Tricks of the Trade: Creating Transitions between Paragraphs

One key to effective writing is making the prose flow from one part to the next. The reader should never feel like a new discussion or sentence just drops on her out of nowhere. This practice of creating flow is called transition.

Opening Note: As you read this article on transitions between paragraphs, please note that I am underlining my own uses of this technique within this article. Wherever you see an underline, I am pointing out a place where I have made a paragraph-to-paragraph transition.

One important place to create transition is when moving from one paragraph to the next. Whenever you present a new paragraph, frame it as stemming from or acknowledging your discussion in the previous paragraph. This does not mean you should restate the content of the previous paragraph, but it does mean you should at least include some kind of transitional word, phrase, clause, or sentence as you open each new paragraph discussion. The length and depth of your transition depend on how strong of a connection you want to make.

How do we create that connection? Here are three standard ways to accomplish transition between any two paragraphs:

1. Refer back to the previous paragraph. Have the first sentence of the second paragraph refer back to the last sentence of the first paragraph.

2. Project forward to the next paragraph. Have the last sentence of the first paragraph hint at what is to come in the second paragraph. The word hint is emphasized because subtlety works best when applying this approach. This particular approach creates suspense in readers, making them wonder what the writer is going to say next.

3. Both 1 and 2 to create a very strong, fully realized connection. Just be careful not to overstate the connection. (After all, while we do want to be helpful to our readers, we don’t want to insult their intelligence. Balance is the key.)

Written below is at an example of a paragraph break without a transition. Imagine that a student is writing a persuasive essay arguing for the benefits of stem cell research. In the student’s first attempt, the paragraph break is present, but there is no transition bridging the two ideas:

. . . Having looked at the arguments against stem cell research, we see that they are erroneous because the opponents of stem cell research assume that embryonic stem cells can come only from fetuses, which is not true.

Many opponents of stem cell research try to base their arguments solely on religious texts. However, such opponents should consider additional arguments, since many Americans do not believe in those same sacred texts and since religious Americans hold varying interpretations of those texts.

Notice how that second paragraph just jumps out at the reader. While the writer may have seen it coming (because the writer is already familiar with the connections), the reader does not necessarily see those connections. So, with that point in mind, the writer should make a transition for the reader. This transition will be a dependent clause, which is attached to the opening of the second paragraph (the first type of transition listed above):

. . . Having looked at the arguments against stem cell research, we see that they are erroneous because the opponents of stem cell research assume that embryonic stem cells come only from fetuses, which is not true.

     While such opponents ignore scientific facts to oppose embryonic stem cell research, many of those same opponents try to base their arguments solely on religious texts. However, such opponents should consider additional arguments, since many Americans do not believe in those same sacred texts and since religious Americans hold varying interpretations of those texts.

See how that works? Now the first paragraph gives rise to the second paragraph, and the reader has a smooth ride from one paragraph to the next. The ideas now relate, showing unity—but, even more important, the writer has facilitated the reading experience by emphasizing precisely how those paragraphs relate.

Here are some simple words, phrases, and sentences that create transition:

In addition,

Next,

Also,

For example,

For instance,

Now that we have looked at X, we should look at Y.

After having considered X, let’s also consider Y.

Related to this concept of X is Y.

At this point, readers may think Y, so we should consider that point further.

As we have seen, X. This leads us to the next point, Y.

On the other hand, . . .

Now let’s consider a very different example.

etc. . . . There are many more ways to create transition.

No matter which of the listed (or unlisted) techniques you decide to use, always aim to create seamless flow in your writing. Sometimes a single word like also will do fine, but at other times writers will include an entire sentence (or two) to make a transition. No matter what kind of transition you choose to make, always think about your choice, and make a point of being creative.

Finally, when considering how to create transitions, remember that a transition creates one crucial desired effect for the reader: a seamless reading experience, from the first page to the last. This flow keeps our readers doing just what we want them to be doing: reading.

Next Up: Transitions between Sentences

This article has shared some ways to create transition from one paragraph to the next. But equally important to creating flow between paragraphs is maintaining that same level of flow within paragraphs by creating sentence-to-sentence transitions. With that goal in mind, the next Tricks of the Trade article shares a range of techniques for creating constant transition between every sentence you write.

  • Creating Transitions between Sentences (I will have this article posted soon.)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Christopher AltmanToolbox 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).

Beyond Commas: Replacing Commas with Dashes and Parentheses

If you find that a sentence seems overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off (like parentheses, dashes, and colons—but only where appropriate).

