The other day, I received a most disturbing note from my neighbor. It ran,
If you don't stop your damn chickens from cackling at four in the morning I'm coming over there and wringing a few necks
Obviously I was concerned. The writer completely left off the comma after morning, which signals the end of a subordinate clause used to introduce a sentence. This is bad enough but there isn't even a period. Without this, how can I even tell the sentence is finished? Keep reading, the letter seems to say, there's more to come. But there isn't. Frustrating. Underlining "damn chickens" adds emphasis, but I feel this could be better done with a simple exclamation mark.
Here then, for the benefit of those who need a refresher, are a few quick rules of punctuation.
1. Apostrophes are used for contractions and possessive nouns, but not possessive pronouns. This is important. It's the difference between showing you're nuts and showing your nuts. You can also use apostrophes when an -s at the end of a word looks funny just sitting there, and you figure a little extra punctuation might help, as in "Customer's Served While U Wait."
2. Commas. "A cat has claws at the ends of her paws, and a comma's a pause at the end of a clause." This
is worth remembering if you're the sort of person who can't tell a cat from a comma. Commas are a lot like periods only not so much. They signal a pause, but a briefer one than a period. If a period is like ( ), a comma is ( ). There are five easy-to-remember comma rules which I've forgotten and can't be bothered to look up. Maybe there are six easy-to-remember rules. I forget. Anyway, just remember a comma is a pause and leave it at that. In a sentence like, "No, dear, that dress doesn't make you look, fat," the comma before "fat" implies you had to think before answering which will only get you in trouble. You're better off without the comma, or better still, just change the subject when people ask certain questions.
3. Semicolons and Dashes. Some people want to know when they should use a semicolon and when they should use a dash. These people are butt-holes.
4. Slashes. There's a very good reason why violent killers are called "slashers." Some people go around writing things like "he/she" or worse yet "s/he" or "and/or." See note at end of 3.
5. Ellipsis. Three periods in a row make an ellipsis. Fowler says there should be no spaces between these periods, but if you type it that way, Microsoft will go ahead and add the spaces anyway. Take that, Fowler! Ellipsis are traditionally used to show missing or deleted portions of a text (notice I didn't write missing/deleted, you butt-holes) as in, "My fellow Americans... economic growth... foreign and domestic... renewable... tar sands... fat whomping campaign contributions... my opponent... lies...baby seals for breakfast... sex scandal... says nuke-you-lar instead of nuclear... incompetent... bozo... God bless America." Lately, however, and by lately I mean the entire Twentieth Century and thus far into the Twenty-First, the ellipsis has been employed anytime a writer just trails off because he couldn't think of anything else to say and...