Tag Archives: punctuation

Quotation Marks

For years I have enjoyed the idiosyncratic ways signage works. When I was living in India, for example, I kept a series of blog posts called “Signs of India.”


High above the capital city of Leh in Ladakh


Parking garage, Symbiosis Law School, Pune

Among the most perplexing patterns in signage closer to home is the myriad uses of quotation marks. Once you notice this, the world will never look the same. For years, Bethany Keeley-Jonker has been having a lot of fun with the ways we use quotation marks. Her “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks is great fun. She has also published a book that will make you laugh out loud again and again: The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks: A Celebration of Creative Punctuation (Chronicle 2010).

bathrooms    outside wouldyou

On Monday next week Bethany will give a talk, “Blogging as Hobby, Business and Social Action in a Changing Media Environment,” at 4 in Morrison 204. Please consider coming to hear her speak. And on Tuesday, Bethany, who is currently an assistant professor of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois, will join us as we continue our discussions of language and style.

Hyphens and Dashes

What is the difference between a hyphen and a dash and when should I use them?
What is an “em dash” and what is an “en dash” and how do I use them?

1. hyphen (-) : Mac and PC: hyphen key: The hyphen connects compound words.

There are permanent compounds that have found their way into the dictionary (henhouse, makeup, notebook).

  • Kilowatt-hour, mass-produce, ill-favored, tie-in, toll-free call, two-thirds. A food-loving back-to-the-land generalist who became obsessed with fermentation

There are also examples when using a compound adjective before a noun.

  • A fast sailing ship. Or, a fast-sailing ship

2. en dash (–) : Mac: Option + – = – / PC “Alt” and type “0151.” The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance.

  • Seven–ten days
  • You will find the article in the May–September issue of Scientific American
  • According to Frank Hanks, there should be a reference to what Edward Said calls “Orientalism” (147–48).

Or combining open compounds (note prefix connected to proper noun):

  • North Carolina–Virginia border
  • a high school–college conference
  • Post–Civil War

3. em dash (—) : PC “Alt” and type “0151” / Mac: Shift + Option + – = —. Em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses in apposite phrases, to indicate added emphasis, to interrupt or change thought:

  • “The Incompletion figured in the dash—is life” (McHugh 113)
  • Dickinson’s use of the dash—a mark of punctuation a reader encounters throughout her work—requires careful scrutiny
  • There is little room for error—whether one is consuming French fries or pork rinds.

(The practice of using two hyphens for a dash, although acceptable, is a holdover from the days of typewriters).

A Primer for Users of the Colon

Here are ways of using a colon one can find by looking for different uses in writing in print and on the web. The examples are my own:

1. Following a statement (most often an independent clause) that introduces a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series

  • Professor Fienberg considers an example of this kind of narrative strategy in the prose works of Mary Roth: (introduce a quotation)
  • There is little doubt that the athletes knew exactly what to do following the competition: hydrate, eat carbohydrates, and get plenty of rest (an explanation)
  • The proper ingredients are essential to making an authentic burrito: beans, rice, onions, cilantro, and tomatoes (a word or group of words that rename a noun or a pronoun)

2. So far so good: he would begin again first thing in the morning (after an element which is not an independent clause, but merely a fragment)

3. Dear Professor Garrity: (After salutation in a formal letter)

4. Genesis 1:1 or Judges 16: Sampson (Between the chapter and verse numbers in a biblical citation)

5. Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature (Between the title and subtitle of a book or article)

6. 3:00 a.m. (Between numbers or groups of numbers in expressions of time. Though the British convention is to use a period instead of a colon: We left the pub at 5.45 in the morning. And the use of 24-hour time does not include the colon: our shift begins at 0730 and ends at 1700.)

7. 1:5 (in ratios)

8. Messenger: Occasions drew me early to this city,
And as the gates I entered with sun-rise,
The morning trumpets proclaimed
Thorough each high street. Little I had dispatched. . . .

(To separate dramatic characters from dialogue in a script. from John Milton, Samson Agonistes)

9 . Date: December 30, 2013
To: Dr. Frank Smith
From: Dr. Julio Fernandez
Re: Fall 2012 Plagiarism Cases

(In the header to a memo)

10. Without hesitation, and with a surprising lack of decorum, the bishop chastised the small group behind the pew: “There are reasons why you are to be held accountable and I will explain them to you when you have left the church grounds. (an independent clause introducing a quotation or spoken text in a dialog. If the introductory text is not an independent clause, use a comma instead.)

Style Conventions for the Colon

Should there be one or two spaces following a colon?

  • Word processing software makes the answer one. However, if you choose two, be consistent.

Where does a colon go after quoted text?

  • When a colon appears after quoted text, put it after the closing quotation mark.

Do I start the text following the colon with either an upper-case or lower-case letter?

  • It depends who you ask. The Associated Press and MLA say to include the capital letter. The Chicago Manual of Style tells you to capitalize only when what follows the colon is a quotation or where two or more sentences follow the colon. Again, be consistent with the option you choose.

Notes on the Semicolon

“If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.”

—William James, Letter to Sarah Whitman

In our last class session we were talking about the anxiety that accompanies the use of punctuation. Does a comma go here? Should I include a comma to separate the second and third item in a series? And so on. I also pointed out the vehement positions people take when it comes to punctuation. That an occasional piece of writing on a comma generates over three hundred comments  says something about our relationship to marks on a page.

But what about the semicolon? Why does this mark of punctuation generate so much turbulence? Noah Lukeman suggests that because semicolons are never necessary there will always be a link between its use and whether or not it needed to be used.

images-2Here is a classic statement (in a classic text on style) about the proper use of the semicolon that appears straightforward: “If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence,” say William Strunk and E. B. White, “the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon” (The Elements of Style 5-6). But then, let’s say, you start reading one of my favorite writers, the philosopher and psychologist William James. Here are a couple of examples from James in his chapter “Will” near the end of his The Principles of Psychology. James is making the case (following Carl Lange) that emotion follows, rather than causes, its bodily expression:

Common-sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike.

I sit at table after dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally to bring the act about.

One can hear in these examples the “aught of good,” as James puts it, “the result of ceaseless toil.” His style is quite distinctive, actually, and readers of James are grateful for his willingness to “torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.” Or, let’s say I pick up The Varieties of Religious Experience and read:

Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile.

 Or have a look at another example, this one from The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy,

Science, like life, feeds on its own decay. New facts burst old rules; then newly divined conceptions bind old and new together into a reconciling law.

Or, finally, a series in a passage from James’ essay “The Moral Equivalent of War”:

A great nation is not saved by wars, it is saved by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans and empty quacks.

One conclusion to draw from this series of examples is that the use of the semicolon is, alas for some of us, a situational decision.

Looking for a bit more uncertainty to cultivate your punctuation anxiety? Consider Kurt imagesVonnegut’s often-quoted quip about the semicolon in A Man Without a Country (2007). “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” These lines from Vonnegut are quoted by Ben Dolinck in his 2012 Times Opinionator Blog post, “Semicolons: a Love Story.” Of course accomplished writers use semi-colons—in fact, in addition to William James, none other than E. B. White uses them beautifully in his essays, as Mary Norris notes in her  “Semicolons; So Tricky” in the New Yorker.

As with most things linguistic, and again more’s the pity, rules for usage are at once invariant and variant. You can stick with Strunk and White. Or you can read and pay attention to how writers actually use semicolons. You might also want to have a look at Matthew Inman’s “How to Use a Semicolon: The Most Feared Punctuation on Earth” on the Oatmeal Blog.