The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers

Chapter 10: Punctuation

That learned men are well known to disagree on this subject of punctuation is in itself a proof that the knowledge of it, in theory and practice, is of some importance. I myself have learned by experience, that, if ideas that are difficult to understand are properly separated, they become clearer; and that, on the other hand, through defective punctuation, many passages are confused and distorted to such a degree, that sometimes they can with difficulty be understood, or even cannot be understood at all.

Aldus Manutius. Interpungendi ratio, 1566. From the translation in Punctuation, its Principles and Practice by T. F. and M. F. A. Husband, Routledge, 1905.

This again is a large subject. Whole books have been written about it, and it is still true, as it apparently was four hundred years ago, that no two authorities completely agree. Taste and commonsense are more important than any rules; you put in stops to help your reader to understand you, not to please grammarians. And you should try so to write that he will understand you with a minimum of help of that sort. Fowler says:

It is a sound principle that as few stops should be used as will do the work. ... Everyone should make up his mind not to depend on his stops. They are to be regarded as devices, not for saving him the trouble of putting his words in the order that naturally gives the required meaning, but for saving his reader the moment or two that would sometimes, without them, be necessarily spent on reading the sentence twice over, once to catch the general arrangement, and again for the details. It may almost be said that what reads wrongly if the stops are removed is radically bad; stops are not to alter the meaning, but merely to show it up. Those who are learning to write should make a practice of putting down all they want to say without stops first. What then, on reading over, naturally arranges itself contrary to the intention should be not punctuated, but altered; and the stops should be as few as possible consistently with the recognised rules.

The symbols we shall have to consider in this chapter are the apostrophe, colon, comma, dash, full stop, hyphen, inverted commas, question mark, semicolon. It will also be a suitable place to say something about capital letters, paragraphs, parentheses and sentences.


The only uses of the apostrophe that call for notice are (a) its use to denote the possessive of names ending in s and of pronouns, (b) its use before a final s to show that the s is forming the plural of a word or symbol not ordinarily admitting of a plural and (c) its use with a defining plural (e.g. Ten year's imprisonment).

There is no universally accepted code of rules governing the formation of the possessive case of names ending in s, but the most favoured practice (expecially with monosyllables) seems to be not just to put an apostrophe at the end of the word, as one does with an ordinary plural (strangers' gallery), but to add another sMr. Jones's room, St. James's street, not Mr. Jones' room, St. James' street.

As to pronouns, all these except the pronoun one dispense with an apostrophe in their possessive cases—hers, yours, theirs, ours and its, but one's, not ones. It's is not the possessive of it but a contraction of it is: the apostrophe is performing its normal duty of showing that a letter has been omitted.

Whether an apostrophe should be used to denote the plural of a word or symbol that does not ordinarily make a plural depends on whether the plural is readily recognisable as such. Unless the reader really needs help it should not be thrust upon him. It is clearly justified with single letters: "there are two o's in woolly"; "mind your p's and q's". Otherwise it is rarely called for. It should not be used with contractions (e.g. M.P.s) or merely because what is put into the plural is not a noun. Editors of Shakespeare do without it in "Tellest thou me of ifs", and Rudyard Kipling did not think it necessary in:

One million Hows, two million Wheres, And seven million Whys.

Whether one should use an apostrophe in such expressions as "Ten years imprisonment" is a disputed and not very important point. The answer seems to be that if ten years is regarded as a descriptive genitive (like busman's in busman's holiday) we must write years'; if as an adjectival phrase there must be no apostrophe but the words must be hyphened (see Hyphen). In the singular (a year's imprisonment) year's can only be a descriptive genitive.

In such phrases as games master and customs examination, games and customs are clearly adjectival, and need no apostrophe.


Several correspondents have asked me to say something about the use of capital letters. The difficulty is to know what to say. No one needs telling that capitals are used for the first letter in every sentence, for proper names and the names of the months and days and the titles of books and newspapers. The only difficulty is with words that are sometimes written with capitals and sometimes not. Here there can be no general rule; everyone must do what he thinks most fitting. But two pieces of advice may perhaps be given:

  1. Use a capital for the particular and a small letter for the general. Thus:

    It is a street leading out of Oxford Street.

    I have said something about this in Chapter 1; I shall have more to say in later chapters.

    In this case the Judge went beyond a judge's proper functions.

    Many parliaments have been modelled on our Parliament.

