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I don't enjoy studying punctuation nearly as much as researching language, but I appreciate the grave importance of commas, periods, apostrophes and more.

I have a T-shirt that says:

Let's eat Grandma

Let's eat, Grandma

Commas save lives

Here are a few punctuation matters that readers have asked me about.

• Spaces between sentences:

I'm not sure how long this has been true, but we no longer put two spaces between a period and the beginning of the next sentence. I still remember hitting the space bar twice at the end of a sentence in Mr. Pucci's 11th-grade typing class, though. I think the invasion of computers changed this habit.

• Question marks inside quotation marks:

Question marks are simple enough until quotation marks appear. If the question mark is part of the subject within the quotation marks, it also goes inside the quotation marks. Otherwise, it belongs outside.

He asked whether I had ever watched "What's My Line?"

Do we need to call the crew from "haz-mat"?

• Making lists:

When you have a sentence that you want to break into bullet points, choose the correct punctuation.

If the bulleted items are complete sentences, a period goes at the end of each one.

My friend would visit only if certain things were guaranteed:

The house must have Wi-Fi.

All bread would have to be whole grain.

The air temperature had to be at a constant 72 degrees.

The same collection of rules from this high-maintenance friend could contain a list of incomplete sentences, yet a period still goes at the end of each item.

My friend would visit only if certain things were guaranteed:


Whole-grain bread.

A constant 72 degrees.

• Brackets:

I don't see brackets all that often, other than during the NCAA tournament. But they're needed at times.

If you're quoting a person, and you believe that something important is missing from the sentence, you can insert the information between brackets.

"This was the first time I had read the [Ivanhoe, Minn.] Times," he told me.

• Possessives:

When a sentence includes two people, things can get complicated.

We thought about buying Jack and Jill's house.

Only one apostrophe is needed because that single house belongs to both.

Jack's and Jill's jobs often created conflicts within the family.

That means Jack and Jill have separate jobs.

• Newspapers versus books:

Guidelines for punctuation are straightforward for the most part. But, naturally, not all the time. Some rules for books are different from rules for newspapers, and keeping track of them is tricky.

In book publishing, these sentences are correct:

The all-encompassing class was a requirement.

The class is all encompassing.

The high-scoring game was a blast.

We had a blast because the game was high scoring.

Newspaper people worry that such sentences will cause confusion. This is how they would be in a paper:

The all-encompassing class was a requirement.

The class is all-encompassing.

The high-scoring game was a blast.

We had a blast because the game was high-scoring.

Even indicating the possessive of proper nouns depends on the venue.

In books, possession is shown this way:

Giles's book is selling well.

Newspapers drop that second "s."

Giles' book is selling well.


Word endings can be baffling because our language isn't consistent.

Teacher. One who instructs.

Farmer. One who works the land.

Employer. One who provides jobs.

These are called "agent nouns," words that describe people performing roles.

But some of them have different endings:

Professor. A teacher.

Instructor. A teacher.

Some grammarians will tell you that words that end in "or" have Latin roots. But that's not always true. Others will say that the "or" ending is used when the agent is a person in authority. This works for "supervisor" and "governor," but not for "teacher" and "employer."

Then we have the finicky "ar" ending.

Burglar. One who breaks in to commit a crime. "Burgle" is in fact a verb, but it came into being after "burglar."

Beggar. One who pleads for something.

Bursar. One in charge of funds.

The bottom line is, these word endings follow no consistent rule. So how do you make sure you've gotten the spelling right? Either you practice and learn, or you consult a wise old friend: the dictionary.

Sources:; Merriam-Webster;; Daily Writing Tips; The Best Punctuation Book, Period by June Casagrande.

ActiveStyle on 07/23/2018

Print Headline: Commas can alter meanings


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