“The notion that there is only one correct way of punctuating a given word pattern is true only in limited degree. Skillful writers have learned that they must make alert and successful choices between periods and semicolons, semicolons and commas, and commas and dashes, dashes and parentheses, according to meaning and intended emphasis.”

~George Summey, American Punctuation

In eighth grade, my language arts teacher had a poster on the wall that gave examples of various sentence structures, like starting with an -ing phrase followed by a comma. She had us practice the different types until we’d mastered them. By the end of that year we had a whole repertoire of sentence possibilities!

My approach with my students is similar. Every class period, via my Real Grammar site, they learn the nuances of one type of punctuation and how that mark creates unique sentence structures and alters the meaning of the sentence. Below is my example of the portfolios they put together by creating their own “definition” of each punctuation type and giving examples from their own writing.

semicolons {;}

Semicolons are awesome because they allow for subtle connections that compare, contrast, or even build upon each other. You can use them to make a quick series of ideas, each one extending from the one before it. That’s what makes it a semicolon, I think: they’re half and half, combining the anticipation of the colon with the subtlety of a comma. Very suave.

Examples from my writing:

  • The sentences belonged to them, so they cared; the analysis belonged to them, so they participated and learned.

[from a grad-school essay about grammar instruction]

  • It’s two a.m., and our yurt is crowded with sleeping bodies flopped onto all available surfaces: Drew on the top bunk, auspiciously trying to get reception but really sulking until he conked out; Topher, Cindy and Derrick sprawled half-sitting on the lower bunk; Gary, Lissa and Phil on the fold-out queen, Lissa and Phil on their stomachs since they’d been—still—huddling over the sketch book, Gary leaning against the couch back where he’d been playing Tetris on his phone until closing his eyes; Zander, Elu, Jason and me on the floor where our Uno match changed rules every round (Zander: “This time reds match greens and blues match yellows, got it?”), forcing out so much laughter I thought my stomach would hemorrhage, now quiet with Zander’s head on a bunk rail and Elu’s head on his chest, Jason and me against the hide-a-bed.

[from my current WIP novel]

colons {:}

I love the anticipation of a colon. Colons are a mark you can definitely hear out loud, in that space where you’re waiting for someone to elaborate. To me it’s cool to be able to hear an inaudible punctuation mark.

Examples from my writing:

  • They’ve broken that into five assignments, all centered around a public issue: profile, report, instructions, position paper, and proposal.

[from my English 2010 page]

  • Now, as for fantasy stories, where the circumstances aren’t even possible, let alone probable, here’s the second part of my answer about essentialness: Stories provide metaphors that teach us stronger, more enduring lessons than any lecture could ever instruct us in.

[from my reading page]

em dashes {—}

These are possibly the coolest piece of punctuation there is. Some publishers shorten them a bit, finding the long ones too ostentatious or too much of a space hog, but I like my em dashes lengthy, pulling the reader’s eye like an arrow saying, “Check this out!” The emphasis is fabulous.

Examples from my writing:

  • I found three typos and three or four obvious inconsistencies, and I cringed every time — and those are just the tiniest bits.
  • You have to be willing to swallow your pride and hear all the faults in your writing — whether the first ten chapters need to be tightened or the entire thing — and you actually have to get into the crazy mindset where you’re excited to be torn apart like that.

[from my blog post “Only for Humble Narcissists”]

parentheses {( )}

Parentheses are like whispers (and the opposite of em dashes). Instead of emphasizing what they enclose, they make it less important. But at the same time, sometimes they give you a sense of tone, like sarcasm, that colors the whole sentence differently.

Examples from my writing:

  • You do have to be a little arrogant (in a good way?) to think that people would want to hear what you have to say.

[from my blog post “Only for Humble Narcissists”]

  • I recently read a great blog post by Mary Pearson, author of five teen novels including The Adoration of Jenna Fox, and it had a sentence so great I had to add a Quote of the Moment widget to my site: “Books have no other responsibility than not to make the reader hate reading” (“What YA Lit Is and Isn’t” on Tor.com 9/10/09).