  2. Whatever practice you adopt, be consistent throughout any document you are writing.


About the use of the colon there is even less agreement among the authorities than about the use of other stops. All agree that its systematic use as one of a series of different pause-values has almost died out with the decay of formal periods. But some hold that it is still useful as something less than a full stop and more than a semicolon; others deny it. Into this we need not enter; it will be enough to note that the following uses are generally recognised as legitimate:

  1. To mark more sharply than a semicolon would the antithesis between two sentences.

    In peace-time the Civil Service is a target of frequent criticism: in war-time criticism is very greatly increased.

    In some cases the executive carries out most of the functions: in others the delegation is much less extensive.

  2. To precede an explanation or particularisation or to introduce a list or series: in the words of Fowler "to deliver the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words".

    The design of the school was an important part of the scheme: Post Office counters with all the necessary stores were available and maps and framed specimens of the various documents in use were exhibited on the walls of light and cheerful classrooms.

    News reaches a national paper from two Sources: the news agencies and its own correspondents.

For the second purpose the dash is the colon's weaker relative.


The use of commas cannot be learned by rule. Not only does conventional practice vary from period to period, but good writers of the same period differ among themselves. Moreover stops have two kinds of duty. One is to show the construction of sentences—the "grammatical" duty. The other is to introduce nuances into the meaning — the "rhetorical" duty. "I went to his house and I found him there" is a colourless statement. "I went to his house, and I found him there" hints that it was not quite a matter of course that he should have been found there. "I went to his house. And I found him there". This indicates that to find him there was surprising. Similarly you can give a different nuance to what you write by encasing adverbs or adverbial phrases in commas. "He was, apparently, willing to support you" throws a shade of doubt on his bona fides that is not present in "He was apparently willing to support you".

The correct use of the comma—if there is such a thing as "correct" use—can only be acquired by common sense, observation and taste. Present practice is markedly different from that of the past in using commas much less freely. The fifteenth-century passage that heads this chapter is peppered with them with a liberality not approved by modern practice.

I shall attempt no more than to point out some traps that commas set for the unwary, and those who want to know more about the subject I would refer to Carey's Mind the Stop1, a little book which has the rare merit of explaining the principles of punctuation without getting lost in its no-man's-land. I shall first deal with some uses of the comma that are generally regarded as incorrect, and then with uses which, though they may not be incorrect, need special care in handling, or are questionable.

  1. The use of a comma between two independent sentences not linked by a conjunction. The usual practice is to use a heavier stop in this position, usually a semicolon. (See also under Semicolon.)

    We wrote on the 12th May asking for an urgent report regarding the above contractor's complaint, this was followed up on the 24th May by a telephone call.

    You may not be aware that a Youth Employment Service is operating throughout the country, in some areas it is under the control of the Ministry of Labour and National Service and in others of the Education Authorities.

    There should be a semicolon after complaint in the first quotation and country in the second.

    The Department cannot guarantee that a licence will be issued, you should not therefore arrange for any shipment.

    I regret the delay in replying to your letter but Mr. X who was dealing with it is on leave, however, I have gone into the matter....

    There should be a full stop after issued in the first quotation and after leave in the second.

  2. The use of one comma instead of either a pair or none.

    This very common blunder is more easily illustrated than explained. It is almost like using one only of a pair of brackets. Words that are parenthetical may be able to do without any commas, but if there is a comma at one end of them there must be one at the other end too.

    Against all this must be set considerations which, in our submission are overwhelming. (Omit the comma.)

    We should be glad if you would inform us for our record purposes, of any agency agreement finally reached. (Either omit the comma or insert one after us.)

    It will be noted that for the development areas, Treasury-financed projects are to be grouped together. (Either omit the comma or insert one after that.)

    The first is the acute shortage that so frequently exists, of suitable premises where people can come together. (Omit the comma.)

    The principal purpose is to provide for the division between the minister and the governing body concerned, of premises and property held partly for hospital purposes and partly for other purposes. (Omit the comma.)

  3. The use of commas with "defining" relative clauses.

    Relative clauses fall into two main classes. Grammarians give them different labels, but defining and commenting are the most convenient and descriptive. If you say "The man who was here this morning told me that", the relative clause is a defining one; it completes the subject "the man", which conveys no definite meaning without it. But if you say, "Jones, who was here this morning, told me that", the relative clause is commenting; the subject "Jones" is already complete and the relative clause merely adds a bit of information about him which may or may not be important but is not essential to the definition of the subject. A commenting clause should be within commas; a defining one should not. This is not an arbitrary rule; it is a utilitarian one. If you do not observe it, you may fail to make your meaning clear, or you may even say something different from what you intend. For instance:

    A particular need is provision for young women, who owing to war conditions have been deprived of normal opportunities of learning homecraft.

