Punctuation and the Tone-Scape of Writing

In the previous article, “Beyond Commas,” I discussed how using a range of punctuation techniques creates additional tone in writing. When used along with commas, techniques like dashes and parentheses help us avoid a flat, unnatural tone—in effect, allowing us to write with the same nuance and emotion with which we speak.

I have developed an analogy for this practice, and it’s an analogy I share with my students when discussing how punctuation affects tone. I call this concept the tone-scape, and I want to share it here with you, dear reader.

For a moment, forget that we are discussing writing, and think instead about art. Specifically, imagine a painting or photograph of a landscape. Most landscape images consist of three levels of perspective: foreground, middle ground, and background. The foreground might include a tree branch, one that is very close to the viewer’s perspective—so close, in fact, that it is almost in the viewer’s face. Since it is very close to the viewer, this in-your-face branch looks much larger than tree branches in the middle ground. Essentially, the foreground jumps out at us and grabs our attention, even if we are trying to focus on other parts of the image.

The middle ground is where most of the action takes place in a conventional landscape painting. As its name implies, it is in the middle of the image: behind the foreground but in front of the background. The eyes tend to be naturally drawn towards the middle ground.

The background is behind the middle ground, and it appears very small because it is the most distant part from the viewer’s perspective. Oftentimes, if there are elements in the background, those elements are subtle and do not catch the eye quickly. It has the very opposite effect that the foreground has.

Need an example? Look at the image below, and notice that the foreground, middle ground, and background are labeled. (By the way, I drew this myself, so please remember: I’m an English professor—not an artist!) While the image is far from perfect, the items in each part are clear: a bush is in the foreground, blocking part of the house. The house and the tree are in the middle ground, and behind them in the background is a mountain. There is a sense of depth and three-dimensionality, even in this crude image, because the image takes advantage of foreground, middle ground, and background:

In contrast, look at the image below, where everything is flat and two-dimensional. Everything is in the middle ground, and every part sits on one flat line:

Most children draw in the two-dimensional form above, with no items emphasized or deemphasized. As the child grows older, he will learn more about perspective and how to simulate three-dimensionality on a two-dimensional picture plane. Even if he does not become an artist, he will develop a sense that things farther away from us appear smaller and higher than things that are close. Even if it is crudely represented (as my attempts above clearly are), the adult at least attempts to represent perspective and depth.

The trained artist takes the techniques of perspective to the next level. She knows, for example, how to draw a background object with less detail than an object in the middle ground. She knows precisely how to adjust the sizes and proportions of objects relative to their distance from the viewer. In short, she has developed a set of advanced artistic techniques for realistically representing three-dimensionality.

Writing is the same way. When we write, we want to capture a full range of tones and nuances. We do not want to have flat, two-dimensional writing. Most people capture this range when speaking: they know when to inflect, when to raise their voice, and when to speak in hushed tones. We do this instinctively. And that makes sense; after all, we get plenty of practice speaking in our day-to-day lives. However, when it comes to writing, many people have trouble capturing that range of tones: that naturally diverse human voice. They do not know how to emphasize a phrase so that that it jumps out at the reader, occupying the “foreground” of the writing. Similarly, they do not know how to simulate a whispered aside to the reader (nor how to make a sentence or phrase fade into the background of the sentence).

Punctuation is the key to achieving this three-dimensionality. Think of the dash as being the “in-your-face” foreground punctuation. If something is set off in dashes, it is to be read with a bit more passion, force, and tone than the rest of the sentence. Dashes create the foreground of the sentence’s tone-scape.

As in art, the middle ground of the sentence is where most of the action takes place. In other words, most of the sentences we write will maintain a neutral, “middle” tone. This neutral tone is achieved with commas. Commas create pauses in writing, but those pauses are for the most part neutral pauses, although they may drop the pitch slightly at times.

The background of the tone-scape is achieved through parentheses. Parentheses often set off beside-the-point, “by the way” phrases (not coincidentally called “parenthetical phrases”) that might be useful for the reader to know, but hardly make up the most important point in the sentence. In the same way that someone might look into the background of a landscape painting to take in small enriching details, the reader can enjoy the non-essential (but enriching) details contained in parentheses. Parentheses serve another point as well by creating a whispered tone, so you should use parentheses to say the kinds of things you might whisper to your reader (perhaps with a wink and a smile).

The interplay of these three techniques within a piece of writing creates three simultaneously existing layers of emphasis. These three layers of tone are the equivalent of foreground, middle ground, and background that we see in visual art. The difference between the pro writer and the novice writer is precisely the same difference we see between the pro artist and the novice artist: the pro has mastered a diverse range of techniques for representing the real nature of things. While the artist represents landscapes as they are naturally seen by the human eye, the writer represents natural spoken language as heard by the human ear.

Next Up: The Next Series of The Writer’s Toolbox:

Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know

In the writing courses I teach at Onondaga Community College, students compose their own persuasive essays, but over the course of the semester, I assign readings of anthologized essays–written arguments that represent the pinnacle of persuasion and power. Such works include many of the essays referenced here, in The Writer’s Toolbox.

One of those essays is “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. One day, I was rereading MLK’s classic essay, just after reading student essays. With those two (very different) reading experiences juxtaposed, the vast differences between MLK’s powerful, moving prose (prose that almost always brings me to tears as I read, if only for the beauty and majesty of the writing itself) and my students’ work (a great deal of which brings me to tears for altogether different reasons), something struck me–a question I had surely considered before, but one that really hit home for the first time:

“What are the differences between the student essays I’ve been reading today and MLK’s essay? Are there specific, indentifiable techniques that separate average writers from powerful, moving writers?” I came to realize that it is often these same techniques that separate my A students from my C students.

But what exactly are those techniques? The next series, “Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know,” discusses those techniques and how new writers can employ those techniques to profoundly increase the effectiveness of their writing. Trust me: if you’re not using these techniques in your writing, developing them is worth your very best effort. That said, most of these techniques are remarkably simple to employ, once you’re aware of them.

