Introduction to Punctuation

“Proper punctuation” shows up repeatedly in discussions about expectations and criteria for what constitutes good academic writing — whether it’s administrators, teachers, students, or legislators talking about what should be taught in the first-year writing classroom. But the word “proper” might limit or even mislead our thinking of punctuation. Used knowledgeably and deliberately, punctuation is more than proper; it’s essential to conveying your intended meaning. Also, there’s a faint connotation of “arbitrary” with the word “proper” — and effective punctuation is anything but arbitrary.

Nor is punctuation merely a reflection of oral behavior, as suggested by the familiar injunctions “Use a comma for a pause” or “Where your voice drops, use a period.” Instead, punctuation functions as a rich set of clues that have emerged specifically to assist readers in understanding text on a page or screen.

The nature of reading demands such clues precisely because text is not speech. Speakers have many means (pitch, pace, hand gestures, facial expressions, and others) to help a listener correctly infer meaning. Moreover, ordinary speech usually accommodates a listener’s questions, allowing for a more rapid arrival at a joint understanding between speaker and listener. The distance between writer and reader, however, calls for a code (punctuation) that can work to give clues about the writer’s intended meaning in the absence of such direct two-way communication.


Is It Worth the Work?

While punctuation does function as a vital part of making meaning within a text, it can’t be denied that it serves another function as well: that of credibility marker. Using punctuation according to the conventions of the academic community does serve as a sort of license into and within that discourse community. To take the time and effort to learn and use punctuation conventionally sends the message to readers that “I’m part of your community; I can speak your language (use your code). So, listen to me.” It signals a sort of collegial willingness to hear and to be heard: to use a common code that enhances and expands understanding instead of restricting it to yourself. Codes can exclude and include; by using the code of “correct” punctuation, you’re signaling a willingness to be included in a group of people who’ve agreed on how to use certain dots and squiggles on the page to indicate certain relationships among ideas. For whatever reason you value inclusion in the academic community, utilizing conventional punctuation is one among many certificates of authenticity you can carry.

Why is that? Why should conventional punctuation exert such influence? In part, different punctuation marks support characteristics that the academic community values in its overall discourse. This is another way in which conventional punctuation operates on more than a merely arbitrary level: It serves to indicate relationships among ideas in a sentence or paragraph that echo the very ways in which the academic community organizes and develops its lines of thought. Those ways include segmentation, coordination, subordination, modification, and supplementation — concepts discussed later in this section.

What’s With All the Jargon?

The word jargon has a negative connotation; however, it simply refers to the specialized vocabulary a group of people use to discuss a specific subject.

Consider for a moment how we benefit from jargon. Have you ever tried to complete a task with someone who doesn’t know the names of the objects you’re working with? Think of changing your oil with a person who doesn’t know the terms “dipstick,” “oil pan,” “drain plug,” or “filter wrench.” Or imagine trying to show someone how to make an omelet, and they don’t know what a “whisk” is or what it means to “dice” onions. Chances are, it will take longer than usual for you to get the task done; perhaps you may even decide to start off with a brief vocabulary review before focusing on the task itself. Let’s face it, “that thingy there” takes you only so far.

Like other specialized subjects, punctuation has a specific vocabulary that allows us to talk about it: a set of terms we use to name parts, describe purposes, explain activities, and identify errors. The attractive thing about such language is that it saves time by eliminating a lot of guesswork and reinvention. While punctuation jargon can sometimes sound unnecessarily inflated (the word “and,” for example, is a “coordinating conjunction”) or even faintly accusatory (an unnecessary comma is called “disruptive”), having a consistent set of terms makes it easier to learn and use punctuation correctly.

In short: Yes, it does help to know some of the jargon when learning punctuation. The good news is that once you learn a few terms, you can plug them into formulas that you can use to quickly get a solid grasp on correct punctuation. It will be easier in the long run just to memorize a few rules and technical terms now instead of having to do an internet search for “its vs it’s” every time it comes up.



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“Punctuation” by Leandra Binder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License and adapted work from the source below:



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