    Here the comma announces that the relative clause is "commenting"; it is added by way of explanation why young women in general had this need after the war. Without the comma the relative clause would be read as a "defining" one, limiting the need for this provision to those particular young women who had in fact been deprived of those opportunities. Conversely:

    Any expenditure incurred on major awards to students, who are not recognised for assistance from the Ministry, will rank for grant...

    Here the comma is wrong. The relative clause must be "defining". The commas suggest that it is "commenting" and imply that no students are recognised for assistance.

    I have made enquiries, and find that the clerk, who dealt with your enquiry, recorded the name of the firm correctly.

    The relative clause here is a defining one. The comma turns it into a commenting one and implies that the writer has only one clerk. The truth is that one of several is being singled out; and this is made clear if the commas after clerk and enquiry are omitted.

    The same mistake is made in:

    The Ministry issues permits to employing authorities to enable foreigners to land in this country for the purpose of taking up employment, for which British subjects are not available.

    The grammatical implication of this is that employment in general is not a thing for which British subjects are available.

    An instruction book called "Pre-aircrew English", supplied during the war to airmen in training in a Commonwealth country, contained an encouragement to its readers to "smarten up their English". This ended:

    Pilots, whose minds are dull, do not usually live long.

    The commas convert a truism into an insult.

  4. The insertion of a meaningless comma into an "absolute phrase".

    An absolute phrase (e.g. "then, the work being finished, we went home") always has parenthetic commas round it. But there is no sense in the comma that so often carelessly appears inside it.

    The House of Commons, having passed the third reading by a large majority after an animated debate, the bill was sent to the Lords.

    The insertion of the first comma leaves the House of Commons in the air waiting for a verb that never comes. (See Chapter 9.7)

  5. The use of commas in an endeavour to clarify faultily constructed sentences.

    It is instructive to compare the following extracts from two documents issued by the same department.

    It should be noted that an officer who ceased to pay insurance contributions before the date of the commencement of his emergency service, remained uninsured for a period, varying between eighteen months and two-and-a-half years, from the date of his last contribution and would, therefore, be compulsorily insured if his emergency service commenced during that period.

    Officers appointed to emergency commissions direct from civil life who were not insured for health or pensions purposes at the commencement of emergency service are not compulsorily insured during service.

    Why should the first of these extracts be full of commas and the second have none? The answer can only be that, whereas the second sentence is short and clear, the first is long and obscure. The writer tried to help the reader by putting in five commas, but all he did was to give him five jolts. The only place where there might have been a comma is after contribution, and there the writer has omitted to put one.

    Another example of the same abuse of a comma is:

    Moreover, directions and consents at the national level are essential prerequisites in a planned economy, whereas they were only necessary for the establishment of standards or for grant-aid and borrowing purposes, in the comparatively free system of yesterday.

    The proper place for "in the comparatively free system of yesterday" is after whereas, and it is a poor second-best to try to throw it back there by putting a comma in front of it.

    The most barefaced attempt I have come across to correct a slovenly sentence by a comma was perpetrated by a Colonial bishop, who wrote to The Times a letter containing the sentence:

    I should like to plead with some of those men who now feel ashamed to join the Colonial Service.

    After the publication of the letter the bishop wrote again to The Times, saying:

    The omission of a comma in my letter makes one seem to suggest that men might feel ashamed of joining the Colonial Service. My typescript reads, "I should like to plead with some of those men who now feel ashamed, to join the Colonial Service".

    Quoted in Gowans Whyte, Anthology of Errors, Chaterson.

  6. The use of a comma to mark the end of the subject of a verb, or the beginning of the object. (See also chapter 9.1.)

    It cannot be said to be always wrong to use a comma to mark the end of a composite subject, because good writers sometimes do it deliberately. For instance, one might write:

    The question whether it is legitimate to use a comma to mark the end of the subject, is an arguable one.

    But the comma is unnecessary; the reader does not need its help. To use commas in this way is a dangerous habit; it encourages a writer to shirk the trouble of so arranging his sentences as to make their meaning plain without punctuation.

    I am however to draw your attention to the fact that goods subject to import licensing which are despatched to this country without the necessary licence having first been obtained, are on arrival liable to seizure...

    If the subject is so long that it seems to need a boundary post at the end, it would be better not to use the slovenly device of a comma but to rewrite the sentence in conditional form.

    ...if goods subject to import licensing are despatched ... they are on arrival...

