sentence and (2) it marks a point where you would pause in speaking the sentence aloud.

The comma will support the grammar of your sentence, keep its meaning clear, and help it sound natural. If you’re able to apply this two-​part rule to set off main clauses, congratulations: you’ve mastered one of the main guidelines for using commas. Several of the other lessons on commas in this book really just restate it from different points of view.

Commas with Main Clauses 71

You can use this two-​part test as a guide to using commas in all contexts. As the language expert Robert Allen says, commas mark a break in the flow of meaning in a sentence. That’s usually reflected in the grammar of the sentence and the way you would speak it aloud. So if the grammar calls for a comma, it’s never a bad idea to say the sentence to yourself silently, to be sure that you’d pause there.2 (You might even say it out loud, unless somebody is likely to tell you to shut up or to throw something at you.) Then use a comma if it passes both parts of the test. Be especially sure not to put a comma between a subject and a verb that follows right after it. BE CAREFUL! There’s an important exception to this two-​part test: If you write TWO MAIN CLAUSES IN A ROW, a comma alone won’t be enough to separate them. That would give you the dreaded comma splice, which may seriously upset your teachers and even other readers. We’ll get to that in Lesson 9. Which version of the quote below is correct? (A) In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart. (B) In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. Anne Frank, Diary, July 15, 1944

In this passage, In spite of everything is a prepositional phrase, and there’s natural pause between it and the main clause that follows it, so it needs a comma, as in Version A.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

ADDING A MAIN CLAUSE TO COMPLETE A SENTENCE Let’s say that you write, “My brother eats pepperoni pizza for breakfast.” That’s a main clause and a perfectly fine grammatical sentence in itself (though your brother doesn’t sound too bright). Now suppose that you decide to revise the sentence by starting it with a word like although, as, because, if, unless, or when. When you do that, the sentence is a fragment. So in formal writing you’ll need to add a main clause to make it grammatically complete. The main clauses below are underlined: Right: My brother eats pepperoni pizza for breakfast. Wrong: Although my brother eats pepperoni pizza for breakfast. (You need to add a main clause to make this a complete sentence.) Right: Although my brother eats pepperoni pizza for breakfast, he’s still hungry for lasagna, spaghetti, chicken Parmesan, and gelato. Right: As my brother waits for his pizza to be served, he eats a dozen pieces of garlic bread. Right: Because my brother eats pepperoni pizza for breakfast every day, he’s gained 175 pounds. Right: If my brother eats pepperoni pizza for breakfast, he belches and smiles for hours. Right: Unless my brother eats pepperoni pizza for breakfast, he’s grouchy all day. Right: When my brother eats pepperoni pizza for breakfast, he passes gas all night. Remember, if you start a sentence with one of these words, it won’t be grammatically complete until you add a main clause.

WHAT IF THE MAIN CLAUSE COMES FIRST? The sentences above about the pizza-​eating maniac all start with subordinate clauses. That’s why we had to add main clauses to complete them.

Commas with Main Clauses 73

But what happens if you write a main clause first, then follow it with a subordinate clause? In that case, there’s usually no pause between them, so you normally don’t need a comma: My brother passes gas all night when he eats pepperoni pizza for breakfast. Consider these quotes: Plan for what is difficult while it is easy. Do what is great while it is still small. Sun Tzu, The Art of War (5th century bc)

A friend will threaten to kill anyone who tries to come into the fitting room when you are trying on bathing suits. Erma Bombeck, The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank, ch. 10 (1976)

The one thing I love most about being an adult is the right to buy candy whenever and wherever I want. Ryan Gosling, quoted in, Aug. 9, 2011

In these passages, while it is easy, while it is still small, when you are trying on bathing suits, and whenever and wherever I want are all subordinate clauses, and you normally shouldn’t put a comma between a main clause and a subordinate clause that follows it. There are exceptions, though. Use a comma before a subordinate clause if you pause to show a contrast or tension between ideas, as in these passages: I don’t believe in an afterlife, although I am bringing a change of underwear. Woody Allen, quoted in Time, July 3, 1972

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. J. K. Rowling, commencement address at Harvard, June 5, 2008


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

On rare occasions you also may decide to use a comma just to pause to make a point, or for clarity. In this passage, Mark Twain deployed a comma before a subordinate clause solely for comic timing: Always obey your parents, when they are present. Mark Twain, “Advice to Youth,” speech, 1882 For more about this, see Lesson 18.

Commas and Commands Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint. Mark Twain, quoted in The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain (1987), ed. Alex Ayres (Kindle) Don’t mess with Taylor Swift. Emily Yahr,, May 17, 2015 Be careful about reading health books is a complete sentence even though the subject (you) isn’t stated. The same is true of Don’t mess with Taylor Swift. The subject is there implicitly, as it typically is in commands. So the command is a main clause: it has a subject and a verb, and it makes a complete statement. Now, what do you do when you write a command next to another grammatical element and you want a pause between them? Set it off with a comma. The main clauses below are underlined: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. Then quit. There’s no use being a damn fool about it. W. C. Fields, attributed If you come to a fork in the road, take it. Yogi Berra, Yogi: It Ain’t Over (1989)

Commas with Main Clauses 75

Imagine if we could teach our daughters to value their bodies for what they can do, not for how others think they look. Tina Fey, writing about Ronda Rousey in Time, May 2–​9, 201 In the first two quotes, the main clause follows if-​clauses. In the third, the comma marks a contrast between the clauses. See the lesson on USING COMMAS FOR CLARITY AND CONTRAST. By the way, grammarians say that commands and exhortations are in the imperative mood.

‘ ’   Lesson 7 

When to Put Commas before And or But Joining Two Main Clauses with And—​without a Comma

There’s an old saying that victory has 100 fathers and defeat is an orphan. President John F. Kennedy, press conference after the defeat of the Bay of Pigs invasion, April 21, 1961

Jessica Simpson’s beauty routine: I throw on moisturizer and lip gloss and I am good to go., ca. Nov. 2013

At 52 I found the love of my life and I’m really happy. George Clooney, interviewed in, Apr. 20, 2016

If you write two main clauses in a row, you’ll need more than a comma between them. One easy fix is simply to use the word and to join the clauses, as in the quotations above. Use and in this way if the clauses are short and closely related, and if you wouldn’t pause between them.



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

CONNECTING MAIN CLAUSES WITH A COMMA PLUS AND Fair is foul, and foul is fair. Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 1 (1599–​1606)

In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 3 (1893)

Get your facts first, and then you can distort [them] as much as you please. Mark Twain, quoted in Rudyard Kipling’s From Sea to Sea: Letters of Travel, “An Interview with Mark Twain” (1899)

Billy Crystal, about idolizing Mickey Mantle: He was Mickey Mantle, and I walked like him, I limped like him, I did parts of my bar mitzvah with an Oklahoma accent. 60 Minutes, June 15, 2003

I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. J. K. Rowling, speaking of failure, commencement address at Harvard, June 5, 2008

In my show I announce, “People say Lady Gaga is a lie, and they are right.” Lady Gaga, on not wanting to be grounded in reality; quoted in, May 16, 2009

She raised me and my sister to believe that we could do anything, and we believed her. Sheryl Sandberg, speaking about her mother, commencement address at Barnard College, May 17, 2011

When to Put Commas before And or But 79

I’m going to try to give you . . . some advice that I probably won’t get right, and you probably won’t listen to. Ready? Stephen Colbert, commencement address at Northwestern, June 17, 2011

We Wanted Flying Cars, and We Got 140 Characters. Headline paraphrasing Peter Thiel’s views on our unrealistic expectations about technology,, May 28, 2012

Social media has created a new kind of fame, and Kardashian is its paragon. Amanda Fortini,, Nov. 12, 2014

It’s your choice whether to put a comma before and when joining two main clauses. If you do, it adds a brief pause that can enhance the clarity and rhythm of your sentence. You can use a comma before and to emphasize that the second clause is distinct, not merely an extension of the first. This quote by Woody Allen is a good example of that. It’s message clearly has two very different parts: The message is, God is love, and you should lay off fatty foods. Woody Allen, quoted in Time, July 3, 1972

Or if one or both of the main clauses are long or complicated, a comma plus and can guide your reader through the sentence. Sometimes using a dash plus and can achieve a more dramatic effect. Just don’t overdo it: Believe it or not, Lady Gaga has some problems with fame—​and she’s seeing a shrink to deal with them., Nov. 11, 2013


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

WHEN TO USE A COMMA BEFORE BUT All would live long, but none would be old.1 Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, Sept. 1749

Dr. Johnson “did not care to speak ill of any man behind his back, but he believed the gentleman was an attorney.”

Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell, Life of Samuel Johnson (1791); entry for 1770

I was born modest, but it didn’t last. Mark Twain, “Layman’s Sermon” at the YMCA in New York City, Mar. 4, 1906

I used to be Snow White, but I drifted. Mae West, quoted in Ed Sullivan’s gossip column (1938), though the joke is older than that

Last week I went to Philadelphia, but it was closed. W. C. Fields, attributed

About Joe DiMaggio’s marrying Marilyn Monroe: I don’t know if it’s good for baseball, but it sure beats the hell out of rooming with Phil Rizzuto! Yogi Berra. Attributed

The lion and the calf shall lie down together, but the calf won’t get much sleep. Woody Allen, “The Scrolls,” Without Feathers (1975)

We campaign in poetry, but when we’re elected we’re forced to govern in prose. Mario Cuomo, speech at Yale University, Feb. 15, 1985

Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy. Children’s Letters to God, compiled by Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall (1991)

When to Put Commas before And or But 81

We’re lost, but we’re making good time! Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book (1998)

I was a smart kid, but I hated school. Eminem, quoted in, Feb. 21, 2001

Jesus said the meek would inherit the earth, but so far all we’ve gotten is Minnesota and North Dakota. Garrison Keillor, “When I’m 64,”, Aug. 9, 2006

I don’t need luxury. For years I was practically broke, but I was still vain and glamorous. Lady Gaga, interview on z100, Mar. 12, 2010, cited on

People will say a movie bombed at the box office, but I couldn’t care less. Johnny Depp, quoted in, May 9, 2012

I can’t prove it, but I can say it. Stephen Colbert, quoted in, Feb. 22, 2012

My folks are moving to Florida. They didn’t want to move to Florida, but they’re in their 60s, and that’s the law. Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in, Jan. 5, 2014

He wanted my number, but he was with a date. So of course I didn’t give it to him. Melania Trump, on the first time she met Donald, quoted in, Jan. 6, 2016

Jennifer Lawrence, after writing an essay calling for equal pay for women in Hollywood: When I wrote that essay I got a lot of support, but I also have a Republican family in Kentucky who told me my career was effectively over. Quoted in, Feb. 26, 2016


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey, on having lost a match: Everybody has losses in their life, but I choose to always be undefeated.2 Quoted in Time, May 2–​9, 2016

About the dragons in Game of Thrones: Of course Daenerys is the beautiful hero and she wants to bring beautiful change, but she’s also using these weapons of mass destruction. Nikolaj Coster-​Waldau, who plays Jaime Lannister, quoted in, June 27, 2016

You can use a comma plus but to connect two main clauses. Each of the passage above illustrates that. Which versions of the passages below are right? (A) I refused to attend his funeral but I wrote a very nice letter explaining that I approved of it. (B) I refused to attend his funeral, but I wrote a very nice letter explaining that I approved of it. About the death of a corrupt politician, attributed to Mark Twain

(A) My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it. (B) My mother had a great deal of trouble with me but I think she enjoyed it. Mark Twain, Autobiography (1924)

(A) Sentence structure is innate but whining is acquired. (B) Sentence structure is innate, but whining is acquired.3 Woody Allen, “Remembering Needleman,” 1976

In the delightfully nasty first quotation, “I refused to attend his funeral” and “I wrote a very nice letter explaining that I approved of it” are both main clauses. A comma should appear before but, as in version B.

When to Put Commas before And or But 83

In Twain’s second quote, but appears between two main clauses, so it needs a comma before it, as in version A. Woody Allen’s passage also comprises two main clauses. A  comma should appear before but, as in version B.

WHEN DON’T YOU NEED A COMMA BEFORE BUT? Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education. Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson, ch. 5 (1894)

The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven. Mark Twain, Following the Equator, ch. 10 (1897)

Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man—​the biography of the man himself cannot be written. Mark Twain, Autobiography, vol. 1 (1924)

I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Winston Churchill, speech in the House of Commons, May 13, 1940

What is drama but life with the dull bits cut out? Alfred Hitchcock, quoted in William Hare, Hitchcock and the Methods of Suspense ( Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland, 2006), ch. 1

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Martin Luther King Jr., speech at Civil Rights March, Washington, DC, Aug. 28, 1963

What is a date really but a job interview that lasts all night? Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in, Apr. 29, 2013


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

When but isn’t followed by a main clause, you normally don’t need a comma in front of it. In other words, if no verb appears after the word but, you don’t need a comma. nothing but cabbage with a college education not joy but sorrow Several common expressions illustrate this: slowly but surely sad but true older but wiser

BUT . . . In some cases, even when you don’t follow but with a main clause, a comma creates a pause that can help your sentence read more naturally. As Bill Walsh of the Washington Post says, a comma is appropriate if the but is an aside, a little adjunct with no real subject.4 It’s a stylistic choice for you to make, depending on if the comma makes your meaning clearer. The comma also orchestrates the rhythm in sentences like these: Give me chastity and continence, but not yet. St. Augustine, speaking of a prayer he’d said earlier in his life, Confessions, bk. 8, ch. 7, written ca. 398

Genius has no youth, but starts with the ripeness of age and old experience. Mark Twain, correspondence

Definition of an acquaintance: A person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to. Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic’s Word Book (1906)

When to Put Commas before And or But

I’ve been on a calendar, but never on time. Marilyn Monroe, attributed

What is objectionable, what is dangerous, about extremists is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. Robert F. Kennedy, The Pursuit of Justice, pt. 3 (1964)

A man may be a fool and not know it, but not if he is married. H. L. Mencken, attributed

As you get older, it is harder to have heroes, but more necessary. Ernest Hemingway, quoted in A. E. Hotchner, The Good Life According to Hemingway (2008)

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. Albert Einstein, attributed but actually a paraphrase of his views stated in “On the Method of Theoretical Physics” in 1933 (Quote Investigator)

About Jon Stewart, when he was leaving the Daily Show: He proudly went for dumb jokes, but not dumb positions., Feb. 10, 2015

A life is like a garden. Perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory. LLAP [Live Long and Prosper]. Leonard Nimoy’s last tweet, Feb. 23, 2015

Another quote about Jon Stewart: For more than a decade, the most trusted name in American news was neither a journalist, policy expert, nor politician, but a comedian from New Jersey and host of a late-​night news satire show., Aug. 27, 2015

Comedy is much harder than drama. Comedic actors have to do all of the same things dramatic actors do, but faster—​and often with a chimp. Amy Poehler, at Screen Actors’ Guild Awards, Jan. 30, 2016



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

It’s perfectly okay to use but after a semicolon. See pages 270 and 282–83. I don’t mind what the opposition say of me, so long as they don’t tell the truth about me; but when they descend to telling the truth about me, I consider that that is taking an unfair advantage. Mark Twain, speech in Hartford, October 26, 1880

Don’t say but . . . however within a single sentence. As a stylistic matter, don’t begin a series of sentences with but, and be careful not to use but more than once in a sentence.

NOT ONLY . . . BUT (ALSO) In a not only . . . but (also) construction, I recommend that you put a comma before but when it precedes a main clause. This Christmas everything seemed extra gloomy. Not only had I flopped in my career, but there was a laziness in me that kept me from getting jobs. Marilyn Monroe, in Marilyn Monroe and Ben Hecht, My Story, ch. 14 (2006)

About Jennifer Lawrence: Not only is she the most in-​demand actress on the planet, but men the world over have fallen in love with her kooky charm., May 1, 2014

About Taylor Swift: Swift has become not only one of the most successful recording artists ever, but also an unrivaled power broker who has . . . brought today’s music overlords to heel., Apr. 14, 2016

When to Put Commas before And or But


In other cases of not only . . . but, you can decide for yourself whether or not to use a comma before but. You don’t need one, for instance, if what follows is brief, there’s no problem with clarity, and you wouldn’t pause when saying it aloud: I am not only a pacifist but a militant pacifist. I am willing to fight for peace. Albert Einstein, interview, Jan. 1931

How can you frighten a man whose hunger is not only in his own cramped stomach but in the wretched bellies of his children? You can’t scare him—​he has known a fear beyond every other. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939)

Which version of the statement below is right? (There may be more than one.) (A) (B) (C) (D)

I’ve had a wonderful evening but this wasn’t it. I’ve had a wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it. I’ve had a wonderful evening; but this wasn’t it. I’ve had a wonderful evening. But this wasn’t it.

Attributed to Groucho Marx, who denied saying it

Version A needs a comma, a semicolon, or a period between the two main clauses. Versions B, C, and D are correct.

‘ ’  Lesson 8 

Commas and Fanboys For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So

Now you’ve seen the lesson on using commas with and or but. Those two words aren’t the only ones that you can use to connect two main clauses, though. Others include for, nor, or, (and) yet, or so. Mark Twain, after seeing a bevy of naked native girls bathing in the sea in Hawaii: I . . . sat down on their clothes to keep them from being stolen. I begged them to come out, for the sea was rising and I was satisfied that they were running some risk. But they were not afraid. Mark Twain, Roughing It, ch. 72 (1872)

Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, ch. 3 (1954)

Science fiction is as profound as you want it to be, or it can be very simple entertainment. Joe Flanigan, quoted in Stargate SG-​1: The Official Magazine, Jan. 2005



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

People say, “Oh my God, he’s on a show and [acts] stupid, so he must be stupid. . . . I can’t control that, nor do I try to, nor do I want to. . . . There’s something advantageous about having people underestimate your intellect. Ashton Kutcher, quoted in, Mar. 20, 2013

My mother loved me unconditionally, so I felt safe enough to dream. Beyoncé, interviewed in, Apr. 5, 2016

She’s worth a reported $60 million and travels everywhere by private jet, yet her favorite shop is Ikea. And she’s arguably one of the most beautiful and approachable movie stars of her generation, yet she says her romantic life is non-​existent. Jennifer Lawrence, as described in, May 19, 2016

FANBOYS? WHAT ON EARTH ARE THEY? You may know the word fanboys in the sense of passionate fans, especially geeks who are fascinated by comic books, video games, hobbits, or Star Trek characters: Fanboys of comic books expressed outrage when Marvel comics announced that they’re introducing a female Thor. Eliana Dockterman, “Marvel Comics Writers Explain Why They’re Making Thor a Woman,”, July 15, 2014

But several usage guides use the word fanboys in a different way: as an acronym to help you remember these seven little words that you can use to connect two main clauses: for and nor but

Commas and Fanboys 91

or yet so

The fact that grammarians call these words fanboys tells you more than you need to know about our sense of humor. Keep these hints in mind when you use these words to connect two main clauses: • Use for in the sense of “because” • Use so when it means “(and) therefore” • Use yet to mean “nevertheless, but.” You also can say and yet: for the sea was rising for they are subtle nor do I try to nor do I want to or it can be very simple entertainment yet her favorite shop is Ikea yet she says her romantic life is non-​existent

For illustrations of and and but, see the lesson on pages 77–87. I recommend that as a general rule you put a comma in front of for, nor, but, or, yet, or so when you use them to join two main clauses AND you would pause before speaking them aloud. You may decide not to use a comma, though, if the clauses are short and closely connected, and you wouldn’t pause before speaking them. That’s a matter of style and it’s up to you. But be sure to use commas before these words if the clauses they join are part of a series of three or more.

‘ ’  Lesson 9 

The Dreaded Comma Splice

If I asked you to guess the most common writing problem that students have, what would you say? The truth is, my most frequent comment on students’ papers isn’t about grammar or usage, or even about punctuation. It’s that they need to express their ideas more clearly and directly, in a more natural voice. But aside from that, their most persistent error is probably the comma splice. A comma splice is the use of just a comma to connect sentences or main clauses. Commas create short pauses, but they’re not designed to stand between sentences. For that job, in a declarative sentence you need a semicolon or a period. Or you could use a joining word like and or but, often with a comma before it. • Just to review, a main clause (aka an independent clause) has a subject and a verb, makes a complete statement, and could stand as a sentence by itself.

Here’s an example. This quote consists of two sentences, so a period between them is fine: I don’t have to be who you want me to be. I’m free to be who I want. Muhammad Ali, after he won his first heavyweight boxing title, Feb. 25, 1964 93


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Since Ali’s ideas in this passage were related, you could use a semicolon instead: I don’t have to be who you want me to be; I’m free to be who I want. But using just a comma would produce a comma splice. If you say it aloud, you’ll see that you need more than the short pause that the comma provides. WRONG: “I don’t have to be who you want me to be, I’m free to be who I want.” Language authorities can be pretty harsh about comma splices. R.  W. Burchfield said that this error turns up in endless conjoined sentences written by children and “our less literate friends.” Ouch! That was a little snooty. And teachers take comma splices seriously. A blogger for The Economist recalled, for example, that if an A paper contained a single comma splice, his English teacher would give it a C. That left him with a lifelong terror of comma splices.1 If you’ve ever had a teacher mark up your comma splices with red ink, try not to feel as bad about it as that poor blogger did. It’s actually a natural way to punctuate. In fact, the comma splice wasn’t even considered a mistake until fairly recently. Before the 1800s, separating two sentences with only a comma wasn’t regarded as wrong at all, and famous writers felt free to do it: My intention is very far from being confined to provide only for the children of professed beggars, it is of a much greater extent. Jonathan Swift, “A Modest Proposal” (1729)

Teach your child to hold his tongue, he’ll learn fast enough to speak.2 Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack (1734)

The Dreaded Comma Splice 95

That loose punctuation style continued into the next century, as in this line by Walt Whitman: I am large, I contain multitudes. “Song of Myself ” (1855)

Then, about a hundred years ago, grammarians started to denounce this particular use of the comma. By the 1920s they gave it a name: the comma splice. It has other names, too:  comma fault, comma error, and even the nasty term comma blunder. You get the idea: no matter what it’s called, this isn’t a mistake you want to make on a college application or in a formal paper. COMMA SPLICE: I went to the store, I bought skinny jeans. CORRECTED:    I went to the store and I bought skinny jeans. or I went to the store; I bought skinny jeans. or I went to the store. I bought skinny jeans. This joke includes a comma splice: COMMA SPLICE:  A   comma splice walks into a bar, it has a drink and then leaves. Erick Auld,, Nov. 8, 2011

CORRECTED: “A comma splice walks into a bar; it has a drink and then leaves.” or “A comma splice walks into a bar. It has a drink and then leaves.” or “A comma splice walks into a bar, has a drink, and then leaves.” or “A comma splice walks into a bar and has a drink. Then it leaves.”


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Which versions of the passages below are correct? (A) It must be inconvenient to be made of flesh,” said the Scarecrow thoughtfully, for you must sleep, and eat, and drink, however, you have brains, and it is worth a lot of bother to be able to think properly. (B) It must be inconvenient to be made of flesh,” said the Scarecrow thoughtfully, for you must sleep, and eat, and drink. However, you have brains, and it is worth a lot of bother to be able to think properly. L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, ch. 5 (1900)

(A) The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little. (B) The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much, if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little. Mark Twain, Notebook, Dec. 1902

In the Scarecrow’s quote, Version A separates two complete sentences only by commas. That’s a comma splice. Version B gets it right. In Twain’s comment, Version A correctly puts a semicolon between two thematically related main clauses. Version B uses only a comma, another comma splice. For more practice, see the lessons on SEMICOLONS on pages 267–78 and HOWEVER on pages 185–91.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE Leading style guides agree that if main clauses are short and parallel in structure, it’s okay to separate them by a just comma—​especially if you’re writing in a conversational style. Even those famous sticklers Strunk and White approved of this.3 I came, I saw, I conquered. Translation of a Latin quote attributed to Julius Caesar (ca. 47 BC)

The Dreaded Comma Splice 97

Man proposes, God disposes. Probably derived from Proverbs 16:9; cited in Latin in Piers Plowman (late 14th century)

One day you’re a hero, the next day you’re a bum. Babe Ruth, quoted in The Daily Independent (Murphysboro, Illinois), which called this Ruth’s favorite baseball maxim, Sept. 1, 1931 (

Here today, gone tomorrow. David Bowie song (1974); from a proverb that dates to the 16th century

The verses are the blues, the chorus is the gospel. Bruce Springsteen, on the influences on his music; interviewed on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, CBS TV, Sept. 23, 2016

Justin Bieber, Woody Allen, Donald Trump, and the Comma Splice Despite teachers’ and grammarians’ objections, some authors continue to use commas to splice sentences together. In creative writing or in transcriptions of conversation, writers sometimes use comma splices to capture rapid or flowing speech rhythms, as in these quotes: I’m crazy, I’m nuts. Justin Bieber, quoted in Vanity Fair, Jan. 4, 2011 I eat well, I exercise. Woody Allen, on staying youthful at 80, quoted in, May 11, 2016


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

It’s just what I need, just what I need is more advice. The 17 people I beat are still giving me advice. Donald Trump, interviewed by Maureen Dowd,, May 14, 2016 Comma splices are easy to find on social media, too. Here’s one in a tweet by the chairman of the Republican National Committee during the 2016 presidential primary season: “@realDonaldTrump will be the presumptive @GOP ­nominee, we all need to unite and focus on defeating @HillaryClinton #NeverClinton,” Reince Priebus, May 3, 2016

‘ ’  Lesson 10 

The Oxford Comma

It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden. Mark Twain, North American Review, Oct. 19, 1906

What every novel needs: A beginning, a muddle, and an end. Philip Larkin, in New Fiction, Jan. 1978

Miss Piggy, saying that men want qualities like hers: They look for someone feminine, sweet, intelligent, and demure. Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life, by Miss Piggy, as told to Henry Beard, “Romance” (1981)

Hatred, jealousy, and fear hinder peace of mind. The Dalai Lama, quoted in “Oprah talks to the Dalai Lama,” O, The Oprah Magazine,, Aug. 2001

You know the world is going crazy when the best rapper is a white guy, the best golfer is a black guy, the tallest guy in the NBA is



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Chinese, the Swiss hold the America’s cup, France is accusing the U.S. of arrogance, and Germany doesn’t want to go to war. Chris Rock, quoted in Calgary Sun, May 5, 2003

Jerry Seinfeld, after his baby was born: Let’s make no mistake about why these babies are here. They’re here to replace us. They’re cute, they’re cuddly, they’re sweet, and they want us out of the way. Quoted in David Shields, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead (2008)

I believe that all pain is the same, that all of us have had difficulties and challenges, and that our pain is in inverse proportion to how much we were loved as a child. Oprah Winfrey, quoted in “The Ultimate O Interview,” O, The Oprah Magazine,, May 2010

Jerry Seinfeld believes that places where men wear tuxedos are never honest. Casinos, award shows, and beauty pageants all feel shady, he says. Jonah Weiner, New York Times, Dec. 20, 2012

About Robin Williams: He made us laugh—​hard, every time you saw him, on television, [in] movies, night clubs, arenas, hospitals, homeless shelters, [with] our troops overseas, and even in a dying girl’s living room, for her last wish. Billy Crystal, Emmy Awards, Los Angeles, Aug. 25, 2014

I hate housework. You make the beds, you do the dishes, and six months later you have to start all over again. Joan Rivers, quoted in, Sept, 5, 2014

The Oxford Comma 101

About Kim Kardashian: Beautiful in an exotic, totally exaggerated way, Kim exudes energy, sexuality, drama, determination, impetuousness, and happiness. Martha Stewart, Time, Apr. 27–​May 4, 2015

Jerry Seinfeld, on the US Postal Service: I cannot understand how a 21st-​century information system based on licking, walking, and a random number of pennies is struggling to compete. Standup performance, quoted in, Feb. 19, 2016

“A strong spirit transcends rules,” Prince once said—​and nobody’s spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative. President Obama, remembering the artist Prince, quoted on, Apr. 21, 2016

Amy Schumer Is Rich, Famous, and in Love: Can She Keep Her Edge? Title of cover story,, May 2016

A lot of people go a little crazy about whether to use the Oxford comma. Roy Peter Clark, the author of The Glamour of Grammar, told me that if he blogs about the conflict in Syria, he might get three responses. But if he defends the Oxford comma, his readers will fight about it for weeks. Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, says that this is the comma that people ask her about the most.1 And when people learned that I  was writing a book on punctuation, several of them immediately asked me one burning question:  Where do I  stand on the Oxford comma? Obviously it’s a celebrity punctuation mark. The Oxford comma is the comma that appears before the word and in a list. It also sometimes appears before or. It takes its name from the fact that Oxford University Press has required it of its authors


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

for a century, calling it “a hallmark of OUP house style.”2 It’s also known as the serial comma because it appears before the last item in a series. Most American writing authorities recommend using the Oxford comma, since it creates consistency and it can make a sentence easier to read. I  always use it. But it’s optional, so make your own decision about it. I suggest that you use the Oxford comma. But whether you do or not, be consistent. critics, and missionaries, and congressmen, and humorists feminine, sweet, intelligent, and demure Hatred, jealousy, and fear They’re cute, they’re cuddly, they’re sweet, and they want us out of the way Casinos, award shows, and beauty pageants , and even in a dying girl’s living room , and six months later you have to start all over again energy, sexuality, drama, determination, impetuousness, and happiness stronger, bolder, or more creative Rich, Famous, and in Love

You certainly should use the Oxford comma when it prevents ambiguity, as it does in the two boxes below.

WHO DOESN’T USE THE OXFORD COMMA? The Oxford comma isn’t always popular, especially among journalists. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage and the Associated Press Stylebook both recommend against using it unless it’s necessary for clarity. And the British use the Oxford comma only rarely. So it’s no surprise that the British newspaper The Guardian didn’t put a comma before and in this quote:

The Oxford Comma


Marriage is like a game of chess except the board is flowing water, the pieces are made of smoke and no move you make will have any effect on the outcome. Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in, Oct. 12, 2009

Even journalists who don’t use this comma may make exceptions. Bill Walsh, the copy desk chief of the Washington Post business section, says, for example, that the Oxford comma is necessary if any item in a series already contains the word and or or. He also recommends it if the items in a list are awkwardly long, or if they could stand as complete sentences: I like Trix, I like Lucky Charms, and I like Cocoa Pebbles.3

The Strippers, JFK and Stalin In 2014, ran a discussion of the Oxford comma. It began with a cartoon that gave a sentence with an Oxford comma: We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin. Then it showed the same sentence without it: We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin. The second version says that JFK and Stalin were the strippers. Obviously, the final comma is essential to the clarity of this sentence. The article asked authors, actors, musicians, athletes, and other celebrities what they think of the Oxford comma. Larry the Cable Guy didn’t know what it is. He’s still trying to master the semicolon, he tweeted. But Seth McFarlane, the creator of the TV series Family Guy, said that he’s staunchly in favor of the Oxford comma.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Two tweets illustrated the use of this comma:

•  Astrophysicist and TV host Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted, “I would never read, write, or even think of a list without it.” •  English author Neil Gaiman wrote, “I stand with my parents, Charles Darwin, and God.” Without the Oxford comma he’d be saying that Darwin and God were his parents.4

My Parents, Sinéad O’Connor and the Pope Some Twitter users became distraught when they read a mistaken report that Oxford University Press was no longer requiring the Oxford comma. One tweeted an example of how omitting this comma before the word and in a series could lead to a serious misunderstanding: For teaching me that the Oxford comma resolves ambiguity, I’d like to thank my parents, Sinéad O’Connor and the Pope. Since this doesn’t have an Oxford comma, it seems to say that the speaker’s parents were Sinéad O’Connor and Pope Benedict XVI. Another tweeted, “Are you people insane? The Oxford comma is what separates us from the animals.”5 That’s a little intense. But it’s true that the final comma can prevent misunderstandings in many sentences.

‘ ’  Lesson 11 

Using Commas in a Series

“Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” The quotation above is totally phony (and insane), of course. See the discussion at the end of this lesson.

WHEN TO PUT A COMMA BETWEEN TWO ADJECTIVES Advice from Miss Piggy about what men want: They look for a full, generous figure coupled with a deep, smoldering gaze. And then, alas, when they have found it, I must tell them that I am spoken for. Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life, by Miss Piggy, as told to Henry Beard, “Romance” (1981)



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

About Charlize Theron: She’s the tall, gorgeous blonde who almost never makes movies that trade on those attributes. Jonathan Van Meter, Vogue, June 2014

As a general rule, place a comma between two adjectives that precede a noun: a full, generous figure a deep, smoldering gaze the tall, gorgeous blonde But there are times when you don’t need a comma there. Here’s a simple, two-​part rule that will let you decide if you need to use a comma. Ask yourself these two simple questions: (1) Can you insert the word and between the adjectives without changing the meaning or sounding unnatural?

or (2) If you switch the order of the adjectives, does the sentence still sound natural?

If the answer to either question is yes, separate the adjectives with a comma. Here’s a test case involving the sweetest sentence I could invent: I love my fuzzy, adorable golden retriever puppy. Does the comma belong between fuzzy and adorable? Let’s apply the test: (1) If you put and between the adjectives, it sounds perfectly natural: fuzzy and adorable golden retriever puppy

Using Commas in a Series 107

(2) If you switch the order of the adjectives, it still sounds pretty good: adorable, fuzzy golden retriever puppy.

