If punctuation marks were people

To play along, imagine yourself in the following scenario.

You’re invited to a party where you don’t know many people even though you realize that you may have already been introduced to at least some of them. As you are alway punctual and predictable, you arrive in plenty of time to mingle. Wearing black slacks and a white shirt, you identify yourself as Mr. or (Ms.) Period. Turning to make your way to the hors d’oeuvres, you accidentally trip over Ms. Comma. Ms. Comma, who seems to be in everyone’s way, comes across as capricious, confusing and clumsy. “Nobody understands me,” she whines.

 After eating a few stuffed mushrooms, you notice a lively conversation going on by the window. A young, inquisitive woman, Ms. Mark, is being introduced by Mr. Colon to an older man. Ms. Mark, (“Question” to her friends), rattles off question after question to the man. Shady Sly Semicolon tries in vain to explain to her his getting a traffic ticket for making a rolling stop on the way to the party. And just then humble Hubert Hyphen intervenes as a kind of middle man.  

 After a short time, you decide the party is just not fun. Being the confident individual that you are, you share that observation with the host and indicate that while all the ingredients for a great party are present, those partygoers who ignore customary party etiquette are tainting an otherwise terrific evening.

If only, you thought as you drive away from the party — if only, there were rules to tell these people how to behave. Then, you conclude — we could all get along. As the minutes pass, you flashback to sixth grade English class. Your memory indicates that some of the students are listening intently, but some are not. Let’s “listen in”:

“. . . and that’s the story of Ms. Comma, Mr. Colon, Sly Semicolon, Ms. Question Mark and Hubert Hypen” the Teacher is saying. Your flashback concludes and you stop the car, open the car door, and the dome light comes on. You shout out loud to no one in particular, “There are rules!”

You decide that the next time you’re invited to such a party, you’ll bring “The CompleteIdiot’s Guide to Grammar and Style,” by Laurie Rozakis, described in an Amazon.com  Editorial Review as “. . . a solid, amusing volume for those who daydreamed through grade school and would like to brush up on the fundamentals.”

Do you remember your sixth grade English class? Why not put your memory to the test. See how many punctuation errors you can find in the following quiz.

1. He wasn’t lacking the skills, what he was lacking was: knowledge of the game.

2. The committee voted to continue the mentoring program, because it was such a success.

3. Jacob said that “Some underdeveloped nations are in the midst of an industrial revolution.”

4. He said that South Carolina appealed to him because of the affability of the people, and the beauty of the scenery.

5. She likes this candy, not that candy, her friend likes both types of candy.

6. Elena asked, “who is the most influential person in your life”?

7. My brother likes pizza! and my sister, likes spaghetti.

8. Several countries participated in the airlift Italy, Belgium, France, and Luxembourg.

9. Reading the newspaper is important it informs while it entertains.

10. The members of the group are committed to the task, their enthusiasm is contagious.


Answers to Punctuation Quiz (Rules are listed after the Answers section)

1. Replace the comma with a semicolon, and remove the colon.

2. Delete the comma before because (because is a subordinating conjunction).

3. The word that indicates this is an indirect or paraphrased quote. Add a comma after said, remove the quotation marks and lowercase some. If this sentence was a direct quote, you would add a comma after said and remove that.

4. The comma before and is unnecessary. There is only one independent clause.

5. Add a comma between candy and not to indicate extreme contrast. Replace thecomma between candy and her with a semicolon.

6. When a quote is a complete sentence, (as is the case in this sentence), capitalize the first word. In this sentence, capitalize who. Put the question mark inside the quotation marks.

7. Replace the exclamation point with a comma to join these two independent clauses. Remove the comma after sister.

8. Add a colon after airlift.

9. This is an example of a run-on sentence, which is a sentence with no punctuation between two independent clauses. It can be corrected by inserting one of the following elements between important and it: a period, a comma with a coordinating conjunction, a subordinating conjunction or a semicolon.

10. Replace the comma with a period. A sentence with a comma but no coordinating conjunction between two independent clauses is called a comma splice.



With space at a premium, let’s review the rules of some of the more problematic punctuation faux pas.

(Ms.) Comma

1. Use commas to separate independent clauses when they are joined by one of the following words (known as coordinating conjunctions): and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet. For example: “I  like to run, and I like to swim.” However, in the example “I like to run and swim,” no comma is needed because there is only one independent clause.

2. Use commas after introductory clauses, phrases, or words that come before the main clause. Don’t put a comma after the main clause when a dependent clause follows it (except for cases of extreme contrast, for example: He said he was not hungry, although he ate four sandwiches).

3. Use commas to set off nonessential clauses, phrases, and words that occur in the middle of a sentence. Use one comma before the nonessential information to indicate the beginning of the pause and one at the end to indicate the end of the pause. To determine if the sentence element is essential, leave out the clause, phrase, or word, to see if the sentence still makes sense. If it does, then the element in question is nonessential and should be set off with commas. Here is an example of a nonessential clause: The girl, who happened to be a member of the club, was late for dinner.

4. Use commas to separate two or more coordinate adjectives that describe the same noun. Coordinate adjectives are adjectives with equal status in describing the noun. You can decide if two adjectives in a row are coordinate by asking the following questions: Does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are written in reverse order? Does the sentence make sense if the adjectives are written with and between them? If you answer “yes” to these  questions, then the adjectives are coordinate and should be separated by a comma. Here are some examples of coordinate and non-coordinate adjectives: She was a difficult, stubborn child (coordinate). They lived in a white frame house (non-coordinate).


(Mr.) Colon


Use a colon after a complete statement in order to introduce one or more directly related ideas, such as a series of directions, a list, or a quotation or other comment illustrating or explaining the statement. For example: The daily newspaper contains four sections: news, sports, entertainment, and classified ads.


(Sly) Semicolon

Use a semicolon when you link two independent clauses with no connecting words. This action should be taken only when the two independent clauses are closely related. For example: The dogs are very dirty. They enjoying running and fetching. (This example does not qualify for a semicolon, but the following example does qualify.) “The dogs are very  dirty; they were playing in the mud.”


(Ms.) Question Mark

When a statement ends in a quotation that is a question, a question mark is placed inside the quotation marks. When a question includes a quoted question, the punctuation of the quotation is dropped, and the correct punctuation for the sentence appears outside of the quotation marks. For example: Did he ask “What time is it”?


(Hubert) Hyphen

1. Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun: oneway street

2. Use a hyphen with compound numbers: forty-six

3. Use a hyphen to avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters: semi-independent (but semiconscious is okay)

4. Use a hyphen with the prefixes ex- (meaning former), self-, all-; with the suffix -elect;  between a prefix and a capitalized word; and with figures or letters, for example, ex-husband, self-motivated, all-inclusive, president-elect, T-shirt, pre-Labor Day.


About robertstevenson

Dr. Robert Stevenson is a Professor of Journalism and Director of Student Publications for the Department of Mass Communications and Theater at Lander University in Greenwood, SC. He received the Distinguished Faculty of the Year award for 2007-'08, and the Lander University Young Faculty Scholar Award in 2005-06. Stevenson also serves as chair of the Lander University American Democracy Project. First and Formost I am a dad of two wonderful boys.
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2 Responses to If punctuation marks were people

  1. Pam says:

    Wow, I did better than I thought. My initial fear of quizzes has worn off and I’m ready for more.

  2. Mike says:

    Great tips. I remember some of them.

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