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Comma Sense



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About The Authors

By Richard Lederer and John Shore

Richard Lederer is the author of more than thirty books on the English language, including Anguished English, A Man of My Words, and Word Wizard. His syndicated column, “Looking at Language,” appears in newspapers and magazines nationwide and he is a language commentator on... More

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EXCERPT

Chapter One
 
There are only three ways a sentence can end—
 
With an exclamation point:
 
You won!
 
With a question mark:
 
You won?
 
Or with a period:
 
I know you won, but I’m having trouble believing it.
 
That’s it. Those are your choices. Every sentence that’s not an exclamation or a question must end with a period. And because people are by and large too proud to ask too many questions and too shy to go around hollering all the time, the vast (not the half-vast) majority of sentences are what are called declarative statements—statements that just say something and therefore end in a period.
 
It is difficult to think of any other instance in life in which something as small as the period carries so much clout. It’s a mark so dinky that farsighted fleas court it. Yet virtually any declarative statement—a picturesque description, a mild directive, a thoughtful observation, or a wandering exposition that starts out as if it’s going somewhere specific but about halfway through makes clear enough that if it ever does pull in anywhere, it’ll do so carrying the corpses of whatever readers were unlucky enough to have climbed aboard it in the first place—must stop whenever the period says it’s time.
 
Verily is the period the crosswalk guard of our language.
 
If only there were any famous crosswalk guards, we could use one of them right here as a metaphor for the period. But, of course, most of us never give a thought to those stalwart sedan stoppers except when we’re watching them from inside our cars, feeling weird about how much we, too, want to wear a cop’s hat and a bright orange vest and hold up a big sign stopping all the cars so little kids can be on their scholarly little way.
 
That’s why we resist making crosswalk guards famous: It ticks us off that they have better jobs than we do. Why should they get any more glory? They’ve got their hats, their signs, their cool sashes, their white gloves. That’s enough. Any more, and they’ll feel empowered enough to start shooting out our tires to stop us.
 
No, as a metaphor for the period the crosswalk guard won’t do at all.
 
We need someone small. Someone powerful. Someone who at first seemed to have no potential. Someone with attitude. Someone with finishing power.
 
We need Seabiscuit!
 
He’s small: Sizewise, Seabiscuit was closer to a merry-go-round horse than a stakes-hogging racehorse.
 
He’s powerful: In a much-ballyhooed match race, Seabiscuit spotted the stately War Admiral whole hands and still whipped him.
 
Even equine experts didn’t think that the plucky little horse had any potential: There was a time when Seabiscuit couldn’t be given away. (Just as, in the beginning, no one thought the period would be able to reach the finish line, let alone stop the most puffed up of sentences. The giant, imposing question mark was supposed to be the punctuation leader—and you see how that turned out.)
 
He’s got attitude: Seabiscuit liked to torment his fellow racehorses by always just beating them. (Just as the period seems to enjoy taunting letters and words by letting them think they might have a chance of ending up ahead of it. It’s wrong to behave that way, of course—but sometimes that’s the kind of attitude that makes a winner a winner.)
 
He’s got finishing power. Seabiscuit surged to the finish line first in an awesomely high percentage of his races.
 
And finally, just as Seabiscuit needed a strong and thoughtful rider in order to do his best (Johnny “Red” Pollard and ’Biscuit had a special bond), so the period needs a strong and thoughtful writer to do its best. And that writer is you, friend. So get that foot up in that stirrup, swing that other leg up and over, and let’s show these whippersnapper words how the little boys do it.
 
. A period marks the conclusion of any sentence that doesn’t end with an exclamation point or a question mark:
 
Singing with utmost exuberance and abandon and filling in the music-only parts with dance steps reminiscent of how impossible it was to even walk in disco shoes, Bert delivered a karaoke version of K.C. and the Sunshine Band’s “Get Down Tonight” that was a testimony to what it was about disco in the first place that compelled so many of us to drop out of high school.
 
Today Einstein’s brain is stored in formaldehyde in a jar, in the hopes that future scientists will be able to figure out what exactly they’re supposed to do with a brain in a jar.
 
. In U.S. punctuation, periods always—and we do mean always—go inside quotation marks.
 
They do things backwards in Britain, like driving on the wrong side of the road and serving warm beer and cold toast. But the Brits’ system of placing the period outside quotation marks actually makes more sense. Still, we live in the U.S. of A., so we’ll say it again:
 
. In U.S. punctuation, periods always—and we do mean always—go inside quotation marks:
 
“What I remember,” said Carl as he lay upon his psychotherapist’s couch being suddenly filled with early childhood memories, “is sitting in the middle of the floor of our old family room, wearing those white, plastic, over-the-diaper panty things. It was mortifying to have to sit around  all day, looking like the fuse on a whipped cream bomb.”
 
. Periods belong inside parentheses that enclose a freestanding sentence and outside parentheses that enclose material that is not a full statement:
 
The new album by the band Bob’s Pock Mark is absolutely superb (bearing in mind, of course, that none of the band’s members can sing or play any instruments). The guys in the band say that they’re proud of songs such as “Love Backwards Is Evolve, Almost” and “Feed Me” because they’re socially galvanizing, radically artistic messages. (They can be also be played on a haircomb.)
 
. Periods are also used with numbers, abbreviations, and initials:
 
1.  Mr. E. Z. Rider
 
2.  Ms. Q. T. Pie
 
3.  Dr. M. T. Handed
 
4.  Prof. I. V. Leaguer, Ph.D.
 
There. That’s it. You’re done. You now know everything there is to know about the period. Period. End of sentence.
 
Copyright © 2005 by Richard Lederer and John Shore. All Rights Reserved.
 
 
 
 

 

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