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Pesky Punctuation: Terminal Punctuation

As I mentioned in my last post, punctuation helps give meaning to your words and imposes coherence and structure to a work. Improper punctuation is an issue I see across all genres and with authors at every stage of their career, so this series focuses on teaching proper punctuation through the lens of grammar and syntax. (If you missed the first in the series, Pesky Punctuation: Usage and Clauses, I suggest going back to read it now as I will be using terms defined there.)

This week, I will be covering the most obvious use of punctuation: to mark the end of sentences. This is done with either with a period, or exclamation or question mark. These are important as they help to convey tone and meaning, as well as tell the reader when an idea or speech has been terminated. This is why they are commonly called terminal punctuation. Every sentence (with few exceptions related to dialogue to be explored later in this series) will end with a terminal punctuation mark.

Let’s take a look at proper use (and misuse) of each in turn.

Periods

Periods are the most common form of terminal punctuation, and end imperative (a request or demand) or declarative (a statement) sentences.

Imperative: “Please get the dog’s bow tie.”

Declarative: “The dog wore their special holiday bow tie.”

Misuse of the period comes with sentence fragments, which should only be used on occasion and for emphasis. For example, an acceptable sentence fragment would be: “The dog wore their special holiday bow tie. So cute.”

A bad fragment results from separating independent and dependent clauses. Following the above example, a bad fragment would be: “The dog looked so cute. Because they were wearing their special holiday bow tie.” In this case, the sentence is easily fixed by removing the period and rejoining the dependent and independent clauses: “The dog looked so cute because they were wearing their special holiday bow tie.”

Other sentence fragments are a result of a sentence lacking either a subject or a verb. However, in terms of punctuation, it is incorrectly placing the terminal punctuation mark which results in the fragment.

Question Marks

As you may have guessed, question marks indicate when a direct question is being asked. (“Where is the dog’s holiday bow tie?”) However, many add a question mark at the end of indirect questions, one-word interrogatives, and requests phrased as questions, which instead should take a period.

Indirect Questions: We most often use these when trying to be polite. “Could you tell me where the dog park is.” Or “Do you know when the bus will arrive.” In prose, you may come across indirect questions in the exposition/narrative. For example, “How the dog undid its bow tie was the question on everyone’s mind.” is an example of an indirect question, and we can imagine it leading into an exploration into how the dog lost its holiday attire.

One-Word Interrogatives: “Why. Why must you dress up the dog?” The final sentence takes a question mark because it is a direct question. Even though the first “why” is also asking a question, it take a period instead since the interrogation consists of only one word.

Requests as Questions: “Will you please get the dog’s food by Friday.” It may seem passive-aggressive to some, but we often phrase our requests as questions. As “will you…” feels like a question is being asked it is natural to want to close it with a question mark but as the speaker is not leaving any room for debate, and is rather really telling the other what to do, then it takes a period instead.

Exclamation Marks

Many, myself included, are guilty of sometimes overusing the exclamation mark. Although it may be fun to convey how excited you are about something with multiple exclamation marks (yay!!!!!), in anything other than informal communication it is most effective when used sparingly.

Exclamation points mark an emphatic (stressing the point) or ironic (coveys the opposite meaning) comment, or an outcry. In addition, direct questions can be made rhetorical when using an exclamation instead of a question mark.

Emphatic: Show how excited or earnest the speaker/narrator is by adding an exclamation point. For example, “I really love the dog’s bow tie!”

Ironic: It may help if you think of an ironic statement as showing shock or surprise, such as: “How can you think that!” They also come across as rather sarcastic, as when we use sarcasm we are typically saying the opposite of what we actually mean: “I’m so happy it’s snowing again!” 

Outcry: This one is pretty self-explanatory: “Hey!”, “Help!”, “Watch out!”

Direct to Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question is asked when the speaker doesn’t really want, or expect, an answer. If someone asks another directly “Can you shut the door?” a question mark ends the sentence. However, if they are perhaps frustrated at the person’s inability to close doors behind them, adding an exclamation point makes it rhetorical: “Can you shut the door!”

Most people use exclamation marks to convey excitement, but be aware when overuse can come across as arrogant or mean—it all depends on the tone you want to convey to readers.

Special Considerations

When paired with brackets or quotation marks, there are a few considerations to take with terminal punctuation.

First, periods and question marks can be placed both within and without brackets, depending whether or not they are full sentences. If using brackets to add information—“The dog was wearing its special holiday bow tie (which was red plaid) for the picture.”—the terminal marks goes where it always does: at the end. If you separated these and made two complete sentences, however, the mark goes within the brackets: “The dog was wearing its special holiday bow tie for the picture. (The bow tie was a red plaid.)” Less often, the parenthetical comment may include two sentences. In this case, the first sentence still gets a terminal mark, although the second does not.

Most of the time, terminal punctuation marks go within quotation marks. (“Where did you get the dog’s bow tie?”) However, if you are quoting material and it does not have terminal mark on its own, the mark goes outside the quotation mark: What did MLK mean by “I have a dream”? This is most common in academic, informative work.

Note that the UK has different rules when it comes to terminal punctuation in relation to these concerns. The University of Sussex has an in-depth guide should you wish to know more.

Next time we’ll be delving into joining independent clauses, featuring everyone’s nemesis: the comma.

Until then, Happy Writing!

Jennifer

Resources

1. The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 3rd Ed.

2. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Ed.