[from my writing page]

commas {,}

with additional clauses

The trick is to shift your thinking from “sentences” to “clauses.” Clauses are the bricks, and a sentence can have an unlimited number of them, but you have to recognize where to slap the mortar between the bricks: where to separate clauses with commas. If you don’t, the sentence can fall apart.

Examples from my writing:

  • His father is referred to as a grade-A jerk, and yet the reader can tell that there’s more to him than that.

[from my post “Literary Merit”]

  • Since the point of swapping is to give each other feedback, it worked out well that I could tell her I love the story but also have plenty of suggestions about tightening those first ten chapters.

[from my post “Only for Humble Narcissists”]

with parenthetical elements

For me, it helps to think about these commas as coming in pairs like em dashes and parentheses and about the words inside as being a set, like maybe a set of things on a tray, and the commas are the handles on the side of the tray. That way I can picture picking up the whole set, commas and all, and taking it out or moving it around in the sentence as needed. (The only catch is that you need to ditch one of the commas when the set is at the beginning or end of the sentence.)

Examples from my writing:

  • Anyone who’s ever read a book they had a hard time getting over, raise your hand.

[from my post “Closure from Haunting Books”]

  • Literary merit, to me, is that it shows a side of humanity I might not have considered before and does it in a way that opens my mind to new ideas and new tolerance of people.

[from my post “Literary Merit”]

  • The lingering attachment to what I’ve just read often transfers to my own work-in-progress, enhancing my emotional connection to my own characters.

[from my post “Closure from Haunting Books”]

with a series

Commas are like substitutes in this case: they stand in for the word and. What’s cool about knowing that is it gives you options. You can have a list with no commas, just ands, for emphasis, or you can have a list with all commas and no and to make it seem like it goes on and on. You even get to choose whether or not you put a comma right before and. So many choices!

Examples from my writing:

  • It feels like you’re doing something you shouldn’t, peeking at something you have no business seeing.

[from my post “Homophones, Nazi Cows, and Other Banned Books Dangers”]

  • This book is real in that sort of raw, uncensored way.

[from my post “Literary Merit”]

with quotations

When you quote a whole sentence or more, you are stepping aside to let the person quoted speak, and the comma signals that. On the other hand, when you only quote a few words and insert them into your own sentence, it’s more like putting finger quotes in the air rather than moving over, so you don’t need a comma.

Examples from my writing:

  • “Wait a second,” that gasp clearly said. “Something’s not right.”

[from my post “Homophones, Nazi Cows, and Other Banned Books Dangers”]

  • But isn’t there room, if we are more self-evaluative in our reading, to say that “this or that aspect didn’t really work for me, but I can see how the book might appeal to others”?

[from my post “Reading into How We Read”]

quotation marks {“ ”}

Quotation marks have two jobs: tell us something someone else said, and tell us the title of something short. For the titles, you could remind yourself that short works–which go inside a larger work (an article in a newspaper; a chapter in a book; a poem in a collection)–go inside quotation marks.

Examples from my writing:

  • “Whoa!” I thought. “Those must be the really dangerous books.”

[from my post “Homophones, Nazi Cows, and Other Banned Books Dangers”]

  • I just read Chris Crowe’s September 2001 article in English Journal called “Young Adult Literature: AP and YA?” which defends thought-provoking YA books as potential references for the open-ended question on the AP test and also points out that AP students dissect complex young adult novels with as much fervor as they do classics, pulling ample meaning from both.

[from my post “Literary Merit”]

apostrophes {’}

Apostrophes hold a space, like a friend saving a seat. Most of the time they are holding it for letters or numbers that would normally sit there, but sometimes they are used with plurals to hold a clarifying space between a lowercase letter and the s, so nobody gets confused.

