Rethinking Punctuation: Splitting a Sentence
Hello fellow teachers! If you’re just joining us for today, we here at FactSumo are doing a mini-series on how to teach punctuation in the classroom (in a meaningful way). We’re doing that by splitting--no pun intended--punctuation marks into easy and recognizable categories. We want punctuation to be a comfortable thing to master for beginner English and ESL students; so without further ado, let’s dive into the different ways of splitting a sentence!
This is a tricky place to start, simply because the comma can feel natively intuitive, and there are a few disagreements as to where they have to go. But here are a few simple rules you can follow to use the comma effectively and accurately. For sake of brevity, let’s skip past the mechanical uses of commas, such as dates, numbers, and names. Instead, we’re going to focus on lists and multiple adjectives, as well as interrupters, appositives, and conjunctions. Seems like a lot, right? Let’s break it down.
Lists are one of the biggest uses of commas. Here’s a quick example:
My father enjoys bagels, bacon, and coffee in the morning.
Anytime you have a list containing more than two objects (or subjects) long, use a comma to separate them! Just remember to use a conjunction at the end to signify your list is terminating.
The next use of a comma is fairly similar, and it has to do with multiple adjectives. Have you ever seen a very, very, very scary movie? Then you know about using commas like this! Another example would be:
The small, quiet kid never spoke in class.
In the same way commas are used to make lists easier to read, they can be used as separators for descriptive words. Note that the final descriptor doesn’t require a comma after it.
Next we have interrupters and appositives. Think of them as a pause in a sentence to tell someone about a specific element of a subject or object, without breaking the sentence in two. Interrupters usually don’t contain essential information, whereas appositives do. Here’s an example of an appositive:
My uncle, who I have known for my whole life, died yesterday.
We found out more about the narrator’s uncle between those two commas. Without that pause, we may not have known if these two people were close, but since that information is provided, now we do know. Just remember to separate this information with two commas!
Finally, let’s talk about conjunctions. Commas go right before these, because they are the words often responsible for separating the sentence. Here’s an example:
I like chocolate, but my favorite flavor is strawberry.
There are a lot more strange rules about commas, but we just wanted to hit the basics. When in doubt, follow the natural pauses in a sentence to use commas. Where would you take a breath? That’s most likely a good place to put in a comma.
Ok, we got the most difficult and nuanced sentence splitter out of the way. Let’s move on to colons. These should be a little easier. Colons are used to detail lists, explanations, or emphasis. The list aspect is pretty easy, as the colon is just setting off a list. Below is an example:
I hate three things: lions, tigers, and bears.
Note that the items in the list still need a comma, as shown above. If you weren’t trying to use a colon, get rid of the phrase three things so the sentence can make sense. The next use of a colon is fairly straightforward. Colons can be used to show greater detail of a subject or object. Here’s a simple example:
Bears are fat: some eat up to 30,000 berries a day.
This sentence gives us more information as to why exactly the narrator believes bears are fat. We know more by way of reading after the colon. Think of colons as the gatekeepers to more detailed info.
Finally, let’s look at emphasis. Colons can be used to dramatize a phrase or word at the end of a sentence.
We needed to do one thing: escape.
The reader feels the emotion behind this sentence because the word escape is split from the rest of the sentence using a colon. We take a brief pause before we read that word, as though we did not know what the narrator would say.
This sentence splitter sounds intimidating, and people often use this one wrong, but it’s one of the easiest punctuation marks in the English language. Semicolons do one thing: they split independent clauses (or, phrases that can stand as a sentence on their own). Here’s a very easy example:
I like dogs; dogs are cool.
Both of these independent clauses can act as two separate sentences. I like dogs. Dogs are cool. The semicolon simply gets rid of the period of the first sentence and treats the pair like one combined sentence. Semicolons are easy to use; once you get the hang of them, you’ll never use them incorrectly!
Parentheses are pretty common in other languages too, though they may take on other forms. Parentheses are always used in pairs, and provide additional information within them. Here’s an example:
My dog (Jack) can perform eight tricks.
You may be thinking, can’t commas be used here? The answer is yes. A lot of these punctuation marks can in fact be used interchangeably. One mark isn’t necessarily “more correct” than the other. When in doubt, use the marks that you’re most comfortable with.
As always, the best way to master these punctuation marks is to use them in writing and see examples for yourself in books. We hope you enjoyed this second mini-lesson on the wonderful world of punctuation and sentence splitters. Want to review? Check out our lessons. Think you’ve mastered sentence splitters? Head over to FactSumo.com to test your skills.