  • Tricks of the Trade: Techniques All Good Writers Know (I will make this article available soon. Stay tuned.)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Brackets: Making Additions to Quotations

Brackets are the square cousins of parentheses. [Brackets look like this.] Use brackets to show insertions of your own language or ideas into a quotation. This way, you stay true to the original source, while having the freedom to adjust the language to make it more stylistically or grammatically fitting to the context in which you are presenting it.

Confusing? An example will serve best. Let’s suppose that you want to quote the following sentence from Judith Ortiz Cofer’s essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria”:

“I still experience a vague sense of letdown when I’m invited to a ‘party’ and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration I remember from my childhood.”

How can you share this quote out of its context, while maintaining a clear connection with the original context? How can you subtly answer the larger question of what Ortiz Cofer’s essay is about, while remaining focused on your own reason(s) for sharing the quote?

The answer: brackets! Here’s how to do it:

In her essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” Judith Ortiz Cofer writes about how she “still experience[s] a vague sense of letdown when [she is] invited to ‘a party’ [in America] and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration [she] remember[s] from [her] childhood” growing up in Puerto Rico.

Listed below are the bracket applications used in the Ortiz Cofer quotation. Also, here’s a color-coded version of the quote. The bracket techniques listed below correspond to the color code, so feel free to reference the color-coded quote to see the examples of these applications:

In her essay, “The Myth of the Latin Woman: I Just Met a Girl Named Maria,” Judith Ortiz Cofer writes about how she “still experience[s] a vague sense of letdown when [she is] invited to ‘a party’ [in America] and it turns out to be a marathon conversation in hushed tones rather than a fiesta with salsa, laughter, and dancing—the kind of celebration [she] remember[s] from [her] childhood” growing up in Puerto Rico.

Brackets can add elements like –s endings to words: Notice that the Ortiz Cofer quote above uses brackets in different ways to adjust the language of the quote. While some brackets set off entire words and phrases, other brackets set off parts of words. For example, consider the first use of brackets in the Ortiz Cofer quote above: the brackets allow the writer to add an –s ending to “experience” so that the verb agrees in number with the pronoun she. To say, “she still experience a vague sense of letdown” is inconsistent because the subject and verb do not match–an error called “subject-verb disagreement.” The –s needs to be added to experience to make the verb align with the subject, she, so that we have the phrase, “she still experiences.” However, since the additional –s ending is not part of the original material, the writer sets it off in brackets: “experience[s].”

Brackets can replace original words or phrases with new language: The next bracket in the sentence replaces I’m with she is to make the quote align with the perspective of the writer who is quoting Ortiz Cofer. Since the writer thinks of Ortiz Cofer as she and not as I, the writer can use brackets to replace pronouns accordingly.

Brackets can insert new words or phrases into a quotation: The inserted phrase “in America” clarifies the sentence for the reader, since that reader does not have the context of the entire essay to explain the point that Ortiz Cofer is commenting on how parties in America differ from parties in her homeland of Puerto Rico. One well placed bracketed insertion allows the writer to highlight that context while sharing the quotation.

Brackets are not needed to add material immediately before or after the quote. Use brackets only for insertions within the quotation marks: After the end of the quote, the writer adds “growing up in Puerto Rico” but does not use brackets to do so. Likewise, before the quote begins, the writer uses the pronoun she to replace the original first-person pronoun, I. When considering bracket use, this is a good technique to consider: at the beginning and end of the quotation, the writer can add parts without using brackets, so long as those changes occur outside the quotation marks. Use brackets only for changes that occur within the quoted material. With this point in mind, the writer can make adjustments to the language of the quote simply by choosing where to begin and end the quotation.

Additional bracket applications

Use a bracketed ellipsis to remove or skip material in a quote: The ellipsis is the three-dot symbol: . . . When it is bracketed, the ellipsis looks like this: [. . .]. One use of the ellipsis is to show that part of a quotation is being omitted or skipped. Some writers simply insert a non-bracketed ellipsis into the quote. Although the non-bracketed ellipsis is perfectly acceptable, it can lead to problems if the writer is quoting a source that frequently uses the ellipsis for other purposes (such as using an ellipsis to show a long pause or hesitation). Using brackets is a clear way of saying, “This ellipsis is mine, and it is not part of the original quote.”

Here is an example of how a writer might choose to include a full quote:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And here is an example of how the writer can use the bracketed ellipsis to omit material for concision and efficiency:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children [. . .] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

To learn more about the ellipsis and its other applications in writing, click here.

Use brackets to replace errors in the original quote: In addition to replacing words in a quote simply to fit the larger context, you can also use brackets to correct misspellings and other errors. Simply replace the erroneous portion with the corrected version, and frame the replaced part(s) in brackets.

Here is the original quote—a line that a student or essayist might quote from a newspaper article. Notice how the quote contains a spelling error for the homophones there and their:

“Governor Smith told reporters he would gladly answer there questions in time.”

Here is how we can adjust the quote in the larger essay:

The Local Herald reported, “Governor Smith told reporters he would gladly answer [their] questions in time.”

Setting off sic in brackets to point out an error in the original quotation: Inserting [sic] after an error in the quoted material lets the reader know that the original source has a typographical or grammatical error. (Sic, pronounced like sick, is Latin for thus, which essentially means, “Thus it is, as it appeared in the original material.”) With this technique, you can let the reader know that the mistake isn’t yours, while remaining true to the original quote.

So, why use sic when we can simply replace the error with the corrected usage? The answer involves the writer’s purpose: there are times that a writer may want to leave the error visible in the quotation and to use a bracketed sic to point out that the error occurred. For example, writers use the sic technique when writing a critique or rebuttal of an opponent’s argument, since it is a tasteful and defendable way of saying to one’s detractors, “You don’t write with care and precision!” As the writer attacks the arguments of her opponent, she also undercuts her opponent’s credibility by (correctly) pointing out errors. In this sense, brackets serve a special rhetorical function, even as they serve the purposes of clarity and basic mechanics.

Here is an example of using a bracketed sic to indicate an error in the original source:

In Tuesday’s debate, Governor Smith stated, “This is the important question: is [sic] our children learning what they should in school?”

The other approach (discussed earlier) is simply to replace the erroneous word with the correct usage:

In Tuesday’s debate, Governor Smith stated, “This is the important question: [are] our children learning what they should in school?”

