We Talked Punctuation with the Experts – The Transcript

Sarah Hawk

If content is king, punctuation is his clothes. That is how today’s expert describes the place of punctuation in web writing. That expert is SitePoint forums Team Leader Ralph Mason, tutor of Punctuation Basics.

Even the most proficient writers seem to have their own hang-ups when it comes to punctuation. I thought mine was the incorrect use of hyphens, but I learned during the chat that I have more than one!

It was a quieter session than usual, with just a few people taking part, but we picked up so many interesting tips that I’m glad I was part of it. For instance, did you know that an ellipsis isn’t actually three full-stops in a row, but its own character (option + ; on a Mac)?

If you’re interested in punctuation but couldn’t make the session, here are a few resources that came out of the hour:

The Chicago Manual of Style
The Oxford Style Manual
The Australian Style Manual

Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

If you missed today’s chat because you didn’t know about it, make sure you visit the Experts interface and sign up for email reminders.

Next week we’re talking CSS with Louis Lazaris and Rachel Andrew, the team behind Jump Start CSS. Find out what time it will be at your place. Make sure you stop by for that one and see our new live coding window in action.

Here is a full transcript of what went down this morning:
[21:35] <ralphm> OK! I find punctuation to be a really fascinating topic. But what is it?

[21:36] <HAWK> And how does it relate to the web …?

[21:36] <ralphm> Well, when we speak, we do a lot more than utter words. We make all kinds of sounds that add meaning to what we are saying, such as raising the voice to indicate a question, expressing surprise, adding emphasis and pausing in various ways between words. All of these things add meaning to our words.

[21:36] <ralphm> In writing, it’s important to convey some of this extra information, because without it, our meaning might be far less clear. That’s the purpose of punctuation: to make the meaning of the written word as clear as possible.

[21:37] <ralphm> Punctuaion is a series of dots and dashes added to writing to help give extra information about how the written words would have been spoken.

[21:38] <ralphm> I find it really important to remember that this really is about speech. To learn punctuation, you could go get some big fat book full of a lot of rules. But before doing that, I encourage people to look at what they already know about punctuation. Essentially, you already DO know the rules of punctuation, because you do it every time you speak! 

[21:38] <ralphm> If you didn’t know about punctuation, it would be difficult for people to understand what you are saying.

[21:40] <ralphm> For example, you know where to pause between words, or how to ask a question, how to express surprise etc.

[21:40] <ralphm> So the trick with learning punctuation *in writing* is simply to learn how what parts of your speach all those commas, dashes and so on actually represent. Easy, right? (It actually IS very easy.)

[21:41] <ralphm> Um, *speech* (hehe, typo)

[21:42] <molona> I have a few questions for you… some of them are really just curiosity…

[21:42] <ralphm> Hopefully it won’t bring things to a full stop.

[21:43] <ralphm> Fire away!

[21:44] <molona> first is… I started your course (not finished though) and I loved your intro… are you thinking about a grammar course?

[21:44] <ralphm> @molona It’s been in mind for a while, but it’s a somewhat larger undertaking.

[21:45] <ralphm> Perhaps it would need to be broken into smaller topics.

[21:46] <molona> You’re an expert, so when you have a doubt (if you do, of course) which resources (online, I mean) do you use?

[21:46] <ralphm> Guys, if you are wondering if punctuation is really worth all the fuss, consider what things were like in the early days of writing (at least in the West).

[21:46] <HAWK> ralphm – One thing that I find tricky is the slight differences in punctuation across countries.

[21:46] <ralphm> They had no punctuation at all. Letters were only written in capitals. There were NO spaces between words, either!

[21:46] <HAWK> For instance, we don’t put a comma before the word ‘and’ but I think Americans do.


[21:47] <HAWK> Do you have any good resources for checking that kind of stuff?

[21:48] <molona> So do you get annoyed with the differences between USA, UK and Australia and New Zeland?

[21:48] <ralphm> @HAWK—Good question, Sarah. At the end of the day, there are no hard and fast rules. It often comes down to tradition and convention. It’s not just between nations, either, because in each country, in each city, you often find differences.

[21:48] <HAWK> UK Aus and NZ are the same.

[21:49] <HAWK> At least, I think that’s the case.