Consider the first sentence of this article. What if I had expressed every pause with commas, as in the sentence below?

If you find that a sentence looks overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off, like parentheses, dashes, and colons, but only where appropriate.

So many commas! Like mobs of traders scrambling over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, these commas create an environment of clutter and confusion. Each comma performs its own task, but through doing so, these commas collide with one another and disrupt the clarity of the sentence—ruining the very effect that commas should evoke. This overabundance of overlapping commas can leave readers confused. In cases like the one above, I consider ways that I can use other forms of punctuation to make the various divisions clear and distinct. (See the first version of my sentence—much better, isn’t it?)

Punctuation Changes Tone

While dashes and parentheses are great techniques for preventing comma confusion, be careful to use the best form of punctuation for the tone you are trying to express. Choosing parentheses over commas is not an arbitrary decision—a random replacement in which you say, “Those parentheses look nice here. What the heck?—I’ll pop one in, just because.” Though very similar to commas when setting off tangential interrupting phrases, parentheses and dashes each serve their own distinct roles in writing.

Here is a brief breakdown of how these forms of punctuation serve unique roles in setting off interrupting or modifying phrases in sentences:

Parentheses: Set off the interrupting phrase in a subtle tone (as if the writer is whispering an inside scoop into the reader’s ear).

Dashes: Set off the interrupting phrase in a spontaneous, almost exclamatory tone—the opposite of parentheses.

If parentheses are subtle and quiet, while dashes are spontaneous and loud, you might think of commas as neutral. They emphasize the words and phrases they set off, but they do so in a calm yet firm tone. With the appearance of a comma there is often a slight drop in pitch, but the overall tone remains neutral.

Consider these forms of punctuation in terms of the scale below:

Punctuation                                      Volume                                    Mood

Dash: exclaimed (almost)                      Loud                                         Bold

Comma: spoken normally                  Neutral                                        Calm

Parentheses: whispered                       Quiet                                    Intimate

Through adding dashes and parentheses to your punctuation toolbox, you can write with a greater range of tones and moods. The writing will no longer have a monotone, “Ben Stein” sound to it. (If you don’t know who Ben Stein is, he is best known for his role as the dull, monotone teacher in the 80s cult classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I can hear him now, calling for the absent Ferris: “Bueller . . . Bueller . . .  Bueller? . . .”) Most of us do not speak like Stein’s character—so why would we want to write like that? (I sure don’t!) Developing a diverse range of punctuation techniques is the key to avoiding that dull, flat monotone.

Next Up: An Analogy for Punctuation and Tone in Writing

In my time teaching, I have developed a visual-art analogy for creating a range of tones in writing. Want to learn more? (You know you do–and you also know that you’re hopelessly addicted to my blog.) Here’s the link to that article:

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).


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: Odds & Ends

Use Block Quotes for Long Quotations

When presenting a quotation that exceeds four lines (that is, the quote goes into the fifth line), use a block-quote format instead of using quotation marks. Do this by setting the quotation off in its own paragraphed section (but do not indent the first line) and by insetting the left margin by one inch. (In Microsoft Word, the indentation feature is located in the “Paragraph” menu.)

Cited below is an example of a block quote. This quotation is from the introduction to my book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, which attempts to explain and debunk writing rules we learn as children but should discard as adults. Notice that, in quoting the material below, I do not use quotation marks. The indentation acts as the quotation framing device in place of quotation marks:

Most children begin their development as writers by being given lists of rules. If you learned these rules, you probably learned them from trusted teachers, most likely during grade school or middle school, but perhaps you learned them as late as high school. If you are still trying to follow these rules, you probably get the sense that following them is often unrealistic—and even damaging—for your writing. You feel a profound sense of relief whenever you write informal, personal prose, if only for the reason that you are able to ignore these rules and write like yourself. You get the sense that journalists and award winning authors have found some secret way around these rules, for such expert writers break these writing taboos quite frequently—and to great effect. You have an overwhelming sense that there is a bigger, better world of writing, but you have an equally large sense that you can never enter that world.

(Note: In these Writer’s Toolbox articles, I use block quotes even for shorter quotations to highlight these examples for my readers. However, in formal writing situations, like college essays or academic articles, follow the standard rule for block quoting.)

If you are interested in learning more about my book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, click here.

Quotes within Quotes

Sometimes, a writer may quote a source that quotes another source. There are two ways to handle this matter: one for short quotations (using quotation marks) and another for long quotations (using block quotes).

