A New Paradigm for Understanding Punctuation
Some Components of Language to Understand
(noun phrase) (verb phrase)
AV - adverb
PP prepositional phrase
rel cl relative clause
Most schemes for describing punctuation offer you a set of rules, rules which often relate to some unidentified grammar, and tell you how to use punctuation in relation to that grammar. But if you dont understand the grammar, you cant understand the reason for the rules. A lot of punctuation, in fact, does not deal with grammar at all.
Punctuation might be better understood if it is related to the categories used in linguistics. Each of the following categories is represented in the language by certain punctuation marks.
phonology --- the sounds of the language in speech
(letters --- the written symbols in writing)
morphology --- the meaningful units (such as words)
syntax --- the sentence structures and patterns
semantics --- the meaning represented by the above
Here are a few examples to demonstrate how each category is represented. The categories could be extended to include other marks of punctuation. Keep in mind that spaces are also punctuation. Also, the various marks convey different meanings. When you change marks, you change meaning. A few marks are used in several categories (the semicolon and colon, for example, which are used within or between sentences, along with capital letters).
to imitate speech)
apostrophe can't, don't, won't
italics "Get the red one, not the blue one.
quotation marks Charlie said, "It's time to go."
The word "onomatopoeia" is unusual.
to word forms)
The never-to-be-forgotten word.
capitals Chicago, George
starting Capital letters to start.
end punctuation Look at the end.
Look at the end?
Look at the end!
A few marks work within or between sentences:
semicolon Start an idea here; put a related one here.
(sometimes replaces comma + and)
colon It has three colors: red, white, and blue.
Harry lost his coat: He suffered for it.
(brackets, parentheses, dashes work within sentences)
SEMANTIC LEVEL (within phrases or sentences)
When we change or alter meaning by adding to a concept, that is called "modification." Modification often changes the number of items we perceive the writer to be talking about. When I say the "house," there is only one in our context. When I say the "green house," the house is now being sorted out from the other houses around that are there by implication.
All commas are devices for preventing modification. They work within sentences.
We could call them "antimodification devices" or AMDs.
There are a number of situations in which we can see commas doing this:
in a row of modifiers in a NP
the first AJ modifies the second AJ AJ N
each AJ modifies the N separately AJ , AJ N
with interrupting words (or phrases)
introductory adverbial AV , S
interrupting adverbial NP , AV , VP
in other than normal word order
the prep. phrase in normal position S PP
the prep. phrase in front position PP , S
(participial phrases, absolutes, appositives work similarly and are usually found next to the concept they relate to
but isolated from the rest of the sentence with paired commas or a comma and some other mark)
SENTENCE OR CLAUSE LEVEL
the subord S in the normal position S sub S
the subord S in front position sub S , S
modifying relative clause NP rel cl VP
nonmodifying relative clause NP , rel cl , VP
SPECIAL SITUATIONS WITHIN SENTENCES
The coordinator is sometimes used with a comma to distinguish it from situations which are ordinary word or phrase coordination. The comma and coordinator should be seen as a unit, a special signal, when used this way [ , and ]. There are only three situations in which this signal appears:
coordinated sentences S , and S
special parenthetical ___ , and . . . , ___
regular series ___ , ___ , and ___
FIGURATIVE VARIATIONS ON THE REGULAR SERIES
Sometimes, language is distorted for the purpose of calling attention to it, emphasizing something, or for creating some effect. Punctuation can also be used in this way. The ordinary series can be altered, for example, to create a sense of brevity or to emphasize the units.
asyndeton (no coordinator)
_____, _____, _____
polysyndeton (many coordinators and no commas)
_____ and _____ and _____
complex series (semicolons replace the commas that are demarking units)
A, B, and C; D and E; and F, G, and H
SOME QUESTIONABLE COMMAS
Some commas seem to be used as conventions, such as those found in business letters, but they might also be understood as AMDs:
November 24, _____
Frank said, "Get well."
John Smith, MD
SOME TROUBLESOME SITUATIONS
Occasionally, writers will use a punctuation mark in such a way that it sends the wrong message about the unit of language.
This can happen on the sentence level or within phrases.
COMMA SPLICE, COMMA FAULT
a single comma can't separate two sentences * S , S
(use a comma + and, a semicolon, a colon,
or some sentence punctuation--.!?)
NONMODIFYING RELATIVE CLAUSE
a relative clause usually modifies backwards NP rel cl VP
The man who was eating ice cream kicked the dog.
(There are several men around; the one who was
eating ice cream kicked the dog.)
a relative clause surrounded by commas does not modify backwards
The man, who was eating an ice cream cone, kicked the dog.
(But the commas here prevent the clause from modifying;
instead, the commas act like parentheses and alter
the meaning of the relative clause; there is only ONE man around.)
fragments are usually caused by improper punctuation
(a phrase or clause is improperly punctuated
away from the sentence of which it is a part)
* John ran. Because Harry walked. (subordinate clause)
* Harry ate breakfast. In the morning. (prep. phrase)
paradigm copyright ©Albert E. Krahn 1996.