Jennifer Dinsmore Editorial
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Pesky Punctuation: Usage & Clauses

When it comes to clear and effective communication, punctuation plays a much more important role than we give credit. As many of us communicate largely through text message it has become a trend to not punctuate them at all, or to infer different meanings based on the punctuation used by the sender, as this article points out.

But proper punctuation is much more than knowing to end sentences with a period and placing commas in the correct spot (don’t worry, we’ll cover that too!). Punctuation helps give meaning and context to your words, as well as helps to impose coherence and structure.

Did you know there are actually two types, or styles, when it comes to punctuation? They are closed (think dead-white-guy authors who loved using semicolons and commas) and open (a movement away from this, favouring using as few marks as possible). Open punctuation is a little more subjective, as some writers carefully choose to use specific marks to help slow or speed up pace and rhythm. Others may simply not like the look of too many punctuation marks, and so choose to use as little as possible to avoid their prose looking cluttered.

Either way, punctuation mistakes are something I commonly see in client work. I, too, struggled for a long time over proper comma placement, when to use semicolons over a colon (can we all agree they are a necessary evil?), or if a dash or parentheses was more appropriate. And it wasn’t until recently that I figured out why: most reference works will simply list each punctuation type and give a set of rules for their usage. This is great, but if you fail to fully understand grammar and syntax, you’ll eventually run into problems.

All editorial style guides focus on teaching proper punctuation according to syntax and grammar. This approach is less subjective, but a good editor will above all focus on clarity of the work, no matter the author’s preference. And to first break the rules, it helps to have a good grasp of what they are.

So, if you frequently agonize over commas, hate semicolons, or simply want to brush up on your elementary school lessons, this Pesky Punctuation series is for you!

Grammatical Units

Let’s start at the very beginning (it’s such a good place to start!) and recall some basic grammatical units that will assist in better understanding punctuation:

Subject: The subject of a sentence is always the “doer” of the verb.

For example, take the rather simple statement “The dog ran”. As the dog is “doing” the running (a verb) it is therefore the subject.

Finite Verb: This is a verb (a word which illustrates action or state of being, such as emotion) which is not an infinitive (to be, to run, to laugh), a present particle (being, running, laughing), or a past participle (been, ran, laughed). (I admit this is where I always got lost, as what the heck is a finite verb then?!) Finite verbs are verbs which have a subject, either implied or expressed, and functions as the root of an independent clause (which is explained below).

Let’s go back to our dog. It’s running around willy nilly, so someone may say “The dog will have to be trained well.” There are a few verbs in this sentence, but the finite one is “will”. This is because it forms the root of the clause, and implies what the subject of the sentence (our dog) has to do. (“Needs” would also work as an expressed form of the finite verb.)

Clause: As you may be able to infer from the above, a clause is a group of related words that contains both a subject and a finite verb. And if you can recall your early grammar lessons, there are two types of clauses: independent and dependent. Independent Clauses stand alone as a complete sentence, while (you guessed it!) Dependent Clauses cannot stand alone as a complete sentence.

For example, “The dog ran, tongue lolling as he tried to catch the squirrel” has both. The independent clause is “The dog ran”. It tells us what we need to know in the most basic of terms and is itself a complete sentence. But, if we were to take that part away and leave the rest, it leads to confusion. Who or what is doing the action? What action are they taking? This is because it depends on the first part of the sentence to convey meaning.

In addition, Dependent Clauses can be Restrictive, which are essential to the overall meaning of the sentence, or Non-Restrictive, which are not essential to the overall meaning and could be deleted without causing confusion. In the example above, our dependent clause in non-restrictive. (These I will explore more in the coming weeks.)

Phrases: There are many type of phrases and they typically cannot stand alone, but at its most basic it refers to a group of related words that do not contain both a subject and a finite verb. In common usage, they often carry idiomatic meaning. For example, “Kick the bucket.”

Uses of Punctuation

Okay, but what does all the above have to do with punctuation? As we’ll see over the coming weeks, knowing these basic units of grammar will be of great help when deciding where to place your punctuation mark.

But for the time being, we’ll review the three main usages of punctuation:

Usage #1: The most obvious is to mark the end of a sentence, either with a period or exclamation or question mark. These help to convey tone and tell the reader when an idea or speech has been terminated, which is why these marks are commonly called terminal punctuation.

Usage #2: The second use of punctuation is to join independent and dependent clauses in complicated sentences. (Like the comma in my above example for clauses.) These impose clarity and get your point across to readers without causing undue confusion.

Usage #3: The third use of punctuation is to set off phrases within sentences. This can call attention to a certain element or piece of information. Again, there are many types of phrases, and these will be explored more in-depth later, but a quick example of an introductory phrase is “On Tuesdays and Thursdays of every week, I take my dog for a run.”

Over the course of this series I will explore these usages, helping you get rid of your pesky punctuation problems once and for all!

Until then, Happy Writing!


P.S. Don’t miss the next post, Terminal Punctuation.


1. The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 3rd Ed.

2. The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Ed