In British English, punctuation at the end of a sentence is called a “full stop,” – just like the red, octagonal, road sign at an intersection. Indeed, basic punctuation is a great deal like road signs, instructing the reader when to slow down, yield, and stop. In this way, punctuation is a great tool – a way for a writer to lead her reader through a labyrinth of ideas without either of them getting lost. Here’s an abbreviated driver’s manual summarizing the punctuation/signage that will help you and your readers through a safe narrative journey.
The Comma. This little subscript mark is possibly the second most misused punctuation mark – after the apostrophe. It indicates a brief pause, like the letting up on the accelerator as you approach a cross walk where there might be pedestrians crossing, or a yield sign, indicating an important clause is about to enter the sentence.
The comma is also used before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, and yet) linking two independent clauses – just the way a driver hesitates when crossing a four-way intersection on a country road, where stop signs aren’t posted.
A comma follows an introductory clause or phrase, just as a driver can let up on the accelerator after zooming up the entrance ramp of a limited-access highway and achieving highway speed. And commas set off little elements, like non-restrictive clauses, parenthetical remarks, dates, and the like. These commas help a reader negotiate stop-and-go traffic, and can be as trying as a traffic jam when overused.
Overusing commas is similar to when a driver pumps the gas, creating a staccato motion that causes car-sickness and is not reader-friendly. Similarly, when commas are too infrequently used a reader could become anxious with breathlessness the way a driver who never pauses to read street signs can end up hopelessly lost.
The Semi-colon. If it’s possible to have a favorite punctuation mark, this would be mine. The semi-colon is all about linking equal parts. When a semi-colon joins two independent clauses without a coordinating conjunction, it’s a sign to the reader that the ideas are equal; she must supply the mental connection of ideas just as drivers at a four-way stop sign must agree on an order for taking turns across the intersection. The semi-colon indicates the need for cooperation, and I like that.
The semi-colon is also used to separate coordinate elements that contain commas, like a long, complicated, list of items. This use of semi-colons resembles those giant, overhead, signs on the interstate that separate drivers into different lanes according to their destinations.
The Colon: This mark instructs a reader to pay attention, something important is coming up, just like the orange signs on the highway alerting a driver of upcoming hazards, like construction, a change of pavement or a bump. It says, “Heads up!”
The Period. Full stop. Ignore this mark at your peril! It is the stoplight that must be obeyed at all costs. Without it, intersections of ideas would be chaotic pile-ups. Even a single idea without a period at the end is as dangerous as a road that goes off a cliff. A period provides closure, and every reader wants to be told when to stop.
Learning to stop can be difficult, but with the price of gas going up in direct opposition to readers’ time, it’s a critical skill. So even though there are more signs worth knowing how to use, like the apostrophe, the dash, parentheses, quotation marks, exclamation point, question mark and the interrobang, these marks are beyond the purview of this post.
Deborah Lee Luskin is novelist, essayist and educator. She is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio, a Visiting Scholar for the Vermont Humanities Council and the author of the award winning novel, Into The Wilderness. For more information, visit her website at www.deborahleeluskin.com