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Punctuation

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English

We all know the basics of the grammatical rules for punctuation: use full stops at the end of every sentence, commas when making a list, question marks after questions, etc. However, there are still many misconceptions about punctuation, and plenty of people still make errors in their writing.

Let's look into why punctuation is so important and how we can use it correctly!

Punctuation Definition

Punctuation is the standardised way we use symbols in writing to make the meaning of a sentence clear and signpost how a piece of writing is to be read.

Punctuation is a bit like body language – it helps the writer express themselves through writing so that the reader interprets it in the way they intend.

Importance of Punctuation

While punctuation may seem frustrating and inconvenient at times, it is essential to avoid confusions that may occur in writing. How a sentence is punctuated can change the meaning entirely.

Example: eats, shoots and leaves

Take this extract from Lynne Truss’s book on punctuation, for example:

A panda walks into a café. He orders a sandwich, eats it, then draws a gun and fires two shots in the air.

'Why?' asks the confused waiter, as the panda makes towards the exit. The panda produces a badly punctuated wildlife annual and tosses it over his shoulder.

'I'm a panda,' he says, at the door. 'Look it up.'

The waiter turns to the relevant entry and, sure enough, finds an explanation.

Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves.

(Lynne Truss, 'Eats Shoots and Leaves')

Punctuation panda eating shoots and leaves StudySmarter'A panda eats shoots and leaves' can change meaning depending on the punctuation used (Pixabay)

As a result of the misplaced comma, the panda bear no longer eats shoots and leaves but instead shoots, and then leaves.

Example: woman without her man is nothing

Similarly, the phrase: Woman without her man is nothing, can be punctuated in different ways to alter the meaning. It can either become:

Woman: without her, man is nothing.

Or

Woman, without her man, is nothing.

Although they include the same words, these two sentences are completely different in meaning. One suggests that mankind is nothing without women, while the other implies that a woman is nothing without her man.

These examples prove punctuation is essential to make the meaning of a sentence clear and mitigate any potential confusion.

Types of Punctuation Marks

The English language uses 14 different punctuation marks listed in the table below beside their symbol. We will then go into the details of how they are correctly used and the effect on a sentence they may have.

NameSymbol
Full stop.
Question mark?
Exclamation Mark!
Comma,
Colon:
Semicolon;
Slash/
Dash-
Hyphen-
Brackets[ ]
Parenthesis( )
Apostrophe'
Speech Marks" "
Ellipsis...

How is punctuation used?

Each of the punctuation marks listed have unique uses and comes with its own rules for how they are deployed in writing.

Full stop

Full stops are pretty simple – they mark the end of a declarative sentence (instead of interrogative or exclamative sentences). You may also know them by their Americanised name, a period.

Here are some examples of sentences that used full stops.

I walked there.

I placed my feet, one after the other, until I finally reached my destination – just over there.

Full stops may also be used in acronyms and abbreviations, between each letter.

U.S.A.

9 A.M.

i.e.

Question mark

Question marks are used to end interrogative sentences. When we verbalise questions, our voices usually get higher at the end, signifying that we are asking a question. This is not possible to indicate in writing, so we use a question mark.

Some examples could include:

What is the capital city of England?

Who’s going out this evening?

Task: Next time you or a friend asks a question, notice how your voice changes compared to when you usually talk.

These are examples of direct questions. However, a question mark is not used at the end of an indirect question. This is when someone reports what someone has already asked or requested, such as:

She asked if she could borrow my pencil.

Alternatively, a question mark may convey a sense of uncertainty. For example, when the specific date of an event is disputed (such as with ancient texts or writers), a question mark might be used around the dates themselves. These are used in parenthesis, so they do not disrupt the sentence's meaning and only add a question to the particular detail alone.

The patient is taking 20mg (?) of Prozac daily.

Chaucer (born 1342/1343?, London – died 25 October 1400, London)

You might also notice that you raise your voice when you are unsure about what you are saying. Question marks are used in writing similarly.

Exclamation mark

Exclamation marks are typically used at the end of an exclamatory phrase or sentence to convey a sense of loudness or emphasis in writing that would be more evident in the spoken word. Exclamation marks might also be used to convey a sense of surprise. However, excessive exclamation marks in a piece of writing can appear childish, so it is advisable to avoid them in formal writing.

All he heard as she fell down was a cry. A cry of help!

She shouted out to him: 'Don’t do that!'

How foolish we’ve all been today!

Punctuation Comma

Commas are the most misused and misunderstood type of punctuation because of the variety of contexts they can be used. One of the most common ways a comma is misused is when it joins two complete sentences together, which is known as comma splicing.

