Commas, Apostrophes, Plurals, Oh My! Punctuation as Road Signs

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Commas, Apostrophes, Plurals, Oh My!

Punctuation as Road Signs

(along that yellow brick road)

Comma. A yield sign, not to bring you to a screeching halt, but to signal you to look carefully around, maybe for an explanation, a list, or an identification of something.

Period. A stop sign. Main clause or sentence is complete. The main clause or sentence has a subject and verb.

Semi-colon. Another stop sign. But the use of a semi-colon instead of a comma signals that the two complete sentences (or main clauses) have a lot to do with one another.

Colon. A “what’s ahead” or “more to come” signal. You already know the road may narrow, but this sign tells you more about it. In fact, think of it as an equal sign = . It almost looks like one.

The Almost All You’ll Ever Need to Know List

Use a comma after an introductory element in a sentence, as in

As I was telling Grandpa, dinner is ready. Or…

Let’s eat, Grandpa. Try that without the comma.

Use commas to separate items in a list, as in

Dinner is ready for Grandpa, Grandma, Aunt Vespasia, and me.

And don’t forget that last comma.

Use commas around an appositive (that’s a further identification of what you’re talking about) – as in

Grandpa, the man who looks like Clark Gable, is about to eat dinner. Try that without the comma after Gable. Who are you talking to, me or Grandpa? And who is at the dinner table?

Don’t EVER use a comma to separate subject from verb in a sentence. In fact, don’t separate any main sentence elements with a comma.

No place so close, can take you so far.

Credit Fran Brolley for removing the offending comma. Why? Subject is “place” and verb is “can take.”

Don’ t make a poor little comma (yield sign) do all the work of separating two complete sentences. Use a period or a semi colon (stop sign) instead.

This place is close, it can take me far.

Why? The part on either side of the comma has its own subject and verb.

Commas and Plurals: What did you say?

These little squiggles really make a difference. Watch this:

The cat’s out of the bag. Not a very nice thing to do to a cat, but it was probably her idea. The sentence says the cat IS out of the bag. Apostrophes often tell us something was deliberately omitted.

The cat’s bag is full. We have one cat, and she owns a bag, until we get tired of stepping over it.

The cats’ bag is full. How many cats own this bag? Is there enough room in it for all of them?

The cat’s are out of the bag. Oh-oh. Don’t do this. Just walk past those simple plurals with your apostrophe dispenser, but don’t give in to the temptation to pepper your words with apostrophes just because the words end in s.

From the enormously clever Debbie Ridpath Ohi at Inkygirl

Those devilish sound-alikes.

Test them!

They’re – same as “they are.”

There—Where? Location, location, location.

Their—shows possession—same as “his” or “her.” As in

It’s their problem.

Would this make sense with either of the other two spellings? Try

It’s there (over there) problem.

It’s they are problem.

Whose—shows possession.

Who’s—same as “who is.”

Its—same as “his” or “hers”

It’s—same as “It is.”

Who’s the student whose rental book wasn’t returned? The book has lost its sticker and it’s a mystery.

Your—Use this just as you would use “my.”

Yours—Leave this poor word alone. Don’t you dare put an apostrophe in it.

You’re=You are

That’s my book, not your book. You’re mistaken if you think it’s yours.

Our’s—Just kidding. As the farmer said in the old joke, “There ain’t no such animal.”

Quotation marks and other bad habits

If you repeat the words of someone else or use a word or phrase that is ironic or non-standard in some way, you should use quotation marks. Always use the conventional double quotes. Use single quotes for a quote within a quote.

She said, “I love the poem ‘Xanadu,’ by Coleridge.”

Don’t use quotes for emphasis, as in

And speaking of bad habits (this is completely off the stated subject of this session, but I can’t help myself),

Do you ever start a sentence with “Me….”?

Me and my sister went out to dinner last night.

Do you ever say “lay” when you mean “lie”?

I’m going to lay down for a nap.
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