This passage passes both tests, so the comma definitely should stand between fuzzy and adorable. Apply the same rule to decide whether to put commas between two adverbs that modify an adjective. In the passage below, you could reverse madly and wildly or put and between them without changing the meaning or making the sentence sound unnatural: She was madly, wildly happy to see him. Helen Brooks, Sleeping Partners, ch. 6 (2002)

Which versions of the quotations below are correct? (A)  Good old Watson. You are the one fixed point in a changing age. (B)  Good, old Watson. You are the one, fixed point in a changing age. Sherlock Holmes, in Arthur Conan Doyle, His Last Bow (1917)

Marilyn Monroe, on meeting Groucho and Harpo Marx for the first time: (A) There they were with the same happy crazy look I had seen on the screen. (B) There they were with the same happy, crazy look I had seen on the screen. Marilyn Monroe and Ben Hecht, My Story (2006)

Holmes’s statement would sound unnatural to say good and old Watson. It would be really awkward to say old good Watson. So this phrase shouldn’t have a comma.1


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Marilyn’s quotation would sound okay if you put the word and between happy and crazy. You also could switch the two adjectives to produce crazy, happy look. So happy, crazy passes both tests. A comma does go between them, as in version B.

WHEN NOT TO PUT A COMMA BETWEEN ADJECTIVES Here are two times when you definitely shouldn’t put a comma between adjectives: ✻✻ (1) WHEN THE SECOND ADJECTIVE AND A NOUN FORM A FAMILIAR PHRASE

To be in love is merely . . . to mistake an ordinary young man for a Greek discus-​thrower or an ordinary young woman for a goddess. H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy, III (1949)

Today was a test of character. . . . I’m sure it was an exciting second half for the fans. Chicago Fire goalkeeper Jon Busch, quoted in, Jan. 23, 2010

Bates College awarded Robert De Niro an honorary doctoral degree in 2012. I started, with three friends, this website called Crowdrise . . . where anybody can . . . stage creative fundraising projects. Edward Norton, quoted in, interviewed Oct 2, 2014

Sony Pictures was the victim of a cyberterrorist act perpetrated by a hostile foreign nation. George Clooney, quoted in, Dec. 18, 2014

Amazon Just Upset HBO and Netflix to Win Its First Golden Globe. Headline to story,, Jan. 11, 2015

Using Commas in a Series 109

Here I am, a humble single girl trying to make it on my own—​just like Mary Tyler Moore in her 1970s hit TV show. Chelsea Handler, in Time, May 30, 2016

Some adjectives and nouns go together so commonly that they’re perfectly natural as a unit. In those cases, the first adjective modifies the whole unit, so a comma isn’t necessary. In each of the passages above, there’s no comma after the first adjective because the second one and the noun form a common phrase or a set term: ordinary young man ordinary young woman exciting second half honorary doctoral degree creative fundraising projects a hostile foreign nation Its First Golden Globe a humble single girl Don’t use a comma between two adjectives if the second one forms a familiar phrase with the noun that follows it. Let’s do an exercise with an adjective and a noun that form a familiar phrase: chocolate cake. If you’d like to bake an old-​fashioned chocolate cake, do a Google search for the 1887 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal. On page 9 you’ll find a recipe for what the author describes as “the most delicious chocolate cake one can imagine.”2 Should there be a comma after delicious? Chocolate cake is a familiar phrase, and that tells you right away that you don’t need a comma before it. To double-​check, let’s apply our two-​part test: • It would sound ridiculous to say a delicious and chocolate cake. • If you switch the adjectives, a chocolate, delicious cake would sound silly.

This phrase flunks both tests, which confirms that you shouldn’t put a comma between the adjectives.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation


Old King Cole was a merry old soul And a merry old soul was he. British nursery rhyme (first attested in 1708)

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf. Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823)

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf ? Song by Frank Churchill and Ann Ronell in the Disney cartoon Three Little Pigs (1933)

The Jolly Green Giant. Iconic symbol of General Mills (The phrase was first used in 1935)

You also don’t need a comma between adjectives that have very different kinds of reference. I know, that sounds a little abstract, but it’s really simple. Here’s what I mean: if one adjective refers to temperament and the other describes age, for instance, these qualities are so different that there’s no need for a comma between the adjectives. The phrase merry old soul is an example of that. So is jolly old elf. The adjectives in Jolly Green Giant describe temperament and color, and in Big Bad Wolf they specify size and character. Again, these qualities are so distinct from each other that no comma is needed in either phrase. You also don’t need commas in phrases like these: flashing yellow traffic light good old boy little old lady little red schoolhouse wild young thing If you want to double-​check about these phrases, apply our two-​part test. They’d all be awkward if you inserted and between the adjectives (a

Using Commas in a Series 111

flashing and yellow light?). And they’d be unnatural if you reversed the order of the adjectives (an old good boy?).

USING COMMAS WITH A SERIES OF THREE OR MORE WORDS OF THE SAME KIND: THREE ADJECTIVES, THREE ADVERBS, THREE NOUNS, ETC. Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell! I took thee for thy better. Hamlet, after killing Polonius, in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 4 (1601)

To my mind, Judas Iscariot was nothing but a low, mean, premature congressman. Mark Twain, letter to the editor, New York Daily Tribune, Mar. 10, 1873

Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy. Winston Churchill, My Early Life: 1874–​1904 (1930)

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-​hole, and that means comfort. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, ch. 1 (1937)

Frank Sinatra’s description of rock music: The most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear. Quoted in AP, Oct. 28, 1957; Sinatra later changed his mind and had kind words for Elvis Presley

What I’m really trying to say is, I want the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you that you are afraid to share with anyone, because I love you that much. Lady Gaga, speaking of her song “Bad Romance”; on “It’s On with Alexa Chung,” MTV, Nov. 3, 2000


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

About Matt Damon: In appearances on late-​night TV and on shows like Entourage, he seems to relish being pompous, arrogant, goofy, even profane. Amy Wallace,, Jan. 2012

I never, ever, ever read anything about myself. . . . [I]‌just pay attention to the work and don’t read about how great I am or what a fool I am. Woody Allen, interviewed in, May 4, 2016

As a general rule, when you write a series of three or more items, put commas between the items. wretched, rash, intruding fool low, mean, premature congressman Never, never, never believe a nasty, dirty, wet hole a dry, bare, sandy hole the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression the deepest, darkest, sickest parts of you pompous, arrogant, goofy, even profane BUT KEEP THIS IN MIND: If you write and (or another coordinating conjunction) before the last item in the series, you’ll need to decide whether to put a comma in front of it. That comma is called the Oxford comma, and people can get very intense about whether to use it. See the lesson on pages 99–104.

TWO ADJECTIVES JOINED BY AND, OR, OR BUT Amy Schumer thinks her fame will fade soon: Beloved and slightly overexposed comedian Amy Schumer knows that you’re sick of her, OK?, Apr. 1, 2016

Using Commas in a Series 113

If and, or, or but joins two adjectives, you normally shouldn’t use a comma. That’s why there’s no comma between the two adjectives in the passage about Amy Schumer above: because they’re connected by the word and. Here are some common phrases that illustrate this: A tried and true method A sad but true story A black and blue mark Beaten but unbowed

Rachael Ray The bogus quote about Rachael Ray at the top of this lesson was photoshopped to make it ungrammatical (and lunatic). Then it went viral. Here’s the legitimate version, which appeared on the cover of Tails magazine: Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking, her family, and her dog., June 12, 2011 By omitting the commas, the photoshopped version portrayed the animal-​loving Ray as someone who eats dogs—​and people!

Which version of this sentence is correct? About millennials (people born between 1977 and 1995): (A) Older people tend to lump millennials together as basically a huge, mysterious group of entitled young people on their phones all the time. (B) Older people tend to lump millennials together as basically a huge mysterious group of entitled young people on their phones all the time. Sarah Lyall,, May 15, 2016


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

In this passage, the adjectives huge and mysterious pass the two-​part test in the first guideline: you could say huge and mysterious, and you also could switch them and say a mysterious, huge group. So the comma belongs between these adjectives. But young people is a common phrase. So the word entitled modifies that entire phrase, which means that no comma is needed. Version A is right.

‘ ’  Lesson 12 

Using Commas after If-​Clauses

IF-​C LAUSES AT THE START OF SENTENCES If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. Mark Twain, Notebook (1894)

If you haven’t anything nice to say about anyone, come and sit by me. Alice Roosevelt Longworth (embroidered on a cushion in her home), quoted in Time, Dec. 9, 1966

If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, you’ll regret it. Humphrey Bogart, to Ingrid Bergman in the 1942 film Casablanca

If you want to know what the Lord God thinks of money, just look at those to whom He gives it. Attributed to Dorothy Parker, who actually quoted a very similar line in The Paris Review 13 (Summer 1956)

If you watch a game, it’s fun. If you play it, it’s recreation. If you work at it, it’s golf. Bob Hope, in Reader’s Digest, Oct. 1958



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be. Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book (1998)

If a horse won’t eat it, I don’t want to play on it. Dick Allen, speaking of artificial turf, quoted in David H. Martinez, The Book of Baseball Literacy, ch. 5 (2000)

If a man watches three games of football in a row, he should be declared legally dead. Attributed to Erma Bombeck

Yogi Berra, on baseball fans: If people don’t want to come out to the park, nobody’s going to stop them. Yogi Berra, When You Come to a Fork in the Road, Take It! (2001)

If your child majored in fine arts or philosophy, you have good reason to be worried. The only place where they are now really qualified to get a job is ancient Greece. Conan O’Brien, addressing parents at the Dartmouth commencement, June 11, 2011

Stephen Colbert, telling graduating college students to thank their parents: If you don’t thank them now, you’ll have plenty of time to thank them tomorrow when you move back in with them. Commencement address at Northwestern, June 17, 2011

Colbert, saying it’s okay to change your plans: If we’d all stuck with our first dream, the world would be overrun with cowboys and princesses. Ibid.

I was the best man at a wedding one time. . . . If I’m the best man, why is she marrying him? Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in, Apr. 17, 2014

Using Commas after If-Clauses


If you’ve ever seen Beyoncé Knowles astride a concert stage or a red carpet, you know she is a woman with a flair for dramatic entrances. Jody Rosen,, June 3, 2014

If you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there. Robin Williams, quoted in, Aug. 12, 2014

If I ran my business that way, I’d fire myself. Criticism by Donald Trump, Crippled America: How to Make America Great Again, ch. 1 (2015)

Jerry Seinfeld, disapproving of donut holes: If you want a donut, eat a donut. Why are you eating the hole? Quoted in, Jan. 7, 2016

If you are a man who believes your daughter should have the same opportunities and rights as your son, then you’re a feminist. Beyoncé, interviewed in, Apr. 5, 2016

When an if-​clause or if-​phrase opens a sentence, you normally should follow it with a comma, especially if you would pause at that point in speaking. If you tell the truth, If you haven’t anything nice to say about anyone, If that plane leaves the ground and you’re not with him, If you don’t thank them now, In most cases, this is just another way of saying that you should set it off from the main clause. (The main clauses are underlined in the passages above.)

IF IN MID-​S ENTENCE Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind and I like to write standing up. Ernest Hemingway, correspondence, July 9, 1950


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

I was depressed. . . . I would have killed myself, but I was in analysis with a strict Freudian, and if you kill yourself they make you pay for the sessions you miss. Woody Allen, in Annie Hall (1977)

You’ll live to be a hundred if you give up all the things that make you want to. Woody Allen’s Interiors (1978)

I was married when I was twenty . . . but I can’t necessarily say I was in love. That’s something that comes around once, man, maybe twice if you’re lucky. Johnny Depp, quoted in UK Premiere magazine, Feb. 1995

People say that money is not the key to happiness. But I always figure, if you have enough money, you can have a key made. Joan Rivers, quoted in, Sept. 4, 2014

When the if-​clause or phrase appears in mid-​sentence, it’s your choice whether to put a comma in front of it. Use a comma only if it enhances the emphasis, rhythm, or meaning of the sentence and it marks the point at which you would pause in speaking aloud. In the passages above, only the one by Joan Rivers requires a natural pause before if. Which versions of the sentences below are correct? (A) If you even dream about beating me you’d better wake up and apologize. (B) If you even dream about beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize. Muhammad Ali, quoted in Bill Tangen, Choices: Memoirs of a Sportswriter (2005)

In this quotation, the if-​clause opens the sentence and is followed by a natural pause, so it should be followed with a comma, as in version B.

‘ ’  Lesson 13 

Using Commas with Transition Words and Phrases Actually, As a Matter of Fact, For Example, However, Incidentally, Indeed, In Fact, In Other Words, Luckily, Meanwhile, Moreover, Of Course, On the Other Hand, Perhaps, Therefore, Though, Etc.

Hamlet: I did love you once. Ophelia: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1 (1599–​1602)

Love. It’s a new style. On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren’t they? On the other hand, they decided without parents, without even a matchmaker. On the other hand, did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker? Yes, they did. Then it seems these two have the same matchmaker. Tevye, in the 1964 musical Fiddler on the Roof

You must realize that honorary degrees are given generally to people whose SAT scores were too low to get them into schools the regular way. As a matter of fact, it was my SAT scores that led me into my present vocation in life: comedy. Neil Simon, quoted in, June 4, 1984



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Shaquille O’Neal, on expecting to be traded by the Lakers: I knew I was dog meat. Luckily, I’m the high-​priced dog meat that everybody wants. . . . I’m the Alpo of the NBA. Quoted in, Feb. 17, 2005

Steve Carell, on food served on sticks: In Los Angeles, everything has become a corn dog. Actually, corn dogs still work. But most other foods should be stickless. Quoted in, July 23, 2012

J. K. Rowling, on being a teenager: It wasn’t a particularly happy time in my life. In fact, you couldn’t give me anything to make me go back to being a teenager. Never. No, I hated it. Quoted in, Sept. 21, 2012

Natalie Portman stands at around 5’3”. Chris Hemsworth is a towering 6’3”. In other words, she would have to stand on [top] of her Oscar statuette . . . to top his impressive height. It’s a difference that created an unexpected benefit when the two were cast as love interests in the original Thor., Movie Talk, Nov. 3, 2013

About Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher: Mila excitedly shared that her future [husband], Ashton, has been learning how to speak Russian for her. . . . Mila is of Russian descent and moved to America when she was a teenager. Therefore, she speaks the language fluently. Hollywood, May 9, 2014

About Two and a Half Men: The enormously raunchy show survived multiple time slots and endless critical derision. Moreover, the show soldiered on after even

Commas with Transition Words and Phrases 121

losing its top star, Charlie Sheen, in one of the most spectacular firings in the history of the medium., Dec. 5, 2014

WHAT ARE TRANSITION WORDS? English has over 200 words and phrases that can help your reader keep up with you as you make transitions from one thought to another. They’re called transition words. You can use them to introduce an idea or a conclusion, for example. Or you can use them to show that you’re adding something or giving an example. These words also can signify that you’re clarifying or restating a point. Or they can show that you’re offering a similarity or a contrast. They can indicate that you’re being emphatic, are about to state the result of something, and so forth. Here are some common transition words: actually as a matter of fact consequently for example for instance fortunately furthermore however

indeed in fact in other words luckily moreover of course on the other hand perhaps

therefore though unfortunately1

My students use these words and phrases a lot in their writing, but the truth is that they often have trouble punctuating around them. The champion trouble-​maker of them all is the word however. If you’ve ever been unsure about how to punctuate around that word, don’t feel too bad. You’re in very good company. In fact, however is such a magnet for punctuation problems that I’ve given it its own lesson, on pages 185–​91. Here’s the main point to keep in mind with transitional words and phrases: they’re all insertions into sentences that are grammatically complete without them. That means that they aren’t essential grammatically. So do the same thing that you do with other nonessential elements: set


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

them off with punctuation, usually commas. But be sure to take into account whether you’d pause when speaking these words aloud. When you start a sentence or a clause with one of these words or phrases AND you’d pause after it, put a comma after it. Follow the same guideline if you use one of these words after a semicolon. If you wouldn’t pause after one of these words or phrases, though, see the discussion below on when not to use commas with them. Each of the quotes above contains a transition word or phase at the start of a sentence. If you read them aloud you’ll find that they’re all followed by natural pauses: As a matter of fact, it was my SAT scores Luckily, I’m not afraid to make a fool of myself In other words, she would have to stand Therefore, Lady Gaga will not be able to drive the Batmobile Indeed, one the world’s most recognizable actresses

TRANSITION WORDS IN THE MIDST OF SENTENCES I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens . . . to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving. President Abraham Lincoln, establishing Thanksgiving on the last Thursday of November, Oct. 3, 1863

We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language. Oscar Wilde, the Canterville Ghost, pt. 1 (1887)

Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choices are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Message for American Education Week,” Sept. 27, 1938

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This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. Winston Churchill, speech, London, Nov. 10, 1942

The chief problem about death, incidentally, is the fear that there may be no afterlife—​a depressing thought, particularly for those who have bothered to shave. Woody Allen, “The Early Essays,” Without Feathers, 1975

In today’s knowledge-​based economy, what you earn depends on what you learn. Jobs in the information technology sector, for example, pay 85 percent more than the private sector average. President Bill Clinton, statement, Oct. 17, 2000

Maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, that were “reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.” Neil DeGrasse Tyson, quoted in, Aug. 2011

I was standing right behind Marilyn, completely invisible, when she sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” . . . And, indeed, the corny thing happened: Her dress split for my benefit, and there was Marilyn; and yes, indeed, she didn’t wear any underwear. Mike Nichols, quoted by Maureen Dowd,, Aug. 4, 2012

Chrissy Teigen, on professional models: I feel [bad] for those girls who have to be so waif-​thin, doing those catwalks all the time, because, luckily, we’re moving into a different time . . . in [which] we’re appreciating a curvier figure. Quoted in, May 9, 2013

Iggy Azalea, on what she does to keep her figure:


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

I do absolutely nothing, actually, believe it or not. People will probably hate me for saying that. Quoted in, June 10, 2013

“I take pictures of her all the time and dress her up,” says Kim. . . . Kanye, meanwhile, has made an adorable little stop-​frame video of North . . . that he’s edited to make it appear as if she’s break-​dancing. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, regarding their baby daughter, North, in Vogue, Apr. 2014

Looks, unsurprisingly, dominate online dating. David Brooks,, Jan. 22, 2015

Paul Ryan, declining to endorse Donald Trump: I’m not there right now. . . . I hope to, though, and I want to. Quoted in, May 5, 2016

When you write one of these words or phrases in the midst of a sentence and you would pause in speech before and after it, surround it with commas: I do, therefore, invite my fellow citizens except, of course, language The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education Jobs in the information technology sector, for example, a warm smile, for example—​ Kanye, meanwhile, has made an adorable little stop-​frame video In some cases you might decide to set off these words with dashes, if that’s the effect you want: In general, men are wired to notice obvious signs that convey interest in mating—​a warm smile, for example—​and ignore other subtleties, like if your lipstick is faded. Helen Fisher, in Cosmopolitan, Aug. 2009

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WHEN NOT TO USE COMMAS WITH TRANSITION WORDS Gentle thou art, and therefore to be won, /​Beauteous thou art, therefore to be assailed. Shakespeare, Sonnet 41 (1609)

I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life. Deuteronomy 30:19 (KJV, 1611)

Satan, vowing to defy God: To bow and sue for grace /​With suppliant knee . . . that were low indeed. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 1 (1667)

An American monkey . . . after getting drunk on brandy, would never touch it again, and thus was wiser than many men. Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, ch. 1 (1871)

It is plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement, Hobbits are relatives of ours. . . .  You have been chosen, and you must therefore use such strength, and heart, and wits as you have. Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

The suicide bomber’s imagination leads him to believe in a brilliant act of heroism, when in fact he is simply blowing himself up pointlessly and taking other people’s lives. Salman Rushdie, quoted in (Der Spiegel), Aug. 28, 2006

She therefore decided to uproot the family and relocate to Godric’s Hollow, the village that was later to gain fame as the scene of Harry Potter’s strange escape from You-​Know-​Who. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, ch. 11 (2007)


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

There’s no better way to finish your year, in winning a Super Bowl, than with a touchdown pass. . . . Fortunately for me, I had an opportunity. Joe Montana, quoted in Nick Friedell, “From XLIII: An Interview with Joe Montana,”, Feb. 1, 2009

We eat, therefore we hunt.2 Sarah Palin, final speech as governor of Alaska, July 26, 2009

My dad never told me he loved me, and consequently I told Scott I loved him every other minute. James Caan, speaking of his relationship with his son Scott, quoted in Esquire: The Meaning of Life (2009), ed. Ryan D’Agostino

About Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie: In the days before coming to France, and as citizens of California, Brad and Angelina filled out their paperwork and obtained a marriage license from a local judge, who also travelled to France to conduct the ceremony. . . . They are therefore married under Californian law. Statement from the family, quoted in, Sept. 15, 2014

Marvel has officially confirmed that Benedict Cumberbatch will indeed be the star of Doctor Strange., Dec. 4, 2014

About J. K. Rowling: In 2007 . . . she announced at an event at Carnegie Hall that Dumbledore, whose sexuality in the books was obscure, is in fact gay. Sarah Lyall,, June 1, 2016

If you wouldn’t pause if you spoke these transition words or phrases aloud, you don’t need to use commas with them. It’s really a matter of what sounds right to you. Use commas in this context to orchestrate the music and tone of your sentences. For

Commas with Transition Words and Phrases 127

example, if you want the phrase of course to sound more emphatic, write it without a comma:3 “Of course we don’t want him to be dead!” said Hermione, looking shocked. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, ch. 6 (2007)

But most of the time you should place punctuation around these words. If in doubt, set them off with commas. Which version is the more natural choice? On falling in love, as opposed to using a dating site: (A) In love, of course, the shift starts with vulnerability, not calculation. (B) In love of course the shift starts with vulnerability, not calculation. David Brooks, “, Jan. 22, 2015

Actually, either version is possible. In version A, of course is inserted as an incidental transition, with a natural pause. Version B is more emphatic. Brooks’s column used version A.

Are Words Like However Disappearing? Formal transition words like however, moreover, nevertheless, and indeed aren’t quite dropping out of the language, but many of them have slipped badly in the last 200 years—​especially in the second half of the twentieth century. Americans use however only about half as often as we did in the year 1800, and the British use the word much less, too. The relative frequency of moreover has been declining in the United States since the 1850s, when Americans used it three times as often as we do now. In Britain, moreover also hit its high-​water mark in the 1850s, then lost popularity gradually until it


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

fell like a stone after 1950. People on both sides of the Atlantic say nevertheless far less often than they did in the past. And the word indeed has had a sad decline since its highpoint in 1743: its use has dropped by about 75 percent in America, and almost as much in the UK. A few less formal transition phrases are doing fine, though. In Britain, the phrase for example hit its peak of popularity around the year 2000. It gained favor in America, too, though it’s lost ground in the last few years in both countries. And the phrase on the other hand became more widespread in both countries in the twentieth century than it had ever been before (though it’s fallen off sharply since the 1960s).4

‘ ’  Lesson 14 

Commas in Front of Wh-​ Words Where, Which, Who, Whom, Whose

Two households, both alike in dignity, /​In fair Verona, where we lay our scene. . . .  Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, “Prologue” (1597)

Juliet: “I will not marry yet; and, when I do, I swear, /​It shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate.” Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, “Prologue” (1597), Act 3, Scene 5

How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears. Bram Stoker, Dracula, ch. 11 (1897)

Mark Twain’s habit of swearing was repulsive to his wife, who tried religiously to cure him of it. One day, while he was shaving, he cut himself and recited his entire liturgy of curses. When he had finished, Livy, who was in the next room, shocked him by repeating what he had said, word for word. . . . Twain winced [and said], “You got the words right, but you don’t know the tune.” Quoted in Albert B. Payne, Mark Twain: A Biography (1912)

The Lord of the Ring is not Frodo, but the master of the Dark Tower of Mordor, whose power is again stretching out over the world! 129


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

Hagrid, who didn’t understand ‘Muggle Money,’ as he called it, gave the bills to Harry so he could buy their tickets. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, ch. 5 (1998)

When I opened my school [in South Africa], I said to Maya Angelou, who is like a mother to me, “This will be my legacy.” Oprah Winfrey, quoted in O, The Oprah Magazine,, May 2010

About Tom Brady’s 2015 Super Bowl performance: His march ended with a dart of a throw to Julian Edelman, who had bobbed and weaved all night. Michael Powell,, Feb. 2, 2015

I like cities like New York, where I can walk out of my house and I’m right in the middle of everything and there’s noise and traffic and we get gray, cloudy days and snow. Woody Allen, interviewed in, May 4, 2016

About Justin Bieber: Bieber raised eyebrows earlier this week when he traipsed barefoot through Boston, where he was scheduled to perform two shows., May 14, 2016

If the underlined parts of the passages above were deleted, the sentences would lose some interesting information, but they’d still be complete grammatically. In that sense, the underlined clauses aren’t essential—​that’s why grammarians call them nonessential clauses. In Juliet’s speech, for example, if we delete the underlined clause, a grammatically complete sentence still remains:1 I will not marry yet; and, when I do, I swear, /​It shall be Romeo.

Commas in Front of  Wh- Words 131

If we drop the underlined bits from Woody Allen’s quote, it, too, is still a complete sentence: I like cities like New York. Did you notice that a comma appears before each of the nonessential clauses in the quotes above? Put a comma in front of nonessential elements. If you read them out loud, by the way, you’ll find that you naturally pause where the commas are.

WHEN NOT TO USE COMMAS BEFORE WORDS LIKE WHERE, WHO, WHOM, AND WHOSE For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore. Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven” (1845)

She’s the kind of girl who climbed the ladder of success, wrong by wrong. Mae West, in the film I’m No Angel (1933)

In the town where I was born /​Lived a man who sailed to sea. From the Beatles’ 1966 song “Yellow Submarine”

I am who I am and I say what I think. I’m not putting a face on for the record. Eminem, interview in, Feb. 2001

We all want to be in love and find that person who is going to love us no matter how our feet smell, no matter how angry we get one day, no matter the things we say that we don’t mean. Will Smith, quoted, Mar. 2005

Richard Dreyfuss, describing Steven Spielberg: He’s a big kid who at twelve years old decided to make movies, and he’s still twelve years old.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Quoted by Janet Maslin, New York Times , Nov. 13, 1977

From Billy Crystal’s eulogy for Muhammad Ali: This brash young man who thrilled us, angered us, confused and challenged us, ultimately became a silent messenger of peace who taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls. Quoted in, June 10, 2016

There are going to be people along the way who will try to undercut your success . . . but if you just focus on the work . . . you’ll look around and you’ll know that it was you and the people who love you who put you there. Taylor Swift, quoted in, Feb. 15, 2016

A video showing Hugh Jackman rescuing beachgoers who were caught in a riptide in Australia is convincing social media users that the Wolverine actor is a real-​life superhero. Meghan Giannotta,, Mar. 26, 2016

People who take the time to list things they are grateful for are happier and healthier. Sheryl Sandberg, commencement address at Berkeley, May 14, 2016

The traditional rule says you shouldn’t use commas to offset words that are essential to the meaning of the sentence. In other words, don’t put commas in front of elements that define, clarify, or restrict the meaning or identity of the preceding element of the sentence. These essential elements are underlined in the passages above. If you deleted the underlined words, essential parts of the meaning of each sentence would be lost. The line by Poe, for example, would read, For the rare and radiant maiden. The meaning of the passage would be lost. Will Smith’s quote would say,

Commas in Front of  Wh- Words 133

We all want to be in love and find that person. Which person? Again, the passage would lose its meaning. Notice that there’s no comma in front of these essential clauses. Which version of the passage below is correct? (A) Not all those, who wander are lost. (B) Not all those who wander are lost. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, ch. 10 (1954)

In this passage, the word who limits the category of people who are being described, so there shouldn’t be a comma in front of it. Version B is correct.

CHOOSING BETWEEN WHICH AND THAT ✻✻ WHICH You ought never to knock your little sisters down with a club. It is better to use a cat, which is soft. Mark Twain, “Advice for Good Little Boys,” San Francisco Youth’s Companion, probably July 1, 1865

I always keep a supply of stimulant handy in case I see a snake, which I also keep handy. W. C. Fields, attributed in Cory Ford, Time of Laughter (1970)

I was told I had a New Jersey accent I really ought to do something about, which was a shock to me, since I was from Beverly Hills, California, and had never set foot in the state of New Jersey. Nora Ephron, on her experience as a student at Wellesley College; commencement address at Wellesley, 1996

I have an ongoing temper, which I have . . . learned to modify. Jack Nicholson, Playboy, Jan. 2004; quoted in 50 Years of the Playboy Interviews


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

I got married at 45. . . . Forty-​five is late to get married. Clearly, I had some issues, which I was enjoying while I had them. Jerry Seinfeld, “I Had Issues” stand-​up routine, 2008, jerryseinfeld. com

Think about what people are doing on Facebook today. They’re keeping up with their friends and family, but they’re also building an image and identity for themselves, which in a sense is their brand. Mark Zuckerberg, quoted in, June 29, 2009

I truly believe that only when we get real equality in our governments, in our businesses, in our companies and our universities, will we start to solve this generation’s central moral problem, which is gender equality. We need women at all levels, including the top. Sheryl Sandberg, commencement address at Barnard, May 17, 2011

Woody Allen, on his fear that chapped lips are a sign of a brain tumor: What I am is an alarmist, which is in the same ballpark as the hypochondriac. “Hypochondria: An Inside Look,”, Jan. 12, 2013

About Robin Williams: The only thing faster than his mouth was his mind, which was capable of breathtaking leaps of free-​associative absurdity. A. O. Scott,, Aug. 11, 2014

On people who use online dating sites: They pay ridiculous amounts of attention to things like looks, which have little bearing on whether a relationship will work. David Brooks,, Jan. 22, 2015

Donald Trump, asked what he’d do if he wasn’t elected president:

Commas in Front of  Wh- Words 135

I’ll probably go back to doing what I’ve been doing for the last long period of time, which is creating jobs, building projects—​beautiful projects, iconic projects. Interviewed in, Nov. 25, 2015

According to the normative rule, you should start a nonessential clause with the word which and put a comma in front of it. In other words, use a comma when the clause is just providing additional information. a cat, which is soft a snake, which I also keep handy an ongoing temper, which I have . . . learned to modify issues, which I was enjoying while I had them an alarmist, which is in the same ballpark as the hypochondriac his mind, which was capable of breathtaking leaps of free-​associative absurdity looks, which have little bearing on whether a relationship will work In Twain’s quotation above, for example, which is soft doesn’t restrict the identity or meaning of the word cat. It just gives us some general information about cats: that they’re soft. Twain put a comma in front of it to show that it’s not essential to the main meaning of this sentence. If he hadn’t used a comma, Twain’s advice in this passage would be to knock down one’s little sister “with a cat which is soft”—​in other words, to choose a soft cat (as opposed to a hard one) to use as a weapon. ✻✻ THAT Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. Mark Twain, “Man’s Place in the Animal World” (ca. 1896)

Love is friendship that has caught fire.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Ann Landers, correspondence, Feb. 26 or 27, 1959; quoted in Ann Landers in Her Own Words: Personal Letters to Her Daughter, ed. Margo Howard (2003)

“I’m tellin’ yeh, yer wrong!” said Hagrid hotly. . . . Now, listen to me, all three of yeh—​yer meddlin’ in things that don’ concern yeh.’ ” J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, ch. 11 (1997)

One thing I’ve noticed recently is that a well-​rounded team will beat one that’s stacked with superstars who don’t necessarily have the team mentality. Matthew McConaughey,, Oct. 2004

Every quarterback can throw a ball; every running back can run; every receiver is fast; but that mental toughness that you talk about translates into competitiveness. Tom Brady, ibid.

I truly believe in the glamorous lifestyle that I present to the outside world. Lady Gaga, quoted in Daily Record [Glasgow], Nov. 27, 2009

We need men and women to understand the double standards that still exist in this world, and we need to have a real conversation so we can begin to make changes. Beyoncé, interviewed in, Apr. 5, 2016

I always wanted to do a movie that had some of the nightlife [of the 1930s] in it. It was such a glamorous time. Woody Allen, interviewed in, May 4, 2016

What should you say instead of which when you’re writing a clause that is essential to the meaning of the sentence? The normative rule is to say that. Don’t put a comma in front of it. Here’s a quick and easy way to apply the rule: (1) If you can drop a clause without changing the basic meaning of the sentence, start it with which and put a comma in front of it.

Commas in Front of  Wh- Words 137

(2) If you can’t, start the clause with that and don’t precede it with a comma.

the only one that is cruel friendship that has caught fire one that’s stacked with superstars mental toughness that you talk about the glamorous lifestyle that I present By the way, you often can drop the word that in a clause that provides essential information. If we do that in these three passages from the quotations above, they’ll still be grammatical: “I very desperately want them to tell me something that’s wise.” can be “I very desperately want them to tell me something wise.” “a well-​rounded team will beat one that’s stacked with superstars” can be “a well-​rounded team will beat one stacked with superstars” “that mental toughness that you talk about” can be “that mental toughness you talk about” You can’t do that with which in nonessential clauses.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE ABOUT THAT AND WHICH This rule is actually a pretty recent invention. Four hundred years ago, writers often used which where the strict modern distinction requires that, and that where the rule calls for which. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that language commentators began to prescribe different functions for that and which. But a lot of people still use which where the rule requires that, both in speech and in edited writing:2


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

We have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read. Mark Twain, “Americans and the English,” speech, July 4, 1872

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change he world. Nelson Mandela, speech, 2003

Not all style guides agree about distinguishing between which and that. Many strictly state the rule. Strunk and White said that careful writers go “which-​hunting,” replacing the word which with that whenever it opens a clause that is essential to the meaning of a sentence. The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press and New  York Times stylebooks also state the rule. But other usage books allow which in essential clauses, and some language commentators and stylists don’t follow the rule themselves.

