Punctuation Series: Pauses Part 3—Full stops
Punctuation is the set of marks that give depth, pace and force to our words. Much like the dynamics in written music, punctuation gives the reader the extra information they need to secure the tone of the text and deepen their understanding. The Punctuation series is a collection of articles detailing the use of particular punctuation types, to help you use these precision tools to their fullest advantage.
This is the third in a three-part series looking at the four pauses in the English language.
In standard English punctuation systems, the full stop is the strongest of the four primary pauses (the others, in order of strength, are the comma, the semi-colon and the colon). It terminates a sentence and indicates a strong halt to allow the reader or listener to prepare themselves for the introduction of new information.
The full stop is incorporated into other forms of terminal punctuation, such as the question mark (?), the exclamation mark (!) and the ellipsis (...), which means these can be used to terminate sentences without an additional full stop.
The noble full stop
As the strongest pause in our standard repertoire, you'd think that there'd be some sort of entrance exam before you start using the full stop, but that simply isn't the case. It's super easy. The full stop is probably the first piece of punctuation that you ever learned to use. Even so, let's recap: the full stop indicates the end of the sentence. It terminates it. It is a piece of terminal punctuation.
There are other uses, such as in abbreviations and decimal numbers, but this series is about pauses, and therefore I'm going to confine my comments to the full stop's role as a pause.
Some additional considerations when using a full stop:
You need to capitalise the next word after the terminal punctuation. It's the start of the next sentence, and should be given illustrious treatment accordingly.
You need to add space after the full stop. You'd be surprised that this could be a controversial matter, but the world is a surprising place. The spacing argument has been had, exhausted all parties, and concluded nothing. One space is fine. Two spaces is fine, if that's your bag. A widened space (an em-space) is a kind of compromise between the two, but if that's what you want to do, then I say go for it and shine on, you crazy diamond.
I particularly favour a single space after the full stop, primarily because it saves me having to go back and insert the double space after forgetting. Most style guides and publications will default to a single space after full stops, and only voice an opinion on the matter if they follow the double space/em-space rule. Follow your style guide or your whim, whichever holds more sway over the piece you're working on right this minute (and be consistent).
Complicating matters: additional punctuation at the end of the sentence
Like all easy and straightforward rules, the full stop isn't always easy and straightforward. The two examples most likely to throw the casual user are using a full stop when ending a sentence with a quote or with a parenthetical phrase.
Ending a sentence with a quote
If your sentence ends with quoted text, then whether or not to place your terminating punctuation inside or outside the closing quote marks will be a matter of context. In the US and Canada, the default is to include the full stop inside the quote marks, regardless of whether the quote includes the terminating punctuation. This is known as "aesthetic punctuation".
Jennebelle said "I'd quite like to be the princess at the ball."
In the UK and most countries that follow UK typesetting standards, the full stop is only included if the quoted text originally included the full stop. This is known as "logical punctuation".
Jean-Louis said "I don't think they have princesses anymore".
Just to complicate matters, scientific and technical publications in the US use logical punctuation, primarily to preserve strict accuracy when quoting.
So, which should you use? If you're writing for the US or Canada, and not for a technical/scientific publication, then use the first option. If you're writing for a UK publication (or a publication in any of the countries that use the UK system, apart from Canada), then use the second option—unless the original quote ends with a full stop.
So, if Jean-Louis, above, had ended his sentence with "I don't think they have princesses anymore", then you should include his full stop in the quoted text. Why waste one of your own full stops when you can use one of his? But if Jean-Louis's stance on princesses at balls was part of a larger diatribe about why he thought balls were a bad idea in the first place, then you'd have to include a lot more of his twaddle before you got to the full stop. That's a good time to cut him short and use one of your own.
Ending a sentence with parentheses
Whether the terminal punctuation goes inside or outside parentheses depends entirely on what the rest of the sentence is doing. If only part of the sentence is in parentheses, then the full stop goes outside the closing parenthesis:
Jennebelle didn't reply (although she did blow her nose).
However, if that parenthetical text needs its own punctuation, like a question mark or an exclamation mark, that should go inside the parentheses and then the sentence's terminal punctuation will go outside the parentheses:
Jean-Louis never suspected Jennebelle was upset (how could he have known?).
It may help to remember that the parenthetical text in these examples is nested in the sentence: you have the higher unit, the sentence, which needs to be concluded with terminal punctuation, and you have the subordinate unit, the parenthetical remark, which may or may not need its own punctuation within the parentheses.
However, if your entire sentence is contained in parentheses, then it will take its terminal punctuation with it.
(Jean-Louis, it should be known, had never blown his nose.)
(Why on Earth was Jennebelle sniffling?)
Another important example is the use of parenthetical text containing multiple terminated phrases nested within a sentence. For example:
Jennebelle wiped her nose on her sleeve (Who does that? Why didn't she have a handkerchief? She must be mad, ruining a gown like that!).
As you can see, the multiple sentences of the parenthetical aside are completely self-contained. Therefore, they have their own terminal punctuation within the parentheses. Note also that the self-contained nature of the parenthetical remarks means that each sentence within the parentheses gets its own initial capital.
Haplography: on not doubling up
As well as ending a sentence, full stops are also used to indicate an abbreviation, such as in "etc." and "Inc.". Where an abbreviation ending in a full stop ends a sentence, there is no need to add an extra full stop after the abbreviation. The full stop contained within the abbreviation does double duty: this is known as haplography, the convention that allows you to write once what should technically be written twice.
Jennebelle waved a hand at her cupboard full of dresses, scarves, shoes, etc.
However, if your punctuated abbreviation is at the end of an exclamation or question, then you will still need to wield those potent devices:
Was Jean-Louis remembering his uncle's failed business, Dress-ups Inc.?
Using pauses in language is as important as using silence in music. The pauses allow time for readers and listeners to absorb ideas and prepare for changes in meaning or new information. Pauses allow writers or speakers to control the pace of their text.
While commas, colons and semi-colons are pauses within sentences, the full stop indicates a clear conclusion of a sentence and is consequently the strongest of the pauses. It is a useful and precise tool in controlling the rhythm and speed of your writing.
As ever, you should default to your ruling style guide when resolving any issues regarding punctuation.