For short quotations, use the single quotation mark (the same symbol as the apostrophe) to show the innermost quote. For the overall (outside) quote, use normal double quotation marks. Here is an example:

When speaking on equal hiring practices, Senator Smith invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I, for one, agree with the words of that great civil rights leader who so aptly stated, ‘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.’”

Notice how, in the passage above, the closing quotation marks appear to be a triple set of quotation marks. That is not the case: what seems to be a triple quotation mark is actually the inner single quotation mark (to close MLK’s quote) followed by the outer double quotation marks (to close Senator Smith’s quote). If Senator Smith’s quote had continued after the MLK quote, the closing quotation mark sets would be displaced from one another, like this:

When speaking on equal hiring practices, Senator Smith invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I, for one, agree with the words of that great civil rights leader who so aptly stated, ‘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.’ I couldn’t agree more with these momentous words, spoken by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr.”

However, if the larger quote exceeds four lines, it should be framed in a block quote. The quote within the quote can then be framed in (normal) double quotation marks, like this:

When speaking on equal hiring practices, Senator Smith invoked the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

I, for one, agree with the words of that great civil rights leader who so aptly stated, “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.” I couldn’t agree more with these momentous words, spoken by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King’s words ring true even today, as we pass laws to ensure that American companies will practice fairness and equality in their hiring policies.

Looking at both of these examples, the overall rule is simple: if double quotation marks are already present and the writer needs to include an internal quote, the writer should use single quotation marks for the internal quote. If double quotation marks are not already present (as in a block quote), then the writer should simply use double quotation marks for the internal quote.

If in the rare event that you must include a quote within a quote within a quote, simply alternate between double and single quotation marks for each additional internalized quote. Although this triple-quotation technique is available, experienced writers attempt to avoid these confusing moments by finding some other way to present the quote. Many writers attempt to remove the outermost quotation and simply to share a quote within a quote. Other writers might choose to paraphrase the statement(s). Regardless of the specific approach the writer chooses, the rule of thumb remains the same: good writers strive to create a clear and convenient reading experience for their audiences.

Dialogue Tags and Quotation Marks

A dialogue tag is phrase that opens into quoted language. The quoted language can be part of a quotation or–as the name “dialogue tag” implies, it can be a line of dialogue, framed in quotation marks. The dialogue tag consists of a noun or pronoun (a speaker) and a verb of speaking (or thinking). Dialogue tags are frequent in fiction, but they are not limited to fiction. Any time that we talk about what someone said, thought, or wrote, dialogue tags are useful. Follow a dialogue tag with a comma, just before giving the quotation:

Bob said, “We had better get home soon.”

Lauren replied, “I’m aware, but we have more errands to run.”

“I’m tired,” Bob sighed. “Will I ever make it home?”

“Nope!” Lauren joked.

In the dialogue above, there are several dialogue tags, marked in bold. Notice how dialogue tags are punctuated differently, depending on their placement relative to the lines of dialogue. If the dialogue tag comes directly before dialogue (the most standard placement), the dialogue tag is followed by a comma, as seen in these lines:

Bob said, “We had better get home soon.”

Lauren replied, “I’m aware, but we have more errands to run.”

Notice the dialogue tag in the third line. Notice how a comma takes the place of a period in the first quoted part, since the dialogue tag follows the dialogue material:

“I’m tired,” Bob sighed. “Will I ever make it home?”

In the fourth line, there is no comma between the quote and the dialogue tag because a comma does not replace exclamation points and question marks:

“Nope!” Lauren joked.

But if we reversed the order, we would introduce the quote with a comma directly after the dialogue tag:

Lauren joked, “Nope!”

Next Up: Quotation Marks And Other Punctuation

New writers often struggle with punctuating quotations. For example, should a period ending both a quotation and its larger sentence go inside the quotation marks, like this . . .

Lauren added, “Don’t worry: we’ll get home soon enough.”

. . . or should it go outside the quotation marks, like this . . .

Lauren added, “Don’t worry: we’ll get home soon enough”.

So which one is correct? The next article answers this question–and many more.

  •  I will have this article up and running soon.

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).

Titles: Quotation Marks or Italics?

You may have noticed that writers frame the titles of other works in various ways. Maybe you’ve seen those other works’ titles framed in quotation marks, but maybe you’ve also seen them framed in italics and even underlined. So, with all of these ways to frame titles, what is the correct method?

The answer: it depends. This article will explain the three title framing methods and how to differentiate between them.

