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Lesson 4: Conventional Punctuation - and Style Guides


Sometimes punctuation is purely convention; that is, it doesn’t mark grammatical distinctions or intonation contours or anything. But it’s traditional, so we do it. We learn to put a comma between a city name and a state name (Ferndale, Washington) and between the day of the month and the year (April 15, 2000), but wouldn’t these be just as easy for the reader to understand with no commas?


And capitalization – is that punctuation? We capitalize certain words by convention: proper nouns, of course, but also the pronoun I. Does capitalization of I serve to clarify? We’re accustomed to it as a convention, so it would be odd to us not to do it, but we don’t capitalize any other pronouns like She, They, or even the other first person singular Me. That would seem strange, wouldn’t it?


And what about the apostrophe used in contractions? By convention, we put an apostrophe when letters have been deleted, so do plus not becomes don’t, but wouldn’t dont be just as clear in context?


Why dont you try it? Cant you read it just fine? Wouldnt it be easy enough?


Another example of punctuation as simply convention is the rule regarding end punctuation and quotation marks. The convention within the US is for all punctuation to go inside quotation marks, so it looks like the following example, with the period after okra preceding the “:


The girl said, “I like okra.”


However, the convention in the UK is for the punctuation to go outside the quotation marks:


The girl said, “I like okra”.


One rule does not necessarily make more sense than the other and neither has anything to do with grammatical categories or with even clarity – it’s simply convention.


Such rules of punctuation are often lumped in to the study of “grammar,” broadly defined. However, these rules of writing do not depend on and are not affected by our spoken language or our unconscious (or conscious) knowledge of it. These “conventional” rules must be taught and learned, and are not the natural rules of language itself.


Activity: There are certain style guides used in academic writing; there’s the MLA Style, APA style, and Chicago Style, among other. These each have different ways of citing bibliographic references as well as in-text citations. Does one make more sense than another? Take a look at these style guides and discuss some of the ways in which they differ. (This link compares these three most common guides, but does not include all aspects of citation.)


Activity: Consider the colon, which is used to introduce a list or quotation (and whose use is considered to be one of the Common Core Standards), as well as, for some writers, to introduce a kind of explanatory subordinate clause. Look up its usage in several style guides to determine the specific environments in which it is used and if other punctuation can substitute. 



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