PUNCTUATION

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Punctuation marks are like traffic lights telling us to slow down and stop. Despite the common belief that life would be better without them, it is also a fact that there is no reliable way of communicating meaning without them. Punctuation has thus been created not to torture writers but to help readers understand better and to avoid ambiguities, such as the following:

 

        A woman without her man is nothing

 

There are two possible ways of interpreting this sentence:

1.     A woman, without her man, is nothing.

2.     A woman; without her, man is nothing.

 

Since language is a living thing, punctuation marks and usages also change in time. While new ones emerge (e.g. @), some usages of some marks are left out (e.g. apostrophe in 1999's can be eliminated as in 1999s). There are also many useful websites and reference books (listed below) available for the curious reader. What we would like to do here is to go over the typical punctuation mistakes of Turkish students and explain the rules for some punctuation marks.

 

Websites:

 

http://owl.english.purdue.edu/handouts/grammar/index.html#punctuation

 

http://ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/marks/marks.htm

 

Reference books:

 

Crystal David, Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Stank William and E. B. White, The Elements of Style, fourth edition, Longman, 2000.

 

Typical Punctuation Mistakes of Turkish Students

 

A.     FULL STOP

1.     One of the commonest mistakes of Turkish students is using full stop before conjunctions such as but, yet, and, so, while, because:

                X The child started crying. Because he lost his toy.

        Instead it should read:

The child started crying because he lost his toy.

 

B.     COMMA

1.     This leads us to another common mistake: Forgetting to use a comma when two sentences are combined by using conjunctions like if, when, while (When these conjunctions are used at the beginning of the sentences.):

X When they learned that the school was off all the students shouted with joy.

When they learned that the school was off, all the students shouted with joy.

 

X If I had known how to write better I would have been accepted for the masters program.

If I had known how to write better, I would have been accepted for the masters program.

 

        Remember: A cat has claws at the ends of its paws

                        A comma’s a pause at the end of a clause

 

2.     Using commas in the wrong place may lead to ambiguities:

        Go get him, surgeons!

        Go, get him surgeons!

 

3.     Another typical mistake about commas is made while making lists. Instead of using commas between all the items in lists, "and" should be in place of the last comma:

X Today, I bought two loaves of bread, one pack of chocolate, two kilograms of tomatoes.         

Today, I bought two loaves of bread, one pack of chocolate and two kilograms of tomatoes.

Today, I bought two loaves of bread, one pack of chocolate, and two kilograms of tomatoes. (This last comma is called "oxford comma" and is used since 1943. Another typical mistake may be thinking that oxford comma is wrong because having both a comma and "and" is grammatically incorrect in Turkish language. However, both versions are correct in English.)

       

4.     Forgetting to use a comma before direct speech is another mistake:

                X  The doctor said "You need to take these pills two times a day."

                The doctor said, "You need to take these pills two times a day."

 

5.     A typical punctuation mistake can be observed in relative clauses:

        a) using commas although the clause is defining,                           

        b) forgetting commas although the clause is non-defining.

                  The Golden Retrievers which live in our street are cute.

  The Golden Retrievers, which are quite big dogs, are hard to look after in an apartment.

Here, there is no need to mention that Golden Retrievers are quite big dogs because it is common knowledge, so the clause is non-defining and goes between commas. The difference is more striking in the following example:

 

        a) The students who were tired sat down.

        b) The students, who were tired, sat down.

 

In a), all the students were tired and they all sat down; however, in b) only the students who were tired sat down while the rest were most probably up.

 

C.     APOSTROPHE

        1.     One typical mistake is forgetting to use apostrophe where necessary;

                in possessives:

                         X mens toilet

                          men's toilet

 

                         X girls dress

  girl's dress

 

                         X childrens toys

                          children's toys

 

                         X babies diapers

                          babies' diapers

               

when indicating time:

                         X two months time

                          two months' time

 

2.     Although contraction is not advised in formal writing, the mistake is worth mentioning. The contraction of "it is" or "it has" is "it's", and "its" is a possessive.

                  It's time to start worrying.

                  The cat licked its tail and started running.

 

D.     SEMICOLON

1.     A semicolon tells you that there is still some question about the preceding full sentence; something needs to be added. After semicolon, the new sentence begins with a small letter:

My husband watches TV in a desultory kind of way; he finds there is not much on.

 

E.     COLON     

1.     A colon introduces the part of a sentence that exemplifies, restates, elaborates, or explains the preceding part. After colon, the new sentence begins with a capital letter:

The woman burst into tears: The police had told her that they could not find her husband.

 

F.      QUESTION MARK

                The common mistake while using question mark is forgetting to use it:

        1.     at the end of questions:

                          Are you OK?

 

2.     in direct speech between quotation marks where the quoted part is a question:

                          The taxi-driver asked, "Are you talking to me?"

 

G.     DOUBLE / SINGLE QUOTATION

1.     Double quotation is generally used for quotations, and single quotation for emphasizing things. The mistake that students generally make is using a mixed type. It is important to be consistent throughout the writing.

One might dare to say, "Full stop is the 'lumpen male' of the punctuation world - do one job at a time; do it well; forget about it instantly." 

        2.     It is also equally important to close the quotations.

X One might dare to say, "Full stop is the 'lumpen male' of the punctuation world - do one job at a time; do it well; forget about it instantly.

 

H.     ELLIPSIS

Ellipsis is not favoured in formal writing since it is important to be exact and clear for the reader to understand.

X There are some ways to overcome exam anxiety: To study in a planned way, to have a good night's sleep,....

There are some ways to overcome exam anxiety: To study in a planned way, to have a good night's sleep, and to avoid people who think negatively about exams.

 

 

Lastly

A panda walks into a cafe. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air. "Why?" asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife manual and tosses it over his shoulder. "I'm a panda," he says, at the door. "Look it up." The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation. "Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots* and leaves."

 

 

(*)    shoot as a noun means 'new growth of a plant'; pandas eat shoots and leaves (plural of ‘leaf’). The correct version should read “Eats shoots and leaves.” This joke is taken from Truss, L., 2003, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, Profile Books.  

 

Written by Oya Ozagac, May 2004