    In the following sentence the comma merely interrupts the flow:

    I am now in a position to say that all the numerous delegates who have replied, heartily endorse the recommendation.

    Postponement of the object may get a writer into the same trouble.

    In the case of both whole-time and part-time officers, the general duties undertaken by them include the duty of treating without any additional remuneration and without any right to recover private fees, patients in their charge who are occupying Section 5 accommodation under the proviso to Section 5 (1) of the Act.

    This unlovely sentence obviously needs recasting. One way of doing this would be:

    The general duties undertaken by both whole-time and part-time officers include the treating of patients in their charge who are occupying Section 5 accommodation under the proviso to Section 5 (1) of the Act, and they are not entitled to receive additional remuneration for it or to recover private fees.

  7. The use of commas before a clause beginning with that. A comma was at one time always used in this position:

    It is a just though trite observation, that victorious Rome was itself subdued by the arts of Greece.


    The true meaning is so uncertain and remote, that it is never sought.


    The author well knew, that two gentlemen ... had differed with him.


    We are more sparing of commas nowadays, and this practice has gone out of fashion.

    Indeed it is safe to say that immediately before the conjunction that a comma will be admissible more rarely than before any other conjunction.

    Carey, Mind the Stop.

If we turn from uses of the comma generally regarded as incorrect to those generally regarded as legitimate, we find one or two that need special care.

  1. The use of commas with adverbs and adverbial phrases.

    1. At the beginning of sentences.

      In their absence, it will be desirable...

      Nevertheless, there is need for special care...

      In practice, it has been found advisable...

      Some writers put a comma here as a matter of course. But others do it only if a comma is needed to emphasise a contrast or to prevent the reader from going off on a wrong scent, as in:

      A few days after, the Minister of Labour promised that a dossier of the strike would be published.

      Two miles on, the road is worse.

      On the principle that stops should not be used unless they are needed, this discrimination is to be commended.

    2. Within sentences.

      To enclose an adverb in commas is, as we have seen, a legitimate and useful way of emphasising it. "All these things may, eventually, come to pass" is another way of saying "All these things may come to pass — eventually". Or it may serve to emphasise the subject of the sentence: "He, however, thought differently". The commas underline he. But certain common adverbs such as therefore, however, perhaps, of course, present difficulties because of a convention that they should always be enclosed in commas, whether emphasised or not. This is dangerous; the only safe course is to treat the question as one not of rule but of common sense, and to judge each case on its merits. Lord Dunsany blames printers for this convention:

      The writer puts down "I am doing to Dublin perhaps, with Murphy". Or he writes "I am going to Dublin, perhaps with Murphy". But in either case these pestilent commas swoop down, not from his pen, but from the darker parts of the cornices where they were bred in the printer's office, and will alight on either side of the word perhaps, making it impossible for the reader to know the writer's meaning, making it impossible to see whether the doubt implied by the word perhaps affected Dublin or Murphy. I will quote an actual case I saw in a newspaper. A naval officer was giving evidence before a Court, and said, "I decided on an alteration of course". But since the words "of course" must always be surrounded by commas, the printer's commas came down on them.... and the sentence read, "I decided upon an alteration, of course"!

      The adverb however is specially likely to stand in need of clarifying commas. For instance, Burke wrote:

      The author is compelled, however reluctantly, to receive the sentence pronounced on him in the House of Commons as that of the Party.

      The meaning of this sentence would be different if the comma after reluctantly were omitted, and one inserted after however.

      The author is compelled, however, reluctantly to receive, etc.

  2. The "throw-back" comma.

    A common use of the comma as a clarifier is to show that what follows it refers not to what immediately precedes it but to something further back. William Cobbett, in the grammar that he wrote for his young son, pointed out that "You will be rich if you be industrious, in a few years" did not mean the same as "you will be rich, if you be industrious in a few years". The comma that precedes the adverbial phrase in a few years indicates that that phrase refers not to "if you be industrious" but to the whole clause "you will be rich if you be industrious". As usual, the device is clumsy. The proper way of writing the sentence is "You will be rich in a few years if you be industrious". If words are arranged in the right order these artificial aids will rarely be necessary. Examples of the dangers of the "throw-back" comma will be found in chapter 9.6 under the heading which).

  3. Years in commas.

    Printers and typists are apparently taught that, in dates, the year must be encased in commas. ("On the 2nd August, 1950, a committee was appointed; on the 6th December, 1951, it reported"). I know of no usefulness that could be claimed for this practice to offset its niggling and irritating appearance. There are signs of an incipient revolt against it. At least one official publication has been issued lately that discards this use of the comma almost ostentatiously. But I expect that House Rules and Secretarial Colleges will put up a successful resistance to so revolutionary an idea.

