Punctuation Marks and Blank Spaces

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Nov 10, 2015 10:39
I am going to write this entry in English, although my intention is to provide useful information to speakers of Japanese and Chinese who are learning English. If you feel you understand the English sentences well, and would like to help other English learners who speak your language, please write translations into your language in the comment boxes beneath each sentence.

Most of you already know that when you type a text in English, there must be a blank space typed between any two successive words, even if there are also punctuation marks between the words. You may not be sure where to type the blank spaces if there are punctuation marks, though. If there is just one punctuation mark between two words, the blank space usually comes after the punctuation mark, but there are a couple of important exceptions. Before discussing them, I want to talk about the punctuation marks in typefaces (also called fonts) used for typing in Japanese and in Chinese.

The punctuation marks in these typefaces have built-in blank spaces, and this is the main reason you never need to type blank spaces explicitly when you are typing in Japanese or Chinese. The lines below do not have any blank spaces typed in them, but they do have some gaps because of the blank spaces which are built into punctuation marks:

Japanese:
字字。字字
字字、字字
字字)字字
字字(字字
字字(字字)字字
字字」字字
字字「字字
字字「字字」字字

Chinese:
字字。字字
字字,字字
字字)字字
字字(字字
字字(字字)字字

Notice that there are "built-in spaces" after periods, commas, right parentheses, and right quotation marks, and "built-in spaces" before left parentheses and left quotation marks. The effect of the built-in spaces for parentheses and quotation marks is that parentheses and quotation marks touch the 字 between them, but not the 字 outside them.

In typefaces used for typing English, there are no blank spaces built into the punctuation marks, and therefore blank spaces must be typed explicitly when punctuation marks are typed. In the simplest case, when there is only one punctuation mark between two words, the blank space is typed exactly where there would be a "built-in space" in the corresponding punctuation mark in a Japanese or Chinese typeface: after periods, commas, right parentheses and right quotation marks, and before left parentheses and left quotation marks. This ends up looking pretty much the same as the lines above:

English:
some words. Some words
some words! Some words
some words? Some words
some words, some words
some words; some words
some words: some words
some words) some words
some words (some words
some words (some words) some words
some words "some words" some words

It is probably better to have this image of what things should look like than to memorize a rule for where the blank spaces are typed. Things can get more complicated when there are two or more punctuation marks in a row between words, but the same principles always apply: parentheses and quotation marks touch both the beginning and end of the text between them, and all other punctuation marks touch what comes before them.

Another situation in which blank spaces must be typed in English which is contrary to the habits and expectations of Japanese and Chinese speakers is between numbers and the words that precede or follow them. In Japanese and Chinese, numbers are thought of as attached to the measure words or other classifiers that follow them, but in English, numbers are separate words. Also, small numbers (especially the numbers from one to ten) and "round numbers", such as small multiples of ten (twenty, thirty, etc.) are usually spelled as words, instead of using numerals.

two days [correct]
2 days [OK in some situations, but "two days" is usually preferred]
2days [incorrect]

One more very common error in English texts written by Japanese or Chinese speakers has to do with the rule that a sentence must begin with a capital letter. One should not capitalize the word after a comma or semicolon; neither of these punctuation marks ends a sentence. The punctuation marks period, exclamation point and question mark end a sentence. After these punctuation marks, a new sentence begins, and that sentence must begin with a capital letter. [Note: In UK English, what I am calling a "period" is called a "full stop".]

Another point of confusion is whether commas and periods come before or after right quotation marks. The unfortunate answer to this question is that there is no universal agreement among English speakers about this; the rules followed by most UK English speakers are a bit different from the rules followed by most US speakers, and there is not even universal agreement within either of those two groups. You should try to be consistent about which choices you make, but no matter what choices you make, some English speakers will say they are correct and others will say they are incorrect.

I hope that this entry makes this issue a little bit less confusing. Please ask me questions if there are situations you are still unsure about.