‘On the lake below the fishing-boats were already pushing out into the dawn.’
In reading that sentence you will probably have reached the word ‘fishing-boats’ before you realised that ‘below’ had nothing to do with fishing-boats but with something else that is not stated, e.g.
‘On the lake below the rocky spur on which we were standing, the fishing-boats were already pushing out into the dawn.’
Ordinary commonsense suggests that it would be useful in such a context to have some means of telling the reader straightaway that he is on the wrong track if he thinks even for a split second that ‘below’ is connected even with the ‘the’ that comes immediately after it. In this case the separation is achieved by inserting a comma.
‘On the lake below, the fishing-boats were already pushing out into the dawn.’
Plain commonsense will, as in that case, take you a long way towards sound punctuation.
The most obvious piece of commonsense, however, is not to write sentences that require complicated punctuation.
That having been said, here are a few guiding rules.
The most common punctuation mark, also the most misused. The commonest mistake is to separate the subject of a sentence from its verb.
That useful tool the hammer, is probably the oldest of human inventions.
There ‘tool’ is separated from ‘is’. Wrong.
Yet a comma is necessary after ‘hammer’.
That useful tool, the hammer, is probably the oldest of human inventions.
There, ‘hammer’, which is a kind of afterthought, is separated from the rest of the sentence in such a way as to leave ‘tool’ unseparated by punctuation from ‘is’. The pair of commas is like a pair of brackets. You do the same with any words that singly, or in a group, stand apart from the main structure of the sentence. That happens with ‘however’, for example, when that word occurs inside the sentence. ‘For example’, as you have just seen, is another example of the same thing.
When you begin a sentence with a subordinate clause of some length, as in this sentence, you ought to mark it off from the rest of the sentence by a comma.
The comma is also used to mark off items in a list:
They found in his pockets a diamond ring, a car key. a box of pills, and a gold cigarette lighter.
You have never seen such a dirty, snarling, frightened and unattractive little beast as that dog was the first time we saw him.
Some people omit the comma before ‘and’ in such lists. This is a matter of taste. Note that in the second of these sentences there is no comma between ‘unattractive’ and ‘little’. That makes sense because ‘little’ does not belong to the list of qualities. You might, in fact, regard ‘little- beast’ as one word.
It separates the two halves of a sentence either of which is very much a sentence in its own right though both are so closely connected in meaning that you don’t want them to look too much like two separate ideas or too far apart, e.g.
Suffer fools gladly; they may be right.
So, you see, it’s not a matter of shoving in a semi-colon because the sentence is becoming too long.
Don’t bother with it except when you want to indicate that an example, or a list of examples, of something you have mentioned is going to follow.
The full stop
Autumn rain. The pavements brown with fallen leaves. The street lights coming on half an hour early because of the heavy sky.
If you are going to use full stops at the end of phrases instead of at the end of fully expressed sentences, make sure that somehow or other your reader knows that you are conscious of doing so. The best way of letting him know is to write soundly constructed sentences when fully expressed sentences are required.
Punctuate the following sentences. You will learn more about punctuation by doing so and by studying the correct versions given in the ‘Answers and Comments’ section than you will by reading any number of rules.
1. between a womans yes and no I would not venture to stick two pins.
2. the world is full of wiling people some willing to work and the rest willing to let them.
3. if everybody minded their own business the duchess said in a hoarse growl the world would go round a great deal faster than it does.
4. if all economists were laid end to end they would not reach a conclusion.
5. when a man wants to murder a tiger he calls it sport when a tiger wants to murder him he calls it ferocity.
6. if a mosquito bite thee on the hand give him the other palm downward.
7. when you are climbing a mountain don’t talk silence gives ascent.
8. a fine handsome specimen of British man hood standing every bit of six foot two in his shoes and fearing nothing but closing time.
9. it seems the most obvious commonsense that when we do our counting in tens anyway we should do our measuring of monetary value temperature length weight and volume on the same sort of scale.
10. we use a decimal system which means a system based on ten the operators of digital computers use a system based on two for actual calculation and one based on eight for the storage of results.
1. Between a woman’s ‘yes’ and ‘no’, I would not venture to stick two pins.
2. The world is full of willing people; some willing to work, the rest willing to let them.
3. ‘If everybody minded their own business,’ said the Duchess in a hoarse growl, ‘the world would go round a great deal faster.’
Note: The grammatical purist would have ‘his’ not ‘their’.
4. If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion.
5. When a man wants to murder a tiger, he calls it sport; when a tiger wants to murder him, he calls it ferocity.
6. If a mosquito bites thee on the hand, give him the other — palm downward.
7. When you are climbing a mountain, don’t talk; silence gives ascent.
8. A fine handsome specimen of British man hood, standing every bit of six foot two in his shoes, and fearing nothing but closing time.
9. It seems the most obvious commonsense that when we do our counting in tens anyway we should do our measuring of monetary value, temperature, length, weight, and volume on the same sort of scale.
10. We use a decimal system, which means a system based on ten; the operators of digital computers use a system based on two for actual calculation, and one based on eight for the storage of results.