  4. Commas in series.

    1. Nouns and phrases.

      In such a sentence as:

      The company included Ambassadors, Ministers, Bishops and Judges.

      commas are always put after each item in the series up to the last but one, but practice varies about putting a comma between the last but one and the and introducing the last. Neither practice is wrong. Those who favour a comma (a minority, but gaining ground) argue that, since a comma may sometimes be necessary to prevent ambiguity there had better be one there always. Supposing the sentence were:

      The company included the Bishops of Winchester, Salisbury, Bristol, and Bath and Wells.

      the reader unversed in the English ecclesiastical hierarchy needs the comma after Bristol in order to sort out the last two bishops. Without it they might be, grammatically and geographically, either (a) Bristol and Bath and (b) Wells, or (a) Bristol and (b) Bath and Wells. Ambiguity cannot be justified by saying that those who are interested will know what is meant and those who are not will not care.

    2. Adjectives.

      Where the series is of adjectives preceding a noun, it is a matter of taste whether there are commas between them or not:

      A silly verbose pompous letter, and

      A silly, verbose, pompous letter

      are equally correct. The commas merely give a little emphasis to the adjectives. Where the final adjective is one that describes the species of the noun, it must of course be regarded as part of the noun, and not be preceded by a comma. Thus:

      A silly, verbose, pompous official letter.


The dash is seductive; it tempts the writer to use it as a punctuation-maid-of-all-work that saves him the trouble of choosing the right stop. We all know letter-writers who carry this habit to the length of relying on one punctuation mark only—a nondescript symbol that might be a dash or might be something else. Moreover the dash lends itself easily to rhetorical uses that may be out of place in humdrum prose. Perhaps that is why I have been tempted to go to Sir Winston Churchill's war speeches for examples of its recognised uses.

  1. In pairs for a parenthesis.

    No future generation of English-speaking folks — for that is the tribunal to which we will appeal — will doubt that we were guiltless.

  2. To introduce an explanation, amplification, paraphrase, particularisation or correction of what immediately precedes it.

    They were surely among the most noble and benevolent instincts of the human heart — the love of peace, the toil for peace, the strive for peace, the pursuit of peace, even at great peril.

    Overhead the far-ranging Catalina air-boats soared — vigilant protecting eagles in the sky.

    The end of our financial resources was in sight — nay, had actually been reached.

  3. To indicate that the construction of the sentence, as begun, will be left unfinished (what the grammarians call anacoluthon).

    But when you come to other countries — oddly enough I saw a message from the authorities which are most concerned with our Arab problem at present, urging that we should be careful not to indulge in too gloomy forecasts.

  4. To gather up the subject of a sentence when it is a very long one; after the long loose canter of the subject you need to collect your horse for the jump to the verb.

    The formidable power of Nazi Germany, the vast mass of destructive munitions that they have made or captured, the courage skill and audacity of their striking forces, the ruthlessness of their central war direction, the prostrate condition of so many people under their yoke, the resources of so many lands which may to some extent become available to them — all these restrain rejoicing and forbid the slightest relaxation.

    Similarly with the jump from the verb.

    I would say generally that we must regard all those victims of the Nazi executioners in so many lands, who are labelled Communists and Jews — we must regard them just as if they were brave soldiers who die for their country on the field of battle.

  5. To introduce a paradoxical, humorous or whimsical ending to a sentence.

    He makes mistakes, as I do, though not so many or so serious — he has not the same opportunities.

  6. With a colon to introduce a substantial quotation or a list (e.g. as follows: — ). This, though common, is unnecessary since either the colon or the dash can do all that is needed by itself.

Full Stop

The full stop is an exception to the rule that stops should be few. I have no advice to give about it except that it should be plentifully used: in other words to repeat the advice I have already given that sentences should be short. I am not, of course, suggesting that good prose never contains long ones. On the contrary, the best prose is a judicious admixture of the long with the short. Mark Twain, after advising young authors to write short sentences as a rule, added:

At times he may indulge himself with a long one, but he will make sure that there are no folds in it, no vaguenesses, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he has done with it, it won't be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water, it will be a torch-light procession.

Quoted in Earle's English Prose, its Elements, History and Usage, 1890.

If you can write long sentences that you are satisfied really merit that description, by all means surprise and delight your readers with one occasionally. But the short ones are safer. I have said more about this in chapter 3 and below.

