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last updated: 3/29/2012

FAQ - English Punctuation I (Music Library)



Cook Music Library Brief Guides, No. 27




[In British English this is known as the "full stop."]


Use a period at the end of most sentences:


A period goes at the end of most sentences.


Indirect question:

It is difficult to understand why Schubert failed to finish his Eighth Symphony.

[Note the difference from: Why did Schubert fail to finish his Eighth Symphony?]


Request or order without strong emotion:

Leave your music on your stand after the performance.                   


Also use a period after most abbreviations:

Dr. Brown      Mr. Smith        Inc.      A.D.    Jan.      a.m.


[In British English abbreviations in which letters are taken out of only the middle of the word do not take a full stop: Dr, Mr, Rd, St, Ltd]


including people=s initials:

J. S. Bach            C. P. E. Bach              P. Q. Phan


When an entire sentence is placed inside parentheses, the period also goes inside the parentheses:

Josquin wrote the newly discovered motet towards the end of his life.  (We cannot be sure of the exact date.)


But when only part of the sentence is placed inside parentheses, the period goes outside the parentheses:

He joined the orchestra in 1975 (when it was still in its formative stage).


Place the period inside quotation marks:

Strauss' four last songs are called "Four Last Songs."


[In British English the full stop goes outside the (single) quotation marks: Strauss' four last songs are called 'Four Last Songs'.]



Use a comma for clarity after a long introductory prepositional phrase:

Over the course of the next five measures, the movement modulates through a circle of fifths.


But a comma is optional after a short prepositional phrase (except for on the other hand, for example, etc.: see below):

In recent months attendance at the concerts has been up.


Use a comma after an introductory phrase that includes a participle or gerund:

Generally speaking, tempos were faster in the eighteenth century than they are today.

Realizing that jazz was more popular in France, he abandoned New York and left for Paris.


Use a comma before and after a phrase that could be omitted without interfering with the main meaning:

Handel, recently arrived from Germany, made a big impression on London audiences with his opera Giulio Cesare.


Use commas to separate a descriptive phrase that follows a noun:

The conductor, drenched in sweat, continued with an ever damper baton.


Do not use a comma after a participial phrase that is essential to the meaning of the sentence:

Most of the American composers who went to Paris in the first half of the twentieth century studied with Nadia Boulanger. ["who went to Paris. . ." identifies the American composers in question]


Use a comma after a dependent adverbial clause:

Before the concert was advertised, we already had many ticket orders.


But not usually if the subject of each clause is the same:

Before I went to Paris I had no idea of Boulanger's status.


And not when the dependent clause follows the main clause (unless the dependent clause begins with because, since, as, or though):

We already had many ticket orders before the concert was advertised.


Use a comma between the parts of a compound sentence for clarity or when the second part introduces a new idea or subject:

We need this job done well, and you are just the person to do it.


But not when there is simply a compound predicate:

Stravinsky left Russia and never went back.

Use a comma before an adjective clause that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence:

Pierre Boulez, who still composes occasionally, is now much better known as a conductor.


But not when the adjective clause is essential to the meaning of the sentence:

The cellist who lives next door came over for dinner yesterday. ["who lives next door" identifies the cellist in question]


Use a comma to separate words and phrases in a series:

Debussy's Estampes consists of Pagodes, La soirée dans Grenade, and Jardins sous la pluie.


Note that some authorities omit the comma before and (a standard feature of British usage).


Use a comma between several adjectives preceding one noun:

The violinist gave a wonderful, exhilarating, virtuosic performance.


but not between two closely related adjectives:

Orchestra Hall is a fine old building.


or when the last adjective identifies rather than modifies the noun:

Bill Evans is fond of soothing diminished thirteenth chords.


Use a comma to surround a phrase in apposition:

Professor Henry Upper, Chair of the Piano Department, retired this summer.


but not when the phrase has become part of the name:

Frederick the Great was a skilled flutist and composer.


Use a comma to set off a contrasted word, phrase, or clause:

It is essential for musicians to be industrious, not lazy.

Beethoven then modulates not to the expected dominant, but to the submediant.

It could be argued that Chopin, not Schumann or Liszt, was the most important piano composer of the Romantic era.


Use a comma to set off a transition word or phrase when a pause is needed for clarity or emphasis:

Nevertheless, she continued playing until the end of the movement.

Schubert always intended, in fact, to finish his Eighth Symphony.

but not when the comma would interrupt the thought:

The jury therefore failed to award the first prize.

I accordingly agreed to perform the concerto.


Use a comma after expressions such as for example and for instance at the beginning of a sentence or clause:

For example, the first measure contains an unresolved dissonance.


When such an expression is parenthetical, it needs a comma before and after:

The first measure, for example, contains an unresolved dissonance.


Use a comma to set off direct quotations:

As The New Grove informs us, "He experimented with a type of 18th-century aleatory music C composition by throwing dice. . . ."

"I am confident," he remarked, "that you will do well at your audition."


But not if the quotation flows on smoothly from the wording before it:

Robert Donington's The Interpretation of Early Music was up-front about its assumption that "early music is really best served by matching our modern interpretations as closely as possible to what we believe to have been the original interpretation. . . ."

Donington did immediately concede that there would have to be an "irreducible minimum of inadvertent modernization which must attend our best efforts, simply because we can never quite find out what went on so many generations ago."


Indirect quotations do not need a comma:

The New Grove informs us that Stadler experimented with a type of aleatory music.

He told me he was confident that I would do well at my audition.

Donington concedes that a certain amount of inadvertent modernization is inevitable, because we can never possess enough historical evidence.



Principles based largely on Margaret D. Shertzer, The Elements of Grammar (New York: Collier Books; Macmillan Publishing Co., 1986).


David Lasocki   rev. 10/10/01

last updated: 3/29/2012