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last updated: 3/29/2012

FAQ - English Punctuation II (Music Library)



Cook Music Library Brief Guides, No. 28


The semi-colon is rapidly disappearing from English.Once it was commonly used to link clauses that were somewhat related; now we prefer shorter sentences, so we tend to separate those clauses by a period. [Once it was commonly used to link clauses that were somewhat related.Now we prefer shorter sentences....] But this punctuation mark still has a necessary place in other contexts:

Use a semi-colon in lists that would not be clear if only commas were used:

The members of the committee are: John Adams, School of Music, chair; Ernest Hemingway, Department of English; and Marie Antoinette, Department of History.

Use a semi-colon in a list-like sentence in which phrases or clauses are dependent on an initial statement:

Mahler's symphonies have many strengths: they tie together disparate styles of material; they have a wide range of emotional expression; and they include some of the longest successful sonata-form movements ever written.

Use a semi-colon to precede for example, namely, etc. when they precede a principal statement:

Mahler's symphonies have many strengths; for example, they include some of the longest successful sonata-form movements ever written.

Use a semi-colon to separate independent clauses joined by such words as however and therefore:

The New York Philharmonic made Maazel an offer that was hard to refuse; therefore, he accepted it.

Debussy never thought of himself as a concert pianist; however, in his own music his playing was incomparable.

[Compare: In his own music, however, he was incomparable.]

Place the semi-colon outside quotation marks:

He told us, "I'll never return to conducting"; yet, three weeks later, he was seen on the beach, waving his baton as enthusiastically as ever for the summer band concert.


Use a colon to introduce a list or a list-like series of clauses:

Debussy's Estampes includes the following movements: Pagodes, La soirée dans Grenade, and Jardins sous la pluie.

There were many reasons for Mahler's success as a conductor: his intense preparation; his attention to detail; and his unique ear for orchestral timbre.

Use a colon when a second clause restates or explains the first:

This section is hardly tonal: it features pentatonic scales and modal harmonies.

Use a colon to separate the subtitle of a book or article from the title (regardless of the original punctuation or lack of punctuation):

Azzi, María Susana, and Simon Collier.Le grand tango: The Life and Music of Astor Piazzolla. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Note that a colon also separates the place of publication from the publisher.

Note also that a colon introduces an indented block quotation or example.


Note the difference in length between a hyphen (-), an n-dash (), and an m-dash (). With word-processing programs, you can make this distinction readily.

Use a hyphen between the words of a compound adjective before its noun:

nineteenth-century music

Student-teacher ratio

fifty-year-old musician

double-bass music

first-class performance

Chinese-American composer

well-deserved reputation

up-to-date edition

three- and four-movement sonatas

but not when the same words do not modify a noun:

Music publishing in the nineteenth century developed largely for the middle class.

Much cello music has been arranged for the double bass.

The performance last night was first class.

Richter's reputation was well deserved.

or when an adverb ending in ly is followed by an adjective:

beautifully performed concerto

highly personal style

truly great composer

Use a hyphen in compound numbers:



and in mixing numbers with other words:

two-measure phrase

fourteen-inch bow

three-o'clock concert

Use a hyphen in fractions used as an adjective:

The theme lasts for ten and one-half measures.

but not in fractions used as nouns:

One half of the audience turned up late.

Use a hyphen in words made up of prefixes attached to proper nouns:






but not generally when the prefixes are attached to common nouns:





Use an n-dash instead of the word to in dates, page numbers, etc.:


pp. 3537

verses 314

Use an m-dash to enclose a parenthetical or explanatory comment, especially when commas would be confusing:

In a brief prefatory section, Vaché further explains his criteria for inclusion inor exclusion fromthe volume. [Also possible: . . . inclusion in, or exclusion from, the volume]

Busnoys's influence on the younger generation of composersincluding Josquin, Obrecht, and Isaacwas legendary.

Johnson employs the semiotic notion of "musical topics"—musical devices that function as signifiers for a far-reaching network of extramusical associationsto argue that Webern's music refers to nature.

Use an m-dash to set off a phrase or clause in apposition:

Brahms was not Bill's favorite composeralmost as unloved as the color brown.

Youens carefully etches the details of their differing taste and experienceswhether concerning Richard Wagner, religion, or women.

or a sudden change in the sentence:

It is a logical, and generally successful, approach to the problembut not in all cases.


Use an apostrophe to form the possessive singular:

Beethoven's nine symphonies

Stravinsky's Rite of Spring

the conductor's baton

my son-in-law's piano

George the First's reign

the University of Chicago's president

everyone else's concertos

Breitkopf & Härtel's editions

Use an apostrophe to form the possessive plural:

If the plural ends in S, add an apostrophe:

the boys' recorders

If the plural does not end in S, add an apostrophe and an S:

the children's recorders

To form the possessive of a proper noun ending in S:

Add S and an apostrophe:

John Adams's Nixon in China.