One Caveat: Style Guides And Writing in Specific Academic Formats

Before continuing this discussion of title formats, I must mention one caveat: this article (and my approach) follows with the approach of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the format typically used in English literature and many other disciplines in the liberal arts. Other styles, like that of the American Psychological Association (APA), have different rules for handling titles, so if you are writing for a course or a discipline requiring APA format (for example, social sciences like Sociology or Anthropology), make sure to consult an APA style guide. For all other writing situations, I find that following the MLA style creates increased clarity and consistency. (But hey–I’m an English professor, so I’m biased!)

Speaking of style guides, Purdue OWL (Online Writing Lab) has both an MLA and APA guide. These online style guides are edited to keep them up to date as the MLA and APA adopt new changes:

Quotation Marks Versus Italics

Anyway, back to quotation marks and italics. Here is the rule of thumb for making this decision:

The Title Rule of Thumb: Use “quotation marks” for shorter component works, and use italics (or underlining) for longer works (which often include component works).

What do I mean by “component works”? Here is an example:

In Sports Illustrated, I read an article entitled “Making the Cut,” which discusses the challenges faced by collegiate athletes looking to enter professional sports.

Sports Illustrated is the larger work (a collection of many articles), while the article, “Making the Cut,” is the component work.

This is also true of other forms:

  • Poems

Larger whole: A Poetry Anthology (the larger collection): (italicize)

Component: A poem in that anthology (the component work) (quotation marks)

Example: The Norton Anthology of American Literature includes Frost’s poems “Design” and “Mending Wall”–two of my favorites.

  • Books and Novels

Larger whole: A novel (italicize)

Component: A chapter title from the novel (“quotation marks”)

Example: My book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, includes a chapter entitled “The Myth of the Run-On Sentence.”

  • Newspaper Titles

Larger whole: A newspaper (italicize)

Component: An article in that newspaper (“quotation marks”)

Example: The article “What’s Wrong with Education in the City?” appeared in last Sunday’s Washington Post.

Exceptions

There are a few exceptions. (Of course there are–the Grammar Gods can’t make things too easy for us!)

An epic poem (which you might think of as a book-length poem): italicize (even if it is a component of a larger collection)

A novella or short book: italicize (even if it is a component of a larger collection)

Still, even these exceptions follow the rule of thumb, since they might have their own component chapter titles, which–as expected–would be placed in quotation marks.

What About Underlining Titles?

Underlining is simply another way of italicizing. In handwriting, underlining stands in place of italics, since italicizing is difficult to do in handwriting, especially if one’s handwriting is already slanted to the right like italics. In past decades, style manuals for organizations like the Modern Language Association (MLA) required underlining–even in typed documents–for book titles and other titles that we italicize today. However, with the increased precision and font varieties of word-processing programs, we can italicize these titles. In fact, italics is often preferred since it has a cleaner, less distracting look than underlining.

Still, if you are producing a handwritten document like an in-class essay exam, underline in place of italics. In addition to publication titles for books, newspapers, etc., this is true for other applications of italics such as writing foreign words, emphasizing words with additional intonation, or writing about a word as a word.

What Should We Do if Italics Are Not Available?

Many websites do not include an italics feature. For example, italics are not (yet?) available on Facebook posts and comments. (This is actually one huge pet peeve I have with Facebook–they need italics!)

In the meantime, there are a few options when your range of punctuation or font editing tools are limited. One option is simply to put the normally italicized material in quotation marks. I do this with book titles. In some cases, such as adding intonation to a word, you might just try ALL CAPS–although in “normal” writing, using all caps represents SCREAMING or YELLING–which is stronger than the intonation that italics represent. Still, most people understand that since there are no italics on sites like Facebook, using all caps is allowable for intonation.

Now, as far as underlining titles is concerned, hard-nosed sticklers will place single underscore symbols both before and after a book title (or any normally italicized title) to show the italics/underlining:

I read _Moby Dick_ for the first time. It was much more fascinating than I thought it would be.

But I just think that looks strange. Ever aware of my audience, I don’t hesitate to use quotation marks in place of italics in informal online communications like Facebook posts:

I read “Moby Dick” for the first time. It was much more fascinating than I thought it would be.

This makes sense, in terms of audience. Chances are, those underscore-obsessed sticklers don’t even have Facebook accounts. (They are too busy watching early-twentieth-century French Impressionist films while tastefully sipping obscure expensive wines from the quaint countryside of Wherever.)