Note: Sic is italicized since it is a foreign (Latin) word. Treat other foreign terms this way, unless those terms have been fully integrated as English terms.

Use brackets to place a parenthetical phrase within another parenthetical phrase: If (for some rare [but valid] purpose) you need to place parentheses within parentheses, the way to do that is to use brackets—as seen in this sentence. However, the best advice is to avoid placing brackets within parentheses by rewriting or rearranging the sentence. Many readers, after all, are unaware of this particular bracket technique, so they may become confused by the appearance of brackets within a parenthetical phrase or clause. This is the one bracket application that does not involve quotations.

Here is how the writer might avoid using brackets in the example sentence:

If (for some rare, but valid, purpose) you need to place parentheses within parentheses, the way to do that is to use brackets—as [no longer] seen in this sentence.

(Did you see how—and why—the writer did use brackets in the revised sentence above?)

Next Up: Dashes and Parentheses

As we near the end of “Punctuation Toolbox,” there are two more key punctuation techniques to discuss: dashes and parentheses. And here’s the best part–I saved the best for last! (Now doesn’t that make you want to read on?)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and Christopher Altmanhosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Quotation Marks And Other Punctuation

Punctuating the end of a quotation can be tricky, especially in American English, where some punctuation marks default to the inside of the quotation marks, while others can be placed outside the quotation marks. The divisions break down into two groups:

Inside Quotation Marks: When ending a quotation, place periods and commas within the quotation marks, even if the period or comma is not part of the original quotation.

Outside or Inside Quotation Marks: However, when ending a quotation in a question mark, exclamation point, colon, or semicolon, place the punctuation outside the quotation, unless that punctuation is part of the original quoted language. If the punctuation is part of the original quoted language, place it inside the quotation marks.

Here is an example of placing a comma that occurs just after a quote:

Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story,” a line that delights me even now, as I hear it in my mind.

Treat periods the same way–always put them inside:

Paul Harvey concluded with his usual closer, “And that’s the rest of the story.”

Well . . . the period goes inside the quotation marks  in most cases. If the sentence ends in a parenthetical citation, the period goes after the citation. This placement encloses the citation within the larger sentence to show that the citation refers to that sentence. In a sense, the sentence swallows up the parenthetical citation with that period. Look:

The broadcasting legend put it best when he said, “And that’s the rest of the story” (Harvey).

But other than that one exception, the period’s default placement is inside the quotation marks. However, question marks works differently.

If the question mark is not part of the quoted language or dialogue line, place the question mark outside the quotation marks:

Why did Paul Harvey choose to end all of his programs with his signature line, “And that’s the rest of the story”?

However, if the question mark is part of the quoted language, put it inside the quotation marks:

Ed asked, “Don’t you remember Paul Harvey’s radio program?”

Removing Parts of Quotations: Ellipses

When you remove part of a quotation for the sake of efficiency or clarity, use an ellipsis (three dots) to replace the omitted part.

Here’s an example of using an ellipsis to show an omission from a quotation:

First, here is the full text from the quote. I have marked the part that will be omitted in bold:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And here is how a writer might omit elements to save space or to get to the point:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children . . . will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

Although a normal ellipsis is allowable for showing omissions from a quote, many writers prefer to put the ellipsis in brackets to show that the ellipsis is not part of the original quote. After all, the original language could have a stylistic ellipsis to show a long pause or a hesitation in speech. Bracketed ellipses allow writers to differentiate between a stylistic ellipsis and an ellipsis of omission.

Here is how to frame the ellipsis of omission in brackets:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children [. . .] will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

This use of brackets follows the larger rule for using brackets:

Brackets show an insertion of new material into a quotation.

To learn more about the ellipsis and its many applications in writing, click here.

Making Insertions and Replacements within Quotes: Brackets

Writers use brackets to add their own clarifications or adjustments to quotations. Here is an example:

Here is the original quote:

Senator Smith: “I will cast my vote only for laws ensuring that my African-American and Latino neighbors will have the same opportunity that I have enjoyed.”

And here is the quote, adjusted to fit the writer’s third-person perspective of Smith:

Senator Smith stated that he would “cast [his] vote only for laws ensuring that [his] African-American and Latino neighbors will have the same opportunity that [he has] enjoyed.”

Logically enough, the writer should discuss Senator Smith as he and not as I. The brackets show this shift in perspective, while indicating that the writer has adjusted Senator Smith’s original language.

Did you notice how the quote above actually incorporates Smith’s quotation into the writer’s own syntax? The transition is almost seamless, but almost is the key word: the quotation marks show readers where Smith’s quote begins—and where it ends.

To learn more about brackets, read on.

Next Up: More on Brackets

The next punctuation technique explored in “Punctuation Toolbox” is brackets (discussed briefly in the section directly above). Click the link below to learn more.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Quotation Marks

Use quotation marks to frame quoted material. In academic and professional writing, this is typically material quoted from other writers or sources, but quotation marks can also be used to tell a story or to frame any thought spoken from another perspective. In fact, a writer might even use quotation marks to frame her own thoughts.

In this article, we will look at different applications of quotation marks.

Application 1: Quotation marks show word-for-word quotations from other sources.

Suppose that a writer is quoting a line from Martin Luther King Jr.’s momentous “I Have a Dream” speech:

As Americans consider hiring policies related to race and ethnicity, we should not forget the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who so passionately declared, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

The quotation marks in the example above show readers which words belong to the writer and which ones belong to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Application 2: Quotation marks can be used to share dialogue from a story or real-life account.

The story might be fiction, but it can also be an account of a real past event or even a possible future event. Here is an example that might be drawn from the same ongoing essay example on equal employment policies:

In a recent conversation, a friend complained to me about how he felt hindered by hiring practices related to Affirmative Action. He said to me, “You know, it’s hard to be hired when you are a white male when other groups are always considered first.” Although I was sympathetic to his feelings of loss, I nonetheless felt compelled to point out his error. I responded, “I’m sorry, but the statistics don’t agree with you.” Like many (white male) job applicants, my friend’s feelings were sincere, but these views are informed only by individual experience and not by hard statistics and actual hiring practices.