‘ ’  Lesson 15 

Using Commas around Parenthetical Bits in the Midst of Sentences

It is hard, if not impossible, to snub a beautiful woman. Winston Churchill, Savrola: A Tale of the Revolution in Lurania (1900)

That, to me, is a very strange phenomenon. Scarlett Johansson, on tweeting things like “Now I’m eating dinner”; quoted in, Dec. 2011

Excess is, in many ways, the Trump brand., Jan 6, 2016

About Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In: Picking the right partner, she wrote, is “the single most important career decision that a woman makes.” Ruth Marcus, in, May 6, 2016

Stephen Curry returned from a sprained right knee to score 40 points, including 17 in overtime, and the Golden State Warriors rallied to take a 3–​1 lead in the Western Conference semifinals., May 10, 2016



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Because these parenthetical elements aren’t essential to the sentence, you should offset them with punctuation, as you do with other nonessential elements. Put commas around individual words or phrases that you insert as optional comments or as asides in the midst of sentences—​if you would pause before and after them when reading aloud.

‘ ’  Lesson 16 

Using Commas When Describing or Naming Somebody or Something You’ve Just Referred to

Elevator footage showed Beyoncé’s sister, Solange, attacking Jay Z after the 2014 Met Gala. Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel released the first photo of their baby boy, Silas Randall, via Instagram Sunday., Apr. 19, 2015

The piano man himself, Billy Joel, serenaded the crowd with “Just the Way You Are.” About the Trumps’ wedding reception,

About Beyoncé’s album Lemonade: Many of the accusations are aimed specifically and recognizably at her husband, Shawn Carter, the rapper Jay Z., Apr. 24, 2016

Use commas when you describe or name someone or something that you’ve just mentioned—​IF the person or thing is unique. In the first passage, commas surround Solange because she is Beyoncé’s only sister. She is unique in that sense. 141


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Beyoncé’s sister, Solange, The second passage puts commas around Silas Randall because he was Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel’s only baby boy. their baby boy, Silas Randall, In the third, Billy Joel is the only performer known for the song “Piano Man,” so commas surround his name in this sentence. The piano man himself, Billy Joel, In the fourth, commas surround Shawn Carter’s name because he is Beyoncé’s only husband, of course. her husband, Shawn Carter, But don’t use commas if the person or thing that you’ve just referred to isn’t unique in the context of your sentence: In other words, don’t use commas when there are two or more of them. Here are a few examples that will show you what I mean: Marilyn Monroe was married three times.1 Her husband Arthur Miller was a major figure in American theater. Amy, this is your cousin Chuck., May 2016

About Drake and Rihanna: After the concert the two went together to the West Hollywood lounge The Nice Guy., May 5, 2016

Using Commas When Describing or Naming Somebody or Something 143

The first passage doesn’t surround Arthur Miller’s name with commas because he wasn’t Marilyn’s only husband during her lifetime. He was one of three: Her husband Arthur Miller In the second passage, Senator Chuck Schumer is calling Amy Schumer to ask for her help in opposing gun violence. He’s her cousin, but he’s not her only cousin. (Actually, the senator is her second cousin once removed.) So, since he’s not unique in that way, there’s no comma after cousin: your cousin Chuck In the third quote, The Nice Guy isn’t the only lounge in West Hollywood, so there’s no comma in front of it: the West Hollywood lounge The Nice Guy In the passage below, about Taylor Swift, there are no commas before her friends’ names because she has more than one friend. But commas do surround her brother’s name because he’s her only brother: After the wedding, she will go to New York, where she will be spotted dining with her friend Lena Dunham, and then be seen a week later in Los Angeles with her brother, Austin, and her friend Lorde., Apr. 14, 2016

Also see the lesson on transition words, pages 119–28. Which version of the sentence below is correct? (A) Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for the 2012 film, Silver Linings Playbook. Then she asked her parents to take the trophy because it has “a weird energy.”


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

(B) Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook. Then she asked her parents to take the trophy because it has “a weird energy.” “I Gave Away My Oscar Because It Had Weird Energy,” dailymail., July 22, 2013

Since Silver Linings Playbook was one of many films released in 2012, don’t offset its title with a comma in this sentence. Version B is correct. By the way, as for the Oscar trophy, Ms. Lawrence may have been too modest to display it in her home.

‘ ’  Lesson 17 

Using Commas before Short Bits at the Ends of Sentences

I heard “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” on the radio last night. It’s abysmal, you know. . . . I mean, it’s great, but it wasn’t made right. . . . But that’s the artistic trip, isn’t it? John Lennon, in Playboy interview, Jan. 1981

I play John Wayne in every picture regardless of the character, and I’ve been doing all right, haven’t I? John Wayne, quoted in Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion, ed. John Walker (1997)

People who lusted after Marilyn Monroe had no idea she stuttered. It is the secret of her sexiness, actually. James Earl Jones, quoted in, Mar. 6, 2010

Wow, I’ve had more difficulties at work, definitely. Johnny Depp, on what it was like to kiss Angelina Jolie in the 2010 film The Tourist; quoted in Mirror, Feb. 13, 2011

I suppose if I’d found my true love I would be married right now, wouldn’t I? Leonardo DiCaprio, quoted in, March 12, 2012



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

I’ve read the Book of Revelation a million times. . . . It does not make sense, obviously. It needs to be decoded. Megan Fox, quoted in, Jan. 15, 2013

Use a comma before short utterances that you tag onto the end of a statement—​IF you would pause before saying them aloud. , isn’t it? , haven’t I? , actually. , definitely. , wouldn’t I? , obviously.

‘ ’  Lesson 18 

Using Commas for Clarity and Contrast

USING COMMAS FOR CLARITY He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches. George Bernard Shaw, “Maxims for Revolutionists,” Man and Superman (1903)

In politics when you are in doubt what to do, do nothing . . . when you are in doubt what to say, say what you really think. Winston Churchill, speech, July 26, 1905

If you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love. Mother Teresa, attributed

You know, there are some days when I myself think I’m overrated, but not today. Meryl Streep, accepting a Best Actress Emmy for Angels in America, Sept. 18, 2004

It can get confusing, this life as Lady Gaga. Lady Gaga, in John Dingwall, “Lady Gaga Used Tough Times as Inspiration for Her New Album,” Daily Record (Scotland), Nov. 27, 2009



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Barbra Streisand, on how to be a great artist: You don’t have to mimic anybody. You just have to have a gut feeling inside, an instinct that tells you what’s right for you. Quoted in, Feb. 10, 2011

Kim is like a fantasy, period. Kanye West, speaking of Kim Kardashian; quoted Vogue, Apr. 2014

Use commas to create pauses that clarify your meaning and avoid confusion. Without the commas, the passage above by Shaw might baffle the reader. It would read, “He who can does. He who cannot teaches.” Without commas, Churchill’s maxim also would be confusing. It would read, “do do nothing” and “say say what you really think.” In the passage by Meryl Streep, the first comma prevents ambiguity. If there were no comma after “You know,” she would seem to be telling the audience that they all know there are days when she thinks that she’s overrated: “You know there are some days when I myself think I’m overrated.” Lady Gaga’s quotation would also be difficult to read without the comma: “It can get confusing this life as Lady Gaga.” Kanye West’s passage would be easy to misunderstand without the comma. Your reader might try to figure out what a “fantasy period” is.

Using Commas for Clarity and Contrast 149

Without a comma, Barbra Streisand could seem to be talking about “a gut feeling inside an instinct.” Use a comma for clarity to avoid confusing repetition of words: What it is, is luck. Woody Allen, on how to live a long life, quoted in, May 11, 2016

Use a comma to clarify meaning when separate parts of a sentence balance or complement each other: no more hurt, only more love Which of the following is correct? (A) Sarah Palin was the first woman to be the Republican nominee for vice president in 2008. (B) Sarah Palin was the first woman to be the Republican nominee for vice president, in 2008.

Version A says that Palin was the first woman nominated for the office in 2008, implying that a second woman may have been nominated for it later that year. Version B puts a comma before in 2008, showing that the phrase contains additional information: that this event happened in 2008. B is the right choice. See the lesson on essential and non-​essential elements, on pages 129–​38.

Commas That Show Meaningful Pauses Here are a few examples of how punctuation can convey a meaningful pause in speaking and can help express a tone of voice. This first passage illustrates how commas can separate grammatical elements


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

and at the same time capture the quality of speech. It’s from the film Casablanca: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on here! The comma in this quote helps convey a nonverbal quality: the phony outrage that Claude Rains expresses (as he accepts his winnings). The next passage is a quote from David Letterman as he reflected on retiring from the Late Show after 22 years as its host: I’ll miss it, desperately. Quoted in, May 3, 2015 There’s no grammatical need for a comma here. But by placing the comma where it is, the writer reproduced Letterman’s speech pattern, suggesting the depth of his emotion at a poignant moment in his life.

USING COMMAS TO SHOW CONTRAST Love all, trust a few. Shakespeare, All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 1, Scene 1 (1604–​5?)

We are not enemies, but friends. Abraham Lincoln, speaking of the South; First Inaugural Addressed, March 4, 1861

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Oslo, December 11, 1986

Using Commas for Clarity and Contrast 151

Most ball games are lost, not won. Casey Stengel, quoted in Paul Dickson, Baseball’s Greatest Quotations (1991)

You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories. And how we love them. Garrison Keillor, Pontoon: A Lake Wobegon Novel, ch. 24 (2007)

On men sharing the household chores: What mattered most was what fathers did, not what they said. For a girl to believe she has the same opportunities as boys, it makes a big difference to see Dad doing the dishes. Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, “How Men Can Succeed in the Boardroom and the Bedroom,”, Mar. 5, 2015

Use a comma to mark a contrast within a sentence.

‘ ’  Lesson 19 

Using Commas to Mark Omitted Text

Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards. Ben Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack (1738)

In our youth is our strength; in our experience, our wisdom. Herman Melville, White-​Jacket (1850)

In Boston they ask, “How much does he know?” In New York, “How much is he worth?” In Philadelphia, “Who were his parents?” Mark Twain, “What Paul Bourget Thinks of Us” (1895)

If I am to speak 10 minutes, I need a week for preparation; if 15 minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now. Woodrow Wilson, quoted in Josephus Daniels, The Wilson Era: Years of War and After (1946)

In war, Resolution. In defeat, Defiance. In victory, Magnanimity. In peace, Goodwill. Winston Churchill, My Early Life; A Roving Commission (1930)



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Usually youth is for freedom and reform, maturity for judicious compromise, and old age for stability and repose. Winston Churchill, “Consistency in Politics,” in his Thoughts and Adventures (1932)

“More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” Woody Allen, “My Speech to the Graduates,” in Side Effects (1980)

Do you know Alexander Pope’s famous line “To err is human, to forgive, divine”?1 It uses a comma in order to omit a verb after forgive. In this instance, the omission has a rhetorical effect: by not using a second verb, Pope juxtaposed forgive and divine. You can use a comma to show that you’re omitting text. Don’t overdo it, though. In each of the passages above, the comma replaces a verb, and in most cases, other words as well.

‘ ’  Lesson 20 

Commas in Direct Address

What, sir, would the people of the earth be without woman? They would be scarce, sir, almighty scarce. Mark Twain, “Woman—​an Opinion,” speech at Washington Correspondents’ Club, 1910

And if we should ever separate, my little plum, I want to give you one little piece of fatherly advice: Never give a sucker an even break. W. C. Fields, in the 1936 film Poppy

I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too. Margaret Hamilton, as the Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn! Clark Gable in the 1939 film Gone with the Wind

Eh . . . what’s up, doc? Bugs Bunny, usually while chewing a carrot, in cartoons

Here’s looking at you, kid. Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 film Casablanca



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Lucy, I’m ho-​ome. Desi Arnaz, as Ricky Ricardo, CBS, I Love Lucy (1951–​57)

Beam us up, Mr. Scott! William Shatner, as Capt. Kirk in Star Trek, “Gamesters of Triskelion” (1968)

Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me. . . . Aren’t you? Dustin Hoffman, in the 1967 film The Graduate

Laugh it up, fuzzball. Harrison Ford, as Han Solo in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Don’t have a cow, man. Bart Simpson, catchphrase in the TV series The Simpsons (1989–​)

You may marry the man of your dreams, ladies, but fourteen years later you’re married to a couch that burps. Roseanne Barr, on Roseanne (1988)

Always remember, Frodo, the Ring is trying to get back to its master. It wants to be found. Ian McKellan, as Gandalf, in the 2001 film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

Who is this lady you have shrunk? Sacha Baron Cohen, as Borat, looking at a Barbie doll in a yard sale, in the 2006 film Borat

Break up with her, you idiot. Haven’t you noticed that she’s nicer to the  dog? Stephen Colbert, advice he would give his younger self, commencement address at Northwestern, June 17, 2011

You know nothing, Jon Snow. Rose Leslie, as Ygritte, recurring line on HBO’s Game of Thrones (2012–​14)

Commas in Direct Address 157

Chewie, we’re home. Harrison Ford, as Han Solo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Use commas to set off references to people or things that you address by name. The same rule applies if you address a person or thing by a nickname, term of affection, category, position, role, or title.

“It’s Time to Eat Grandma” What would you think of your grandchild if he passed you a note that said, “It’s time to eat Grandma”? You’d probably assume that he either has terrible punctuation or he’s a cannibal. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he just needs some good advice about using commas in direct address. His note should read, “It’s time to eat, Grandma.”

Which versions of the passages below are correct? (A) Beware the Jabberwock, my son! (B) Beware the Jabberwock my son! Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky,” from Through the Looking-​Glass and What Alice Found There (1871)

(A) Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret (B) Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret

Title of Judy Blume’s 1970 young adult novel

(A) Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea (B) Are You There Vodka? It’s Me Chelsea Title of Chelsea Handler’s 2008 book


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

In the first passage, version A is right because it places a comma before “my son,” the person who is being addressed.1 In the second, version A is correct because a comma appears before God. In the third, too, version A is right because a comma appears before Vodka.


‘ ’  Lesson 21 


Cheer up—​the worst is yet to come.1 Mark Twain, letter to his wife, Apr. 19, 1894

A man . . . had only two minutes to live, so he sent for a clergyman and asked him, ‘Where is the best place to go to?’ . . . The minister told him that each place had its advantages—​heaven for climate, and hell for society. Mark Twain, speech, Oct. 7, 1901

There is nothing you can say in answer to a compliment. I have been complimented myself a great many times, and they always embarrass me—​I always feel that they have not said enough. Mark Twain, speech in Jamestown, Virginia, Sept. 23, 1907

I am not a member of any organized party—​I am a Democrat. Will Rogers, quoted in P. J. O’Brien, Will Rogers, Ambassador of Good Will, Prince of Wit and Wisdom (1935)

If you are young and you drink a great deal, it will spoil your health, slow your mind, make you fat—​in other words, turn you into an adult. P. J. O’Rourke, Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book for Rude People (2007) 161


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Amy Schumer never holds back—​even when getting candid about herself. Kirthana Ramisetti,, June 4, 2015

In cities with multiple baseball teams, comedians tend to choose the Mets and Cubs—​the losers, the sad-​sacks. Jared Diamond,, Oct. 7, 2015. One year after this was written, the Cubs won the World Series

Jennifer Lawrence wants to rewrite the script for society’s views on body image. [She] says women face unrealistic expectations to be unnaturally thin—​and she’s ready for that to change., Apr. 7, 2016

Last season, two dozen pitchers hit the 100-​m.p.h. mark at least once—​more than double the number who reached triple digits back in 2008. Time, Apr. 18, 2016

A survey of new brides found that 20 percent were not initially attracted to the man they ended up marrying. Sometimes it’s useful to make a deliberate “mistake”—​agreeing to dinner with a guy who is not your normal type. David Brooks,, May 3, 2016

“I used to go to sleep worrying about all the things I messed up that day—​and, trust me, that list was often quite long. Now I try really hard to focus on each day’s moments of joy.” Sheryl Sandberg, commencement address at Berkeley (her first public comments on her husband’s death a year earlier), May 14, 2016

Dashes have been around for a long time, and people have used them a lot. In fact, the linguist David Crystal suspects that the dash is at the top of the list of all the punctuation marks that have been used in English since Anglo-​Saxon times.2 Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, and Charles Dickens used dashes often, and so have many other writers.

Dashes 163

Edgar Allan Poe cherished the dash. He wrote in 1848 that writers must be “mortified and vexed” by the way that printers were removing dashes from authors’ manuscripts and replacing them with semicolons or commas. That, said Poe, was an overreaction to the Romantic poets’ excessive use of dashes twenty years earlier.3 Whether you should use dashes in your own writing is a matter of the effect you want and the level of formality you’re aiming for. Dash is an English word that originally meant “a violent blow or stroke.” It first appeared in the context of writing in the early 1600s, meaning “a hasty stroke of the pen.” That energetic image is still appropriate, because dashes can inject punch and drama into your writing. A dash briefly interrupts the forward momentum of your sentence, signaling an abrupt change in thought or an emphatic pause. Dashes can show that you’re about to say something unexpected, funny, ironic, or otherwise worthy of attention. George Bernard Shaw hated dashes. He called them “the great refuge of those who are too lazy to punctuate.”4 A more generous way to say that is a dash can stand in for any of several different punctuation marks, functioning just as they do, though with more force and emphasis. That makes the dash the most versatile punctuation mark. Used well, a dash can add energy and flair. Because it’s so forceful and dramatic, though, it can draw attention to itself. So, as the scholar and writer Ben Yagoda suggests, you probably shouldn’t use dashes the next time you write an international treaty or a scientific paper.5

“A Big, Big D” Did you know that the dash has a disgraceful past? To begin with, it’s one of the few punctuation marks that have been used to obscure meaning rather than clarify it. That started in the eighteenth century, when English writers used dashes to conceal names. In 1722, for example, Daniel Defoe wrote long dashes instead of the names of characters in his novel Moll Flanders.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

More notoriously, dashes have been used to censor curse words. In 1751, for example, the Scottish writer Tobias Smollett used dashes to partially represent the word damn: “D—​my eyes! . . . D—​my heart and liver! . . . D—​my limbs!” he wrote in a novel with a really strange name: The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle. By 1878, the capital D had been used so often to stand for damn that W. S. Gilbert had the captain of the HMS Pinafore equate the letter itself with the profanity:

Though “bother it” I may Occasionally say, I never use a big, big D—​. The full word dash, too, became a euphemism for damn. Dickens used it that way in Bleak House (“Dash it, Tony”) and in Our Mutual Friend (“Dashed if I know”). In addition, the word dash lost its specific association with damn but remained a veiled curse: “Who the Dash is this person . . . and what the Dash does he do here?” wrote one author in 1883.6

Roy Peter Clark, one of my favorite and most accomplished former students, offers this elegantly simple rule for the two ways to use dashes: 1. To embed one sentence or important thought into another. 2. For emphasis when you want to end a sentence with a snap.7

That covers it pretty well. The rest of this lesson gives more specific examples of how to use dashes. Dashes can replace commas to add emphasis. To create a snappy or forceful ending, you can put a dash instead of a comma before a final thought: —​in other words, turn you into an adult —​even when getting candid about herself

Dashes 165

—​and she’s ready for that to change —​more than double the number who reached triple digits back in 2008 —​and, trust me, that list was often quite long If you embed an idea in the middle of a sentence, surround it with dashes, just as you would do with commas:8 Mark Twain, toasting all women: Wheresoever you place woman, sir—​in whatever position or estate—​she is an ornament to the place she occupies, and a treasure to the world. “Woman—​an Opinion,” speech, Washington, 1910. Twain paused here and remarked that the audience should applaud at this point. They did.

Yesterday, December 7, 1941—​a date which will live in infamy—​the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking Congress to declare a state of war with Japan, Dec. 8, 1941

About climate change: The stakes really are high today—​higher than ever before—​and the fact that many public leaders fail to understand the urgency and causes of climate change . . . is reason for genuine anxiety about the future of humanity. Phil Torres,, May 8, 2016

The easy days ahead of you will be easy. It is the hard days—​ the times that challenge you to your very core—​that will determine who you are. Sheryl Sandberg, commencement address at Berkeley, May 14, 2016


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Dashes also can replace colons, sometimes in order to surprise or amuse: Like a colon, a dash in this context means “that is, namely” or “here’s what I mean by that.” In some of the passages above, the dash suspends the rhythm in order to elaborate on or explain—​or to set up the surprise of a joke: each place had its advantages—​heaven for climate, and hell for society they always embarrass me—​I always feel that they have not said enough I am not a member of any organized party—​I am a Democrat the Mets and Cubs—​the losers, the sad-​sacks a deliberate “mistake”—​agreeing to dinner with a guy who is not your normal type Writers sometimes use dashes instead of semicolons or periods. The dashes lend comic timing to some of these passages and add emphasis to others: France has neither winter, summer, nor morals—​apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country. Mark Twain, Notebook, written before 1910

Ours is the ‘land of the free’—​nobody denies that—​nobody challenges it. (Maybe it is because we won’t let other people testify.) Mark Twain, Roughing It (1872)

I hate the sun. I’m pale and I’m redheaded. I don’t tan—​I stroke. Woody Allen, in the film Play It Again, Sam (1972)

The linguist Ben Zimmer says that the dash is his favorite punctuation mark: I still admirer the artfully wielded em-​dash, especially used near the end of a sentence—​when it works, it really works. Blog, Sept. 26, 2012

Dashes 167

George Clooney, on pulling pranks on Brad Pitt: I’m doing one now that I can’t tell you about, but in a year you are going to hear I’ve been arrested—​I’m not kidding. . . . But I have a wife. She’s a barrister. I’ll be fine. Quoted by Philip Boucher,, May 20, 2015

I suggest that you use dashes this way only in informal writing, to simulate speech. A pair of dashes can replace parentheses—​though they can be much more dramatic and intrusive than parentheses: They suspend the forward movement of your sentence so you can insert an illustration, an explanation, a definition, or some other kind of information.9 Keep in mind that if you remove the two dashes and all of the words in between, your sentence should still be complete grammatically: About Kim Kardashian: Though her life requires work of a sort—​roughly two hours of hair and makeup each day, regular meetings for her assorted businesses, wardrobe fittings, photo shoots, 5:00 AM workouts—​you don’t get the sense that she is hiding or suppressing her true, private self. Amanda Fortini,, Nov. 2012

About Taylor Swift: The pop star’s engagement with fans—​she personally replies to many of their Instagram posts and makes comments on their Tumblrs—​ generates news on a weekly basis. Time, Mar. 16, 2015

About Kanye West: Kanye’s belief in himself and his incredible tenacity—​he performed his first single with his jaw wired shut—​got him where he is today. Elon Musk, in Time, Apr. 27–​May 4, 2015


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Stephen Hawking was doing what he usually does—​musing about the true nature of life, the universe, and everything—​via hologram at the Sydney Opera House when a local wit asked, “What do you think is the cosmological effect of Zayn leaving One Direction?”. . . “Finally, a question about something important,” [Hawking] said. . . . “This girl may like to know that in another possible universe,” Hawking continued—​as always, at a very, very deliberate pace—​“she and Zayn are happily married.” About the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, who speaks through a digital communication system; quoted in, Apr. 27, 2015

Physical activity has a multitude of health benefits—​it reduces the risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and possibly even cancer—​but . . . a growing body of scientific evidence shows that exercise alone has almost no effect on weight loss. Aseem Malhotra,, May 15, 2015

As music awards shows go, MTV’s annual Video Music Awards ceremony—​the V.M.A.s—​is by far the loosest, the most vibrant, and the most prone to disruption. Jon Caramanica,, Aug. 25, 2016

Most American men—​56%—​think sexism is over and done with. . . . Of course, most women—​63%—​disagree. Susanna Schrobsdorff, Time, Sept. 5, 2016

You can use dashes before expressions like namely, that is, or for example: About Tom Sawyer: He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—​namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to obtain. Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)

You can use dashes before and after a list or a series of words that are separated by commas or semicolons.

Dashes 169

The dashes set off the series so your whole sentence is easier to read. And remember that the sentence should still be complete if you remove the dashes and the words between them: About the Grateful Dead’s 2015 “Fare Thee Well” tour: The four remaining members—​guitarist Bob Weir, 67, bassist Phil Lesh, 75, and drummers Bill Kreutzmann, 69, and Mickey Hart, 71—​have set aside their differences to celebrate the group’s legacy and say goodbye with five sold-​out concerts. Geoff Edgers,, June 12, 2015

Comic-​Con International . . . annually draws 130,000 fans of the genres—​graphic novels, superhero movies, video games, animation—​that comprise fantasy culture. Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes,, June 28, 2015

About Aziz Ansari’s book on dating: As Mr. Ansari says—​after exhorting us to use technology wisely; to get out of the house and meet real people; and to wait decent, non-​desperate-​seeming intervals before returning text messages—​ “The main thing I’ve learned from this research is that we’re all in it together.” Sarah Lyall,, July 6, 2015

You can use dashes to set off the name of the source of a quote: Do not offer a compliment and ask a favor at the same time. A compliment that is charged for is not valuable. Mark Twain, Notebook, 1902

• Dashes also can mark an unfinished sentence. • Edgar Allan Poe said that dashes let the writer say the same thing in a different way, though possibly more forcefully. They allow two or more expressions of the same idea.10 • Don’t use commas, colons, or semicolons immediately in front of dashes.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

DASHES FOR ARTISTIC EFFECT A dash can interrupt the rhythm of your sentence for dramatic or artistic effect—​even when you don’t need any punctuation. It can help with comic timing or indicate that what comes next is unexpected or worth paying attention to. In that sense, George Bernard Shaw was right: dashes can break the rules of punctuation. I suggest that you do this only informally, to simulate speech: Familiarity breeds contempt—​and children. Mark Twain, Notebook, 1894

Looking 50 is great—​if you’re 60. Joan Rivers, quoted in, Sept. 5, 2014

About Jay Z’s streaming service: As Jay sees it, there is a clear solution to the problems facing musicians in the streaming age. They should band together—​behind him, of course. Ben Sisario,, Mar. 30, 2015

Being a mother is the most important—​and most humbling—​job I’ve ever had. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook post about Mother’s Day on May 6, 2016

“Good G—​!” Dashes can be especially useful for artistic rather than grammatical purposes in writing fiction and poetry. The eighteenth-​century writer Laurence Sterne, for example, used them beautifully in his novel Tristram Shandy.11 Sterne began the book by declaring that what your parents are thinking at the moment that they conceive you may determine your temperament for your whole life. In the

Dashes 171

passage below he has his narrator confess the embarrassing things that his own parents said to each other as they conceived him:

Pray, my dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?—​Good G—​! cried my father, making an exclamation but taking care to modulate his voice at the same time,—​Did ever woman since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?—​Nothing. Sterne used long dashes here to create a sense of his father’s urgency and frustration. Notice that he also used a dash to abbreviate the word God.12 In the passage below from Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens deployed dashes to represent fragmented speech, suggesting excitement and anxiety:

I—​ha—​I most devoutly hope so. . . . I beg—​I—​ha—​I do beg, that you accommodate yourself better to—​hum—​circumstances, and dutifully do what becomes your—​your station.13 Emily Dickinson’s prolific use of dashes was an essential aspect of her poetry. Often, her dashes follow the standard rules for punctuation, though at other times they don’t. For example, in the opening stanza of perhaps her most famous poem, “Because I Could Not Stop for Death,” the third dash has no grammatical purpose:

Because I could not stop for Death—​He kindly stopped for me—​ The Carriage held but just Ourselves—​And Immortality. Dickinson’s dashes are so varied in function—​and even in appearance—​that literary critics have speculated for years about what they really signify. Do they mark pauses for breath or thought? Are they signs of intense agitation or mental breakdown? Can they be the equivalent of blank Scrabble pieces to which the reader assigns meaning, or maybe just spontaneous visual designs?14


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Which of the following uses dashes effectively correctly? (A) When Jimmy Fallon ascended to NBC’s late night throne, one question loomed large: could he—​or anyone—​make The Tonight Show relevant again, especially among cord-​cutting millennials? (B) When Jimmy Fallon ascended to NBC’s late night throne, one question loomed large: could he or anyone make The Tonight Show relevant again, especially among cord-​cutting millennials? Time, Mar. 16, 2015

Version B is fine, but version A uses dashes for emphasis around or anyone.

Endnotes, Footnotes, and Dashes Endnote and footnote numbers belong at the end of sentences or clauses. As a general rule, note numbers go after quotation marks and other forms of punctuation. The Chicago Manual of Style is very definite about that15—​but there’s one exception: the dash. It’s the only type of mark that you should put after a note number.

The dash we’ve been talking about so far is technically called an em dash. It’s the most common kind of dash, the most versatile, and the only one that most of you will probably ever need to use. So I simply call it a dash. There are other kinds of dashes, though, and one of them is the en dash.16 I’ll discuss it in the next lesson.

‘ ’  Lesson 22 

En Dashes

William Shakespeare (1564–​1616) Jennifer Lawrence (1990–​) Matt Harvey became the first pitcher in the Major Leagues to [reach] five wins by outlasting Max Scherzer in a battle of aces as the Mets defeated the Nationals, 4–​0, at Citi Field on Friday., May 1, 2015

The Yankees–​Red Sox rivalry . . . began in 1919, when Harry Frazee, the financially troubled Red Sox owner, sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000.

Boston–​New York–​Philadelphia–​Washington, DC Route of the Acela Express

Academy Award–​winning actor Matthew McConaughey delivered an inspiring message to graduates at the University of Houston last week, warning them . . . “Life’s not fair. . . . Do not fall into the trap, the entitlement trap, of feeling like you’re a victim. You are not.”, May 21, 2015



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Facing Hillary Clinton–​Donald Trump Presidential Matchup, Some Americans Would Rather See a Giant Meteor Hit the Earth. Headline,, July 1, 2016

The en dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than the em dash. It has uses, but before we go any further, I’m going to make a shocking confession: I’ve never used an en dash. You may not need to either, because, except in published texts, it’s normally okay to use a hyphen instead. Newspapers typically use hyphens, not en dashes. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage tells journalists not to use the en dash, except as a minus sign. But in other types of published work, en dashes are a sign of careful editing. If a publisher accepts your work, it’s certainly good to apply the guidelines below to put en dashes in your typescript. But, as one veteran editor at a university press told me, if the copy editor replaces your hyphens with en dashes when appropriate, you probably don’t need to worry too much about doing it.

WHAT DOES AN EN DASH DO? The en dash closes up numbers that form a range. It also shows a relationship between words by taking on the sense of “to” or “versus.” It’s the dash that’s used between two dates, times, page numbers, chapters, biblical verse numbers, scores, and so forth. 1564–​1616 pages 1–​10 Genesis 1:1–​2 the Mets defeated the Nationals, 4–​0 The en dash also marks an unfinished range of numbers, including the birth date of someone who is still living: 1990–​

En Dashes 175

The en dash also can replace the word to: Boston–​New York–​Philadelphia–​Washington, DC An en dash can suggest conflict, competition, or tension. In this sense, it can stand for the word versus: The Kennedy–​Nixon debates The Notre Dame–​Michigan game Hillary Clinton–​Donald Trump Presidential Matchup Use an en dash to attach a word or a prefix to a compound that consists of two words: Academy Award–​winning the pre–​World War I era En dashes are also used in the names of some universities that have more than one campus: University of Michigan–​Ann Arbor

‘ ’  Lesson 23 

Exclamation Points!!!!

Holy cow! Interjection often used by sportscaster Harry Caray when calling baseball games, starting in the 1940s

I am the greatest! Muhammad Ali, after defeating Sonny Liston to become the world heavyweight boxing champion, Feb. 25, 1964

When you’ve got it, flaunt it! Zero Mostel, in Mel Brooks’s 1967 film, The Producers

Me? Whee! Muhammad Ali, talk at Harvard, June 4, 1975. This is sometimes called the shortest poem ever written

Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall! President Ronald Reagan, speech in West Berlin, June 12, 1987

Show me the money! Cuba Gooding Jr., in the 1996 film Jerry Maguire

YES!!!! Red Sox Complete Sweep, Win First Series since 1918. Headline, Boston Globe, Oct. 28, 2004 177


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

God! Movie stars! Wow! . . . I’m just a little kid going to these movies and I don’t ever want to change. Kim Basinger, on her reaction to movies; quoted in lifetimetv.

You’re fired! Donald Trump, on the NBC TV show The Apprentice (first used in 2004)

Baywatch Cast 25 Years Later—​Yikes!

Headline,, Nov. 30, 2015

In traditional writing, the exclamation point is a way of marking a strong feeling, an unusual emphasis, or a raised voice. It can be used to heighten drama or to simply mark an exclamation: Holy cow! Whee! I am the greatest! YES!!!!

God! Movie stars! Wow! You’re fired! Yikes!

No wonder superhero comic books use this mark a lot. Exclamation points also make commands emphatic: flaunt it! tear down this wall! Show me the money! The exclamation point was invented in the 1300s, but we don’t know its origins for sure. One theory is that it came from the Latin word Io—​an exclamation of joy or triumph—​with the I written above the o. But a fourteenth-​century Italian Humanist named Iacopo Alpoleio da Urbisaglia offered a totally different creation story: he said that he invented this mark by putting a comma above and to the side of a point. He called it a punctus admirativus or punctus exclamativus—​a mark of admiration or exclamation. It’s had many names since then. In America, we call it an exclamation point, while in the British Commonwealth it’s

Exclamation Points!!!! 179

an exclamation mark. It’s also been called a wonderer, an admiration, and a shriek. Printers have called it a bang, a screamer, a gasper, a startler, a pling—​and a part of a dog’s anatomy that I won’t repeat here. Roy Peter Clark cleverly calls it a little phallic bat and ball.1 Most of those metaphors aren’t exactly compliments, but they all suggest the energy and enthusiasm that this mark conveys. And yet several writers hate this poor punctuation mark, as we saw in the discussion on pages 8–10. I suggest that you use exclamation points rarely or not at all in formal writing. In less serious writing, though, you’re much freer to use exclamations—​ and some people use them with manic enthusiasm in digital messages. In fact, for a stuffy old teacher like me, the punctuation in chats, texts, instant messages, tweets, and emails often seems to come from an alternate universe. The standard rules don’t apply, and people have created their own punctuating style instead.

