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Punctuation Myths

Frances Peck
(Language Update, Volume 2, Number 1, 2005, page 13)

"God is in the details," the old saying goes. Though when those details involve the intricacies of punctuation, many would argue that a much darker entity lurks there.

It’s because punctuation marks are so wickedly detailed, and are as likely to be governed by the vagaries of convention as by the certainty of grammar, that myths thrive in their midst. Indeed, misconceptions about punctuation are nearly as widespread as those about grammar and usage, which we explored in the last two issues of Language Update. Here are a few of the most tenacious punctuation myths, along with the facts to dispel them.

Myth

Always introduce a list with a colon.

Fact

A list, whether in sentence or vertical format, does not have to be introduced by a colon.

The colon, a downright social punctuation mark, always introduces something: an example, a quotation, an explanation or, most commonly, a list. Accustomed to seeing the colon in this last role, many people assume that the mark must precede a list.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. It’s just as correct for a list—even a vertical list—to directly follow the words that introduce it, with no punctuation in between. In fact, this is the only correct way to punctuate when the list is the grammatical object or complement of the introductory words.

Example

In this article we will give grammar and usage a rest and instead debunk some punctuation myths, including

  • always introduce a list with a colon
  • always use semicolons in a list introduced by a colon
  • use single quotation marks to set off single words

Myth

Always use semicolons in a list introduced by a colon.

Fact

The punctuation of a list depends not on what introduces the list, but on what the list contains.

The normal way to punctuate a list, whether or not it is introduced by a colon, is to insert commas between the items. It’s helpful to think of commas as the default punctuation marks for lists. Semicolons enter the picture in two situations: (1) when at least one item in the list already contains a comma and (2) when the items are independent clauses (mini-sentences).

Examples

There are several misconceptions about lists: that they must be introduced by a colon, that they must be punctuated with semicolons, that they must include the word and before the final item.

The fact is that, depending on their wording, lists can be written in several ways, including without an introductory colon; with semicolons, in cases where an item in the list contains an internal comma; and with or without the word and.

Myth

Always use semicolons after the items in a vertical list.

Fact

In many cases it’s equally correct to use commas, or even no punctuation, after the items in a vertical list.

As visual as they are verbal, vertical lists come in many guises. There are a number of agreed-upon styles for punctuating bullet lists, as they’re more commonly known, particularly when they are made up of incomplete sentences. The most common style in government and business writing is to use semicolons after the items, but commas are also appropriate if the items are short and do not contain internal commas. In both cases the final item typically ends with a period. Also acceptable is the more freewheeling style of using no punctuation whatsoever, as in the example with the first myth above. What matters more than the style itself is consistency. Pick one approach for a document and stick with it.

Example

Edith made a list of her pet language peeves:

  • apostrophes used to form plurals,
  • unique paired with a qualifier like most,
  • the overuse of semicolons in lists.

When the items in a vertical list are complete sentences, life is easier. By far the most accepted approach is to treat the listed sentences like any others and end each one with a period.

Myth

Use single quotation marks to set off single words, terms and expressions, and double quotation marks to set off true quotations.

Fact

In Canada single quotation marks serve one main purpose: to set off material that’s already inside double quotation marks.

We Canadians typically follow the American practice of using double quotation marks as our everyday marks for enclosing words, phrases, quotations, titles and so on. We use single marks to enclose material that is already inside doubles. Across the Atlantic, the opposite style prevails: the usual quotation marks are single, with double marks reserved for material already inside singles.

Example

Bemoaning the approach toward quotation marks of her boss—a self-proclaimed "expert" in grammar and punctuation—Edith said, "He always tells me ’That’s how I learned it in school,’ as if that were a valid explanation."

Myth

Periods and commas belong outside closing quotation marks.

Fact

In Canada periods and commas always go inside closing quotation marks.

As with the previous myth, this one arises from the difference between American and British styles. In Canada nearly all publishers, organizations and language professionals (legal writing being a notable exception) take the American approach of placing all periods and commas inside closing quotation marks, no matter what. This rule applies to both double and single quotation marks (see the previous example).

Example

Edith’s boss often refers to himself as a "stickler for punctuation rules," a title Edith mentally amends to a "sucker for punctuation myths."

As always, the only surefire way to exorcize the demon myths of punctuation is to consult a reliable guide—a reliable Canadian guide, that is, since as we’ve seen, some punctuation rules vary with geography. The Canadian Style, published by the Translation Bureau, is a good example, as is just about any Canadian grammar and punctuation text from a major publishing house.

Armed with these few pointers and a good punctuation bible, you should find that the devilish details of punctuation take on a more sacred air.