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English Grammar: Punctuation

The Basic Sentence and How to Punctuate Joined Sentences

A basic sentence has a subject and a verb. Notice that it is not a noun and a verb. For instance: "has a stomach ache" has both a noun and a verb, but "stomach ache" is not the subject, or the main actor, of the sentence. Sentences: The man is tired. He has a stomach ache. He sleeps.

A sentence usually has an object also. An object is the noun that receives the action. In "has a stomach ache," "stomach ache" is the object.  In all sentences, the first letter is capitalized. All sentences end with a period (.) or a question mark (?) Punctuation becomes complicated when we join ideas together. Here are some ways to join complete sentences (also called independent clauses).

Basic Sentences
Comma + Conjunction
The party was great.
A lot of people were there.

A lot of people were there, and the party was great.
The party was great; a lot of people were there.
I injured my foot.
I have been using crutches.
I injured my foot, and I have been using crutches.
I injured my foot; I have been using crutches.
He planned to go to the interview.
In the end, he didn't have time.
He planned to go to the interview, but in the end, he didn't have time.
He planned to go to the interview; in the end, he didn't have time.

The Comma: How to Join Dependent and Independent Clauses

Some dependent clauses have either no subject or no verb. To see examples, review adjective and adverb phrases or appositives and gerunds. On the other hand, some dependent clauses do have a subject and a verb. When certain words are joined to a clause, they make it "dependent." In other words, the meaning changes so that another idea, a basic sentence, has to be added. Examples of these words are when, while, whether, because and since. Review many of these under conjunctions. Participial and prepositional phrases are also dependent.

This is when we need commas. Use a comma after the dependent clause when it comes first. Also use commas before and after the dependent clause when it is in the middle. You usually do not need a comma when the dependent clause is last. Here are a few examples. You can review all the other grammar pages on sentences to find many more.

When I was young, I often went to the movies.
Often, when I was young, I went to the movies.
I often went to the movies when I was young.
Because he loves music, my brother owns many instruments.
My brother, because he loves music, owns many instruments.
My brother owns many instruments because he loves music.

Colons and Dashes, Plus Commas with Lists

Use a colon when you are presenting information. A colon is stylistic. You can usually take it out without disrupting the sentence. Use a dash to separate clauses. There can be an independent and a dependent or two independent clauses. A dash is used stylistically. It creates a pause. Use it thoughtfully. In some instances, you could use either a colon or a dash. In that case, choose whether you want to present a thought (colon) or create a pause (dash).

Use commas to separate words in a list. The modern method is to drop the comma before "and" or "or." For more information on commas, review conjunctions.

The second prize winner is: Beth Anderson.
I'm going to the store--would you like to come?
He has a basketball, a soccer ball and a frisbee.
Our company rules are: be on time, work hard and contribute to your team.
He was completely dishonest--a liar and a cheater.
She likes dancing, running, playing volleyball, hiking and swimming.
He ran after her: he loved her.
The man stammered, "Um, er, well--I don't know."
He is either going to his office, the downtown mall or the library.

Punctuating Conversations

Review the sentences below to see how to punctuate speech. Also review some contemporary methods that minimize punctuation. (This is a stylistic choice--only remember that in a long piece of writing, you should be consistent in your stylistic choices.) Always use a new paragraph (either indent or space) for each person's speech when writing conversation. You do not need to use a new paragraph if only one person speaks (no conversation). Notice that whether or not you use quotes, punctuating speech is a creative process with quite a few variations.

Minimal Punctuation*
Min. Punc. Rule
"Glad to help," she said.
She said, "glad to help," and gave me her hand.
She said, "glad to help."
--Glad to help.
Use dashes to introduce spoken words.
Arrange the writing so as to avoid "he said" and "I said."
"The home owner's name is Mr. Jones," she told me.
"The home owner's name," she told me, "is Mr. Jones, but he isn't here now." She added: "but he isn't here now."
--His name is Mr. Jones, she said.
--Is he here now? I asked.
Use dashes, but keep the speaker: he said and I said.
"Are you coming?" she asked. She turned to the door.
"Are you coming," she asked, turning to the door, "or are you staying home?"
She asked her question in a quiet voice. "Are you coming?"
In a quiet voice, she asked, are you coming?
I said I was not.
Use italics to relate spoken words. This way works best when conversations/words are few.
* Note: usually writers avoid quotes and commas to present a meditative mood, and the conversations are simple. If your writing includes involved or complex conversation, quotes are recommended.


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