We’re in the communications business. And part of being a good communicator is minding your p’s and q’s. In this blog series, senior copywriter Mike Mathieu gives grammar lessons you might actually remember next time you’re communicating something important.

Tip #1: Polishing Up Parentheses

Does closing punctuation fall inside or outside parentheses? It depends. To get it right, look at what happens right in front of the parentheses.

I’m not one to tell secrets. (Or am I?)

What’s in front of the parentheses? A period. That means the preceding sentence is over, and the parenthetical phrase is its own person. And since we’re starting a new sentence inside the parentheses, we have to finish it inside the parentheses. Punctuation included.

I’m actually not sure whether I’m one to tell secrets. (Clearly.)

Technically, a single word like “clearly” isn’t a sentence. But we’re capitalizing it and giving it a period here for two reasons.

One, because people often speak in fragments, and we should write the way people speak. And two, because the sentence before it is done. Over. Yesterday’s news. That means whatever we put in parentheses needs to be punctuated like a stand-alone sentence: first word capitalized, final word followed by a sentence-ending punctuation mark. (Like this.)

I guess the best way to find out whether or not I tell secrets is for you to tell me a secret and wait and see if I tell anyone else (either in person or on Facebook).

What’s in front of the parentheses this time? A word.

Ah-hah! The sentence outside the parentheses isn’t done yet! It’s still today’s news! Therefore, the parenthetical phrase isn’t its own person. We aren’t starting a new sentence inside the parentheses, because the whole parenthetical phrase is sitting inside another sentence. So when you finish that phrase, you just close the parentheses without so much as a how-do-you-do (or a period) and go on with the rest of the sentence you were typing. In the example above, there’s nothing left of the sentence outside the parentheses, so we just end it with a period (outside the parentheses).

Tip #2: Of Commas and Conjunctions

Now and again you may be tempted to start a sentence with a conjunction and then place a comma right after it.

Would you mind making a Caesar salad? And, don’t forget the croutons.

Strictly speaking, this comma is ungrammatical. You can argue that serves the performative function of encouraging a pause, which helps evoke how the sentence “sounds.” (Again, we should write the way people speak.) That kind of pause is especially tempting following the word “but,” since “but” is a conjunction that’s all about countering or pivoting to something new.

I forgot the croutons. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. Right?

Tempting but, technically, wrong. The only grammatically justifiable reason for following a conjunction with a comma is to set apart some kind of intervening phrase.

Right. But, if I may be blunt, there are lots of other reasons why we can’t be friends.

Other than that, you really aren’t supposed to follow conjunctions with commas.

You are free to break rules if it helps you convey your message/tone/etc. (Really. You are.) So if this usage of the comma makes sense to you, you can go ahead and use it — with intent, knowing that you’re breaking a rule.

But, if I may be blunt, there are a few good reasons not to do it.

  1. To many a trained and untrained eye, it looks wrong more than it “sounds” right.
  2. At first glance, readers may not know the comma is meant only for performative effect. They may expect some kind of intervening phrase, and they may be at a momentary loss when they don’t find one.
  3. There are other punctuation marks better suited for the job of conveying pauses, shifts and rhythm.

For instance, the ellipses.

I would like to hear these other reasons why we can’t be friends. And … try to make amends.

And the em dash.

Last week you forgot the cheese. And who are we kidding? There’s no making amends for these things.

If those marks add more drama than you’re looking for … maybe it means you don’t need any performative punctuation after the conjunction at all.

I understand. And I’m sorry.

Photo by jmawork, shared via Creative Commons.

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