Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Take Pause

by Annette Lyon

Below are five sentences missing the punctuation marks that add pauses in the sentence. (They do other things as well, of course.)

Each sentence is missing at least one (often several) of the following: commas, semicolons, colons, and em dashes. See if you can figure out which punctuation marks go where.

1. It’s almost six there’s no way we’ll make it before dinner.

2. The guys at work Tom Joe and Alan play golf each Thursday.

3. Today Karen had to do all of the following pick up the beef, potatoes, and onions for the stew drop off the dry cleaning videos and UPS package and mow the lawn.

4. She was born on March 27 1963 in Las Vegas Nevada.

5. To be honest that haircut is atrocious Julie.


The answers:

1. It’s almost six there’s no way we’ll make it before dinner.
What we have here is two sentences stuck together without any punctuation. The most common (wrong) way writers try to fix this is by tucking a comma between the two thoughts. Don't. Unless you can add a conjunction (like but or and, which you can't, because we're just adding punctuation), you need a semicolon:

Correct version:
It’s almost six; there’s no way we’ll make it before dinner.


2. The guys at work Tom Joe and Alan play golf each Thursday.
Technically there are two correct answers here, depending on the preference and style guide of who you're talking to or writing for. Obviously we need commas. The question is whether you need one before the and. I prefer using it, but it's optional. In addition, we need em dashes to set apart the guys' names. We've already identified them as the "guys as work," so the em dashes help to break it up and clarify that we're getting even more specific.

Correct version:
The guys at work—Tom, Joe, and Alan—play golf each Thursday.


3. Today Karen had to do all of the following pick up the beef potatoes and onions for the stew drop off the dry cleaning videos and UPS package and mow the lawn.
In most series (such as #2) you need only commas to separate the items. But here we have entire items that need commas, so you need something else to separate the individual pieces of the series: a semicolon. In this case, we also need a colon before the list:

Correct version:
Today Karen had to do all of the following: pick up the beef, potatoes, and onions for the stew; drop off the dry cleaning, videos, and UPS package; and mow the lawn.

4. She was born on March 27 1963 in Las Vegas Nevada.
Dates need to be separated by a comma between the day and the year. If the date is mid-sentence, you need a comma after it as well. Cities and states also need a comma:

Correct version:
She was born on March 27, 1963, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

5. To be honest that haircut is atrocious Julie.
Add a comma after introductory phrases where there is a natural pause ("to be honest") and before a name when you're addressing the person. (Without the comma before "Julie," this sentence implies that the hair cut might be termed an "atrocious Julie." Interesting name for a cut, but most likely not what the writer is going for!)

Correct version:
To be honest, that haircut is atrocious, Julie.


How did you do? If you missed several, dust off your punctuation rules and review them. Punctuation marks—especially ones that add a pause, like the ones above—are like signposts for your readers. With them, readers glide through your work. Without them, readers bump and jolt their way through your sentences.

3 comments:

Josi said...

I got #1,4, & 5 right, and got parts of #2 and 3 right as well. But I certainly didn't get them all, or as many as I should have. I'm not sure I have any grammar skills to dust off, however. Can I borrow yours? Like, next week?

Heather B. Moore said...

Okay, I got 4 out of 5 right. But one of them was pure luck. LOL.

Anonymous said...

Would it be bragging to say I got them all right?