Punctuation Marks – 3

The first thing that impressed me about the Harry Potter novels was the story; the second thing that impressed me was J.K. Rowling’s use of semicolons. I was happy to see her punctuate closely related independent clauses with a semicolon. 

And I have found, when reading some mystery fiction, more semicolons than one would normally encounter in a novel. The first question I ask myself is: Was the author an attorney? Quite often the answer is Yes. Perhaps the legal mind is attracted to the fine distinctions made by semicolons. 

Moby_Dick_final_chaseThe semicolon has four major uses, as follows:

1  To link two closely related independent clauses

    Jason sailed the Argos; Ahab sailed the Pequod.

2  To link clauses connected by conjunctions such as however, as a result

    Ahab was consumed with the idea of vengeance against Moby Dick; as a result, he smuggled five Parsee harpooners aboard the Pequod.

3  To separate items in a list, when items within each part of the list contain commas.

    The author kept her manuscript in three forms: as an electronic file, which she stored on her computer or, sometimes, on two different computers; as a paper file, which she kept in her locked file cabinet; and as a digital file, which she kept on her flash drive, which was with her at all times, even when she slept.

4  To link lengthy clauses that also contain commas, so as to distinguish between clauses.

   The gardener turned the soil over twice a year, using a spade, a pitchfork, a hoe, and, finally, a rake; but she planted seeds only once, after the first turning-over.   

Just as the semicolon seems a bit formal, so, too, do parentheses. As Karen Elizabeth Gordon explains in The New Well-Tempered Sentence, parentheses are meant to include additional information within a sentence — not the main information, but additional info. “They make for a softer interruption than the abrupt snapping or daring that dashes do. . . .” she explains. (Note the abruptness of that dash two sentences ago? Note the softness of this additional information?)

Punctuation-MarksGordon’s book (one of my favorite of all grammar books) is full of examples of parentheses usage. As you can see in the previous sentence, I have placed additional information within parentheses. Wisecracks, asides, insults (!), and even punctuation marks that reveal a writer’s attitude (Attitude with a capital A?) are usually placed within parentheses. 

Brackets are called square brackets in some English-speaking countries, but in the US they’re simply called brackets. I learned about brackets in high school, probably when I was learning how to write a research paper, and I can recall using them in college papers, too. But then I began writing adult fiction and nonfiction and children’s fiction and nonfiction and also children’s activity books and filmstrips and such — and brackets disappeared from my writing.

RN3Only to resurface again in 2010 when I wrote Research Notes for Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, Volume 1. Ditto for Volume 2, which was published in 2013, and ditto for Volume 3, published in 2015.

The reason that brackets resurfaced in my writing is that one of their main uses is to enclose material added by someone other than the original author. In Research Notes I quoted a lot of original material (mainly newspaper articles from 1875-1923), and in many cases I needed to add explanatory material or indicate that something was incorrectly spelled.

In the first example below, I add the information that the Hartford referred to is in Michigan. In the second example I add a sic to indicate that the incorrectly-spelled word preceding the sic was there in the original newspaper text.

“Manager Olson has arranged for a game with Hartford [Michigan] for Friday afternoon, May 11, at the Hartford ball grounds.”

“The season has been a disasterous [sic] one to many carnivals and circuses, and with no encouraging outlook for the present season, the wise and conservative showmen will probably be in winter quarters not later than the early part of October.”

In an earlier blog I wrote that I think the apostrophe will disappear from American English sooner or later, because people simply do not understand its use to show possession. Another punctuation mark in grave danger of disappearance — it has practically vanished — is the hyphen. I often find myself confused by a billboard or ad slogan that, after three or four readings I finally figure out. Had words been properly hyphenated, I would have understood instantly. For example:

a third best vacation

a third-best vacation

The first two or three times I read the top line (which is how it appeared on a billboard), I thought somebody had taken three best vacations. Frankly, I didn’t see how that was possible. The vacations could have been good, better, best, but all three of them could not have been best. Finally I figured out that the writer meant to sneer at a particular vacation, calling it third-best. When the hyphen is missing, it takes a couple of readings to figure out exactly what is meant. (See my poem blog on the hyphen, Goodbye Hyphen, Hello Confusion.)


Here’s another example of  how a missing hyphen — which is meant to join words that need to be understood as belonging together — can cause a reader to stumble.

Twice now I’ve seen the cover of a book that is titled:


So each time I’ve seen this, I’ve read it as a blue stranger who happens to be “eyed,” and that strikes me as hilarious. The ridiculousness of the situation makes me realize that the cover designer means this to be a


Upon looking this book up online, I see that text descriptions (i.e., not the cover, but words) call it Blue-Eyed Stranger. So apparently it’s just the cover that is wrong. Either that, or the write-ups about the book have corrected the poor punctuation because they just couldn’t stand it! 

Which is why I do not carry a pen with me.


