You Have a Point There: Test your punctuation skills with a little quiz
“Is punctuation important?” a student once asked me. I responded with a question back: “Is dribbling important in basketball?”
A better response might have been that both the U.S. Supreme Court (way back in 1818) and the House of Lords in the U.K. (in 1916) have decided cases in which the presence or absence of a mere comma in a statute determined whether prisoners went to the gallows. And of course every few years we all hear about a new billion-dollar comma case hinging on how a contract or regulation is punctuated. That’s rare: I might have put commas around of course in the preceding sentence; those commas happen to be optional—as many are.
In fact, there was a time when almost all British contracts were wholly unpunctuated on grounds that punctuation shouldn’t be allowed to affect meaning. A little extra space was inserted between sentences, but the documents were bereft of commas, periods, semicolons and the like. That doctrine has been mostly superseded in the U.K., where contracts today are normally punctuated. Well, I say “normally,” but I really mean in the manner of British English. In that style, periods and commas go outside an ending quotation mark. So the word “normally” above, in quotes, would have the comma outside, not inside. That’s the more logical placement, true, but Americans who follow copy editing conventions uniformly tuck the comma inside the end-quote even though it’s not part of what’s being quoted.
Attentiveness to punctuation is a matter of temperament, I’ve come to believe. I know readers who are thrilled to see something like the previous paragraph. Their pulses quicken, and they begin taking notes to compose an email. Others, however, see a reference to placement of periods and commas in relation to end-quotes and immediately stop reading. They couldn’t care less and they consider the whole subject a stupefying bore. Oh, and that type doesn’t say couldn’t care less; they say they could care less—that type of reader. Not that I’m judging; I’m just describing what I’ve learned from years of experience.
But if you’re the type who’s read this far, you’re probably up for a punctuation quiz. So try your hand. Please answer all the questions before looking at the answers, which are keyed to both The Chicago Manual of Style (17th ed. 2017) and my Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style (4th ed. 2018). For each passage, choose the best answer that says something true about the quiz sentence. Not that you’re going to look up all the references (I doubt you’re the type). But it’s good to know that professional copy editors tend to edit by rules that can be studied and learned.
If you don’t score as well as you think you should, please don’t resolve to simply go without punctuation.
Based on guidelines in The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style and The Chicago Manual of Style. The ABA Journal follows the Associated Press Stylebook as a reference guide.
- See Redbook § 1.9(a) at 10; Chicago Manual § 6.9 at 367, § 6.41 at 383.
- See Redbook § 1.3(a) at 3–4, 1.6(a), (b) at 7; Chicago Manual § 6.19 at 371, § 6.28 at 377, § 5.23 at 232.
- See Redbook § 1.53 at 42; Chicago Manual § 6.85 at 399.
- See Redbook § 1.6(b), at 7, § 1.9(d) at 11, § 1.22(a) at 19; Chicago Manual § 5.250 at 316, § 5.23 at 232, § 6.28 at 377, § 6.61 at 391–92, § 6.22 at 373.
- See Redbook § 1.6(c) at 7; Chicago Manual § 6.29 at 377–78.
- See Redbook § 1.18 at 17; Chicago Manual § 6.60 at 391.
- See Redbook § 1.62(a) at 47–48; Chicago Manual § 5.92 at 255, § 7.85 at 444.
- See Redbook §1.4(c)-(d) at 5, §1.5(a)-(b) at 6, § 1.17 at 16–17; Chicago Manual § 6.57 at 389–90, § 6.59 at 390–91.
- See Redbook § 1.10(a) at 13, § 1.11 at 13, § 1.6(b) at 7, § 1.54(c) at 44; Chicago Manual § 6.38 at 381, § 6.39 at 382, § 6.28 at 377, § 6.85 at 399.
- See Redbook § 1.5 at 6, § 1.9(c)–(d) at 11, § 1.62(e) at 48-49; Chicago Manual § 5.203 at 289- 90; § 5.250 at 316, § 5.93 at 255–56, § 6.33 at 380.
Bryan A. Garner is the editor-in-chief of the soon-to-be-released 11th edition of Black’s Law Dictionary; the author of many books on legal writing, including The Winning Brief; and the president of Dallas-based LawProse Inc. Follow on Twitter @BryanAGarner.