(Note: The passage above is the introduction paragraph for the essay. In academic writing, the thesis (the main point the essay is attempting to support) is typically given at the end of the introduction, as seen in the example above. Although personal stories should be kept to a minimum in formal or academic writing, the well placed personal story often acts as an effective hook for capturing the reader’s interest at the outset of the essay.)

Here is an example of using quotation marks for a possible future event or statement:

At this point, some might say, “But hiring practices that prioritize minority groups also assume that minority groups cannot gain employment purely on their own skill or merit. These practices are a slap in the face to women and people of color.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Historically speaking, these hiring practices are in place because many companies were (and still are) unwilling even to consider hiring people of color. Also, many companies—if left to their own devices—would not hire women because those companies assume that women will cost them more money for paid maternity leave. For these reasons (and many more), we need hiring practices that protect minorities—not for a lack of merit on the part of the minority employee, but for the lack of ethical hiring practices among companies and corporations whose only focus is raising profits and lowering costs.

The technique used above, where the writer presents readers’ possible disagreements and then debunks those disagreements, is called addressing counterarguments. Some writing experts call these possible counterarguments “the conditions of rebuttal.” In persuasive writing, this is a useful technique because it acknowledges (and addresses) possible doubts and disagreements that some readers might have regarding the writer’s assertions. If readers do not feel that their own points are acknowledged and addressed, chances are, they will not be persuaded. Quotation marks are one way to frame the hypothetical counterarguments that some readers might raise. The quotation marks emphasize the point that the words are those of disagreeing readers and not those of the essayist.

Application 3: Quotation marks can frame thoughts—even those of the writer.

Although writers use quotation marks to frame words spoken or written by other people, writers can also use quotation marks to show their own thoughts. Here is an example:

After having this conversation, I reflected further on the larger implications of my friend’s misperception. I thought to myself, “I’ve heard these arguments before—and not just from friends.” Such arguments against equal hiring practices proliferate, both among everyday Americans and within the popular news media.

Application 4: Quotation marks set off phrases that are examples of language

Professor Hawkins advises her students to use transition phrases like “on the other hand” or “for example” to open new paragraph discussions in essays.

However, if the writer is presenting one word as an example of language, then use italics to set the word apart:

Professor Lubar showed Alex how to combine two closely related sentences using conjunctions like and or but.

Next Up: Quotation Marks and Titles

When writing about books, films, essays, newspaper articles, and the many other works that have titles, writers set off the titles of such works in various ways. One way is the use of quotation marks, but other titles require italics. And you may have even noticed that some titles are underlined. With all of these ways for framing titles, is there a system behind choosing the right method?

You bet! The next article shares that system. Stay tuned!

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to Christopher Altmanwriting this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Getting the Ellipsis Right

How to Write an Ellipsis

In addition to the many ways people misuse and misname the ellipsis, there is also some confusion regarding how to write an ellipsis, since it is made up of three periods. It’s simple: there should be a space between each period, and there should also be spaces before and after the entire ellipsis.

With that in mind, think of an ellipsis as being written this way:

space-dot-space-dot-space-dot-space

_._._._

Notice the spacing in the sentence we examined in a previous article:

I would have . . . let me see . . . well, about two dollars. (Correct Spacing)

Do you see the space after the verb have and the space before the word let? Those are the beginning and ending spaces. Notice also the space between each period. That is how to write an ellipsis.

Here is how many people botch the spacing of the ellipsis:

I would have…let me see…well, about two dollars. (Incorrect Spacing)

The (So-Called) Four-Dot Ellipsis

Some people abuse the poor ellipsis in yet another way: they write extremely long series of dots in attempts to show longer pauses. This is unnecessary–and . . . well . . . wrong! Others, unsure how to write the ellipsis, write four or even five dots, thinking that it represents a normal ellipsis. And, most often, such writers are unaware of the spacing. (Perhaps if they would insert the spaces, their ellipsis would indeed be longer, and they would not feel the need to . . . well, to compensate . . . for a lack of length.) Here is an example:

I would have……let me see……about ten dollars if I had a penny for every time I’ve seen a super-long (and super-wrong) ellipsis written. (Incorrect: Too Many Periods)

Now, I should mention that there are also cases where you may see what appears to be a four-dot ellipsis. For example, you may have noticed in past articles that I often end with the expression, “Stay tuned” (as if my blog is a television show!). Sometimes, if I want to give the reader a sense of waiting, I will end the “stay tuned” line with an ellipsis, like this:

To learn more, stay tuned for the next article. . . .

What is going on here? Why does this ellipsis have four dots?

Actually, the ellipsis doesn’t have four dots. What you see there is a perfectly healthy three-dot ellipsis, accompanied by a period to show end punctuation. Notice that the final sentence is a complete statement. The ellipsis shows that there is more to come after that statement. There is an intentional trailing off at the end of the sentence. It is there to leave the reader hanging. It says to the reader, “I will speak more on this point later. Stay tuned. (And now, although I have finished writing, I want you to keep waiting, as if my blog is all that matters in your life).”

Notice as well that the space before the ellipsis appears to be missing. While many grammar gods explain the ellipsis-period combination as an ellipsis followed by a period, I prefer to think of it as a period followed by an ellipsis. That order accounts for the lack of spacing before the (so-called) four-dot ellipsis.

What do I mean, you ask? Here is the conventional view of the ellipsis-period ending, with underlined periods to show the separation of punctuation:

Stay tuned. . . . (ellipsis followed by period: the spacing is irregular.)

Here is how I think of it:

Stay tuned. . . . (period followed by ellipsis: the spacing makes sense now.)

So, to return to our original example, here is the sentence without that cliffhanger ellipsis. Notice where the period is:

To learn more, stay tuned for the next article.

Now, if we add an ellipsis after the period, we have this:

To learn more, stay tuned for the next article. . . .

Also, this period-then-ellipsis perspective makes sense in terms of the order in which I am expressing my content. My cliffhanger ellipsis—my end hesitation—occurs after I have stated the full sentence. I show that cliffhanger effect by inserting the ellipsis after the period. There is a sentence, then a period, and then finally a trailing off.

