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As I hope you have gathered by now, punctuation marks are, in most cases,
independent of one another. Each mark is inserted to do a particular job, and
using one mark neither allows you to drop another one which is independently
required nor permits you to insert one or two extra marks which are not needed.
There are, however, a few exceptions.
First of all, we never write two full stops at the end of a sentence.
Observe the following examples:
The abbreviation and the direct quotation already end in full stops, so no second
full stop is written. Similarly, if a sentence would logically end in two question
marks, only the first is written:
- According to tradition, Rome was founded in 753 b.c.
- Leo Durocher never in fact made that famous remark "Nice guys finish
If a sentence-final quotation ends in a question mark or an exclamation mark, no full stop follows:
- Who wrote the sonnet that begins "How do I love thee?"
However, a question mark is written after a full stop if this is logically required:
- Pontius Pilate famously asked "What is truth?"
You already know that the second of two bracketing commas or dashes
is not written at the end of a sentence. This is because the comma or dash that
would logically appear there is "outranked" by the full stop or other mark that
appears at the end of the sentence:
- Are there any Latin texts earlier than 500 b.c.?
In the same way, a comma that should logically appear is suppressed if
a colon or a semicolon is present at the same position:
- The Spaniards and the Canadians are close to war over fishing rights, it
- We commonly assume that there are only two sexes but could we be
In these examples the second bracketing commas that would logically appear
after the words revealed and rules are suppressed by the following colon and
semicolon. Here is a useful rule of thumb: a comma is never preceded or
followed by any other punctuation mark at all, except possibly by a quotation mark or by a full stop which forms part of an abbreviation.
- The planet Venus is a hellhole, as the Russian probes have revealed; no
human could survive for a moment on its surface.
- Only two groups are excluded from the French Foreign Legion,
according to the rules: women and Frenchmen.
Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997