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Rules of Grammar & Punctuation—The Weird, Odd, or Unfamiliar

on February 14th, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on February 23, 2011

We don’t know what we don’t know, and we can’t look up what we don’t know when we don’t know what to look up.

Whew. I think I got that sentence meaning what I intended it to mean.

There are plenty of grammar and punctuation rules that we’re not up on. Unless you’re a true expert, there’s going to be something you don’t know. And when you don’t know something, it’s impossible to look up information about it—if you don’t know what it’s called or what it does, how would you know how to search or even that a search was necessary?

So… This article is a list of the odd or unusual or perhaps unfamiliar rules of grammar and punctuation. I may have covered some of these in other articles, but I thought listing them in one place would be helpful.

I’m sure I’ll add to the list, and I welcome your suggestions.

Unfamiliar Grammar

1.  Compound possession. Do the two entities in your subject share ownership of items or do they each own one of the item?

Bob’s and Kim’s cars are blue.

Bob and Kim’s cars are blue.

In the first case, Bob and Kim do not share ownership of their blue cars. They separately own one or more blue cars. (Or, they each own one or more blue cars and share ownership of another. If such is the case, consider rewriting the sentence to make clear the specifics.)

In the second example, they share ownership of at least two blue cars.

If the possession is shared by the compound subject, use an apostrophe with the second noun to show that shared possession.

If there is no joint ownership—or if they share ownership and independently own at least one of the objects—each noun must use the possessive form.

However

If the compound subject is made up of a noun and a personal pronoun, both the noun and pronoun need to be made possessive.

Todd’s and my house exploded last night.

Otherwise, you’d have a construction such as

Todd and my house exploded last night.

This second sentence could be true, but it doesn’t have the same meaning as the first example, which says that the house that the speaker and Todd co-own exploded. The second example says that the house owned by the speaker exploded and that Todd exploded as well.

2.  Alternative subjects and verb agreement. Subjects can share a verb but not be compound subjects. That is, if they’re not joined by and but are instead joined by or, nor, or but, they are alternative subjects.

Typically, a compound subject requires a plural verb.

Susie and her sisters want to go to the beach.

Her sisters want to go to the beach.

Susie and her sister want to go to the beach.

But, Susie wants to go to the beach.

There is an exception when the compound subject operates as a single subject.

Tea and crumpets is a dream meal for my mother.

The oddity—The verb for subjects connected with or, nor, and but is plural or singular depending on the subject closest to the verb.

Either the man or his sons want to sell the property.

Neither the sons nor the father wants to sell the property.

Not the envelope but the stamps taste awful.

Not the stamps but the envelope tastes awful.

_________________

Unfamiliar Punctuation

1.  Dialogue interrupted by thought or action or description—something other than a dialogue tag—requires specific punctuation, something more than commas.

“Drop your weapon, chump”—my assailant sounded like every B-movie bad guy from the ’40s—”and turn around.”

“The beauty of it”—I was really pouring it on—”is that it works.”

“Truth is”—she reached for a tissue—”I truly loved my husband.”

Enclose the dialogue in quotation marks, without using commas or extra spaces and enclose the interruption (no capital letter) in a pair of em dashes, without spaces between the dashes and the words closest to them. The final punctuation mark, of course, comes before the closing quotation mark.

2.  Digressions, parenthetical statements, commas, and parentheses. Parentheses may be used to set off additional information or a digression in a sentence. The sentence interrupted by parentheses should be grammatically correct if the parenthetical element is removed. Thus…

Belinda stared at the ornate crucifix (the very one Dr. Smithson had sought for the length of his career) and started to cry.

Belinda stared at the ornate crucifix and started to cry.

If a comma is required for the sentence at the same place the parenthetical element is added, put the comma after the final parenthesis.

If a human wanted to own a gnome, he’d need a permit and inoculations.

If a human wanted to own a gnome (and who would want one of those horrid, messy creatures), he’d need a permit and inoculations.

Digressions can also be set off by commas or dashes, resulting in a different emphasis for the digression.

She owned the same funky shoes, only in black, and she’d worn them yesterday.

Tom—the Tom from Banberry’s and not the one from Houston’s Limited—was a rake of the lowest, not highest, order.