An example of which might look like:

'It’s getting dark already, there’s no way we will make it into town before dark.'

This is grammatically incorrect because both parts of the sentence make full sense on their own. Therefore, they do not need to be joined with a comma.

The correct punctuation would be a full stop e.g. 'It’s getting dark already. There’s no way we will make it into town before dark.'

The 8 rules for commas

There are many ways commas are useful and required. See the list below for examples.

  1. A comma when listing:

When dividing up three or more items in a series, you use commas to make a list or a tricolon because it allows a distinct division between each concept.

Using a comma in this way acts as a substitute for ‘and’ or ‘or’ when listing things. The final item listed doesn’t require a comma, but instead, the words ‘and’ or ‘or’ before it is listed.

For example:

A, B, C, D and E are the first five letters of the alphabet.

I don’t mind if we watch Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead or Westworld tonight.

  1. A comma with conjunction:

Commas can join simple phrases or sentences together as long as the next begins with a joining word, or conjunction, like ‘or’, ‘but’, ‘while’, ‘so’ or ‘yet’.

A comma is used in this way when concluding a sentence and then beginning the next with conjunction. See the examples below:

I had tried to tell her to get her umbrella, but she had already left the house.

He drove there, so we all arrived on time.

  1. A comma after an introduction:

A comma can also be used after an introductory phrase, word, or statement that precedes the main clause. Examples of introductory phrases include: ‘although’, ‘after’, ‘if’, ‘as’, ‘when’ or ‘although’, but these are not the only possibilities. The introductions before the comma may also be infinitive and participle phrases, nonessential appositive phrases, absolute phrases or prepositional phrases, displayed in the examples below.

Although she wasn’t going to be late, she still felt the need to pick up her pace.

Legs shaking, she stood up and made her announcement.

'You may not like the result. However, it is important for you to see.'

  1. A comma with appositives:

This sort of comma frames an appositive within a sentence.

Apositive

A noun or phrase that rephrases another noun

The sentence must be able to make sense without the addition of the appositive, for example:

Chaucer, the medieval writer and diplomat, was once robbed while collecting taxes.

The Maths teacher, Mr Browse, had accidentally written on the board that '2+2=5'.

The description of Chaucer as a medieval writer and diplomat isn’t essential to the phrase, but it adds more understanding.

  1. A comma with non-restrictive clauses:

These are similar to the usage of commas with appositives. Instead, the framed non-essential information will be a non-restrictive clause.

Restrictive clause

A clause that involves both a relative pronoun and a personal pronoun)

For example:

'The Kooks, who wrote that song you like, are performing in London next year.'

  1. A comma with direct addresses:

This occurs when a narrator directly names the person to whom they are talking. The name (depending on where it occurs in a sentence) is framed by commas, for example:

'I think, Gemma, you’re doing the wrong thing.'

'Gemma, I think you’re doing the wrong thing.'

'I think you’re doing the wrong thing, Gemma.'

  1. A comma with direct speech:

When a speaker during a dialogue is referred to, the name and the verb will often be encompassed in commas. For example:

Harry said, 'I don’t enjoy going out for runs, unless it’s at night because I find the silence so peaceful.'

'I don’t enjoy going out for runs,' said Harry, 'unless it’s at night because I find the silence so peaceful.'

'I don’t enjoy going out for runs, unless it’s at night because I find the silence so peaceful,' said Harry.

  1. Commas with numbers, dates, addresses and people’s titles:

Commas may also be used in conventional displaying numbers, dates, addresses, and prestigious titles.

Regarding numbers, commas are required when referring to numbers over three digits. The commas are then placed at intervals of three numbers from the lowest end of the number, allowing the number to be more easily distinguished by the number of groupings (whether it is a million, one hundred thousand, etc.). With dates, commas separate and isolate the years from the other information.

100

1,000

100,000

1,000,000

King John created the Magna Carta, in 1215, to try and create a peace treaty.

When writing addresses, each piece of information about the location is separated by a comma. The street name, house number, town, county, country and postcode are all separated by punctuation to minimise the potential for confusion.

Send this letter to Ana at 109 Fictitious Street, No-Where Town, Imagination, N0R 3AL.

Commas can also separate a person's title from the rest of the sentence, which allows an individual to be respectfully addressed without interrupting the flow of the sentence.

Brian May, CBE, ARCS, was the lead guitarist of the band Queen.