One Final Point: Frame Only the Titles of Other Works

I lost count long ago of the times when students would (erroneously) put their own essay titles in quotes. Remember: use quotation marks only when referring to the title of some outside work within your own writing. If it’s your essay or article title, it is framed as a title by virtue of being capitalized and/or in a larger font at the top of the first page. These framing conventions also depend on the writing context and the rhetorical situation. For example, the title of this article (yes, the one you’re reading right now) is in a larger font, but it also uses capital letters. However, in a formal essay for a college course, the student should not write the title in a larger, bolder font (although they should capitalize most words in the title).

Now, if you are referring to another work that you wrote, then treat that title as the title of another work by placing it in either quotes or italics. For example, if I am talking in this article about my book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, I write it in italics to show that it is another work–even if it’s one of my own works.

Next Up: Quotation Marks Odds & Ends

The next article explains some nitty-gritty quotation mark matters. For example, how should we frame a quote within a quote? Are long quotations handled differently from short quotations? How can we introduce quoted lines of dialogue?  If you’re burning to know the answers to these questions (and I know you are!), then 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).

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).

Hyphen Odds and Ends

In the previous article, we looked at the hyphen rule of thumb:

Use hyphens to show that a multiple-word adjective functions as a single unit.

That rule covers ninety percent of hyphen uses. The other ten percent seems confusing, because it involves a wide variety of rules and no-no’s. I do not want to bog you down in rules, dear reader. With that avoidance in mind, I will not list all of the rules and odd uses of hyphens here. However, I should touch on a few of the most frequent points of confusion.

If you are interested in learning more about the nitpicky rules of hyphens, I recommend C. Edward Good’s handbook, A Grammar Book for You and I–Oops, me!: All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life. Although there are many good books that explain the general use of hyphens, no book I have encountered goes into the detail that Good’s book covers. Check it out.

In the meantime, here are a few further points on hyphen use. . . .

Don’t Confuse the Hyphen with Its Longer Cousin–the Dash.

The dash (which I used in this section’s title, just above) is twice as long as the hyphen. In fact, in most word-processing programs, the dash is formed by typing two hyphens in a row. Today, word-processing applications have nifty auto-format features that recognize two adjacent hyphens and run them together to form an uninterrupted dash, like the one seen in this section’s title. But this was not always the way dashes looked. In the ancient days of the typewriter, before the development of word-processing programs like MS Word (when early humans hunted the wooly mammoth), people simply typed two hyphens to represent the dash. The two hyphens would have a small space between them and would not appear as the single long line we are accustomed to seeing in twenty-first-century documents. (To my students’ amusement, this double-hyphen dash is what I call an old-school dash.)

The point of this spiel on hyphens and dashes? Simple: Many people see hyphens and call them dashes. The first step to understanding the difference between these two distinct forms of punctuation is to identify them correctly. The difference, after all, is clear:

– (hyphen)

— (dash)

While we are on the topic, what are dashes? Think of a dash as replacing a comma or colon to show a spontaneous change or interruption in a sentence. Its functions are completely different from those of the hyphen. Their only similarity is that they are both horizontal lines that occur between words.

Here are three previous Writer’s Toolbox articles that discuss dashes:

Use Your Own Judgment: Hyphenate to Avoid Confusion.

Although there may be no rule for hyphenating a given term, writers sometimes hyphenate to avoid ambiguity. In fact, for purposes of achieving clarity, writers sometimes choose to hyphenate even if it goes against the core rules of hyphenating. Here is an example (taken from Good’s book) of such a situation:

The article was thought provoking.

Is the writer saying . . .

People thought that the article was provoking (which means they probably didn’t like it)?

. . . or is the writer saying this? . . .

The article provoked thought in people (which means it was received well)?

Well, the original sentence (with no hyphens) states that people found the article provoking—that is, the article tended to anger readers. To express the second message—the idea that the article provoked thought—the writer would need to use a hyphen to connect thought and provoking:

The article was thought-provoking.

See how that works? Now the message is clear because thought-provoking acts as a single adjective to describe the article. Although we would not normally hyphenate a noun and an –ing word to create an adjective, we would need to do so in the sentence above. This example breaks the hyphenation rules to follow a higher rule: always make the message clear for your reader.

Another -ing term that I like to hyphenate is word-processing, when I use it as an adjective for another noun. Notice that in the first sentence, word is the adjective describing the (gerund) noun processing:

Ed admitted that he is not very good at word processing.

However, in this second sentence, I am using word-processing as a single adjective for programs:

Still, Ed is trying to improve his proficiency with word-processing programs like Microsoft Word.

Do Not Use Hyphens between –ly Adverbs and Adjectives.

