Victor Borge (pronounced BOR-guh) was a Danish pianist and comedian who combined those talents in a way that made him a star of American television in its early years. Among the many topics Borge explored in his sophisticated brand of stand-up (and often sit-down, from the piano bench) was punctuation, as in this video:
Borge is making fun of the way punctuation marks might sound if we actually spoke them, but as he notes, we do not. Yes, in English we know that when a sentence comes to a full stop, you use a period; that if the voice rises at the end, it’s probably a question; and if it ends with an explosion, it needs an exclamation mark. Commas and dashes and more subtle; we may not hear them, or hear them in the right places (“Let’s eat grandma”).
So punctuation can present a challenge for journalists, who spend a lot of their time getting quotes from sources, then transcribing them for readers. To make sure a quote reflects the speaker’s meaning clearly and accurately, the reporter or editor needs to insert the punctuation.
A comma indicates a pause — a brief one, as opposed to the full stop of the period. It gives the reader’s brain a chance to breathe and take in what has preceded the comma before moving on to what follows. Commas also set off transitional or parenthetical phrases like however or for example. (Remember that commas often travel in pairs, so if you have one of those expressions in the middle of a sentence, it should have commas before and after.) In a Q&A this semester, one student wrote:
For example when we work with tenants we also work with lawyers from the Urban Justice Center.
The sentence needs two commas: one to set off for example, and one between clauses:
For example, when we work with tenants, we also work with lawyers from the Urban Justice Center.
Dashes are used for longer pauses, to set off a phrase or to emphasize it, as in this sentence from an interview with Greg David, our business reporting guru:
You think through all the complications, and you decide what is the essence of what you want to say, at each level — in the story, in the section, in the paragraph.
Here the dash makes what follows it sound stronger. (But note it’s a phrase, not a clause; to connect two clauses, use a semicolon instead.) The punctuation is mine; Greg might do it differently.
One punctuation mark that causes confusion is the ellipsis: . . . Beginning writers often use it to indicate a pause, or the speaker’s voice trailing off. In fact, an ellipsis means the writer is leaving out some of the speaker’s words. If I were reporting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on a tight word count, I might shorten it something like this:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation . . . dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. (What’s missing? Look it up.)
One student this semester mistakenly punctuated a quote this way:
“When you dial the phone, who you called, how long the call was for, who called from that person . . . you can learn a lot from that,” Nadler said.
But nothing was omitted, so it should have looked like this:
“When you dial the phone, who you called, how long the call was for, who called from that person — you can learn a lot from that,” Nadler said.
Similarly, an apostrophe can indicate something left out, as in contractions: it’s for it is. (Apostrophes are also used in possessives, but not for pronouns, which have their own irregular forms: my, your, his, her, its, our, their.) An apostrophe stands in for what was left out and goes in its place. If you abbreviate the 1990s as the ’90s, the apostrophe belongs where the 19 would normally be, unless your publication’s style dictates otherwise.
A reader asks, “Do you have any rules about using quotations with punctuation? I get confused.” Assuming she meant quotation marks, she’s not the only one who’s confused. (Yes, I know that sentence is a dangler.)
In English, periods and commas go inside quotation marks; semicolons and colons go outside.Question marks and exclamation points go inside if they’re part of the quote, outside if not. Last semester a student wrote:
“We don’t have our alcohol license yet”, he said.
It should have been:
“We don’t have our alcohol license yet,” he said.
To be fair, international students often get this wrong because the rules are different in their native languages. They’re also confused about decimal points, which are rendered in English as exactly that — points, or periods, not commas. So this week, when a European student wrote of “an increase of 24,2 percent, ” she meant 24.2. And a ride on the New York City subways costs $2.50, not $2,50.