Always use a full stop to separate statements between which there is no true continuity of thought. For example, and is too close a link in these sentences.

There are 630 boys in the school and the term will end on April 1st.

As regards Mr. Smith's case a report was made on papers AB 340 and I understand he is now dead.


In Modern English Usage Fowler makes an elaborate study of the hyphen. He begins engagingly by pointing out that "superfluous hair-remover" can only mean a hair-remover that nobody wants, and he proceeds to work out a code of rules for the proper use of the hyphen. He admits that the result of following his rules "will often differ from current usage". But, he adds, "that usage is so variable as to be better named caprice". The author of the style-book of the Oxford University Press of New York (quoted in Perrin's* Writer's Guide*) strikes the same note when he says

If you take hyphens seriously you will surely go mad.

I have no intention of taking hyphens seriously. Those who wish to do so I leave to Fowler's eleven columns. If I attempted to lay down any rules I should certainly go astray, and give advice not seemly to be followed. For instance, the general practice of hyphening co when it is attached as a prefix to a word beginning with a vowel has always seemed to me absurd, especially as it leads to such possibilities of misunderstanding as unco-ordinated must present to a Scotsman. If it is objected that ambiguity may result, and readers may be puzzled whether coop is something to put a hen in or a profit-sharing association, this should be removed by a diaeresis (coöp) not a hyphen (co-op). That is what a diaeresis is for.

I will attempt no more than to give a few elementary warnings.

  1. Do not use hyphens unnecessarily. If, for instance, you must use overall as an adjective (though this is not recommended) write it like that, and not over-all.

    But if you do split a word with a hyphen, make sure you split it at the main break. Though you may write self-conscious, if you wish to have a hyphen in the word, you must not write unself-conscious but un-selfconscious.

  2. To prevent ambiguity a hyphen should be used in a compound adjective (e.g. well-written, first-class, six-inch, copper-coloured). The omission of a hyphen between government and financed in the following sentence throws the reader on to a false scent:

    When Government financed projects in the development areas have been grouped.

    But remember that words which form parts of compound adjectives when they precede a noun may stand on their own feet when they follow it, and then they must not be hyphened. "A badly-written letter" needs a hyphen, but "the letter was badly written" does not. There must be hyphens in "the balance-of-payment difficulties" but not in "the difficulties are over the balance of payments".

  3. Avoid as far as possible the practice of separating a pair of hyphenated words, leaving a hyphen in mid-air. To do this is to misuse the hyphen (whose proper function is to link a word with its immediate neighbour) and it has a slovenly look. The saving of one word cannot justify writing

    Where chaplains (whole- or part-time) have been appointed

    instead of "where chaplains have been appointed, whole-time or part-time."

Inverted Commas

I have read nothing more sensible about inverted commas than this from the A.B.C. of English Usage:

It is remarkable in an age peculiarly contemptuous of punctuation marks that we have not yet had the courage to abolish inverted commas. ... After all, they are a modern invention. The Bible is plain enough without them; and so is the literature of the eighteenth century. Bernard Shaw scorns them. However, since they are with us, we must do our best with them, trying always to reduce them to a minimum.

I have only two other things to say on this vexatious topic.

One is to give a warning against over-indulgence in the trick of encasing words or phrases in inverted commas to indicate that they are being used in a slang or technical or facetious or some other unusual sense. This is a useful occasional device; instances may be found in this book. But it is a dangerous habit, as I have pointed out in the prologue.

The second question is whether punctuation marks (including question and exclamation marks) should come before or after the inverted commas that close a quotation. This has been much argued, with no conclusive result. It does not seem to me of great practical importance, but I feel bound to refer to it, if only because a correspondent criticised me for giving no guidance in Plain Words and accused me of being manifestly shaky about it myself. The truth is that there is no settled practice governing this most complicated subject. Pages were written about it by the Fowlers in The King's English, but their conclusions are by no means universally accepted.

There are two schools of thought. Most books on English advise that stops should be put in their logical positions. If the stops are part of the sentence quoted, put them within the inverted commas. If they are part of a longer sentence within which the quotation stands, put them outside the inverted commas. If the quotation and the sentence embracing it end together, so that each needs a stop at the same time, do not carry logic to the lengths of putting one inside and one out, but be content with the one outside. To give three simple examples of the application of this advice to question marks:

I said to him "Why worry?"

Why did you say to him "Don't worry"?

Why did you say to him "Why worry"? (Strictly "Why worry?"?)