In spoken conversation, we might show this end-sentence cliffhanger by the tone in which we end a statement, accompanied by a lingering, ironic, or even stern look that we leave with our listeners. For example, when I conclude a class session, I will often look directly at two or three students after I make my last statement. That look says, “I want you to remember that idea—not just for the final exam, but for the rest of your life.” (All good teachers know that look, and they use it regularly.) In writing, that look is best represented by the ellipsis. That is the look I give my readers after the cliffhanger sentence above. It says, “Hold this thought until the next article.”

What’s the Right Name? Is it Ellipsis and Ellipses?

You may have noticed that I have been using two terms in these ellipsis articles: ellipsis and ellipses. Which one is correct?

It depends. Ellipsis is the singular and ellipses is the plural. Also, each set of three dots counts as one ellipsis.

Check it out:

Chris hounds . . . I mean, challenges his students about their use of the ellipsis. (This sentence has one ellipsis.)

Wow, Chris, you are . . . for lack of a better word . . . a real nitpicker when it comes to people getting the ellipsis right. (This sentence has two ellipses.)

Here’s a related fun fact:

This –es versus –is ending is also true for the punctuation terms parentheses and parenthesis:

( ←This is a parenthesis (singular)

( ) ←These are parentheses (plural)

Well, that’s it for the ellipsis. Next up is another punctuation technique that is often misnamed: the hyphen. Stay tuned. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Avoiding Ellipsis Confusion: Placing the Ellipsis in Brackets

Now, what happens if the original quote already has an ellipsis in it? What if the original writing uses, say, a stylistic ellipsis to show a hesitation? How do I show that the ellipsis I added is mine, and not the original writer’s? This causes quite a problem, but the punctuation gods (in their infinite wisdom) solved it easily: I can place brackets around an ellipsis to show that the ellipsis shows an omission and is not part of the original writing. This bracket technique is especially useful when a quoted passage already has an ellipsis of hesitation, and the writer who is quoting includes a second ellipsis to show an omission.

While we’re on the topic of brackets [which, by the way, look like this], I should mention here the Bracket Rule of Thumb: whenever you quote another text and you put something in brackets (whether an ellipsis, a comma, a word, a sentence, or even a single letter), it says, “Hey, this stuff in the brackets is mine—not the original writer’s.” This is the brackets’ function with the ellipsis as well: the brackets show that the ellipsis is that of the person doing the quoting, and not of the original writer. (If you want to learn other ways to use brackets, stay tuned: I will discuss brackets in an upcoming “Punctuation Toolbox” article.)

With the Bracket Rule of Thumb in mind, I tend to avoid the bracketed ellipsis in citing popularly known quotes, since most readers will recognize missing parts as they are familiar with the quote. Still, if you are a better-safe-than-sorry writer, feel free to use the bracketed ellipsis to show all of your omissions.

Here is an example of a bracketed ellipsis. The following quoted passage comes from the introduction to Richard Lederer and John Shore’s entertaining punctuation handbook, Comma Sense. (I recommend this book if you want to take your punctuation knowledge to the next level, while enjoying a great read.)

Notice that the original ellipsis—the one Lederer and Shore insert to show a stylistic hesitation—is not bracketed, and that my ellipses of omission are bracketed:

Language experts agree that one of the primary reasons people so often associate commas with comas is that computers have somehow driven a wedge between the “Think/Take Care/Don’t Embarrass Your Mother” part of everyone’s brain and the “Freakin’ GO For It, dude!!” part. [. . .] Young people today [. . .] don’t read or write essays. They don’t write letters, or stories, or . . . travelogues. They don’t even write words. They text-message. They text-message a lot. And to say that messages delivered via cell-phone “text” tend to lack punctuation is like saying that yaks tend to be hairy, or that professional basketball players tend to be tall.

Because of the brackets, the reader knows which ellipses are mine, and which belong to Lederer and Shore. (Nifty, huh?)

Next Up: Getting the Ellipsis Right

Unlike most punctuation symbols, the ellipsis is made up of multiple symbols (that is, three periods). This leads to a great deal of confusion regarding how exactly the ellipsis is to be written. Is it always written with three dots, or can there be four–or five? Are the dots written together, or should they have spaces between them? And, how do we deal with an ellipsis that occurs at the end of a sentence–or, worse yet, one that occurs directly beside a comma? Should we write the ellipsis before the comma, or after it?

Are these questions keeping you awake at night? (I hope not.) Well, if they are, stay tuned for the next article! . . .

  • I will post this article soon.

Works Cited

Lederer, Richard and John Shore. Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

The Semicolon Exception

Just before we move on to discuss other punctuation techniques, I want to share one more application of the semicolon. This particular application is the one exception to the core semicolon rule that semicolons combine only complete sentences. Here is the core rule for semicolon placement, followed by the exception:

The core rule: A semicolon combines two complete sentences. If you cannot place a period there, you should not be able to place a semicolon there either. Do not use a semicolon to combine parts that are not full sentences.

The exception: You can use semicolons to combine non-sentence parts for purposes of avoiding comma confusion if those non-sentence parts contain internal commas.

So now here is the full rule for the semicolon:

The full rule: In most cases, use a semicolon to combine only two complete sentences. Do not use the semicolon to combine non-sentence parts, unless those parts contain internal commas that would lead to comma confusion.

Got it? (Of course you do!) Now, let’s look at an example of both a standard semicolon use (combining two complete sentences) and an example that illustrates the exception. First, here is a standard semicolon combination. Notice that the semicolon combines two complete sentences (also called “independent clauses”):

I enjoy the tranquility of bass fishing; simply sitting around waiting for a bite is a great pleasure.

Structure: Sentence ; Sentence

Now, here’s a sentence that expresses the exception—the specialized use of the semicolon:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass, if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake; I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

Structure: Non-Sentence Introduction ; Sentence

Now, if we followed the core semicolon rule that we should not place a semicolon between a clause and a sentence (and instead place a comma there), we would end up with this:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass, if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake, I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

Do you see the problem? This sentence is now ambiguous. Is it saying this . . .

Although I enjoy fishing for bass, if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake, I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

. . . or this? . . .

Although I enjoy fishing for bass, if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake, I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

In other words, the reader does not know which way to apply the conditional if clause. Does it apply backwards to the although introductory clause, or is it part of the statement, “I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing”?

