Revision:  Punctuation Practices (not commas)

Revision: Punctuation Practices (not commas)

So far, our revision prep for punctuation has focused on the comma, which makes sense.  Misuse of commas is the single most common mistake made in writing, and SHSAT writers will take advantage of those mistakes and see if you can identify them.  But, there are many other punctuation mistakes that are made in writing.  You will want to Power Up your revision skills by adding knowledge of these best practices in revising.

Ampersand (&)

You might not have known that this common symbol, &, is called the ‘ampersand’ but now you do!  The ampersand is a symbol that stands for the word “and”.  Although the ampersand is used frequently in texting, there aren’t many good uses in writing for the ampersand.  If you see the ampersand in writing, be skeptical!  But, there are two appropriate instances in writing when you can revise a text and use the ampersand.  First, use the ampersand in the names of some businesses and organizations.  Law practices frequently use ampersands to identify partnerships, for example:  Smith, Sutherland, Sasseen & Hernandez.  You can also use the ampersand to identify when two or more people collaborate on a creative product.  Authors, for example, can be referenced using the ampersand:  M. Astell, M. Cavendish, P. Lord & W. Grommit.  Except for these two cases, however, you will revise your sentences by spelling out the word “and” to join ideas together.

Apostrophes (‘).

You are most familiar with apostrophes being used to show possession—and that is their most frequent use in good writing.  (You probably have guessed that the most common mistake in apostrophe use is using “it’s” as a possession of ‘it’.  But, “it’s” is the only use of the apostrophe of a pronoun that does not show possession.  “It’s” is a contraction, instead, of “it is”.  To show possession of “it”, you will just revise to “its”.)  But there are other uses of the apostrophe besides showing possession.  Master the apostrophe, and you’ll be in fantastic shape to revise for the SHSAT!

Contractions.  The apostrophe is used to contract two ideas into a single, unified idea.  You probably will not see a lot of apostrophes being used for contractions, for one simple reason:  academic writing usually does not use contractions.  Contractions make writing seem more conversational—more similar to how we talk—and so aren’t usually used on reading passages like the SHSAT.  But, if you did run into a contraction on the exam, it probably would be for variations of words will, has, and was, contracted with not (so, won’t, hasn’t, haven’t, wasn’t, etc.).

Dates.  Many middle schoolers believe that the apostrophe is required when writing about events that occurred over time, written with a year followed by the letter ‘s’.  For example, it is common—but wrong—to write the following:  “With the advent of Stranger Things and Dark, you can only conclude that we are back in love with 1980’s culture.”  But, culture doesn’t belong to the 1980s in this sentence—the 1980s doesn’t possess culture, so we do not use an apostrophe.  The only time you would revise a date to include an apostrophe is if you are contracting out the century and focusing on the decade.  So, it would be appropriate to write:  “With the advent of Stronger Things and Dark, you can only conclude that we are back in love with the ‘80s.”  In this example, the apostrophe is not possessive.  Instead, it stands in place of ‘19’ as a century-marker.

Brackets ([ ])

Brackets are similar to parentheses within a sentence.  They set information off, away from the main idea, and move the reader to think about something different for a moment. But, brackets should not be used in place of parentheses in good writing.  Only use brackets to stand in for words that have been intentionally changed from a passage or to show that there are words missing.  A common use of brackets today is to change texts that rely on a male pronoun to more inclusive pronouns.  Take the following original quote, from Shakespeare sentence,

“A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

If you were asked to revise this to include gender-neutral language, you would use brackets to show where you made a change:

“A fool thinks [themselves] to be wise, but a wise [person] knows [themselves] to be a fool.”

The brackets show where a slight alteration has been made in the passage, and lets the reader know that you, as someone who has approached this quote, has revised it.  (It also allows the reader to disagree with how you changed the text!)

Colon (:)

Colons, almost always, are used to introduce either a quote or a list of ideas.  Colons are placed directly against the word prior to the colon (without spaces), and you won’t capitalize the word that comes after the colon unless it is the beginning of a first word in a whole sentence that is quoted, or a proper noun.  You could revise this sentence, which uses a colon incorrectly:

I asked Shannon to get Bananas: Apples: Cherries; and Pickles.

Your revision would ensure that the list is started with the colon and capitalized correctly:

I asked Shannon to get: bananas, apples, cherries, and pickles.

Ellipsis (…)

Did you know that the three periods in a row (…) used by thought bubbles in graphic novels and cartoons are called ellipses?  The ellipsis is used in all types of writing to show that there is a long pause.  (Whereas the comma and semicolon indicate a short pause, the ellipsis indicates a longer pause in the writing, and often stands for reflection.  If you say,

It’s stunning to think what might have happened…if…only….

then there are several ideas communicated.  Something else could have happened—if—something else occurred.  Something else could have happened if—only—something else occurred!  But, also, you are thinking deeply about what could have happened if only something else occurred.  The ellipsis at the end of the sentence (followed by the period) means that your idea is concluded by continued thought about this stunning idea!

One other way that ellipses are used is to show that there is part of a quotation that has been removed from a passage because that material is not important to the overall meaning of the passage.  (Ellipses should not be used to take out text that is not convenient for your view!)  Consider this longer passage, from philosopher Rene Descartes (who famously said, “I think, therefore, I am!”:

“The fact that I can vividly and clearly think of one thing apart from another assures me that the two things are distinct from one another—that is, that they are two—since they can be separated by God.  Never mind how they could be separated; that does not affect that judgement that they are distinct. So, my mind is a distinct thing from my body.”

This passage actually tells us where we can use an ellipsis to shorten it!  (“Never mind how they could be separate,” etc.).  So, we can edit this to say:

“The fact that I can vividly and clearly think of one thing apart from another assures me that the two things are distinct from one another—that is, that they are two—since they can be separated by God….So, my mind is a distinct thing from my body.”

The ellipsis demonstrates that there has been information (that the reviser believes is not crucial to the argument Descartes makes).

Semicolon (;)

It is easy to confuse commas with semicolons, because they both represent pauses in the text.  Don’t use semicolons in place of period and instead of commas.  If you have two separate ideas, use a period between the ideas.  If you have two closely related ideas that could be connected by an “and”, use the comma.  But, if you have two or more closely related ideas that are independent of each other, use the semicolon.  For example:

John worked for the Secretary of State; this job is less dangerous.

The writer here wants to strongly connect John’s two different jobs.  They could be separated by a sentence, but the meaning would be that the first job (for the Secretary of State) is not connected to this job.  The way the sentence is written, they are connected and the fact that this job is less dangerous may be a reason why John wanted this job.