It allows the reader to glide through a piece of prose naturally. Poor punctuation bogs down a reader. It confuses and can deaden a lively experience: It grates on the soul.
Fixing common punctuation mistakes does not take a doctorate, although many might argue that the whole murky endeavor is best left to nerdy copyeditors and grammarians.
The rules of punctuation are complex. However, even without knowing them, it is possible to tell when a comma or period is needed by reading S-L-O-W-L-Y out loud with a great deal of expression.
How do writers know when they reach the end of a complete thought? When reading out loud, a writer’s voice will naturally drop down in volume and pitch at the end. At that point, it is best to stop and pencil in a period. The buck stops with a period. Periods are like traffic cops. They tell the reader to stop right here.
Commas can work like parentheses and dashes. They can work in pairs to offset a phrase that, while important, is unnecessary to the flow of the sentence. While each of these pairs of punctuation can work in the same way, each kind adds a different level of “volume.”
Dashes in pairs add a shout to a sentence. They – like hot peppers – are best used sparingly. That’s because readers don’t like to be yelled at.
Parentheses add a whisper (call it a secret) to a sentence. Yet, like dashes, they can grow tiresome, similar to the insistent tug of a child who wants to leave.
A pair of commas adds a nearly invisible aside, like this, to a sentence. Notice how transparent the commas are in that sentence. They interrupt quietly, without drawing attention to themselves or the phrase they contain. They’re polite, unassuming, like a genteel relative.
A second common use of the comma has to do with time-bound phrases called conditional, dependent or subordinate clauses.
If a sentence begins with the word “if,” then a comma will be needed just before the word “then.” That sentence shows it.
Whenever a sentence begins this way, a single comma will be needed in the middle of it. If a sentence begins by setting up conditions, the comma is placed just before the heart of the sentence. That is yet another example of the conditional clause.
Forgive me, Dear Reader, for I am about to sin. Run-on sentences stuff two or more complete thoughts between a single capital letter and period it is just awful to read them. What a train wreck. They evoke seasickness in the reader. They’re like really bad dates who never stop talking long enough for either party to breathe.
There are three common types of run-on sentences and four simple ways to fix them. The fixes, happily, are powerful sentence constructions in their own right.
Here’s one: Complete thought complete thought. Simply break up that baby into two sentences. Complete thought. Complete thought. Done.
The next type of run-on may be harder to spot: Complete thought, complete thought. Remember: Commas don’t separate complete thoughts. Periods do. Exchange the comma for a period, and where two ideas leaned against each other wobbling unsteadily on the dock, two sturdy sentences will be firmly anchored.
The last type of run-on is the easiest to fix but may be the hardest to spot: Complete thought and complete thought. That “and” in the middle could easily be switched with “or,” “but,” “yet,” “so” or “nor.” Simply add a comma before the conjunction, and the sentence will now work like a well-oiled machine. Complete thought, and complete thought.
Hmm, that was three types of run-ons but just two fixes. It was not a ruse: There are two more excellent ways to fix run-ons. However, they require the introduction of, horrors, the colon and the semicolon.
In its Zen way, the semicolon both separates and connects thoughts. It’s a great catalyst and networker. Like the period, it can be tossed in between complete thoughts. It works particularly well when the thoughts are closely linked; notice how it works here. Some people like to use semicolons; others prefer periods. It’s seamless, yet adds space; the semicolon is nearly ethereal.
Perhaps because of its unfortunate name, the colon is a sadly misunderstood and underused punctuation mark: It deserves better. In fact, colons make great messengers. They come in on horseback and bring trumpets and drum rolls heralding important news from far away.
A colon placed between two complete thoughts adds punch to the second thought. It works like the lights on the marquis of a movie theater, adding drama to whatever comes next. Therefore, the colon is best used when the second thought is more important than the first.
A word to the wise: Never use exclamation points in formal writing! They're like pompous generals who are in love with themselves.
How to end a column about punctuation?
A period might be the best choice, but an ellipsis is ever so tempting. It beckons with a Mona Lisa smile and trails off like an attractive stranger across the room, holding out promise and mystery. . .