Many publishers will not have this. They dislike the look of stops outside inverted commas if they can possibly be put inside. Here is an extract from a publisher's House Rules:

Commas, full stops, etc., closing matter in quotation marks may be placed before the final quotation marks, whether they form part of the original extract or not, provided that no ambiguity is likely to arise as to exactly what is quoted and what is not; this rule may not be as logical as that which insists on placing the punctuation marks strictly according to the sense, but the printed result looks more pleasing and justifies the convention.

But we need not concern ourselves here with questions of taste in printing. The drafter of official letters and memoranda is advised to stick to the principle of placing the punctuation marks according to the sense.


Letters, reports, memoranda and other documents would be unreadable if they were not divided into paragraphs, and much has been written on the art of paragraphing. But little of it helps the ordinary writer; the subject does not admit of precise guidance. The chief thing to remember is that, although paragraphing loses all point if the paragraphs are excessively long, the paragraph is essentially a unit of thought, not of length. Every paragraph must be homogeneous in subject matter, and sequential in treatment of it. If a single sequence of treatment of a single subject goes on so long as to make an unreasonably long paragraph, it may be divided into more than one. But you must not do the opposite, and combine into a single paragraph passages that have not this unity, even though each by itself may be below the average length of a paragraph.


The purpose of a parenthesis is ordinarily to insert an illustration, explanation, definition, or additional piece of information of any sort, into a sentence that is logically and grammatically complete without it. A parenthesis may be marked off by commas, dashes or brackets. The degree of interruption of the main sentence may vary from the almost imperceptible one of explanatory words in apposition,

Mr. Smith, the secretary, read the minutes,

to the violent one of a separate sentence complete in itself:

A memorandum (six copies of this memorandum are enclosed for the information of the Board) has been issued to management committees.

Parentheses should be used sparingly. Their very convenience is a reason for fighting shy of them. They enable the writer to dodge the trouble of arranging his thought properly; but he does so at the expense of the reader, especially if the thought that he has spatchcocked into the sentence is an abrupt break in it, or a long one, or both. The second of the two examples just given shows an illegitimate use of the parenthesis. The writer had no business to keep the reader waiting for the verb by throwing in a parenthesis that would have been put better as a separate sentence. The following examples are even worse:

to regard day nurseries and daily guardians as supplements to meet the special needs (where these exist and cannot be met within the hours, age, range and organisation of nursery schools and nursery classes) of children whose mothers are constrained by individual circumstances to go out to work....

If duties are however declined in this way, it will be necessary for the Board to consider whether it should agree to a modified contract in the particular case, or whether—because the required service can be provided only by the acceptance of the rejected obligations (e.g. by a whole-time radiologist to perform radiological examinations of paying patients in Section 5 beds in a hospital where the radiologists are all whole-time officers)—the Board should seek the services of another practitioner.

These are intolerable abuses of the parenthesis, the first with its interposition of 21 words in the middle of the phrase "needs of children", and the second with its double parenthesis, more than 40 words long, like two snakes eating each other. There was no need for either of these monstrosities. In both examples the main sentence should be allowed to finish without interruption, and what is now in the parenthesis, so far as it is worth saying, should be added at the end: regard day nurseries and daily guardians as supplements to meet the special needs of children whose mothers are constrained ... and whose needs cannot be met...

...or whether the Board should seek the services of another practitioner, as they will have to do if the required service can be provided only....

Here is a parenthesis that keeps the reader waiting so long for the verb that he has probably forgotten what the subject is:

Close affiliation with University research in haematology — and it may be desirable that ultimately each Regional Transfusion Officer should have an honorary appointment in the department of pathology in the medical school — will help to attract into the service medical men of good professional standing.

In former days, when long and involved periods were fashionable, it was customary after a long parenthesis to put the reader on the road again by repeating the subject with the words " I say ". Thus the writer of the last example would have continued after "medical school" with the words "close affiliation with University research in haematology, I say, will help to attract, etc.". Now that this handy device has fallen into disuse, there is all the more need not to keep the reader waiting. There was no necessity to do so here. What is said as a parenthesis might just as well have been said as an independent sentence following the main one.

It is not only the reader who may forget where he was when the parenthesis started. Sometimes even the writer does, as in the letter quoted in chapter 3.

...Owing to a shortage of a spare pair of wires to the underground cable (a pair of wires leading from the point near your house back to the local exchange, and thus a pair of wires essential to the provision of a telephone service for you) is lacking....

The writer thought he had entered the parenthesis with the words "Owing to the fact that a spare pair of wires to the underground cable" and he continued conformably when he emerged.

