a) Pupil’s entrance (on a very selective school, presumably)
b) Lands’ End
c) Mens Toilets
d) Violet’s ready (Is she?)
e) Angels in box
f) It need’nt be a pane (on a van advertising discount glass)
g) Dear Mr. Steven’s
h) Hot Dogs a Meal in its’ Self (sign in Great Yarmouth)
i) Antique,s; Apple,s
2) If you are too peaceful to take up arms in the name of the apostrophe war
and/or feel uncomfortable at the thought of carrying correction fluid, big pens,
stickers, guerilla clothing or a gun, I suggest the following exercise:
Imagine you’re the shopkeeper in Bristol who deliberately stuck ungrammatical
signs in his window as a ruse to draw people into the shop. Come up with five of
your own particularly humorous or egregious ungrammatical signs that misuse
the apostrophe, then rewrite the sign using the apostrophe correctly.
That’ll do, Comma (pages 68-102)
More than any mark, the comma draws our attention to the mixed origins of
modern punctuation, and the comma has two distinct functions:
1. To illuminate the grammar of a sentence.
2. To point up—rather in the manner of musical notation—such literary
qualities as rhythm, direction, pitch, tone and flow.
Punctuation developed slowly and cautiously not because it wasn’t considered
important, but, on the contrary, it was such an intensely important ju-ju. Pause in
the wrong place and the sense of a religious text can alter in significant ways.
Compare the following:
“Verily, I say unto thee, This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
“Verily I say unto thee this day, Thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
If you do not already picture yourself resorting to threats over the “correct way to
punctuate using commas,” by the time you have read the following rules on
commas, we sincerely hope you will.
The comma, the “sheepdog” of punctuation, performs the following functions:
1. Separating items in a list:
Commas divide items in a list but are not required before the and on the end. The
comma is correct if it can be replaced by the word
The flag is red, white and blue.
1a.However, some people favor the Oxford (or Harvard) comma. These
people place a comma before the
The flag is red, white, and blue.
NOTE: In America, standard usage is to leave the comma in.
1b.In a list of adjectives, again, the rule is that you use a comma where an
would be appropriate — where the modifying words are all modifying the
same thing to the same degree.
It was a dark, stormy night.
It was a dark and stormy night.
But you do not use a comma for the following. Here, the adjectives are not
intended as a list.
It was an endangered white rhino.
The Grand Old Duke of York had ten thousand men.
2. Joining sentences:
Commas are used when two complete sentences are joined together, using such
conjunctions as and, or, but, while, and yet:
The boys wanted to stay up until midnight, but they grew tired and fell
3. Filling gaps
Missing words are implied by a comma.
Annie had dark hair; Sally, fair.
4. Setting off direct speech
The Queen said, “Doesn’t anyone know it’s my birthday?”
5. Setting off interjections
Blimey, what would we do without it?
Stop, or I’ll scream.
6. Commas that come in pairs
“The commas mark the places where the reader can—as it were—place an
elegant two-pronged fork and cleanly lift out a section of the sentence, leaving no
obvious damage to the whole.”
John Keats, who never did any harm to anyone, is often invoked by
To decide whether or not a pair of commas is needed, you need to determine
whether the bit between the commas is “defining,” or restrictive, or not. If the
clause is “defining,” you don’t need to present it with a pair of commas. Thus:
The Highland Terriers that live in our street aren’t cute at all.
If the information in the clause is “non-defining,” however, then you do:
The Highland Terriers, when they are barking, are a nightmare.
When the interruption to the sentence comes at the beginning or at the end, the
grammatical rule of commas-in-pairs still applies, even if you can only see one of
the commas. Thus:
Of course, there weren’t enough tickets to go round.
is, from the grammatical point of view, the same as:
There weren’t, of course, enough tickets to go round.
Common Comma Pitfalls
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Avoid the following:
1. The “yob’s comma.” “The yob’s comma has no syntactical value: it is the
equivalent of a fuddled gasp for breath, as the poor writer marshals his
The society decided not to prosecute the owners of the Windsor Safari
where animals, have allegedly been fed live to snakes and lions, on legal
2. Avoid American telegraphese in news headlines, where the comma is
increasingly given the job of replacing the word “and.” Thus:
UK study spurns al-Qaeda, Irak link
Exercises to Bring Out Your Inner Stickler
1) Come up with four sentences of your own using the comma. Make sure the
meaning of each sentence is significantly altered by the placement of the
2) Punctuate the following paragraph taken from
The New Yorker
Not long ago in Paris I met a young Muslim woman named Djamila
Benrehab who at the age of twenty had donned not only a black head
scarf but a billowy black abaya and under it all a tight black bandanna to
her eyebrows that left only the circle of her face exposed. Djamila is a big
apple cheeked endearing person. She speaks a beautiful lilting French
and is intelligent and quite charming. Her dream is to leave Paris and go
to Brooklyn where she has heard Muslim girls go veiled and nobody minds
and in any case “It can’t be worse than here.”