Note that a comma is unnecessary when the digression is set off by dashes, even if a comma is required in the sentence without the digression.

Jill, the detective’s daughter, challenged her father’s superiors with the information she’d discovered.

Jill, the detective’s daughter—and an experienced investigator in her own right—challenged her father’s superiors with the information she’d discovered.

2.  Parentheses at the end of a sentence. If the parenthetical phrase (or sentence) comes at the end of a sentence, the terminal punctuation mark remains outside the parentheses.

Daisy’s kids wanted to go to the park (you remember how much they loved Turner’s Point Park).

Expectations of finding the victim were slim since he’d been missing for more than five days (and the killer’d never left anyone alive for more than two).

If the parenthetical is a full sentence or paragraph and not part of another sentence, of course the end punctuation mark is included within the parentheses.

It was true. (Yet, even if it hadn’t been, no one would have known.)

3.  Dialogue abruptly cut off. An em dash is used to cut off dialogue (an ellipsis is used for dialogue that trails off). Only the closing quotation mark follows the dash—no comma, no space, no terminal punctuation marks.

“Rats! I’d always wanted t—”

4.  Comma use for multiple adjectives. Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives (they can be joined by and, or their order can be changed and the sentence still makes sense).

The rude, brilliant man was always unhappy.

The brilliant, rude man was always unhappy.

The rude and brilliant man was always unhappy.

Do not use a comma to separate cumulative adjectives, adjectives that must be used in a specific order for the sentence to make sense.

The long red truck veered into my lane.

The red long truck veered into my lane. X

Do not use a comma when the adjective modifies both the noun and the other adjectives modifying it. (Attached in this example modifies the tattered and battered map.)

The attached tattered and battered map didn’t lead to treasure.

The attached, tattered and battered map didn’t lead to treasure. X

Comma use with descriptive adjectives can also be determined by the class of adjective. The common classes are General, Age, Size, Color, Shape, Material, and Origin. If multiple adjectives are from the same class, separate them with commas. If they’re from separate classes, do not use a comma.

The scarred old man was really a softie. (General & Age)

I plucked the fuzzy green dice from the dashboard. (General & Color)

The elegant, fastidious woman brushed off the crumbs and sneered. (General & General)

The hopeless, broken man fell into the stinky, polluted gutter. (General & General; General & General)

Rover Jr. chased the bouncing red plastic ball right out the door. (General, Color, & Material)

____________________

A writer’s misuse or lack of knowledge about these rules is not likely to keep an agent or publisher from wanting his manuscript, but knowing them, and using them, will help that writer produce a cleaner manuscript.

And why not present your best when you submit your work?

***

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20 Responses to “Rules of Grammar & Punctuation—The Weird, Odd, or Unfamiliar”

  1. Sara Delkirk says:

    Can you give me any suggestions for the use of single quotes– besides their use ‘inside’ a quotation?

    I’d like to use them to add emphasis to single words within text.

    Are there any hard and fast rules?

    Thank you!

  2. Sara, in fiction, at least with American English, there’s really no other use for single quotation marks. (British English may use single and double quotation marks in the reverse, with single for dialogue and doubles for quotations within dialogue.)

    Single quotation marks have quite specific uses—

    quote within a quote (or dialogue), as mentioned here

    in a discussion of linguistics or phonetics, a foreign word is italicized and if the definition follows, that definition is enclosed in single quotation marks

    words with philosophical or theological meaning, when used in articles or books about philosophy or theology, are often put in single quotation marks

    single quotation marks are used in newspaper headlines when quotation marks are required

    —————

    For emphasis in text, use either italics or double quotation marks. Use italics to show shock or to emphasize a word that a speaker might emphasize—He ran all the way to the police station vs. he ran all the way to the police station. You can also use italics to set off non-English words in English text. Use italics for sounds—boom, crack, brrr—if you intend for readers to hear the sounds themselves.

    Use quotation marks, always double, to set off special words, such as words you make up or highly specialized words. You only need to use the quotation marks the first time the word is used in your text. Also use quotation marks to indicate irony or sarcasm.