Barbara Gregorich loved using both the colon and a comma in one of her book titles — Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Punctuation Marks – 2

Just as many people are afraid of the comma (in that they don’t know how it works or when to use it), so, too, they’re afraid of the apostrophe. Probably more than they’re afraid of the comma!

The apostrophe was used in French before it was used in English, and in French it was used to indicate an elision — one or more letters missing from a word. As in Let’s go to a movie, there’s a good one playing just down the street, and it’s been ages since we’ve eaten popcorn. During the 1500s learned Englishmen and Englishwomen imitated the French by importing the apostrophe to indicate elisions.

Eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century English was full of elisions. Think of any of Dickens’ novels. Or British mysteries, with words such as t’night and prob’ly. Some pages look as if a careless writer spilled a saltshaker of apostrophes over everything. Personally, I find too many such apostrophes intrusive to my reading experience. One or two per page, okay. Seven or eight . . . bothersome!

In addition to showing that some letters have been omitted, an apostrophe can also be used to show possession. Based on today’s evidence, I’m guessing that the apostrophe as a mark that shows possession will disappear from American English altogether.

Most people seem terrified by this little punctuation mark and don’t know how to use it to show possession. Or plurals. They seem to just throw the apostrophe in wherever they find an s! A sign that should read Fresh peaches, $2/pound might read Fresh peache’s, $2/pound. Or, Fresh peaches’, $2/pound.

In written language possession is fairly easy to infer. Dad painted Jasons bikes bright red, but Mom painted Saras bikes lime green. That probably looks strange to somebody who uses apostrophes correctly — but it looks a lot better than Dad painted Jasons’ bike’s bright red, but Mom painted Saras bike’s lime green. Perhaps in such cases misusage is worse than no usage. (The correct way to punctuate that sentence is as follows: Dad painted Jason’s bikes bright red, but Mom painted Sara’s bikes lime green.)

Unlike the apostrophe, the slash mark travels under so many different names, I’m not sure it can be trusted. It can be called The Slash (/), the Forward Slash, the Solidus, or the Virgule. I wasn’t taught the slash mark when in high school, nor when in college, and for those reasons I tend to think of it as a modern punctuation mark — more recent, say, than the comma or colon or semicolon.

RomanVirgilFolio014rVergilPortraitBut I am wrong. The slash was used during the days of Ancient Rome, and it made its way into Middle Ages manuscripts, where one slash represented a comma and two slashes (how bold!) represented a dash. The two slashes eventually straightened themselves out to look like a modern-day equals sign (=), but that sign was still a dash, not a mathematical symbol. Eventually the two horizontal dashes (=) became a single dash, which we still use today

The basic purpose of the slash today is to indicate per, as in $500/week. It is often used to indicate alternatives, as in and/or, but books such as The Chicago Manual of Style suggest this expression be avoided because its meaning is unclear. Use the word and, use the word or, or rewrite the sentence another way.

What Jack/Jill will be going up the hill means is this: Either Jack alone or Jill alone or the two of them together will be going up the hill. You can see why people prefer to use the slash mark rather than write out the possibilities indicated by the slash mark.

My favorite use of the slash mark is to indicate line breaks in quoted poetry. To follow knowledge like a sinking star, / Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

Unlike the slash mark, the colon has always impressed me as a straightforward punctuation mark, easily understood. (Much more so than the sneaky semicolon.)

Basically a colon is used to introduce a series, the items in the series being examples of the statement that comes in front of the colon. But the colon should not be used to create a list that is really the object of the verb. Here are two examples:

CORRECT — The necessities of life include these: air, water, food, shelter.
INCORRECT — The necessities of life include: air, water, food, shelter.

panctuationIn the correct example, the pronoun these is the object of the verb include. So the first example is correct: the items after the colon rename, or serve as examples, of these.

In the incorrect example, the verb include is being separated from its object. In the incorrect example the words in front of the colon do not constitute a complete sentence. The necessities of life include is not a complete sentence.

The colon is an emphatic punctuation mark. Not as emphatic as the dash, but still, it commands one’s attention. A colon can be used between two independent clauses when the second clause explains the first, expands upon it, illustrates it, or paraphrases it.

Here’s a light-hearted piece I wrote one day after tasting a particularly assertive wasabi.

Note to Self

Bite of wasabi:
Eyes go sobby.

Tasting wasabi:
Eschew as hobby.


There is no wasabi in Barbara Gregorich’s Crossing the Skyway: Poems.

Mixing It Up: Four Sentence Types

SOUNDPROOF-CoverThe sentence is the basic unit of communication. Not the word. Not the paragraph. Not the chapter. It’s the sentence that expresses meaning. Some meanings are simple, others complex. If you want to express different relationships and different levels of meaning, you need to use more than one type of sentence.

If you want to write well — to have readers enjoy the content, cadence, and meaning of what you’re saying — you will most likely end up using each of the sentence types, as circumstances require.