Colon

The colon indicates further elaboration on a phrase, whittling down a vague description into something more specific. There is always a full sentence before a colon (but it may not necessarily be succeeded by one).

Very few things consumed his mind at this time, but one took precedence over the rest: the fact he knew the world would end in the next 15 minutes.

There were very few excuses she could make up for her behaviour that night: foolish drunkenness.

Punctuation Semicolon

The semicolon is used for separating two complete sentences without using a full stop or splicing, which can only occur when several conditions are met:

  • If the sentences are too closely related to be entirely separated by a full stop

  • No connecting words already between the sentences

  • A colon isn’t required instead

So the phrases 'I have too much work to do tonight, so I can’t go out with you.' or 'I have too much work to do tonight. I can’t go out with you.' become 'I have too much work to do tonight; I can’t go out with you.'

Slash

There are two types of slash: the forwards and the backwards slash, but the latter is only used in writing with computer programming. A forward slash can be used for multiple things such as acting as a substitute for ‘or’, indicating an abbreviation or showing two conflicting sides.

  • Substitute:

On this trip, everyone needs to bring his/her/their own pencil case.

  • Abbreviation:

'w/o' = without.

  • Conflicting sides:

There is a great deal of conflict between the liberals/conservatives.

Punctuation Dash

Two types of dashes are used in punctuation: the em-dash (—) and the en-dash (–), which have distinct usages. These are often confused together, along with hyphens. Let's look at their differences.

The em-dash is quite versatile in its ability to replace commas and brackets in parentheses.

(with commas) It is important to contact Mrs Flowers, my lawyer, by Monday.

(with brackets) It is important to contact Mrs Flowers (my lawyer) by Monday.

(with dashes) It is important to contact Mrs Flowers—my lawyer—by Monday.

The en-dash, however, can be used between:

  • Ranges of numbers (whether time, dates, page numbers, etc.)

The television series Scrubs ran from 2001–2010.

  • Reports of results

The Football match was lost 2–1.

  • Links between conflicting, directing, or connecting sides

It is undeniable that the North–South divide creates a sense of conflict amid the country.

  • Compounded adjectives

The words 'award–winning', 'post–industrial society' (they can be used without the en-dash, but are an aesthetic choice: it is up to the individual to choose).

Hyphen

A hyphen's primary function is to combine two terms, but they are also used to separate words in professional printed material. They are often confused with em-dashes and en-dashes and used interchangeably, but this is incorrect. Here are some examples of how to use hyphens correctly:

Mother-in-law

Sign-up

Dry-cleaning

Square brackets

Editors or transcribers often use brackets to clarify information that might have been omitted or misspelled. There are also braces ({}), but much like backwards slashes, these are rarely used in written language as they are typically used in maths. Brackets may be used similarly, as in the examples below.

The girl [Helen] rarely remembered to bring her bag to school.

We were walking to the corner-ship [shop].

Parenthesis

Parenthesis is how people add additional information to a complete sentence by using brackets, em-dashes, or commas. For the parenthesis to have been correctly used, it is required that the whole sentence makes sense with, and without, the isolated bit of parenthesis.

They were struggling to lift the suitcase (that was filled to the brim with bricks) up the stairs.

The moon, shying away behind a cloudy gauze, struggled to light the path.

Apostrophe

Apostrophes have two usages in English grammar. The first is that they signal omitted letters in contractions.

For example, the words 'could not' become 'couldn’t'. The 'o' in 'not' gets replaced with an apostrophe, and the two words combine.

Similarly, the words 'would have' become 'would’ve', replacing the 'ha' in 'have' with an apostrophe.

The second usage of apostrophes allows an indication of possession. For singular nouns, we use an apostrophe followed by 's', and for plural nouns, we simply use an apostrophe.

For example, the sentence 'the traction of the tyre is bad.' can become 'the tyre’s traction is bad.'

Alternatively, if the noun is plural, the sentence 'the traction of the tyres is bad' can become 'the tyres’ traction is bad'.

Speech and quotation marks

Speech marks are usually used to denote direct speech (i.e. exact words spoken). Quotation marks are used to emphasise words or signal an irregular choice of words.

When used with direct speech, speech marks follow certain rules.

Huda questioned her mother, "When are we going, and what will we do when we get there?''

Here the speaking phrase begins the sentence, so the comma is placed before the speech.

'Where are we going,' Huda questioned her mother, 'and what will we do when we get there?'

Here the speaking phrase is framed by the speech, so the first bit of speech is concluded with a comma in speech marks, and the speaking phrase ends with one.

'When are we going, and what will we do there?' Huda questioned her mother.

