A Look at Commas; A Peek at Semi-Colons

Punctuate this wording (qtd. in Truss 13):

“Charles the First walked and talked half an hour after his head was cut off”

Note: The information in parentheses is one way in MLA to give a clue about the quotation’s source. The quotation is from a work written by Truss, who quoted it on page 13. In an MLA essay, the source would be revealed in a works-cited page; however, as this post does not have one, here is the source’s title and author: Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss. Its subtitle reveals its contents: “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.”

The correct way to punctuate the “Charles the First” quote is by adding two periods and a comma, placing one period after “talked,” the comma after “after,” and the other period after “off.”

One purpose of punctuation is clarification. The opening quote, without punctuation, has a completely different meaning. However, the period after “talked” is not the only way it could have been punctuated. It could have been punctuated this way: “Charles the First walked and talked; half an hour after, his head was cut off.” But when I read that aloud, it does not sound right. The change in punctuation signals that what precedes the semi-colon is equal in “weight” with what succeeds it, that both are equally important. But that is not the case: The first independent clause, “Charles the First walked and talked,” just sets the scene; whereas, the second, half an hour after, his head was cut off,” gives much more important information, for losing one’s head significantly changes one’s ability to walk and talk.

A rule: When writing, precede and follow a semi-colon with an independent clause.

I wrote “A rule” rather than “The rule” because it is a rule that can be broken — as skilled writers do.

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