Examples from my writing:

  • Anyone who’s ever read a book they had a hard time getting over, raise your hand.

[from my post “Closure from Haunting Books”]

  • So I hunted down two movie versions: a black-and-white with a pretty, blond Jane; and a ’90s film with a brunette Jane so plain-looking that I spent the whole movie deconstructing our fundamental need to have attractive lead actors.

[from my post “Closure from Haunting Books”]

ellipses { . . . }

Everybody knows the trailing off form of ellipses: sometimes we even say, “Dot, dot, dot,” out loud. But using them for omissions is even better, because then you can cut right to the important parts of the quote, omitting any fluff. Just make sure you put a space on each and every side–especially when they come before or after a period, so you can tell which one is the period.

Examples from my writing:

  • Um, so this is a post about posting . . . or about blogging . . . or about procrastinating . . . depending on how you look at it.

[from my post “New Post–Coming Soon!”]

  • Scott Peter­son, in “Teaching Writing and Grammar in Context,” notes that a key feature for ef­fective grammar instruction is that “the principles of language . . . be directly applied to a writing pro­ject” (75).

[from my essay “Effective Grammar Mastery in the First-year Composition Class”]

brackets {[ ]}

It seems almost rude, but brackets are your way of butting back in when someone else is speaking, either to change the tense of a verb or explain who was meant by that pronoun, whatever. You’re just trying to clarify what’s being said, though, so I guess it’s not as rude as it seems.

Examples from my writing:

  • Brittany wrote me a note saying, “I think that requiring the use [in the personal essay] forced us to learn how to use them.”

[from my essay “Effective Grammar Mastery in the First-year Composition Classroom”]

Capital Letters

Title case is a little complex, but all you have to know is to always capitalize the first word of the title and of the subtitle (when there is one), and don’t capitalize conjunctions (and, but), articles (a, an, the), and prepositions (in, on, over)–unless the preposition is lengthy, like beneath.

The other type of capitalization, proper nouns, shows that you are referring to a specific entity by name, like Mom (that’s her name) vs. my mom (the one of all the moms in general who is mine). What’s fun is that you can be creative with capitals, and turn intangibles into specific beings, like Death.

Examples from my writing:

  • “Homophones, Nazi Cows, and Other Banned Books Dangers”

italics and underlining

Italics help certain words to stand out for special reasons: title of a publication, word used as an object, mimicked sound, foreign word, extra emphasis, or direct thoughts. The slant of them makes their specialness obvious so that the reader won’t be confused.

Technically underlining serves the same functions, but generally only with typewriters and handwritten text (like when I write titles on the whiteboard). On the internet, underlining is used almost exclusively to indicate links.

Examples from my writing:

  • At the same time, I believe that parents should still have a say–for their own children.

[from my post “Homophones, Nazi Cows, and Other Banned Books Dangers”]

  • Sort of like being able to say, “Hola.”

[from my post “Foreign Language Acquisition”]

  • Yesterday my sister and I were casually discussing books, as we often do, and Ashlee brought up The Hunger Games and how killing off Peeta would be too easy a way to deal with the love triangle.

[from my post “Picking the Wrong Guy”]

fragments {.}

Fragments are bad when they are unintentional. To use them intentionally, you break a chunk off the end of a sentence into its own little sentence, usually short, in order to make that chunk stand out more. It might be a quick image, like in poetic prose, or simply an extra point broken off to give it the resounding emphasis of someone saying, “The end. Period.”

Examples from my writing:

  • Until somebody explains to you that Little House on the Prairie has been banned. Or The Giving Tree. Or Alice in Wonderland. Or The Lorax by Dr. Seuss.

[from my post “Homophones, Nazi Cows, and Other Banned Books Dangers”]

comma splices {;,}

Again, these are only a no-no when done poorly, so it’s important to make your intentions obvious. Splicing is about uniting, and you only want to unite compatible couples. Think about it like lifting the arm rest at a movie theater so you can get closer to your date: you wouldn’t want to do that with someone who’s not your “match.” These should be independent clauses that could take a semicolon between them except that even that feels like too much separation. The comma splice is the liftable armrest option.

