- Dates: punctuation and related notes
- Ellipsis — the punctuation mark
- Plural of numbers and complex nouns
- Possessive of plurals
When Trouble Comes A-Colon
The colon is a great punctuation mark. It lets the reader know that what follows will be closely related to what went before.
1. Use a colon to join two independent clauses (clauses that could stand on their own as sentences) if the second one explains or exemplifies the point made in the first:
The plaintiff offers no authority to support her outrageous theory of recovery: She cites no cases, treatises or even newspaper articles.
If the two independent clauses are related, but the second one doesn’t explain or exemplify the first, use a semicolon between them:
The plaintiff offers no authority to support her outrageous theory of recovery; furthermore, the theory makes no sense.
2. Use a colon to introduce a list, but only after a complete sentence. Accordingly, do not put a colon between the verb and a list of objects, or between a preposition and a list of objects.
NOT To support his claim for negligence, the plaintiff must show: duty, breach, causation, and harm.
There isn’t a complete sentence before the colon. So, finish the sentence first:
To support his claim for negligence, the plaintiff must show four elements: duty, breach, causation, and harm.
Or else get rid of the colon:
To support his claim for negligence, the plaintiff must show duty, breach, causation, and harm.
3. Use commas or semicolons to separate the items in a list following a colon. If there is any chance of confusion, use semicolons.
To support his claim for negligence, the plaintiff must show four things: a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff; breach of that duty; that the breach was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s injury; and actual harm to the plaintiff.
Some people try to formulate rules, such as, “If there’s a comma within one item in the list, separate all the items with semicolons,” or “If one item is more than two words, use semicolons.” Both are probably good ideas, but the real goal is to avoid confusion. If you think it would look or read better to use semicolons, go ahead, even if every item in the list is only one or two words.
Remember to include punctuation when you tabulate (indent) a list:
To support his claim for negligence, the plaintiff must show four things:
(1) a duty owed by the defendant to the plaintiff;
(2) breach of that duty;
(3) that the breach was a proximate cause of plaintiff’s
(4) actual harm to the plaintiff.
4. As in point #1, a colon may introduce a quotation that exemplifies or explains what went before:
The court flatly rejected plaintiff’s argument: “We cannot imagine what made plaintiff think this court would agree with her absurd theory.”
As in point #2, there must be a complete sentence before a colon introducing a quote.
NOT After rejecting plaintiff’s argument as “absurd,” the court went on to say:
Plaintiff’s pro se prosecution of her own case is no excuse for wasting the time of this court, the court below and the defendants
But you could drop “to say”:
After rejecting plaintiff’s argument as “absurd,” the court went on:
Plaintiff’s pro se prosecution …
5. A sentence that begins after a colon does not have to start with a capital letter, but it usually should and always can. A colon is a more complete stop than a semicolon. The capital letter emphasizes that stop.
How do you punctuate a date in the middle of a sentence?
I assume you are not talking about a “conjugal visit,” the term the Department of Corrections uses for a date in the middle of a sentence.
When giving the month, day and year, the year is parenthetical and should be set off by commas:
On July 23, 1992, the plaintiff filed his response.
When giving just the month and year, use no comma:
In July 1992 we finally reached land.
Note that no comma comes after the introductory phrase “In July 1992,” although the general rule is to follow an introductory phrase with a comma. This general rule has an exception: When the introductory phrase is short enough, as dates usually are, a comma is not necessary. The comma after
“On July 23, 1992,” is there to set off the parenthetical year, not to set off the introductory phrase.
How short is short enough? That’s up to you. Putting a comma after a short phrase is not incorrect. Omitting the comma after a long introductory phrase might confuse the reader.
Related Notes About Dates
1. An exception to the rule requiring you to enclose the year in commas when giving the full date: When using the date as adjective, drop the second comma for easier reading:
The July 23, 1992 letter proves the point.
You might instead rewrite the sentence:
The letter you wrote on July 23, 1992, proves the point.
2. If the number follows the month, use a cardinal number (1, 2, 3); if it precedes the month with an “of,” use an ordinal number (1st, 2nd, 3rd).
The answer was due on June 12.
We filed the complaint on the 12th of June.
According to this rule, therefore, there is no such thing as “June 12th.”
3. Some authorities say you should always use numerals for an ordinal number in a date:
The 12th of June.
Other authorities say it is fine to write out the ordinal number:
The twelfth of June.
The Fourth of July is always written out, and it is capitalized as a proper name.
4. Although writing Date, Month, Year (12 June 1992) is archaic, it’s not necessarily wrong. Strunk & White even recommend this format, since it separates the numbers without using commas, which they say makes it easier to read.
