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You Have a Point There

By the same author
2nd edn
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An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English
4th edn
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You Have a Point There
A Guide to Punctuation and its

Eric Partridge

With a Chapter on American Practice by John

London & New York

First published in Great Britain 1953 by
Hamish Hamilton Ltd
This edition published in the Taylor & Francis e-Library, 2005.
“To purchase your own copy of this or any of Taylor & Francis or Routledge’s collection of
thousands of eBooks please go to”
© 1953 Eric Partridge
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reprinted or
reproduced or utilised in any form or by any electronic,
mechanical, or other means, now known or hereafter
invented, including photocopying and recording, or in any
information storage or retrieval system, without permission
in writing from the publishers.
ISBN 0-203-37992-6 Master e-book ISBN

ISBN 0-203-38609-4 (Adobe eReader Format)
ISBN 0-415-05075-8 (Print Edition)

who doesn’t need it



















































































by JOHN W. CLARK, University of Minnesota



,, II:








SOME DAY a doctorate will justly be awarded to a scholar brave
enough to write a history of the theory and practice of British and
American punctuation, from the time when there certainly was none
until the time when there will perhaps be none.
I have aimed at something much less ambitious. Eschewing all but
the most recent history—except, here and there, for the sake of an
example—I deal only with the theory and especially the practice of
punctuation as we know it today and knew it yesterday; and with
such allies or accessories as capitals, italics, quotation marks,
hyphens, paragraphs.
Acquainted with ‘the literature of the subject’, I recognize the
merits, both of such books as that of T.F. and M.F.A.Husband, that of
Mr G.V.Carey and that of Mr Reginald Skelton, and of the chapters or
entries in such works as the Fowler brothers’ The King’s English,
H.W.Fowler’s Modern English Usage and G.H.Vallins’s Good English.
This recognition and that knowledge strongly confirm me in a
determination (publicly stated in the article on punctuation in Usage
and Abusage, 1942 in U.S.A., 1947 in Britain) to write a comprehensive
guide to punctuation and its concomitants. Such a guide is very badly
needed, especially in what I have called ‘orchestration’: and
orchestration forms the subject of the quite painfully practical
Book III.
Except for those persons who already know something useful
about punctuation, all the works I have examined (nor are they few)
exhibit at least one very grave fault. Whether they start with the full
stop, as logically they should, or, as most of them do, despite the
inescapable presence of a full stop, with the comma, they adduce
examples containing either one or more stops of which the learner
presumably knows nothing at this stage. There is only one logical,
only one sensible, only one practical, only one easy way in which a


beginner can learn punctuation: and that is, progressively. The
examples in the opening chapter, The Full Stop, will contain only the
full stop. The ensuing chapter, The Comma, has examples in which
only full stops and commas are used. If the next chapter is The
Semicolon, the examples will or may contain also the full stop and the
comma. The next would then be The Colon, and here the examples
can exhibit all the four main stops: full stop, comma, semi colon,
colon. The two minor stops (dash and parentheses) can then be
treated; but if we begin with the dash, the relevant chapter or section
should, in its examples, contain no parentheses, although they will, or
may, contain the four main stops. Having disposed of all six true
stops (full stop, comma, semicolon, colon, dash, parentheses), we can
pass to the two signs, ? and !, which, so far from being stops, are mere
indications of tone: or, as we say, ‘marks’—the question mark and the
exclamation mark. Such subtleties as the relationship of stops and
marks to either parentheses or quotation marks, or indeed both,
cannot safely be treated until the ground has been entirely cleared.
Book IV deals with some differences in American practice, a
chapter generously contributed, with some valuable comments, by a
former collaborator, John W.Clark of the University of Minnesota. The
emphasis rests upon ‘differences’, for, in general, American practice is
identical with British. It would be absurd for either Professor Clark or
myself to catalogue the identities, which outnumber the differences by
at least ten to one, British and American opinion being in entire
accord on literally all major, and on very nearly all minor, topics.
E. P.



Chapter 1

§ 1:
A Few Opinions
ALL THE parts of Syntaxe have already beene declared. There resteth
one generall affection of the whole, disposed thorow every member
thereof, as the bloud is thorow the body; and consisteth in the
breathing, when we pronounce any Sentence; For, whereas our breath
is by nature so short, that we cannot continue without a stay to speake
long together; it was thought necessarie, as well for the speakers ease,
as for the plainer deliverance of the things spoken, to invent this
meanes, whereby men, pausing a pretty while, the whole speech
might never the worse be understood.
The English Grammar made by Ben Jonson, written
ca. 1617, published in 1640
POINTS, serving for the better Understanding of Words, are either
Primary, or Secundary.
Primary Points, which shew their Tone, Sound and Pauses, are
eight: four simple and more common; Period, [.] Colon, [:] Semicolon,
[ ;] Comma, [,] and four mixt and less frequent...........
The mixt Points, are Erotesis [?] Ecphonesis; [!] Parenthesis, ( )
Parathesis: [ ] which have always some simple Point, exprest or
understood, in them...........................................
Secundary Points, now shewing Tone, Sound, or Pause, are four:
Apostrophus, [’] Eclipsis, [—] or [–—] Dieresis, [. .] and Hyphen, [-] or
CHARLES BUTLER, The English Grammar, 1633


Great care ought to be had in writing, for the due observing of
points: for, the neglect thereof will pervert the sence.
RICHARD HODGES, The English Primrose, 1644
Pointing is the disposal of speech into certain members for more
articulate and distinct reading and circumstantiating of writs and
papers. It rests wholly and solely on concordance, and necessitates a
knowledge of grammar.
ROBERT MONTEITH, The True and Genuine Art of Pointing, 1704
I know, there are some Persons who affect to despise it, and treat this
whole Subject with the utmost Contempt, as a Trifle far below their
Notice, and a Formality unworthy of their Regard: They do not hold it
difficult, but despicable; and neglect it, as being above it.
Yet many learned Men have been highly sensible of its Use; and
some ingenious and elegant Writers have condescended to point their
Works with Care; and very eminent Scholars have not disdained to
teach the Method of doing it with Propriety.
JAMES BURROW, An Essay on the Use of Pointing, 1771
The pauses which mark the sense, and for this reason are
denominated sentential, are the same in verse as in prose. They are
marked by the usual stops, a comma, a semicolon, a colon, or a period,
as the sense requires.
NOAH WEBSTER, Dissertations on the English Language, 1789
Punctuation is the art of dividing a written composition into
sentences, or parts of sentences, by points or stops, for the purpose of
marking the different pauses which the sense, and an accurate
pronunciation require.
LINDLEY MURRAY, English Grammar, 1794
The sense, or meaning, of the words is very much dependent upon
the points which are used along with the words.
WILLIAM COBBETT, A Grammar of the English Language, 1819
It has already been frequently shown by writers on the subject that
our punctuation-marks do not indicate the most suitable places for
pauses in reading aloud; the voice of an intelligent reader ignores some
of the textual pointing and introduces breaks at places other than
those where there are points. The pointing of matter ‘to be sung or
said’ is, in fact, a subject apart. With regard to constructional pointing
it may be urged that in reality it rests on sense and meaning, since
grammar is the analysis of the forms in which rational expression is
made. We think, however, that all the complexities and divergences


and confusions of grammatical pointing arose just because it was not
in constant and direct touch with meaning.
A PRACTICAL PRINTER, A Manual of Punctuation, 1859
Of all the subjects which engage the attention of the compositor,
none proves a greater stumbling-block, or is so much a matter of
uncertainty and doubt, especially to the mere tyro, as the Art of
Punctuation. This arises partly from the necessarily somewhat inexact
nature of the art itself, but far more from ignorance of the principles
on which its rules ought to be founded, and the illogical construction
of the sentences with which the printer has sometimes to deal.
HENRY BEADNELL (some forty years a Printer’s Reader), Spelling
and Punctuation, 1880
Modern printers make an effort to be guided by logic or grammar
alone; it is impossible for them to succeed entirely; but any one who will
look at an Elizabethan book with the original stopping will see how
far they have moved: the old stopping was frankly to guide the voice
in reading aloud, while the modern is mainly to guide the mind in
seeing through the grammatical construction.
A perfect system of punctuation, then, that would be exact and
uniform, would require separate rhetorical and logical notations…
Such a system is not to be desired.
H.W. & F.G.FOWLER, The King’s English, 1906
When punctuation was first employed, it was in the role of the
handmaid of prose; later the handmaid was transformed by the
pedants into a harsh-faced chaperone, pervertedly ingenious in the
contriving of stiff regulations and starched rules of decorum; now,
happily, she is content to act as an auxiliary to the writer and as a
guide to the reader.
HAROLD HERD, Everybody’s Guide to Punctuation, 1925
Intellectually, stops matter a great deal. If you are getting your
commas, semi-colons, and full stops wrong, it means that you are not
getting your thoughts right, and your mind is muddled.
WILLIAM TEMPLE, Archbishop of York, as
reported in The Observer, 23 October 1938
We ought to deplore the growing tendency to use only full stops
and commas. Punctuation is an invaluable aid to clear writing, and I
suggest that far too little importance is attached to it by many
FRANK WHITAKER, in an address to the Institute of Journalists:
reproduced in The J.I.J, January 1939


Mr Partridge’s account of punctuation shows by its wealth of
possible effects that punctuation can be made a part of the art of
writing—instead of the simple, almost mechanical routine that
American schools recommend.
W.CABELL GREET, in his gloss at ‘Punctuation’ in Usage and Abusage,
American edition, 1942
We indicate time by means of stops known as punctuation marks.
These marks also help to make the sense clear, to show the
expression, and to avoid confusion in reading.
L.A.G.STRONG, An Informal English Grammar, 1943
§ 2:
Clearing the Deck
A thoughtful reading of § I will have shown that already in the 17th
Century the principal points were being used. It will not have shown
that they arose late in the 16th Century and that we owe them to the
ingenuity of Aldus Manutius, the distinguished Italian printer (Aldo
Manuzio: 1450–1515) whose ‘Aldine’ Press operated at Venice.
Before him, punctuation had been virtually confined to the period
or full stop and, in several countries, to the question mark. Before that,
punctuation was unknown. But, as we are not concerned with the
history of the subject, I refer the curious to T.F. and M.F.A. Husband’s
Punctuation, 1905, or to the briefer, yet adequate, treatment in
Reginald Skelton’s Modern English Punctuation, revised edition, 1949.
As § 1 shows, there have been two systems of punctuation: the
rhetorical or dramatic or elocutionary, seen at its height in Elizabethan
and Jacobean plays, but after the 17th Century very rarely used; and
the grammatical or constructional or logical, which has always
predominated in prose and has predominated in verse since ca. 1660.
On the subject of dramatic punctuation, the standard work is Percy
Simpson’s Shakespearean Punctuation, 1911.
But to insist upon the dichotomy dramatic-grammatical would be
both pedantic and inept. For much of the time, as is inevitable, the
two coincide: a speaker tends to pause wherever either logic or
grammar makes a pause; and even the most ‘logical’ or ‘grammatical’
of punctuators tends, when he is writing dialogue, to point what is
clearly an elocutionary or dramatic pause, as in ‘He speaks often of
freedom. But, he takes good care to avoid going to prison for the
cause of freedom’, where the comma represents a dramatic pause. (In


dialogue, however, the sensible way to indicate that pause would be
to italicize ‘But’, not to punctuate it with a comma.)
The elocutionary element occurs again in the second of these two
sentences: ‘He intended to finish the task, but then he fell ill’ and ‘He
fell ill; but then, he was always falling ill’ and ‘He fell ill, but then he
was always falling ill’. In the first sentence, then means ‘at that point
of time’; in the third, then means ‘at, or during, that period’; in the
second, however, then has no temporal meaning. ‘He fell ill; but then,
he was always falling ill’ could have been written ‘…; but he was
always falling ill’. With then, the sentence is much more colloquial and
idiomatic; here, then is hardly less interjectional than alas is in ‘He fell
ill; but alas! he was always falling ill’. However elocutionary then may
be, the comma is demanded by logic: the omission of this comma would
not only create ambiguity, it would positively falsify the intended
In short, English—or, if you prefer, British and American—
punctuation is predominantly constructional or grammatical or
logical, yet it has what is in some ways a non-logical, non-grammatical
element, necessitated by the part played in speech by intonation and
pause and in writing (or printing) by emphasis.
Even that modification slightly exaggerates the importance of logic
and the power of grammar. In punctuation, grammar represents
parliament, or whatever the elected body happens to be called: logic
represents King or President: but the greatest power of all is vested in
the people or, rather, in the more intelligent people—in good sense
rather than in mere commonsense. Commonsense can and often does
produce a humdrum, barely adequate, wholly unimaginative
punctuation: good sense (another name for wisdom) can and
sometimes does produce a punctuation that is much superior to the
barely adequate.
One could write a monograph upon the psychological principles of
punctuation. That monograph would form an exercise in psychology
and occupy an honourable place on the shelves of a psychologist’s
library; it would hardly benefit the writer, the journalist, the
student; and to the pupil, as to the ordinary person who rarely writes
anything other than a frequent cheque or an infrequent letter, it
would, so far from being a help, be a hindrance.
The most abysmal low-brow, like the dizziest high-brow, needs
punctuation in order to make his meaning clear. The good journalist
and the conscientious writer (whether of essays at school or of larger


works elsewhere) will find, if he has not already found, that
punctuation forms an integral part of composition and an invaluable
assistance to both the public expression and perhaps even the private
formulation of lucid thinking.
Punctuation too often ranks as an adjunct. In the fact, it should rank
as a component. It is not something that one applies as an ornament,
for it is part of the structure; so much a part that, without it, the
structure would be meaningless—except after an exhausting

Chapter 2

THE STOP that comes at the end of a sentence or of any other
complete statement has been called point, elliptical for full (or perfect)
point; full (or complete) pause; full stop; period. The second is obsolete;
the first, obsolescent. Of the other two, period and full stop, the former
is preferred by most scholars and printers, the latter by most other
people. Nobody will go to heaven for using period, nor to hell for
using full stop.
A period is so named because it comes at the end of a period, strictly
of a periodic sentence, but now loosely apprehended as any sentence,
even if it consists of only one word, e.g. ‘Yes’, elliptical for ‘Yes, that is
so’, ‘Yes, I will’, etc. Compare the modern catchword ‘Period’:
indicating the end, not only of a statement, a telegram, a letter, but
also of a holiday, an indulgence, a permission, and so forth. Compare
also Chaucer’s ‘And there a point, for ended is my tale’.
Full stop virtually explains itself: a full stop, like a full or perfect
point, is obviously not an imperfect point or stop, whether as brief as
a comma or as clear-cut as a semicolon or as disruptive as a dash or as
smooth as a pair of parentheses or as culturedly poised as a colon:
here ends the statement, here ends the sentence. The etymology of
period is helpful, as etymology so often is. Period, French période, Latin
periodus, Greek periodos (peri, around+hodos, a way, a road), means
literally a going round, hence a rounding off, especially as applied to
time, more especially still the time represented by a breathing. At the
end of a breathing, a sentence, a statement, one pauses to take breath,
either because one must or because it is convenient to do so. This
explains why the elocutionary term pause and, for the full stop, full
pause were formerly used as synonymous with (full) point or (full) stop.
The one indispensable stop is the full stop. In most simple sentences
—those containing one verb—this stop suffices. In the following
examples, only an over-punctuator would increase the punctuation:


He went home early that day.
He could hardly have done anything else.
He knew all about it.
Quite unconcernedly she continued her knitting.
She said No.
Many compound and some complex sentences require nothing but
a full stop. A consideration of the following examples will show the
kind of compound sentence where this is permissible and, indeed,
He went home early that day and got the chores finished by seven
He went home early that day in order to do a number of small
things that could not very well be left until the next morning.
He went home early that day and finished his chores before he
went to bed.
He did not get home early that day because he had been delayed in
He did not get home early that day because he had been delayed in
town by a friend he had not met for quite twenty years.
When I saw him I departed as soon as ever I could.
The factor common to all these sentences is continuity of subject.
Take that last sentence:
When I saw him I departed as soon as I could.
If we changed it to
When I saw him he ran away,
we should not be wrong; some elegant writers, however, would put
a comma after ‘him’. An abrupt change of subject usually demands a
comma, especially if the conjunction happens to be ‘but’ or ‘however’
or ‘for’ or ‘since’. For instance,
I looked hard at him but he took no notice of me
would be improved thus:
I looked hard at him, but he took no notice of me.
That, however, is to anticipate.
Beginners, especially children, overdo the period, inasmuch as they
seem to think that no other stop exists. This is what the Fowler
brothers call ‘the spot-plague’. Few practised writers would commit
themselves to such simplicity as this:
My father drove to the town yesterday. He had to go there because
he needed flour and salt and sugar for the house and equipment for
the farm and some special food for some hens that seemed to be off


their food for some reason or other. When he reached town he went
straight to the store and got what he needed before he went to arrange
with the agent for agricultural machinery for the delivery of a new
tractor and certain repairs to be done to the harvester. But he did find
the time for a cup of I don’t know whether it was tea or coffee. The
poor man felt so thirsty that he thought that his throat had been cut or
so he told my mother when he finally got back home after dusk. She
said that he ought to have had a square meal because it didn’t do him
any good to go for so long on such a tiring day without food. But he
said he had been so busy and so anxious not to overlook anything
that he wasn’t even aware that time was passing so rapidly and that if
he wasn’t careful he would be caught in the dark.
Nevertheless, the lack of all punctuation other than that of the full
stops is much less tedious in such a passage, where, in fact, the
unrelieved full stop is shown at full stretch and almost at its best, than
in the following:He was a good man. He was a brave man. He was also a very kind
man. He had a very kind wife. She was not brave but she was
certainly very good. He and she formed an almost ideal couple. At
least I think so. You may think differently. I shouldn’t blame you if
you did. They were very popular with everyone in the district. It was
a large district. And so their popularity meant a good deal both to
themselves and to the district. There exist few people like them.
Perhaps I should say ‘live’ instead of ‘exist’. But I must return to my
subject. This couple lived in that district for eighty years. They lived
there from birth to death. That is a long time. I mean eighty years is a
long time. But perhaps I am boring you. I must stop. You won’t speak
to me again if I don’t stop now. So I do at last stop.
The educated will say, But nobody writes like that. The trouble is
that a vast number of people write exactly like that: and some of them,
if not well-educated and cultured, are certainly not illiterate; a few
pass for (and, in the sobering fact, are) averagely educated persons. If
anyone objects, But that is a matter of style, not a matter of education,
some such reply as the following could be made:
Punctuation is not something apart from style, which, after all,
means no more than the way in which a person writes, whether badly
or well; punctuation does form part of English in its practical aspects,
a part far more important than most of us realize. The ability to write
at least a letter is extremely important; and if you think that you can
write an even passable letter without knowing how to use one and


preferably two other stops (comma and semicolon), you are making
a grave mistake. To go further: if you think you can write a good
business report or an essay or an article, without knowing also how to
employ at least two of the remaining stops—the colon, the dash, and
parentheses—then you are probably over-estimating your own
abilities as a writer and the intelligence of your readers.
Punctuation is not something that, like a best suit of clothes, you put
on for special occasions. Punctuation is not something you add to
writing, even the humblest: it forms an inescapable part of writing. To
change the metaphor, punctuation might be compared to the railway
line along which the train (composition, style, writing) must travel if
it isn’t to run away with its driver (the writer of even a note to the
To revert to the period or full stop. It ends a sentence, i.e. a
statement, i.e. the expression of a self-contained or complete thought.
So, of course, does a question mark or an exclamation mark. To avoid
illogical anticipation, however, this implication of a period being
somehow contained in either of those two supplementary marks will
be treated in Chapter 9.
Then there is the non-constructional, non-syntactical use of the
period in, for instance, ‘i.e.’ and ‘e.g.’ and ‘Prof.’: that is, in
abbreviation. This aspect of the period will be considered in
Chapter 4.
But there remain several uses relevant to the present chapter.
Examine the following sentences:
She did not dislike him. Far from it.
He acted as though he were an all-powerful dictator. Not that
he ever would be one.
You could hardly have been there. Of course not.
‘Far from it’ and ‘Of course not’ are neither complete thoughts nor
even sentences. They form a kind of shorthand for ‘She liked him very
much’ and ‘Of course you could not have been there’. ‘Not that he
ever would be one’ may be a complete sentence, although some
grammarians contend that sentences of this sort are imperfect; it
certainly is not a complete, self-contained thought, for strictly it
belongs to ‘He acted as though he were an all-powerful dictator’.
Many writers would prefer the single sentence, ‘He acted as though
he were an all-powerful dictator—not that he would ever be one’. That


sentence introduces a dash and therefore rather unhelpfully forestalls
Chapter 8. Perhaps a better example is this:
He said that he intended to commit suicide. As if he would.
There, ‘As if he would’ represents ‘Yet he intended to do nothing of
the sort’.*
Of this kind of imperfect sentence there is a variation, equivalent to
an intermediate stage, for in addition to
The angry man protested. Vehemently,
we have
The angry man protested. Protested vehemently.
‘Protested vehemently’ merely omits the subject, presumably ‘He’.
A secondary aspect of the clipped sentence will be examined in
Chapter 14, Italics.
Much more importantly: the relation of full stop to comma appears,
by indirection, in Chapter 3; its relation to all other stops whatsoever
appears, in its simpler forms, in Chapter 11, Punctuation at All Points,
and, in its complex forms, in Chapter 22, Alliance of Punctuation and
Quotation, and Chapter 23, Full Orchestra.
An Anomaly

There is one conclusion that is left unconcluded. After one’s
signature at the end of a letter (or note) one omits the period; even in
Your loving
Ann Smith
(not much longer to be Smith)
—for a period is felt to be pedantic.

* A more forceful writer would probably have punctuated ‘As if he would’ thus:
‘As if he would!’ The dot-obsessed would have written: ‘As if he would…’ But
these are anticipations.

Chapter 3

NEXT IN importance to the longest pause of all, the period or full
stop, comes the shortest, the comma. The practice does not seriously
differ from the theory implied by the etymology: comma, the Latin
transliteration of Greek komma, related to koptein, to cut, means
literally ‘a cutting’, hence ‘a cutting-off’, hence ‘a part cut off’, hence a
clause, which, after all, is nothing but a part, especially a
(comparatively) short part, cut off from the rest of the sentence; hence
the sign that indicates the division. In modern practice, the comma
serves to separate not only clauses but phrases and words; more
precisely, certain kinds of clauses and certain kinds of phrase and
certain groupings of words.
In modern usage, the comma subserves predominantly the
grammar, the construction or syntax, of a sentence; formerly the
comma indicated primarily the rhetorical pauses, as, quite often, it
still does. To attempt a rigid dichotomy of rhetorical and grammatical
uses of the comma would be crassly stupid: and this condemnation,
as we have already seen, applies to punctuation in general.
Although the separation, whether of single words or phrases from
other single words or phrases, or of single words or phrases from
clauses, is, on the whole, more modern than the separation of clause
from clause, it is easier to treat the comma in the following apparently
arbitrary, yet practical and convenient, order:
I: (1) commas between single words:
(a) nouns or pronouns
(b) adjectives
(c) verbs
(d) adverbs
(e) prepositions
(f) conjunctions


(2) commas between word-groups (other than phrases)
apprehended as units
(3) commas between single words and word-groups

commas between single words (or word-groups) and
phrases, and between phrases and phrases
commas between place-names and in dates
commas in addresses, letter-headings and letter-ends
commas in figures and symbols
commas between single words, word-groups, phrases—
and clauses
commas between clauses:
principal and principal
principal and subordinate
subordinate and subordinate
principal(s) and subordinate(s) linked complexly
restrictive (or defining) clauses and non-restrictive (or nondefining) clauses
the stating and the stated.

Since, obviously, these various functions of the comma are relevant
only within the framework of a single sentence, the functional
distinctions are slight. But if one failed to establish and then adhere to
some such arrangement of material that is much more complex than all
pupils, most students, and many scholars, writers, journalists realize,
one could easily fail to do justice to the subject. Both the learner of
punctuation and the reviser of his own punctuation will rightly
ignore the schema and assimilate the lessons implied by the
§ 1:
The Comma between Noun (or Pronoun) and Noun
(or Pronoun)
Two nouns or pronouns, or a noun and a pronoun, do not, when
joined by and, need a comma:
Jack and Jill
Jack and Jill went up the hill
He and she climbed the hill
Jack and she climbed the hill


He and Jill climbed the hill.
That rule is perhaps so childishly obvious that it should not even be
formulated. Yet there is an exception, as in:
Jack, and Jill, went up the hill:
where the meaning is ‘Jack went up the hill. But, remarkable though it
may seem, so did Jill’. This rather fine point forms one of those which
will be treated in Chapter 16, at the section on the various manners in
which emphasis may be conveyed. The same exception could be
applied to such sentences as
Jack and Jill and Tom went up the hill
He and she and I are cousins,
for a different nuance is perceptible in ‘Jack and Jill, and Tom, went
up the hill’, Tom being an unwanted addition.
The usual sentence-form, however, is:
Jack, Jill and Tom went up the hill
He, she and I are cousins:
rather more usual, in the 20th Century, than:
Jack, Jill, and Tom…
He, she, and I…
To say that the latter form is incorrect would be wrong. But the commas
after ‘Jill’ and ‘she’ are excessive, for they perform no useful work.
The second comma should be inserted only when the writer wishes to
emphasize the third element by disjoining it from the first two
elements. The same rule applies where there are more than three
elements of the subject or, naturally, of the object or the complement
of a sentence, as in:
Their names are Tom, Dick, Harry and Jim.
He named his sons Tom, Dick, Harry and Jim.
I saw you, your wife, your son and your daughter enjoying
yourselves at the circus last night.


Slightly more tricky, though still far from difficult, is the punctuation
of word-groups, such as:
Jack and Jill, like Tom, Dick and Harry, and John Doe and
Richard Roe, form units in the popular mind.
That example presents no difficulty. Less easy is:
Jack and Jill, Tom, Dick and Harry, John Doe and Richard Roe form
units in the popular mind:
for one might well, as many of us do, put a comma after ‘Roe’; but
that comma fails to dispel a certain ambiguity. The ambiguity does not
exist for those who already know, nor for those who
immediately perceive, that Jack and Jill—Tom, Dick and Harry—and
John Doe and Richard Roe are units. To a foreigner, completely ignorant
of English idiom, the division might appear to be:
Jack—and Jill, Tom, Dick and Harry—John Doe and Richard Roe; or Jack
—and Jill, Tom, Dick—and Harry, John Doe and Richard Roe; and one or
two others. Clarity demands the simple:
Jack and Jill, like Tom, Dick and Harry, and John Doe and Richard
Roe, form units in the popular mind:
which could be further simplified by the insertion of ‘like’ or, better
still, ‘also like’ before ‘John Doe’, thus:
Jack and Jill, like Tom, Dick and Harry, and (also) like John Doe and
Richard Roe, form units.
A careful writer might mention that these groups form ‘three units’.
But whatever else a careful writer does, he will certainly put a comma
after ‘Harry’.
It is better to avoid difficulties syntactically than to have to resolve
them by subtle punctuation; if they are syntactically unavoidable,
punctuation has to be especially good. Even such variations as I have
shown above will, to the inquiring mind, suggest that punctuation
does truly form an integral part of style.
§ 2:
The Comma between Adjectives
The rule here is, in essentials, the same as for nouns and pronouns.
(a) A good and great king
(b) George VI, good and great, died in 1952
(c) An odd, strange, curious, queer creature


(d) An odd, strange, curious and queer creature
(e) Dim and hazy, vague and nebulous, the inchoate mass baffled
all but the keenest eyes.
Of these examples, (a) and (b) are straightforward; in (e) there are two
pairs of adjectives, which must be separated not only from each other
but from the subject, ‘the inchoate mass’; (c) and (d) exemplify the rule
that the adjective immediately preceding its noun has no separative
comma; (d) exemplifies also the rule that, as for a set of nouns, the
word preceding ‘and’ has no comma: compare‘. Jill and Tom went up
the hill’.
Now, (b) could have been written:
George VI, a great and good king, died in 1952;
it could be varied thus:
George VI, great king and good man, died in 1952
Great king and good man, George VI died in 1952.
‘George VI’—‘a great and good king’, and ‘George VI’—‘great king
and good man’, like ‘Great king and good man’—‘George VI’, are in
apposition; they stand side by side; the one part of the subject
balances the other. Compare, in (e), ‘Dim and hazy’—‘vague and
nebulous’, which, though standing side by side, are not described as
being in apposition.
One kind of apposition causes trouble. Whereas the type indicated
George VI, King of England, died in 1952 The King of England,
George VI, died in 1952
is easy, the following type, which used to be punctuated:
King of England, George VI, had no reason to doubt his subjects’
George VI, after being a prince, became a king
is now, more logically, more sensibly, much more fluently
King of England, George VI had no reason to doubt his subjects’
George VI, after being a prince became a king.
Compare the awkwardness of
The invader of England, William the Conqueror, in 1066, had to
fight a pitched battle
with the naturalness and grammatical good sense of


William the Conqueror, invader of England, in 1066 had to fight a
pitched battle.
Another sort of sentence is this:
(a) He was a very able and dishonest man
(b) He was a very able and thoroughly dishonest man
(c) He was a very able but dishonest man
(d) He was a very able but thoroughly dishonest man
(e) He was a very able but also a thoroughly dishonest man.
All five sentences are punctuated in the modern fashion. The objection
to (a) is that the sentence is slightly ambiguous: does it mean ‘He was
a very able and very dishonest man’ (or ‘He was a very able and a
very dishonest man’)—or ‘He was a very able dishonest man’ (where
‘dishonest man’ is a unit and equivalent to ‘a cheat’, ‘a thief, etc.)?
If the emphasis lies rather upon ‘dishonest’ than upon ‘able’, the
punctuation should be
(a) He was a very able, and dishonest, man
(b) He was a very able, and thoroughly dishonest, man
(c) He was a very able, but dishonest, man
(d) He was a very able, but thoroughly dishonest, man
(e) He was a very able, but also a thoroughly dishonest, man.
When the emphasis upon ‘able’ and ‘dishonest’ is equal, or nearly
equal, some writers would, in every sentence, omit the second comma;
to do this, however, is to create a very odd effect in (a) and (b), and in
(c) a rather odd one. But in (d) and (e) the second comma could well
be omitted.
§ 3:
The Comma between Verbs
As with nouns, pronouns and adjectives, so with verbs. The following
examples should clearly indicate the rules—although ‘rules’ is almost
too definite a word to apply to practical punctuation:
(a) He danced and sang with more energy than elegance
(b) He danced well, but sang badly
(c) He danced well but he sang badly
(d) She turned, saw, shuddered


(e) She turned, saw and shuddered
(f) Dancing, he was graceful
(g) Dancing, he was graceful, but walking, clumsy
(h) Dancing, he was graceful and, singing, he was superb.
Of these examples, several call for a cursory remark: as (b), if written
without a comma, would be more fluent but less emphatic, so (c)
would be more emphatic with a comma after ‘well’; in (e) there is no
need for a comma after ‘saw’, although a few old-fashioned
people would put one there; many would, in (g), inset a comma after
‘but’, thus creating an over-punctuated effect; the same effect, though
less noticeably, would mar (h) if one were to insert a comma after
But commas are obviously needed in such sentence-types as these:
(a) He thought quickly, acted promptly, escaped immediately
(b) He thought quickly, promptly acted, escaped immediately
(c) He had been, was being, feared that he would go on being,
(d) He had been, was being, and feared that he would go on being,
Of these examples (a) and (b) could not be punctuated less; (c) could
dispense with the comma after the second ‘being’; and (d) could,
without loss to the sense, dispense with the comma after the first, as
well as that after the second ‘being’, those two commas being purely
rhetorical. Sentences (c) and (d) verge upon obscurity: they are overbrief and over-compact. That, however, is a stylistic objection.
§ 4:
The Comma between Adverbs
As for nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, so—in the main—for
adverbs, which manifestly are comparable especially with adjectives.
Let us look at a few sentences:
(a) He rode fast and furiously down the hill
(b) He rode fast, furiously and hazardously down the hill
(c) Suddenly and noisily, hideously and eerily, the bell clanged on
the night air
(d) Suddenly, yet not unexpectedly, he yelled


(e) Abruptly she rose and suddenly turned
(f) Disastrously in 1852, off the Naze in foul weather, with all hands
lost, the Gloria sank quite without warning, without reason and
without trace
(g) Lovelily, graciously, tenderly, on that September morning in the
year 1939 and over a Europe so soon, so dreadfully and so
fatefully to be plunged into war, the sun rose unconscious of the
onset of a colossus about to darken, sinisterly and savagely, a
world no sun, however brightly shining, however beneficently,
could quite succeed in lighting.
Sentences (a) and (c) and (e) hardly call for remark. In (b) it would be
excessive to have a comma after ‘furiously’; in (d) a more fluent, less
emphatic and also less arresting effect could be obtained by omitting
both of the commas, as also in ‘He yelled suddenly yet not
unexpectedly’, the midway stage being ‘He yelled suddenly, yet not
Sentence (f) is clumsy, yet this sort of thing is constantly happening
in the best-regulated newspapers; the punctuation is tolerable. The
sentence would be improved by the deletion of ‘Disastrously’ and of
the comma after ‘lost’. Sentence (g) is intolerably ‘poetic’ and
superannuatedly rhetorical. But unless we rewrite the entire sentence,
we could not safely alter the punctuation.
Much trouble can be avoided by observing the ‘natural’ order of
adverbs. But that is a stylistic matter.*
§ 5:
The Comma between Prepositions
The practice for punctuating prepositions is so nearly the same as that
for adverbs and adjectives, and indeed for verbs and nouns, that the
following examples will very clearly exemplify and most
compulsively imply the rules or, rather, the precautions applicable to
ninetynine per cent, of the potentialities:
(a) For him, as for her, the ceremony is binding
(b) Whether it is in, on or beyond the house makes a difference
merely academic
(c) In but not of the throng, he went silently about his business of


(d) Whether one says at or in a city depends upon the size of the
To omit the commas in (a) would produce an odd effect; in (b) no
comma is needed after ‘on’; if particular emphasis is required, (c)
could be punctuated: ‘In, but not of, the throng, he went…’; the same
applies to (d).
§ 6:
The Comma between Conjunctions
Two conjunctions can, in good English, occur together only in
complex sentences; when they do, they are usually separated by a
comma, thus:
(a) He asked whether, if it were convenient, he might look over the
(b) He hastened to the station, but, when he arrived, he found that
the train had already gone.
(c) When, however, he arrived, he found that the train had gone.
(d) I don’t like suggesting this, but, if it’s at all possible, I should be
grateful for your help.
(e) Now, as you see, I can obtain all the supplies I need, whereas,
when you were here, it was difficult to obtain even flour.
(f) Whenever, since I began to work, this has happened, I’ve told
myself that, because I couldn’t do anything useful about it, I
should not worry.
In (b) many writers would omit the comma after ‘but’, a few would
daringly omit the one after ‘station’, and a comma-shy person might
have only a single stop in the entire sentence: the full stop at the end.
In (d) the sparse-punctuators would have only one comma—the
comma following ‘this’; I myself tend to write
I don’t like suggesting this, but if it’s at all possible, I should be
grateful for your help;
but only ‘tend’, for the resulting sentence is ambiguous. In (e) the
fourth and fifth commas could be omitted with advantage to fluency
and a slight disadvantage to clarity; the better comma to discard is

* Both Modern English Usage and Usage and Abusage contain information upon this
vital subject.


that after ‘whereas’. Sentence (f) is clumsy, despite a clarifying
punctuation; it might be rewritten thus:
Since I began to work, I have, whenever this happened, told myself
that I should not worry, for I could not do anything useful about it.
The only single conjunctions necessitating a comma after them are
however, all the same, and, if coming in the second or third or later
place, therefore.
He felt ill. However, he went to work the next day.
He felt ill. All the same, he made seven jokes.
He felt ill. Therefore he felt that he had to make jokes.
He felt ill. His wife, therefore, kept him in bed.
Strictly, however, there is syntactically no need for a comma ever to
be put after therefore; therefore do not put one there—except for
elocution or stylistic * reasons.
§ 7:
Commas between Word-Groups (other than Phrases)
apprehended as Units
A few word-groups have been insinuated into the preceding sections.
Word-groups, whether of nouns, adjectives, verbs, etc., or of mixed
parts of speech, follow the same punctuational course as do single
words, as the following examples will show:
Simple sentences, compound sentences, complex sentences, like
adjectives of quality and adjectives of quantity, and also like adverbs
of manner, adverbs of degree and adverbs of negation, are
refinements of grammar, useful in description, classification,
reference, but, in essence as in character, so simple and indeed so
obvious that they cause no averagely intelligent child or foreigner any
more trouble than would be caused by eating an orange, learning a
new word or walking across the street.
A flock of sheep, a herd of cattle, a gaggle of geese, a flight of birds,
a fortuitous heap of stones, would, by many Australians, especially in
country districts, be called a mob.

* Of the stylistic reasons, several are bound up with the differentiation between
therefore and therefor.


The English language exhibits many pairs of words that have
become not only units but idioms, such as far and wide, well and
truly, true and faithful, by fits and starts, for good and all, hue and
cry, safe and sound, high and dry and, not to make a catalogue of it,
hard and fast.
A free-for-all, a getting-together, a brush-off and similar hyphened
nouns could all be written without hyphens, yet with exactly the same
English topography abounds in picturesque place-names consisting
of two elements, e.g. Much Hadham, Market Harborough and Market
Rasen, Chipping Camden and Chipping Norton, Stoke Poges, Nether
Stowey, Upper This and Lower That, Bognor Regis and Lyme Regis,
King’s Lynn, Bishop Auckland and Bishop’s Stortford,’ sometimes of
three elements, as Weston-super-Mare or Bradwell-juxta-Mare, and
even of four, as Stow-on-the-Wold, or, believe it or not, five, as in the
world-famous Much Binding in the Marsh.*
§ 8:
Commas between Single Words and Word-Groups
If one uses a little sense and avoids laughable collocations and timelosing ambiguities, one should have no difficulty: a word-group, like
a word, is a unit: and when have units caused trouble? Trouble comes
only when one passes from either singles or word-groups to pairs
and triplets. The ensuing examples are tolerably representative:
A great tern, a seagull, a solan goose, a common gannet, a crow, a
thrush, a sea duck and a duck may not rival in beauty the swan, the
golden eagle, the pheasant, the bird of paradise or the humming bird.
King, Emperor of the Gorgeous East, Ruler, the Just and the
Wielder of Justice, these formed a few of his claims to remembrance, a
place in the sun and a seat in Valhalla.

* In these two sentences, a few hyphens have purposely been admitted.


§ 9:
Commas between Single Words and Phrases; between
Word-Groups and Phrases; and between Phrases and
Several phrases have already been shown at work, especially in § 6: for
instance, far and wide, by fits and starts, hard and fast. Since phrases are
functionally identical with word-groups and since word-groups are
functionally identical with single words, whether those single words
be nouns or pronouns, adjectives or adverbs, verbs or prepositions or
conjunctions, it follows that the punctuation for phrases is the same as
for single words, as these examples will indicate:
(a) By fits and starts, sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes
expectedly, yet never for any apparently good reason, he would get
up, sit down, then fidget like a cat on hot bricks or stare like a
(b) In these circumstances he felt that he must, now or never, act
daringly, without excessive compunction and with the utmost
decisiveness. There is no need to insert a comma after
‘circumstances’; ‘now or never’ has been fenced off in order to
emphasize the urgency.
§ 10:
Commas between Place-Names and in Dates
To formulate a rule would be excessive. The following examples
should suffice:
At the corner of Oxford Street and Regent Street, London, the traffic
tends to become congested.
Abilene, Taylor County, Texas, must be distinguished from Abilene,
Dickinson County, Kansas.
Newcastle, N.S.W., Australia, was named after Newcastle,
On June 4, 1878, the human race was run, as usual.
On the fourth [or, 4th] of June, 1878, something remarkable
August 4, 1914, witnessed the outbreak of World War One.
Sunday, September 3, 1939 [or, Sunday, the 3rd of September, 1939]
witnessed the true beginning of World War Two.


§ 11:
Commas in Addresses, Letter-Headings, LetterEndings
Addresses should normally contain no commas, except before ‘Esq.’ or
‘Esqre’ and before ‘letters after the name’. The following is both
natural and so usual as to constitute usage:
John Smith, Esqre, M.A.
(or, Mrs Alice Smith, M.A.)
16 Parker Street
S.W. 33.
If, however, the district number is written in the same line as the
name of the city, the punctuation
London, S.W. 33
is customary. Yet if the district number consists of only a figure, the
customary form is
Liverpool 3.
Above all, avoid this sort of thing, formerly seen rather frequently on
envelopes, packets, parcels:
Master James Jameson,
773, St Michael’s Square,
with even a full stop to show that the address ends there.
Many over-conscientious people insert a comma after a street
number, as in
16, Parker Street
4, The Close.


It is hardly necessary to do so. Nor is it necessary, in the names
of American streets or squares, to set off S.E., S.W., N.W., etc., from
the preceding part of the street or square. Thus:
287 Cherry Street S.E.
is usual; not:
287 Cherry Street, S.E.
Letter-headings follow the same general principle. Whereas
98 Thomlinson Road
Putney, S.W. 15
12 June 1952 (or June 12, 1952)
exemplifies the modern practice,
98, Thomlinson Road,
Putney, S.W. 15.
12 June, 1952.
shows an old one, wasteful of time and serving no useful purpose.
It is, however, customary to punctuate the beginning of a letter,
It is a long time since
I wrote to you.
The same applies both when, in dialogue, one addresses somebody:
James, come here a moment, please
Oh, James, be careful, please
and when one poetically indulges oneself, or one’s reader, with that
figure of speech which we call Apostrophe:
O eloquent, just and mighty Death.
Grant, O Lord, my prayer.
Letter-endings follow this general pattern:


Believe me
yours truly,
I am,
yours truly,
Yours sincerely,
As ever,
In the first, some correspondents punctuate illogically:
Believe me,
yours truly,
§ 12:
Comma and Full Stop in Figures and Symbols
The usual division of figures runs in groups of three:
1,000; 27,000; 270,000; 2,700,000;
12,700,000; 112,700,000.
An exception occurs when the commas would set up a confusion with
the matter before or after the set of figures. Thus we write
On September 3, 1939, 5 000 000 men were under arms;
On September 3, 1939, 5,000,000 men were under arms.
Ambiguity or delay caused by matter coming after a set of figures
occurs less often, simply because good or even common sense forbids
such foolish risks. Such an example as
Men, 3,789, 683 horses


would suggest that the asylums for the insane are less populated than
they might be.
Men, 3,789. 683 horses
is better, yet still foolish. Either
Men, 3,789, and horses, 683
Men 3,789 and horses 683
3,789 men and 683 horses
is clear, the third being the best.
Symbols are of so many kinds that it is difficult to generalize.
Modern usage tends to punctuate symbols as little as possible. To take
an obvious example, the stops and marks of punctuation. We write


which would be absurd. The same stricture would apply to the
mathematical, chemical and other scientific and technical symbols;
and, of course, no less to the full stop than to the comma. The
simplest method of separation is to provide adequate spacing
between the symbols. For abbreviations, see Chapter 4.
There remain, however, several interallied uses of the nonpunctuational period. These can perhaps be more clearly exemplified
than explained:
For style, read the books by X. and Y. and Z. and, for composition in
the school sense, consult Mr A. and Miss B. and Mrs Z.
Chapter 1, § i.
§ ii.

Opinions of famous poets.
Criticisms by infamous critics
1. Foreign.


2. Native.
The book is catalogued as A.f.8.
Those three examples should suffice to convey the fundamental
idea: wherever classifications need, as usually they do need, the
utmost lucidity of arrangement and exposition, the period—or the
comma or, in complexities, both-will often prevent confusion.
§ 13:
Commas between Single Words (including
Participles), Word-Groups, Phrases (including the
Participial), on the one hand and Clauses on the other
We need not theorize. A few examples will supply all the additional
impressions required to complete the general impression that must
already have been formed, largely by the painless process of
assimilation, in the course of reading §§ 1–12. Thus:
A hero, fearing neither man nor devil, he regarded his fellow men
as his equals, as heroes, and therefore assumed that they too feared
neither man nor devil, neither cunning nor devilry, neither this life nor
the next.
Evil, he thought all others evil
Evil himself, he thought all others evil
Being evil, he thought all others evil.
Fearing, he fled and, fleeing, ran into a trap.
Courage, like fortitude, can be cultivated
Like fortitude, courage can be cultivated.
When, a child, he went there, he knew only his parents, but when, in
advanced middle age, he left, he had too many friends and, a
misfortune this, no parents.
Too few words, an insurmountable obstacle, and too many, a
deplorable weakness, these are the Scylla and Charybdis, but also the
tornado and doldrums alike, of a writer’s career, uncharted for the
most part, yet, where charted, requiring no chart other than that
provided by horse sense, mother wit, native wit, natural intelligence,
ordinary sense, sound sense.


§ 14:
Commas between Clauses—Principal and Principal
The relationship of commas to the structure of a sentence has
inevitably been implied in many examples given in §§ 1–13. The time
has arrived for us to be methodical. Being methodical, we shall begin
with sentences consisting of two or more principal clauses.
The simplest type of sentence is this:
John felt ill and went early to bed
They did not wish to make themselves conspicuous and so behaved
most circumspectly:
where no comma is needed. Compare:
John felt ill but continued to work
They wished to remain inconspicuous but did not behave very
there, too, no comma is needed.
In none of those four examples is the subject (‘John’—‘They’)
repeated. The following sentences have a repeated subject:
John felt ill and he went early to bed
They did not wish to make themselves conspicuous and so they
behaved most circumspectly
John felt ill but he continued to work
They wished to remain inconspicuous but they did not behave very
Whereas in the first pair, only an over-punctuator would insert a
comma after ‘ill’ and ‘conspicuous’, in the second pair (adversative
type of sentence) one could insert commas after ‘ill’ and
‘inconspicuous’ if one wished to emphasize the contrast. If, however,
one wished to emphasize that contrast, it could be done better by
using a semicolon.
In all the preceding examples, we have seen only an identical
subject. What happens when the subject of the sentence is changed?
John felt ill and so did his father
They did not wish to make themselves conspicuous and we could
only approve their attitude.
There again the only reason for inserting a comma after ‘ill’ and
‘conspicuous’ would be to emphasize the second statement: but why
emphasize it?
Now look at
John felt ill, but nobody seemed to care


They did not wish to make themselves conspicuous, but we rather
wished to be precisely that.
The two commas represent my own practice, for I feel that the
second statements—‘nobody seemed to care’ and ‘we rather wished
to be precisely that’—stand in such sharp opposition that to fail to set
one statement off against the other would be to fail in clarity; that a
very marked pause occurs, or should occur, at ‘ill’ and ‘conspicuous’;
and that, the demands of speech coinciding with the demands of
sense, the omission of the comma at these points would be rather silly.
The half-and-halfers would punctuate the second, not the first
sentence. The whole-hoggers for the least punctuation possible would
punctuate neither sentence.
Where there are three or more principal clauses joined by ‘and’,
John felt ill and so he returned home and went to bed:
there is no need to punctuate. If, however, we introduce ‘but’, we
find that a comma, if not absolutely necessary, is at the least advisable:
John felt ill and so he returned home, but he did not go to bed
They wished to remain inconspicuous, but they acted foolishly and
they even spoke very indiscreetly.
There again the whole-hoggers would probably omit the comma
after ‘home’ and ‘inconspicuous’; if they did, they would certainly jar
a sensitive reader.
‘And’ and ‘but’ are not the only conjunctions employed to join two
principal clauses. In
He was a very able young man, yet he was poor
He meant well, nevertheless he acted stupidly:
to omit the commas would be suicidal. The addition of a third or
even a third and a fourth principal clause does not alter the
conditions. Thus:
He was a very able young man, yet he was poor and seemed to be also
He meant well, nevertheless he acted stupidly and did much harm
and caused much trouble.
Where the conjunction is omitted in these compound sentences—
two or more principals either congruent or adversative—a comma is
obligatory. Thus:
He was a very able young man, he also seemed to be unlucky
He meant well, acted stupidly, did much harm.


§ 15:
Commas between Principal and Subordinate or
between Subordinate and Principal
To avoid confusion, we shall in this section confine ourselves to the
simplest type of complex sentence: that in which there exist only one
principal and only one subordinate clause; those sentences in which
the principal precedes the subordinate and those in which the
subordinate precedes the principal. With the subordinate following:
A: He went to bed soon after he arrived home
He went to bed immediately he arrived home
He went to bed because he felt ill
He went away because I was ill
He refused to leave the house before we did
He has not had a day’s illness since he returned to New York
thirty-one years ago.

He doesn’t like me, for I very closely resemble him
He doesn’t like me, because he thinks me a rival
He hasn’t liked me, ever since I too became a doctor.

With the subordinate preceding:
C: Soon after he arrived home, he went to bed
Immediately he arrived home, he went to bed
Because he felt ill, he went to bed
Because I was ill, he went away
Until we left the house, he refused to go
Since he returned to New York thirty-one years ago, he has not
had a day’s illness.
D: Because I resemble him very closely, he doesn’t like me
Because he thinks me a rival, he doesn’t like me.
If we examine those four sets of examples, we notice the following
salient facts:
In group A, a comma at the end of the principal clause—that is,
immediately after ‘bed’, ‘bed’, ‘bed’, ‘away’, ‘house’, ‘illness’—would
not only serve no useful purpose but also check the easy flow of the
in group B, the omission of the comma would cause ambiguity;


in group C, the insertion or the omission of the comma is a matte of
taste, and I have inserted them because I believe it advisable to help a
speaker no less than a silent reader;
to group D, the same remark applies, for, after all, D differs from C
only in the change of subject; that slight difference, however, does
rather strengthen the case of the full punctuators.
When either the principal or the subordinate clause is long (as in
the last example in the C group) and especially when both principal
and subordinate are long, the comma becomes, if not obligatory, at
the least advisable, as in the following sentences:
If ever he finally decides to stop acting like the silliest of silly asses,
he will probably become an excellent citizen
When, thoroughly exhausted and not a little afraid, he reached home
at some unascertained hour in the early morning, he locked every
door in the house
He always spoke his mind with the promptness, decision, courage
and clarity so characteristic of him, because he thought it the only
thing to do.
It is easy to perceive the vagueness that would result from the
omission of those commas.
§ 16:
Commas between Subordinate and Subordinate
Normally, a sentence contains a principal clause, the relevant
exception being afforded by such an example as
That is, if life permitted—
where the preceding sentence would perhaps have been
He did not doubt that success would come his way.
But let us, for a moment, consider subordinate clauses within an
ordinary sentence without taking into account the principal clause
that must exist. We are justified in this arbitrary consideration on only
one ground: that of practicality: the practicality of our being thus
enabled to deal more satisfactorily with the next section, wherein we
shall examine complex sentences containing either one principal and
at least two subordinates or two principals and at least one
subordinate. This apparently theoretical treatment of the comma can
be exemplified by the following partial sentences:


When he comes to town, if ever he does come,…
If ever he comes to town, and we don’t know that he will,…
Since he came to live in town, as he has done ever since 1940,…
Those arbitrary parts of sentences do at least imply, indeed they
almost prove, the necessity of separating the subordinating clauses
either by using a comma, as here, or by using some other stop; as we
shall see later, that other punctuation will consist of a pair of dashes
or semicolons or of parentheses—themselves obviously a pair.
§ 17:
Commas in Fully Developed Complex Sentences
By ‘fully developed’, I mean ‘consisting either of one principal and at
least two subordinate clauses or of two principals and at least one
It is difficult—it is also unnecessary—to formulate a rigid set of
rules; much more difficult, even more unnecessary, to state a
generalized rule that is in the least rigid. My aim is to be helpful, not
dogmatic. The following examples will, if examined and pondered,
supply the data from which any person of average intelligence can,
without strain, assimilate an unformulated set of working rules
and from which the person of more than average intelligence can
easily deduce the general principles by which he may deploy his
commas and thus clarify his statements and questions. The sentences
are so graduated that the student may, without exhaustion, climb the
ascent from the obvious to the subtle.
(1) He travelled at great speed over most of the United States and,
whenever he could, slept on the train or the aircraft or in his car.
(2) He came, he saw and, when he had seen enough, he conquered.
(3) He who can does, and he who can’t talks.
(4) They eat what they can, and what they can’t they can.
(5) Whenever it was safe or whenever he judged it to be salutary, he
delegated authority to the senior members of his staff.
(6) If you recommend him so strongly, he will be appointed as soon
as I can summon a meeting of the other selectors.
(7) Because he could not arrive in time, he telegraphed to say that he
would postpone his visit until the next morning and, very


charmingly, he hoped that the delay would cause only minor
(8) If, when you read the book, you find that a certain character
resembles yourself, do not take offence and do, please,
remember that, so far as there is portrayal at all, it constitutes a
portrayal of your good qualities, as indeed it must, for you have
no others.
(9) I do not know whether, if the position falls vacant, you would
care to consider applying for it, but, when you make up your
mind, you will, I hope, tell me of your decision, be it Yes or be it
(10) Anyone who feels about it the way you evidently feel must
exercise especial care to avoid giving offence to those who
happen to feel differently, and you should, moreover, prevent
them from discovering your attitude towards a matter that
concerns them so intimately.
The majority of literates, although they might not agree on every
point, would probably agree that, in the main, those ten sentences
have been correctly punctuated. The devotees of abstention might
omit the following commas:


(2)—the second and the third;
(3), (4), (5), (6)—the single comma;
(7)—either all three or, at the least, the first and the second;
(8)—that after ‘If’, that after ‘book’ and that after ‘yourself, as
well as those introducing and dismissing ‘so far as there is
portrayal at all’;
(9)—that after ‘but’ and that after ‘mind’;
(10)—that after ‘differently’.

On the other hand, the upholders of a lavish punctuation might insert
commas at the following places:
(1)—after ‘speed’;
(2)—after ‘saw’;
(4)—before and after ‘what they can’t’;
(5)—after ‘safe’, as I should myself do if I wished to emphasize
‘or whenever he judged it to be salutary’;


(7)—after ‘morning’;
(8)—after ‘offence’ and probably before and after ‘indeed’;
(9)—perhaps after ‘Yes’, although I hope that even the overpunctuators would refrain from that excess;
(10)—after ‘evidently feel’; I suspect that, in some moods (for
instance, in a dialectical mood), I might well do so.
§ 18:
Restrictive (or Defining) Clauses and Non-Restrictive
(or Non-Defining) Clauses
With the syntax of these adjectival clauses we are hardly concerned.*
The rule is very simple. Non-defining or non-restrictive clauses are
supplementary or incidental; defining or restrictive clauses are
essential to the meaning. The former are punctuated, with a comma
before and after; the latter are not. Thus:
Non-Restrictive: The headmaster, who was present, agreed to the
The Castle, which was built in the time of William
the Conqueror, is well worth seeing.
The castle that was built in the 11th Century is up
for sale, but the castle that was built in the 18th
Century is still fit to use.
The horse that runs furthest is the sort we need in
this sort of country.
§ 19:
The Stating and the Stated
Modern writers tend to discard the comma that was formerly
regarded as obligatory after ‘He said that’—‘I asked why or whether
or what, etc.’—‘It appeared that’—‘Can you doubt that’—and so
forth. Modern practice is exemplified in:
He said that he wouldn’t wait any longer
I asked whether I could help him
It appears that you have learnt no Latin
* See any dependable work on usage, e.g. H.W.Fowler, Modern English Usage; or
P.G.Perrin, An Index to English; or my own Usage and Abusage, where the subject
is treated at some length.


He stated that, to gain his ends, he would go almost as far as to turn
I do not doubt that she is kind and generous.
Where direct speech is involved, the usual practice has long been to
insert a comma after the stating, as in
I said, I should like to help you.
He stated, To gain my ends, I’m almost prepared to turn honest.
Certain advanced writers, however, omit this comma. But this is a
matter that cannot be satisfactorily examined until we treat of the
quotation mark.
When the statement precedes the stating, the comma is, as it always
has been, obligatory. Thus:
There remains nothing to do, he said.
When the stating interrupts the statement, it is customary to
separate the stating by inserting a comma both before and after, as in:
There remains, he said, nothing to do.
Certain very modern writers omit the commas when quotation
marks are used, thus:
‘There remains’ he said ‘nothing to do’.
But we cannot go fully into this question until we deal with the
quotation mark.
§ 20:
The use of the comma in its simplest aspects—that is, in relation only
to itself and the period—may be summarized thus:
In apostrophe and appeal: You, sir, will help.
O Caesar, hearken to my plea.
In dates:
Sunday, June 30, 1952, was a very hot day.
Sunday, 30 June 1952, was…
Sunday, 30 June, 1952, was…
for the comma after ‘June’ is unnecessary.
In figures:

In run-on addresses:

£6. 17. 6, £9. 16. 9, £10. 10. 5
$9.50, $17.75, $19.39
He has lived at 17 Christmas Street,


Ealing, London, for some fifty years.
A stating that either concludes or interrupts a statement:
He couldn’t see why it shouldn’t be done, he said
He couldn’t, he said, see why it shouldn’t be done
I don’t, he said, see why it shouldn’t be done
I don’t see why it shouldn’t be done, he said.

George VI, King of England, died far too young
She, their favourite author, has just written another romance,
entitled A Horrible Dilemma, or How She Came to Marry Him, lush
and sentimental, cloying and maudlin
John, who was ugly, married Jane, who was beautiful.

Her latest novel, A Horrible Dilemma, has sold in thousands
He knew that he could get home, for it wasn’t far, in less than three
On New Year’s Day, it was a Sunday, he died in the pulpit from
which he had so often preached, quite a thousand times, I should

Being ill, he had to cancel his speech
He couldn’t go, it being a wet day and he suffering from a heavy
He couldn’t go, it being a wet day, to watch cricket.

Although ill, he insisted on going
However enthusiastic, he still had some sense
Although he was ill, he insisted on going
However enthusiastic he might be and indeed was, he retained a
little sense
He was enthusiastic. He did, however, act sensibly
Of course you may, but I don’t understand why you should.
Assent, dissent:

Yes, I’ll be there


No, I sha’n’t be there.
Adverbial phrases of opposition:

On the other hand, it was generous of you
On the contrary, I think it very generous of you.
Other long adverbial clauses:

In order to do this, he had to go the long way round (But: He had to
go the long way round in order to do this)
So as to ensure independence, he took out an annuity
As a logical consequence, the plan failed utterly (Some writers
would omit the comma)
By and large and in the main, it was a good programme.

If you continue to behave like that, I shall leave you
If it rains, I shall not go
I shall not go, if it rains.
(Where the conditional clause is short, the comma is occasionally
omitted, especially if the writer feels that a comma interrupts the even
flow, the onward movement, the train of thought. Usually, however,
the comma should be retained.)

When you have finished playing the fool, you might help your
mother to clear the mess you’ve made
He looked weary, after he had played that long match
Since you came to town, the town has changed.

Because it was his duty, he enlisted
He enlisted, because it was his duty to enlist
It isn’t certain, for nothing human is certain.
(In the second example, as in all short explanations, some writers
would omit the comma; for, however, demands a comma.)

Faith, hope and charity
Here we have a peach, an orange, an apple, a pear and thirty,
perhaps thirty-one, grapes


The house was compact, modern, extremely easy to run, but small,
ugly, far from town and far from friends.
One could classify still further, but there would be little point in
doing so. Most of the simple uses of the comma fall under one or
other of the above heads; the remainder are analogous to one or other
of them.
§ 21:
Distinction with a Difference
Whereas §§ 1–19 and the recapitulatory 20 concern everyone who aims
to punctuate adequately, this section is only for those who have a
feeling for style and the wish to acquire one.
Let us examine the following variations of a central theme:
A 1:
B 1:
C 1:
D 1:
(But not 3:
E 1:
(But not 3:
nor 4:
F 1:
(But not 3:
nor 4:
G 1:

My cousin John Smith went to town
My cousin, John Smith, went to town
A town-lover, John Smith went to town
My cousin John Smith is a good fellow
My cousin, John Smith, is a good fellow
A town-lover, John Smith is nearly always in town
That is my cousin John Smith
That is my cousin, John Smith
I saw my cousin John Smith in town
I saw my cousin, John Smith, in town
I saw my cousin, John Smith in town)
My cousin John Smith, a good fellow, went to town
My cousin, John Smith, a good fellow, went to town
My cousin John Smith, a good fellow went to town
My cousin, John Smith, a good fellow went to town)
My cousin John Smith, a good fellow, is ill
My cousin, John Smith, a good fellow, is ill
My cousin John Smith, a good fellow is ill
My cousin, John Smith, a good fellow is ill)
That is my cousin John Smith, a good fellow
That is my cousin, John Smith, a good fellow.

First, we note that D 3, E 3 and E 4, F 3 and F 4, are impossible: they just
don’t make sense.


Secondly, that the first sentence of each group exemplifies the fluid,
uninterrupted, continuative impression one gains from contemplating
an indivisible unity, an entity: my cousin John Smith.
Thirdly, that in the second sentence of each group we have no
longer an entity but two ideas in apposition: my cousin; John Smith.
Fourthly, in—
A 3: A town-lover, John Smith went to town
B 3: A town-lover, John Smith is nearly always in town—
we have a feature that occurs only in the subject of a sentence. The
purpose of this subtle sentence-type is revealed by a recasting—
A 3: John Smith, because he is a town-lover, went to town
B 3: John Smith, because he is (or, who happens to be) a townlover, is nearly always in town.
A second refinement occurs when one wishes to be neatly causal or
neatly concessive:
A lax Catholic, John Smith seldom heard Mass (=Because he was a
lax Catholic,…)
A convinced Protestant, Bill Smith often heard Mass (=Although he
was a convinced Protestant,…)
A third refinement is embodied in the following sentences, good
sense dictating the punctuation:
My father, Thomas Smith, died in 1952
My boss, William Black, died in 1952
My cousin John Smith died in 1952
My friend Bill Able died in 1952
If I write—
My cousin, John Smith, died in 1952
My friend, Bill Able, died in 1952—
I am implying that I have only one cousin and only one friend; the
former is unlikely, the latter would be disastrous.


§ 22:
Comma-less Apposition
This section concerns only those interested in, or who are, either
futurist writers or scientists and other scholars.
One occasionally sees this sort of thing:
(1) Tall dark handsome melancholy, James caused ‘bobbysoxers’ to
(2) James the tall dark handsome and melancholy caused, etc.
(3) He thought it silly fatuous futile even disgusting to regret the
Clearly the reason for the omissions is dislike of full punctuation.
Sometimes the dislike is moderated thus:
(2) James, the tall dark handsome and melancholy, caused, etc.
(3) He thought it silly fatuous futile, even disgusting, to regret the
The compromise in (2) has something, that in (3) nothing, to
commend it.
Scholarly omission of commas occurs, for instance, in philology and
especially in lexicography. At seam, a pack-horse load, The Oxford
English Dictionary has:
Med. L. sauma, salma, sagma load…, whence It. salma, soma burden,
Pr. sauma beast of burden, F. somme burden, Sp. salma, jalma tonnage
(of a ship).
Webster’s New International Dictionary follows the same practice.
Some European philologists go further. In Boisacq there are many
such passages as this—translated, with accents omitted, abbreviations
written out, Greek words transliterated:
Ionic masso, Attic matto to mould; Attic maktra tin, kneading-trough,
mortar: Old Slavic mekuku soft meknatito become soft meca meciti to
soften maka flour maka torment Lithuanian minkyti to knead minksgtas
soft, Old High German mengen Anglo-Saxon mengan to mix
Boisacq, you will have noticed, does at least, with the aid of a
comma, separate the Slavic from the Germanic cognates.
That there are stylistic and also punctuational devices whereby one
can avoid this erudite telegraphese is doubtless obvious to every
thinking person.

Chapter 4

STRICTLY, ABBREVIATION covers both initials, as in A.D., B.C.,
a.m., p.m., and contractions, as in Gen. (Genesis), sha’n’t, and bldg.
Whereas M.L. is initials, Med. Lat. is a contraction; and Med. L. is a
Contractions fall into three groups: Med., Medieval; schol.,
scholarship; Gen., Genesis; abbr., abbreviation; and other such
formations, where the point usually falls at the end of the first syllable
of a word;
don’t and sha’n’t (often written shan’t) form, like isn’t, contractions
that are words in their own right; c’d, sh’d, b’l’d’g, rec’d, for could,
should, building, received, are preferable to the more usual cd., shd.,
bldg., recd., but, in practice, they are inferior to cd, shd, bldg, recd.
Dr., Ld., Mr., Mrs., St., are much inferior to Dr, Ld, Mr, Mrs, St,
because the respective r, d, r, s, t, form the final letter of Doctor, Lord,
Mister, Mistress, Saint—why, in the name of sense, insert a period where
none is needed? Compare, in addresses, the conventional Rd. for R’d
(never used): the sensible contraction is Rd, without a period. The same
good sense might well be applied to contracted given-names: why
write Wm. for Wm, Jas. for Jas (James)?
In chemistry, physics, electricity and several other sciences, it is
customary, whether in contractions or in initials, to omit points: thus:
na or Na, natrium, and amp-hr or Ah, ampere hour, and cm, not c.m.,
centimetre, H, hydrogen, and O, oxygen.
For non-scientific and non-technological terms, it is usual to point
the initials, as in P.M., Prime Minister—p.m., post meridiem (after 12
noon)-A.D., anno domini- C.W.S., Co-operative Wholesale Society—
W.E.Gladstone, William Ewart Gladstone. Personal initials are always
pointed, as in J. and J.B.: and it seems advisable that they should
continue to be so.


But from the United States of America has come a practice that is
rapidly growing and that could advantageously become universal. If
it did, it would merely fall in line with the very general abandonment
of points in chemistry, physics, electricity, etc.
During the New Deal, introduced at the beginning of the 1930’s, a
number of new designations arose, such as the National Industrial
Recovery Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority (or
Administration), abbreviated not N.I.R.A. and T.V.A., but NIRA and
TVA. The War of 1939–1945 greatly strengthened this new, sensible,
time-saving practice. Whereas many Britons wrote A.M.G.O.T.,
Americans wrote AM GOT, later AMG, for Allied Military
Government of Occupied Territory, precisely as for British U.N.O.,
later U.N., Americans have preferred UNO, later UN.
For the initials of all organizations, the omission of points would be
—for Americans it already is—an excellent thing. Indeed, I should,
except for initials before surnames, retain points only where their
omission would cause ambiguity. Nor am I being madly proAmerican (I’m an Americanophile, not an Americanomane) in this
What, then, of geographical abbreviations? Even there, I think,
points will disappear. If NY PL is already at least as common as, and
likely soon to displace, N.Y.P.L. (New York Public Library); if NYC is
seen almost as often as N.Y.C. (New York City), then why not NY,
instead of N.Y., for New York (State)?
If ever there was—who doubts that there is?—a strong case for
mankind v. useless conventions, the discarding of all but clarificatory
points constitutes such a case.
There remains one aspect: what punctuation is there after
contracted or otherwise abbreviated words? The answer is, The same
as after any other sort of word. Thus:
W.J., not W.L., are his initials
We write Med., instead of Mediev., for Medieval, but M.L. is
commoner than Med. L.
There is, however, one exception: a point after a contraction or an
initial or set of initials precludes the use of a period. We do not write
Last week I saw J.L..
Last week I saw J.L.
In other words, a point that serves to indicate a contraction or an
initial serves also as the full stop.

Chapter 5

§ 1:
As THE name semicolon, half a colon, indicates, the semicolon comes
historically after the colon; but in practice it is more important—at
least, in the sense of being more popular. If anybody uses one more
than the two simple points, period and comma, that additional point
is usually the semicolon. By its very form (;) it betrays its dual nature:
it is both period and comma. As it is half a colon, so is it also a
modified period and a strengthened comma.
Stronger, more decisive than the comma, the semicolon is slightly
weaker, slightly less decisive than the colon, and considerably weaker
than the period; it is, however, both slightly stronger and notably
more elegant than the dash. (For the relative values of the points, see
Chapter 11.) The semicolon, in short, sets off one part of a sentence
from another more decidedly and more distinctly than does the
comma; unlike the period, it does not end a statement. Except in
certain rather literary contexts, the semicolon separates clauses,
seldom phrases, rarely mere single words; those clauses may be—and
often are—principal clauses.
Having left the intricate yet safely navigable Mediterranean of the
various uses of the comma, one comes out into the Atlantic, where,
for a safe crossing, one needs more than the utilitarian comma and the
unavoidable period. Except in literary or aesthetic or philosophic
writing, by far the most important additional requisite is the
semicolon; and even there it outweighs the colon and those two
supernumeraries, parentheses and the dash. Suddenly, perhaps a
shade apprehensively, one realizes that the use of the semicolon is not
so simple as one had thought.


Semicolons may occur between clauses; between phrases or other
word-groups; and even between single words or between single
words and short word-groups.
§ 2:
Semicolons between important Syntactical Elements,
especially between Principal Clauses
Semicolons can separate clauses, whether principal and principal,
subordinate and subordinate, or principal and subordinate. It is easier
to exemplify than to generalize these uses; and probably impossible to
be adequately comprehensive even in generalization. The uses or,
otherwise regarded, the purposes of the semicolon as it affects clauses
include the following:
(1) accumulation—cumulative development of narrative or
exposition; progression from one principal to another; the
adding of one principal to another; the continuation of the main
theme by the use of two or more principal clauses separated by
semicolons. These shaded aspects of what is essentially one
process appear in the following sentences:
Like most other human beings, she was born; she married; she had
children; she died.
He worked hard; he played hard; indeed, he lived hard.
The Indians roamed the plains for centuries before the white man
came; for centuries since, they have roamed or tried to roam them.
The day dawned grey and cold; the snow continued to fall
relentlessly; escape from that cabin in the remote mountains grew
more and more improbable; hope slunk away like an optimist from a
group of ferocious pessimists.
In 1890 he wrote The Fleas That Bit Them; in 1892, he continued the
theme in Fleas ad Infinitum; in 1899, when his friends had begun to
think that fleas no longer bit him, he published The Fleas Have Ceased
to Bite.
In his novels, John Hartley described life as he dreamed it; in his
plays, he pictured life as he wished others to picture it; in his
autobiography he tore sham to shreds and hypocrisy to tatters.
(The slight elaborations added to the last three sentences constitute
not an oversight but intelligent anticipation.)


(2) to convey antithesis, whether explicit or implicit, and whether an
and, but, yet, etc., occurs or not, as in:
He was a brave man; but he quailed at the prospect of entering that
inferno of flame and falling timber.
He quailed at the prospect; yet he was a brave man.
Mary liked him; she disliked the uniform.
As a poet he commanded admiration; as a novelist he excited
puzzlement, pity and derision.
The sun shone brightly; in the ravine the air was chill, the scene
Hate me, you may; despise me, you cannot.
(3) linked with (1) and (2) is the use of a semicolon merely to
compensate the theme—and the reader—for the omission of a
connective, whether, as usually, a conjunction, or, as occasionally
in narrative and argument, an adverb. Thus:
The tiger lay on the ground; it had fallen from sheer exhaustion; it had
fought and striven for six unending hours, (where or because it had
fallen…; because or for it had fought…)
Eclipse was not merely a fast horse; he liked to race.
We cannot perform the impossible, gentlemen; we can perform the
incredibly difficult; we have been known to fail with the apparently
easy, simple thing; we merely do our best.
He was desperately ill; he spoke less well than usual; the crowd
jeered at him.
You do it; Jim cannot; strange though it seem, even John cannot.
(4) Certain connectives demand, at least they usually receive, a
semicolon immediately before them; such connectives as also,
moreover, nevertheless, however, hence, thence, therefore, then
(conjunction). Witness:
He was a brave man; moreover, he was intelligent.
You have these three rooms for yourselves; also you may use the
bathroom whenever it is free.
Historians believe implicitly in documents; nevertheless they
believe, although much less fervently, in mankind.
He is a foreigner; therefore you cannot expect him to speak English
as well as an Englishman.


The Pharaohs preferred architecture to be massive and
monumental; hence the pyramids. (=hence, they had the pyramids
He’s a dangerous fellow; however, you must know that even better
than I do.
You are a linguist; then, you’re a scholar. (Whether then=also or
(5) the semicolon that, in an ordinary sentence, is forced to do a
comma’s work simply because the sentence contains so many
commas that, if one or two of them were not promoted,
confusion would ensue.
As a man, you are hungry; as a fighter, you are weary; as an idealist,
you are disgusted; and, again as a man, you will, your hunger
satisfied, need a long sleep.
This ancient city offers some fine examples of pottery and bronze, a
little, still rather crude, ironware, and a mound of discarded fish
shells; but it exhibits no receptacles for food, water, self-adornment; it
does, however, contain what was at one time a crematorium.
(Contrast: This ancient city offers fine examples of pottery and
bronze, no receptacles for food and water, but the remains of a
crematorium.) Compare the semicolon exemplified in the next
(6) In lists—enumerations, inventories, bibliographies, exact and
erudite references.
The Fall of Grecized Sardinia, Book II, chapter vii, § 5; ibid., III, viii, § 1;
ib., III, ix, § 3; IV, ii, § 2.
Dining room, 1 table, 6 chairs, 1 sideboard; drawing room, 2 tables,
7 chairs, 1 glassware case, 1 grand piano, 1 piano stool; main bedroom,
1 double bed, 2 chairs, one chest-of-drawers, one wardrobe, 1 dressing
table; guest room, 2 single beds, 3 chairs, 1 wardrobe, 1 dressing table.
quartermaster’s department, 2,800 men; medical service, 200 men.
(7) Not dissimilar are the semicolons employed to divide
appositional clauses; the second of two such clauses may be
elliptical. The apposition may run to three or more clauses.


The silly fellow sighed gustily; the silly girl sighed wearily; the pair of
simpletons sighed simultaneously in imagined forswearing.
(Compare: The silly fellow sighed gustily; simultaneously, the girl
Who robs me of money, deprives me of a necessity; who slanders me,
robs me of that intangible, a good name; who kills me, relieves me of
a burden.
The King, who was well; the Queen, who was stricken with fever;
the Princess, who looked to be sickening for that fever; such were the
passengers in that ill-fated coach-and-four.
(8) A particular modification of group (7) occurs in sentences
introduced, usually and sensibly with a semicolon but
occasionally with an inadequate comma, by that is (or i.e.), that is
to say, I mean to say; by to wit (or viz.); by namely or specifically; by
at least; by for example or in full, as, for example. This group
obviously has something in common also with (6)—lists,
enumerations, particularizations.
Here, precepts are confusing; examples, absurdly clear.
He enjoys the company of women; that is—or, that is to say—of some
You can’t do that, old fellow; I mean to say, it just isn’t done; at
least, not in this country.
The incoming tenant is entitled to take over, free, certain fixtures; to
wit, the x, the y and the z. He also has an option on certain other
articles, at cost price; namely, the a, the b, the c, the d and the e.
Several types of noun are of interest even to the person ignorant of
the meaning of etymology; for example, those exemplified by nausea,
alcohol, gas, burble.
There remain three important uses of the semicolon; they have been
left to the end because, although fairly easy to exemplify, they are
anything but easy to explain.
(9) has been neatly defined and even more neatly illustrated in
Webster’s New International Dictionary: ‘To separate clauses or
phrases having common dependence; as, “There is tears for his
love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valor; and death for his


Let us, however, take several more examples, because a
Shakespearean quotation might not convince someone who of
Shakespeare knows only the name.
John adores his father; Tom loves him; Mary seems to think he’s
some kind of god; Brigid regards him as she would some strange
object cast up by the sea.
He needs her; she needs him; the child needs both of them.
To describe is one thing; to narrate is another; to characterize is
something else; yet even these three divisions of the art of novelwriting form only a portion of even the conscious part of that art.
If you can possibly do so, come; if you cannot come, write; if you
haven’t the time to write, send a telegram.
(The last example is deliberately anticipatory.)
(10) So, when used as a conjunction (=and so, hence therefore), has
caused dissension. Some writers prefer the punctuation ‘comma
before so’, as in
‘The matter was debated in the House of Lords quite recently, for the
alteration cuts at the basis of understanding, so nothing more is to be
said’, a correspondent in The Times, 31 July 1952.
Like Mr V.H.Collins, who has sent me that quotation, I feel that the
comma before ‘so’ is weak—far too weak—and that the stop should
be a semicolon; all the more because there has already been a comma
after ‘understanding’; the sentence is complex. Where the sentence is
merely compound, as in—
He is a criminal, so he has to be watched—
the decision between comma and semicolon must be made on
grounds of emphasis or, if the compound sentence be long, on
grounds of clarity and perhaps of euphony.
Thus we come to:
(11) the literary semicolon: in the late 17th-early 19th Century, a use
confined to educated and scrupulous writers; since about 1930,
revived by certain writers priding themselves upon variety,
subtlety, fine grammatical as well as superfine elocutionary, or
rhetorical, distinctions; occasionally an affectation or, at best, an
archaism. Carefully used, this the literary or 18th Century
semicolon can be effective; and, now and then, whether effective


or not, it is necessary to those who regard punctuation as a
delicate instrument, not as a callous imposition.
To define it; even to describe it; is difficult.
And now we are coming to a clearing in the woods; a little glade,
bright green with the soft moss-grass; in the centre of which glade a
stream ran between deep banks (MICHAEL HARRISON, When All the
Trees Were Green, 1936).
Shakespeare; Dante, with his complicated cosmos; Milton, with his
Classical training and partly Puritan conscience; Blake with his
visions; fascinated him.
If the world had; or rather, took; the time to think, the world would
be much better off.
The idealist; there are many things to which an idealist cannot
stoop; stooped as far as he could possibly go in compromise.
With good fortune on his side; with anybody by his side, to believe
in him; he would have succeeded.
The semicolon, we see, can bear a heavy weight. It can also
gracefully bear even comparatively light weights.
§ 3:
Semicolons between Principal and Subordinate
Clauses and therefore also between the Subordinates
within a Sentence-Frame
Such uses of the semicolon as fall under consideration are susceptible
of analysis, but I doubt whether the result would justify the trouble. As
so often, examples are much more useful than analysis.
He fell asleep; when, after a long, exhausting, tedious journey, he
had finally reached this one-horse town.
He did what he was told; because he knew better than to disobey.
They helped him to get a new job; that being the least they could do;
that being also the most they were prepared to do. (The two elliptical
clauses represent ‘That was the least’ and ‘that was the most’.)
When the explorer returned to England, he tried to buy a house;
when he left England, he tried to sell it.
The mountaineers immediately climbed the mountain; because,
when they departed for Switzerland, they had been told that the
weather would soon deteriorate, and also because they wanted to


climb as many peaks as they could before the blizzards rendered all
climbing impossible.
When the storm descended, the worst of their fears were more than
realized; they were augmented, for, in addition to the appalling
weather, their stock of food turned out to be very much smaller than
had been arranged; and the party itself far worse chosen than even an
enemy would have thought to choose it.
When he has eaten; when he has slept; when he has rested, he will
take a very different view of things and perhaps he will even become
optimistic; if, that is, he is capable of so cheerful an excess.
§ 4:
Semicolons between Sentence-Elements other than
The principal non-clausal uses have already been described in § 2,
group (6), lists and enumerations, and in § 2, group (8), that is, to wit,
for example, etc.
If the importance of the subject warrants a decisive particularization
and a weighty consideration of each division of that subject,
semicolons should be inserted between divisions, even when single
words are concerned. Thus:
Fear; shame; remorse; contrition. Such are the subdivisions of this
notable book, (or: Fear; shame; remorse; contrition; such are…)
The Earl of–; Lord–; Lady–; Sir––; Mrs––; Mr––; ‘all the world and
his wife’ were there.
The mingling of single words and phrases or other word-groups
can lead to ambiguity, as it does in:
Jack and Jill, Tom, Dick and Harry, John Doe and Richard Roe, Johna-Nokes or John-o’-Noakes and John-a- Stiles are generic collocations
of personal names with almost nothing personal about them.
Jack and Jill; Tom, Dick and Harry; John Doe and Richard Roe; Johna-Nokes, or John-o’-Noakes, and John-a-Stiles; these are generic
collocations of personal names with nothing personal about them.
We have already seen that internal commas often render
semicolons not merely optional but advisable and sometimes
unavoidable, as in
Speech is silvern, silence golden; Keep your bowels open and your
mouth shut; Nothing too much; these and similar proverbs and


proverbial sayings imply a widespread belief that usually it is better
to say little rather than much.
Richard, afraid of no man; Tom, known to all men hereabouts; Jack,
the handyman; these would be my partners.

Chapter 6

§ 1:
WHEN WE are very young, we tend to regard the ability to use a
colon much as a budding pianist regards the ability to play with
crossed hands: many of us, when we are older, regard it as a proof of
literary skill, maturity, even of sophistication: and many, whether
young, not so young, or old, employ it gauchely, haphazardly or, at
best, inconsistently.
Etymologically, colon (Greek kōlon) was originally a person’s or an
animal’s limb; hence, portion of a strophe in choral dancing, hence a
division in prosody; hence, also, a clause—notably a principal clause—
in a sentence; hence, finally, the sign [:] marking the breathing-space at
the end of such a clause.
Historically, the colon not unnaturally preceded the semicolon. In
English the colon long predominated over the semicolon, but
throughout the 19th Century and indeed until the middle 1920’s,
except in such writers as the Landors, it fell into disuse for structural
purposes and seldom occurred for any purpose other than the
annunciatory. Since 1926, when H.W.Fowler’s admirable book, A
Dictionary of Modern English Usage, appeared, the colon has been
returning to favour and a much more various employment; twenty
years earlier the Fowler brothers (H.W. and F.G.) had, in The King’s
English, sown the seed of this fruitful counter-revolution. To be
mulcted of our money and mutilated of our property is serious
enough: to be deprived of our colon would be intolerable. Several
writers, whom it were invidious to name, have perhaps been
somewiiat too revolutionary; nevertheless, they are performing a
service more than yeoman, for they have re-introduced the colon to a


public indifferent to its value and almost ignorant of the name, some
good souls associating colon with nothing more literary than the large
The main purposes and chief uses of the colon may be summarized
equipoised; equipollent
parallel or parallelistic
antithetic and oppositional
compensatory and second-thoughted
cumulative or progressive
conclusive or completive
and non-punctuational.
§ 2:
In the various annunciatory uses, the colon serves as a mark of
anticipation. (It does the same thing, less obviously, in the next
The colon serves to usher-in a speech, whether literal or cast into
the third person, whether in full or in part or in précis; here, speech
includes everyday conversation and brief utterance as well as
polished conversation and political addresses. As in:
His oration, which lasted eighty minutes and, at the time, sounded
most eloquent, amounted to this:
Work, for the night is coming. We do not know when night will
We do not know whether our work will be useful. But let us work,
for the night is coming.
Almost exactly the same part is played by the colon in introducing
a quotation. Thus:


The real quotation, as opposed to the form usually given, is:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
To err is human, to forgive divine: that constitutes a noble sermon
and an example of terse writing.
The commonest of all ways in which to introduce a list is to announce
it with a colon, with or without such a stop-gap as namely.
In the injured man’s pockets we found an extraordinary assortment
of objects: a chequebook and a pawnbroker’s ticket; a farthing, a
penny, thirteen one-pound notes; a Bible and a ready reckoner; a very
dirty handkerchief and a very expensive cigarette-case; three rusty
nails and an exquisite nail-file.
The books the auctioneer offered for sale were these: an
attractive collection of Shakespeare’s songs, three 19th and thirty 20th
Century novels, two volumes of sermons, a prayer book, a hymnal, a
glossary of modern Greek.
Compare the use of the colon to announce a summary or a
recapitulation—a use very similar to that for a speech, whether
complete or summarized.
If we recapitulate the day’s lessons in English, we shall find these
constants: everybody believes that practice makes perfect; that war is
exciting, but destructive, except for language; and that life is more
precious than anything in it.
Here, then, is a summary: [and summary follows].
In modern practice, especially in the United States, many people
begin a letter—
Your request is impossible—
although it is more usual, in Britain at least, to begin—
Your request is impossible.
§ 3:
Explanatory and Definitional
Very closely related to the annunciatory colon is the explanatory,
including the definitional, colon. This use, which hardly requires
definition, can be exem