Examples from my writing:

  • Life isn’t neat and tidy, life is raw and uncensored.

[from my post “Literary Merit”]

  • They hadn’t pulled a standard format out of a hand­book, they had truly shaped their own writing.

[from my essay “Effective Grammar Mastery in the First-year Composition Class”]

hyphens {-}

Hyphens are all about words who like to snuggle. They’re about closeness. When a group of words is all working together to modify something, they need to be linked so that the reader knows to consider them as a whole.

Strangely, though, they can also do the opposite. Maybe hyphens are bipolar. One minute they’re about closeness, and the next they’re about separation. When letters used to be flush against each other and a hyphen breaks them up, you know it’s switched personalities. Instead of treating the hyphenated chunks as unified, you give more consideration to each part, as individual letters or syllables.

Examples from my writing:

  • I made I-don’t-know-how-many trips to the local nursery this summer trying to figure out what plants I wanted around the border of the patio.

[from my post “Backyard Makeover (or the Results of Simmering Ideas)”]

  • How can you not love the guy who paints himself like he’s frosting a cake as a form of self-preservation?

[from my post “Picking the Wrong Guy”]

  • Plus, he’ll read other random books around the house, like this old Bears on Wheels one, and come to ask me what t-w-e-n-t-y-o-n-e spells.

[from my post “Teaching Preschoolers to Read?”]


en dashes {–}

These are the big brothers of hyphens but the little brothers of em dashes, and they have total middle-child syndrome: very few people notice them. They fill in for hyphens when you’ve got two or more words on one side, so it’s like you need the extra bit of length to rope in the extra word(s). They also show ranges, pretty much replacing the word to.

Examples from my writing:

  • And what it did was create a mother–daughter relationship where I knew I could always talk to her.

[from my post “The Moral of the Story Is . . . ?”]

  • Seventeen and staring down the last summer before graduation, Wendy and the four guys she’s grown up with are making a break from gray-skied Portland — trying to run away from looming adulthood by driving south on a whim and a blog (the ad revenue–generating kind).

[from my manuscripts page]

numbers {10 or ten?}

Whether to express a number as word(s) or numeral has a lot to do with style guides, and style guides have a lot to do with practicality and emphasis. In a scientific or technical paper, such as one giving the results of a study, numbers are likely to be used a lot, and so numerals are used for all except one-digit numbers (zero through nine). Newspapers, which have to conserve space as much as possible and fit words into narrow columns, also follow that rule, so blog posts can also. On the other hand, subjects less concerned with frequent number use or space conservation generally write out any numbers that are easily expressed in words, such as one thousand but not 999.

Happily, there is one rule consistent across the board: if you start a sentence with a number, write it out.

Examples from my writing:

  • Ninety-nine percent of the time he insisted I be the one to read.

[from my post “Teaching Preschoolers to Read?”]

  • My current WIP has five teenage guys all the same age, and when Ashlee first read the first 40 pages of the first draft, her first question was, “Who’s Wendy going to end up with?”

[from my post “Picking the Wrong Guy”]

abbreviations {abbr.}

Where to start? Well, pay attention to the format of abbreviations you’re reading about. If your sources use all caps or periods between or whatever, it’s probably a good idea for you to do the same.

I’ve also found it helpful to know that the initials of someone’s name get spaced apart.

Examples from my writing:

  • So, if they teach young adult lit in college, wouldn’t that mean any YA book would qualify to be taught in an AP class?

[from my post “Literary Merit”]

  • From M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: The Pox Party (2006).

[from my post “Moves Explain the World (of Writing), Part II”]


2 thoughts on “Grammar Portfolio

  1. I especially like semicolons because I am a talker/writer. They allow me to babble on like the Energizer Bunny; I keep going and going and going and going.


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