5. Because a year is always written in numerals, not words, and because a number that starts a sentence must be written out, you should never start a sentence with a year:
1991 is already a distant memory
1992 was the year the associates took control of the firm.
The year 1991 is already a distant memory.
In 1992 the associates took control of the firm.
To illustrate the various rules for omitting words from quotations, let’s use the first three sentences of the statement of facts in the Ninth Circuit opinion affirming the conviction of Gregory Gordon. Gordon broke into Ronald Reagan’s house on Independence Day, declared the former President to be the anti-Christ, and threatened to kill him.
On July 4, 1990, at approximately 3:30 p.m., Mr. Gordon climbed over a wall and entered the property of former President Ronald Reagan in Bel Air, California. He entered the house through the front door and passed through the foyer. As Mr. Gordon exited to the backyard, he was apprehended by Secret Service Special Officer Ricafrente.
Now for the rules
1. Use an ellipsis to indicate omitted words in the middle of a quote, whether or not it is a full sentence:
The court said the defendant “entered … through the front door.”
“He entered … through the front door and passed through the foyer.”
2. Do not use an ellipsis at the beginning or end of a quote that is not a full sentence:
The court said the defendant made it “through the foyer” before he was apprehended.
3. Do not use an ellipsis at the beginning of a quote. If that means you are starting a sentence with a word that was not capitalized in the original, use brackets to indicate that you have changed to an initial capital letter:
Mr. Gordon climbed over a wall and entered the property of former President Ronald Reagan in Bel Air, California.
[H]e was apprehended by Secret Service Special Officer Ricafrente.
4. Use an ellipsis to indicate an omission at the end of a sentence. Some authorities say the ellipsis goes after the period, which is not separated from the last word quoted:
Mr. Gordon climbed over a wall and entered the property of former President Ronald Reagan… .
The Bluebook, however, says the ellipsis should take the place of the omitted words and come between the last quoted word and the period:
Mr. Gordon climbed over a wall and entered the property of former President Ronald Reagan … .
5. Use an ellipsis to indicate an omission at the beginning of a sentence that does not start the quote:
He entered the house through the front door and passed through the foyer… . [H]e was apprehended by Secret Service Special Officer Ricafrente.
6. When you omit words both at the end of one sentence and the beginning of the next, use one ellipsis to indicate both omissions:
He entered the house through the front door … . [H]e was apprehended by Secret Service Special Officer Ricafrente.
Once again, the Bluebook rule puts the ellipsis between “door” and the period at the end of the first sentence, letting the reader know that words were omitted from that sentence. The bracketed “[H]” lets the reader know words were omitted from the beginning of the second sentence too.
7. You should NOT use an ellipsis to jump sentences, as in, “He entered the house through the front door and … exited to the backyard.” Either use two quotes or turn the quoted material into sentence fragments so you can apply #2 above:
The court said the defendant “entered the house through the front door” and “exited to the backyard.”
You Don’t Say
Ellipsis refers to the omission of words, not just those in quotes. For economy and rhythm, we often use an ellipsis as a rhetorical device—omitting words we know the reader will unconsciously supply:
You may not feel like responding to these interrogatories, but the rules of discovery require you to [missing: respond].
One vehicle hit the plaintiff’s car from the west, the other [vehicle hit it] from the east.
The trial court had the opportunity to observe the witnesses’ demeanor, but this Court will not [have such an opportunity].
Note the difference between using an ellipsis and using one word to introduce or complete two or more phrases, which requires parallel structure:
I should not and will not reveal my client’s confidences.
In this case, “reveal my client’s confidences” finishes both “I should not” and “I will not.”
When using parallel structure, however, the phrases must agree grammatically.
NOT: I have not and will not reveal my client’s confidences.
What that sentence says is “I have not reveal my client confidences and I will not reveal my client confidences.” Of course, you cannot say, “I have not reveal my client’s confidences,” but must instead use “revealed.”
However, using an ellipsis, you can say:
I have not revealed my client’s confidences, and I will not.
Note that ellipses can create ambiguities. Economy and rhythm do not justify sacrificing clarity:
I know more about this case than the Court.
Is this “I know more about this case than the Court does,” or, “I know more about the case than I do about the Court”? The writer should have put all the words in to make the meaning clear.
1. Remember the ‘60’s? Well, forget them! They’re the ‘60s now, without the apostrophe before the “s.” The plurals of numbers and letters are made by adding “s” without an apostrophe–unless doing so will create a word such as “As.” That’s why they’re the Oakland A’s.
This is a relatively new, but established, rule. Note that you need an apostrophe when you drop the “19” from “1960.” [The New York Times, for no good reason, betrays both of these rules. In the Times, they remember the 60’s.]
