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Pesky Punctuation: Phrases & Omissions

By now, I hope you are able to use commas, question marks, and colons with more ease. (No? Catch up with the first four posts in the Pesky Punctuation series: Usage & Clauses, Terminal Punctuation, Joining Independent Clauses, and Joining Dependent & Independent Clauses.)

In this last post of the series we’ll look at the final use of punctuation: setting off phrases and indicating omissions. This is seen a lot in dialogue, when speech trails off or a character is interrupted. In more academic works, it is common to see ellipses ( … ) to indicate omissions in quoted material.

Let’s dive in!

SETTING OFF PHRASES

Dashes and commas rule when it comes to setting off phrases within a sentence. There are two types: introductory phrases and interrupters.

Introductory Phrases

Whether or not a comma is used after an introductory word or phrase depends upon two things: grammatical function and length.

Short introductory phrases (two to three words) that act like adverbs—indicating time, place, manner, or degree—do not need a comma, but only if it will not cause readers any confusion. For example, take the following sentences (the introductory phrases are italicized):

At three the parents will arrive to pick up their children.”

Below the mat you will find the spare key.”

There is no question as to when the parents will arrive, or where the key is hidden. That said, it technically wouldn’t be wrong to add a comma after these phrases. But too many commas after short introductory phrases, especially many in a row, risks slowing the pace of a narratives. A comma indicates a pause and too many will make your writing feel clunky and give it a stop-and-start rhythm.

Yet what about when a short introductory phrase does need a comma?  This is done when readers may associate two separate elements as one. For example, in “For Canada Day, Home Hardware will host a sale on barbecues” uses a comma to avoid people misreading “Canada Day Home”. If we were to write “For Canada Day the store will host a sale on barbecues”, a comma would not have to be used.

Of course there is a small caveat to this rule: transitional or sentence adverbs. Transitional adverbs describe an action to be taken and need a comma: “Next, add the dry ingredients and mix well. Then, roll the dough into balls.” Sentence adverbs modify the entire clause which follows and again take a comma: “Fortunately, the event did not have to be cancelled due to the weather.”

It follows then, that most that introductory phrases longer than two or three words do need a comma to help set them off. Theses phrases function as an adverb (“In a small lakeside town in Canada, tourists come every summer to fish and swim.”), as an adjective that modifies the independent clause after the comma (“Of the phone cases available, the OtterBox is the most reliable.”), or when it contains a present or past participle (“Before using the barbeque, make sure the propane tank is full.”).

Interrupters

Interrupters are anything that sets off, and adds to, a sentence by adding extra detail, transition, emphasis, or other commentary. Dashes and commas again reign when it comes to interrupters, but this time they are also joined by parentheses. Which you use depends on how strongly you want to draw attention to the information.

To illustrate, take this sentence: “The dog, wearing their holiday bow tie, sat nicely for the pictures.” Two commas set off the interrupter; its the neutral choice. If you were to remove the middle section, the sentence would still make sense (“The dog sat nicely for the pictures”), but wouldn’t be very exciting!

Now, when we replace the commas with dashes (The dog—wearing their holiday bow tie—sat nicely for the pictures) we are really drawing attention to that bow tie. It seems very important the dog have it on, so use these when you need to force the reader’s attention on a specific detail. Dashes are also useful when the interrupter is long, contain internal punctuation (which helps ease of reading), and when it marks a break in syntax: “The dog wore their holiday bow tie—surely a must for all pet pictures this time of year—and sat nicely for the pictures.” Dashes are also used in dialogue to indicate that speech was cut off mid-sentence.

Finally, let’s use parentheses to mark our interruption: “The dog (wearing their holiday bow tie) sat nicely for the pictures.” Parentheses act the opposite of dashes and work to de-emphasize the phrase. It seems inconsequential if the dog wears it or not. Use these around trivial and unimportant points, or a brief list of examples.

When using punctuation to set off interrupters, ensure the punctuation encloses only the interrupting phrase. (When you can remove the enclosed phrase and have the sentence still make sense, as in the first example, then they have been used correctly.) Also, if an interrupter contains another interrupter be sure to use the different punctuation marks to avoid confusion: “The dog, wearing their holiday bow tie (which was red), sat nicely for the pictures.”

INDICATING OMISSIONS

Punctuation is used to indicate the omission of a word, portions of a word, a letter, or a phrase. The type of punctuation depends on the type of omission:

Dropped letters (Apostrophes): gettin’; rock ’n’ roll

Omission of part of a Word (Em Dash): f— it!; What did you sa—

Abbreviations (Periods): U.S.A., Dr. Smith

Deletion of Words in a Quote (Ellipses): “This book is a tour de force … sure to delight all readers.”

That’s all folks. We’re done our comprehensive series on punctuation! I truly hope this has helped you put your pesky punctuation woes to bed, but I’m happy to answer any questions so comment below.

Happy Writing!

Jennifer

Resources

1. The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 3rd Ed.

2. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Ed