Schoolhouse Rock! Grammarians call abrupt exclamations like Hey! or Ouch! or Yow! interjections. If you watched Schoolhouse Rock! as a kid, do you remember seeing the segment on interjections? It involves a boy who has an infection and a doctor who gives him an injection. The boy screams, “Hey! That smarts. Ouch! That hurts. Yow! That’s not fair, giving a guy a shot down there.” Schoolhouse Rock! ABC TV, Feb. 2, 1974

Oy Vey! The most famous Yiddish exclamation is probably oy! It means “woe,” but it can be used to cover an incredibly wide range of emotions. As The New Joys of Yiddish tells us, oy isn’t just a word: it’s a virtual vocabulary that can express any feeling from ecstasy to horror. It can convey contentment (“Oy, that chicken soup is from


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

heaven!”), worry (“Oy! What am I going to do now that the kids are grown?”), shock (“That’s how much dentures cost? Oy!”), and many other emotions. In that sense, oy! is no mere exclamation—​it’s a worldview.2 Oy is a Hebrew word. It appears dozens of times in the Hebrew Bible, especially in the prophetic books, meaning “woe” or “alas.” In Yiddish it’s often joined to vey, an Aramaic word that also means “woe,” to produce the famous exclamation Oy vey! meaning “Oh woe!”3

OMG!!! Even though exclamation points may have begun their existence as signs of admiration, it’s hard to find anyone who admires them in formal writing. In instant messages, chats, texts, tweets, and emails, by contrast, many of us feel that we can’t do without them. In fact, David Crystal observes that the exclamation point is the most popular kind of punctuation at the end of sentences in fast-​moving internet messages! “The text message and the exclamation point are made for each other,” says one prominent novelist.4 People often write online messages as if they’re speaking. Crystal traces that to a period of linguistic “free love” in the 1990s, when breaking the rules online was encouraged, and punctuation was one way to do it. John McWhorter, a linguistics professor at Columbia University, thinks that it’s part of a long-​term cultural shift toward an increasingly oral society.5 It’s certainly a move toward a more relaxed style. If formal writing is language in its Sunday best, the linguistic fashion in digital communication is distressed jeans, frayed at the hem. As the linguist Ben Zimmer says, people often punctuate creatively to express their tone of voice and their mood. Even Lynne Truss, who insists on precision in punctuation in her Eats, Shoots & Leaves, says that she starts all of her emails with a yell. Instead of “Dear George,” for instance, she writes “George!”6

Exclamation Points!!!! 181

An electronic message without at least a few exclamation points may seem emotionally flat, cold, or detached. Friendly and enthusiastic messages, by contrast, often have multiple exclamation points, as these tweets do: My #RihannaXStance Summer collection is here!!!!! @rihanna, Apr. 19, 2016

Had the CUTEST surprise party today!!! @britneyspears, May 3, 2016

WOW. M-​town!!! I’m speechless . . . @jtimberlake, message to his fans in Memphis, June 1, 2016

I . . . Tweet!!!!!!! @sethrogen, Twitter bio

The final example of exclamation-​point excess is by Kim Kardashian, for whom everything seems to exist in generous proportions: Just landed in Vegas!!!! @kimkardashian, July 22, 2016

“These days, it’s as if our punctuation is on steroids,” says Jessica Bennett, a writer, critic, and multimedia journalist. Sometimes exclamation points are mixed with question marks, producing something like this: ?!?!?!7 This represents a major stylistic shift. “Once exclamation points were scary and loud; they made you jump,” says the writer Heidi Julavits. “You were in trouble when the exclamation points came out. . . . They were a bark, a scold, a gallows sentence. Not any longer. The exclamation point is lighthearted, even whimsical.” The journalist Christopher Muther uses a different metaphor: “Exclamation marks are no longer tough,” he says. “They’ve been emasculated into sweet little blue birds delivering happy thoughts.”8 Yes, that’s true a lot of the time. But in many contexts, exclamation points still have their traditional power in online writing. They can add emphasis to commands or strong suggestions, for example, as they do


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

in the text messages below between Amy Schumer and Colin Quinn. In these texts, which Schumer posted on Instagram, Quinn sends her emphatic advice and she replies with deadpan insults:

Quinn: Trust none of the people in your life right now!! Schumer: You are a pebble in my shoe. Quinn: Heard about the book deal. Trust me. Put that money in a bank!!! Schumer: You have no information Schumer: Get out of my life! Sometimes, though, even several exclamation points in a row can have less of an impact than a single period. Here’s an example: Maddie Crum, a Culture Writer for the Huffington Post, tells us that when a friend sent her a chat saying “I hate him!” she didn’t take it as a serious declaration of hatred. That would have required a period. Instead, the exclamation point was more of a shrug. Other times we can think of it as a textual smile.9 Its absence in a text or chat can raise serious questions about the writer’s tone. As Katy Waldman, the “words correspondent” for Slate, says, in the digital world “Thanks!” with an exclamation point means “Thanks,” and “Thanks.” (with a period) means “I hate you.”10 See the box below and the lesson on PERIODS on pages 225–31.

“Stone-​H earted Ice Witch Forgoes Exclamation Point” The quote above was a headline in the satirical news source The Onion. Here’s the article:

In a diabolical omission of the utmost cruelty, stone-​hearted ice witch Leslie Schiller sent her friend a callous thank-​you email devoid of a single exclamation point, sources confirmed Monday. “Hey, I had a great time last night,” wrote the cold-​blooded crone,

Exclamation Points!!!! 183

invoking the chill of a thousand winters with her sparely punctuated missive—​a message as empty of human warmth as the withered hag’s own frozen soul., May 12, 2014

EXCLAMATION POINTS AND GENDER I first noticed the over-​the-​top use of exclamation points several years ago in emails from one of my favorite relatives. She’s charming and very sensible in real life, but she punctuated her writing with thickets of multiple exclamation points. Only later did I appreciate how common that kind of punctuation has become. Several studies since 1981 have shown that women use exclamation points far more often than men do, both online and in traditional writing. Most researchers on this topic have considered exclamation points to be “markers of excitability,” but a study in 2006 contradicted that. It found that most of the time women used exclamation points in friendly or supportive contexts, not to show strong emotion.11 That’s interesting. The study was narrow, however, based on messages written in a professional environment about factual questions. That limits how far we can generalize the results, as the author of the study acknowledges. There is other support for the idea that women’s frequent use of exclamation marks doesn’t suggest excitability, though. Susan Herring, a specialist in computer-​mediated communication at Indiana University, has analyzed punctuation in online discussion groups. She concludes that exclamation points are almost obligatory. That’s not because they represent an outpouring of friendly feeling, says Herring, but because not using them would seem unfriendly.12 Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University who studies gender differences in communication, says something consistent with that:  she argues that for many women, exclamation points are simply “the most common, or neutral, way of ending sentences.” Using them shows nothing more than “an expected level of enthusiasm.”13


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

That doesn’t mean that men don’t use exclamations. As we’ve already seen in the tweets and texts above, men obviously do. Christopher Muther points out that online messages can seem flat and harsh without exclamation points. He confesses, in fact, that he’s become a serial exclamation pointer. “Without an omnipresent exclamation point,” he says, “my electronic communication sounded as if it was written by a certain curmudgeonly and crusty green muppet who resides in a trash can.”14 Some of my students probably think that I actually am that crusty green muppet. But I use exclamation points in emails, too. I also throw one in now and then in this book, since I’m trying to write it as if I were speaking to my students. I’d think twice before using one in a formal context, though.

‘ ’  Lesson 24 


How to Get the Punctuation Right Every Time

HOWEVER AT THE BEGINNING OF A SENTENCE “The Truth.” Dumbledore sighed. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution. However, I shall answer your questions unless I have a very good reason not to.” J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997)

I intend to assist in the effort to re-​establish communication with Starfleet. However, if crew morale is better served by my roaming the halls weeping, I will gladly defer to your medical expertise. Spock, to Leonard “Bones” McCoy, in the 2009 film Star Trek

I am comfortable with my sexuality. However, I am protective of my private life. Scarlett Johansson, quoted in star-​, June 7, 2011

Taylor Swift, on her decision to release her album 1989 as a CD: 185


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

The industry’s changing and a lot of people are streaming. However, there are a lot of people who aren’t, which is what this release reflects., Oct. 31, 2014

When it comes to punctuating, some words are born troublemakers. For my students, probably the biggest nuisance is however in the sense of “but, nevertheless, on the other hand, though.” They especially have trouble punctuating however in mid-​sentence. Should there be a comma before it, after it, or both? Now, this usually isn’t an issue in informal writing because however isn’t a word that you’re likely to use in online chats or casual emails. You probably don’t use it much in everyday conversation either. I do, but I’m a nerdy English teacher. The chances are that you’re much more normal. So if you say however at all, you’ll probably do it in a school paper, professional writing, or some other formal context.1 When my students write however in their papers, they often produce comma splices or run-​on sentences. That’s a mistake you don’t want to make when there’s something at stake. In fact, the word however in this sense is such a magnet for punctuation errors that it deserves a lesson in itself—​and this is it. The first thing we need to say is that there are different ways to punctuate however, depending on which sense you use it in and where you put it in a sentence. Shakespeare may have been the first to say however to show contrast, in the early seventeenth century.2 When you begin a sentence with however in this sense, place a comma after it. However, you have brains However, I shall answer your questions However, if crew morale is better served However, I am protective of my private life. However, there are a lot of people who aren’t The same rule applies if you use however after a semicolon.

However: How to Get the Punctuation Right Every Time 187

WAIT A MINUTE—​I SN’T IT A MISTAKE TO START A SENTENCE WITH HOWEVER IN THIS SENSE? Some usage guides say that you shouldn’t start a sentence with however in this sense of the word. The truth is, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with doing that, and nobody knows who invented the dictum against it, or when. Most stylists don’t observe this prohibition very strictly today. In 1994, for example, more than 60 percent of the American Heritage Usage Panel said that they ignored this so-​called guideline completely or followed it only sometimes. For some commentators it’s a stylistic question, not a grammatical one. Bryan A. Garner, for example, says that starting sentences with But or Yet has more of an impact than saying however.3 Saying however, with its three syllables followed by a comma, does seem a lot more formal. For centuries, though, many writers have used however to express stark and powerful contrast at the start of clauses or sentences. So beginning a sentence with however in this sense is a matter of style, not grammar, and this usage is part of Standard English.4 Decide for yourself when and where to say however, depending on the style and effect you’re aiming for.

HOWEVER AT THE END OF A SENTENCE “Sir—​Prof. Dumbledore? Can I ask you something?” “Obviously, you’ve just done so,” Dumbledore smiled. “You may ask me one more thing, however.” J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997)

Uma Thurman, on Buddhism: It’s more my religion than any other because I was brought up with it in an intellectual and spiritual environment. I don’t practice or preach it, however. In Cosmopolitan, Nov. 1995; cited in Warren Allen Smith, Celebrities in Hell (2002)


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

When you use however to end a sentence, put a comma before it. You may ask me one more thing, however. I don’t practice or preach it, however.

THE TRICKY PART: HOWEVER IN MID-​S ENTENCE You can’t say that civilization [doesn’t] advance, however, for in every war they kill you in a new way. Will Rogers, in The New York Times, Dec. 23, 1929

Snape, however, looked calmly back into Voldemort's face and, after a moment or two, Voldemort’s lipless mouth curved into something like a smile. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007)

We classify flowers and trees. In the dog world, however, trees don’t have names. They have a scent, and they have a specific use. Cesar Millan and Melissa Jo Peltier, Be the Pack Leader (2007)

Conan O’Brien’s plan for a perfect university: Semesters will last three days. Students will be encouraged to take 48 semesters off. They must, however, be on campus during their sophomore 4th of July. Commencement address at Dartmouth, June 11, 2011

An unemployed graphic designer named Charlie Schmidt recorded his cat Fatso playing a keyboard in 1986. It wasn’t until 2009, however, that Fatso—​by then deceased—​gained fame on YouTube as “Keyboard Cat.”, June 9, 2013

To successfully lose weight after 40, you need to understand that imbalanced hormones and chemicals have a huge impact on your health. It IS possible, however, to live a clean, healthy, and long life—​ with a slim body, even after 40! Suzanne Somers, Everyday Health Media, 2014

However: How to Get the Punctuation Right Every Time 189

So far we’ve said that when you open a sentence or a clause with however in this sense, you should put a comma after it. And when you close a sentence with however, you should put a comma in front of it. That’s easy enough. The tricky part is knowing whether to surround however with commas in mid-​sentence. Here’s a guideline to help you get it right every time: If you put however in the midst of a complete sentence and it creates only a brief pause in the rhythm, surround it with commas. Snape, however, looked calmly back into Voldemort’s face In the dog world, however, They must, however, be on campus It wasn’t until 2009, however, Here’s a way to double-​check: Remove the word however from your sentence. If the sentence is grammatically complete without it, you were right to surround the word with commas. Snape looked calmly back into Voldemort’s face. In the dog world trees don’t have names. They must be on campus during their sophomore 4th of July. It wasn’t until 2009 that Fatso—​by then deceased—​gained fame on YouTube as “Keyboard Cat.” But be careful:  don’t connect two main clauses with however surrounded by commas. That will produce a comma splice. Use a period or a semicolon before however, and a comma after it to join two main clauses. Let’s double-​check an example: WRONG: It’s a beautiful hotel, however, it was so noisy that I won’t be going back there. If you remove however, it will be two separate sentences, not one: It’s a beautiful hotel. It was so noisy that I won’t be going back there.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

That tells you that you can’t surround the word with commas in this sentence. BETTER: It’s a beautiful hotel. However, it was so noisy that I won’t be going back there. or It’s a beautiful hotel; however, it was so noisy that I won’t be going back there. User’s comment on

You also could say, It’s a beautiful hotel, but it was so noisy that I won’t be going back there. See the lessons on SEMICOLONS on pages 267–​ 78, and THE DREADED COMMA SPLICE on pages 93–​98. Which version of this passage is correct? (A) I was very fortunate and didn’t personally encounter any bullies in school. However, bullies exist in many ways in life. (B) I was very fortunate and didn’t personally encounter any bullies in school, however, bullies exist in many ways in life. Josh Hutcherson, interviewed on, Aug. 20, 2012

If you remove however from this passage, you get two sentences. That tells you that you can’t surround the word with commas in this case. Version B does that, and it’s a comma splice. What it needs is a semicolon or a period. Version A is correct.

A STYLISTIC TIP Keep in mind that it’s a good stylistic practice to vary your phrasing. So alternate however with but or though, or some other word or phrase that indicates a contrast.

However: How to Get the Punctuation Right Every Time 191

IS IT OKAY TO LEAVE OUT THE COMMAS? The Cambridge Guide to English Usage says that it’s common these days not to put commas around however, especially when it’s the first or second item in a simple sentence. By contrast, other style guides insist on the comma after However at the start of a sentence.5 And everyone agrees that it’s important to avoid comma splices by using the right punctuation with however in mid-​sentence. I recommend that to maintain clarity and rhythm in formal writing, you set however off with commas and other punctuation as advised in this lesson. For discussion of omitting commas with therefore and indeed, see pages 119–​28.


‘ ’  Lesson 25 

When to Hyphenate

Baravelli, you’ve got the brain of a four-​year-​old boy, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it. Groucho Marx in the 1932 film Horse Feathers

Mothers-​in-​law who wear a black armband to the wedding are expendable. Erma Bombeck, I Lost Everything in the Post-​Natal Depression (1974)

I usually take a two-​hour nap from 1 to 4. Yogi Berra, The Yogi Book (1998)

“Reality has a well-​known liberal bias.” Stephen Colbert, at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, Apr. 29, 2006

The team that wins two-​thirds of its one-​run games usually wins the pennant. Pete Rose, quoted in The Gigantic Book of Baseball Quotations, eds. Wayne Stewart and Roger Kahn (2007)



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

About Taylor Swift’s 2008 song “Love Story”: It was a crossover hit that became one the best-​selling singles of all time internationally and was once the best-​selling country song of all time. Wikipedia, Fearless

About Leonard Nimoy: As Mr. Spock, the elf-​eared, half-​Vulcan science officer and first mate of the Starship Enterprise, he created a role that turned him from a journeyman into a star. . . . As it turned out, Spock was a lifelong project. The five-​year mission stretched to nearly half a century. Robert Lloyd,, Feb. 27, 2015

About Taylor Swift: In her Grammy acceptance speech for Album of the Year, she . . . made what was presumed to be a less-​than-​veiled reply to Kanye West, who’d released a new song in which he’d bragged he’d made Swift famous., Apr. 14, 2016

I’m in awe every time I see Stephen Curry play. He combines a never-​before-​seen skill set with the panache and flair of a great performance artist. Misty Copeland, in Time, May 2–​9, 2016

Yesterday Oprah Winfrey officially endorsed Hillary Clinton. . . . Oprah thinks that Secretary Clinton will make a great second-​most-​powerful woman in the world. Stephen Colbert, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, CBS, June 17, 2016

Quick, if you walk into a McDonald’s, which would you rather see, a man-​eating chicken or a man eating chicken? This is an example of

When to Hyphenate 197

the big difference that a little hyphen can make. A man-​eating chicken would be pretty terrifying, because it would be a chicken that eats people. But to see a man eating chicken probably wouldn’t upset you at all, unless you’re a passionate vegan. Hyphens look like short dashes, but they do very different things.1 The bottom line is that hyphens connect words with each other and their parts, while dashes interrupt the forward movement of sentences, then inject a burst of energy or drama. So use hyphens for clarity—​but use dashes to grab your readers’ attention. Hyphens often are necessary to avoid confusion and to show how words function grammatically. There are rules about when you have to use them, though they’re not always consistent or binding. Whether or not to use dashes, by contrast, is completely up to you, as long as you follow the guidelines in Lesson 21. Educated readers will expect to see hyphens when the context clearly requires them. But, in most cases, if you never use a dash in your life, nobody will even notice.

USING HYPHENS TO DIVIDE WORDS AT THE END OF A LINE Long ago, in my youth (when we worked by torchlight and painted woolly mammoths on the walls of our caves), we used a primitive mechanical instrument known as a typewriter. It wasn’t computerized, of course, and that meant that when we ran out of space at the end of a line, we had to know where to place a hyphen to split a word into its parts. If you need to do that, the general rule is to divide words in sensible places, to make it easy for the reader to understand them. So divide between syllables in words like text-​ing, and between consonants in words like run-​ning. We usually don’t have to worry about those kinds of decisions now, since so many of us use word processors. But we do need to know when to use hyphens to connect words with each other and with their parts, especially prefixes.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

USING HYPHENS TO JOIN WORDS The word hyphen comes from the Greek for “together, in one.” That’s what hyphens do: they join two or more words together as if they were one.2 Another way to say that is that we use hyphens with many compounds. And that calls for a definition: a compound is made up of two or more words that come together as a single word or a group of words to form a unit. Closed compounds consist of one word, like football, basketball, baseball, quarterback, infield, and curveball. Open compounds are two or more separate words that form a linguistic unit, such as wide receiver, point guard, relief pitcher, home run, and base on balls. Some compounds are always hyphenated, including no-​hitter. Many hyphenated compounds consist of two nouns of equal importance, such as player-​manager. If you’ve had enough examples from sports, we can list some other compounds of that type, including singer-​songwriter, hunter-​gatherer, and city-​state.3 The problem is that writers and editors have to decide which compounds are hyphenated and which consist of one word, or two, or more. When you need to make that choice, the first thing to do is to check a good dictionary. But some compounds aren’t in dictionaries. What’s more, the situation is in flux. In 2007, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, for example, eliminated 16,000 hyphenated compounds. The editors examined billions of words in newspapers, books, websites, and blogs, and decided that most writers weren’t hyphenating those 16,000 compounds anymore. So they made many of them into single words. Bumble-​bee became bumblebee, for example, and cry-​baby became crybaby. And they split other hyphenated words into two, including fig leaf and ice cream.4

Dictionaries and the Waterbed Modern waterbeds were invented, appropriately enough, in San Francisco in 1968—​one year after the “Summer of Love.” Those of us who remember the ’60s know that waterbeds became a cultural phenomenon of the Sexual Revolution. But in this lesson we need

When to Hyphenate 199

to address a more mundane question: what’s the right spelling of the word waterbed? Dictionaries don’t always agree. Until recently, the OED entry was the hyphenated water-bed. Now it and its little sibling, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, spell it waterbed, which is the most common spelling in books. The American Heritage Dictionary uses that spelling, too. If that’s not confusing enough, Merriam-​Webster uses the open form, water bed. The good news is that you probably won’t have to worry about how to spell the word, because waterbeds have gone out of style. They account for less than 5 percent of new bed sales.5 Shifts in taste and style, as well as inconsistencies in usage, can make hyphenating a pain in the neck. In fact, the use of hyphens is more variable than any other aspect of writing in formal English.6 But there are general patterns. According to The Chicago Manual of Style, the trend is for frequently used compounds to become closed.7 This process has been going on for a while. In 1907, for example, motorcycle became more popular than the hyphenated form motor-​ cycle. It’s been the dominant spelling ever since. In the early 1970s, the closed spelling playgroup, which had been rare, overtook play group and is now used twice as often as the open form. Since the early 1980s, it’s been much more common for people to write online than on-​line. And since the late 1990s, website has become the preferred spelling. It’s now used four times more often than web site in books.8

CONSULT A DICTIONARY Check Merriam-​Webster, the Oxford English Dictionary, or another major dictionary to see if it lists a compound as open, closed, or hyphenated. When dictionaries give different spellings for a compound, choose one and be consistent in using it.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Keep in mind that new combinations created for a specific use may not be in the dictionary. When you write one of them, follow the guidelines in this lesson and the next one. Also, if your work is being published, check the publisher’s house style and follow it.9

USING HYPHENS WITH COMPOUNDS THAT MODIFY NOUNS In many cases, whether or not to hyphenate will depend on how the compound functions grammatically in your sentence. Here’s a guideline: If two or more words make sense only when you understand them together as an adjective that modifies the noun that follows, you can’t go wrong by hyphenating them: the best-​selling country song the elf-​eared, half-​Vulcan science officer five-​year mission This guideline includes using hyphens in compounds beginning with well-​: a well-​known liberal bias The same is true of compounds beginning with ill-​: I see one-​third of a nation ill-​housed, ill-​clad, ill-​nourished. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, second inaugural address, Jan. 20, 1937

When compounds consisting of common phrases appear before the nouns they modify, hyphenate them: a less-​than-​veiled reply a never-​before-​seen skill set

When to Hyphenate 201

an all-​or-​nothing-​gamble a devil-​may-​care attitude a happy-​go-​lucky guy a one-​in-​a-​million chance Which versions of the passages below are correct? About Taylor Swift: (A) She has moved to New York and gotten sexier, but without losing her country girl sweetness. (B) She has moved to New York and gotten sexier, but without losing her country-​girl sweetness. Zara Kessler,, June 8, 2015

Judd Apatow, explaining that he buys “a ton of books” but hardly ever reads one: (A) My buying-​to ​reading ratio is 387 to 1. (B) My buying to reading ratio is 387 to 1. “Judd Apatow: By the Book,” Sunday Book Review,, June 8, 2105

In the passage about Taylor Swift, if you think of country girl as a familiar phrase, version A is fine (see pages 215-16 below).If you don’t, choose version B. It hyphenates country-​girl so it’s clear that it modifies sweetness. In the quote by Judd Apatow, the compound that modifies ratio could baffle readers unless it’s hyphenated, as in version A.

USING HYPHENS TO AVOID AMBIGUITY OR MISREADINGS About Jerry’s apartment on Seinfeld: “Hey, buddy.” Thanks to a pop-​up re-​creation of the set in New York, Seinfeld fans can finally deliver Kramer’s greeting and


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

barge into Jerry’s apartment like the eccentric neighbor. To celebrate Seinfeld’s arrival on its streaming service, Hulu is re-​creating Jerry’s abode in a space in Manhattan. Hilary Lewis,, June 11, 2015

Use a hyphen so readers won’t mistake a word’s meanings: • Re-​creation and re-​creating in the passage above are hyphenated to show that they refer to creating Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment again, not to recreation in the sense of something you do to relax and have fun. • If you shop at a co-​op, for instance, the hyphen tells your reader you’re not patronizing some sort of coop. • When you re-​cover something, you put a new cover on it. The hyphen distinguishes the word from recover in the sense of returning to strength, health, or a normal state. • If you re-​press your shorts, the hyphen indicates that you’re pressing them again, not repressing them in the sense of restraining or suppressing them. • You may re-​sort the songs in your playlist or the pictures in your album, in the sense of rearranging their order. That’s different from resort as in resorting to doing something.

Re-​creation, re-​cover, re-​press, and re-​sort are extremely rare. A more common situation arises when you use a hyphen between familiar words to clarify your overall meaning in a sentence. Here are a few examples: • California got much-​needed rain. This means that the rain was needed urgently. • California got much needed rain, by contrast, tells us that a lot of (much) rain fell, and that California needed it. • I love my great-​aunt Mary means that you love your father or mother’s aunt, also known as your grandaunt. • I love my great aunt Mary, by contrast, means that you love your father or mother’s sister, who happens to be a wonderful aunt.

When to Hyphenate 203

• A rare-​bookstore sells rare books. • A rare bookstore is rare in the sense of being unusual, or one of very few stores that sell books. • A small-​business owner owns a small business. • A small business owner could be a short person who owns a business.

USING HYPHENS AFTER PREFIXES In general, hyphenate after a prefix to separate two i’s, two a’s, or other combinations of the same letter. That can prevent confusion. For example, use hyphens in anti-​inflammatory, anti-​intellectual, and semi-​idiotic, since anti-​ and semi-​end with i, the same vowel as the letter that follows. Keep in mind, though, that words formed with prefixes normally have a closed spelling: words beginning with anti, for example, include the closed forms antibody, Antichrist, antiseptic, and antitoxin. But English is messy and these rules aren’t consistent. And as we’ve seen, dictionaries don’t always agree with each other. Merriam-​Webster lists the closed spellings antihero and antiwar, for instance, while the OED hyphenates them as anti-​hero and anti-​ war.10 Merriam-​Webster even uses the solid spellings of some words with doubled letters, such as preeminent, preempt, and reemerge. The OED, by contrast, hyphenates them, as pre-​eminent, pre-​empt, and re-​emerge. It’s worth reminding you here that if you have any doubt, check the spelling of compounds in your dictionary. When more than one choice is possible, choose one and stick with it. Use hyphens after prefixes followed by capitalized words and numbers, including dates: anti-​American, anti-​Semitism, mid-​1960s, pre-​Civil War, sub-​ Saharan, post-​World War II, and so forth


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As a general rule, use hyphens after the prefixes self-​ and ex-​ (meaning “former”): We hold these truths to be self-​evident. . . .  Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

An occasional compliment is necessary to keep up one’s self-​ respect. . . . When you cannot get a compliment any other way, pay yourself one. Mark Twain, Notebook, 1894

George Harrison was the first ex-​Beatle to record a number-​one album (All Things Must Pass) and single (“My Sweet Lord”). “George Harrison,” The New Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations, ed. Robert Andrews

Also hyphenate words beginning with all and many that begin with half: “No idea for a new growth business ever comes fully shaped. When it emerges, it’s half-​baked, and it then goes through a process of becoming fully shaped. Clayton M. Christensen, quoted by Nancy J. Lyons,, Feb. 1, 2002

Half-​Life is a science fiction video game series. I doubt if we will see another All-​American basketball athlete who is a Rhodes Scholar. We won’t see Bill Bradley again. Kareem Abdul-​Jabbar,, Feb. 7, 2002

Björk, speaking about Iceland: Most Icelandic people are really proud to be from there. . . . It’s sort of like an all-​around good, innocent place. Quoted in, June 2009

When to Hyphenate 205

Dodgers left-​hander Clayton Kershaw . . . endorses the idea of Mets righty Matt Harvey starting the All-​Star Game at Citi Field. Ken Rosenthal,, May 28, 2014

USING HYPHENS TO CONNECT LETTERS TO WORDS Now they show you how detergents take out bloodstains—​a pretty violent image there. I think if you’ve got a T-​shirt with a bloodstain all over it, maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem. Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in, Apr. 29, 2013

Use your power. Bring the X-​Men together. Guide us, lead us. . . .  Hugh Jackman, in the 2014 film X-​Men: Days of Future Past

About Amy Schumer: Trainwreck, the Judd Apatow-​directed comedy that she wrote and starred in, catapulted her to the top of Hollywood’s A-​list. Jonathan Van Meter, Vogue, July 2016

Use hyphens to join initial letters to words: A-​list A-​team C-​clamp e-​mail or email T-​shirt

T-​square V-​neck X-​Men X-​ray

But if a noun or an adjective comes before a letter or a number, the compound is normally open: The Magnificent Seven type A type A personality a size 6 dress a Page Six story in the New York Post


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

USING HYPHENS WITH NUMBERS Use hyphens to punctuate spelled-​out numbers from twenty-​one through ninety-​nine. When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant, I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-​one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years. Attributed to Mark Twain, but Twain was eleven years old when his father died.

When I’m Sixty-​Four. Title of 1967 song by the Beatles

twenty-​one sixty-​four Use hyphens with ages, lengths of time, and other measured amounts when they appear before the nouns they modify: the four-​year-​old boy a two-​hour nap one-​run games the sixty-​year-​old host a fourteen-​line poem a three-​hour tour a 309-​page Harry Potter


the boy was four years old

but but but

the nap lasts two hours games decided by one run the host was sixty years old


a poem of fourteen lines

but but

a tour of three hours a Harry Potter novel that was 309 novel pages long

Don’t hyphenate times like eight thirty unless they appear before the noun they modify: At eight thirty


an eight-​thirty flight

When to Hyphenate 207

Hyphenate simple fractions when they’re spelled out as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs: one-​third of a nation one-​run games one-​quarter empty one-​half two-​thirds But if the second element of a simple fraction is already hyphenated, don’t use a hyphen after the first element: two and one-​quarter When a fraction is joined to a noun in a compound, hyphenate it if you use it as an adjective, but not if you use it as a noun. a half-​mile run


a half mile

Don’t hyphenate compounds consisting of a number and a percentage: Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical. Yogi Berra, quoted in Paul Dickson, Baseballs’ Greatest Quotations, rev. ed. (2008)

The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the!%,”, May 2011

Eleven percent of respondents said they check their smartphones every few minutes and 41 percent said they check a few times an hour. . . . Another 20 percent said they check about once an hour. Summary of a 2015 Gallup survey,, July 9, 2015


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

90 percent mental Eleven percent of respondents 41 percent the upper 1 percent 2 percent milk

USING HYPHENS WITH NATIONALITIES Usage is divided about whether or not to hyphenate compounds that name nationalities and ethnic groups. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says that compounds of this type generally don’t need hyphens, but that people often hyphenate them anyway.11 The situation is a mess. Here are a few examples: African-​American or African American? The OED and Merriam-​Webster both spell this term with a hyphen, as African-​American. The OED notes, though, that the term is frequently unhyphenated. In actual use, African American without a hyphen is much more common.12 Asian-​American or Asian American? Merriam-​Webster uses the spelling Asian-​American even though the unhyphenated Asian American is far more common in general use. Irish-​American or Irish American? The OED lists only the hyphenated Irish-​American. In this case, actual usage agrees: the spelling is more common with a hyphen than without one, especially in British English. Italian-​American or Italian American?

When to Hyphenate 209

The OED entry is the hyphenated Italian-​American. British writers prefer the hyphen, but in American English the open form, Italian American, predominates. Merriam-​Webster doesn’t include this term. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, however, lists the closed form Italoamerican. And yet it uses a hyphen in the term Italo-​Austrian. Go figure. Mexican-​American or Mexican American? The OED hyphenates Mexican-​American, though writers use the unhyphenated form Mexican American far more often as both a noun and an adjective. Scotch Irish or Scotch-​Irish? The OED and Merriam-​Webster both hyphenate Scotch-​Irish. Actual usage does too. The hyphenated form is more dominant in British than in American usage.

USING HYPHENS TO FORM VERBS A hyphen can turn an open compound consisting of two nouns into a verb: an ice skate ➞ to ice-​skate a plea bargain ➞ to plea-​bargain a spot check ➞ to spot-​check Also use a hyphen with several other verbs consisting of two words: air-​condition mass-​produce right-​click speed-​read


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

But don’t hyphenate phrases made up of a verb and a preposition or an adverb: to break in to drop off to hurry up to run into to sit in to turn on

USING MULTIPLE HYPHENS Use multiple hyphens in common phrases when they appear before the noun they modify: one-​in-​a-​million chance once-​in-​a-​lifetime opportunity an all-​or-​nothing gamble Also use multiple hyphens with compounds created for specific contexts, when they appear in front of the noun they refer to.

HOW TO HYPHENATE TWO DIFFERENT WORD COMPOUNDS THAT SHARE A BASE Leonard Nimoy’s most beloved character was “the science-​and logic-​loving Mr. Spock.” Cynthia Littleton,, Feb. 28, 2015

Use a hyphen after the first part of the expression even when you don’t use the second part until later in the sentence. In the passage above, for example, the hyphen after science connects it to the second

When to Hyphenate 211

part of the expression, loving, even though loving doesn’t appear until later. Use hyphens to show that two or more word compounds share a single base. Which of the following is correct? (A) GoPro just announced the ‘Hero,’ a scaled-​back, entry-​level model that’s perfect for first-​time GoPro-​ers who don’t need . . . top-​of-​the-​line features. (B) GoPro just announced the “Hero,” a scaled back, entry level model that’s perfect for first time GoPro-​ers who don’t need . . . top of the line features. Alex Fitzpatrick,, Sept. 30, 2014

Version A correctly includes hyphens in each compound that modifies a subsequent noun.