[21:49] <HAWK> Ralph, does capitilization fall under punctuation?

[21:49] <ralphm> For example, each company often has its own style guide. But all the same, each country also has an official Style Manual that is a good place to start (these usually govern the rules for govt. publications).

[21:49] <johnlacey> Ralph can you explain the differences between hyphens, en dashes and em dashes?

[21:50] <ralphm> Some useful resources include The Chicago Manual of Style, The Oxford Style Manual and the Australian Style Manual.

[21:50] <HAWK> Haha yeah – we used to have an English Editor here that used to get annoyed at us for using – instead of –

[21:51] <molona> Really? I thought that “instead of” was correct…

[21:51] <HAWK> I mean for using ‘-’ instead of ‘–’

[21:51] <ralphm> In terms of a comma before “and”, if I remember rightly, it’s more common in the US than England or Australia/NZ. But rather than run to books on this, I prefer to consider how I would *speak* the words. Would a pause before the “and” help? Would I pause there if I were saying the words?

[21:52] <molona> ah, ok

[21:52] <HAWK> Yeah, that makes sense Ralph – although aren’t there so many exceptions to rules that you can’t rely on what seems like common sense?

[21:53] <ralphm> Strictly speaking, I don’t think of capitalization as an issue of punctuation—although, if you don’t have things like italics (as here), then capitals can be handy for emphasis.

[21:54] <ralphm> That said, when you are told to end a sentence with a period (full stop), you are also told to start the sentence with a capital letter! So in a way, they do go hand in hand.

[21:55] <johnlacey> I personally find there is a lot to be said for reading what you’ve written out loud, just to see if it flows well.

[21:56] <ralphm> “using – instead of – ” Hehe, I’d be friends with him (or her)! You were probably using a hyphen (-) in place of a dash (—). Hyphens are often misused that way. But I’m a great lover of the dash (being a dashing kind of guy) so I’m biased!

[21:56] <molona> I confess I tend to use the same rules that I’ve learnt when I was learning my native language (Spanish) :)

[21:57] <ralphm> @johnlacey—That’s a great strategy, and I highly encourage it. As I like to say, you already know about punctuation. If you didn’t, no-one would be able to understand you!

[21:57] <HAWK> So ralphm – when is a comma appropriate?

[21:57] <HAWK> Sorry – I mean a hyphen.

[21:57] <HAWK> Only in hyphenated words?

[21:58] <ralphm> @HAWK—We do pause a lot between various words, and the most common way of indicating that pause is with a comma.

[21:58] <HAWK> @molona – are the rules of punctuation the same in Spanish as English?

[21:59] <ralphm> But there are other punctuation marks to indicate pauses within a sentence, and each is subtly different—to match the subtle differences in the way we pause between words.

[21:59] <HAWK> I get lost as to when to use semi-colons.

[21:59] <uselink126> So does it make sense for punctuation to follow the rule put forward in something like the book Eats, Shoots and Leaves?

[21:59] <ralphm> However, if all else fails, a comma is better than nothing.

[21:59] <johnlacey> So en dashes are for describing ranges 1990–1994, em dashes are for breaking up your text — often in dramatic ways, and hyphens occur naturally in print documents or with double-barrel surnames? Is that the gist of it?

[21:59] <molona> I think they are… at least, most of the time. I wonder if you can figure out when someone is foreign (even if his writting may look perfect) just because he doesn’t use commas or colons properly.

[21:59] <HAWK> How do you make an en dash on a Mac?

[21:59] <ralphm> @uselink126—Although I haven’t read it, I’m sure that book would be a good guide. :-)

[22:00] <uselink126> cool thanks!

[22:00] <ralphm> On a Mac, an em dash is made with shift + option + hyphen. On a PC, I believe it’s ctrl + alt + hyphen.

[22:00] <uselink126> I may drop, I have to change rooms.

[22:01] <HAWK> np

[22:01] <HAWK> Linking to Eats, Shoots and Leaves for purposes of my trancript http://www.amazon.com/Eats-Shoots-Leaves-Tolerance-Punctuation/dp/1592402038

[22:01] <molona> But Ralph, in the course, speak about conventions, not rules, and the differences between places… then I wonder… how can these “rules” be so similar? At least, with my own language which is not English

[22:01] <HAWK> — – -

[22:01] <ralphm> En dash on Mac is option + hyphen, and on PC I believe it’s ctrl + hyphen.

