PUNCTUATION AND STYLE IN WRITING (I)

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I’m going to approach to the topic about internal punctuation in sentences, particularly the use of commas in subject and predicate. Important issue when we have to do inverse translations (Spanish into English), writing academic texts, reviews, and so on.

On the basis that the normal word order in an independent clause is SUBJECT + PREDICATE and talking specifically about the subject, there are three principles that we have to keep in mind:

  • Never put a single comma between a subject and its verb.
  • Don’t use commas with restrictive noun modifiers / use comas with non-restrictive noun modifiers.
  • Use commas with noun modifiers displaced from their normal word order.
    Let’s focus on each point:
  1. Never put a single comma between a subject and its verb

The judge sentenced the thief                             (wrong) *The judge, sentenced the thief

It is important to emphasize single comma because it is true that we can use double commas or parentheses in some cases. We are going to see it in a moment.

  1. Don’t use commas with restrictive noun modifiers

    That is: a restrictive clause or phrase provides essential information about the subject, so it must be included in because the meaning of the sentence would be altered without it:

The judge hearing the case sentenced the thief

(It is important to say that he is the judge who is hearing the case and not another one)

The painting dated 1894 is a forgery; the one dated 1892 is genuine

(‘dated 1894’ and ‘dated 1892’ cannot be written between commas because they are essential for understanding, if we detached them from the sentence its meaning would be unclear).

Instead, non-restrictive noun modifiers can be put between commas because their information is not necessary for understanding the sentence, they just give additional information:

The judge, banging his gavel, sentenced the thief

(It is not necessary to know if the judge is banging the gavel in that moment or not)

But sometimes it’s difficult to decide logically whether a modifier is restrictive or non-restrictive, in these cases reading aloud can help you. As Jane Walpole says in his book, A Writer’s Guide, after considering this example:

 My next-door neighbors, who love rock music, had a party on their patio last night. People who love rock music shouldn’t have outdoor parties.

You might argue that, taking the two sentences in sequence, the first clause is also necessary to their combined meaning. But punctuation is by individual sentences, not sequences. You would just be muddying the water with your logic. Here is where voice contours can help. If you read these two sentences aloud, your voice (…) clearly reveals the presence or absence of commas. (…) When you write a sentence and you aren’t sure whether you intend the modification to be restrictive or non-restrictive, read the words out loud and listen. (…) Your voice can tell you what you mean to say. Follow its contours.

  1. Use commas with noun modifiers displaced from their normal word order

By punctuating displaced modifiers we are warning the reader that these words are out from their normal word order:

 (remember: on the basis that the normal word order is SUBJECT +PREDICATE)

  • NON-RESTRICTIVE PARTICIPIAL PHRASE SUBJECT 

Banging his gavel, the judge…

  • SUBJECT ADJECTIVE + ADJECTIVE

The judge, stern and humourless, . . .

  • ADJECTIVE + ADJECTIVE SUBJECT

 Stern and humourless, the judge . . .

Once again, if you read aloud you will hear your voice rise and pause at each of the indicated commas. Our voice is reflecting the punctuation.

In a next post I’ll write about punctuation in predicate, verb modifiers.

For further information check A Writer’s Guide, Easy ground rules for successful written English, by Jane Walpole. Prentice-Hall, Inc. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey 07632.

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