‘ ’  Lesson 26 

When Not to Hyphenate

We saw in the previous lesson that you shouldn’t hyphenate open compounds like home run or closed compounds like football. We also saw that you shouldn’t use hyphens with compounds or prefixes if your dictionary doesn’t, or if the hyphen would create ambiguity. This lesson discusses other contexts in which you don’t need hyphens.

WHAT TO DO WHEN COMPOUNDS COME AFTER THE NOUN When you place modifiers after the noun, you normally don’t need to hyphenate them. His mission of five years. The liberal bias of reality is well known. But if a compound is hyphenated in the dictionary, authorities disagree about whether you should hyphenate it after a noun. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says that you should; The Chicago Manual of Style says that you don’t need to.



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

My advice is to feel free to use a hyphen if it makes your sentence easier to read: one-​third of a nation ill-​housed, ill-​clad, ill-​nourished

DON’T HYPHENATE COMPOUNDS IN THIS CONTEXT, TOO—​C AN YOU GUESS WHAT IT IS? Notice that the compounds below aren’t hyphenated even though they appear before the nouns they modify. Can you tell what they have in common? Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act. Truman Capote, attributed

In her book The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron helps highly sensitive people gain self-​knowledge, reframe their past experiences, heal, and feel okay when out in the world. There are some people who watch NASCAR for the highly skilled driving—​but most people watch it for the crashes. John Oliver,, June 7, 2013

This show doesn’t deserve an even slightly restless host. Jon Stewart, on his decision to leave The Daily Show, quoted in, Feb. 10, 2015

These compounds all begin with adverbs ending in ly. The guideline is, there’s no need to hyphenate a compound if the first word is an adverb ending in ly. That’s because there’s not much chance of confusion after an adverb that ends that way: badly written third act The Highly Sensitive Person highly skilled driving slightly restless host

When Not to Hyphenate 215

PROPER NOUNS The next point involves nouns that name specific people and unique places and things. They’re normally capitalized. What to Wear to a Lady Gaga Concert: 4 Outfits That Mother Monster Herself Would Applaud. Headline,, Aug. 10. 2014

You are probably familiar with ‘Happy,’ a Pharrell Williams song from the movie Despicable Me 2., May 3, 2014

The rule is that there’s no need to hyphenate compounds that begin with proper nouns: a Lady Gaga Concert a Pharrell Williams song a Jerry Seinfeld comedy routine the Los Angeles Dodgers a New York Times editorial an Iraq War veteran the United States Senate

WHEN YOUR MEANING IS CLEAR WITHOUT HYPHENATION: OPEN COMPOUNDS Seinfeld . . . celebrated over-​the-​top specificity and punch lines that could be boiled down to just a word or two (“shrinkage”; “serenity now”). Dave Itzkoff,, May 27, 2015

In the passage above, over-​the-​top is hyphenated. That’s no surprise: we’ve already seen that phrases that appear before the nouns they modify are hyphenated. But punch lines is also a compound, and it’s not hyphenated. Instead, it’s spelled as two words. Here’s why:


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

When compounds are so familiar that there’s no danger of ambiguity or misreading, you don’t need to hyphenate them. And as we’ve said, don’t hyphenate compounds that are listed in open form in your dictionary. That’s true of punch line and many other open compounds, including the ones we saw in Lesson 25: wide receiver, point guard, relief pitcher, home run, and base on balls.1 Even when a compound appears before the noun it modifies, if it’s a widely known term and the meaning is clear, you may choose not to hyphenate it: civil rights march foreign aid bill health insurance plan stock market bubble Check your dictionary when you’re not sure if two or more words form an open compound.

Mark Twain’s Lightning The difference between the almost-​right word and the right word is really a large matter—​it’s the difference between the lightning-​bug and the lightning. Mark Twain, correspondence, Oct. 15, 1888

In this famous passage, Twain used the hyphenated spelling lightning-​bug. At the time, American writers favored that spelling. A little over two decades later, though, their preferences switched, and the open form lightning bug became dominant in America. That’s the spelling that Merriam-​Webster uses today. By the 1940s, British writers, too, came to favor the open form lightning bug. But the OED still uses a hyphen in lightning-​bug.2 This gives you a taste of the messy process by which hyphens disappear from compounds—​or don’t.

When Not to Hyphenate 217

JUDGE FOR YOURSELF IF WORDS FORM COMPOUNDS Are Lady Gaga, Natalie Portman, Kristen Bell, Kim Kardashian, Reese Witherspoon, Peter Dinklage, and Danny DeVito little-​known celebrities or little known celebrities? In other words, do little and known form a compound in this case? Remember, if the words before the noun don’t form a single unit to modify it, you shouldn’t hyphenate them. The answer: Since Lady Gaga and the others listed above are all 5’3” or shorter, we can say that they’re relatively little. And since they’re all very famous, they’re also known. So, they’re little and known, or little known celebrities. But they’re not little-​known, a compound that means “not very well known.” If they were, they wouldn’t be celebrities.

A CONFESSION Now that we’ve gone over many of the main guidelines for using hyphens, it’s time to confess that a lot of the time hyphenating is a matter of style. First of all, there are national differences. Hyphens are more common in British than in American English, while Canadian and Australian usage falls somewhere in between the two.3 There’s also the issue of personal taste. In her book, Between You and Me, Mary Norris reminds us that you can get carried away with hyphens. Norris, who worked as a “page OK’er” in the copy department of The New  Yorker for over three decades, says that two of the senior proofreaders there had totally ­opposite views about hyphenating: one seemed to hyphenate everything, while the other, who valued the author’s voice over correct usage, hated anything extra in print. So it’s not surprising that some editing decisions at the magazine were personal. Norris says, for example, that the word deluxe, which started out as two words (de luxe), was


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

hyphenated at The New Yorker until one day in 2003, “when an editor in a particularly foul mood threw a fit and ripped the hyphen out of it.”4 My advice is not to use hyphens any more than you need to. Use them to make your meaning clear, to indicate the grammatical function of modifiers, and to agree with standard usage and your dictionary. If you’d like a more detailed discussion of compounds, I suggest The Chicago Manual of Style, The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style, Merriam-​Webster’s Guide to Punctuation and Style, and The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Or use the style guide of your profession. Here’s an illustration of when to hyphenate and when not to. George Clooney says that he won’t run for president: Despite years of whispers to the contrary, Oscar-​winner George Clooney—​America’s favorite [brown-]eyed gentleman movie star, Hollywood’s preeminent humanitarian—​[said,] “The answer is just, no.” Jen Yamato,, Oct. 17, 2015

In this passage, the compounds Oscar-​winner and [brown-]eyed are hyphenated because they each form a unit before a noun. But the closed spelling of preeminent is consistent with the spelling in the Merriam-​ Webster and American Heritage dictionaries.5

A CHALLENGE Where should you add hyphens to the passage below? Mark Twain’s story about looking for an easy mark to beat at pool: The game of billiards has destroyed my naturally sweet disposition. . . . One day a stranger came to town and . . . remarked: “I will be perfectly fair with you. I’ll play you left handed.” I felt hurt . . . and I determined to teach him a lesson. He won first shot, ran out, took my half

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dollar. . . . “If you can play like that with your left hand,” I said, “I’d like to see you play with your right.” “I can’t,” he said. “I’m left handed.” Speech at a billiard tournament, Apr. 24, 1906

The Answer: Hyphenate left-​handed and half-​dollar. They’re hyphenated in the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-​Webster. Don’t hyphenate naturally sweet disposition because it’s a compound that begin with an adverb ending in ly.

‘ ’  Lesson 27 

Parentheses and Square Brackets

About Jennifer Lawrence: According to breathless tabloid reports, Lawrence ate a “sandwich dipped in ketchup.” (“Um, a sandwich dipped in ketchup is a cheeseburger,” she observes.), Apr. 7, 2016

“I want to dedicate this song to my beautiful husband,” Beyoncé said before closing the show. . . . “I love you so much.” (JZ, while present at the show, did not appear onstage.), Apr. 28, 2016

The Thing Donald Trump Hates Most About Obama You’ll never guess. (Seriously, you won’t.) Headline and opening line,, Nov. 25, 2015

About Amy Schumer, who posted a video of herself putting deodorant on her thighs before the Met Gala: “No chafe,” she captioned the video, adding the hilarious (and honest) hashtag #NoThighGapNoProblem., May 3, 2016



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

“The Woody Allen Interview (Which He Won’t Read)” Headline,, May 4, 2016

About Woody Allen: Allen has churned out a movie a year—​from classic New York comedies (Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters) to Bergman-​ esque dramas (Interiors) to stylish London-​set crime capers (Match Point)—​since the 1980s., May 4, 2016

About Area 51 (the top-​secret military base in Nevada): Suspecting that deep secrets are hidden there—​in the form of captured aliens (dead or alive), crashed extraterrestrial spaceships and futuristic weaponry—​UFO diehards have long pushed the government to come clean about the facility. George Johnson,, May 13, 2016

Why Tech Support Is (Purposely) Unbearable. Headline,, July 3, 2016

Beyoncé is a virtuosic social commentator, and Madonna (still!) knows how to provoke. But . . . [Katy] Perry may be our most purely American reigning celebrity. Time, July 11–​18, 2016

The word parentheses originally referred to words that were inserted into texts as examples, explanations, or asides. By the late sixteenth century, though, the term came to refer to the curved upright lines that were placed around those inserted words. The British call them round brackets or just brackets. Parentheses are useful when you want to inject information to explain, illustrate, specify, or elaborate on something: (Interiors) (Match Point) (dead or alive)

Parentheses and Square Brackets 223

Parentheses are often found in informal writing, such as correspondence. But you also can use them in more formal contexts, especially to add illustrations or optional information or to supply dates or sources of quotes. You can use parentheses instead of dashes, commas, or other punctuation to suggest a sense of intimacy, candor, or surprise: (Seriously, you won’t.) hilarious (and honest) The Woody Allen Interview (Which He Won’t Read) Why Tech Support Is (Purposely) Unbearable Punctuate outside parentheses when you use them to insert information into a sentence: Area 51 (the top-​secret military base in Nevada): captured aliens (dead or alive), crashed extraterrestrial spaceships, and futuristic weaponry

COMPLETE SENTENCES INSIDE PARENTHESES Parentheses can contain complete sentences. When they do, the punctuation goes inside the closing parenthetical mark. (‘Um, a sandwich dipped in ketchup is a cheeseburger,’ she observes.) ( JZ, while present at the show, did not appear onstage.) (Seriously, you won’t.) (If you put a complete sentence with punctuation inside parentheses, you don’t need to put another punctuation mark after the parentheses.) But if you embed words in parentheses within a larger sentence (like this), you do need to close the sentence with punctuation.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

SQUARE BRACKETS You probably won’t use square brackets very often. In formal writing you might use them occasionally, to add words for clarity, for instance: But . . . [Katy] Perry may be our most purely American reigning celebrity Editors put square brackets around emendations when they correct or complete a text. In scholarly writing, you might add the bracketed word [sic] (which means “thus” in Latin) to show that you’ve just quoted an error, and you know it: He wrote, “We’re having a wonderful time in Hawaii. Wish you were her [sic].”

‘ ’  Lesson 28 


Men want to make women happy. We want to do it. We don’t know how to do it. Sometimes we do it and we don’t know how we did it. . . . We can’t do nothing. If you do nothing, she says, “I can’t believe you’re doing that.” We say, “I’m not doing anything.” She starts crying. Jerry Seinfeld, quoted in, Oct. 12, 2009

Now, be honest: this is a lesson you think you don’t need to read, isn’t it? You already know how to use periods, so you expect this to be boring and unnecessary, right? Well, maybe. When my students have trouble with periods, it’s usually because they’re not sure whether to put them inside or outside of a closing quotation mark. In fact, Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, says that’s the most common question that people ask.1 (See pages 243 and 249 below for the answer.) My students also need to review a few other uses of periods, which we’ll cover in this lesson. So bear with me, and we’ll finish with a discussion of the angry period in texts, instant messages, chats, and tweets. As you know, a period goes at the end of a declarative sentence—​one that declares or states something.2 You don’t use a period after a direct question or an exclamation. Keep in mind that this applies only to relatively formal writing, though. When you jot down a short note or make



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

a sign for a yard sale, for example, you don’t need periods. And in short electronic messages, for which there’s no teacher or editor to lay down the law, many periods are missing in action. And when they are present, they’ve often got an attitude. In formal writing, place periods at the end of declarative sentences. In the late sixteenth century in England, a period was a grammatically complete sentence. Just a few years later, though, the term came to refer to the punctuation mark that ends a sentence. That’s the meaning it still has in American usage, while the British generally call it a full stop. Shakespeare was the first to write the term full stop when he had one character in the Merchant of Venice end another’s babbling by saying, “Come, the full stop.”3 The period is the oldest of our modern punctuation marks, and, if you think about it, it’s the only one that we can’t do without in formal writing. It’s the only punctuation that you’ll need in many sentences, as in these by Jerry Seinfeld: Men want to make women happy. We want to do it. We don’t know how to do it. Sometimes we do it and we don’t know how we did it. We can’t do nothing.

ABBREVIATIONS, CONTRACTIONS, AND NUMBERS Traditionally, periods have been used to mark abbreviations like B.C., A.D., a.m., p.m., and Ph.D., as well as contractions like Dr. and Mrs. That’s increasingly rare today, which is why we often see BC, AD, am, pm, Dr, Mrs, and PhD. The fact is, though, that there’s no real consistency about this, especially with lowercase abbreviations. Bryan A. Garner says, for instance, that rpm looks odd and am (as a measure of time) invites confusion with the verb am. He prefers r.p.m. and a.m. The Chicago Manual of Style calls for periods in abbreviations that end

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in a lowercase letter, such as i.e., etc., a.m., p.m., Dr., and Mrs. It requires no periods with abbreviations in capital letters like MD, CEO, UK, US, NY, and IL. This guideline still applies even if lowercase letters appear with the capitals letters (PhD). The Associated Press Stylebook differs. It calls for periods with M.D. and Ph.D. as well as Dr., Mr., Mrs., the Rev., and other titles. And The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage advises using periods in abbreviations when the letters stand for separate words (F.B.I., I.B.M., N.R.A.) but not in acronyms, where the abbreviations are pronounced as words (NATO, CUNY, Alcoa, modem, radar, sonar).4 Even in journalism, there’s no agreement, however. The Times uses periods in the abbreviation for the National Basketball Association, for example: The Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Golden State Warriors to win the N.B.A. championship., June 20, 2016

Other news sources don’t: LeBron James, NBA Champion Cavs, Greeted by Thousands in Cleveland. Headline,, June 20, 2016

Periods are normally expected in certain abbreviations, including etc., i.e., and e.g. Periods also mark decimal points (1.5), amounts of money ($1.99, £2.99), and (in British usage) hours and minutes. My advice is that you don’t need to use periods with familiar capitalized abbreviations like these: ABC BBC CBS GOP HBO NBC PBS



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

But if you use a style guide that calls for periods in these abbreviations, follow it. If you have any doubt, consult a dictionary. If the abbreviation is the name of an organization or a company, use the form that it uses. • Check out its website or Twitter page. You’ll find that the Central Intelligence Agency, for example, prefers CIA. • Or, in the case of the rock band R.E.M., look at its album covers.5

A FEW HINTS: • If you use an abbreviation with a period at the end of a sentence, there’s no need for a second period. • If you put an abbreviation inside parentheses at the end of a sentence, though, you do need the additional period to close the sentence.6

ELLIPSES DOTS If you omit a part of a text from the midst of a sentence that you’re quoting, use three dots to mark the place of the omission. They indicate an ellipsis.7 You can do it with a word, a phrase, or a larger unit of text: At the end of your life, all the things you thought were periods . . . turn out to be commas. There was never a full stop in any of it. Matthew McConaughey, quoted in, Mar. 28, 2011

SOME HINTS FOR USING ELLIPSES IN FORMAL WRITING: • Remember that the remaining text in your quote should be grammatical.

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• Be careful not to misrepresent the overall meaning of the text. • If you leave out text from the end of a sentence, add a fourth dot. The first dot is the period that closes the sentence:

we don’t know how we did it. . . . We can’t do nothing. • The Chicago Manual of Style notes that writers normally don’t use ellipsis points before the first word in a quote. They also usually don’t use them after the last word, unless they want to show that they’ve deliberately left a sentence incomplete.8

Ellipses in Textspeak Ellipses have become extremely common in texts, emails, and other electronic messages, but they aren’t always used in traditional ways. They often consist of four or more dots, and they’re chameleons: sometimes they replace commas, while other times they show up where a single period or a question mark would go in formal writing. Clay Shirky, a writer who teaches interactive telecommunications at NYU, believes that digital ellipses reproduce the flow of everyday conversation: they represent the pauses and false starts that are a normal aspect of speech. Many of us respond to texts and emails quickly, often within seconds, and we tend to write as if we’re speaking. That’s part of a style that’s sometimes called textspeak: the use of electronic communication to simulate the ways that people actually talk, typically through abbreviations, emoticons, etc. Other scholars argue that ellipses in texts can suggest skepticism or unhappiness, or that they’re a way of saying, “Hold on, I’ll say more in my next message.” The linguist Mark Liberman notes that ellipses also can invite a response. In that sense, they’re the opposite of a single period, which in the digital world can stand for “This conversation is over, you jerk.”9


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Some people say that using ellipses in these ways is just lazy. Another way to look at it, though, is that in texts and other digital formats, people feel free from the habits of standard punctuation. They’re inventing their own styles to mimic the spoken voice, and ellipses are among the most versatile electronic tools available.

“THE ANGRY, AGGRESSIVE PERIOD” Yes, you read that right. This may seem weird to those of you who don’t use social media much, but the humble little period has developed a nasty attitude in digital messages. It can be unfriendly, ironic, angry, even aggressive. Stories about that began to surface a few years ago with titles like “The Period Is Pissed” and “Petulant Punctuation.” Young people (and some older ones) often don’t bother to use periods at the end of texts and instant messages. David Crystal notes that the same thing is happening on Facebook, WhatsApp, and Twitter. Since tweets are very short, periods often don’t seem necessary. So when you do use a period, it can seem to make an emphatic point. As Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at Berkeley, observes, it’s like saying, “I’m not going—​period!”10 Researchers have found that undergraduates also consider text messages with periods to be less sincere than messages without them. That seems to apply specifically to digital messages, since the students don’t feel that way about handwritten notes. You don’t have to be a millennial to feel the pressure about this, incidentally. Even Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) says that it affects her writing. “Although my training tells me not to overuse exclamation points because they are shouty and juvenile,” she says, “I find myself using them because I fear being seen as unfriendly or insincere if I only use a period.” Some research confirms that young people do interpret exclamation points as signs of sincerity.11 As Ben Crair wrote in the New Republic, if you invite someone out for dinner and the reply is “we could do that.” (with a period, not an exclamation point), there’s a good chance you’ll end up eating Papa John’s

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alone that night. One specialist in natural language processing found an even nastier association with periods. He examined a large database of directed social media interactions and discovered that the powerfully obscene phrase “[Expletive] you” is often followed by a period, not an exclamation point, as older folks like me might have expected.12 See the lesson on EXCLAMATION POINTS on pages 177–​84.

Thank You. I Don’t Care If You Live or Die After reading that women use exclamation points much more often than men do, five women on the staff of BuzzFeed tried to go seventy-​t wo hours without putting any exclamation points in digital messages. They found that using periods instead just didn’t work, though. One reported, “Saying ‘Thank-​you.’ with a ­period sounds angry. Complimenting other people felt impossible.” Periods make nice things sound sarcastic, she said, and concluded, “ ‘Thank you.’ with a period is like saying, ‘I don’t care if you live or die.’ ”13

‘ ’  Lesson 29 

Question Marks

What light through yonder window breaks? Romeo, in Romeo and Juliet, Act 3, Scene 2 (1591–​95)

Am I my brother’s keeper? Cain, in Genesis 4:9 (KJV, 1611)

Will you marry me? Did he leave you any money? Answer the second question first. Groucho Marx to Margret Dumont, in the 1933 film Duck Soup

Who’s on first? Lou Costello, who first performed this routine with Bud Abbot on the radio in Feb. 1938

The great question that has never been answered . . . is “What does a woman want?” Sigmund Freud, quoted in Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1955)

George Walker Bush: [a]‌great President or the greatest president? Stephen Colbert asked several different guests this question on Comedy Central’s Colbert Report



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Why are you afraid of love? What are you hiding? Are you cheating on me? Lyrics from Beyoncé’s 2016 visual album Lemonade, quoted in, Apr. 2016

J. K. Rowling: “What do you think the Harry Potter stories are about?” John Tiffany: “Learning to deal with death and grief.” Quoted in, June 6, 2016. After this conversation, Tiffany became the director of the play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

You might think it would be pretty hard to say anything interesting about question marks, but Roy Peter Clark makes this intriguing observation:  the question mark may be the most profoundly human form of punctuation. That’s because it imagines the other person, the one the writer or speaker is talking to, in a way that no other punctuation mark does.1 The question mark has been around for a long time, and nobody knows for sure who invented it. One theory is that the curve of the question mark was modeled on the tail of an inquisitive cat. That’s a charming myth, but there’s no real evidence to support it. Another explanation is that medieval scholars wrote quaestio, meaning “question” in Latin, at the end of sentences that asked questions. They abbreviated the word as qo, with the q written above the o, and that became the question mark. There’s no evidence for that one either, though. What we can say is that the question mark first appeared in liturgical manuscripts as a sign that indicated a rising tone of voice when asking a question. It’s possible that the eighth-​century Anglo-​Saxon scholar and poet Alcuin created it by placing a symbol resembling a lightning flash above a point that stood for a full stop. The new punctuation mark spread quickly to centers of learning, but nearly a thousand years passed before people began to use it consistently the way we do today. Incidentally, the term question mark is so familiar that it may surprise

Question Marks 235

you to hear that this name didn’t exist until the middle of the nineteenth century.2 Most of the time, it’s easy to use question marks. The general rule is simple: If you ask a direct question, end it with a question mark.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE There are other uses for the question mark, and there are sentences that look like questions that don’t take this mark. Here are the most important ones.

QUESTION MARKS THAT INDICATE UNCERTAINTY Geoffrey Chaucer (1343?–​1400) One way to show that you’re uncertain about a fact, especially a date, is to follow it with a question mark. Some writers put a question mark inside parentheses before or after a word to show they’re not sure about it.3

INDIRECT QUESTIONS Sometimes I am asked if I know “the response to Auschwitz”; I answer that not only do I not know it, but that I don’t even know if a tragedy of this magnitude has a response. Elie Wiesel, “Preface to the New Translation,” Night (2006)

People asked if I could have played the Terminator. Are you kidding? Not a chance. I never could have played the Terminator. Sylvester Stallone, quoted in, July 18, 2010


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Somebody asked me earlier if I thought it was really important to tell stories about women’s struggles. And I said yes, but at the same time, it’s also important to tell stories about women’s triumphs, women being slackers, women being criminals, women being heroes. Diablo Cody, quoted in, Feb. 6, 2013

During the seventeenth century, when people spoke about a question that had already been asked, sometimes they used a question mark and sometimes they didn’t. An eighteenth-​century grammarian put a stop to that when he dictated the rule we now follow: If a sentence refers indirectly to a question that someone asked in the past, don’t put a question mark after it. asked if I know “the response to Auschwitz”; asked if I could have played the Terminator. asked me earlier if I thought it was really important to tell stories about women’s struggles. Be especially careful with the phrase I wonder. In general, if a speaker says that she wonders about something, don’t use a question mark. In these cases, I wonder will typically be followed by words like if, what, where, whether, who, or why: Twinkle, twinkle, little bat! How I wonder what you’re at! The Mad Hatter, in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, ch. 7 (1865)

I wonder if other dogs think poodles are members of a weird religious cult. Rita Rudner, attributed

Question Marks 237

I wonder what the most intelligent thing ever said was that started with the word “dude.” Demetri Martin, on Comedy Central Presents (2004)

Okay, I am happy with the way I look, but . . . when I read some of these scripts I’m sent and they describe the heroine as ‘incredibly beautiful,’ I wonder why they sent it to me. Anna Kendrick, quoted in (Toronto Star), Dec. 27, 2012

But if you follow I wonder with punctuation, then a direct question, end with a question mark: “If you have stage fright, it never goes away. But then I wonder: is the key to that magical performance . . . fear?” Stevie Nicks, attributed

STATEMENTS, REQUESTS, INVITATIONS, AND DEMANDS IN THE FORM OF QUESTIONS What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! Hamlet, in Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2 (1599–​1602)

This quote from Hamlet may look like a series of questions, but it’s actually a series of exclamations. As David Crystal notes, in 1623 the First Folio put question marks after each of these utterances except the first one. Hamlet actually isn’t questioning anything here, though.4 So modern editors have supplied exclamation points instead of question marks.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Use a different type of punctuation, not a question mark, after certain requests, invitations, or demands that you pose as questions. Here are two examples: Why don’t you take a break. Will you please knock it off ! If you used question marks, you might be asking direct questions and expecting answers, something like this: Why don’t you take a break? Meaning: Explain to me why you’re still at it. One possible answer: Back off, you idiot! I’m not tired. In some cases, though, a question mark can reflect a rising intonation in a statement that has the form of a question.5 You’re actually making a point rather than asking something. Your tone may be ironic or sarcastic and the question mark can suggest surprise, disagreement, exasperation, or disbelief. The examples below end in question marks, but they could end in exclamation points: Is that a fact? Who cares? And you believed it? Is there a difference between them? Some speakers have a habit of making statements using the intonation patterns of questions. See the box below.

Uptalk? The dean called again? Long distance? He said thanks a lot? He said you’d understand? Richard Russo, Straight Man, ch. 16 (1997)

Question Marks 239

In the passage above, a secretary gives her boss a factual message. The punctuation tells us, though, that she says it with a rising tone of voice at the end of each statement. It’s as if she’s checking that he understands the significance of what she’s saying. You may have heard people speak that way. Linguists call it uptalk. David Crystal points out that it was first noticed in the speech of young women in New Zealand, Australia, and California in the 1980s. Since then it has spread among both women and men—​some of whom aren’t so young. In creative writing, it’s a way of showing that someone is making a statement and asking a question at the same time.6 Don’t use it in formal writing, however.

‘ ’  Lesson 30 

Quotation Marks

Mark Twain said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” Quoted in More Maxims of Mark, ed. Merle Johnson (1927)

The humorist Will Rogers observed, “You know, everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” Quoted in New York Times, Aug. 31, 1924

The comedian Gracie Allen said, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.”1 In a love note to her husband, George Burns, as she was dying in 1964. Quoted in Peter B. Panagore, Two Minutes for God: Quick Fixes for the Spirit (2007)

Jim Carrey said, “Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.” From the 2003 film Bruce Almighty

Justin Timberlake, on being cool: “Don’t be cool. Be passionate. Be dedicated. Be tenacious. . . . I’ve made a career of doing things that I should not be doing. I wasn’t cool about it.” Quoted in “Justin Timberlake: #Hashtag of the Year,”, Dec. 2013 241


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

George Clooney, teasingly discussing Matt Damon, whom he directed in the 2014 film Monuments Men: “It’s not easy to direct Matt Damon. . . . I catch him stealing every once in a while. Sometimes he’ll come out of your trailer and your money is just gone. He also has temper tantrums. He wears these huge heels. He’s tiny.” Quoted in, Feb. 6, 2014

Quotation marks, flying in pairs above the baseline on which the letters sit, have two main jobs. One is to surround titles. The other is to show that you’re repeating something word for word. That’s called a direct quotation. My students often have problems punctuating direct quotes, so most of this lesson will focus on that. But quotation marks do other things, too, and we’ll discuss them as well. They can shine a spotlight on specific words to which you want to bring attention, for example. They can surround a definition. Sometimes they even convey skepticism or irony. Some people say that they can “sneer.” Quotation marks are so familiar that you might think they’ve been around for millennia. But they’re actually a pretty recent invention, historically speaking. Writers and readers got by without them for many centuries. In fact, they were created only three hundred years ago. Before that, scribes had tried various ways of making quotes visually distinct on the page, including writing them in capital letters or underlining them. Another trick was to put an ancient mark called a diple in the margins opposite quotes. In the sixteenth century, printers represented the diple with semicircular comma marks, and over time they transformed it from an annotation mark in the margins into a new kind of punctuation within the text. By 1714, English printers were using this mark as we do:  to open and close quotes. One year later, the term “quotation mark” was born.2 By the end of the eighteenth century this mark was catching on, though even now the rules for how to use it haven’t totally settled down. Journalists have their own set of guidelines, for example. And the Americans and the British have different styles of punctuating quotes. This lesson

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illustrates American usage, but it includes a discussion of British practices as well.

PUNCTUATING BEFORE A QUOTE Put double quotation marks (“ ”) around direct quotations and be sure to always use quotation marks in pairs. When you refer to the speaker or writer before a direct quote, use a comma after the name: Mark Twain said, Will Rogers observed, Gracie Allen said, Jim Carrey said, In some cases, you might choose to use a colon instead. William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk on Star Trek, told obsessed fans: “Get a life, will you people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show!” In a skit on Saturday Night Live, NBC, Dec. 20, 1986

See the discussions of block quotations below.

PUNCTUATING AT THE END OF A QUOTE: COMMAS AND PERIODS When your quote ends with a comma or a period, put it inside the closing quotation mark:3 Naked people have little or no influence on society.” only on different subjects.” “Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.” I wasn’t cool about it.” He’s tiny.”


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

QUOTES WITH QUESTION MARKS OR EXCLAMATION POINTS When the Constitutional Convention ended in 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied. Quoted in American Historical Review (1906)

“Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?” Woody Allen in “Woody Allen: Rabbit Running,” Time, July 3, 1972

Woody Allen asked, “What if everything is an illusion and nothing exists?” He concluded, “In that case, I definitely overpaid for my carpet.” Woody Allen, “Selections from the Allen Notebooks,” Without Feathers (1975)

Mila Kunis, speaking about using dating sites to pick guys for her girlfriends: “It’s online shopping!” Interview in Glamour, Aug. 2012

“[Do] you think I’m going to tell you that?” Louis C. K.’s answer to the question “What is your greatest fear?” on a questionnaire,, Jan. 2013

Jack Nicholson told Jennifer Lawrence that she looks like an old girlfriend of his. “Oh really?” she responded. “Do I look like a new girlfriend?” ABC News Video, Feb. 25, 2013

Olivia Wilde, on telling directors that she can play a character of any age between eighteen and thirty-​five:

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“Sure, I’m a freshman in college! Can’t you tell by my ponytail and henna tattoo?” “Of course I’m a 34-​year-​old neuroscientist. Did you not see my lab coat and sensible shoes?” Quoted in, Oct. 2013

“Why do they call it rush hour when nothing moves?” Robin Williams, quoted in, Aug. 12, 2014

“You’re worse than my mother!” Amal Clooney, after being asked if she and George were planning to have a baby soon; quoted in, Jan. 11, 2015

After Jon Stewart announced that he would leave The Daily Show: “Where will I get my news every night?” asked Bill Clinton in a tweet. Timothy Egan, “Jon Stewart’s America,”, Feb 12, 2015

“Hallelujah!” sang the chorus. Questions that Jerry Seinfeld has asked his guests on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee: “What kind of underwear to you wear?” “Have you noticed that orange juice now comes in a variety of pulps?” Quoted in, May 27, 2015

A Snapchat conversation between a little boy named Sid and Kim Kardashian: Sid: “Are you famous?” Kim K: “I don’t like to use that term.” Sid: “How are you famous?” Kim K: “That’s up for question, too.” Quoted in, July 12, 2016


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Put question marks and exclamation points inside the closing quotation marks if they’re part of the text being quoted. In other words, if you’re quoting a question, the question mark goes inside the quotation marks: “a republic or a monarchy?” “Oh really? Do I look like a new girlfriend?” “my ponytail and henna tattoo?” “my lab coat and sensible shoes?” “Why do they call it rush hour when nothing moves?” “How are you famous?” If your quote is an exclamation or a command, put the exclamation point inside the quotation marks: “It’s online shopping!” “You’re worse than my mother!” If you put the question mark or exclamation point inside the closing quotation mark and then refer to the speaker, don’t use a comma. “Where will I get my news every night?” asked Bill Clinton “Hallelujah!” sang the chorus. Hint:  Don’t place both a question mark and a period at the end of a sentence; choose one or the other.

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COLONS, SEMICOLONS, DASHES, ASTERISKS Seinfeld . . . concluded, “All fathers essentially dress in the clothing style of the last good year of their lives”—​a joke about aging-​male despair couched in a joke about fashion. Jonah Weiner,, Dec. 20, 2012

As a general rule in formal writing, put colons, semicolons, dashes, and asterisks after the closing quotation mark.