[22:01] <HAWK> right, got it

[22:02] <ralphm> As for where to use the various pauses, like semi colon, I go into a lot of detail in the course. But to summarize, the semi colon is for when the pause is stronger than a comma, but not a complete full stop.

[22:03] <HAWK> Can you give an example?

[22:03] <ralphm> It’s a significant pause without stopping the sentence altogether.

[22:04] <molona> Ralph, do you feel that the use of mobile phones and other devices has affected how people write? (and, of course, to punctuation?)

[22:05] * JSpav (de9afd78@localhost) has joined #sitepoint

[22:05] <ralphm> For example, I could say “They’re not predicting rain. Nevertheless, I’ll take my umbrella.” But I could also say “They’re not predicting rain; nevertheless, I’ll take my umbrella.”. I would say those two sentences quite differently. With a full stop, your voice drops; but often you don’t actually drop your voice mid sentence like that. Rather, you

[22:05] <ralphm> pause significantly, but your tone of voice indicates that you haven’t finished speaking yet.

[22:05] <uselink126> Great description of the semi-colon, I always struggle with when to use those over commas

[22:06] <ralphm> Another use of semi colons is to break up a long sentence. Often, in a long sentence, there will be lighter and heavier pauses, as here: “At the shop I bought carrots, which were fat and juicy; apples, which were the freshest, juiciest and sweetest that I’d tasted in a long time; and tomatoes that were organically grown, so that they tasted like re

[22:06] <ralphm> al tomatoes instead of plastic.”

[22:07] <ralphm> Another example: “They begged, pleaded, cried and dropped to their knees; but despite their antics, I refused to give them what they wanted.”

[22:07] <molona> I confess that I wouldn’t have used a semi-colon in that sentence. But a full stop. Like right now

[22:08] <HAWK> Awesome – that clears it up. Thanks

[22:08] <HAWK> .

[22:08] <uselink126> Ok, how about ellipses (I am pretty sure I over use them).

[22:09] <ralphm> @molona—A lot of informal punctuation has arisen with the use of mobile phones and other social media. I’m sure many people despise it, but when you think about it, all the extra punctuation used in those situations—like extra exclamation marks, smiley faces etc.—actually help to convey mood, expression and so on … all of which is an important pa

[22:09] <ralphm> rt of speech.

[22:09] <HAWK> Whoops. Awesome – that clears it up. Thanks.

[22:09] <HAWK> Me too uselink126

[22:09] <ralphm> So I rather like all that informal punctuation!

[22:09] <ralphm> (Mind you, I wouldn’t advise using it in formal writing.)

[22:09] <uselink126> haha

[22:09] <molona> Could you say, then, that smileys and icons are part of nowadays punctuation marks?

[22:11] <ralphm> @molona—Yes, there’s no strict rule about it. It really comes down to how you want to say it. You will notice that your voice often doesn’t behave the way it would with a period. that’s the sign that something other than a period would be appropriate.

[22:12] <molona> I just realized that I misspelled… as usual. People, please, forgive me :( I should be more proper in a conversation like this…. Is there anything more proper than punctuation?

[22:12] <ralphm> @molona—Well, obviously smileys etc. ARE a part of modern writing, though I doubt they will ever make it to the style guides. :p

[22:12] <molona> lol

[22:13] <HAWK> I’m pretty interested in uselink’s question about ellipses. I use them a lot also.

[22:13] <molona> Yes, I do too… as you can see

[22:13] <ralphm> Regarding the ellipsis … yeah, interesting one! It’s actually not three periods in a row, but has its own symbol. You can type it with option + ; on a Mac and Ctrl + Alt + . on a PC.

[22:14] <ralphm> A few tips: it’s only three dots, and ideally, there should be a space on either side (assuming it’s between words).

[22:14] <HAWK> Wow – I didn’t know that!

[22:14] <HAWK> …

[22:14] <HAWK> huh

[22:15] <molona> Sorry I didn’t get this. So do you mean that this… is as correct as ….this?