    Use either italics or quotation marks for words used as words—Marlowe was talking about humidity, but he kept saying “timidity.” Marlowe has trouble with words; he uses weary for wary.

    Quotation marks and italics stand out; they attract the reader’s attention. Use them sparingly so the reader isn’t pulled from the fiction. But do use them. They’re one more method for variety in your fiction.

    I find quotation marks stand out more than italics, so I tend to recommend italics more often. They accomplish their purpose, but they allow the word to blend into the sentence.

    A long answer. I hope this is what you were looking for.

  3. i always search for unusual things. so thanks

  4. Praveen, I like the unusual too. And it’s convenient to have a few of those unusual rules in the same place. Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Kirk Yuras says:

    One of my biggest problems with English is the lack of apparent reasoning. For example, why do we use commas to seperate multiple adjectives from the same class, but not from different classes? If the underlying principle is simplicity/minimalism, why not just strike all commas, save those that are necessary? “Let’s eat Grandma.” is entirely different from “Let’s eat, Grandma.” So we definitely need it there. But even the second sentence could be fixed by the less awkward construction, “Grandma, let’s eat.” (I digress.) Most of the rules in the unusual catagory could be fixed by rearranging the sentence to something more natural. As a general guideline, if I’ve got a sentence that makes my reader stop and wonder about the technicalities of grammar, I probably should change it, regardless of its accuracy.

  6. Kirk, I’m with you on changing a sentence if its construction is going to have a reader pausing. Sometimes a recasting of the sentence is the best way to go. But I also like options and variety, so I don’t want to lock myself or a writer into only a few choices.

    As for the odd rules, many of them make more sense when we see what sentences look like when they’re not followed. And their use is simply a standard so we’re all on the same page. Plus, if we were to keep only those commas that are necessary, who decides which are necessary?

    I’m not sure where all the rules came from, but since many readers understand them, I don’t know how easy it would be to simply toss them. Of course, practices do change, so who knows what changes will see in the near future?

    • Thanks for the thorough reply, Beth. (May I call you Beth?) I should clarify the word ‘necessary’ as it is vague in that context. I meant, “Only those commas where we lose meaning by NOT placing a comma.” For instance, if I said, “May I call you, Beth?” I would’ve meant something entirely different. With that qualifying ‘necessary,’ buying “milk, eggs, bread and, cheese” is as easy as buying “milk eggs bread and cheese.” No meaning lost, just unnecessary commas.

      As for your last question about knowing “what changes we’ll see in the near future,” I’m writing a book with the intention of changing English. This project brought me to your site in the first place. Ironically, I can’t find an editor who’ll touch my new project with a ten foot pole! Ah well, perhaps I should stick to fantasy.

  7. Kirk, you’ve set yourself a formidable goal in trying to change English. It’s not that changes can’t be made, because that happens all the time. But intentional changes by one person who wants to convince millions of others to change? That’s a tough one.

    I’m almost always going to argue for the current use for commas. If their use can make meaning clear for the reader, I’m going to suggest using them. Plus, some readers do read punctuation as easily as words. Can you imagine the trouble they’d have if we did away with punctuation in some situations?

    In your phrase, what if readers see the words milk eggs and think this is some new Easter candy? Or what if they see eggs bread but read egg bread, which is a type of bread? Instead of making the meaning clear, we’ll have muddied it by not letting readers know which words belong together.

    The possibilities are certainly fun to consider, aren’t they? What a challenge an individual could have, working out the mechanics of a new language or revamping an old one. It would be a project to last a ifetime.

  8. In regards to #3 Dialogue abruptly cut off:
    I have heard that if it’s a question or exclamation, those punctuation marks should be included after the em dash.
    “How could he–?”

    Can you clarify this for me?

  9. J M, the short answer is that you can include exclamation points or question marks or omit them. (And they are the only punctuation marks, aside from one specific use of the period, that should precede the em dash.)

    If the sentence is incomplete, that’s a good reason to omit a question mark or exclamation point. If the sentence doesn’t end, why include the terminal punctuation? Who knows where the sentence might have actually gone had it played out?

    If the sentence is interrupted mid-word, as in the example in the article, you would definitely not include a question mark or exclamation point before the em dash.

