Writing for Business and Pleasure
Copyright by Stephen Wilbers
www.wilbers.com

Frequently Asked Questions Concerning Punctuation*

*References are to The Gregg Reference Manual by William Sabin

1. Should I use a comma before and in a series?

It’s your choice. Most business writers prefer to use the “serial comma” before and in a series of three or more items. For example, “I like carrots, broccoli, and succotash.” Most newspapers, however, omit the comma before and. Whatever your preference, be consistent. Also, be sure to use the style of the publication or organization for which you are writing. (Rule 162, p. 35; also, see The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual, p. 269.)

2. Should I use a comma when the conjunction and joins two clauses in a sentence?

Use a comma when and joins two clauses consisting of two subjects and two verbs; omit the comma when and joins two verbs that have the same subject. For example, “She wrote the memo, and she sent it,” but “She wrote the memo and sent it.” (Rule123, p. 14). Note: The comma in the first example may be omitted when the clauses are short.

3. When should I use commas with that and which?

Introduce a restrictive or essential clause with that and do not mark it with a comma or commas. For example, “Sally wrote the report that was approved. Susan wrote the report that was rejected.” Introduce a nonrestrictive or nonessential clause with which and mark it with commas. For example, “Sally’s report, which was approved, was the only one considered.” (Rule131, p. 19, and Rule1062, p. 237)

4. Should I use commas before and after the year in a date?

Yes. Use two commas to set off the year when it follows the month and day and the sentence continues, as in “August 15, 1997, was a scorcher.” But note: “August 1997 was an unusually warm month.” (Rule154, p. 33)

5. What is a “comma splice,” why is it a problem, and how can I avoid it?

A “comma splice” occurs when two complete sentences are joined (or spliced together) with a comma rather than with a concluding punctuation mark such as a period or a semicolon. In informal writing such as popular fiction, comma splices are common (especially in dialogue), but in on-the-job writing (business writing, technical writing, legal writing, academic writing, journalism, etc.) they are considered a distracting error. Readers generally want to know where one sentence ends and the next begins. The most common comma splice occurs when the adverb however is mistaken for a conjunction. For example, change “I only wanted to help, however, I hurt his feelings” to “I only wanted to help; however, I hurt his feelings” or to “I only wanted to help, but I hurt his feelings.” When two complete sentences are linked by a transitional expression such as however and therefore, use a semicolon – not a comma – between the sentences; use a comma after the transitional expression. (Rule178, p. 40)

6.  Should I use one space or two after periods and colons?

The trend is to use only one space after these marks, although some style manuals still call for two.  The main thing is to space consistently throughout a document.

In his widely used reference guide, The Gregg Reference Manual, William Sabin calls for two spaces. But in The Mac Is Not a Typewriter, Robin Williams (not the actor) calls for one. The argument for one space is that kerning, or spacing between words, automatically allows for a little extra space after periods and colons.  Note that most e-mail software will transmit only one space anyway (perhaps to minimize transmission time).

Nevertheless, because I think the extra white space opens the text and makes it look more inviting to the reader, my personal preference is for two spaces. I suppose Ill eventually give in and use just one space.

7. Do commas and periods go inside or outside the closing quotation mark?

According to American usage (which differs from the “British style”), commas and periods go inside the closing quotation mark. Other punctuation marks (such as question marks, colons, and semicolons) go inside or outside, depending on whether they are part of the quoted material.

Some writers and language experts argue that commas and periods, when not part of the quoted material, are more logically placed outside the closing quotation mark. Standard American usage, however, is based on the notion that placing commas and periods within the closing quotation mark causes no significant confusion or ambiguity.

Here is how The Chicago Manual of Style (14th ed., pp. 160-61) describes the rationale behind its position:

Periods with Quotation Marks

AMERICAN STYLE

5.11

When a declarative or an imperative sentence is enclosed in quotation marks, the period ending the sentence is, in what may be called the American style, placed inside the closing quotation mark. If the quoted sentence is included within another sentence, its terminal period is omitted or replaced by a comma, as required, unless it comes at the end of the including sentence. In the latter case, a single period serves both sentences and is placed inside the closing quotation mark.

“There is no reason to inform the president.”

“It won’t be necessary to inform the president,” said Emerson.

Emerson replied nervously, “The president doesn’t wish to be informed about such things.”

BRITISH VERSUS AMERICAN STYLE

5.13

The British style of positioning periods and commas in relation to the closing quotation mark is based on the same logic that in the American system governs the placement of question marks and exclamation points; if they belong to the quoted material, they are placed within the closing quotation mark; if they belong to the including sentence as a whole, they are placed after the quotation mark. The British style is strongly advocated by some American language experts. In defense of nearly a century and a half of the American style, however, it may be said that it seems to have been working fairly well and has not resulted in serious miscommunication. Whereas there clearly is some risk with question marks and exclamation points, there seems little likelihood that readers will be misled concerning the period or comma. There may be some risk in such specialized material as textual criticism, but in that case author and editors may take care to avoid the danger by alternative phrasing or by employing, in this exacting field, the exacting British system. In linguistic and philosophical works, specialized terms are regularly punctuated the British way, along with the use of single quotation marks. With these qualifications, the University of Chicago Press continues to recommend the American style for periods and commas.


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