2. To form the plural of a complex noun, add the “s” to the noun part, not to the word or phrase modifying it: brothers-in-law (not brother-in-laws); attorneys general (not attorney generals); courts of appeal (not court of appeals).
Where do you put the apostrophe to form the possessive of a word that ends in “s”?
The possessive of a plural noun is formed by adding an apostrophe alone if the word ends in “s” (“the associates’ salaries”), and apostrophe s if the word ends in any other letter (“the men’s salaries”).
The tough question, of course, is what do you do with a singular noun that ends in “s,” such as “Thomas” or “bus”? The so-called rule looks pretty simple: You still use apostrophe s (Thomas’s, bus’s) unless the word would be hard to pronounce that way. (“It” is another exception. Because “it’s” is the conjunction of “it is,” the possessive of “it” is “its.”)
A corrolary of that rule is that you write the word as you would pronounce it. If you would pronounce the possessive of Thomas as you would prounounce the plural (“the Thomases”), then you should write it with two “s” sounds (“Thomas’s”). But if it would be hard to pronounce, as it is when the singular word already has two “s” sounds, use an apostrophe alone and prounounce it as it reads (“King Ramses’ soldiers”).
But what happens when the word would be hard to pronounce but it doesn’t have two “s” sounds? How do you decide what is hard to pronounce? Is “Hughes’s” hard to pronounce? How about “Gonzales’s”? This puzzling question has led some to adopt a much simpler rule: To form the possessive of a word that ends in “s,” simply add an apostrophe. In addition to being simpler, this rule also may be more pleasing to the eye. Its partisans argue that “bus’s” is as difficult to read as “Ramses’s” is to pronounce.
Both rules make sense. Neither is likely to confuse the reader. Take your pick.
When a phrase enclosed in parentheses ends a sentence, the period goes outside the parentheses:
Last night at the movies I ran into Judge Short (the judge in our case). I tried to strike up a conversation.
But when the parenthetical at the end of a sentence is itself a sentence, end the main sentence and put the whole parenthetical sentence, including the period, inside the parentheses:
Last night at the movies I ran into Judge Short. (She is the judge in our case.) I tried to strike up a conversation.
When a sentence in parentheses comes in the middle of the main sentence, don’t put a period inside the parentheses, and don’t capitalize the first word in parentheses:
Last night at the movies I ran into Judge Short (she is the judge in our case) and tried to strike up a conversation.
But a question in parentheses needs a question mark whether or not it is a complete sentence:
I bought Judge Short a bag of popcorn (do you think that was unethical?) and talked to her about the movie.
I bought Judge Short a bag of popcorn (unethical?) and talked to her about the movie.
Speaking of parentheticals, the connective “as well as” introduces something that is parenthetical (though not always enclosed in parentheses). And a parenthetical does not affect the grammatical structure of the rest of the sentence. Therefore, a singular subject takes a singular verb even when a parenthetical beginning with “as well as” is added.
Judge Short, as well as all the other judges on that court, has always been a movie buff.
Judge Short and all the other judges on that court have always been movie buffs.
Why ? “And” is a conjunction, which adds to the subject. “As well as” is a preposition, which introduces a prepositional phrase describing the subject. Other prepositions that also leave the number of the verb alone are “along with” and “in addition to.”
Where do you put the punctuation with quotation marks?
Periods and commas always go inside the quote (before the final quotation mark). Colons and semicolons always go after the quotation mark.
These are the members of “The Gang of Four”: Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice.
These are the nicknames of “The Gang of Four”: “Killer,” “Mouse,” “Hawkeye,” and “Alice.”
Plaintiff gave three different responses to defendant’s interrogatories: “I don’t know”; “Irrelevant”; and “None of your beeswax.”
Question marks go inside the quote if the quote is a question.
She asked, “Are you going to be late?”
This is true even if the quote does not end the sentence.
“Are you going to be late?” she asked.
If the quote is not a question, but the sentence is, the question mark goes outside the quotation mark.
Did she say, “I knew you would be late”?
When a word is modified by, or is the object of, two phrases preceding it, enclose the second phrase in paired punctuation marks.
a. He is the only, and therefore the best, editor the firm has ever had.
b. He is the only (and therefore the worst) editor the firm has ever had.
c. The defendant relies on—and expects the Court to enforce—a statute that has been repealed.
By separating off the second phrase, you are suggesting that it is less important than the first. Which paired punctuation marks you should use—commas, parentheses or dashes—depends on how much less important the second phrase is. Dashes make the strongest break in the sentence, and therefore give the enclosed phrase the most emphasis. Parentheses make the weakest break, and commas are somewhere in between. Using dashes in example c draws the reader’s attention to the expectations placed on the court.