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Punctuation is used to make writing clearer and to enhance meaning. Punctuation styles can differ between individuals but there are set rules that you can follow. If you are ever in any doubt, a useful tip is to read your work out loud; you will quickly notice if any punctuation is out of place. Punctuation is an important aspect of English to master; if used incorrectly, then the meaning of an entire sentence and even a paragraph can become ambiguous or, in some cases, the intended meaning could be completely altered.

Punctuation marks

Full Stop (.) 

A full stop is used to signal the end of a sentence. For example:

  • Sophie went to bed.
  • It is supposed to snow on Tuesday. I hope we have a white Christmas this year.

It can also be used at the end of an abbreviated word or name. For example:

  • ‘Ltd.’ for Limited
  • ‘Co.’ for Company
  • ‘Sgt.’ For Sergeant

Comma (,)

The comma is a useful punctuation mark that has multiple functions:

  • It is used to signal a short pause but not the end of a sentence: ‘When she was younger, she believed in mermaids.’
  • It is also used to separate items in a list: ‘milk, bread, eggs, butter, sugar and coffee’. Notice how the last item on the list does not need a comma and instead we put in its place the coordinating conjunction ‘and’.
  • When people are addressed by name or title: ‘Is that right, sir?’ and ‘Sammy, what would you like for tea?’
  • Parenthesis, which translates to ‘an insertion besides’. A parenthetical statement is used to set apart supplementary information that doesn’t extract meaning from the main clause: ‘I spoke to Bill the other day, the man that works in the butchers, and he told me that him and his wife have just had another baby.’ The parenthesis in this example is ‘the man that works in the butchers’ because it does not extract any meaning from the main clause or the subordinate clause

Colon (:)

The colon has been used on multiple occasions and for a variety of reasons throughout this course. A general definition of a colon is it is an ‘introducer’. It is used as an introducer for several different reasons in the English language:

  • To introduce a list, question, quotation, direct speech or subtitle of a text: ‘Shakespeare wrote: “to be or not to be – that is the question”’ (quotation); ‘you will need: milk, bread, eggs, butter, sugar and coffee’ (list).
  • To link and emphasise contrasting or similar statements: ‘The world’s a stage: make sure you play your role well.’
  • To provide further explanation: ‘There are three reasons why I do not like going on holiday, namely: the stress of going through airport security, other tourists always bumping into you, and when leaving, never being able to properly close your suitcase like you could at the start of the holiday.’

Semicolon (;)

The semicolon is used to link sentences that are similar in thought. The pause of a semicolon is longer than a comma’s but shorter than a full stop’s. Occasionally, it will be followed by a conjunction. Below are some examples:

  • ‘It was raining this morning; however, the sun came out by noon.’
  • ‘I didn’t want to go home; I had so much fun on the holiday.’

Question Mark (?)

As the name suggests, a question mark is used to follow a question. For example:

  • Would you like a receipt for your order?
  • What did you say?

Exclamation Mark (!)

The exclamation mark is used to indicate a number of things. For example:

  • To show surprise: ‘That’s amazing!’
  • To add emphasis: ‘I will not speak to him again!’
  • When giving an order: ‘Come and eat your tea!’
  • To indicate humour or sarcasm. In writing, it can be difficult to indicate if a statement is sarcasm as we are unable to hear any of the verbal cues; therefore, the exclamation mark works well as a substitute for this. For example: ‘You don’t say!’ is a form of sarcasm that might be used if someone has said something really obvious (try not to use this punctuation mark too often as it can quickly lose its effectiveness if you do).

Individual uses of this technique are called ‘exclamatives’; for example, referring to the sentence ‘I will not speak to him again!’ instead of saying it has an exclamation mark you would say ‘it is an exclamative’.

Dashes (–  –)

Just like commas and brackets, dashes can also be used to parenthesise certain statements. For example:

  • ‘I spoke to Bill the other day – the man that works in the butchers – and he told me that him and his wife have just had another baby.’

It can also be used when adding further explanation to something, perhaps of a title:

  • ‘World War II – World War II began in 1939 and did not end until 1945. ….’

Brackets ( )

Brackets are also used to indicate parentheses instead of commas. For example:

  • spoke to Bill the other day (the man that works in the butchers) and he told me that him and his wife have just had another baby.’

Apostrophe (’)

An apostrophe has two main purposes:

  • To indicate the contraction of a letter or word and to take its place. For example, we often write ‘you’re’ for you are; ‘it’s’ for it is; ‘they’ll’ for they will.
  • To indicate possession or connection. For example, ‘That is Karen’s car.’ However, when we use certain pronouns we do not indicate possession with an apostrophe: ‘his’, ‘hers’, ‘its’, ‘ours’, ‘yours’, ‘theirs’.

In your exam, the examiner will prefer if, in your own writing, you do not use an apostrophe for contraction. Always try and use the standard form of English. For example, do not change ‘it is’ to ‘it’s’ or ‘they will’ to ‘they’ll’ etc. Only use contraction in the exam if it is related to the question. For example, if you get asked to write a letter to a friend then you may be required to write more informally, therefore using apostrophes for contraction will be appropriate. However, if the question asks you to write in a formal manner, say a letter to a company or an article, then use Standard English and no apostrophes for contraction.

Hyphen (-)

A hyphen looks similar to a dash and has two functions:

  • It is used to connect words. For example, ‘accident-prone’, ‘great-grandma’, ‘quick-thinking’.
  • When writing a paragraph, a word may not fit onto the same line, a hyphen will then be used to connect the word to the following line. For example,
    ‘She carried all her holiday luggage in one of those trolleys as it was too hea-vy.’

Quotation Marks (“ ”)     

Like the name suggests, quotation marks are commonly used to indicate words that have been spoken; either from a conversation, or quoting a specific passage/sentence from any form of writing or speech:

  • “Don’t go in there,” he told me.

Although the double quotation mark (see example above) is common in indicating speech, some writers prefer to use the single quotation mark, especially in narrative writing (more about narrative writing in Unit 4 of this course). For example:

  • “Don’t go in there,” he told me.
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