Punctuation – how to use it correctly

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Punctuation – definition

punctuation in english Punctuation in English language is used in writing to show the stress, ryhthm, and tone of the spoken word.

redbtn It is also used to clarify the meaning of sentences.


redbtn There are four common marks of punctuation:

redbtn These represent pauses of increasing length in a sentence.

comma [ , ]     semicolon [ ; ]

colon [ : ]     full stop [ . ]


redbtn The following paragraph uses all the four common marks of punctation.

Punctuation should always be used lightly, even sparingly, and as accurately as possible. You will discover through practice that there are three basic rules: the comma, semicolon, and colon mark increasingly long pauses; full stops are used to separate distinct sentences; and a new paragraph should always
be employed to begin a new topic or point of argument.

redbtn NB! ‘Punctuation’ in speech is produced by tone, rhythm, stress, and intonation.

redbtn The four most common marks of punctuation are dealt with in detail in their own sections:

commas – semicolons – colons – full stops

redbtn The other common marks of punctuation are described below:

bracketsexclamation mark

dashoblique stroke

hyphenquestion mark

redbtn Some miscellaneous remarks on punctuation.

redbtn Brackets (these) are used to insert a remark (like this, for instance) or a qualification of some sort into a sentence.

redbtn Take care! If they are used too frequently they create a choppy, unsettling effect.

redbtn Full details in the section on brackets.

redbtn The dash () is used to indicate a sudden change of thought, an additional comment, or a dramatic qualification.

That was the end of the matter — or so we thought.

redbtn Dashes can also be used in pairs to insert a comment or a short list:

Everything — furniture, paintings, and books — survived the fire.

redbtn They should not be used as a substitute for brackets, or mixed with them.

redbtn The dash is not the same thing as the hyphen (which is shorter) but this distinction is rarely made in the UK.

redbtn The exclamation mark (!) indicates surprise, anger, or alarm.

What a mess!
Get out of this house at once!
The ship is sinking! Jump in the lifeboat!

redbtn Exclamation marks should be used with restraint. The more frequently they occur, the weaker becomes their effect.

redbtn The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once remarked that using an exclamation mark was rather like laughing at your own jokes.

redbtn The question mark [?] is used to show that a question has been raised.

redbtn The question mark is always placed at the end of the sentence.

redbtn The following examples are questions:

What are you going to do?
How much is that doggy in the window?
Why is that woman staring at us?

redbtn Since the question mark is placed at the end of a sentence, no full stop is required. [If you look closely, you will see that the question mark (like the exclamation mark) contains its own full stop.]

redbtn The following are not questions.

He wondered what to do next.
She asked herself the same question.
What will happen to them is a mystery.

redbtn The hyphen [ ] is a short dash used to connect (parts of) words.

redbtn These might be prefixes:

re-enter         co-operate         pre-enrol

redbtn They can be compound adjectives:

multi-storey car park        extra-marital sex

redbtn They can be used when when forming compounds such as

son-in-law        couldn’t-care-less

redbtn The oblique stroke [ / ] is sometimes used to separate items in a list:

oil/water mix Kent/Surrey boundary
italic/Roman type 1972/73

redbtn It should not be used as a substitute for words such as and, plus, and or.

redbtn Try to avoid the either/or construction and such lazy (and ugly) compounds as this:

‘it will help to create an entire social/sexual/ideological system’.

redbtn The oblique stroke might be useful when taking notes, but it should be avoided in formal writing for the sake of elegance.

redbtn Miscellaneous remarks on punctuation.

redbtn Many aspects of punctuation are ultimately a matter of personal preference and literary style.

redbtn The general tendency in most public writing today is to minimise the amount of punctuation used.

redbtn There are also minor differences in practice between the UK and the USA.

redbtn The suggestions made above are based generally on conventions in the UK.

redbtn Double punctuation [“What’s the matter!?”] is rarely used, except in very informal writing such as personal letters or diaries.

redbtn The combination of colon-plus-dash [: — ] is never necessary. Some people use this [it’s called ‘the pointer’] to indicate that a list will follow, but the colon alone should be sufficient.

redbtn The importance of punctuation can be illustrated by comparing the two following letters. In both cases, the text is the same. It’s the punctuation which makes all the difference!

Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy — will you let me be yours?


Dear John:

I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

Yours, Gloria

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2003

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4 Responses to “Punctuation – how to use it correctly”

  1. Dr Teresa Stone says:

    Splendid UK site — useful and funny. I’ve given Steve the website, but it would be well worth $4.95 to subscribe — I am. Neophytes too?

  2. mantex says:

    Many thanks for the kind words Teresa. But you don’t need to pay to subscribe here – it’s FREE!

  3. Karl says:

    When I was in junior high school in the early 1960s we were taught to use the colon-plus-dash in cases of nesting. E.g. normally a subtitle in a book title is preceded by a colon, but if the subtitle itself has a sub-subtitle, then the sub-subtitle is preceded by a colon and the subtitle by a colon-plus-dash.

  4. Roy Johnson says:

    Well Karl, a sub-title within a sub-title is pretty complicated – so anything that helped to make a visual distinction would be welcome. But normally, the colon-plus-dash is used (unnecessarily) before a list. The colon alone should be all that’s required.

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