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(Based on J. Dawkins, “Punctuation as a Rhetorical Tool”, CCC 46.4)


Principle 1: Punctuation marks are hierarchically ordered, based on the degree of separation they provide; for example, sentence-final marks (periods, exclamation marks and question marks) provide maximum degree of separation, whereas commas or no punctuation marks provide the minimum degree of separation. Colons, semicolons and dashes provide medium separation and have “extra” meaning--anticipatory, logical connection and emphatic, respectively.

They left early. They were tired from the hike.

They left early: they were tired from the hike.

They left early; they were tired from the hike.

They left early—they were tired from the hike.

When writers use a period between two sentences, they are providing the highest degree of separation. The colon, semicolon and dash give a medium degree of separation and add meaning for the reader: the colon anticipates explanation—it indicates, in other words, that the clause following it explains the one preceding it; the semicolon lets readers know that there is a logical connection between the two clauses; and the dash makes the readers stop because the clause following it is emphasized.

Principle 2: Punctuation marks can be ordered based on their function—the elements they separate or the boundaries they mark: periods and semicolons mark the boundaries of independent clauses—they separate, in other words, independent elements; dashes and colons separate independent clauses or non-independent elements (i.e. words, phrases or dependent clauses) from independent clauses; commas (or the absence of punctuation) separate non-independent clause elements from independent clauses.

Principle 3: Punctuation can be used by writers to enhance their meaning and provide clarity to their text; “to gain separation (emphasis) [they use] an appropriate higher mark; [to] gain connectedness (under-emphasis) [they use] an appropriate lower mark (Dawkins 534).

Absence of punctuation joins elements; presence of punctuation –from comma to period—separates elements and makes meaning clear:

They live in a light blue house.

He is a rich, big cowboy.

In the first sentence, the lack of commas between ‘light’ and ‘blue’ reveals that the two are connected; in the second sentence, the commas between ‘rich’ and ‘big’ provide the separation necessary for the meaning of the sentence.

Often, punctuation marks are needed simply for clarity of meaning. In the following sentence, for example,

Further, the purpose of the Liberal Arts Core is to provide general knowledge to all freshmen.

the comma keeps us from misreading the sentence (making ‘further’ a verb instead of an adverb).



In addition to punctuation choices, writers have three options regarding the way independent clauses (in reality ‘kernel’ sentences) and non-independent elements (modifiers) can combine in a sentence:

Option 1: The non-independent element may precede the independent clause (indicated with italics); if that is the case, the punctuation marks to be used (based on principles 1, 2 and 3 above ) are zero (no separation), comma (minimum separation) or dash (maximum separation):

Next week we will visit the city's newest museums.

Like Civil Action, the movie is the true story of industrial pollution.

Springtime in Oregon -- the Iris Gardens are in full bloom.

The choice of punctuation mark depends on the writer’s intent: choosing no punctuation between the non-independent element and the independent clause will provide connectedness (no separation) whereas using a dash will provide maximum separation/emphasis in this particular construction.

Option 2: The non-independent element may follow the independent clause (indicated in italics); if that is the case, the marks to be used are zero, comma, dash or colon.

You can take advantage of other recreational activities when you are not dancing.

Contra dancing involves couples facing each other, performing moves such as the gypsy. There are still 200 impact craters—the largest of them off he YucatanPeninsula.

He was scared by the city: the crowds, the lights, the noise.

Once again, there is an acceptable range of punctuation marks chosen—from zero to colon—depending on the emphasis/separation the writer wants to have between the independent clause and the other elements in the sentence. When maximum separation between clauses is desired, the period can be used—hence, a fragment which has the highest degree of emphasis:

I am an entomologist and a native Californian. Which explains my fascination with butterflies.

Option 3: Finally, writers have the option of separating the subject from the predicate with intervening material. If they choose to do so, they must use paired punctuation marks to set off the intervening material: zeroes (no punctuation), commas, dashes and parentheses—the choice based on the degrees of separation (hence emphasis) that the writer wants:

Students who choose the IB option still have to take PE classes in order to graduate. Adults, by definition, do not change their basic personality traits.

He designed the first of a series of buildings –the Palm Springs City Hall and the Valley Station for the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway—that would later define the city’s personality.

The onion-celery-pepper mix (called mirepoix) gives soups their unique flavor.

Now that we have explained the way punctuation works, we can see what writers do when they decide to create longer sentences by joining independent clauses with each other. They can use punctuation marks only or punctuation and coordination, a device that will enhance the separation between the clauses. If they choose punctuation alone, they can use either dashes, colons or semicolons, each of which, as we have seen, carries an additional meaning: dashes have an emphatic meaning, colons anticipatory and semicolons indicate logical meaning relations between the clauses. If writers want a higher degree of separation between sentences, they may choose coordinating conjunctions (in addition to punctuation marks) since they indicate more of a separation and provide greater emphasis:

In 1869, the gold rush in California had just started. But by 1906, it was almost over.

It is clear, then, that writers use rhetorical punctuation to establish text connections, to guide readers to their intended meaning.