Four Very Odd Punctuation Rules

I am certain every language has its own ways that might not make absolute sense in terms of spelling, usage, or punctuation. Heaven knows American English does!

So, for your edification (how’s that for a big word?), here are a few punctuation rules that make no particular sense, but are still rules in the American system, anyway.

1. Usually multi-word phrases such as high level, black and white, or face to face are hyphenated when they come before a noun and act as an adjective. But they are not usually hyphenated when they don’t come in front of a noun.

  • A high-level meeting is held at a high level.
  • A black-and-white cloth is black and white.
  • A face-to-face meeting is obviously held face to face.
  • A 9-year-old child (two hyphens required to connect the parts), but he is 9 years old. (Here, you’d also hyphenated the compound noun – a 9-year-old.)
  • An up-to-date report is up to date.
  • The developer is building three-level houses, which will have three levels.

2. But: Terms ending in “free” are always hyphenated, no matter where they are in a sentence.

Examples: Error-free, taste-free, acid-free, worry-free, fat-free. It doesn’t matter how they’re used; they’re hyphenated.

  • An error-free message is our goal. Let’s make sure the message is error-free.
  • Don’t eat that donut! It isn’t calorie-free!
  • The tax-free holiday is coming soon; everything will be tax-free!

3. Multi-word terms ending in ly coming in front of a noun are normally NOT hyphenated, unless they’re an adjective, not an adverb. That’s weird to me because they serve the same function.

How would you know the difference between adjectives and adverbs ending in “ly”?

Put the word that ends in “ly” in front of a noun; if it fits, it’s an adjective, which modifies a noun. If it doesn’t, it’s an adverb, which modifies many things (adjectives, verbs, a word group, or other adverbs), but not nouns.

A friendly woman? Yup. Adjective. So a friendly-looking woman.

A heavenly massage? Yup again. Adjective. So, a heavenly-feeling massage.

A wholly subsidiary? NO. Adverb. So, a wholly owned subsidiary.

A poorly house? NO. Adverb. So, a poorly designed house.

4. And finally, let’s look at quotation marks. The American rule states that we never use single quotation marks except when quoting some word(s) within a quotation. We never use them by themselves. Why not? Heck if I know, but we don’t.

  • NO: John thinks Joan is a ‘geek.’
  • YES: John thinks Joan is a “geek.”
  • YES: John said, “I think Joan is a ‘geek.’ ”

4.5 Commas and periods ALWAYS go inside final quotation marks. They just do. Always.

So, are you shell-shocked yet? Yes, American grammar is strange sometimes, and all I can do is show you the rules as I know them to be. You have to decide if you want to follow them.

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