to make best use of punctuation when writing in English
Punctuation is an
essential aspect of written communiction in all European languages.
Most languages use the same signs and conventions; and while these are
used in the same general manner in all languages, they are not used in
exactly the same way in all languages. Without punctuation, most texts
in written English would be impossible or very hard to understand.
In English there is a certain flexibility over punctuation; and
British and American conventions are not identical. Nevertheless there
are some clear rules that must be followed, either because they are the
accepted norm, or because they help to avoid ambiguity or just make a
sentence comprehensible. One classic example shows this conclusively! "Let's eat, Grandma!" does not mean the same as "Let's eat Grandma."
The main rules and conventions are listed
Punctuation in written language corresponds to pauses and intonation in spoken language.
1. Different types of punctuation
Punctuation is mostly made up of
signs , but is also marked by spaces, line-breaks and the
capitalisation of some words.
A list of the main punctuation
elements in English
Use of paragraphs
The use of paragraphs
is one of the most widely ignored rules of good writing,
notably by students writing dissertations or essays !
Paragraphs divide a long block or text into
manageable units. There is no hard and fast rule about when to start a
new paragraph; but there are some conventions to follow.
- Avoid having more than five sentences in a single paragraph. Three-sentence paragraphs are just fine.
- Start a new paragraph when you move to a new idea or
a new topic.
- A paragraph can contain just a single sentence. This
is often the case in journalistic style, when writers are trying to
express ideas simply and bluntly.
The full stop or period
- The full stop or period is used to separate
sentences. In this case, it must be followed by a capital
- It is also traditionally used at the end of shortened titles, such
as Capt. , Prof. Lt. (Lieutenant) ,
(Councillor) etc. ; but it is often omitted in British English with Mr (or Mr.)
(never write Mister
in full ) or Mrs (or Mrs.)., and never used after Miss.
- It is used at the end of common abbreviations, such as Mon. (for Monday) or etc. (for etcetera).
- It is not required, though occasionally used, for writing acronyms or initials, such as NATO, UNESCO, the UK, the FBI,
Singapore in January 1966, on his twenty-second birthday. Less than a
year later, he had married the boss's daughter Yi Ling.
like you to meet Mr Mark Porter, Miss Elizabeth Taylor, Capt.
Eliot Saunders and his wife Mrs Saunders.
- I began teaching at UCLA on Mon. 29th Aug. 2012, after five years with UNICEF.
- Colons are used to separate (a) two main clauses,
or (b) a main clause and
a phrase, when the second clause or phrase provides an
example or an illustration of what is said in the first clause.
- I told
him what he
ought to do: he should tell her at once that he'd lost his job.
- I only like three sorts of
fruit: apples, pears and bananas.
- Semi-colons are used to separate two long main clauses,
when they both have the same subject, and/or are both part of a single
topic or idea; they are particularly used when the second clause starts
with a conjunction.
- Semi-colons are also used as a kind of "super comma", in
sentences which have a number of commas, and where one or two breaks
need more emphasis than others.
had seen lions and rhinoceros in the zoo, most recently at
Whipsnade zoo, which is near London; but I'd never before seen them in
the wild in their natural environment.
students, who'd been there for three days, were sleeping in tents;
as for the medical staff, they had a bungalow to sleep in.
been to England, Scotland, and Wales, which I particularly enjoyed;
and also to France, Spain, and Portugal.
Commas are principally used to separate
clauses, to put words into
relief in a sentence, or to separate elements in a list.
Often the use of commas can be a matter of personal taste or style;
however some commas are essential:
- Commas are required with non-defining relative clauses (but not with defining relative clauses).
- Commas (or semi-colons) are needed to separate
contrasting parts of a sentence, including two short main clauses.
- Commas are recommended in all but very short lists;
sometimes they are essential, as in example 3b below, which is
incomprehensible without them.
- Commas are required at the end of quoted direct
speech, when this is followed by words like he said, they told us or
John, who is a great painist, is a campaigner for gay rights.
Scotch Whisky, which has to be
imported, is popular in Brazil
was just getting out of bed, but his wife Mary was already washed
dressed and in the car.
you please bring me three apples, two bananas, a pear, and a carrot.
3b. You can choose
colour-schemes, including black and white, pink and purple, bright
orange, and yellow and green.
4a. "I'm a
hundred and one years old," the old man said.
"I don't know what you are talking about," answered Jennifer.
Capital letters are required in a number of different situations:
- All proper
nouns (names), and adjectives
formed from proper nouns,
must be capitalized, unless the semantic connection between the
adjective and the noun has been lost (as in french fries, which are not
- Capitals must also be used for titles, whether we
are talking about
human titles (such as General, Prince, etc.), or the titles of books,
- Capitals must be used when writing days of the week, months of the
year, but not for the names of the seasons..
- Capitals must be used throughout initials or acronyms
- And finally, of course, every new sentence must
start with a capital
Dutch friend from Amsterdam speaks good English, and he loves Italian
pasta and German beer; but he never eats potatoes, not even french
Eisenhower became President of the United States; one of his favourite
books was a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
campsite is open in the summer months of July and August, and in autumn
until the last Sunday in October.
United Nations has several subsidiary organisations, including UNICEF
new sentence must start with a capital. There are no exceptions to this
Other marks of punctuation
Quotation marks are required at the start and at the finish of all
direct speech, even after a short interruption by a dialogue tag like he said.
Question marks are required at the end of all direct questions, but are
not necessary, and often considered wrong, at the end of indirect questions.
Exclamation marksExclamation marks can replace full stops at the end
of a sentence, to
express surprise. Do not over-use them, as this is bad style.
Other punctuation marks
Long dashes can be used, rather like brackets, to put part of a
sentence into parentheses, specially if alternative forms of
punctuation could lead to ambiguity.
are used to form common compound nouns or adjectives, or
else to clarify the relationship between words in a noun group.
While some common compound words are always hyphenated, in many cases
it will be a matter of personal choice. For more details see Using hyphens in English
"I was in the garden," he said, "but I didn't see anything."
"Are you sure?" asked the policeman.
The policeman asked if he was sure.
Nothing quite so exciting has ever been done before !
are three large strange animals – no-one knows
exactly what they are – that are sometimes seen on the moor at
It was a heart-breaking story about a used-car salesman and his daughter-in-law.
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