Rhetoric and Composition/Punctuation

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What Is Punctuation For?

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"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 making 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 for readers working through text on a page or screen, visually and two-dimensionally.

The nature of reading demands such clues precisely because text is not speech. Speakers have pitch, pace, hand gestures, facial expressions, and other means to let a listener know such things as which points to link to each other and which points should stand on their own, or whether information is necessary in that it restricts meaning or whether it is extraneous. Moreover, ordinary speech usually accommodates a listener's questions, allowing for a more rapid arrival at a joint understanding between speaker and listener. The greater temporal and spatial distance between writer and reader, however, calls for a code 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?

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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 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 understandability 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, subscribing to (buying into) conventional punctuation is one among many certificates of authenticity you can carry.

Why is that? Why should conventional punctuation exert such influence? Part of the answer can be found in the way 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?

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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 specialized 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 a lexicon 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 use punctuation correctly.

In short: Yes, it does help to know some of the jargon when learning punctuation. The good news is, 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.

OK, which terms do I need to know?

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The sections below about specific punctuation marks introduce terms as you’ll need them. But there are a few terms it helps to know beforehand.

Independent clause

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This is a group of words that could stand on its own as a complete sentence because it expresses a complete thought.

How can you tell if a thought or sentence is “complete”? While there are more complicated tests involving more jargon, one simple test that usually works is to read the group of words out loud with extra expressiveness. We almost always can “hear” completeness or incompleteness. Every independent clause must have a subject (even if it is only implied as in a command) and a verb (even if it is only the verb to be).

When you read an independent clause aloud, it has a sound of being finished. You and any other listener are not waiting for more information. Your voice usually drops with an air of finality when you are done reading an independent clause aloud.


  • Conflict resolution requires looking first at involved parties collectively.
  • One challenge is determining whether all parties truly want to resolve the conflict.
  • The conflict may be serving another purpose.

Dependent clause

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In contrast, when you read a dependent clause aloud, you or your listener has the feeling of “Well...? What’s next? Finish it up!” A dependent clause is a group of words that can’t stand on its own as a sentence because it does not express a complete thought. It leaves the listener (and reader) hanging.

In addition, there are certain words that make a clause dependent. When the following words appear at the beginning of a clause, that clause is dependent:

after, although, as, as if, as long as, as soon as, as though, because, before, during, even if, even though, ever since, if, in case, in order that, once, on condition that, provided that, since, so that, then, though, unless, until, what, whatever, when, whenever, whether, which, whichever, while, whomever, whose, why


  • Until all parties agree that resolution is a shared priority
  • Which allows the process to move forward
  • An example being one person who retains power as long as the conflict goes unsolved

Independent clause and dependent clause refer to groups of words. Two more terms it helps to know beforehand are labels for certain individual words.

Coordinating conjunctions

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When these seven short words words link two independent clauses together within one sentence, they are called coordinating conjunctions:

and, but, for, nor, or, so, yet

Each coordinating conjunction signals a specific relationship between the independent clauses it joins.

  • And signals addition and extension. Used with a comma between two independent clauses, it tells the reader that the thoughts expressed in those clauses should be considered together and with equal weight.
    Each workplace conflict is unique, and each requires its own assessment.
  • But expresses contrast. It tells readers that the thought expressed in the second independent clause is in opposition to, or otherwise different from, the thought expressed in the first independent clause.
    Each workplace conflict is unique, but several general principles apply to finding solutions.
  • For signals that the second thought is a statement of causation relative to the first thought or that the second thought should be considered as significantly informing the first thought.
    Each workplace conflict is unique, for each context is unique.
  • Nor links two complete thoughts expressed as negatives, indicating that neither is an option.
    Serious conflicts cannot be solved by ignoring them, nor can they be solved by attempting to legislate past them.
  • Or conveys option/choice or consequence (as in the sense of “or else”) between the two thoughts.
    Conflicts may be resolved with one mediated discussion, or extended negotiation may be required to bring about consensus.
  • So signals that the second thought is a statement of effect or consequence relative to the first thought.
    Workplace conflicts can ultimately be opportunities for growth, so managers should approach them confidently.
  • Yet tells the reader that the thought expressed in the second independent clause is in opposition or contrast to the first. It also can indicate simultaneity, in effect saying to the reader, “At the same time, after you’ve read the first thought, you should also consider this thought.”
    Workplace conflicts can ultimately be opportunities for growth, yet most managers approach them with dread and apprehension.

Conjunctive adverbs

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These are words expressing a relationship or transition between two independent clauses. Common conjunctive adverbs are:

so, otherwise, also, consequently, for example, furthermore, however, in addition, in contrast, in fact, instead, likewise, moreover, nevertheless, otherwise, still, then, therefore

Conjunctive adverbs other than SO or OTHERWISE require either a period or semicolon preceding them and a comma following them. Once you understand these terms, you’re ready to look at punctuation formulas for using commas, semicolons, and colons.

Example #1 The CEO will be attending the lecture; accordingly, the vice president will be available for the luncheon at noon.

The two clauses are independent. The semicolon replaces a coordinating conjunction and indicates that the two clauses are independent.

Example #2 Jaime wanted to see "Billy Madison"; however, Nick wanted to see "Happy Gilmore."

The two clauses are independent. The semicolon replaces a coordinating conjunction and indicates that the two clauses are independent.

Uses of "That"

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That in the English language serves five different syntactic functions. They are:

1. Demonstrative determiner
   example: That house
2. Demonstrative pronoun
   example: That is my car
3. Functions as a noun
   example: That works for me.
4. Complementizer
   example: I know that she was waiting for me
5. Relative pronoun 
   example: The book that I read was interesting