Although I enjoy fishing for bass ? if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake ?→ I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

Which way does that conditional if clause go? Without further clarification, there’s no way to know for sure. The semicolon placement clears up this comma confusion. If we intend the first message above, we would place the semicolon this way:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass, if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake; I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

This semicolon placement groups the conditional if clause backwards with the first part. We know that the if here applies to the introductory clause, “although I enjoy fishing for bass.”

Now let’s write it the other way by replacing a different comma with a semicolon:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass; if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake, I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

(Now the conditional if clause applies forward to the second part, “I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.”)

And that, dear reader, is how and why we can use the semicolon to combine even non-sentence clauses and phrases within sentences.

Other Techniques for Avoiding Comma Confusion

Although the semicolon is one great way to avoid comma confusion, it is not the only way. When I write handouts for my freshman students (many of whom have no idea how to place semicolons), I do not like to break the core semicolon rule, even if I am appropriately following the exception, as seen in the examples above. Most of my students are unfamiliar with the exception, and I am already trying my damnedest simply to teach them the core semicolon rule: the notion that a semicolon is used, first and foremost, to combine two complete sentences. Given this particular writing situation, I must write for my audience and for my larger purpose: to teach a group of freshman students basic practices.

So how can I avoid comma confusion without employing the semicolon exception? Simple: I just use alternative punctuation like dashes and parentheses. Let’s try dashes first:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass—if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake—I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

That’s much clearer, and I didn’t have to break the core semicolon rule to achieve that clarity. Now let’s try parentheses:

Although I enjoy fishing for bass (if only for savoring the calm of a still, tranquil lake), I also enjoy almost any kind of fishing.

I like this parenthetical version a bit better than the dash version, for two reasons:

  1. Unlike the closing dash, the closing parenthesis does not replace the comma, so the comma appearing directly after the parenthetical clause drives home the point that the parenthetical clause is grouped backwards with the first part of the sentence. By that comma following the parenthetical clause, the first part of the sentence swallows up the parenthetical clause.
  2. Parentheses create a subtle, calm tone, whereas dashes create a loud, almost exclamatory tone. Think about what the clause is discussing: calmness and tranquility. By using parentheses, I am letting my style (a calm tone) reflect my content (a calm lake).

Dashes, by the way, are more fitting to show a sudden interruption: the lack of calmness. Consider this sentence:

I was driving through my neighborhood on my way to work when—suddenly and without warning—a child on a bicycle darted out in front of my car, making me spill coffee all over myself as I swerved to avoid him.

In the same way that the child interrupted my commute—making me spill coffee all over myself—so too does the interrupting phrase interrupt the flow of the sentence. I am writing about my experience, yes, but I am also simulating that experience for the reader by making the reader feel what I felt (well, minus the feeling of warm coffee on the crotch and the experience of having to explain to my 10-AM class that I didn’t have the kind of “accident” they thought I had).

At this point, I bet many readers are thinking, “Chris, you are thinking way too far into this, man! Is that really the kind of stuff you think about when you write?”

You bet! If you haven’t looked at your writing in this way, I challenge you to begin thinking about it more deeply. Sure: you won’t do this with every sentence you write (and neither do I), but when such opportunities present themselves, take them. And as you do, consider how writing becomes a way not only to share your ideas, but also to simulate the very experiences, concepts, and events you are describing. When you write this way, you aren’t merely giving your readers a piece of writing; you’re giving them an experience.

Here’s one more example before I end my ramble on dashes:

The opposing team’s center—a hulking six-foot-eleven monster of a man who blocked the way completely with both his bulk and his height—kept Tom from following through on his original plan of driving in for a dunk.

Now under most circumstances, that’s a bad sentence. It’s hard to read because the interrupting phrase is so long that reconnecting with the sentence’s original point is difficult. Normally, I would advise the writer to cut the length of the interrupting phrase. But why does that excessive interruption work here, in this particular sentence?

I’ll leave you with that question, as you consider just how far down the rabbit hole goes. . . .

Next up:

The Poor Ellipsis: Overworked and Misnamed

The next technique to add to your punctuation toolbox is the ellipsis. You may not recognize that name (ellipsis), because many people call it by other names like three dots or even dot dot dot. The next set of articles will discuss the ellipsis’s purpose and how new writers often misuse it. Click the link below to learn more about this specialized but handy punctuation technique. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Semicolons: Where to Place Them (and Where Not to Place Them)

Be careful not to misuse the semicolon. Remember: with one small exception (explained in an upcoming article), use semicolons only to connect two complete sentences. Any time you want to add a fragment or a sentence part to a complete sentence, a comma will do fine.

In other words . . .

Use commas for connecting a non-sentence to a sentence:

Structure: Sentence, Non-Sentence Conclusion

Example: Ed’s car was in the garage for a week, although it still needed more work.

Or the non-sentence can be the introduction for the sentence:

Structure: Non-Sentence Introduction, Sentence

Example: Although it still needed more work, Ed’s car was in the garage for a week.

And here’s yet another way to order the sentence structure: the non-sentence can even go in the middle of the ongoing sentence; just set that interrupting non-sentence off on both sides with commas:

Structure: Sentence Beginning, Non-Sentence Interrupter, Sentence End

Example: Ed’s car, although it still needed more work, was in the garage for a week.

Now here’s the structure for placing a semicolon. Notice that both combined parts are complete sentences:

Structure: Sentence; Sentence

Example: Ed’s car was in the garage for a week; the car’s steering systems needed repairs.

Now consider the following example of semicolon misuse:

I enjoy my job; which is why I come across as enthusiastic. (Incorrect: misused semicolon)

Here’s the structure for this error:

Sentence; Non-Sentence Conclusion (Incorrect Structure)

Notice how in the sentence above, the second part (beginning with which) is not a complete sentence. In that case, the writer is not combining two complete sentences, so a semicolon is not needed. So what does the writer need?

The answer: a comma! A comma is all we need for combining a sentence with a non-sentence part. Here’s the corrected version:

I enjoy my job, which is why I come across as enthusiastic. (Correct)

Sentence, Non-Sentence Conclusion (Correct)

With these examples in mind, here’s a quick-and-easy rule of thumb for semicolon placement: use a semicolon only in those places where you could use a period. A semicolon is like a period, in the sense that both symbols separate complete sentences; however, the semicolon creates flow between the sentences, while a period is a complete separation.

