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In order to be able to punctuate, you need to understand the grammatical structure of sentences. This is because punctuation serves to signpost the grammatical relationships between the parts of a sentence. For a basic guide to grammar and punctuation, see John Peck and Martin Coyle, 1999, The Student's Guide to Writing: Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling (Macmillan), pp.137-46.
You will also benefit from the on-line interactive guide to punctuation produced by Glasgow University at the following address: http://www.arts.gla.ac.uk/SESLL/STELLA/ARIES/
Sentence: 'A series of words in connected speech or writing, forming the grammatically complete expression of a single thought … In Grammar, the verbal expression of a proposition, question, command, or request, containing normally a subject and a predicate.' (ODE)
Clause: 'A short sentence; … a distinct member of a sentence, esp. in Gram. one containing a subject and predicate' (OED).
Single clause sentences (no need for commas):
The cat [subject] sat on the mat [predicate].
The cat [subject] sat [main verb] on [preposition] the mat [object].
Main Verb: 'a verb that is marked for tense and normally agrees with or matches its subject in person (e.g., I, she, they) and number (singular or plural). More simply, it is the ordinary use of the verb, not the infinitive (to) or participle (-ing) forms' (Peck and Coyle, 1999, p.138).
The cat sat on the mat.
The cat sits on the mat.
The cat is sitting on the mat.
Three cats are sitting on the mat.
The cat wanted to sit on the mat.
The cat was sitting on the mat.
The cat will be sitting on the mat.
The cat would sit on the mat.
Is the cat sitting on the mat? (etc)
The cat sitting on the mat.
Three cats sits on the mat.
The cat to sit on the mat.
The cat on the mat.
Sitting on the mat.
Compound Sentence: 'consists of two or more simple sentences joined together by a co-ordinating conjunction such as and or but or or' (Peck and Coyle, 1999, p.138).
Commas are needed in a compound sentence:
The cat sat on the mat. My father was cooking dinner.
The cat sat on the mat, and my father was cooking dinner.
The cat sat on the mat, but my father carried on cooking.
The cat sat on the mat, while my father sliced the fish.
The cat sat on the mat, yet my father ignored it.
The cat sat on the mat, or it lay on the bed.
Avoid Comma Splices: do not join sentences together with a comma but without a conjunction:
The cat sat on the mat, my father was cooking the dinner. [wrong!]
The cat sat on the mat, the weather was terrible that day. [wrong!]
Don't Join Sentences with 'however', 'therefore', 'yet', or 'nevertheless':
The cat sat on the mat, nevertheless I kept on sweeping up. [wrong!]
The cat sat on the mat. Nevertheless, I kept on sweeping up.
Or use semi colon:
The cat sat on the mat; nevertheless, I kept on sweeping up.
The cat sat on the mat; therefore, I hoovered round him.
As usual, the cat sat on the mat; yet I had to move him to clean up.
The cat wanted to sit on the mat; however, I sent him outside.
NB, 'The semicolon can always be replaced by a full stop but not by a comma' (Peck and Coyle 1999, p.143).
Complex Sentence: 'consists of one or more main clauses and one or more subordinate [or dependent] clauses' (Peck and Coyle, 1999, 138).
Main Clause: 'a group of words that contains a subject and a main verb: it is the main structure of the sentence and can stand on its own as a sentence' (Peck and Coyle, 1999, p.138).
Subordinate or Dependent Clause: 'a group of words that gives further information about the main clause. It may contain a finite or non-finite verb but cannot stand on its own as a sentence' (Peck and Coyle).
Non-finite Verb Forms: 'are the infinitive or base form, the present participle and the past participle. … they do not show person, number or tense' (Peck and Coyle).
Commas separate the clauses in a complex sentence:
While my father cooked the meal [subordinate clause], the cat sat on the mat [main clause].
('While my father cooked the meal' is not a main clause or sentence in its own right.)
During the storm, the cat curled up on the sofa.
Although we didn't have much money, we always fed the cat.
Though the cat was old by then, it always ran to the gate.
Even though we bought it a bed, the cat would always sleep on the mat.
Because we could no longer keep it, we gave the cat to friends.
Since we moved here, the cat has been restless.
After the dog died, the cat took over the living room.
Before it had kittens, the cat would allow you to stroke it.
If this is the kind of damage it can do, we need to find a new home for the cat.
When the postman came, the cat would bark like a dog.