3) Punctuate the following sentences. (For explanations see page 97)
a) Leonora walked on her head a little higher than usual.
b) The driver managed to escape from the vehicle before it sank and
swam to the riverbank.
c) Don’t guess use a timer or a watch.
d) The convict said the judge is mad.
4) Come up with a sentence to illustrate each rule of the comma given above. Be
sure to include sentences in which the placement of the comma significantly
alters the meaning of the sentence.
5) Come up with three sentences that properly employ commas to offset
restrictive clauses. Include at least one sentence whose meaning would be
changed significantly if commas were not used.
6) Look through your local newspaper and find sentences in which the comma
has been misused. Then write a letter to the editor explaining the correct use of
the comma. Try to remain modest and not brag about your newfound prowess
Punctuation History Questions for the True Stickler
1) Who printed the first semicolon?
2) Who stated in 1566 that the main object of punctuation is the clarification of
Airs and Graces (pages 103-131)
So far you have been dabbling in the art of punctuation. If you really want to
become a master of your craft, you must learn how to use the semicolon and the
Here is the American essayist Lewis Thomas on the semicolon:
The semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the
preceding full sentence; something needs to be added […] The period [or
full stop] tells you that that is that; if you didn’t get all the meaning you
wanted or expected, anyway you got all the writer intended to parcel out
and now you have to move along. But with the semicolon there is more to
come; read on; it will get clearer.
The Medusa and the Snail,
Lynne Truss tells us, “Expectation is what these stops are about; expectation and
elastic energy. Like internal springs they propel you forward in a sentence
towards more information, and the essential difference between them is that
while the semicolon lightly propels you in any direction related to the foregoing
(“Whee! Surprise me!”) the colon nudges you along lines already subtly laid
down.” p. 114
If used according to the following rules, semicolons can be, as Lynne Truss
warns, “dangerously habit-forming.”
1. The main place for putting a semicolon is between two related sentences
where there is no conjunction such as “and” or “but,” and where the
comma would be ungrammatical:
I love Opal Fruits; they are now called Starburst, of course.
I remember him when he couldn’t write his own name on a gate;
now he’s Prime Minister.
In each of the examples above, a dash could certainly be substituted for the
semicolon without much damage to the sentence. But it is worth learning the
different effects created by the semicolon and the dash. Whereas the semicolon
suggests a connection between the two halves of each of these sentences, the
dash ought to be preserved for occasions when the connection is a lot less
direct, when it can act as a bridge between bits of fractured sense:
I loved Opal Fruits—why did they call them Starburst?—reminds
me of that joke “What did Zimbabwe used to be called?—Rhodesia.
What did Iceland used to be called?—Bejam!”
* Iceland is the name of a British grocery retailer that purchased a much-larger
rival store chain, Bejam, turning all Bejam outlets into Iceland stores.
2. Occasionally, the semicolon “performs the duties of a kind of Special
Policeman in the event of comma fights.”
Fares were offered to Corfu, the Greek island, Morocco, Elba, in
the Mediterranean, and Paris. Margaret thought about it. She had
been to Elba once and had found it dull, to Morocco, and found it
There is no option for an upstanding semicolon in such circumstances than to
step in, blow a whistle and restore order.
Fares were offered to Corfu, the Greek island; Morocco; Elba, in
the Mediterranean; and Paris. Margaret thought about it. She had
been to Elba once and had found it dull; to Morocco, and found it
3. Linking words such as “however,” “nevertheless,” “also”,
“consequently” and “hence” require a semicolon.
He woke up in his own bed; nevertheless, he was OK.
According to H.W. Fowler, the colon “delivers the goods that have been invoiced
in the preceding words.” George Bernard Shaw tells us, when two statements are
“placed baldly in dramatic apposition,” use a colon. Thus:
Luruns could not speak: he was drunk.
Shaw explains to Lawrence that when the second statement reaffirms, explains
or illustrates the first, you use a colon; also when you desire an abrupt pull up:
Luruns was congenitally literary: that is, a liar.
Lynne Truss tells us that a colon is nearly always preceded by a complete
sentence, and in its simplest usage it rather theatrically announces what is to
come. “Like a well-trained magician’s assistant, it pauses slightly to give you time
to get a bit worried and then efficiently whisks away the cloth and reveals the
This much is clear, Watson: it was the baying of an enormous hound.
This much is clear, Watson—yes! it was the baying of an enormous
Tom has only one rule in life; never eat anything bigger than your head.
(Tom had only one rule in life—yes! never eat anything bigger than your
I pulled out all the stops with Kerry-Anne: I used a semicolon.
(I pulled out all the stops with Kerry-Anne—yes! I used a semicolon.)
As well as the “Yes!” type colon, there is the “Ah” type, when the colon reminds
us there is probably more than has met the eye:
I loved Opal Fruits as a child: no one else did.
A classic use of the colon is a kind of fulcrum between two antithetical or
Man proposes: God disposes.
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