More Answers to Questions About Punctuation

By Mark Nichol

Here are my responses to three recent queries from readers about various punctuation matters.

1. In the sentence “I went to school, although I was feeling ill,” is the comma correct, or is it optional where the meaning is clear?

Most subordinating conjunctions require no preceding comma (for example, consider sentences in which before, if, or when bridge two independent clauses), but those that come before a contrasting statement, such as one that begins with although and whereas, should be preceded by one.

2. In the following sentence, is the use of single inverted commas correct, or incorrect?: “I thought to myself, ‘It’s a good thing that we are going down the stairs, as I would never be able to climb them back.’”

For internal thoughts, format as you have done, or italicize thoughts instead of enclosing them in inverted commas (or quotation marks, as they’re usually called in the United States). Here’s a post I wrote on the topic.

3. Today I wrote the sentence “The assessment is no longer required for technologists; only managers and higher.” I wasn’t sure which punctuation to use where the semicolon is. A comma wouldn’t provide a long enough pause to get my point across. I toyed with the idea of a colon, but it didn’t seem quite right. I went with a semicolon because “only managers and higher” seemed like a truncated independent clause. Seeing it now (after clicking Send), I think it maybe should have been a dash. What do you think?

I think that a comma is sufficient in this sentence, but, yes, for more emphasis, I would use an em dash (and follow it with “only for managers and higher”). A colon isn’t appropriate, because what follows is a comparison of sorts, not an expansion or definition. To merit a semicolon, what follows would have to be explicitly constructed as an independent clause, not just an abbreviated version of one.

Click here to get access to 800+ interactive grammar exercises!


Share


4 Responses to “More Answers to Questions About Punctuation”

  • Matt Gaffney

    The writer misplaced “only” when he added it to his correction of example three. The clear intent is to have “only” modify “managers and higher,” but its placement before “for” introduces ambiguity and awkwardness. Correctly rewritten, the phrase would read “for managers and higher only.”

    Here’s my rule of thumb:

    Only I poked him in his eye with my stick.
    I only poked him in his eye with my stick.
    I poked only him in his eye with my stick.
    I poked him only in his eye with my stick.
    I poked him in his only eye with my stick.
    I poked him in his eye only with my stick.
    I poked him in his eye with my only stick.
    I poked him in his eye with my stick only.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mr. Nichol is absolutely correct in the way he corrected example #3, and I do not see any reason to argue with him about it, Mr. Gaffney.
    You must not just follow blind rules that you choose, but you must follow the idiomatic constructions of English.
    “Only for” is one of those idiomatic constuctions, such as in the phrases “only for babbling babies…” and “only for those who are lost in the woods”. If you wish to truly know English, you have to know hundreds and hundreds of idiomatic constructions, too. This must be difficult for foreigners, but I have know those who have mastered it. Consider Jacob Bronowski, who spoke nothing but Polish through the age of 12, but then he forgot it all after his family moved to England and he mastered English. Read about him on the Internet because he was an amazing man in English-language TV.

    Mr. Nichol was also correct in pointing out that a semicolon is inappropriate here. I have found that it is a problem with many writers that they want to use punctuation marks that are randomly chosen, instead of following the practices of the great writers like Twain, Clarke, Asimov, Hemingway, Sagan, and Pulitzer. E.G. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, demonstrating the correct use of the colon.

    Speaking of the Sagans, I have read dozens of books by Carl Sagan but none by Francoise Sagan, so I do not know anything about the latter except for her name. Speaking of Asimov, I have read hundreds of his books, both fiction and nonfiction ones. As for Sir Arthur C. Clarke, his works in fiction and nonfiction have also become mine to read.

    D.A.W.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Mr. Nichol is absolutely correct in the way he corrected example #3, and I do not see any reason to argue with him about it, Mr. Gaffney.
    You must not just follow blind rules that you choose, but you must follow the idiomatic constructions of English.
    “Only for” is one of those idiomatic constuctions, such as in the phrases “only for babbling babies…” and “only for those who are lost in the woods”. If you wish to truly know English, you have to know hundreds and hundreds of idiomatic constructions, too. This must be difficult for foreigners, but I have known those who have mastered it. Consider Jacob Bronowski, who spoke nothing but Polish through the age of 12, but then he forgot it all after his family moved to England and he mastered English. Read about him on the Internet because he was an amazing man in English-language TV.

    Mr. Nichol was also correct in pointing out that a semicolon is inappropriate here. I have found that it is a problem with many writers that they want to use punctuation marks that are randomly chosen, instead of following the practices of the great writers like Twain, Clarke, Asimov, Hemingway, Sagan, and Pulitzer. E.G. 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, demonstrating the correct use of the colon.

    Speaking of the Sagans, I have read dozens of books by Carl Sagan but none by Francoise Sagan, so I do not know anything about the latter except for her name. Speaking of Asimov, I have read hundreds of his books, both fiction and nonfiction ones. As for Sir Arthur C. Clarke, his works in fiction and nonfiction have also become mine to read.

    D.A.W.

  • Matt Gaffney

    @Dale A. Wood.

    While one knows what is meant by “only for” and other so-called idiomatic expressions, the fact remains that grammatically correct structure is the point. If I write that “I ain’t got no money,” you understand that idiomatic expression, but it’s grammatically incorrect.

    Writing correctly and speaking correctly are worthy goals. We do ourselves and our language a disservice if we settle for less than the best. I suspect not only that the mathematician and scientist Jacob Bronowski would agree with me, but also that his landsman Joseph Conrad, one of the greatest English novelists and a superb prose stylist, whose mastery of English paralleled Bronowski’s, would too.

Leave a comment: