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"God is in the details," the old saying goes—though when those details involve the intricacies of punctuation, many would argue that a much darker entity lurks there.
It’s because punctuation marks are so wickedly detailed, and are as likely to be governed by the vagaries of convention as by the certainty of grammar, that myths thrive in their midst. Here are a few of the most tenacious punctuation myths, along with the facts to dispel them.
MYTH: Always introduce a list with a colon.
FACT: A list, whether in sentence or vertical format, does not have to be introduced by a colon.
The colon always introduces something: an example, a quotation, an explanation or, most commonly, a list. (Pointing the Way: Colons and Semicolons) Accustomed to seeing the colon in this last role, many people assume that the mark has to precede a list.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s just as correct for a list, even a vertical list, to follow directly from the words that introduce it, with no punctuation in between. In fact, that’s the only correct way to punctuate when the list is the grammatical object or complement of the introductory words.
In this article we will debunk some punctuation myths, including
- always introduce a list with a colon
- always use semicolons in a list introduced by a colon
- use single quotation marks to set off single words
MYTH: Always use semicolons in a list introduced by a colon.
FACT: How we punctuate a list depends not on what introduces the list, but on what the list contains.
The normal way to punctuate a list, whether or not it is introduced by a colon, is to insert commas between the items. It’s helpful to think of commas as the default punctuation marks for lists. Semicolons enter the picture in two situations: (1) when at least one item in the list already contains a comma and (2) when the items are independent clauses (mini-sentences).
There are several misconceptions about lists: that they must be introduced by a colon, that they must be punctuated with semicolons, that they must include the word and before the final item.
The fact is that, depending on their wording, lists can be written in several ways, including without an introductory colon; with semicolons, in cases where an item in the list contains an internal comma; and with or without the word and.
MYTH: Always use semicolons after the items in a vertical list.
FACT: In many instances it’s equally correct to use commas, or even no punctuation, after the items in a vertical list.
As visual as they are verbal, vertical lists come in many guises. There are a number of agreed-upon styles for punctuating bulleted lists, as they’re more commonly known, particularly when they are made up of incomplete sentences. The most common style in government and business writing is to use semicolons after the items; however, commas are also appropriate if the items are short and do not contain internal commas. In both cases the final item typically ends with a period. Also acceptable is the more freewheeling style of using no punctuation whatsoever, as in the example with the first myth above. What matters more than the style itself is consistency. Pick one approach for a document and stick with it.
Edith made a list of her pet language peeves:
- apostrophes used to form plurals,
- unique paired with a qualifier like most,
- the overuse of semicolons in lists.
When the items in a vertical list are complete sentences, life is easier. By far the most accepted approach is to treat the listed sentences like any other sentences and end each one with a period.
MYTH: Use single quotation marks to set off single words, terms and expressions, and double quotation marks to set off actual quotations.
FACT: In Canada single quotation marks serve one main purpose: to set off material that’s already inside double quotation marks.
We Canadians typically follow the American practice of using double quotation marks as our everyday marks for enclosing words, phrases, quotations, titles and so on. We use single marks to enclose material that’s already inside doubles. Across the Atlantic, the opposite style prevails: the usual quotation marks are single, with double marks reserved for material already inside singles.
Bemoaning the attitude of her boss, a self-proclaimed punctuation "superhero," Edith said, "He always tells me ‘That’s how I learned it in school,’ as if that were a valid explanation."
MYTH: Periods and commas belong outside closing quotation marks.
FACT: In Canada periods and commas always go inside closing quotation marks.
As with the previous myth, this one arises from the difference between American and British quoting styles. In Canada nearly all publishers, organizations and language professionals (legal writing being a notable exception) take the American approach of placing all periods and commas inside closing quotation marks, no matter what. This rule applies to both double and single quotation marks (see the previous example).
Edith’s boss often refers to himself as a "stickler for punctuation rules," a title Edith mentally amends to a "sucker for punctuation myths."
As always, the only surefire way to exorcize the demon myths of punctuation is to consult a reliable guide—a reliable Canadian guide, that is, for as we’ve seen, some rules vary with geography. Armed with a good punctuation bible and these handy truths, you should find that the devilish details of punctuation take on a more sacred air.
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© Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Public Services and Procurement
A tool made available online by the Translation Bureau, Public Services and Procurement Canada