    However, let’s say you wanted to emphasize that you really are asking a question, even if it’s incomplete. The question mark would work in that instance.

    “Can you just tell me why you—?” She snapped her mouth closed. He wouldn’t tell her why, so why even ask?

    This ultimately comes down to style choice, to the logic of the sentence and those around it, and even to the look of the punctuation within the sentence.

    But if you are cutting off words or allowing them to trail off, you really aren’t finishing a sentence and most of the time you won’t include a terminal punctuation mark. The em dash and ellipsis serve to replace what isn’t there.

  10. Can someone please tell me how to punctuate these sentences? It’s driving me crazy.
    We exchanged handshakes and nice to meet you’s with Chris.
    When you have small quotes that are not-quite-sentences within a sentence, how do you punctuate them? Would it be “nice to meet you”s, (italics)nice to meet you(end italics)s, nice-to-meet-you’s, or something else entirely? Here’s another; this is more a case of grammar confusion.
    Mine and Sebastian’s daily lives have consisted mostly of going to school, doing homework, and working.
    The speaker and Sebastian do not live the same lives, but “Sebastian’s and my daily lives” makes it sound like the speaker is living multiple lives (which is a little too woo-woo for me).

  11. Good questions, Trent. Let’s look at options.

    My first choice—We exchanged handshakes and nice-to-meet-yous with Chris.

    Nice-to-meet-yous is a temporary compound, one made up for the moment, and you’re using it, all the words together, as a noun. The hyphens will make it easy for readers to understand that it’s a single unit.

    You could argue for the use of italics—nice to meet yous—but the hyphens are a standard way to identify a compound word, so there’s really no reason not to use them here. Whichever choice you go with, be consistent throughout your manuscript. (Note that there is no apostrophe in yous. It is plural, not possessive.)

    As for your second question, there is nothing wrong with Sebastian’s and my daily lives, though I understand that it sounds odd. So if you really wanted to use these words, you could rewrite—

    Sebastian’s daily life—and mine as well—consisted mostly . . .

    Our daily lives have consisted mostly of . . .

    Our daily lives, mine and Sebastian’s, have consisted mostly . . .

    Or change daily lives to days and see if that doesn’t work better for you.

    Mine and Sebastian’s daily lives doesn’t work at all. You wouldn’t say mine daily life.

    I hope that helps.

  12. Good one, Beth. I realy appreciate your works. They’re very interesting. However, I think wondering where these rules came from is quite an issue.

  13. pam stanek says:

    I can’t find a comma rule for this anywhere, so which is correct?
    My older son Max came home for the weekend. OR
    My older son, Max, came home for the weekend.

    • Pam, we typically use commas to set off nonessential clauses, including names. Nonessential means the sentence is clear without the clause—the clause is not necessary for understanding, and the words between the commas could be plucked out of the sentence without damaging the meaning.

      So in your example you’d want to use commas. My older son, Max, came home for the weekend. You could just as easily say My older son came home for the weekend and the meaning would be clear. The words my older son identify which person came home. Including his name provides extra detail, but the sentence is perfectly understandable without the name.

      To help decide whether a comma is needed or not, ask if the named person is the only one of a thing that is named. If so, use commas.

      My best friend, Tom, was late again. (I have only one best friend.)

      My friend Tom was late. (I have many friends.)

      Jake’s wife, Esther, had been a debutante. (He has only one wife.)

      Jake’s wife Agnes is a lawyer. (He has multiple wives, and Agnes is a lawyer.)

      Tito’s math teacher, Elsa Strombridge, agreed to help him after school. (Only one math teacher.)

      Bill’s coworker Dan helped him finish the project. (There are many coworkers.)

      Your example could be tricky because the speaker might have multiple older sons—My older sons were born in the sixties, the younger ones were born in the eighties. Yet I’m assuming you mean a single older son, someone who’s being contrasted to a younger son.

      Remembering that spouses (in most stories) are the only spouses and that their names are set off by commas should help you through most situations. My wife, Alice, is my best friend and my husband, Peter, foiled the kidnapping are both correct.

      There is a push to use fewer punctuation marks and some recommend that these commas can be done away with, but you’d never be wrong to use them under the circumstances that I’ve pointed out here.

      Does that help?

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