WHAT IF YOU ASK A QUESTION INVOLVING A QUOTE BUT THE QUOTE ITSELF ISN’T A QUESTION? Did the President really say, “They misunderestimated me”? George W. Bush did say that in a speech in Arkansas, Nov. 2000

Jerry Seinfeld asked in a tweet, is there now “a Cespedes for the rest of us”? Tweeted July 31, 2015, after the Mets acquired Yoenis Cespedes

What is a “Becky”? In the three passages above, none of the quoted texts are questions, so the question marks go after the closing quotation marks: “They misunderestimated me”? the rest of us”? What is a “Becky”? If question mark isn’t part of the text you’re quoting, put it outside of the closing quotation mark.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

PUNCTUATING WHEN YOU INTERRUPT A QUOTE “Why, a four-​year-​old child could understand this report,” Groucho Marx declared. “Run out and find me a four-​year-​old child.” From the 1933 film Duck Soup

“Organized crime in America takes in over forty billion dollars a year,” said Woody Allen. “This is quite a profitable sum, especially when one considers that the Mafia spends very little for office supplies.” Woody Allen, “A Look at Organized Crime,” The Insanity Defense: The Complete Prose (2007); first published in New Yorker, Aug. 15, 1970

Matt Damon, on being an ordinary guy: “I’m not Brad Pitt or George Clooney,” he says. “Those guys walk into a room and the room changes. I think there’s something more . . . [of an] Everyman about me.” Maggie Bullock,, Dec. 15, 2011

When you interrupt a quotation to mention the speaker or writer, (1) use a comma, then complete the quotation, or (2) use a period, then continue the quotation in a new sentence.

Either way, surround both parts of the quote with double quotation marks. Which versions of the sentences below are correct? (A) The columnist and author Thomas Friedman observed, ‘No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other’.

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(B) The columnist and author Thomas Friedman observed, “No two countries that both have a McDonald’s have ever fought a war against each other.” New York Times, Dec. 8, 1996

( A) “You can’t handle the truth”! (B) “You can’t handle the truth!” Jack Nicholson, in the 1992 film A Few Good Men

Version B of the passage describing Friedman’s observation correctly places double quotation marks around the quoted text and puts the period inside the closing quotation mark. In Jack Nicholson’s line, the exclamation point is part of the quotation, so it belongs inside the quotation marks. Version B is correct.

AN EXCEPTION TO THE RULE Here’s an exception to the rule about putting periods inside quotation marks: If you cite a reference in parentheses after the quotation, put the punctuation after the reference: The Nobel-​winning economist concluded his essay by emphatically declaring, “Yada, yada, yada” (page 10).

The British Style of Using Quotation Marks In unpublished writing, the British usually surround direct quotes with double quotation marks, just as Americans do. (Quotation marks are also called inverted commas in British usage.) In British printed texts, by contrast, single quotation


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

marks (‘ ’) are common, though there’s some variation among publishing houses. The guidelines I list here are based on the Oxford University Press house style for British publication:4

• Surround direct quotations with single quotation marks. • If you’re quoting a complete sentence, put the punctuation inside the closing quotation mark. • If you quote just a word or an incomplete sentence, put the punctuation outside the closing quotation mark. • Use double quotation marks around a quote within a quote. Here’s an example, about Kris Jenner and Khloé Kardashian:

“Kris posted a sweet message on Instagram, praising Khloé for being ‘the light of our family through thick and thin’ ”., June 27, 2016

SKIPPING PARTS OF A QUOTED TEXT My wife was an immature woman. . . . I would be home in the bathroom, taking a bath, and my wife would walk in whenever she felt like it and sink my boats. Woody Allen, “I Had a Rough Marriage,” monologue, 1964

Use three dots to indicate that you’ve omitted words from a quotation. If the words you’ve omitted are at the end of a sentence, add a fourth dot; that’s the period at the end of the sentence. See the lesson on PERIODS on pages 225–31.

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WHEN SHOULDN’T YOU PUT QUOTATION MARKS AROUND QUOTES? ✻✻ BLOCK QUOTATIONS If the quoted text is substantial, you can precede it with a colon and indent it as a block quotation. Don’t surround it with quotation marks. Mark Twain told the Washington Correspondents’ Club: Wheresoever you place woman, sir—​in whatever position or estate—​she is an ornament to that place she occupies, and a treasure to the world. Look at the noble names of history! Look at Cleopatra! Look at Desdemona! Look at Florence Nightingale! Look at Joan of Arc! Look at Lucretia Borgia! Well, suppose we let Lucretia slide. . . . And, sir, I say with bowed head and deepest veneration, look at the mother of Washington! She raised a boy that could not lie—​could not lie. But he never had any chance. It might have been different with him if he had belonged to a newspaper correspondents’ club. “Eulogy of the Fair Sex,” quoted in the Washington Star, Jan. 13, 1868

A couple of days after Mark Twain’s home was burglarized, he put a notice on the front door to guide future thieves: There is nothing but plated ware in this house, now and henceforth. You will find it in that brass thing in the dining room over in the corner by the basket of kittens. If you want the basket, put the kittens in the brass thing. Do not make a noise—​it disturbs the family. . . . Please close the door when you go away. Very truly yours, S. L. Clemens Mark Twain, 1908; quoted in Mark Twain’s Helpful Hints for Good Living (2004)


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

✻✻ QUOTING INDIRECTLY or PARAPHRASING Yogi Berra helpfully explained that he really hadn’t said all of the funny things that he had said. Steve Marcus, “Color Yogi a Happy Guy,” Newsday, February 24, 1986

Jerry Seinfeld says that men want the same thing from women that they want from underwear: a little bit of support and a little bit of freedom. Oprah says that what a woman wants from a man is to feel appreciated, which means knowing that her presence and opinion are valued. “Oprah Talks to Jerry Seinfeld,” O, The Oprah Magazine, oprah. com, November 2007

When you quote indirectly or paraphrase, don’t use quotation marks. Yogi Berra helpfully explained that he really hadn’t Jerry Seinfeld says that men want Oprah says that what a woman wants

QUOTATION MARKS AROUND TITLES My favorite poem is “Jabberwocky.” “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills Africa, ch. 1 (1935)

Place quotation marks around the titles of short stories, short poems, songs, articles, chapters in books, theses and other unpublished works, single episodes of TV shows, and other short works. “Jabberwocky”

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Italicize the titles of major or freestanding works: books, plays, journals, movies, very long poems, paintings, ships, aircraft, species, and law cases.5 Huckleberry Finn

Rules for Journalists If you’re a journalist, you should know that the Associated Press and the New York Times style guides call for quotation marks, not italics, to mark the titles of books, movies, plays, albums, and other long compositions. The exceptions are the Bible and reference books, including catalogues, dictionaries, almanacs, encyclopedias, and similar publications. Those take neither quotation marks nor italics. The Times also instructs writers not to put slang or jargon in quotation marks, since that would suggest condescension. Both of those guidelines contradict standard practice outside of journalism. The AP also sets rules for running quotations—​those in which a quote fills a full paragraph, then continues onto a new paragraph. When that happens, it advises writers not to put a closing quotation mark at the end of the first paragraph, but to begin the continuation of the quote in the new paragraph with one. That’s the general practice used outside of journalism as well.

QUOTATION MARKS AROUND WORDS OR PHRASES THAT YOU WANT TO DRAW ATTENTION TO OR DEFINE The examples below are all direct quotations, but I don’t surround them with quotation marks, as I do in the rest of this lesson. That makes it easier to show how to punctuate quoted words or phrases inside larger quotations.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

In my youth there were words you couldn’t say in front of a girl; now you can’t say “girl.” Tom Lehrer, American humorist, interview in The Oldie (1996)

Tell me, “friend,” when did Saruman the Wise abandon reason for madness? Ian McKellen, as Gandalf in the 2001 film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

“Colin” is the sort of name you give your goldfish for a joke. Colin Firth, in Observer, Sep. 1, 2002

“Goofy” was the word that was used most often by my sisters because I’ve been this tall ever since I was twelve years old. Will Smith, quoted in, March 4, 2005

“Blog”: [the] worst word of the twentieth century. Jerry Sinfeld, on “AOL Unscripted,” Moviefone Video, 2007

The French have no word for “entrepreneur.” George W. Bush, attributed by Dick Cavett in opinionator.blogs., Feb. 4, 2007. discredits the claim that Bush said this

Jerry Seinfeld was born in the Long Island town of Massapequa, which he says is an old Indian name that means “by the mall.” Quoted in, Dec. 16, 2007

Global Language Monitor recently revealed that “Lady Gaga” topped the list of the most-​searched fashion terms, with “no pants” coming in third. Horacio Silva, New York Times, March 4, 2010

On common stumbling blocks to good writing: One of the simpler ones is that you have to find a different way to say “say.” If someone says something in one paragraph, then he has

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to “aver” it in the next, then he has to “declare” it, then he has to “shout” it. Roger Rosenblatt, quoted in, Feb. 3, 2011

“Siri” is used as an acronym for “Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface,” but one of its creators originally chose the name because “siri” means “beautiful victory” in Norwegian., Mar. 29, 2012

“MOOC” stands for “massive open online courses,” which deliver elite college instruction to anyone in the world with an Internet connection. Millions of people have enrolled, but most of them never do an assignment and few compete the courses. Tamar Lewin,, Apr. 29, 2013

Jerry Seinfeld, on how he makes up words for fun with his 11-​year-​ old son: I said, “You know, your dad has made up some words that have caught on.” And he said, “Really? Like what, ‘unfunny?’ ” On Real Time with Bill Maher, HBO, Sept. 12, 2014

Even people who have never seen any of the Star Trek television series or movies know and use the words “Vulcan” and “Spock.” Alessandra Stanley,, Feb. 27, 2015

About Mr. Spock’s rationality: Today we might say he’s on the spectrum. In fact, we do: a Google search combining “Spock” and “Asperger’s” returns 40,900 hits. Robert Lloyd,, Feb. 27, 2015

About words and phrases that come from Shakespeare: As long as we speak of “star-​crossed lovers” or “cold comfort” or “a pound of flesh” or “a laughing stock” or “a wild goose chase” . . . as long as we use phrases like “It’s Greek to me” or “to thine own self be true” or “Clothes make the man” or “The lady doth protest too


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

much” or “Give the devil his due,” Mr. Shakespeare will be shaping our everyday speech.” Louis Bayard, on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death,, Apr. 23, 2016

Place quotation marks around items if they are • words or phrases to which you want to bring attention • technical • from a foreign language • translations into English • nicknames placed between someone’s given name and family name • slang or new coinages

Scare Quotes When you put quotation marks around a word or a phrase to bring attention to it—​especially if you do it in order to dissociate yourself from those words in some way—​that’s called a “scare quote.” They’re are also known as “shudder quotes” or “sneer quotes.” They can suggest a skeptical or ironic tone, as if you’re saying “so-​called” before the words or phrases. If you refer to someone you don’t respect as a “hero” (in quotation marks), for instance, you’re using scare quotes. There’s an equivalent hand gesture in which you draw quotation marks in the air with two fingers when you say something. That’s called an air quote. You’ve probably seen it.6 One problem is that using quotation marks this way can be ambiguous. They could suggest skepticism, irony, or disdain, or they might simply mean that you’re using a word in an unusual way, or as slang. Or you might be using them apologetically, because you couldn’t think of a better way to express yourself. Style guides recommend that you avoid using scare quotes too often, or at all.7

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As a matter of style, I urge you not to put quotation marks around clichés. People do that to show that they know they’re clichés. But they’re using them anyway, and I advise against using clichés at all in formal writing.

Also put quotation marks around words you want to define as well as the definitions. an old Indian name that means “by the mall” “MOOC” stands for “massive open online courses” Alternatively, you may italicize words that you want to emphasize or focus on, then put the definitions in quotation marks. The name Merlin comes from the Welsh name Myrddin. It was changed to Merlin to avoid any resemblance to the word merde, which means “poop.” The linguist John McWhorter notes that Black English can leave off the possessive –​’s, as in the phrase baby mama, which means “baby’s mama.” John McWhorter, What Language Is, 2011

On paparazzi and strangers with cameras who violate stars’ privacy: When I was doing My Week with Marilyn, someone asked Michelle Williams what the difference was between celebrity in Marilyn Monroe’s time and now, and she said, “One word: Internet.” Eddie Redmayne, quoted in, Jan. 22, 2015

Which versions of the passages below are correct? (A) The word glamor originally meant magic or enchantment. It evolved from the word grammar, which referred to all forms of learning, including alchemy and witchcraft.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

(B) The word “glamor” originally meant “magic” or “enchantment.” It evolved from the word “grammar,” which referred to all forms of learning, including alchemy and witchcraft. Roy Peter Clark, Introduction, The Glamour of Grammar (2010)

(A) Lawrence Peter Yogi Berra was a player, coach, or manager in twenty-​one World Series. (B) Lawrence Peter “Yogi” Berra was a player, coach, or manager in twenty-​one World Series. The first passage above draws attention to the words “glamor,” “magic,” “enchantment,” and “grammar,” so these words should be in quotation marks, as in version B.  (They also could be italicized.) In the second passage, “Yogi” is a nickname, so it should be in quotation marks, as in version B.

‘ ’  Lesson 31 

Quotes within Quotes

“Diplomacy is the art of saying, ‘Nice Doggie’ until you can find a rock.” Attributed to Will Rogers

“There’s a phrase in Buddhism, ‘Beginner’s mind.’ It’s wonderful to have a beginner’s mind.” Steve Jobs, interviewed in Wired, Feb. 1996

“The most beautiful words in the English language are not ‘I love you,’ but ‘It’s benign.’” Woody Allen, in the 1997 film Deconstructing Harry

“I thought she’d offer me some sympathy. Instead, she said, ‘Don’t you ever call me crying again! You wanted to be in this business, so you’d better toughen up!’ And I did.” Jennifer Lopez, on the lesson in tough love she got from her mother; interview in Redbook, quoted in Chicago Tribune, Aug. 25, 1999

“I’ve had directors say to me, ‘You’re the best actress for the role, but you’ve put on weight recently.’ If people can’t understand you’ve put on five pounds, I don’t want to deal with them.” Anne Hathaway, quoted in People, Mar. 8, 2007 259


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

“My grandmother is basically blind, but she can make out the lighter parts, like my skin and hair. She says, ‘I can see you, because you have no pants on.’ ” Lady Gaga, quoted in Emily Herbert, Lady Gaga: Behind the Fame, ch. 5 (2010)

Lady Gaga, speaking about her fans: “They inspire me to be more confident every day. When I wake up in the morning, I feel just like any other insecure 24-​year-​old girl. But then I say, ‘[Expletive], you’re Lady Gaga, you better . . . get up and walk the walk today,’ because they need that from me.”, July 8–​22, 2010

“Now that every single human being on earth has a camera phone, where are all those UFO pictures? . . . My theory is that the Martians have decided, ‘Don’t go down there, man. All those [expletive] have cameras now.’” George Clooney, quoted in Esquire, Sept. 30, 2011

Jerry Seinfeld, on how his children imitate his comedy: “I’ll say, ‘O.K., it’s time for dinner,’ ” Seinfeld said, “and they [say], ‘Oh, like I didn’t already know that.’ I say, ‘That’s me. You can’t do me!’ ” Quoted in, Dec. 20, 2012

“Beyoncé has insisted that girls ‘run the world’ and declared, ‘I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.’” Sheryl Sandberg, Time, May 5–​12, 2014

About Lena Dunham: “Dunham, . . . read from the [introduction] to her forthcoming memoir, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s Learned. . . . ‘I am 20 years old,’ she began, ‘and I hate myself.’ ”

Sherryl Connelly and Margaret Eby,, May 31, 2014

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Let’s call a quote within a quote the inner quote. We’ll call the entire quotation that you insert it into the outer quote. Place single quotation marks around inner quotes: ‘Nice Doggie’ ‘Beginner’s mind.’ ‘You’re the best actress for the role, but you’ve put on weight recently.’ ‘run the world’ If you end an inner quote with a comma, it goes inside the single quotation mark: you better . . . get up and walk the walk today,’ because. . . .  That means that when the inner quote and the outer quote both take a comma, it goes inside three quotation marks: “I’ll say, ‘O.K., it’s time for dinner,’ ” Seinfeld said Here’s what to do if the inner quote and the outer quote both end as you finish a sentence: • If it’s a declarative sentence, put the period inside three quotation marks.

It’s benign.’ ” She says, ‘I can see you, because you have no pants on.’ ” ‘I’m not bossy. I’m the boss.’ ” ‘I am 20 years old,’ she began, ‘and I hate myself.’ ” ‘Don’t go down there, man. All those [expletive] have cameras now.’ ”


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

• Put a question mark inside the three quotation marks—​if the inner quote is a question. • The same rule applies to exclamation points: put one inside the three quotation marks if the inner quote is an exclamation:

I say, ‘That’s me! You can’t do me!’ ” Here’s where it gets a little trickier: If the outer quote is a question or an exclamation but the inner quote isn’t, put the punctuation between the single and the double quotation marks. In this passage, Lea Michele asks a question about a statement that isn’t a question. So the question mark goes between the single quotation mark and the double one: “How many managers told me, ‘Get a nose job. You’re not pretty enough’?” Lea Michele, quoted in Harper’s Bazaar, Aug. 3, 2011

Which versions of the quotations below are correct? (A) “Mark Twain said, ‘Never put off till tomorrow what you can do day after tomorrow just as well.’ ” (B) “Mark Twain said, ‘Never put off till tomorrow what you can do day after tomorrow just as well’.’’ “The Late Benjamin Franklin,” Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches & Essays (1992); written about 1870

(A) “One time someone introduced me to Bill Maher, and I saw Meryl Streep walk into the room, and I literally put my hand right in Bill Maher’s face and I said, ‘Not now, Bill!’ And I just stared at Meryl Streep.” (B) “One time someone introduced me to Bill Maher, and I saw Meryl Streep walk into the room, and I literally put my hand

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right in Bill Maher’s face and I said, “Not now, Bill!” And I just stared at Meryl Streep.” Jennifer Lawrence, on her obsession about some stars; quoted in “Girl Uninterruptible,”, Feb. 2013

Version A of Twain’s passage is correct because periods belong inside closing quotation marks, whether those marks are single, double, or triple. Version A of Jennifer Lawrence’s passage above is correct: it puts single quotation marks around the quote within the quote.

‘ ’  Lesson 32 

Run-​on Sentences

Comma splices and run-​on sentences are partners in crime. A comma splice involves separating two main clauses or sentences with just a comma. A  run-​on, by contrast, has no punctuation at all to separate main clauses or sentences, and no joining word to connect them. Both are mistakes in formal expository prose. But writers can use run-​ons to poetic effect in portraying speech or thought, as in this line by Cormac McCarthy: “Have you a heart? Damn you eternally have you a soul?” The Road, pages 4 and 10 (2006)

And in informal writing, run-​ons can suggest excitement or enthusiasm. Here’s one in a tweet by the Olympic gymnastics champion Simone Biles, whose celebrity crush, Zac Efron, had just kissed her: “He kissed me on the cheek just letting y’all know.”

@Simone_​Biles, Aug. 16, 2016

See the lesson on COMMA SPLICES on pages 93–​98.


‘ ’  Lesson 33 

Semicolons (;)

USING SEMICOLONS TO CONNECT INDEPENDENT CLAUSES Work as if you were to live 100 years; pray as if you were to die tomorrow. Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanack, May 1757

All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, ch. 1 (1873)

Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot. Mark Twain, “Notice,” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, ch. 5 (1891)

The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. Elie Wiesel, quoted in U.S. News and World Report, Oct. 27, 1986



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Barbara Walters, interviewing Kim Kardashian: You don’t really act; you don’t sing; you don’t dance. Kim Kardashian’s reply: I think it’s more of a challenge to go on a reality show and get people to fall in love with you for being you., Dec. 15, 2011

In high school, I was the class comedian as opposed to the class clown. The difference is, the class clown is the guy who drops his pants at the football game; the class comedian is the guy who talked him into it. Billy Crystal, quoted in, March 14, 2013

Olivia Wilde, on not panicking when you turn thirty: Saturn has now orbited the sun once since you’ve been alive; make this next go-​round whatever you want it to be., Oct. 2013

The carpenter’s maxim: Measure twice; cut once. John E. McIntyre, Maxims for Writing and Editing, Preface (2013)

Beyoncé has become something more than just a superstar. She is a kind of national figurehead and Entertainer in Chief; she is Americana. Jody Rosen,, June 3, 2014

You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.1 Mario Cuomo, quoted in, Jan. 1, 2015

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About Jon Stewart on The Daily Show: Mr. Stewart didn’t just respect the intelligence of his audience; he saw it as an asset that he could leverage for deeper, funnier jokes. Jason Zinoman,, Feb. 10, 2015

Rihanna, about her relationship with the baseball player Matt Kemp: We were still dating . . . and then paparazzi got us on vacation in Mexico. He handled it well; I didn’t. Quoted in, Oct. 2015

A lot of people think we have a weight problem in this country; I don’t agree with them. I don’t believe we’ll have a weight problem until we’re all physically touching each other all the time. Jerry Seinfeld on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jan. 6, 2016

Jennifer Garner, on entering the modern dating world after years of marriage: I want flowers; I don’t want to text. What does that make me? What kind of dinosaur am I? Quoted in, Feb. 26, 2016

You probably could live a happy life without ever using a semicolon—​ and I’m pretty sure that many of my students have.2 The truth is that semicolons are never really necessary. But they can be valuable in writing thoughtfully and artistically. They’re also really useful in organizing sentences that contain lists or a series of details. The semicolon is sort of a weird hybrid of a period and a comma. Like a period, it can create a firm stop between clauses that can stand as complete sentences. But like a comma, it joins those clauses to each other in a way that keeps the reader moving ahead in the sentence. The semicolon even looks like a period placed over a comma.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Unlike a period, which shows that your thought in a sentence is finished, a semicolon indicates that the next thing you have to say is closely related to what you’ve just said. A semicolon has the sense of a linking word like and or but, but it sends a special message: it tells the reader that even though your first clause is independent (meaning that it could be a complete sentence in itself ), you’re not done: the idea you began in it is incomplete. She’ll need to keep it in mind until she’s read the next clause.3 A semicolon lets you pause to express nuance, complexity, ambiguity, or other relationships between clauses in a sentence. You can use it, for example, to set up a tension or contrast: Work as if you were to live 100 years; pray as if you were to die tomorrow All happy families resemble one another; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference. the class clown is the guy who drops his pants at the football game; the class comedian is the guy who talked him into it. Measure twice; cut once. You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose. He handled it well; I didn’t. I want flowers; I don’t want to text. Use a semicolon to show that a clause completes the idea that you began in the previous one. Using a semicolon in that way can create balance between the parts of a sentence. Notice that when you use semicolons, you don’t need a connecting word like and or but: Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them. You don’t really act; you don’t sing; you don’t dance.

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For most purposes, I suggest that you keep it simple: use semicolons sparingly and judiciously. Semicolons were invented in Italy in the late fifteenth century.4 They started to be used in English texts about a century later and were very popular in the 1600s and 1700s. They became less and less fashionable over the course of the 1800s, and they’re much rarer now than they were 200 years ago. In fact, one scholar points out that the semicolon is the punctuation mark that you’re least likely to come across in a modern novel. That’s a shame, since, as the writer Noah Lukeman tells us, semicolons open a world of artistic possibilities for creative writers.5 Several commentators conclude that American authors in particular avoid the semicolon. They say that Americans think it’s too formal, dated, and ornamental—​not to mention too complex. As an American, I object! It’s true that we Americans don’t use semicolons as often as the British do, but the French use them even less.6 And many American writers and language commentators regard the semicolon as a sign of nuanced, balanced thinking and skillful writing. I’m a stuffy old English teacher, of course, and sometimes I feel a little formal, dated, and ornamental myself. But my opinion is that semicolons allow you to organize your ideas and orchestrate the rhythm of your writing in ways that no other punctuation mark can.

REASONS TO LOVE SEMICOLONS Lewis Thomas observed that the semicolon can give the reader a pleasant feeling of expectancy: “There is more to come; read on; it will get clearer.”7 You can use semicolons to create a sense of balance as you develop your thoughts. The writer Ben Dolnick expresses this nicely: To use a semicolon properly can be an act of faith. It’s a way of saying to the reader, who is already holding one bag of groceries, Here, I know it’s a lot, but can you take another?8


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

In this way, semicolons can connect ideas as they unfold. As Anne Enright, winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Fiction, says, “The semicolon is useful when you need a sentence to shift or surprise, to be modified or amended.”9

A Semicolon is Not a Bra Roy Peter Clark puts it another way. In his book The Glamour of Grammar he asks, “What kind of object connects and separates at the same time?” No, says Roy, it’s not a bra. It’s a semicolon. Shifting quickly to a more appropriate (if less interesting) metaphor, he says we should think of a semicolon as a swinging gate: a barrier that forces a separation between two thoughts but invites you to pass through to the other side.10

Speaking of swinging gates, an unexpected turn in the plot hinges on a semicolon in this excerpt from a short story by Woody Allen. It’s about a man named Postpistle who wins the New York lottery, buys an expensive ring, and proposes to a baroness: Ecstatic at the prospect of a new life . . . Postpistle surprises the baroness at her penthouse with a million-​dollar diamond the size of a doorknob; when she points out that it actually is a doorknob, he realizes that he has overpaid. Woody Allen, “Now, Where Did I Leave That Oxygen Tank?”, Aug. 5, 2013

Which versions of the passages below are punctuated correctly? (A) I want the whole of Europe to have one currency; it will make trading much easier. (B) I want the whole of Europe to have one currency, it will make trading much easier.

Semicolons (;) 273

Napoleon Bonaparte, letter to Louis Bonaparte, May 6, 1807

(A) Love is madness; if thwarted it develops fast. (B) Love is madness, if thwarted it develops fast. Mark Twain, “The Memorable Assassination” (1917)

In the quote by Napoleon, version B is a comma splice: it divides two independent clauses by only a comma, and your teacher or editor will mark that up as a serious writing error (see pages 93–​98). Version A is the right choice, at least grammatically. In the passage by Twain, version B is also a comma splice. Version A is the better choice.

WAIT A MINUTE: SHOULD I USE A SEMICOLON OR A COLON? Hold on—​don’t colons also connect two related ideas? Good question. Yes, they do, and occasionally you may be able to use either a colon or a semicolon in a sentence. But colons signal related ideas in different ways than semicolons do. Use a colon as if to say namely, that is, or here’s what I mean by that. It precedes a list, an illustration, a restatement, or a logical step forward. Here’s an example: Politicians are a lot like diapers: they should be changed frequently—​and for the same reasons. Robin Williams, quoted in, Aug. 12, 2014

Robin Williams is saying here, “Politicians are a lot like diapers. [What I mean by that is] they should be changed frequently—​and for the same reasons.” See the lesson on COLONS on pages 53–​64.


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

A FEW THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND If you join two independent clauses with a comma, you’ll need to follow the comma with a coordinating conjunction like and, but, or, or (see pages 21 and 77–87). But a semicolon can do that job alone, without any help from a joining word. That means that semicolons can create economy in your style, and that’s a good thing. I always recommend that my students aim for economy and dynamism. A semicolon also can come in very handy before words like however and therefore, which can be magnets for comma splices unless you punctuate the right way (see the lessons on pages 185–91 and 119–28). HINT: Be careful not to use a semicolon where you need a colon. If you do, your grammar and style checker might not save you.

Semicolons on the Subway The New York Times has celebrated the semicolon more than once.11 In 2008, for example, the Times made a splash when it reported that a public service sign on a New York City subway car connected two clauses with a semicolon. The message, written by a former English major who worked for the transit agency, asked riders not to leave their newspapers on the train. It read, “Please put it in a trashcan; that’s good news for everyone.” The Times article pointed out that semicolon sightings are rare in the city. It reported that the author Frank McCourt called the semicolon the yellow traffic light of a New York sentence, because it asks readers to slow down and anticipate what’s coming next. (Of course, the article noted, true New Yorkers typically accelerate through yellow lights.) In any case, the report about the punctuation on the subway placard attracted a lot of attention. A podcast version of the article dominated the Times’s most-​emailed list for nearly a month.12

Semicolons (;) 275

Semicolon T-​Shirts The linguist Ben Zimmer tells us that the story about the semicolon on the subway poster inspired one American dictionary maker to create the Semicolon Appreciation Society, which offers its own line of T-​shirts, mugs, and stickers, all adorned with semicolons. As of this writing, it’s still online and ready to take your order, semicolon lovers.13

SEMICOLONS IN LONG OR COMPLICATED SENTENCES OR LISTS You also can use semicolons instead of commas to control the flow of information within lists and long or complicated sentences. The opening paragraph of Moby-​Dick shows how semicolons can do that. Notice that it’s grammatically parallel in that each element begins with whenever: Call me Ishmael. . . . Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily . . . bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos [morbidly low spirits] get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—​then I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. Herman Melville, Moby-​Dick, ch. 1 (1851)

Melville could have used all commas in this passage, but that would have swept readers along in Ishmael’s successive waves of strong sentiment. The semicolons create pauses for us to consider each declaration. What’s more, as Noah Lukeman observes, they build tension, capturing Ishmael’s inner distress and his urgent need to go to sea and change his life.14


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

In the passages below, semicolons provide stronger divisions between the clauses and phrases than commas would, letting readers appreciate each distinct element. Mark Twain, annoyed that Michelangelo accomplished so much: I used to worship the mighty genius of Michelangelo. . . . But I do not want Michelangelo for breakfast—​for luncheon—​for dinner—​for tea—​for supper—​for between meals. I like a change, occasionally. In Genoa, he designed everything; in Milan he or his pupils designed everything; he designed the Lake of Como. . . . [In Rome] he designed St. Peter’s; he designed the Pope; he designed the Pantheon. . . .  Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, ch. 27 (1869)

It now became necessary for them to decide whether they should turn east to Mordor; or go on with Boromir to the aid of Minas Tirith, chief city of Gondor, in the coming war; or should divide. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King, Synopsis (1955)

“You’ve forgotten the magic word,” said Harry irritably. The effect of this simple sentence on the rest of the family was incredible: Dudley gasped and fell off his chair with a crash that shook the whole kitchen; Mrs. Dursley gave a small scream and clapped her hands to her mouth; Mr. Dursley jumped to his feet, veins throbbing in his temples. “I meant ‘please’!” said Harry quickly. J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, ch. 1 (1998)

I have seen courage in many places: in the thousands of our nation’s military members I have met and represented; in those who ran toward the gunfire in a Safeway parking lot on Jan. 8, 2011; and in our leaders who take the tough votes because it’s the right thing to do—​but Malala’s courage is uncommon. Gabrielle Giffords, Arizona congresswoman who was shot in 2011: speaking of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who defied the Taliban by attending school in 2012, and was shot; in Time, May 5–​12, 2014

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Semicolons can be bridges spanning your ideas and images as they unfold, uniting them into a continuous line of thought. In the process, semicolons can link clauses and phrases to help orchestrate the rhythm of your writing, as in this passage by Twain: There is a sumptuous variety about the New England weather that compels the stranger’s admiration—​and regret. The weather is always doing something there; always attending strictly to business; always getting up new designs and trying them on the people to see how they will go. Mark Twain, speech to the New England Society, New York, Dec. 22, 1876

Twain could have used only commas in the second sentence. But the semicolons link his ideas as they unfold while creating natural speech rhythms. That works very well in a text that creates the effect of speech. This use of semicolons can be especially valuable in creative writing. In the passage below, for example, Virginia Woolf used semicolons to slow the rapid cadence of her exuberant narrative, producing a stop-​and-​ start rhythm that suggests the action of the wave that she described here: What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her. . . . How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen. Mrs. Dalloway (1925)

Woolf ’s liberal use of semicolons was a characteristic aspect of her prose style.15 The next two examples may surprise you. They’re by the last writer you might expect to ever use semicolons:  Ernest Hemingway. He’s famous for his short sentences, and it’s been said that he wouldn’t be caught dead near a semicolon. But in the passage below, Hemingway


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

deployed semicolons to create a slow, graceful cadence as a skier first comes into view. Then Hemingway sped up the tempo and the drama by switching entirely to commas:16 George was coming down in telemark position, kneeling; one leg forward and bent, the other trailing; his sticks hanging like some insect’s thin legs, kicking up puffs of snow as they touched the surface and finally the whole kneeling, trailing figure coming around in a beautiful right curve, crouching, the legs shot forward and back, the body leaning out against the swing, the sticks accenting the curve like points of light, all in wild cloud of snow. Ernest Hemingway, “Cross Country Snow” (1924)

In the passage below, Hemingway could have used only periods or only commas to create the sense of sweeping your eyes across a café. By employing semicolons, though, he let readers scan the room continuously but deliberately, pausing just long enough to take in each discrete image. Inside the station café it was warm and light; the tables were shiny from wiping and on some there were red and white striped table cloths; and there were blue and white striped table cloths on the others and on all of them baskets with pretzels in glazed paper sacks. Ernest Hemingway, “Homage to Switzerland” (1932)

Project Semicolon is a faith-​based movement that offers hope and love to people who are dealing with depression and suicidality. It takes its name from the idea that an author uses a semicolon when he could have ended a sentence with a period. In the same way, these people might have ended their own stories but decided to live instead. Some people also get semicolon-​shaped tattoos to show that they’ve faced experiences that could have ended their lives but didn’t.

