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The Intricacies Of Punctuation Marks

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Punctuation Marks

In my column of September 23 2022, I discussed in some detail (not, in some details) the functions of the commonly used punctuation. Bear in mind that the totality of these marks is called punctuation (not, punctuations), although they can also be called punctuation marks. In this piece, I shall be discussing some of the complex details of these punctuation marks and some others that I did not address in the first treatise.

First things first, there is a difference between British and American terminology and usage when it comes to certain punctuation marks. In American English, the dot at the end of a sentence is called a period while in British English, this dot is called a full stop or full point.

Some scholars who wish to steer clear of this regional preference refer to the dot as a point. Within the extended functions of the point, it is used to mark abbreviations, but it is not necessary if the last letter of the word is included in the abbreviation. Examples are B.A., T.S. Elliot, Dec., Wed., p. (page), pp. (pages). Note that American English prefers the inclusion of the point even when the abbreviation includes the last letter of the word:
Dr (British)
Dr. (American)
Mr and Mrs (British)
Mr. and Mrs. (American)

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Further, it bears mentioning that the point is not needed in metric abbreviations such as g (gram), mg (milligram), kg (kilogram), cm (centimetre/centimeter), l (litre/liter) and km (kilometre/kilometer).

By the way, the spellings ending in “-re” are British, whereas the ones ending in “-er” are American. The point is also not normally needed in sequences of capitals or in numerical abbreviations: UN, BBC, AD, UNESCO, USA, USSR, UK, 1st, 2nd, 3rd. On top of that, the point is not required if the abbreviation is used colloquially, as in “demo” for demonstration, “trig” for trigonometry, “vac” for vacation, and “co-op” for cooperative.

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Another punctuation mark deserving of further clarification is the apostrophe. Using this mark in three different senses in relation to the pronoun “it” could be confusing. Instructively, “it” is used in the subject or object position: It is nice, and I like it.

“Its” (without the apostrophe) is either a possessive pronoun or a possessive determiner. It means to belong to something, as in:
Its (determiner) food has finished.
The house is its (possessive pronoun).
“It’s” (with the apostrophe) is used as a contraction for “it is” or “it has”, as in:
It’s (It is) your luck.
It’s (It has) eaten rice.

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To clearly show the difference, the three are deployed in the sentence below:
I got IT for $10, but IT’S not working as ITS manual states.

In addition to my discussion about the functions of the apostrophe in the column of September 25 2020, I must mention here that the apostrophe is used in possessive situations, not in descriptive situations. For instance, the following names should be written as “Girls Schools” and “Teamsters Union”, not “Girls’ Schools” and “Teamsters’ Union”.

This is because the schools and the union do not respectively belong to the girls and teamsters, and the words are simply used for description. It should be mentioned, too, that the apostrophe is ideally used with living things. Therefore, we cannot talk about “the house’s floor”. Preferably, we should say “the floor of the house.”

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Notwithstanding these rules, the apostrophe is used in idiomatic contexts such as the ones given below:
A stone’s throw (not, a stone throw)
Donkey’s years (not, donkey years)
For goodness’ sake (not, for goodness sake)

Also, in speech, some utterances with the apostrophe do not reflect grammatical differences as exemplified by the two phrases below:
The boy’s room
The boys’ room

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When this is the case, it is better to sound clear, whether one is talking about a room belonging to one boy or a room belonging to two or more boys, by avoiding the construction with the apostrophe. Finally, on the apostrophe, the mark should not be erroneously used with possessive pronouns such as yours, theirs and ours. It is, therefore, wrong to write your’s, their’s and our’s.

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Two other punctuation marks I did not discuss in the first treatise are brackets and the ampersand. Beginning with brackets, it should be mentioned that, as a punctuation mark or as a sign of aggregation in mathematics, the word should be used as plural: brackets, not bracket. This is because as a countable noun, a bracket is just a pair of the mark.

As a punctuation mark, brackets show when something has been added to an original text by someone else such as an editor or an author quoting another writer, as in:
Odebunmi (2006) defines context as the spine of meaning (actually, this is the most succinct definition of the term) while another scholar explains the term as how much is inferred through fewer words.

Last but not least, the ampersand (&) is a mark used in place of “and”. The mark is rarely used in formal writing other than where it already appears in the names of business firms. Some style guides also indicate some uses of it in their formatting style.

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In conclusion, mastering the uses and misuses of punctuation marks adds dexterity to one’s writing. Remarkably, this piece is an addition to the ones available on such complexities.

(c) 2023 Ganiu Bamgbose writes from the Department of English, Lagos State University.

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