Whenever it rains, the cat sits by the window looking out.
As I was leaving the house, the cat suddenly went crazy.
Bracketing Commas for Parenthetical Clauses (always in pairs):
As Peck and Coyle note, the 'essential test for bracketing commas' is that the sentence still makes sense if you lift out the clause or phrase between commas (p.142). Remember that you must open and close the bracket with a comma:
The cat, when it visits us, sits on the mat.
(= When it visits us, the cat sits on the mat.)
The cat, on the other hand, sat on the mat.
The cat, however, was sitting on the mat.
(= However, the cat was sitting on the mat.)
The cat, whatever we tried to do with it, would sit on the mat.
(= Whatever we tried to do with it, the cat would sit on the mat.)
The cat, therefore, would always sit on the mat.
The cat, of course, insisted on sitting on the mat.
(= Of course, the cat insisted on sitting on the mat.)
(= The cat sat on the mat, of course.)
The cat, whose name was Tom, sat for hours on that mat.
The cat, indeed, was oblivious to the storm.
The cat, in fact, tried to attack the burglar.
Cats, we are told, have nine lives.
So, from a financial standpoint, cats are good animals to keep.
Cats, as animal lovers point out, are loyal creatures.
Cats, being carnivorous, will keep the home free of mice.
Is the cat, after all it has been through, still sitting on the mat? (etc)
But commas are not used for marking off defining clauses:
The cat with the ginger fur would always sit on the mat.
NB Parentheses can be made stronger by pairs of dashes or pairs of brackets. The same rules apply: open and close the parenthesis with the same kind of punctuation mark; the test is that the main meaning of the sentence, the main clause, would not be affected if you simply deleted the phrase or clause within the dashes or brackets.
Avoid Sentence Fragments:
The cat sits on the mat. Which keeps it warm
The cat sits on the mat. When the fire is burning.
When the file is burning, the cat sits on the mat.
The cat sits on the mat, which keeps it warm.
Complex but in control: your sentences can be as complex as you are able to make them, as long as you can control the clause structure with commas:
When we are able to afford it, and if we are able to find one from the RSPCA, we will get a new cat, provided that you promise to look after it.
Comma or Colon?
'Most commonly, the colon precedes a kind of clarifying definition, or introduces a list' (p.144). A colon also precedes a quotation that clarifies what has just been said: [note the use of the colon here]
Khalid Hosseini's The Kite Runner begins by suggesting that the narrator experienced a life-changing experience when he was twelve: 'I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975' (p.1).
A comma would not work here because the grammatical relationship between the introductory sentence and the quoted sentence cannot be punctuated with a comma. But the opening sentence of the novel can be introduced in different ways:
The narrator of The Kite Runner begins by telling us that 'I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975' (p.1).
The grammatical structure here does not require any punctuation. But a comma is required in the following sentence:
As the narrator of The Kite Runner tells us, 'I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975' (p.1).
A Few Rules and Tips
1) A comma never appears before an opening bracket:
Although we had to take the cat to the vet, (the one on the high street) the treatment wasn't too expensive. [wrong!]
Although we had to take the cat to the vet (the one on the high street), the treatment wasn't too expensive.
2) A semi colon never appears before a quotation (this is because a semi colon functions like a full stop).
3) Formation of the possessive: the general rule is: do not break into the noun or name; to form the possessive of a singular noun or proper name, add apostrophe + s, as follows:
the cat's mat; the book's title; the woman's life; Woolf's essay; Wordsworth's poem; The Prelude's metre; etc
To form the possessive of a name that end in s, add apostrophe + s, as follows:
Burns's poetry; Keats's letters; etc
To form the possessive of a plural noun that doesn't end with an s, add apostrophe + s, as follows:
women's writing; people's rights; etc
For a plural noun or name that ends with an s, simply add an apostrophe:
the books' endings (the endings of more than one book); the rules' purpose (the purpose of several rules); the Wordsworths' home (the home shared by the Wordsworth family); etc
4) To form the plural of most nouns or names, add s (no apostrophe):
cats (more than one cat); books; trees; the Wordsworths (more than one member of the Wordsworth family); etc
5) Distinction between contractions and possessive pronouns: e.g., it's = it is; by contrast, its = possessive form of the pronoun it:
it's [it is] an ambiguous ending; its ending is ambiguous
For further information about the Children's Literature class, please contact Dr Tom Furniss at firstname.lastname@example.org