‘ ’  Lesson 34 

Starting Sentences with And or But

And though that he were worthy, he was wys. (And although he was worthy, he was wise.) Chaucer, describing the Knight in General Prologue, Canterbury Tales (late 14th century)

And I beseech you . . . /​To do a great right, do a little wrong. Bassanio in Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1 (1596–​98)

And God said, “Let there be light.” Genesis 1:3 (KJV, 1611)

Satan’s flight from Hell to Earth, seeking to destroy Man: And now /​Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way. . . . /​ Directly towards the new created World. John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book 3 (1667)

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor. Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776



The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

And what sort of young lady is she? Is she handsome? Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ch. 14 (1813)

And hast thou slain the Jabberwock? Lewis Carroll, “Jabberwocky,” in Through the Looking-​Glass (1871)

Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. Mark Twain, quoted in Albert B. Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography (1912)

I gave Larry David my number. And he never called. Jennifer Lawrence, interviewed in Glamour, January 5, 2016

George Clooney, on how to be a man: I had some pretty good examples in my life. My father’s very smart and has a great sense of humor. And some people just feel comfortable in their skin. I have good friends who are like that. Interviewed in, Apr. 20, 2016

Today, almost 30 percent of families with children are headed by a single parent. . . . And yet our attitudes and our policies do not reflect this shift. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook post, May 6, 2016

You have to write a hundred bad songs before you write one good one. And you have to sacrifice a lot of things that you might not be prepared for. Bob Dylan, after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature; quoted in, Oct. 28, 2016

But first I make a protestacioun That I am dronke; I knowe it by my soun! (But first I publicly declare that I am drunk; I know it by my sound [I sound drunk]) Chaucer, Miller’s Tale (ca. 1390)

Starting Sentences with And or But


Pilate . . . went again into the Praetorium and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. John 19:8–​9 (KJV, 1611)

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—​we can not consecrate—​ we can not hallow—​this ground. Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, Nov. 19, 1863 (this is the version on the Lincoln Memorial)

Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God’s fool, and all His work must be contemplated with respect. Mark Twain, correspondence, Dec. 1877

When I’m good, I’m very, very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better. Mae West, in the 1933 film I’m No Angel

I never forget a face. But I’m going to make an exception in your case. Groucho Marx, quoted in Los Angeles Times, Feb. 16, 1937

Bessie, my dear . . . you are disgustingly ugly. But tomorrow I shall be sober and you will still be disgustingly ugly. Winston Churchill, to Bessie Braddock, MP, who accused him of being “disgustingly drunk,” 1946

When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute—​and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity. Albert Einstein, quoted in James B. Simpson, Best Quotes of ’54, ’55, ’56 (1957)

Have you ever noticed, when you blow in a dog’s face he gets mad at you. But when you take him in a car, he sticks his head out the window. Jerry Seinfeld; quoted in, Dec. 16, 2007


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

Prejudice is a disease. So is fashion. But I will not wear prejudice. Lady Gaga, Twitter, June 8, 2010

On the art of writing: Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing—​word after word after word. Roger Rosenblatt, Unless It Moves the Human Heart, ch. 7 (2011)

Jennifer Lawrence, on being the heroine of the Hunger Games: I think there was this studio mentality for a long time that women and girls can relate to a male hero, but boys and men can’t relate to a female hero. But that’s simply not true. Interviewed in Glamour, January 5, 2016

Earth is old. The sun is old. But do you know what may be even older than both? Water. About the theory that half of all water on earth came from a cloud in space,, Apr. 15, 2016

Lebron James never did it. Neither did Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Wilt Chamberlain. . . . Even Michael Jordan never did it. But on Tuesday, Stephen Curry did. On Curry’s becoming the first player in NBA history to be unanimously elected Most Valuable Player; Victor Mather,, May 10, 2016

Have you ever been taught that you shouldn’t begin a sentence with and or but? Did someone tell you that you should use those two words only in mid-​sentence, and that but usually goes after a comma or a semicolon? Did you know there’s no basis at all for that so-​called rule? It’s a superstition. All of the quotes above start sentences with and or but, and their grammar is perfectly fine.

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Writers have opened sentences with and since the Old English period. Chaucer did it. So did Malory, Shakespeare, the translators of the King James Version of the Bible, and many others. And authors have been starting sentences with but since the Middle Ages. Chaucer did that a lot, and Shakespeare and Milton did it, too.1 Even the early grammarians who prescribed many of the weird usage rules in English had no problem with starting sentences with but. In the nineteenth century, though, some schoolteachers opposed starting sentences with and or but, possibly because young students did that too often. Then teachers went overboard, banning the practice altogether.2 Today, most language experts and stylists agree that it’s fine to open sentences that way. In fact, The Chicago Manual of Style points out that up to ten percent of the sentences in first-​rate writing begin with conjunctions such as and, but, or so.3 Starting with but can be stylistically powerful. It packs a punch that the more formal-​sounding word however doesn’t. Just don’t do it too often. Feel free to open sentences with and or but.4 It’s also perfectly okay to use and or but after a semicolon: I don’t mind what the opposition say of me, so long as they don’t tell the truth about me; but when they descend to telling the truth about me, I consider that that is taking an unfair advantage. Mark Twain, speech in Hartford, October 26, 1880

See pages 86 and 303 Note 1.

A Word to the Wise Keep in mind that although most grammarians have no problem with starting sentences with and, many educated people still avoid doing it—​at least they did as recently as 1988: In that year, nearly one in four of the writers, editors, scholars, and others on the American Heritage Usage Panel said that they never began sentences


The Quotable Guide to Punctuation

with and, or they did it only rarely. Another 36 percent said that they avoided doing it sometimes. So don’t be surprised if one of your teachers tells you that it’s bad grammar. Just refer them to this book or any of the main grammar guides.

Also, don’t say but . . . however or but yet . . . however. As a matter of style, I  urge you not to begin each sentence in a series with But. And be careful not to use but more than once in any sentence.

‘’ ✻



1. Funded by the dating site, the 2013 Singles in America survey was a national study using a representative sample of Americans based on the US census. I’m grateful to Dr. Helen Fisher, who created, executed, and analyzed the survey, for providing me with details about it. 2. The survey was taken by the Harris Poll for from July 31 to August 5, 2015. 3. Georgia Wells, “What’s Really Hot on Dating Sites? Proper Grammar,” wsj. com (Wall Street Journal), Oct. 1, 2015. Spelling errors by women reportedly didn’t affect men’s decisions about them. 4. Jessica Bennett, “When Your Punctuation Says It All (!)”, Feb. 27, 2015;, Nov. 13, 2011.

Punctuation—​W ho Needs It?

1. Because writing was a comparatively recent development, paleoanthropologists, archeologists, cognitive scientists, and linguists have had to look for other evidence to date the beginnings of speech. Some use the making of tools as a key historical marker of human development. Assuming that crafting stone hand axes required planning and precision, they argue that tool-​making skills and language evolved together. So they trace the start of speech back nearly two million years. Others think that language emerged much more recently and abruptly. See, for example, Barbara J.  King, “When Did Human Speech Evolve?”, Sept. 5, 2013; Robert C. Berwick and Noam Chomsky, Why Only Us: Language and Evolution (Cambridge, MA, and London:  MIT Press, 2015); and Ian Tattersall, “At the Birth of Language,” New  York Review of Books, Aug.  18, 2016. The analogy to a


286 Notes to page 9

twenty-​four-​hour period is by John  McWhorter (TED Talk, “Txting is Killing Language. JK!!!” Feb. 2013). 2. Wordsworth also asked for help with punctuation from a famous chemist he had never met—​and gave him permission to send the corrected manuscript straight to the publisher. Other writers who said that they didn’t know or care about punctuation marks include Thomas Gray, James Fennimore Cooper, Sherwood Anderson, and W. B. Yeats. See M. B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 5; James Thorpe, Principles of Textual Criticism (San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1979), 148; David Crystal, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 67–​69. 3. George Bernard Shaw, “Notes on the Clarendon Press Rules for Compositors and Readers,” The Author, 12 (April, 1902), 171–​72. Shaw made his comment on the dash in a letter of October 7, 1924, to T. E. Lawrence (Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters, 1911–​1925, ed. Dan H. Laurence [New York: Viking, 1985], 885). Shaw wasn’t the only one who was ready to be done with the apostrophe. The former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, Robert W. Burchfield, said that apostrophes are misused so often that they should be abandoned altogether—​a nd soon (Burchfield, The English Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 25, cited in Bryan A. Garner, Garner on Language and Writing (Chicago: American Bar Association, 2009), 637 n. 3). Peter Buck, lead guitarist of the rock bad R. E. M., is quoted as having said, “We all hate apostrophes. . . . There’s never been a good rock album that’s had an apostrophe in the title.” Really? How about A Hard Day’s Night and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band? (Martha Brokenbrough, “We Love REM a Little Less Today,” The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar blog, June 2, 2007.) See the lessons on pages 29–52. 4. Gertrude Stein, “Poetry and Grammar,” Lectures in America (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 214–​22. Originally published by The Modern Library, 1935. 5. Matthew J. X. Malady, “Will We Use Commas in the Future? Maybe,” slate. com, Jan. 28, 2014; John McWhorter, “Txting is Killing Language.” For more about punctuation in texts, tweets, etc. see the lessons on EXCLAMATION POINTS and PERIODS, pages 177–84 and 225–31. 6. Sheilah Graham, Beloved Infidel (New  York:  Henry Holt, 1958), 197–​98; David Marsh, For Who the Bell Tolls:  The Essential and Entertaining Guide to Grammar (London:  Guardian Books, 2013), 98; Lewis Thomas, “Notes on Punctuation,” The Medusa and the Snail:  More Notes of a Biology Watcher, (New  York:  Penguin, 1995), 125–​ 29; Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves

Notes to pages 9–10 287

(New York: Gotham Books, 2003), 138. Mark Twain showed contempt for the teller of a comic story who announces in advance that it’s one of the funniest stories he’s ever heard and is the first to laugh when he’s done. When he publishes it, this idiot puts some “whooping exclamation-​points” after it, said Twain. All of that “makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life” (Mark Twain, “How to Tell a Story,” in How to Tell a Story and Other Essays [New  York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1897]); see http://​​files/​3250/​ 3250-​h/​3250-​h.htm.   7. Leonard’s goal was to be invisible as a narrator, and to show rather than tell what’s taking place in a story (Elmore Leonard, “Writers on Writing,” nytimes. com, July 16, 2001). It took years after the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s for keys to be added for punctuation marks. Keys for other punctuation marks were invented before the one for the exclamation point. See Keith Huston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (New York and London: Norton, 2013), 161.   8. P. G. Wodehouse, George Orwell in Coming Up for Air, Martin Amis, and Umberto Eco in The Name of the Rose did a good job of avoiding semicolons. Donald Barthelme described semicolons as “ugly as a tick on a dog’s belly” (Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 80–​81, 108–​9).   9. Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 23; James J. Kilpatrick, “The Sissy Semicolon,”, May 15, 2006. For Doctorow’s views, see Sarah Crown, “E. L. Doctorow: ‘I Don’t Have a Style, But the Books Do,”, Jan. 22, 2010. Doctorow said that he had no use for quotation marks either. He did like commas, though, and confessed that run-​on sentences were one of his sins. Bill Walsh, a copy desk chief at the Washington Post, says, “The semicolon is an ugly bastard and thus I tend to avoid it.” He does acknowledge its utility, though, in patching together thematically related sentences and separating items in a series (Lapsing into a Comma, [Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000], 91). 10. McCarthy appeared to reject all punctuation when he told Oprah Winfrey in 2008, “There’s no reason to  .  .  .  blot the page up with weird little marks. If you write properly, you shouldn’t have to punctuate.” He did use periods, capitals, and the occasional comma, he conceded. David Crystal observes, however, that McCarthy underestimates the amount of punctuation he actually used (Making a Point, 92–​93). 11. Jennifer Schuessler, “Cormac McCarthy, Quantum Copy Editor,”, Feb 20, 2012. For Mayor LaGuardia’s comment, see “Hearings: United States Congress (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 1935); also Mason B. Williams, City of Ambition: FDR, LaGuardia, and the Making of Modern New York, ch. 5 (New York: Norton, 2013).

288 Notes to pages 10–13

12. Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (New  York and London:  Norton, 2013), 6.  The linguist Geoffrey Nunberg doubts that punctuation can indicate or signify intonation. He concedes that readers associate certain punctuation marks with internal “acoustical images.” That explains what writers mean when they say that you need “a good ear” or a “rhythmic sense” to know how to use commas, he says. But he questions what explanatory purpose it would serve to say that punctuation “transcribes” such inner voices (The Linguistics of Punctuation [Menlo Park, Stanford, and Palo Alto:  Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1990], 14–​15). 13. Robert Allen, Punctuation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 13. 14. Ibid. 15. 15. G. V. Carey, Mind the Stop: A Brief Guide to Punctuation with a Note on Proof-​Correction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939), 1. 16. The Autobiography of Mark Twain, eds. Harriet Smith et al., vol. 1 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 2010). This is also the source of the subsequent two quotes from Twain’s letters. Another quotation that’s been attributed to Twain also deals with punctuation: “Gentlemen: .,;?! () “ -​-​-​ * ‘ .. Please scatter these throughout according to your taste.” In view of Twain’s insistence on using his own punctuation marks, this passage—​if it’s authentic—​may sarcastically taunt the publisher for trying to improve on his choices. See Mark Twain Laughing, ed. Paul M.  Zall (Knoxville:  University of Tennessee Press, 1985), 154.

17. Alison Leigh Cowan, “Scrawled in the Margins, Signs of Twain as a Critic,”, Apr. 18, 2010. Twain called one punctuation-​emending copy-​editor a “literary kangaroo” and an “immeasurable idiot,” and wrote:  “Now you have begun on my punctuation. Don’t you realize that you ought not to intrude your help in a delicate art like that with your limitations?” Albert Bigelow Paine says that in the end, Twain seems not to have sent the letter (Paine, Mark Twain, a Biography—​Volume II, Part 2: 1886–​1900, Kindle [2007]). 18. Mark Twain, Notebook, written about 1893. 19. This was probably a joke, but it was just an exaggeration of Wilde’s actual approach to writing. Wilde’s biographer and friend Robert Sherard said of him, “In the matter . . . of punctuation he was scrupulous in the extreme. If . . . a poor little comma had intruded where it had no right to be, or one had deserted its post, his flashing glance would immediately turn to the spot” (The Life of Oscar Wilde [New York: Mitchell Kennerley, 1906], 273).

Notes to pages 13–21 289

20. Shaw, letter of Oct. 7, 1924, in Bernard Shaw: Collected Letters, 1911–​1925 (New York: Viking, 1985), 885. 21. Claude Duneton, Le Figaro, Sept. 2003; quoted in Olivier Houdart and Sylvie Prioul, La ponctuation: ou l’art d’accomoder les textes (Paris: Seuil, 2006), 90. 22. “L’Elysée lance une mission pour sauver le point-​virgule,” rue89.nouvelobs. com, Apr. 1, 2008; “Rue89 écaille son poisson d’avril: quelques victimes dans nos filets,”, Apr. 1, 2008; Charles Bremner, “ ‘English Disease’ Should Come to a Full Stop,” Times (London), Apr. 3, 2008; Jon Henley, “The End of the Line?”, Apr. 3, 2008; Paul Collins, “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?”, June 20, 2008; Ben Zimmer, “Learning to Love the Semicolon,”, Aug. 19, 2009. For a discussion of the use of the semicolon by Victor Hugo, Gustave Flaubert, and other French writers, see Houdart and Prioul, La ponctuation, 90–​100. Houdart and Prioul concede that if there were a top-​ten list of punctuation marks according to frequency of use in French books today, the semicolon would be far back in the pack. 23. Milan Kundera, “Key Words, Problem Words, Words I  Love,” New  York Times, Mar. 6, 1988. 24. Kurt Vonnegut, interview with the Associated Press, 2005; quoted in Christian Salazar, “Kurt Vonnegut Dies at 84,” Associated Press, Apr. 12, 2007. (Note that the semicolon in this quotation presumably was chosen by the AP, not Vonnegut.) Vonnegut used no semicolons in his book A Man without a Country until the last chapter, where he says, “And there, I’ve just used a semi-​colon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules” ([New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011], 134); noted by David Crystal, Making a Point, 201–​2. 25. Quoted in Life As I Find It: A Treasury of Mark Twain Rarities, ed. Charles Neider (New  York:  Cooper Square Press, 2000). Neider notes that the article containing this quote was published anonymously, but that Frederick Anderson of the Mark Twain Papers project at Berkeley identified it as Twain’s, based on its style. Neider found confirmation in the details of the piece. 26. Julie E.  Boland and Robin Queen, “If You’re House Is Still Available, Send Me an Email: Personality Influences Reactions to Written Errors in Email Messages,”, Mar. 9, 2016.

Defining Some Really Basic Terms

  1. Coordinating conjunctions usually join elements that are similar in function, structure, and importance. For in the sense of “because” can join main clauses. There are other coordinating conjunctions, some of which, including and nor and but nor, are found in British but not in American use. See John Algeo, British or

290 Notes to pages 21–37

American English? (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Burchfield, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 171. 2. Defining a noun is a little more complicated than that, though. This may surprise you, but some nouns don’t refer to people, places, or things. They are what grammarians call gerunds: verb forms ending in -​ing that are used as nouns. See “Mark Twain’s Snoring” on pages 131–​34 of my May I Quote You on That?

Lesson 1

1. Reagan’s use of is when is informal. For a discussion of how to use when in formal contexts, see my May I Quote You on That? (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 163–​64. 2. Tom McArthur, the Oxford Concise Companion to the English Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 43. 3. See Alexander Humez and Nicholas Humez, On the Dot:  The Speck That Changed the World (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 139, 142. Brian Richardson notes that Pietro Bembo and Aldo Manuzio introduced the apostrophe to mark elision in their 1501–​2 editions of Petrarch and Dante (Printers, Writers and Readers in Renaissance Italy [Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1999], 153). Parkes says that Geoffroy Tory promoted its use in 1529; Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 55. See also Merriam-​Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-​Webster. Inc., 1994), 108–​9. 4. See Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought (New York: Penguin, 2007), 328–​41.

Lesson 2

1. David Marsh, For Who the Bell Tolls (London: Guardian Books, 2013), 87. 2. The Oxford English Dictionary says that this possessive apostrophe at first was simply an extension of the earlier use of the mark: to omit letters. With possessive forms the letter e was dropped when words ended in es. So foxes became fox’s. Printers later extended the practice and used apostrophes with all possessives, even those that didn’t end in es. See Burchfield, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 60; Tom McArthur, Oxford Concise Companion to the English Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005); 44; Ammon Shea, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (New York: Perigee, 2014), 122–​31. 3. See Bryan A.  Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 644. New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) notes that the extra s can be omitted if it makes the word hard to pronounce, as in catharsis’s (69).

Notes to pages 38–51 291

 4. Robert Allen, Punctuation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 79.   5. Bill Walsh, the copy desk chief of the business section of the Washington Post, argues that the same rules for using apostrophes should apply across the alphabet. So he favors using ’s after singular nouns that end in s, and his newspaper agrees. Lapsing into a Comma (Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books, 2000), 73.  6. New Hart’s Rules (72) adds that Lord’s Cricket Ground and St. James’s Palace have apostrophes, but Johns Hopkins University and All Souls College don’t. Just to pile another inconsistency onto our list, we can note that All Souls’ Day does. Go figure.  7. R.  W. Burchfield, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 62. In 1906 the US Board on Geographic Names decided that a place-​name becomes a “fixed label,” so it doesn’t need to show possession or association with an apostrophe. The elimination of apostrophes from American place-​names was, in fact, one of the Board’s general principles. See Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 674–​ 75; Mary Norris, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (New York and London:  Norton, 2015), 148–​52; George R.  Stewart, Names on the Land (New York: New York Review Books, 1972), 340–​45.   8. Garner lists two other exceptions: to mark the possessive in a corporate or similar name like General Motors, add only an apostrophe (General Motors’); and before the word sake, words that end with the letter or the sound s should take only an apostrophe: for appearance’ sake, for goodness’ sake, etc. (645). New Hart’s Rules notes that the word times’ in for old times’ sake is a plural, so it takes just an apostrophe. It also says that Jesus’ is an accepted archaism and that in Mars’ is fine in classical references but not in scientific contexts. It recommends writing Mars’s in Mars’s gravitational force, for instance (70–​71).  9. Geoff Foster, “Mets Fans: Not So Amazin’ at Spelling and Grammar,” wsj. com, June 22, 2015. 10. Bill Walsh, Lapsing into a Comma, 73. 11. Joel Oliphint, “Anna Jarvis Was Sorry She Ever Invented Mother’s Day,”, May 8, 2015;​opa/​vetsday/​vetday_​faq.asp. 12. Mignon Fogarty, “Apostrophes,”, Jan. 18, 2008; Norris, Between You and Me, 148, 150.

Lesson 4

1. Tom McArthur, Oxford Concise Companion to the English Language (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 44. 2. E.  D. Hirsch, Joseph F.  Kett, James S.  Trefil, The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2002), 73; David Wilton, Word Myths:  Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 108–​11; “Where does ‘Mind Your Ps

292 Notes to pages 51–82

and Qs’ Come From?”, Jan. 2012. This article notes that in the United States, the maxim can mean, “Be on your toes.” Other explanations of this proverb include theories that p and q stand for prime and quality, or pied (foot) and queue (pigtail), or a sailor’s pea coat and a pigtail. Some of these theories assign meanings to p and q that are later than the earliest appearance of the saying itself.

Lesson 5

1. The punctuation in this quote has been silently altered. 2. H.  W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, ed. David Crystal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 569. 3. Bryan A.  Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford and New  York:  Oxford University Press, 2009), 675. The Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition. Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 2010), 6:61, calls for capitalizing when a colon introduces two or more sentences, a direct question, or a speech in dialogue. 4. To refer to seconds as well, add another colon, then the number of seconds (1:15:35).

Lesson 6

1. See David Crystal, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 228. Full disclosure: a dash, parentheses (round brackets), or even a semicolon can offset a single word, though that’s very rare in comparison with commas. The comparative frequency of punctuation marks was derived from a 72,000-​word sample taken from the Brown University Standard Corpus of Present-​Day American English. Examples were drawn in equal proportions from journalistic sources, scholarly texts, and fiction. See Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik, A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (London and New York: Longman, 1985), 1613. 2. Robert Allen, Punctuation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 29.

Lesson 7

1. This sentiment was expressed earlier by Jonathan Swift: “Every man desires to live long; but no man would be old” (Thoughts on Various Subjects, 1727 ed.). 2. For a discussion of whether to say his or their after everybody, see Stephen Spector, May I Quote You on That?: A Guide to Grammar & Usage (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 89–​93. 3. The text omits a comma.

Notes to pages 84–121 293

4. Bill Walsh, Lapsing into a Comma (Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books, 2000), 76.

Lesson 9

1. R. W. Burchfield, Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 162; R. L. G. Johnson, “The Dreaded Comma Splice,” economist. com, Jan. 10, 2012. (This lesson takes its title from that blog piece.) 2. Franklin’s he’l is emended to he’ll. 3. William Strunk Jr. and E.  B. White, The Elements of Style, 4th ed. (New  York and San Francisco:  Longman, 1979), 6–​ 7. Merriam-​Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage actually caught White in the act of using a comma splice in correspondence: “Tell Johnny to read Santayana for a little while, it will improve his sentence structure” (Merriam-​Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, [Springfield: Merriam-​Webster, 1994], 262).

Lesson 10

1. Mignon Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008), 100–​101. 2. Oxford University Press, “House Style,” 3. Bill Walsh, Lapsing into a Comma (Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books, 2000), 81. 4. Cameron Shea, “The Oxford Comma: A Harder Look,”, Jan. 31, 2014; Rick Mueller, “Celebrity Oxford Comma,”, Dec. 11, 2014. 5. Robert Barr, “Oxford University Press and the Oxford Comma Commotion,” Associated Press, published in, June 30, 2011.

Lesson 11

1. The linguist John McWhorter points out that in lists of adjectives, English naturally puts evaluation before age, as in good old. The general order for adjectives that sounds natural to us, he notes, is evaluation, size, shape, condition, age, color, origin, and material (“Billy and Me Went to the Store. Deal with It,” Lexicon Valley, episode 95, 2. “Recipe,” Ladies’ Home Journal and Practical Housekeeper, vols. 5–​ 6 (Indianapolis: Curtis Publishing, 1887).

Lesson 13

1. You’ll probably use for example, for instance, furthermore, hence, however, indeed, moreover, on the other hand, therefore, and thus much more often in formal academic contexts than in conversation. See the Longman Grammar of Spoken

294 Notes to pages 121–163

and Written English (Edinburgh Gate:  Pearson Education Limited, 1999), 562, 886–​87. 2. The printed version of this speech places a comma after therefore. 3. Bill Walsh gives the helpful hint that if the word course is stressed enough that you could italicize it, omit the comma. Lapsing into a Comma (Lincolnwood, IL: Contemporary Books, 2000), 79. 4. These frequencies are derived from the Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Lesson 14

1. The deleted bit from this quote, “whom you know I  hate,” doesn’t tell us which Romeo she’s talking about. (Obviously, there’s only one in this play.) In other words, it doesn’t restrict or further define the preceding subject. That’s why nonessential clauses are also called nonrestrictive. 2. Despite the normative rule, writers of fiction, news, and academic prose use which far more often in essential clauses than in nonessential clauses. This is much less common in American news than in British journalism, however. By contrast, people rarely open a nonessential clause with that (Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English [Essex: Pearson Education, 1999], 610–​17).

Lesson 16

1. Marilyn was married to James Dougherty, Joe DiMaggio, and Arthur Miller. It has been claimed that she also married Robert Slatzer.

Lesson 19

1. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism, line 525 (1711).

Lesson 20

1. The title of the novel lacks the comma before God.

Lesson 21

1. Twain crossed out “worst is” and wrote “best is.” 2. David Crystal, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 144. 3. Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia,” Graham’s American Monthly Magazine of Literature, Art, and Fashion 32 (1848), reprinted in The Works of the Late Edgar Allan Poe (New York: J. S. Redfield, 1850), 3: 483–​511. Compositors in printing houses were using semicolons to replace authors’ punctuation as early as the 1580s (M. B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993, 53). One grammarian argued in 1830, eighteen years before Poe’s comment, that the semicolon itself was disappearing from newspapers and

Notes to pages 163–169 295

books. Commentators refuted that in 1847 and 1851, saying that the semicolon was still being used by good writers. See William Day, Punctuation Reduced to a System (London: John Oliver, 1847), section 2; Goold Brown and Samuel U. Berrian, The Grammar of English Grammars (New York and London: Samuel and Wood, 1858), ch. 1. However, one 1995 study, which focused on actual usage in a small sample of learned books over four centuries, concluded that the use of semicolons in English did drop in the nineteenth century and continued to slide in the twentieth. See Paul Bruthiaux, “The Rise and Fall of the Semicolon: English Punctuation Theory and English Teaching Practice,” Applied Linguistics 16 (1995): 1–​14. The Google Books Ngram Viewer finds that the use of semicolons in English peaked in the early 1800s and fell precipitously. The use of dashes remained fairly consistent in the second half of the nineteenth century in both America and Britain before declining in the twentieth. Judith Farr called the dash the most used and abused punctuation mark of the Victorian period (The Passion of Emily Dickinson [Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1992], 328).  4. Shaw made this comment in a letter to T.  E. Lawrence of October 7, 1924 (Bernard Shaw:  Collected Letters, 1911–​ 1925, ed. Dan H.  Laurence [New York: Viking, 1985], 885).  5. Ben Yagoda, “Mad Dash,”, Oct. 22, 2012. Yagoda notes the linguist Geoffrey Nunberg’s observation that dashes are mainly found in genres that “permit reference to be made to the act of composition.” Garner, by contrast, calls the em dash “the most underused punctuation mark in American writing” and says it can clarify and add luster to any type of writing (Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. [Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009], 678).  6. Charles Dickens, Bleak House, ch. 32 (1852–​53); Our Mutual Friend, ch. 8 (1865). See Keith Huston, Shady Characters (New  York and London:  Norton, 2013), 155–​58; Oxford English Dictionary, dash, v.  1, D, n; Project Gutenberg EBook of The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, vol. 1, ch. 2. David Crystal notes that the asterisk competed with the long dash in the nineteenth century as a way of hiding a sensitive word, as in d*** or d**n (Making a Point, 332).  7. Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar:  A  Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English (New  York, Boston, London:  Little, Brown and Company, 2010), 79.   8. Oxford University Press calls this a parenthetical dash. It is the only way that the press specifies for using a dash (Oxford University Press House Style, global.   9. David Crystal notes that dashes suggest informal spontaneity and dynamic movement while round brackets (parentheses) imply formal planning (Making a Point, 149–​50). 10. Edgar Allan Poe, “Marginalia.”

296 Notes to pages 170–180

11. Crystal (Making a Point, 151) says that Sterne was probably the best user of dashes in all of English literature. 12. Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, volume 1, c­ hapter 1 (1760). 13. Charles Dickens, Little Dorritt, book 2, ­chapter 5 (1855–​57). See Tammy Ho Lai-​Ming, “Reading Aloud in Dickens’ Novels,” Oral Tradition, 23 (2), Jan. 2008. 14. Emily Dickinson, “Because I  could not stop for Death,” Poems:  Series I (1890). See Judith Farr, The Passion of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1992), 326. 15. A note number normally goes after parentheses, too. On rare occasions, though, it may be appropriate to put it inside a closing parenthesis—​if the note applies to a specific term within the parentheses, for example (Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. [Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press,  2010], 14.21). 16. The em dash is named after a unit of typographic length: it is about the width of a capital H (Bryan A. Garner, The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation [Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016], 369). For the other kinds of dashes, see Huston, Shady Characters, ch. 8.

Lesson 23

  1. M. B. Parkes, Pause and Effect (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 49; Alexander Humez and Nicholas Humez, On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 142; Lynn Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves (New York: Gotham Books, 2003), 136; Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar (New York, Boston, and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2010), 95. Another story about the origin of the name of this mark is that it was an abbreviation of the Latin word interiectio (interjection). David Crystal notes that the mark first appears in late fourteenth-​ century manuscripts “looking like a right-​slanting colon with a longer accent mark moving off to the right above it” (Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation, [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015], 26, 43, 51, 73).  2. Leo Rosten and Lawrence Bush, The New Joys of Yiddish (Kindle edition, 2003); “What Does ‘Oy Vey’ Mean?”, posted Aug. 10, 2014, citing Susan Colin. Also see Penny Diane Wolin, The Jews of Wyoming:  Fringe of the Diaspora (Cheyenne, WY: Crazy Woman Creek Press, 2000), 196.   3. There is some scholarly disagreement about the proximate source of oy vey, since there are similar expressions in Germanic languages.  4. Crystal, Making a Point, 179–​80. Crystal notes that the most common way to end sentences in online messages is with no punctuation at all. The novelist I cite is Walter Kirn, author of Up in the Air, the 2001 book on which the 2009

Notes to pages 180–187 297

film of the same name was based; quoted in International Herald Tribune, July 4, 2011.   5. Dan Bilefsky, “Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going Out of Style,”, June 9, 2016; John McWhorter, “Why Kim Kardashian Can’t Write Good,”, May 10, 2015.  6. Jessica Bennett, “When Your Punctuation Says It All (!)”, Feb. 27, 2015; Aimee Lee Ball, “Talking (Exclamation) Points,”, July 1, 2011.  7. Jessica Bennett, “When Your Punctuation Says It All (!)”, Feb. 27, 2015. Mixing exclamation points and question marks isn’t new. In 1962 a Madison Avenue ad man with the felicitous name Martin Speckter proposed a new punctuation mark shaped like a hybrid of those two marks. His goal was to produce an alternative to copywriters’ tendency to combine those marks when they wanted to suggest surprise and doubt. He called it the interrobang. See Keith Houston, Shady Characters (New York and London: Norton, 2013), ch. 2.  8. Heidi Julavits, The Folded Clock:  A  Diary (New  York:  Doubleday), 208; Christopher Muther, “The Overuse of Exclamation Points!”, Apr. 26, 2012.   9. Maddie Crum,, Mar. 22, 2016. 10. Katy Waldman, “That Is Not How You Use an Exclamation Point, Kim Kardashian,”, Apr. 24, 2015. 11. Carol Waseleski, “Gender and the Use of Exclamation Points in Computer-​ Mediated Communication:  An Analysis of Exclamations Posted to Two Electronic Discussion Lists,” Journal of Computer-​Mediated Communication 11, no. 4 ( July 2006): 1012–​24. 12. Ben Crair, “The Internet Talks Like a Woman,”​thecut, May 27, 2015. 13. Maddie Crum,, Mar. 22, 2016. 14. Christopher Muther, “The Overuse of Exclamation Points!” bostonglobe. com, Apr. 26, 2012.

Lesson 24

  1. Words like therefore, thus, and indeed also are more likely to show up in formal writing. See Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Edinburgh Gate: Pearson Education Limited, 1999), 562, 886–​87.   2. The Oxford English Dictionary first cites this sense of the word in Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Henry VIII, Act 4, Scene 1 (ca. 1613):  “All the land knows that: However, yet there is no great breach.”   3. Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 428. The Chicago Manual of Style says that

298 Notes to pages 187–199

however is more effective within a sentence than at the start of one (16th edition, 5.207)). 4. The British National Corpus shows that however in the sense of “nevertheless, but” opens sentences in almost half of all appearances in writing that they classify as “informative” (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004], 255). 5. Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 2004, 256. The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage stresses the importance of a comma after However at the start of a sentence, to distinguish it from the word in the sense of “to whatever degree” (New York: Harper & Row, 1985, 296). Burchfield warns us to “avoid at all costs the illiteracy of using however as a simple substitute for but,” which wouldn’t be followed by a comma (Fowler’s Modern English Usage, [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004], 367).

Lesson 25

1. The dash I refer to here is the common kind of dash, technically known as an em dash. En dashes, by contrast, are rarer but have specific uses, as we saw in the Lesson 22. 2. The word ultimately derives from the Greek for “under one.” Early Greek grammarians placed a symbol called a hyphen under a compound to show that it should be read as one word, not two. 3. Much of my discussion of hyphens is indebted to The Chicago Manual of Style. The man-​eating chicken vs. man eating chicken illustration is from Catherine Soanes, “Hyphens in the Headlines,”, Oct. 11, 2011. 4. See Simon Rabinovitch, “Thousands of Hyphens Perish As English Marches On,” Reuters, Sept. 21, 2007. The OED still uses the hyphenated spellings for bumble-​bee, cry-​baby, and fig-​leaf. 5. Frequencies of use are from the Google Books Ngram Viewer. 6. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 258) notes the variability of hyphens. In France, the Académie française attempts to regulate language, but often nobody cares. In 1990, for example, it tried to “correct” about 2,400 words, declaring, for example, that the English loanword week-​end should lose its hyphen and become weekend. But that was soon forgotten. See Keith Houston, “Hats Off to the Circumflex,” nytimes. com, Feb. 19, 2016. 7. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 7.79. 8. These examples are derived from the Google Books Ngram Viewer. As another example, the OED cites the hyphenated play-​group, from 1909, as the earliest spelling of playgroup. The next instance is the open form, play group, from

Notes to pages 199–225 299

1914. The closed spelling, playgroup, isn’t cited until 1991, but it is now the spelling of the entry in the OED.   9. The Oxford University Press global site for house style, for example, specifies that cooperate and coordinate should be spelled without hyphens. Merriam-​Webster agrees, but the OED hyphenates both words. 10. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (the dictionary that recently eliminated 16,000 hyphenated compounds) also retains the hyphens in anti-​hero and anti-​war. 11. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 236. 12. Measurements of actual usage are from the Google Books Ngram Viewer.