In addition to modifying verbs, adverbs can modify adjectives. This is different from a multiple-word adjective. If you are confused as to what an –ly adverb is, it is a word that combines an adjective and an –ly suffix. This forms an adverb, which most often modifies verbs. In the same way that the adjective tells us what kind of noun it is, an adverb tells us how the verb is done. Remember, though, that adverbs can also modify adjectives. Whether the –ly adverb modifies a verb or an adjective, remember that it should not be hyphenated with the verb or adjective that follows it. Confusing? Here are some examples:

I hope to write a widely acclaimed book. (Not: widely-acclaimed book)

The barely new car broke down in a busy intersection. (Not: barely-new)

And, if all this talk of adjectives and adverbs has you confused, just remember:

If a word describing how some action is done ends in –ly, do not hyphenate it with the word that follows.

Got it? (Of course you do!)

Use Hyphens in Words That Would Otherwise Be Confused for Other Words.

Here are some examples of words that may need hyphens to clear up ambiguity:

re-create (to remake or simulate)

vs.

recreate (to have fun)

Or, how about this one:

un-ionize (a chemistry term, the opposite of ionize)

vs.

unionize (to form a union)

Use Hyphens to Form Some Compound Nouns.

In the previous hyphen article, we looked at compound adjectives: adjectives formed from multiple words. Hyphens also join some compound nouns: nouns that are formed by more than one word. Some is the key word.

Here are some examples of hyphenated nouns, some of which I have drawn from C. Edward Good’s chapter on hyphens:

Mother-in-law

President-elect

Great-grandfather

One-half

Self-control (Words beginning with self– are hyphened. See section below.)

Notice that these hyphenated nouns follow the same general rule as multiple-word hyphenated adjectives: the hyphens show that the joined words form a single unit (whether a noun or an adjective), and that the resulting hyphenated term is to be treated as one word.

Hyphen Finer Points

Here are some even finer points on hyphen use:

1. Use hyphens to express a range of numbers, essentially replacing the word through.

For tomorrow’s class, I have asked my students to read pages 12-35.

(Note: In a good word-processing program, this hyphen is actually a shorter version of the  dash called “an en dash.” This en dash is shorter than the normal em dash, but longer than a hyphen. The best way to form an en dash in most word-processing programs is by typing the two hyphens between the numbers, but with spaces before and after the double-hyphen. However, in many programs, the en dash is not an option, so a hyphen will have to do.)

2. Hyphens and fractions:

Hyphenate fractions that are spelled out and used as adjectives, but do not hyphenate the whole number (if there is one). The whole number should be isolated from the fraction part:

I ran two and one-half miles yesterday. I am not feeling well today.

(If this rule seems confusing, just remember that it reflects the numerical form: by being written to the left of the fraction, the whole number is separated from the fraction: 2½. The lack of hyphenation reflects the numerical separation.)

3. Hyphenate terms involving self + some other word.

Natalie is an intelligent but self-conscious student. I wish she would answer more questions.

However . . .

If any prefix is added before self, the word is simply written all together. We call this a closed compound word (as opposed to a hyphenated compound word). Look at the following examples:

selfish behavior (added –ish suffix to self, so closed instead of hyphenated)

unselfish behavior (added un- prefix and –ish suffix to self, so closed instead of hyphenated)

Or, to look at our previous hyphenated example:

self-conscious student (hyphenated)

vs.

unselfconscious student (prefix –un, so closed)

The Final Hyphen Rule: When It Comes to Hyphens, Dictionaries Are Our Friends.

There are many more odds-and-ends rules for hyphens. However, I write to express the core function of the hyphen: to join words for purposes of avoiding ambiguity. If you understand that rule, you’re golden.

Still, there are often no hard-and-fast rules for why one term might be hyphenated while another is not. Knowing whether to hyphenate such terms is ultimately a matter of consensus–a matter of people agreeing to a certain convention or practice. So, how do we know what the grammar gods have to say about hyphenating a given term?

Here is a nice trick for any hyphen situations I have not addressed here: if you are unsure whether a term should be hyphenated, consult a dictionary. Terms that are not hyphenated will have a dot between the syllables, while words that are hyphenated will have a hyphen in place of the dot. Look carefully, and you’ll see the difference.

So, dear reader, go out and hyphenate freely! And as you fill the world with hyphens, remember: it’s all about making things clear for your reader.

Next Up:

Related Question: Is It “Everyday” or “Every Day?”