[22:15] <ralphm> An ellipse often represents a really long pause … which you tend to see mostly in dramatic scripts etc.

[22:15] <ralphm> @molona—Yes. :-)

[22:16] <molona> so when do you know where to place the empty space?

[22:16] <ralphm> The other main use for an ellipse is to indicate that words have been left out or omitted.

[22:17] <HAWK> uselink126 – we discussed ellipses when you were gone!

[22:17] <uselink126> Doh!

[22:17] <HAWK> http://dl.dropbox.com/u/11177072/Screenshots/3o6y.png

[22:17] <HAWK> There you go

[22:17] <uselink126> Thanks!

[22:17] <ralphm> If you were writing dialogue, you could use an ellipse when an actor is meant to fall silent for a moment, mid sentence. Or when someone’s voice trails off into silence.

[22:18] <uselink126> That makes sense

[22:19] <molona> Which is the punctuation mark that people usually get wrong? (at least, native English speakers… hehehe… I always have an excuse)

[22:19] <ralphm> If you are quoting a text and want to leave out bits, you can indicate those omissions with an ellipsis.

[22:21] <ralphm> @molona—Hehe! Well, there are lots of common mistakes, but if there were one that I could rid from the world, it’s the confusion between “its” and “it’s”!

[22:22] <molona> My real problem comes with acronyms thought

[22:22] <molona> *though*

[22:22] <ralphm> “It’s” is short for “it is”. So when deciding whether or not to add an apostrophe, ask yourself—”Could I wirite this as ‘it is instead?” If not, don’t include an apostrophe.

[22:22] <uselink126> That one drives me nuts! Every time I think I am using it right, someone (or Microsoft Word) tells me I am doing it wrong.

[22:23] <HAWK> Where that one gets confusing is when you’re talking about ownership

[22:23] <molona> English people write things like SEO and when they speak they say “S”, “E”, “O”. Spaniards like me would write it S.E.O. but it seems that this is not a common practice in English

[22:23] <uselink126> So it’s is not possesive?

[22:23] <HAWK> If something belongs to something then you add an apostrophe right?

[22:23] <HAWK> Yeah – that’s what I mean

[22:23] <molona> that’s so hard for me.

[22:24] <HAWK> So then I get confused when saying something like “next week’s session”

[22:24] <HAWK> Does the session belong to next week?

[22:24] <HAWK> Can next week own something?

[22:24] <johnlacey> Can next week own things? It’s a terribly philosophical dilemma for this hour of the morning. ;)

[22:24] <HAWK> Hehe

[22:24] <ralphm> @moloan—Acronyms are often confused with initialisms, too. Basically, if you take the first letters of a series of words and put them together, you have an initialism. E.g. HTML. If that resulting group of letters can be pronounced as a word (rather than as individual letters) it’s also an acronymn. E.g. UNESCO

[22:24] <molona> johnlacey… morning for you… more me it is late, late at night :p

[22:25] <ralphm> It’s usually not necessary to add periods between the letters of an initialism, but there are various conventions for when you don and don’t.

[22:26] <molona> So I got the whole concept wrong :(

[22:26] <HAWK> We have about 5 more mins to go in the session

[22:27] <molona> so when can I know when I’m doing it right?

[22:27] <ralphm> The problem with “its” is that normally, with a possessive (e.g. such as “dog’s” in “the dog’s bone”) you add an apostrophe to indicate possession. “Its” is an exception to that—the one and only one—because it would otherwise be confused with the “it’s” that is short for “it is”.

[22:28] <HAWK> Ah right. So you never add an apostrophe to it even if it is possessive. Didn’t know that.

[22:29] <HAWK> So you’d say “give the dog its bone”?

[22:29] <HAWK> Rather than “give the dog it’s bone”?

[22:29] <ralphm> “Possession” or ownership is kind of weird in some contexts, but grammatically, that’s what’s going on. It is the “session of next week”, so it’s “next week’s session”.

[22:30] <ralphm> @HAWK—Yep, “give the dog its bone.” One use “it’s” when it would spell out to “it is”. You can’t say “give the dog it is bone”, so you know it’s wrong (or you know “it is” wrong!)

[22:31] <HAWK> Sweet

[22:31] <HAWK> OK, well that’s technically the end of the session. Does anyone have any last minute questions before Ralph heads off?

