Punctuation rules can help

March 31, 2006|by LISA PREJEAN

Even if you don't remember anything else from the punctuation units covered in your elementary English classes, you probably remember this:

When in doubt, leave it out.

The reference to commas - if you don't think one should be used, don't use it - is a catchy rhyme, but is it really helpful?

About as helpful as "i before e except after c" when it comes to spelling words such as weird or their.

Elementary-age students often seem insecure about commas. If they left out everything they doubted, the reader's eye would never get a break.


Punctuation is, after all, a respite for the reader. If a writer forgets to include proper punctuation, he or she is being inconsiderate of the reader.

If you ever wondered why it was so important to learn about commas, colons, hyphens and semicolons, now you know.

Readers expect to get a break.

Deciding where to put those breaks is not always an exact science, but there are some rules that can help.

Rule: Use commas to separate three or more items in a series.

Her actions proved that she was kind, considerate and loving.


Her actions proved that she was kind, considerate, and loving.

In the first sentence, there is only one comma, the one between kind and considerate. Another comma, after considerate, has been added in the second sentence.

Some English teachers insist that there should be a comma before the and. Others feel it is preferable to not have a comma there. In newspaper writing, no comma is used there.

Rule: Use commas to separate two or more adjectives that are used before a noun.

The kind, considerate girl helped her neighbor.

Rule: Use a comma before conjunctions that join parts of a compound sentence.

You might remember from Schoolhouse Rock's "Conjunction, Junction" song that a conjunction's function is "Hooking up words, and phrases and clauses." Conjunctions are joiner words such as and, but, or, nor, for and yet.

A compound sentence contains at least two complete sentences, sentences that could stand by themselves. The writer often decides to join two sentences because they are related to each other.

For example: I wrote an e-mail, but I forgot to send it.

The sentence "I wrote an e-mail" is a complete thought, and so is the sentence "I forgot to send it." It makes for more interesting writing to join the sentences with a conjunction.

Rule: Use commas to set off a person's name or title when they are being addressed.

Do you think we will have practice today, Coach White?

Dad, may I go to the store with you?

When you arrive, Carol, we will be ready.

Rule: Use commas after well, yes, no and similar words when they come at the beginning of the sentence.

Yes, you may go to the store with me.

Well, here we go again.

Why, I never heard of such a thing!

Rule: Use commas to separate items in dates and addresses.

Friday, March 31, 2006.

The Herald-Mail Co., P.O. Box 439, Hagerstown, MD 21741.

Rule: Use a comma after the salutation of a friendly letter and at the close of a letter.

Dear John,

Sincerely yours,

The rules listed in this column are detailed in The A Beka Book Language B teacher edition.

Just for fun, you can listen to the "Conjunction Junction" song on Schoolhouse Rock's Web site,

Lisa Tedrick Prejean writes a weekly column for The Herald-Mail's Family page. Send e-mail to her at

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