In these hyphen articles, we have looked at how the hyphen joins two separate words into a single part of speech. In most cases, the hyphen functions to create multiple-word adjectives. However, there is one other way to join words: just join the terms completely into one seamless word. This practice accounts for the difference between terms like every day and everyday. Often my students (incorrectly) use these two terms interchangeably, but occasionally some students think to ask, “Which one is correct?–Should it be every day or everyday?” The answer: it depends! And what it depends on is precisely the same concept behind hyphenated multiple-word adjectives.

If this everyday usage bothers you seemingly every day, then you should check out the next article before we move on to other punctuation techniques. Here’s the link to that article:

Works Cited

Good, C. Edward. A Grammar Book for You and I–Oops, Me!: All the Grammar You Need to Succeed in Life. Herndon: Capitol Books, 2002. Print.

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces Christopher Altmanand 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 Overworked and Misnamed Ellipsis: Two Functions

The ellipsis is one of the most misused punctuation tools. To make matters worse, it is also the most frequently misnamed punctuation symbol.

Imagine for a moment that you are the poor ellipsis. First, people force you to do a bunch of jobs that don’t even remotely fit your job description, then they proceed to call you by the wrong name, or they just forget your name altogether: “Thanks for cleaning out that clogged sewer line; it must have been hard, since you were wearing that tie. Anyway, I really appreciate it, and I look forward to you doing it again next month. Hey–what’s your name again? I can never remember it. How about this: I’ll just call you Sewer Guy in a Tie, since that’s what you look like.”

The poor ellipsis: it must endure this treatment every day. When I speak to friends or students about the ellipsis, I am met with a confused look. I make sure to clarify, and by now I’ve memorized the line:

“Oh, an ellipsis is the three dots or periods you see when someone shows a hesitation in writing. You know: the dot-dot-dot symbol.”

“Oh yeah—I see! I’ve just always called it three dots. Is that the name?–Eclipsis? . . .”

“No, it’s the ellipsis. There’s no k sound.”

If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve had this conversation. I would have . . . let me see . . . well, about two dollars. Still, that’s a good many nickels!

So, to begin with, let’s get the name right. It’s not eclipse. (And, please, dear reader, no Jacob-or-Edward jokes.) It’s not three periods. And it’s certainly not dot-dot-dot. It’s the ellipsis. Spread the word.

What the Ellipsis Does (Two Functions)

More important than knowing the name is knowing how to use the ellipsis. Many novice writers overuse this punctuation tool when they should use dashes, commas, parentheses, and even periods. They use it to show a sudden shift in thought (but that should be a dash). They use it to show a short pause (when they should use a comma). They even use it to show the completion of a statement–the very opposite of what an ellipsis represents! (And, for those who don’t know, we show the completion of a statement with the simplest punctuation symbol of them all: the period.)

So, what exactly does the ellipsis do? Essentially, the ellipsis serves two functions:

Ellipsis Function 1: The ellipsis shows a substantial pause of hesitation, one that allows a writer to mimic a hesitation in speech. This hesitation can show uncertainty, irony, humor, and other effects.

A good example is the sentence I wrote a bit earlier:

If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve had this conversation. I would have . . . let me see . . . well, about two dollars. Still, that’s a good many nickels!

The first ellipsis shows that I am rethinking my calculation. The second ellipsis shows that I am hesitating because I do not want to say that the total is (a mere) two dollars. Commas, while they do show pauses, would not show enough of a hesitation to express my uncertainty. Dashes—while they do show spontaneous shifts in thought—would be too sudden and assertive. I need a soft lingering, a moment to beat around the bush and to show embarrassment (even if it’s feigned). That’s the ellipsis!

Ellipsis Function 2: The ellipsis shows an omission of words, usually within a quotation. It says, “There is more here in the original words I am quoting, but I am leaving those words out to save space or to cut to the chase on my point. If you want to see all the words used, please feel free to look at the original source (which, of course, I’ve documented for you in my ‘Works Cited’ section, since I want you to check out the good stuff I’ve been reading and quoting).”

You can also use an ellipsis to show the omission of items from a very long list when you do not need to name all the items in the list to get your point across. Just be careful not to manipulate your omissions so as to change the meaning of the original quote (a subtle linguistic deception we see often in advertising and in the news media). While efficiency and concision are important, stay true to the original writer’s message.

Logically enough, I call this function an ellipsis of omission. It is not a stylistic use of the ellipsis, but one that writers use to stay true to their original texts while saving time and space. Here’s an example of an ellipsis of omission:

First, here is the full text from the 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 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.”

See how that works?