In this example, the speech ends with a question mark, prioritising a comma that would normally be placed to frame the speaking phrase.

When using quotation marks to highlight certain elements, the point of interest is simply placed within single quotation marks: ‘ ’. However, it is common to place the quote in double quotation marks when someone is being quoted.

While the word ‘frame’ is a verb, it can also be a noun.

Ellipsis

In writing, the ellipsis usage usually suggests an omission of words or a moment of building suspense.

For example, in Emily Dickinson’s Sonnet 28 from Sonnets From the Portuguese, she uses an ellipsis to simultaneously express a build-up of extreme emotions and highlight how these feelings have made her unable to verbalise the love she wishes to explain truly:

'My letters! all dead paper... mute and white!

And yet they seem alive and quivering

Against my tremulous hands which loose the string

And let them drop down on my knee to-night.

This said, … he wished to have me in his sight

Once, as a friend: this fixed a day in spring

To come and touch my hand … a simple thing,

Yet I wept for it!—this, … the paper’s light …

Said, Dear I love thee, and I sank and quailed

As if God’s future thundered on my past.

This said, I am thine—and so its ink has paled

With lying at my heart that beat too fast.

And this… O Love, thy words have ill availed,

If, what this said, I dared repeat at last!' (1850)

How to Avoid Punctuation Errors

No easy way to solve punctuation errors exists, but there are things you can do to make your work more accurate. Try familiarising yourself with the rules of using punctuation; you could also research common errors to be sure to avoid them. Proofreading your work is also very important – we suggest reading it aloud for the most accuracy. It can also be helpful to get someone else to proofread for you, as they may spot mistakes you might have missed.

Here are some common punctuation errors to be aware of:

Punctuation type

Errors made

Reason for error

Incorrect examples

Apostrophes

Apostrophes can be incorrectly placed when omitting letters or indicating possession (as well as other confusions).

Pluralising nouns.

Often people give possessive pronouns apostrophes when they shouldn’t.

Confusion between ‘its’ and ‘it’s’.

Lack of understanding of apostrophes.

The car is your’s now.

Its all on it’s own.

There are so many car’s.

Hyphens and Dashes

Confusion between em-dashes, en-dashes, and hyphens.

People often use hyphens instead of em-dashes.

Without any reason- other than a strange sensation in her stomach- she decided to turn around and walk the other way.

Quotation marks and commas

Placing commas in the wrong place.

Single and double quotation marks are used interchangeably.

America and England have different ways of doing this, which may cause discrepancies and lasting confusion.

“I never did that”! He exclaimed.

The “ghost” they saw in the house was just a plastic bag drifting through.

Commas

Overused, underused, or used instead of the correct punctuation.

Lack of understanding of how they are used in context. The only way to avoid this is by learning the rules.

I let the string go, so the wind blew my kite away.

I didn’t feel like going to bed, but I knew I’d be tired tomorrow morning.

The weather was nice, I looked forward to going outside.

Why Might Someone Disregard Punctuation?

While punctuation is an essential part of written communication, there may be instances when writers entirely disregard it to make a point.

The poet E. E. Cummings has (in his poetical collections like Tulips and Chimneys (1923)) chosen a somewhat idiosyncratic approach to punctuation to completely deconstruct poetry itself. M. L. Rosenthall described this playfulness with written traditions as 'jugglery' to 'blow open otherwise trite and bathetic motifs through a dynamic rediscovery of the energies sealed up in conventional usage'.

The incredibly short poem: I (a (A Leaf Falls with Loneliness):

“l(a

le

af

fa

ll

s)

one

l

Iness” (1958)

This irregular usage of parenthesis to cut off words mid-fall allows Cummings to experiment with isolating the motion, further creating a sense of solitude and ‘loneliness’.

Leaf Falling Punctuation StudySmarterCummins poem uses punctuation in a different way (Pixabay)

Similarly, Cormac McCarthy’s dystopian novel The Road (2006) completely avoids any form of conventionalised punctuation, allowing McCarthy to mirror how society (and its conventions) have been obliterated in the apocalyptic setting he depicts.

Punctuation - Key Takeaways

  • Punctuation is the standardised way we signpost how something is to be read. There are 14 punctuation symbols.
  • Correct punctuation allows writing to be read clearly and minimises misunderstanding.
  • Em dashes (longest, parenthesis), En dashes (mid-length, joining), and hyphens (shortest, combining) can be easily confused.
  • Writers may choose not to follow punctuation rules to make a point and emphasise some aspects of their writing.