[22:32] <johnlacey> Thanks Ralph and Hawk.

[22:32] <uselink126> Thanks Ralph!

[22:32] <HAWK> I’ve got to say, I was curious to see how this session would go. We have very small numbers but it’s been great!

[22:32] <ralphm> O well guys, we are nearly at the end and I didn’t get to rave on about my favorite punctuation mark, the dash. But I think I give it pretty good treatment in the course.

[22:32] <molona> No in my case. Just a big thank you for helping me with my English… even if that wasn’t your intention :P
[22:33] <molona> what’s your fav punctuation mark?

[22:34] <ralphm> Definitely the em dash—or the dash (or even em rule) as it’s called. Apart from anything else, I find it visually pleasing.

[22:35] <ralphm> Thanks for the discussion, guys. I hope it will inspire some people to take more interest in punctuation. It’s really very important.

[22:36] <HAWK> Thanks heaps for your time ralphm

[22:37] <ralphm> Wikipedia has some great examples of the need for punctuation. for example, look at this sentence: “Woman, without her man, is nothing”. A bit alarming, right? But look at it with different punctuation: “Woman: without her, man is nothing”. Ha ha!

[22:37] <ralphm> Thanks, everyone!

[22:41] <ralphm> By the way, if anyone want to continue the discussion. you could head over to the Content forum at SitePoint: http://www.sitepoint.com/forums/forumdisplay.php?434-Web-Content

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  • kamran@ OnlineFreeTools

    great post, Thank you for sharing. it helps

  • http://tips.kuladi.com Jeannette

    Before this i have zero knowledge on Punctuation, I am only focus on content. But now,with this information, i gain a knowledge about this.Thanks for this great sharing!

  • http://jokeyrhy.me/ Ron Waldon

    Hyperlink to Australian Style menu has the trailing bracket “)” in the href, breaking the link.

    • http://www.onsman.com Ricky Onsman

      Thanks, Ron. That’s fixed.

      • ralph.m

        The links at 21:50 are also broken (again because of the closing parentheses.

      • http://www.onsman.com Ricky Onsman

        Also fixed. Tee hee. You missed a closing parenthesis yourself, in a sentence about missing a closing parenthesis.

        And yes, I’m now checking the rest of this with a fine-toothed comb.

  • Stevie D

    re acronyms and initialisms – a correction to the orthography (at least in UK-EN), where the resulting short form is pronounced as a word, it should be written in lower case (where it is a generic term, eg laser) or Title Case (where it is a proper name, eg Unesco). If it is written in UPPER CASE (eg HTML), that should mean that it is pronounced as a series of individual letters.

    Of course, some organisations have their brand name using a house style for capitalisation that doesn’t fit with the general rule.

    • ralph.m

      Interesting point, Stevie. In Australia, words like UNESCO are normally written in capitals, and the official style manual doesn’t mention an alternative. But the Chicago manual presents capitalisation as optional for acronyms of 5 letters or more. I guess it all comes down to custom and convention (and perhaps clarity, in some cases).

      Another interesting point about initialisms is that, even though they are written in capitals, when the words are spelled out it’s not necessarily appropriate to use capitals. For example, USA would be spelled out as United States of America, because it’s a name, while CPI should be spelled out as “consumer price index”. Likewise, IQ is “intelligence quotient”, and CSS “cascading style sheets”.

  • Keely

    A lot of “writing” today doesn’t even involve much punctuation. No capitals, no full-stops, and a lot of bad spelling thrown in just to add to the mess. I find it really hard to read.

    • ralph.m

      Yes, it’s a shame more care is not taken. It’s a pleasure to read text that is well written and well punctuated.

  • Mike Brighton

    Oh dear; an ellipse is a ‘flattened circle’; the row of dots is an ellipsis.

    • ralph.m

      Hehe, yes, a few typos in there, for sure. In our defense, you have to type very quickly to keep up with an online conversation like that. (However, perhaps Ricky would be kind enough to go through the transcript and change the “ellipse” to “ellipsis” where it occurs. (Luckily, “ellipses” is still the plural!)