Next Up:

Avoiding Ellipsis Confusion: Placing the Ellipsis in Brackets

This article has discussed the two functions of the ellipsis:

Function 1: show a stylistic hesitation within writing (stylistic ellipsis)

Function 2: show an omission of language from a quotation (ellipsis of omission)

But what happens if these two functions collide? What happens if I am omitting language from a quotation that has preexisting stylistic ellipses? How can I show the reader that some of those ellipses are mine while others are the ellipses of the original writer I’m quoting? The next article explains precisely how to make that differentiation. Stay tuned!

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. 28 Aug. 1963. American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches. 10 July. 2010 <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm&gt;

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: Why Use Them?

Even if they understand its grammatical placement, many of my students overuse the semicolon. They do so because they have just learned how to use the semicolon, so it’s a bright and shiny new toy for them to play with. My students too often have a sense that semicolons look fancier than periods and commas, which leads them to the next false assumption that those who use semicolons must look smarter, in the eyes of readers, than those who just use dull old periods and commas.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The semicolon—although it does have a specialized place in our writing—is nothing special. In addition to the grammatical conditions that allow for it (appearing between two complete sentences), the semicolon also follows some stylistic criteria: the sentences it combines should be closely related such that (1) the two sentences should share a strong—almost inextricable—connection of ideas and (2) that connection is so loud and clear that it does not need to be explained or spelled out with a sentence-combining word like and or because.

These are the stylistic considerations of the semicolon. While many people understand the grammatical considerations, they do not consider the stylistic considerations.

Confused? Some examples will help. Consider the following semicolon combinations. All of the examples are grammatically correct, but not all of them are stylistically fitting. Can you tell which ones are correctly used and which ones are overused? Take a look (and don’t scroll down and cheat!). . . .

1. The summers in New York State are pleasant; the temperature is usually in the high 80s.

2. I enjoy bass fishing while visiting South Carolina; Italian restaurants are good.

3. My colleague Malkiel is our college’s Writing Coordinator; our college has a good library.

4. My seven-month-old son likes to be near me; he’s sleeping next to me as I write this article.

5. I love explaining punctuation; however, I look forward to addressing other writing topics.

Semicolon Answer Key:

1. The summers in New York State are pleasant; the temperature is usually in the high 80s.

This semicolon placement is fitting. The second sentence is a direct clarification of the first sentence—a more specific way of saying the same thing.

2. I enjoy bass fishing while visiting South Carolina; Italian restaurants are good.

This is not an appropriate semicolon placement. There is no direct connection between the idea that “Italian restaurants are good” and the idea that I enjoy bass fishing in South Carolina. This disconnection is a bit obvious (since this sentence is a warm-up), and really these two sentences would not even be adjacent to one another without some connective explanation to bridge the two ideas.

3. My colleague Malkiel is our college’s Writing Coordinator; our college has a good library.

This is not an appropriate semicolon placement, but indeed this one is trickier than the previous example of semicolon overuse. In this example both sentences involve “our college, but beyond that, there is no direct connection between the notion that Malkiel is the Writing Coordinator and the college having a good library. (Now, if I had been writing about how the college has a good writing program, the semicolon would be appropriate.)

4. My seven-month-old son likes to be near me; he’s sleeping next to me as I write this article.

This is an appropriate semicolon placement. The second sentence is evidence of the first sentence. These two sentences go together and are inseparable—just like me and my son.

5. I love explaining punctuation; however, I look forward to addressing other writing topics.

This is an appropriate semicolon placement. Notice the conjunctive adverb however after the semicolon. Recalling my previous article on semicolons, the semicolon can (and in most cases, should) precede a conjunctive adverb to combine two sentences. However, you can follow a period with a conjunctive adverb, as I did in this sentence. Most of the time, though, conjunctive adverbs like however express a close connection between the two sentences, so the semicolon is preferable.

Next Up: The Semicolon Exception

Let’s review the two requirements for placing a semicolon:

Grammatical Requirement: A semicolon combines two complete sentences. If you cannot place a period there, you should not be able to place a semicolon there either–with only one exception. (See below and see the next article.)

Stylistic Requirement: A semicolon’s purpose is to combine two sentences that are closely and inextricably connected such that they should flow together in a grammatical, syntactical sense. If there is no such connection between these two sentences, then they should not be combined with a semicolon.

Now, there is one more grammatical situation that can call for a semicolon, and you might think of that situation as an exception to the grammatical criterion that a semicolon must fall between two complete, standalone sentences. Indeed, there are rare cases where we can place a semicolon to combine non-sentence parts.

Want to learn more about that exception—about the specialized function of the semicolon? (Of course you do!) Click the link below to read on.

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).