Question Marks

Only direct questions need question marks; indirect ones do not. There must be one at the end of "Have you made a return of your income?" but not at the end of "I am writing to ask whether you have made a return of your income".

It is usual but not necessary to put question marks at the end of requests cast into question form for the sake of politeness.

Will you please let me know whether you have made a return of your income?

For the position of question marks in relation to inverted commas see above.


Do not be afraid of the semicolon; it can be most useful. It marks a longer pause, a more definite break in the sense, than the comma; at the same time it says

Here is a clause or sentence too closely related to what has gone before to be cut off by a full stop.

The semicolon is a stronger version of the comma.

The scheme of work should be as comprehensive as possible and should include gymnastics, games, boxing, wrestling and athletics; every endeavour should be made to provide facilities for swimming.

If these arrangements are made in your factory you should take any difficulty which you may have to these officers when they call; you need not write to the Tax Office or call there.

These two sentences illustrate the common use of the semicolon. Each consists of two clauses. If these had been linked by the conjunction and, a comma would have been enough after athletics and call. But where there is no conjunction a comma is not enough; the stop must be either a semicolon or a full stop. (See above.) The writers of these sentences felt that the clauses were not closely enough linked to justify a conjunction but too closely linked to admit of a full stop. They therefore rightly chose the middle course of a semicolon.

Examples of the use of a comma in such a position could be found in good writers, but a stronger stop is generally regarded as more suitable. Certainly each of the following sentences needs a semicolon in place of the comma

The Company is doing some work on this, it may need supplementing.

If it is your own pension please say what type it is, if it is your mother's then it need not be included in your income.

The semicolon is also useful for avoiding the rather dreary trailing participles with which writers often end their sentences:

The postgraduate teaching hospitals are essentially national in their outlook, their geographical situation being merely incidental.

An attempt to devise permanent machinery for consultation was unsuccessful, the initial lukewarm response having soon disappeared.

There is nothing faulty in the grammar or syntax of these sentences, and the meaning of each is unambiguous. But they have a tired look. They can be wonderfully freshened by using the semicolon, and rewriting them:

The postgraduate teaching hospitals are essentially national in their outlook; their geographical situation is merely incidental.

An attempt to devise permanent machinery for consultation was unsuccessful; the initial lukewarm response soon disappeared.


A sentence is not easy to define. Many learned grammarians have tried, and their definitions have been torn in pieces by other learned grammarians. But what most of us understand by a sentence is what the O.E.D. calls the "popular definition":

such a portion of composition or utterance as extends from one full stop to another.

That definition is good enough for our present purposes, and the question we have to consider is what general guidance can be given to a writer about what he should put between one full stop and the next.

The two main things to be remembered about sentences by those who want to make their meaning plain is that they should be short and should have unity of thought. Here is a series of 84 words between one full stop and another, which violates all the canons of a good sentence. In fact it might be said to explode the definition, for it would be flattering to call it a "sentence". "This is not a sentence", said a friend who was good enough to look through this book in proof. "This is gibberish".

Forms are only sent to applicants whose requirements exceed one ton, and in future, as from tomorrow, forms will only be sent to firms whose requirements exceed five tons, and as you have not indicated what your requirements are, I am not sending you forms at the moment because it is just possible that your requirements may be well within these quantities quoted, in which case you may apply direct to the usual suppliers, of which there are several, with a view to obtaining your requirements.

If we prune this of its verbiage, and split it into three short sentences, a meaning will begin to emerge.

Only firms whose requirements exceed five tons now need forms. Others can apply direct to the suppliers. As you do not say what your requirements are I will not send you a form unless I hear that you need one.

The following is an even worse example of a meandering stream of words masquerading as a sentence:

Further to your letter of the above date and reference in connection with an allocation of ..., as already pointed out to you all the allocations for this period have been closed, and I therefore regret that it is not possible to add to the existing allocation which has been made to you and which covers in toto your requirements for this period when originally received, by virtue of the work on which you are engaged, a rather higher percentage has been given to you, namely 100 per cent of the original requirements and at this stage I am afraid it is not practicable for you to increase the requirement for the reasons already given.

The fault here is excessive verbiage rather than of combining into one sentence thoughts that ought to have been given several. The thought is simple, and can be conveyed in two sentences, if not in one:

Your original application was granted in full because of the importance of your work. I regret that the amount cannot now be increased, as allocation for this period has been closed.

← Chapter 9: The Handling of Words

Chapter 11: Epilogue →

  1. Cambridge University Press, 1939.↩︎