Full Circle Communications

April 2011
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ease in writing?
"Ease in writing" comes from a poem by Alexander Pope, the British poet:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance.

Note he (and I) didn't say "easy writing." But just as dance lessons can help get you around the floor more gracefully, the goal for this newsletter is to share a tip or two to improve your writing.

keyboard with question mark

Three Punctuation Problems--Solved!  


Recently, readers have asked me some interesting punctuation questions that frequently trip them (and most of us) up. We don't learn about the finer points of bulleted lists in school, for example, yet aren't they a staple of many offices' communications? 


Here, I set out some rules, acknowledging that custom sometimes trumps purity. Examples are in italics.  


Where to Put Quotation Marks 


Placement with straightforward dialogue is easy. (He said, "I'm in.") Things get tricky in situations like the ones below.    


1. Place a period and a comma inside quotation marks, even when not part of the quote itself. 


The operative word was "forbidden."


He said, "Yes, please," and then he took four cookies.


2. Place a semi-colon and a colon outside quotation marks.


I love the song "Yesterday"; he hates it.


She asked for the following "volunteers": Tom, Dick, and Harry.  


3. Place a question mark and an exclamation mark outside quotation marks when not part of the quote.  


Who wrote, "Quoth the raven, nevermore"?


When she took the money, she didn't even say, "Thank you"! 


By the way, British style is to place the punctuation mark outside the quotation marks in all three cases.  



How to Punctuate (or Not) a Bulleted List


Many years ago in a scientific and technical editing course, my instructor sighed and said, "And now we get to the bulleted list."  


The bulleted list--such a cause of consternation.  


1a. When you introduce a list with a full sentence, use a colon.


The main areas of concern are as follows:


1b. When you introduce a list with a phrase, use an em-dash or nothing at all.


The main areas of concern are 


We have a hard time launching a list without a colon. It "looks" wrong. Depending on your tolerance level, this may be one of those instances where custom trumps purity, in my opinion.    


2a. When list items are short, no punctuation is needed in Chicago style; APA style prefers commas and a period. 


Bring these documents:

  • Picture ID
  • Appointment letter
  • Insurance card

Bring these documents:

  • Picture ID,
  • Appointment letter, and
  • Insurance card.

Whichever style you choose, remain consistent within your organization or, at least, within your document or website.  


2b. When list items contain full sentences, use a semi-colon or period after each item, with a period at the end of the list.  


She described several problems that could lead to accidents: 

  • It is impossible to take a left onto Duke Street at rush hour;
  • Traffic lights are often not working on Quaker Lane;
  • Recent construction has left the road pitted with potholes;
  • Most motorists are unaware of these problems and drive too fast.

When each bullet has several sentences within, periods are normally used.


3. It is okay to have bulleted lists with different end-punctuation within the same document.  


So if you have some of 2a and some of 2b, relax. 


Finally, more a stylistic than grammatical point, bulleted lists help the reader, but only when they are not overused. 



How to Punctuate Parentheses


Our last problem of the day: punctuation with parentheses.   

1. Place a parenthetical phrase within a sentence and punctuate outside the close-parentheses.

She couldn't believe her luck (and didn't bother to ask any further questions).

2. Use punctuation within parentheses with a full sentence. Note in this example that no punctuation directly follows the close-parentheses.

She couldn't believe her luck. (And she decided not to ask any further questions.)

Grammar Resources

Chicago Style Guide CoverThe APA and Chicago Manual of Style guides deal with many gnarly situations. Their websites have useful summaries, tips, and tutorials.


Three easy-to-read grammar references--


Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss: Punctuation, wittily presented from a British perspective


Woe Is I by Patricia T. O'Connor: Less on punctuation, more on other rules of grammar


The Elements of Grammar by Margaret Shertzer: Quick review, less text and more examples than the first two books  

Quick Note to Safari Browser Users
You may be seeing an extra period at the end of a few sentences in this newsletter. So do I. They are not typos, but, for now, an unresolvable glitch when viewed in Safari. It feels particularly egregious considering this issue's topic, but apologies. I've been back and forth with technical support. 


Get in Touch!

Do you have a book, website, or blog to share with other readers?

Do you have a question related to writing or editing I can cover in this newsletter, or suggestions about how I can make future issues more useful to you or your colleagues?

Please let me know.

Full Circle Communications, LLC / Alexandria, VA / 703.212.0349