Lynne Truss, (2003). Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, (1850). Sonnet 28 from Sonnets from the Portuguese.

M. L. Rosenthall, (1960). The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction.

E. E. Cumings, (1958). l(a (A Leaf Falls with Loneliness).

Punctuation

Punctuation is how we use symbols in writing to make the meaning of a sentence clear and signpost how a piece of writing is to be read. Examples of punctuation include a full stop, question mark, hyphen, speech marks, and ellipsis.

The 14 punctuation marks in English are full stops, question marks, exclamation marks, commas, colons, semi-colons, slashes, dashes, hyphens, brackets, parenthesis, apostrophes, quotation marks, and ellipses.

We use commas when listing, with a conjunction, after an introduction, with appositives, with non-restrictive clauses, with direct addresses, and with direct speech.

The semicolon is used for separating two complete sentences without using a full stop or splicing. For example, 'I have too much work to do tonight; I can’t go out with you'.

Parenthesis is how people add additional information to a complete sentence by using brackets, em-dashes, or commas. For example, 'They were struggling to lift the suitcase (that was filled to the brim with bricks) up the stairs' which uses brackets for parenthesis. Another example is 'The moon, shying away behind a cloudy gauze, struggled to light the path.' which uses commas for parenthesis.

Final Punctuation Quiz

Question

What types of punctuation are there?

Show answer

Answer

Full stops, question marks, exclamation marks, commas, colons, semicolons, slashes, dashes, brackets, parenthesis, apostrophe, speech and quotation marks and ellipses.

Show question

Question

Why is punctuation important?

Show answer

Answer

Correct punctuation minimises potential confusion in a piece of writing.

Show question

Question

When might a full stop be used, that's not at the end of a sentence?

Show answer

Answer

A full stop can also be used in abbreviations.

Show question

Question

What happens when we ask a question when speaking?

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Answer

Our intonation changes- it increases in pitch at the end of the question.

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Question

Why shouldn't people use too many exclamation marks in writing?

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Answer

It may make the text appear childish.

Show question

Question

How do you know if the parenthesis is correctly used?

Show answer

Answer

If the sentence can make sense without the part in parenthesis, it has been correctly used. Parenthesis adds additional and helpful information to a text, but isn't actually required.

Show question

Question

What punctuation marks are used with parenthesis?

Show answer

Answer

Parenthesis can be made with commas, em-dashes and brackets.

Show question

Question

What's the difference between em and en-dashes?

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Answer

The en-dash is longer and is used for uniting divided things (like dates, results and compound adjectives among other things). The em-dash is used with parenthesis.

Show question

Question

What confusion is there with hyphens, em-dashes and en-dashes.

Show answer

Answer

People often use them interchangeably when this is actually incorrect.

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Question

What do apostrophes do?

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Answer

Indicate omitted letters or indicate possession.

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Question

Why might writers neglect punctuation?

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Answer

Writers do this for greater exploration of the craft as it involves removing the well-established conventions.

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Question

How many types of punctuation are there?

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Answer

14

Show question

Question

What does punctuation do?

Show answer

Answer

It makes the meaning of a sentence clearer

Show question

Question

Which of the following are examples of punctuation?

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Answer

Parenthesis

Show question

Question

Question marks are used to end ____________ sentences. Fill in the blanks.

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Answer

Interrogative

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Question

Exclamation marks are used to _________. Fill in the blanks.

Show answer

Answer

Convey loudness

Show question

Question

We use commas when listing. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What is the following sentence an example of? 'It’s getting dark already, there’s no way we will make it into town before dark.'


Show answer

Answer

Comma splicing

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Question

Which of the following shows the correct use of commas?

Show answer

Answer

100,000

Show question

Question

We use commas to separate information when writing addresses. True or false?

Show answer

Answer

True

Show question

Question

What is a colon used for?

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Answer

The colon indicates further elaboration on a phrase. For example, Very few things consumed his mind at this time, but one took precedence over the rest: the fact he knew the world would end in the next 15 minutes. 

Show question

Question

What is a semicolon used for?

Show answer

Answer

The semicolon separates two complete sentences without using a full stop or splicing e.g. 'I have too much work to do tonight; I can’t go out with you.'.

Show question

Question

Which piece of punctuation is used as a substitute for ‘or’, indicates an abbreviation, or shows two conflicting sides?


Show answer

Answer

Forwards slash

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Question

What is the name of the punctuation in the word ‘Mother-in-law’?

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Answer

Hyphen

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Question

Proofreading helps us to avoid punctuation errors. True or false?

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Answer

True

Show question

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