Here are the four types of sentences in English, with an example of each. The first example is from my mystery novel, Sound Proof, which is written in the first-person point of view. After the first example I have fun with the original sentence in order to create other types.

Simple Sentence — Single subject and single predicate. The two sentences below are each simple sentences. Richard is a 600-pound pet pig who plays a role in the mystery. The speaker is my detective hero, Frank Dragovic. He’s speaking to music-festival owner Mary Ployd, who also happens to own Richard.

“I’ve seen Richard. He could destroy an entire building.”

Compound Sentence — Two or more independent clauses (usually joined by and, but, or, nor). The first sentence below contains three independent clauses. The second sentence contains two independent clauses.

I saw Richard, I heard his grunts, and I smelled his sty. Mary asked me to repair the missing boards, but entering the sty and doing so would make me indistinguishable from Richard, smell-wise.

UnknownComplex Sentence — One independent clause and one or more dependent clauses. Each sentence below contains one independent clause and one dependent clause. In the first sentence the dependent clause starts with the word “after,” and with the word “which” in the second sentence.

After I caught a whiff of Richard’s sty, I realized how unpleasant my carpentry job was becoming. Carpentry work was keeping me from investigating the instrument thefts, which could be deliberate on Mary’s part.

Compound-Complex Sentence — Compound sentence with one or more dependent clauses. The sentence below contains two independent clauses (the “compound” part of the compound-complex) and it contains two dependent clauses, the first starting with “which,” the second starting with “unless.”

Carpentry work was keeping me from investigating the instrument thefts, which could be deliberate on Mary’s part, but I thought she wanted the thefts solved and the thief barred from the festival . . . unless she herself had stolen the guitar and the mountain dulcimer.

If you want to write clear prose that is also interesting prose, know your sentence types and use the type that the situation requires.


Barbara Gregorich explores both pigs and sentence types in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies.

Sentences and Train Wrecks

It’s true that we can communicate through grunts, gestures, and a mere word here and there — but it’s the sentence that’s the basic unit of communication. Not the word. Not the paragraph. Not the chapter. Occasionally readers will marvel over a writer’s word choices. Rarely will readers think, “What a magnificent paragraph!” They will, however, be struck by the power, grace, beauty, or wit of individual sentences.

If you want to write well — to have readers enjoy the content and cadence of what you’re saying — you must write good sentences. And to write good sentences, you must be in charge of where the sentence is going.

In How to Write a Sentence Stanley Fish cautions writers to “make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming at).”

porter-cty-train-ax-2The sentence is a train, with clauses, phrases, adjectives, and adverbs all coupled in a logical order. But if the order is wrong — if any of the parts are hooked on incorrectly, swing wide, or come undone — that wrong order can and will pull the train off the track. You will have not a sentence, but a grammatical wreck.

In order to teach yourself to control all the components of a long sentence, Fish asks you to write three-word sentences — lots of them. (Articles don’t count as words at this point.)

Then, after you’ve written 20 or so such sentences, he asks you to expand each into a 15-word sentence: articles count as words at this point. Be sure that you remember the doer and action from the 3-word sentence, be sure that they remain the doer and action, and be sure you can tell how your additional words relate to the doer and action.

After you’re sure that your 15-word sentences are clear and unambiguous . . . expand them to 30 words.

Finally, expand them to 100 words.

This is a wonderful exercise! Here’s what I did with it:

3-word sentence
Xenia steered the boat.

17-word sentence
As a furious rain assailed the heart of Chicago, Xenia, gripping the wheel firmly, steered the boat.

30-word sentence
As a furious rain, more furious than any in living memory, assailed the heart of Chicago, pelting pedestrians and vehicles, Xenia, gripping the wheel firmly, steered the wildly bucking boat.

Neptune_1100-word sentence
As a furious rain, more furious than any in living memory, assailed the heart of Chicago, pelting not only pedestrians scrambling for shelter and vehicles laboring through river-like streets, but assaulting the great skyscrapers themselves, cascading off them in colossal waterfalls, Xenia, more or less dry inside her yellow slicker and hat, gripping the wheel firmly, refusing to relinquish it to any mortal (maybe not even to Neptune himself should he appear from the deep), steered the wildly bucking yet totally seaworthy boat northward, toward the line where the dark and furious storm clouds met the brilliant blue sky.

The purpose of this exercise is not to prove that longer sentences are better than shorter ones, but to make certain the writer can control sentence structure at all times. At no time in any of my sample sentences did the subject or verb or object change. Rather, I added many modifiers (some words, some phrases) to give a more detailed picture. I did not let any of these modifiers hijack my sentence and run off with its meaning.

Which is not to say that the 100-word sentence is anything I would ever write — that long sentence is easy to enjoy, but a bit difficult to take seriously.

Still, I kind of like the brilliant blue sky at the end.


Barbara Gregorich’s mystery Sound Proof contains approximately 10,000 sentences . . . none of them a train wreck.