Look at the example sentences below. Although different, both are grammatically correct:

I love my iPod. I listen to music often. (Correct: separated by a period)

I love my iPod; I listen to music often. (Also correct: combined with a semicolon)

So if they are both grammatically correct, which version is better? Well, in this case, the second one is better because it creates grammatical flow between two ideas that are so close in meaning that they practically beg to go together. Semicolon placement, then, is a matter of both grammatical correctness and stylistic appropriateness. (The next article will discuss these choices.)

Place a Semicolon before Sentence-Combining Conjunctive Adverbs Like However.

We have looked at how semicolons can be placed between two complete sentences to combine them into one larger, flowing super-sentence (what grammarians would call “a compound sentence”).

There is one more way that we can place a semicolon to combine two sentences. A semicolon can (and usually should) precede a sentence-combining technique that those of us in the English business call a conjunctive adverb.

While a term like conjunctive adverb may sound complex, chances are, you use conjunctive adverbs quite often. Here is a list of frequently used conjunctive adverbs. Do you recognize any from your own writing? . . .

Conjunctive Adverbs:

Accordingly          Additionally          Also          Comparatively

Consequently          Furthermore          Hence          However

Instead          Likewise          Moreover          Nevertheless

Nonetheless          Rather          Similarly          Still

Therefore          Thus

Here are some example sentence combinations involving a semicolon + conjunctive adverb:

Many new writers have seen techniques like the semicolon; however, these novice writers may not feel confident that they use such techniques correctly in their own writing.

I have noticed that my students often overuse the semicolon by placing it between a sentence and a non-sentence; therefore, I wrote these articles to help students and other writers with semicolon placement.

Punctuation is important to the accuracy of our writing; moreover, it is a critical part of writing with personality and pizzazz.

I want to draw your attention to two features of the sentences above:

  1. The example sentences listed above are long, thoughtful sentences. They discuss serious “hmm” matters, so a reflective and thoughtful “hmm” combiner works best–and that’s precisely what conjunctive adverbs are for. They create a longer, more thoughtful sentence combination than their shorter cousins, the coordinating conjunctions (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so). Also, if you recall an earlier article on comma functions, a sentence-combining coordinating conjunction is preceded by a comma. (If you missed that article on conjunctions and commas, read it by clicking here.)
  2. The sentence-combining  conjunctive adverb is preceded by a semicolon and followed by a comma. Read the first sample sentence aloud. When you hear “pause however pause,” the first pause is a semicolon, and the second pause is a comma.

One more point on punctuating conjunctive adverbs: as with any semicolon usage, you can replace the semicolon with a period if you want a full break between the first sentence and the second sentence. In other words, conjunctive adverbs can also begin new sentences, like this:

Semicolons are extremely useful for creating flow in sentences. However, I may prefer instead to create a sharp, assertive break between two sentences.

(Notice, though, that a comma still follows the conjunctive adverb.)

Next Up:

Semicolon Placement: Not Just a Matter of Grammatical Correctness

This article has explained the grammatical considerations of semicolon placement; however, just because a semicolon can be placed between two sentences does not mean that it should be placed there. With that point in mind, the next article explains why we would choose to place a semicolon to create flow between two sentences. Click the link below to read that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Semicolon: Hybrid of the Period and the Comma

In the previous article, I discussed the colon, which writers use to introduce some other element—whether a word, a list, a phrase, a clause, or even an entire sentence.

Perhaps seeking to experiment with new techniques, new writers often confuse the colon with its cousin, the semicolon. Although they look very similar, the colon and the semicolon perform completely different functions. In this article of “Punctuation Toolbox,” I want to talk about the semicolon and the most essential role it plays in our writing.

Let’s begin by differentiating between the colon and the semicolon:

: colon (one dot directly over the other)

; semicolon (a dot directly over a comma)

Although the semicolon looks much like the colon (and although the names sound alike), the semicolon is not best understood in terms of the colon. These two punctuation techniques are quite different. With that point in mind, I want to share a better way of seeing the semicolon for what it is: a comma-period.

You’re probably thinking something along these lines: “What?—a comma-period? What on earth do you mean by that, Chris?”

Bear with me, dear reader, and you’ll never see the semicolon the same again. Look at the semicolon carefully, breaking into its two parts. It appears to be a period placed directly over a comma. Look again—do you see each of these smaller symbols within the larger symbol?

;     (Semicolon)

Let’s consider those two symbols and what they do in our writing. The period—the most basic punctuation technique—brings a full stop to a sentence. It’s a way of telling the reader, “Look, dear reader: I am ending one full thought so that I can begin a new idea. I am isolating them from one another (even if they are contextually related).”

The comma is a different matter. While the period creates complete breaks between sentences, the comma creates very small breaks, and those small breaks do not separate one full sentence from another. What the comma does is to create a pause within the larger sentence. It’s a pause, to be sure, but it’s not a full break.

Here’s another way of looking at it: the period goes between sentences, while the comma goes within sentences. The period represents the strongest punctuation pause in our writing, while the comma represents the weakest pause.

But sometimes, we want neither the weakest pause nor the strongest pause. Sometimes, we want something in between.

For example, what if we have two complete sentences that we do not want to separate? We want one sentence to flow into the next sentence, perhaps because the ideas that the two sentences express are inextricably connected. We need some kind of break to show that there are indeed two complete statements, but we don’t want to separate them with the finality of a period. With these points in mind, the period won’t cut it. It’s just too strong of a break. We need something weaker than a period.

“Well,” you might say, “a comma is weaker than a period.” But here’s the problem: the comma is too weak. Remember?—commas are designed to go within sentences—not between them. We need to combine two sentences; unfortunately, the comma won’t cut it either.

What we need, then, is a punctuation technique that can combine two complete sentences but one that does not create the full finality of a period; essentially, we need something that is stronger than a comma but weaker than a period. If only we had a punctuation technique that is a hybrid of the period and the comma, then we would have exactly what we need. . . .