Lesson 26

  1. Merriam-​Webster prints punch line as an open compound. The Oxford English Dictionary, by contrast, uses the closed form, punchline.  2. Data on American and British usage are from the Google Book Ngram Viewer. The hyphen also disappeared in the popular spelling of the word firefly, which is the older term for the same insect. The hyphenated form fire-​fly was the primary spelling until the early 1890s. Then both British and American writers came to prefer the solid spelling firefly. Today, fire-​fly is very rare in both countries. Merriam-​Webster uses the solid spelling, but the Oxford English Dictionary still hyphenates the word.  3. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage attributes the more frequent British use of hyphens to the influence of the Oxford dictionaries (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 258).   4. Mary Norris, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2015), 45, 114–​17. Incidentally, the Oxford English Dictionary entry is still de luxe, though this form began to decline in British usage after 1960. The closed spelling is now slightly dominant in UK books. The entry in Merriam-​Webster is the closed form deluxe. Since the 1960s, this has become the most common spelling by far in American books. De-​luxe has always been rare in both countries (Google Book Ngram Viewer).  5. In keeping with the pattern I  note in this lesson, the Oxford English Dictionary uses the hyphenated form, pre-​eminent.

Lesson 28

  1. Mignon Fogarty, “Quotation Marks with Periods and Commas,” grammar., Aug. 25, 2011.   2. A sentence is traditionally defined as a grammatically complete expression of a single thought. David Crystal points out, however, that a thought actually may

300 Notes to pages 225–230

extend over several sentences. So he thinks that it’s better to say that a sentence is a “unit of sense.” See his Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 134–​43.  3. Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 1. The Oxford English Dictionary cites a line from Aelfric’s Old English Grammar (993–​95?) that uses the term peri[o]‌dos in the sense of a full stop (OED, period, n., adj., and adv., Etymology).  4. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago and London: University Of Chicago Press, 2010), 10.4; Bryan A.  Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford and New  York:  Oxford University Press, 2009), 2; New  York Times Manual of Style and Usage, eds. Alan M. Siegal and William G. Connolly (New York: Random House, 1999), 4. Oxford University Press House Style says that the British style is to omit periods after abbreviated titles while the American style is to include them ( The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style says periods should be used with abbreviations consisting of lowercase or mixed upper-​and lowercase letters when there is a strong tradition for their use, such as etc., et  al., a.m. But it advises against periods in capitalized acronyms like NASA, NBC, and DVD (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), 355.   5. Even in this case there’s variation. Over a dozen of the band’s album covers have the spelling R.E.M., but Accelerate and the Original Album Series Box Set don’t use periods.  6. For punctuating complete sentences inside parentheses, or embedding words in parentheses within a larger sentence (like this), see the lesson on PARENTHESES, page 223.   7. The term ellipsis derives from a Greek word meaning “to fall short” or “to leave out.” A  grammatical ellipsis involves omitting a word or words that are necessary to complete the formal meaning of a construction. For example, if you text the message On my way, your reader will understand that you mean I’m on my way there. In punctuation, an ellipsis is the use of three dots to show that words have been left out.  8. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed., 13.50.   9. Matthew J. X. Malady, “What the . . .”, July 29, 2013; Malady, “Will We Use Commas in the Future? Maybe,”, Jan. 28, 2014; theconversation. com, July 19, 2016. For further discussion of the use of ellipses, see David Crystal, Making a Point, ch. 18. 10. One study found that only 39 percent of college students use any sentence-​ final punctuation in texts and only 45  percent use it in instant messages. If a message had more than one sentence, though, all but the final sentence did end in punctuation significantly more often. (Rich Ling and Naomi S. Baron, “Text

Notes to pages 230–239 301

Messaging and IM: Linguistic Comparison of American College Data,” https://​​cas/​lfs/​faculty-​docs/​upload/​text-​messaging-​and-​im.pdf, Feb. 16, 2007). See Dan Bilefsky, “Period. Full Stop. Point. Whatever It’s Called, It’s Going out of Style,”, June 9, 2016. 11. Danielle N. Gunraj et al., “Texting Insincerely: The Role of the Period in Text Messaging,” Computers in Human Behavior 55 ( Jan. 2016): 1067–​75; Mignon Fogarty was quoted in, May 30, 2014. See John Brhel, “Study: Text Messages That End in a Period Seem Less Sincere,”, Dec. 11, 2015. 12. Ben Crair, “The Period Is Pissed,”, Nov. 25, 2013; Tyler Schnoebelen, “Petulant Punctuation,”, Dec. 3, 2013. 13. Katie Heaney, Sarah Burton, Joanna Borns, Grace Spelman, and Arianna Rebolini, “We Tried to Stop Using Exclamation Points and It Was So Hard!”, Feb. 11, 2016.

Lesson 29

 1. This is true except when you use a question mark with a rhetorical question—​one in which you make a statement and don’t expect an answer. See Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar (New York, Boston, London: Little, Brown and Company), 90.  2. Earlier terms for the question mark include punctus interrogativus and signum interrogativus. See M.  B. Parkes, Pause and Effect:  An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 42; Oxford English Dictionary, question mark, n. Also see “What Is the Origin of the Question Mark?” ( and David Crystal, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 191. In 2011, a specialist in ancient manuscripts named Chip Coakley proposed that a double dot symbol in fifth-​ century Syriac manuscripts of the Bible was the earliest mark to indicate questions.   3. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage discourages that, saying it casts doubt on a writer’s verbal competence.  4. David Crystal, Making a Point, 194. Crystal (42) notes that the compositors of the First Folio followed other exclamatory utterances with question marks. In Julius Caesar, for example, Portia says, “Ay me! How weak a thing /​The heart of woman is?”   5. See Robert Allen, Punctuation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 72.  6. David Crystal, Making a Point, 191. For the origin and history of the term uptalk, see Ben Zimmer’s “ ‘Uptalk’ in the OED” (Language Log, Sept. 12, 2016), http://​​nll/​?p=28086.

302 Notes to pages 268–274

Lesson 33

  1. Cuomo used a comma before but when he made this statement in a 1985 speech. See the lesson on COMMAS BEFORE AND OR BUT on pages 77–87.   2. David Marsh, For Who the Bell Tolls: The Essential and Entertaining Guide to Grammar (London: Guardian Books, 2013), 96.  3. David Crystal observes that a comma shows an even tighter semantic connection between clauses than a semicolon does (though a comma alone normally can’t join independent clauses). See David Crystal, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (New York: St. Martin’s press, 2015), 230–​33.  4. M. B. Parkes notes that the semicolon first appeared in the humanist circle surrounding the printer Aldus Manutius the elder as a deliberate compromise between a colon and a comma (M. B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993], 49).   5. Robert Allen notes the rarity of the semicolon in modern novels. See his Punctuation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 35. Allen adds that some writers for children avoid semicolons, thinking that young readers will find them too difficult. Noah Lukeman says that the semicolon is probably the most elegant form of punctuation (A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation [New York and London: Norton, 2006], 70). The Google Books Ngram Viewer confirms that semicolons are significantly less common in English fiction today than in English books in general.  6. Trevor Butterworth cites Fred Barnes, James Wolcott, Chris Lehman, and Thomas Frank on the distaste for semicolons among Americans, especially journalists. He notes that the Pulitzer Prize-​winning writer Louis Menand argues that American editors fear the complexity that semicolons add (“Pause Célèbre,” [Financial Times], Sept. 16. 2005). For a thoughtful discussion, see Roy Peter Clark, “Restore the Semicolon to Journalism; Before It’s Too Late,”, July 23, 2014. I derive the relative frequency of semicolons in American, British, and French writing from the Google Books Ngram Viewer for 2008. For French views on this subject, see the discussion of PUNCTUATION in this book.   7. Lewis Thomas, “Notes on Punctuation,” The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (New York: Penguin, 1995), 126, 129.   8. Ben Dolnick, “Semicolons: A Love Story,”, July 2, 2012.   9. Anne Enright, quoted in David Marsh, For Who the Bell Tolls, 95. 10. Roy Peter Clark, The Glamour of Grammar (New York, Boston, London: Little, Brown and Company, 2010), 74. 11. In 1942 The Times ran an essay that denounced a supposed “anti-​semicolon cult.” The writer argued that people who see things as black or white have no need

Notes to pages 274–283 303

of semicolons. That sort of person prefers short, crisp, uncomplicated sentences that end with periods. But “there is a balanced justice that can come only of relying on the semicolon. Without it the temptation is to state only one side of a case, your own. With it, the a tendency is to be tolerant, impartial, to weigh one side, then the other.” “The semicolon,” the piece concluded, “is the agent of reflection and meditation” (“A Lesser War, on the Semicolon,” Topics of the Times, New York Times, July 13, 1942, cited in Paul Collins, “Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon?”, June 20, 2008). 12. Sam Roberts, “Celebrating the Semicolon in a Most Unlikely Location,”, Feb. 18, 2008, and Only in New York (New York: Macmillan, 2009). Roberts noted that the New York City public schools are supposed to teach the semicolon in third grade, but some people have never learned how to use it. Patricia T. O’Conner thinks of the semicolon as a flashing red light, which you can drive through after a brief pause. For her, the comma is a yield sign (Woe Is I [New York: Riverhead Books, 3rd ed., 2010], 169). Olivier Houdart and Sylvie Prioul call the semicolon la lanterne rouge (La ponctuation, Paris : Éditions du Seuil, 2006, 90). 13. Ben Zimmer, “Learning to Love the Semicolon.” See http://​www.cafepress. com/​dictyevangelist. 14. Noah Lukeman, A Dash of Style, 75. 15. See Maria DiBattista, “Virginia Woolf and the Language of Authorship,” in The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, eds. Sue Roe and Susan Sellers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 142. 16. See Arthur Waldhom, A Reader’s Guide to Ernest Hemingway (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002), 35. Hemingway used clusters of semicolons in his other work as well, including “A Way You’ll Never Be,” a 1933 short story in which he used five semicolons in one short paragraph alone.

Lesson 34

1. In critical editions of early texts, the punctuation is usually supplied by the editors. That can affect how often and or but appear at the start of sentences, since editors may choose semicolons rather than periods before those words. 2. David Crystal, The Story of English in 100 Words (New  York:  Macmillan, 2012), ch. 3. 3. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 5.206. Garner says that 8.75 percent of the sentences of first-​ rate writers begin with coordinating conjunctions (Garner’s Modern American Usage [New York, Oxford, 2009], 121–​23). 4. See Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 121–​23; Burchfield, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 120–​ 21; David Crystal, david-​, Apr. 2, 2010.

‘’ ✻

Select Bibliography

Allen, Robert. Punctuation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. Burchfield, R. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th edition. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2010. Clark, Roy Peter. The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of Practical English. New York, Boston, London: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Crystal, David. Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Fogarty, Mignon. Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2008. Fowler, H. W. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Ed. David Crystal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Garner, Bryan A. Garner’s Modern American Usage. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ––––––– Garner on Language and Writing. Chicago: American Bar Association, 2009. ––––––– The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Houdart, Olivier and Sylvie Prioul. La ponctuation: ou l’art d’accomoder les textes. Paris: Seuil, 2006.



Select Bibliography

Humez, Alexander and Nicholas Humez. On the Dot: The Speck That Changed the World. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Huston, Keith. Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. New York and London: Norton, 2013. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Edinburgh Gate: Pearson Education Limited, 1999. Lukeman, Noah. A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. New York and London: Norton, 2006. Marsh, David. For Who the Bell Tolls: The Essential and Entertaining Guide to Grammar. London: Guardian Books, 2013. McArthur, Tom. Oxford Concise Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Merriam-​Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Springfield: Merriam-​Webster, 1994. Morris, William and Mary. Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage. New York: Harper & Row, 1985. New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. Norris, Mary. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. New York and London: Norton, 2015. Nunberg, Geoffrey. The Linguistics of Punctuation. Menlo Park, Stanford, and Palo Alto: Center for the Study of Language and Information, 1990. O’Conner, Patricia T. Woe Is I. 3rd edition. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003. OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. Parkes, M. B. Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993. Peters, Pam. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Pinker, Steven. The Stuff of Thought. New York: Penguin, 2007. ––––––– The Sense of Style. New York: Viking, 2014. Quirk, Randolph, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, and Jan Svartvik. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London and New York: Longman, 1985. Richardson, Brian. Printers, Writers and Readers in Renaissance Italy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Shea, Ammon. Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. New York: Perigee, 2014. Spector, Stephen. May I Quote You on That?: A Guide to Grammar & Usage. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Select Bibliography 307

Strunk, William Jr. and E. B. White, The Elements of Style. 4th edition. New York and San Francisco: Longman, 2000. Thorpe, James. Principles of Textual Criticism. San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1979. Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves. New York: Gotham Books, 2003. Walsh, Bill. Lapsing into a Comma. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 2000.

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abbreviations, 226–​28, 300n4 Académie française, 298n6 adjectives, 17–​18 adverbs, 18–​19 Alcuin of York, 234 Allen, Robert on commas, 70–​71 on punctuation as stitching, 10–​11 on semicolons, 302n5 on the possessive case, 37–​38 Anderson, Sherwood, 286n2 apostrophes early use of, 30 in abbreviations, 50 in Irish names, 32 in obscenities, 32 indicating a length of time or an amount, 47–​48 in dates and numbers, 50 in plurals of lowercase letters, 49, 50 marking omissions, 29​–​32 marking some plurals, 49​–​52 marking the possessive case, 33​–​45, 290 n. 2, 291 n. 6 Austen, Jane use of dashes, 162 Barnes, Fred, 302n6 Barthelme, Donald on semicolons, 287n8 Bennett, Jessica, 4–​5, 181

British punctuation, 102, 178–​79, 226 with abbreviated titles, 300n4 with quotes, 249–​50 Brontë, Charlotte, 8 Buck, Peter, 286n3 Burchfield, Robert W on comma splices, 94 on ending the use of apostrophes, 286n3 on however, 298n5 Butterworth, Trevor on Americans’ distaste for semicolons, 302n6 Byron, George Gordon, 8 Cambridge Guide to English Usage, The, 191 Chaucer, Geoffrey started sentences with and and but, 283 Chicago Manual of Style, The on apostrophes, 39, 43, 45 on capitalizing after a colon, 292n3 on compounds, 199 on dashes, 172 on ellipses, 229 on however, 298n3 on periods in abbreviations, 226–​27 on starting sentences with and, but, or so, 283 on which vs. that, 138 Clark, Roy Peter on dashes, 164 on exclamation points, 179 on question marks, 234



Clark, Roy Peter (Cont.) on semicolons, 272 on the Oxford comma, 101 clauses main clauses, 19 nonessential clauses, 130–​31, 294n1 subordinate clauses, 20 colons, 53–​64 before definitions, 57–​58 before lists, 58–​59 before quotations, 61–​62 before subtitles, 63 between hours and minutes, 63 capitalizing after, 60 in biblical citations, 63 in bibliographic references, 63 in formal letters, 62 in ratios and proportions, 63 or semicolons? 273 what a colon really says, 57 commas after if-​clauses, 115–​18 and fanboys, 89–​91 around parenthetical bits, 139–​40 before and or but, 1, 77–​87 before bits at the ends of sentences, 145–​46 before where, which, who, etc., 129–​38 between two adjectives, 105–​8, 113–​14 for clarity, 147–​50 for contrast, 150–​51 in digital messages, 8 in direct address, 155–​58 in series of three or more items, 111–​12 origin of the term, 68 the Oxford comma, 99–​104 to mark omissions, 153–​54 when describing or naming, 141–​44 when not needed between adjectives, 108–​11, 112–​13 with main clauses, 67–​75 with transition words (indeed, therefore, etc.), 119–​28 comma splices, 71, 93–​98, 189, 265 compounds, 198 conjunctions coordinating conjunctions, 21, 289n1 subordinating conjunctions, 21 contractions, 226–​28 Cooper, James Fennimore, 286n2

Crair, Ben on periods in digital messages, 230–​31 Crum, Maddie, 182 Crystal, David on commas, 302n3 on Cormac McCarthy, 287n10 on dashes, 162, 295n9, 296n11 on exclamation points, 180, 296n1 on Laurence Sterne, 296n11 on parentheses, 295n9 on periods on Facebook, etc., 230 on punctuation in online messages, 297n4 on punctuation in the First Folio, 237, 301n4 on the definition of a sentence, 299 n2 on uptalk, 239 dashes, 161–​72 frequency of use historically, 295n3, 295n5 da Urbisaglia, Iacopo Alpoleio, 178 DeFoe, Daniel use of dashes, 163 Dickens, Charles use of dashes, 162, 164, 171 Dickinson, Emily use of dashes, 162, 171 diple, the, 242 Doctorow, E. L. on commas, 287n9 on question marks, 287n9 on semicolons, 10 Dolnick, Ben on semicolons, 271 Eats, Shoots & Leaves, 9 Elements of Style, The, 9 ellipses, 228–​30, 250, 300n7 en dashes, 173–​75, 298n1 Enright, Anne on semicolons, 272 exclamation points, 177–​84, 296n1 and early typewriters, 9 and gender, 183–​84 condemned, 9 in digital messages, 181 origin of, 9 their function, 10, 178

Index 311 fanboys, 89–​91 First Folio possessive case in, 34–​35 question marks in, 237 Fisher, Helen, 285n1 Fitzgerald, F. Scott, 9 Fogarty, Mignon (Grammar Girl) on exclamation points in online writing, 230 on periods in quotations, 225 on the Oxford comma, 101 Fourth Folio possessive case in, 35 Frank, Thomas, 302n6 full stops. See periods Gaiman, Neil, 104 Garner, Bryan A. on apostrophes, 291n8 on but vs. however, 187 on em dashes, 295n5 on starting sentences with coordinating conjunctions, 304n3 gerunds, 290n2 Gilbert, W. S. “a big, big D,” 164 Grammar Girl. See Fogarty, Mignon Greengrocer’s apostrophe, the, 49 Hamlet punctuation in, 237 Hemingway, Ernest, 13 on punctuation, 14 use of semicolons, 277–​78, 303n16 Herring, Susan, 183 Hirsch, E. D., 51 Houdart, Olivier and Sylvie Prioul on semicolons, 303n12 however, 185–​91, 298n3–​5 disappearing from use?, 127–​28 hyphenating, 195–​211 after prefixes, 203 connecting letters to words, 205 early Greek practice, 298n2 multiple hyphens, 210 nationalities, 208–​9 numbers, 206–​8 to avoid ambiguity, 201–​3 to form verbs, 209–​10

two different word compounds, 210–​11 with compounds that modify nouns, 200–​201 See when not to hyphenate Journalists alleged distaste for semicolons, 302n6 rules for punctuation, 38, 102–​3, 138, 227, 253 Julavits, Heidi on exclamation points, 181 Kilpatrick, James J. denunciation of semicolons, 9–​10 King James Version of Bible sentences start with and and but, 283 Kipling, Rudyard, 12 Kirn, Walter, 297n4 Kundera, Milan and semicolons, 13 LaGuardia, Fiorello on “semicolon boys,” 10 Larry the Cable Guy, 103 Lawrence, T. E. chastised for his punctuation, 13 Lehman, Chris, 302n6 Leonard, Elmore, 287n7 on exclamation points, 9 Liberman, Mark, 229 Little Dorrit, 171 Lukeman, Noah on semicolons, 271, 275, 302n5 main clauses, 19 Malory, Thomas started sentences with and, 283 Manutius, Aldus, 302n4 Marsh, David, 9, 34 McCarthy, Cormac eliminating semicolons and exclamation points, 10 rejection of all punctuation, 287n10 McCourt, Frank on semicolons, 274 McFarlane, Seth, 103 McWhorter, John on commas, 8–​9 on exclamation points, 180



McWhorter, John (Cont.) on Strunk and White, 9 on texting, 8 on the natural order of adjectives, 293n1 Melville, Herman use of semicolons, 275 Menand, Louis on fear of the complexity of semicolons, 302n6 Miller, Jennifer, 5 Milton, John started sentences with but, 283 Moby-​Dick, 275 Moll Flanders, 163 Muther, Christopher on exclamation points, 181, 184 Norris, Mary on hyphenating, 217–​18 not only . . . but (also), 86–​87 note numbers, 296n15 nouns, 21–​22 proper nouns, 22 Nunberg, Geoffrey on periods in online writing, 230 on punctuation and intonation, 288n12 on use of dashes, by genre, 295n5 O’Conner, Patricia T. on semicolons, 303n12 OMG!!!, 180 Oxford comma, The, 99–​104 oy vey!, 179–​80, 297n3 parentheses and square brackets, 10, 221–​24 Parkes, M. B. on the earliest semicolons, 302n4 periods, 225–​31 angry, aggressive periods, 230–​31 ellipses, 228–​30 in abbreviations, contractions, and numbers, 226–​28, 300n4–​5 in digital messages, 230–​31, 300n10 phrases, 23 Poe, Edgar Allan on dashes, 163, 169 Pope. Alexander, 154 possessive case in biblical and classical names, 39

in compound nouns, 40–​41 in names or titles, 42–​43 in place names, 38–​39 in plural nouns, 35–​36 in singular nouns, 35 in singular nouns ending in s, 36–​39, 43 joint possession, 40 with indefinite pronouns, 41–​42 with italicized words, 41 prepositions, 23 pronouns, 24–​25 indefinite pronouns, 25 personal pronouns, 24–​25 p’s and q’s, 51, 291n2 punctuation and personality types, 14–​15 as style, 11 hostility to, 8–​10 its function, 10 love of, 10–​13 origin of, 7 supplied by editors, 303n1 question marks, 233–​39 indicating uncertainty, 235 in direct questions, 233–​35 in uptalk, 238–​39 not with indirect questions, 235–​37 rhetorical questions, 301n1 statements, requests, etc., 237–​38 quotation marks, 241–​58 and colons, semicolons, dashes, asterisks, 247 around clichés, 257 around nicknames, 258 around titles, 252 around words you want to draw attention to or define, 253–​57 British punctuation with, 249–​50 not used around block quotations, 251 not used around indirect quotes, 252 punctuating before a quote, 243 punctuating inside quotes, 243–​46 punctuating when a parenthetical reference follows a quote, 249 punctuating when the quote within a question isn’t a question, 247 punctuating when you interrupt a quote, 248

Index 313 rules for journalists, 253 scare quotes, 256–​57 quotes within quotes, 259–​63 Roberts, Sam on semicolons, 303n12 romance and grammar, and punctuation, 4 and the em dash, 5 and semicolons, 5 run-​on sentences, 265 scare quotes. See quotation marks semicolons, 267–​78 admiration for, 13, 271–​72 and “balanced justice,” 303n11 connecting main clauses, 267–​71, 274 frequency of use, 295n3 hatred of, 9–​10 in long sentences or complicated lists, 275–​78 or colons? 273 Project Semicolon, 278 serial comma. See the Oxford comma Seven Pillars of Wisdom, 13 Shakespeare, William and “the full stop,” 226 started sentences with and and but, 283 See First Folio; Fourth Folio Shaw, George Bernard, 14 on apostrophes, 8 on colons, 13 on dashes, 8, 163 on semicolons, 13 Shirky, Clay, 229 Smollett, Tobias use of dashes, 164 Speckter, Martin, 297n7 starting sentences with and or but, 279–​84, 304n3 Stein, Gertrude on punctuation, 8, 14 Sterne, Laurence use of dashes, 170–​71 Strunk, William Jr., 9, 96 Subordinate clauses, 20 Tannen, Deborah on women’s use of exclamation points, 183

that vs. which, 133–​38, 294n2 Thomas, Lewis on exclamation points, 9 Tristram Shandy, 170–​71 Truss, Lynn and exclamation points, 9, 180 Twain, Mark and punctuation, 11–​12, 14 attributed quote about punctuation, 288n16 insistence on his punctuation choices, 11–​12 on proofreaders and copy editors, 12, 288n17 on “whooping exclamation points,” 287n6 use of semicolons, 277 Tyson, Neil deGrasse, 104 Usage, 2 Verbs, 25 Vonnegut, Kurt on semicolons, 9, 13, 289n24 Waldman, Katy on exclamation points, 182 Walsh, Bill, 294n3 on apostrophes, 291n5 on semicolons, 287n9 when not to hyphenate, 213–​19 which vs. that, 133–​38, 294n2 White, E. B., 9, 96, 293n3 Wilde, Oscar and commas, 13 and all punctuation, 289n19 Wolcott, James, 302n6 Woolf, Virginia use of semicolons, 277 Wordsworth, William, 8, 286n2 writing, origin of, 7 Yagoda, Ben on dashes, 163, 295n5 Yeats, W. B., 286n2 Zimmer, Ben on dashes, 166 on punctuating online messages, 180 on semicolons, 275 on uptalk, 301n6

‘’ ✻

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Quotation Sources 317

Depp, Johnny, American actor, producer, and musician DiCaprio, Leonardo, American actor and producer Diana, Princess of Wales, first wife of Prince Charles (1961–​1997) Dickens, Charles, English author and social critic (1812–​1870) Dickinson, Emily, American poet (1830–​1886) Dreyfuss, Richard, American actor Dunham, Lena, American actress, writer, director, producer Einstein, Albert, German American theoretical physicist and philosopher (1879–​1955) Eminem (Marshall Bruce Mathers III), American rapper, actor, songwriter, record producer Fey, Tina, American comedian, actress, writer, producer Fields, W. C., American comedian, actor, juggler, and writer (1880–​1946) Firth, Colin, English actor Fitzgerald, F. Scott, American novelist and short story writer (1896–​1940) Ford, Harrison, American actor and film producer Fox, Megan, American actress and model Frank, Anne, German Jewish diarist (1929–​1945) Franklin, Benjamin, American Founding Father and polymath (1706–​1790) Freud, Sigmund, Austrian founder of psychoanalysis (1856–​1939) Gable, Clark, American actor (1901–​1960) Garner, Jennifer, American actress and film producer Giffords, Gabrielle, American former congresswoman Gilbert, W. S., English dramatist, librettist, poet, partner of Sir Arthur Sullivan (1836–​1911) Gosling, Ryan, Canadian actor, musician, producer Gooding, Cuba, Jr., American actor Hamilton, Margaret, American actress (1902–​1985) Handler, Chelsea, American comedian, TV host, actress, writer Harrison, George, English singer, songwriter, lead guitarist of the Beatles (1943–​2001) Hathaway, Anne, American actress and singer Hawking, Stephen, English theoretical physicist and author


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Hemingway, Ernest, American author and journalist (1899–​1961) Hitchcock, Alfred, English film director and producer (1899–​1980) Hoffman, Dustin, American actor and director Hope, Bob, American comedian, actor, singer, dancer, writer (1903–​2003) Josh Hutcherson, American actor Jackman, Hugh, Australian actor, singer, and producer Jobs, Steve, American high-​tech inventor and entrepreneur (1955–​2011) Johansson, Scarlett, American actress, model, singer Johnson, Samuel, English author, critic, moralist, lexicographer (1709–​1784) Jones, James Earl, American actor Kardashian, Kim, American celebrity, reality TV personality, model, businesswoman Keillor, Garrison, American radio host, author, humorist Kendrick, Anna, American actress and singer Kennedy, John F., 35th president of the United States Kennedy, Robert F., American US attorney general and senator (1925–​1968) King, Martin Luther, Jr., American Civil Rights leader and Baptist minister (1929–​1968) Knowles-​Carter, Beyoncé, American singer, songwriter, record producer, actress Kravitz, Zoe, American actress, singer, and model Kunis, Mila, Ukrainian-​born American actress Kutcher, Ashton, American actor, producer, venture capitalist, former model Lady Gaga, American singer, songwriter, and actress Landers, Ann, pen name of Chicago Sun-​Times advice columnists Larkin, Philip, English author (1922–​1985) Lawrence, Jennifer, American actress Lennon, John, English singer and songwriter, cofounder of the Beatles (1940–​1980) Letterman, David, American comedian, producer, former host of the Late Show Lincoln, Abraham, 16th president of the United States (1809–​1865) Longworth, Alice Roosevelt, writer and socialite, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt (1884–​1980) Lopez, Jennifer, American singer, actress, dancer, businesswoman Mandela, Nelson, first black president of South Africa (1918–​2013)

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Marx, Groucho, American comedian, film and TV star (1890–​1977) McConaughey, Matthew, American actor McIntyre, John E., American journalist and copyeditor McKellen, Ian, English actor Melville, Herman, American author (1819–​1891) Mencken, H. L., American journalist, satirist, social commentator, linguist (1880–​1956) Michele, Lea, American actress, singer, writer Millan, Cesar, Mexican-​American dog behaviorist, TV host, author Milton, John, English poet, scholar, political polemicist (1608–​1674) Miranda, Lin-​Manuel, American composer, lyricist, rapper, writer, and stage performer Monroe, Marilyn, American actress and model (1926–​1962) Montana, Joe, retired American NFL quarterback Mostel, Zero, American actor and comedian (1915–​1977) Musk, Elon, South African-​born Canadian-​American entrepreneur, inventor, engineer Nichols, Mike, German-​born American film and theater director, actor, producer, comedian (1931–​2014) Nicholson, Jack, American actor, filmmaker Nicks, Stevie, American singer, songwriter Nimoy, Leonard, American actor, director, author, photographer, singer, songwriter (1931–​2015) Norton, Edward, American actor and filmmaker Obama, Barack, 44th president of the United States O’Brien, Conan, American TV host and producer, comedy writer Oliver, John, English comedian, TV host, political commentator O’Neal, Shaquille, American retired NBA basketball player and sports analyst Ono, Yoko, Japanese singer, songwriter, artist, peace activist O’Rourke, P. J., American satirist and journalist Palin, Sarah, former governor of Alaska, vice presidential nominee, commentator, writer Parker, Dorothy, American writer, satirist, critic (1893–​1967) Parker, Sarah Jessica, American actress, model, businesswoman

320 Quotation Sources

Piggy, Miss, Sesame Street muppet and personality Poe, Edgar Allan, American author, literary critic, editor Poehler, Amy, American comedian, actress, TV host, director, producer, writer Quinn, Colin, American comedian, actor, writer Reagan, Ronald, 40th president of the United States (1911–​2004) Redmayne, Eddie, English actor and model Rihanna, Barbadian singer, songwriter Rivers, Joan, American comedian, TV host, writer, actress, producer, (1933–​2014) Rock, Chris, American comedian, actor, producer Rogen, Seth, Canadian-​American comedian, actor, filmmaker Rogers, Will, American humorist, columnist, social commentator, actor (1879–​1935) Roosevelt, Eleanor, First Lady of the United States, diplomat, activist (1884–​1962) Roosevelt, Franklin D., 32nd president of the United States (1882–​1945) Rose, Pete, American major league baseball player and manager Rosenblatt, Roger, American commentator, author, and professor Rossum, Emmy, American actress, singer, and songwriter Rousey, Ronda, American mixed martial artist, judoka, actress Rowling, J. K., English author of Harry Potter novels, screenwriter, producer Rudner, Rita, American comedian, author, actress, dancer Rushdie, Salman, British Indian author, winner of the Booker Prize Ryan, Paul, Speaker of the House of Representatives, former nominee for vice president Ruth, Babe (George Herman), American major league baseball player who hit 714 home runs Sandberg, Sheryl, American high-​tech executive and author Schumer, Amy, American comedian, actress, author, producer Schumer, Chuck, United States senator from New York Scott, A. O., American journalist, film critic Seinfeld, Jerry, American comedian, actor, writer, director, producer Shakespeare, William, English playwright, poet, actor (1564–1616) Shatner, William, Canadian actor, writer, producer, director Shaw, George Bernard, Irish playwright, critic, cultural commentator (1856–​1950) Simon, Neil, American playwright, screenwriter, author

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322 Quotation Sources

Vonnegut, Kurt, American author (1922–​2007) Wayne, John, American actor, director, producer (1907–​1979) Webb, Jack, American actor, TV producer, director, writer (1920–​1982) West, Kanye, American rapper, songwriter, record producer, entrepreneur West, Mae, American actress, singer, playwright, screenwriter, comedian (1893–1980) White, Shaun, Olympic gold medalist American snowboarder and skateboarder Whitman, Walt, American poet, essayist, journalist (1819–​1892) Wiesel, Elie, Romanian-​born American Jewish writer on the Holocaust, professor, activist (1928–​2016) Wilde, Olivia, American actress, model, producer, director, activist Wilde, Oscar, Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, journalist, poet (1854–​1900) Wilder, Billy, Austrian-​born American director, screenwriter, producer, artist, journalist (1906–​2002) Williams, Robin, American comedian, actor, singer, voice artist (1951–​2014) Wilson, Woodrow, 28th president of the United States (1856–​1924) Winfrey, Oprah, American TV host, actress, producer, media entrepreneur, philanthropist Z, Jay (Shawn Carter), American rapper, songwriter, entrepreneur Zuckerberg, Mark, chairman, CEO, cofounder of Facebook