Note that some authorities prefer to add only the apostrophe:

John Adams' Nixon in China.

Other authorities restrict that practice to names of one syllable:

Ezra Sims' Sonata concertante.

Use an apostrophe to show the omission of the first two figures of a year:

By the early '70s, the Beatles had disintegrated.


Use double quotation marks to enclose a direct quotation:

My mother remarked, "I cannot understand why you still want to be a musician."

"I cannot understand," my mother remarked, "why you still want to be a musician."

[In British English single quotation marks are used: My mother remarked, 'I cannot understand....']

but not for an indirect quotation:

My mother remarked that she could not understand why I still wanted to be a musician.

Use single quotation marks to enclose a quotation within a quotation:

According to Cornelius, "Berrian begins by focusing on what she describes as the group's interest in defining, through the use of metaphors from childhood, a culturally 'safe space.'"

[In British English the second level of quotation marks is double: 'Berrian begins by focusing on . . . a culturally "safe space"'.]

Use quotation marks to enclose text following such words as entitled, the word, marked, referred to as, etc. but not following so-called, known as, and called:

For the word "can," substitute the word "may."

Beethoven's piano sonata in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2, is known as the "Moonlight."

Use quotation marks to indicate irony:

Handel "borrowed" themes from many other composers.

Use quotation marks when you define a word or when you use an unfamiliar word for the first time:

"Hermeneutics" is the discovery of meaning in a text through empathy rather than empirical verification.


Use a question mark at the end of a direct question:

Why is Rachmaninoff such a popular composer?

The question is: Why is Rachmaninoff so popular?

An indirect question, however, is followed by a period:

I wonder why Rachmaninoff is such a popular composer.

Put the question mark inside the quotation marks when it is part of what is quoted:

"Why is Rachmaninoff such a popular composer?" he asked. [Note that the normal comma before the quotation mark is replaced by the question mark here]

But outside the quotation marks when it is not:

Who was it who said, "Rachmaninoff is a deservedly popular composer"?

Multiple question marks can be used within the same sentence:

There are many questions we can ask about the plot of this opera: Is it plausible? realistic? oversentimental? contrived? sketchy?


Use an exclamation point to mark a genuine exclamation:


What an outstanding performance!

How difficult this movement is to perform!

Use an exclamation point after a command:

Get out and never darken my door again!

Use an exclamation point (sparingly) to express irony, surprise, or disagreement:

A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle! (Gloria Steinem)

After the recapitulation, Chopin introduces a new theme!

My first teacher told me I was too emotional to be a musician!

But note the off-putting effect of expressing mere excitement, as in the following:

Last night I went out with Pete! We had dinner at The Grotto!! The band there was amazing!!! The lead singer was the same one we heard last year at Eagles!!!! I couldn't believe it!!!!! The evening just got better and better!!!!!!

In British English the exclamation mark, as it is called, is used more than in American English, and particularly to draw attention to what the writer hopes is witty or even funny:

Liszt's experiments with tonality went so far, that if he had only lived another ten years, he would have invented serial music!


Use parentheses to enclose explanations in the text:

In m. 39 (see Example 3), Stravinsky abruptly changes pace.

Norris (pp. 71416) makes a good case for Rachmaninoff's popularity being deserved.

Do not use the pedal in this movement. (Pedaling will only make the harmonies unnecessarily blurred.)

Note that for a complete parenthetical sentence, the period goes inside the right parenthesis.Otherwise, it goes outside:

As for Rachmaninoff's popularity being deserved, Norris makes a good case for it (pp. 71416).


Use brackets to enclose explanatory comments and other words or phrases that you have supplied:

According to Kallberg, "He was already in Paris the previous year [1830], when he performed at a benefit concert."

Use brackets (compassionately) around sic to draw attention to errors made by others:

Ironically, the Walsh title-page includes the remark: "This is more corect [sic] than the previous edition."

La valse: poème chorégraphique [sic] pour orchestre.

Rondino for the Piano Forte on Dr. Haydon's [sic] Canzonetto "The mermaid's song," Op. 153 No. 1.


Use ellipsis points to show the omission of a word or words in quoted matter:

The two suites for the cello . . . dissolve on the tongue like so many Tic-Tacs, leaving only a faint, mildly chemical aftertaste.

Retain whatever original punctuation is necessary to make sense of what is quoted:

The title page gives the medium for the Sonata da Circo (Circus Sonata) as "Organ or whatever"; but in fact, this is P. D. Q.'s second work for the steam calliope. . . . The wheezy, demented tone of the calliope and the use of now-familiar circus tunes eloquently depict the traveling show run by Kirkus and Dirkus Berserkus. . . .P. D. Q. masterfully evokes a sordid world of repulsive freak shows. . .

The title page gives the medium . . . as "Organ or whatever"; . . . P. D. Q. masterfully evokes a sordid world of repulsive freak shows. . . .

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

David Lasocki
rev. 7/26/01

last updated: 3/29/2012