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Punctuation in English

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Punctuation in English

 How 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 below.
   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 (GB) or period (USA)  is used to separate sentences.  In this case, it must be followed by a capital letter.
  • It is also traditionally used at the end of shortened titles, such as Capt. , Prof.  Lt. (Lieutenant) , Cllr. (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,
  • Peter arrived in Singapore in January 1966, on his twenty-second birthday. Less than a year later, he had married the boss's daughter Yi Ling.
  • I'd 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. 

The colon

  • 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.

The semi-colon

  • 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.
  • I 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.
  • The students, who'd been there for three days, were sleeping in tents; as for the medical staff, they had a bungalow to sleep in.
  • I'd been to England, Scotland, and Wales, which I particularly enjoyed; and also to France, Spain, and Portugal.

The comma

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:
  1. Commas are required with non-defining relative clauses (but not with defining relative clauses).
  2. Commas (or semi-colons) are needed to separate contrasting parts of a sentence, including two short main clauses.
  3. Commas are recommended in all but very short lists; sometimes they are essential, as in example 3b below, which is incomprehensible without them.
  4. Commas are required at the end of quoted direct speech, when this is followed by words like  he said, they told us or  said the President.
Examples :

1a.  Elton John, who is a great painist, is a campaigner for gay rights.

1b.  Scotch Whisky, which has to be imported, is popular in Brazil

2.    Peter was just getting out of bed, but his wife Mary was already washed dressed and in the car.

3a.   Would you please bring me three apples, two bananas, a pear, and a carrot.

3b.   You can choose different 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.

4b.   "I don't know what you are talking about," answered Jennifer.

Capital letters

Capital letters are required in a number of different situations:
  1. 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 usually French)
  2. Capitals must also be used for titles, whether we are talking about human titles (such as General, Prince, etc.), or the titles of books, films etc.
  3. Capitals must be used when writing days of the week, months of the year, but not for the names of the seasons..
  4. Capitals must be used throughout initials or acronyms 
  5. And finally, of course, every new sentence must start with a capital letter

  1. My Dutch friend from Amsterdam speaks good English, and he loves Italian pasta and German beer; but he never eats potatoes, not even french fries.
  2. General Eisenhower became President of the United States; one of his favourite books was a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
  3. The campsite is open in the summer months of July and August, and in autumn until the last Sunday in October.
  4. The United Nations has several subsidiary organisations, including UNICEF and UNESCO.
  5. Each new sentence must start with a capital. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Other marks of punctuation

Quotation marks

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

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 marks

Exclamation 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.

Hyphens 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.
"Help !"
Nothing quite so exciting has ever been done before !
There are three large strange animals  –  no-one knows exactly what they are – that are sometimes seen on the moor at night.
It was a heart-breaking story about a used-car salesman and his daughter-in-law.


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► Go to  English grammar index
Selected main grammar pages
Verbs: the present tense
Verbs : the future
Past tenses
Phrasal & prepositional verbs
Gerunds, participles and -ing forms
The infinitive
Irregular verb tables
Nouns, pronouns, adjectives
Noun phrases
Adjective order in English
The possessive
Sentences & clauses
Relative clauses in English
Conditional clauses in English
Word order in English
Reported questions in English
Language and style 
Word stress in English
The short story of English
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Crosswords and word games

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