      (Mind you, if you want to get all technical about it, “ellipse” can be used in place of “ellipsis”, according to the OED, but it’s a rare usage, to be sure. :-) )

    • http://thehawk.wordpress.com Sarah Hawk

      I don’t claim to be an expert – that’s why I was at the session. ;)


      • ralph.m

        Thanks Sarah. My face is a little less red now. :D

  • Joachim

    Punctuation is important indeed; a well written text gets alot more powerful with proper distribution of commas, dashes and so forth.

    However: What is being said about semi-colons here is not correct. Semi-colons vs. commas has nothing at all to do with the “magnutude of the pause”(as with dashes). What follows a semi-colon should be something like an expansion, clearification or re-wording of what preceeds it. To make it simple: The sub sections on both sides of the semi-colon have similar meanings; the paragraph following a semi-colon should be able to swap with the paragraph before it. Makes sence?

    This is distinct from a colon, which implies a listing or explicit description of what something is, or what is being said etc.

    Good writers know how to utilize semi-colons in an exciting matter and building complex, yet fluid sentences it. An example:

    “New Years Eve didn’t turn out well for me; I tried to connect to the internet, but I didn’t manage”.

    It might seem unclear at first, but in this way, something more is being said about the person. His evening is miserable, and for him a miserable evening constitutes of not being able to go online.

    Might not be best example, feel free to come up with something better:)

    • ralph.m

      ‘Semi-colons vs. commas has nothing at all to do with the “magnutude of the pause”’

      You will normally find a more significant pause for a semicolon than for a comma, so it is quite relevant to take that into consideration. As I suggest above, punctuation is largely about representing the spoken word in print. There are certainly rules for when and where to use the various marks, but it’s actually a lot easier to judge the right mark by listening to the words than by poring over rules and regulations, and that’s why I like to hammer the point quite a bit. Most punctuation marks have a distinctive tone of voice.

      Semicolons normally divide “equal” parts of a sentence—parts that tend to be closely related but also similarly weighted. They also help to divide up long sentences with a lot of commas—just as, in speech, we we vary our pauses if speaking a long sentence.

      Often you could use a period in place of a semicolon, except that you don’t want to finish the sentence, and thus do not drop your voice as when using a period. Compare these alternatives:

      He was diagnosed with cancer. Nevertheless, he managed to remain cheerful.
      He was diagnosed with cancer; nevertheless, he managed to remain cheerful.

      Those two sentences would be spoken differently: in the second example, the voice wouldn’t drop after “cancer” in the same way it would in the previous example.

      The colon is quite different, and represents a different tone of voice and a different relationship between words. The words before a colon are leading up to something, like a conclusion or explanation. For example:

      There are three options: coffee, tea or water.

      The opening of the sentence indicates that something is about to be presented (that is, information about the available beverages). After the colon, the options are listed. In speech, there’s a significant halt at the colon—and you can even imaging that there might be some kind of physical gesture, such as a wave of the hand to present the various options.

      Your New Year’s Eve example would be better served by a colon, because a statement is made and then an explanation is presented. (A dash would also work there, but it would be less formal.)

      • Joachim

        I don’t think we agree, except that the segments on each side of the semicolon can be regarded as proper/full sentences=) I firmly believe that semicolons are for similar meanings on both side, as in clearification, re-wording etc.

  • rjs

    Is the phrase “saving taxpayers’ money” punctuated correctly or should it be just “saving taxpayers money”?

    • ralph.m

      It depends on what you mean by that phrase.

      If you mean “saving the money of taxpayers” (as in not wasting it), then it should be “saving taxpayers’ money”. E.g. “The government’s aim of saving taxpayers’ money was not fulfilled”.(The apostrophe goes after the s of plural words. If you were saying “saving the money of a taxpayer”—that is, of one single taxpayer—it would be “saving a taxpayer’s money”.)

      If you mean the phrase in the sense of “saving taxpayers from owing money”, then an apostrophe doesn’t belong in there at all. E.g. “Saving taxpayers [from owing] money is the job of a savvy accountant”.

      [Note: a few times above I have used closing quotation marks before a final period. Convention tends to dictate the opposite; that is, it's the more common practice to include the final period within the quotation. I'm not too keen on that, so I thought I'd mention it in passing. Call me a rebel, if you wish.]