Well, guess what?–WE HAVE IT! IT’S CALLED A SEMICOLON! Look at it again:

;      (semicolon)

We can see the semicolon’s function within the symbol itself: in both appearance and function, the semicolon is a hybrid of the comma and the period. What better symbol to show that function than one that has both a period and a comma? Do you see it?

Here’s an example where a semicolon combines two sentences into one larger sentence:

I hope you enjoy reading these blog articles; I certainly enjoy writing them!

 

Next Up:

Semicolons: Don’t Misuse and Abuse Them

In this first article on the semicolon, we looked at the basic grammatical considerations for placing the semicolon: it combines two closely related sentences. But is there more to placing the semicolon than grammatical correctness?

Definitely—although we should make sure our semicolons are mechanically appropriate, there’s much more to semicolon placement than grammar and sentence structure. The next article, “Semicolons: Where to Place Them (and Where Not to Place Them),” discusses the syntactical considerations of semicolon placement, and the article after that will discuss the stylistic purpose of the semicolon. To learn even more about semicolons, click the link below:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

The Colon: The Equal Sign of Writing

In the introduction to “Punctuation Toolbox,” I discussed the colon to highlight the necessity of developing a varied and versatile punctuation toolbox.

But what exactly is a colon? (And, no, I don’t mean the colon that helps you digest food!) What does it look like? What is its purpose? This article will answer these questions—and a few others. (And here’s more good news: forty-year-old men don’t have to have these [punctuational] colons examined and cleaned out. Just remember that if you think that punctuation is a pain in the . . . well, you know. . . .)

First things first—here’s what a colon looks like:

: colon (one dot directly over another dot)

But what does a colon do? The easiest way to understand the colon’s function is to think of it as the equal sign of writing. Think about how the equal sign sits between two mathematical expressions that are the same (even if they are written differently). For example, when looking at the mathematical expressions below, consider how what is on one side of the equal sign is actually the same number as what is on the other side—even if the two are written differently. Look:

10 = 10

5 + 5 = 10

10 = 5 + 5

10 = 7 + 3

15 = 3 x 5

2 (5 + 2) = 14

We can even list a bunch of numbers on one side, and sum them up with the “answer” on the other side:

2 + 1 + 3 + 4 = 10

Or we can reverse it, with the sum first and the added parts second:

10 = 2 + 1 + 3 + 4

In other words, “2 + 1 + 3 + 4” is just another way of saying “10.”

“Come on, Chris,” you might be saying, “This isn’t The Mathematician’s Toolbox. Why are you talking about all these numbers?”

I’ll explain. The colon is the equal sign of writing. They even look similar:

: colon (one dot over another dot)

= equal sign (one line over another line)

So how is the colon like the equal sign in terms of function? Consider the sentence below. Notice the parts of the sentence combined by the colon; look at what is to the left of the colon and what is to the right of the colon:

Today I bought ingredients for my (world-famous) broccoli salad: mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, water chestnuts, sliced almonds, red onion, raisins, cheddar cheese, and—last, but not least—broccoli.

In other words, I am saying the same thing on either side of the colon, just in two different ways:

Ingredients for my (world-famous) broccoli salad = mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, water chestnuts, sliced almonds, red onion, raisins, cheddar cheese, and broccoli.

 The item to the left of the colon is the sum—the whole item, not broken down into its parts: “ingredients for my (world-famous) broccoli salad.”

The items to the right of the colon simply compose the breakdown of the thing to the right. That list is just an itemized way of saying “ingredients for my (world-famous) broccoli salad.”

In other words, this . . .

Ingredients for my (world-famous) broccoli salad: mayonnaise, cheddar cheese, water chestnuts, sliced almonds, red onion, raisins, cheddar cheese, and broccoli

. . . works just like this . . .

10 = 2 + 1 + 3 + 4

After all, “2 + 2 + 3 + 4” is just a more itemized way of saying “10.”

Do you see it? Like the equal sign, the colon sits between two expressions that state the same concept but in different ways.

The Colon Introduces

Most writing experts will (rightly) say this about the colon: “The colon is an element for introducing the part that follows.” In their brilliant and entertaining punctuation guide, Comma Sense, Richard Lederer and John Shore cleverly call the colon the Ed Sullivan of punctuation, since—like Mr. Sullivan—the colon’s job is to introduce others. That analogy has stayed with me, even as I developed my own ways of teaching colon placement to students.

Here’s how Lederer and Shore put it:

The colon, after all, really doesn’t do much beyond serve as an introducer. And I remember the time on the show when Jack Benny asked Ed what exactly Ed did on the show—and Ed answered with a simple, “I introduce the acts.”

For purposes of this discussion of the colon, I might define the colon this way:

The colon introduces other elements of writing by emphasizing the essential equality of the two items it combines. It introduces by sitting between two different ways of saying the same thing.

So, whether it is introducing a list or simply restating an idea “in other words,” the colon always acts as a type of equal sign between the parts it combines. Take a look at these sample sentences to see how the colon works as both an introducing element and an “equal sign”:

There is only one activity that I enjoy as much as writing: teaching others how to write.

(one activity I enjoy as much as writing = teaching writing to others)

Bob got himself into deep shit yesterday: he was pulled over for speeding—and his license had expired!

(Bob got himself into deep shit yesterday = he was pulled over for speedingand his license had expired)

I am developing essay-commentary macros with one of my valued colleagues: Professor Michael O’Connor.

(one of my valued colleagues = Professor Michael O’Connor)

Christine enjoys a range of activities: traveling in England, writing about tattoo art, doing complex metal work, and spending time with her son.

(a range of activities = traveling in England, writing about tattoo art, doing complex metal work, and spending time with her son)

The colon can also start with the list to introduce the summary description of the list, like this:

Traveling in England, writing about tattoo art, doing complex metal work, and spending time with her son: these are a few of Christine’s favorite things. (Can’t you just hear John Coltrane playing in the background?)

Do you see how that works? Now you understand the colon: the equal sign of writing.

Next Up: The Semicolon

Well, that’s it for the colon. The next article will discuss the basic use of the semicolon, and from there, other articles will discuss further semicolon details. Want to learn more? Click the link below:

Works Cited

Lederer, Richard and John Shore. Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).