A New Paradigm for Understanding Punctuation


Some Components of Language to Understand

         The sentence                S -----> NP       +       VP

                                                  (noun phrase)     (verb phrase)

                                               AV - adverb

                                               AJ – adjective

                                                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 don’t understand the grammar, you can’t 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).

PHONOLOGY (attempts 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.

MORPHOLOGY (relating to word forms)

hyphen         communica-


                    on-line discussion

                    The never-to-be-forgotten word.

capitals          Chicago, George

SYNTAX (sentence-level marks)

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:

                     PHRASE LEVEL

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)



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



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 ___



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

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, _____

Milwaukee, WI

Dear Mary,

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--.!?)


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.