Punctuation is the essence to the creating nuances in meaning. Punctuation creates clarity. Punctuation eradicates ambiguities. Effective punctuation is the secret to good writing (besides a vast vocabulary)

Lynne Truss concludes her marvellous (and amusing) book “Eats, Shoots And Leaves” as follows:

“We have a language that is full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and allusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking. If it goes, the degree of intellectual impoverishment we face is unimaginable

There is only one reason to use punctuation correctly – but it is a vitally important reason: to make oneself be understood with clarity. In speech, we have a variety of devices for clarifying our meaning: stress, intonation, rhythm, pauses, and hand or body movements. In text, we have only the words and the punctuation and poor punctuation enables the same words to have different or unclear meanings.

There are clear rules for the use of punctuation marks and they are not difficult to learn and to apply. Start here…

How to use the full stop

There are only two uses of the full stop:

  • to mark the end of a sentence expressing a statement (if you are unsure whether the words constitute a sentence, look for a verb which is an essential component of a sentence) Example: This is a sentence with the verb ‘is’.
  • to signify an acronym – [N.A.T.O. for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (although increasingly it is acceptable and even preferable not to use full stops in such cases)]

Note: A common mistake is to use a comma where a full stop should be used, as in the linking of statements or sentences.

How to use the question mark

There are only two uses of the question mark:

  • at the end of a direct question Example: Do you understand this rule?
  • to show that something is uncertain (when it should be inside round brackets or parentheses) Example: He was born in 1886(?) and died in 1942.

Note: A question mark should not be used at the end of an indirect question in which the speaker’s exact words are not repeated.

How to use the exclamation mark

There is only one use of the exclamation mark:

  • after an exclamation of surprise, shock or dismay, which is generally a short sentence or phrase expressing very strong feeling (especially one beginning with ‘What’ or ‘How’) Example: What a wonderful surprise!

Note: Exclamation marks should be used sparingly and usually not at all in formal writing.

How to use the comma

The comma is used very frequently and used incorrectly almost as frequently. There are, in fact, four distinct uses of the comma:

  • A listing comma is used as a kind of substitute for the word ‘and’ or sometimes for the word ‘or’ in a list when three or more words, phrases or even complete sentences are joined by the word ‘and’ or ‘or’. Example: The colours in the Union Jack flag are red, white and blue.
  • A joining comma is only slightly different from a listing comma and is used to join two complete sentences into a single sentence, when it must be used by one of the connecting words ‘and’, ‘or’, ‘nor’, ‘but’, ‘while’, ‘so’ and ‘yet’. Example: I could tell you the truth, but I will not.
  • The gapping comma is used to show that one or more words have been left out when the missing words would simply repeat the words already used in the same sentence. Example: Some English writers use punctuation correctly; others, not.
  • The bracketing comma always comes as a pair and is used to mark off a weak interruption of a sentence – that is, an interruption which does not disturb the smooth flow of the sentence and could be removed and still leave the sentence complete and making good sense. Example: This web site, I would suggest, contains much useful information and advice.

Note 1: One bracketing comma will suffice if the weak interruption comes at the beginning or the end of the sentence. Example: Although often wet, Britain has lots of sunshine. as opposed to Britain, although often wet, has lots of sunshine.

Note 2: The main purpose of punctuation is to aid understanding; a subsidiary purpose is to aid flow. Use joining commas and pairing commas where this aids understanding and/or flow. As a general rule the longer the sentence or the more complex the sentence, the greater the need for commas.

Note 3: When in doubt over where to use a comma, try reading the sentence out loud and, generally speaking, commas should be used where you pause for clarification or breath.

Note 4: There is some controversy over use of something called the serial or Oxford comma which is the last comma in this example: The colours in the Union Jack flag are red, white, and blue. Generally the serial comma is not used in Britain where it is regarded as unnecessary, but it is commonly used in the United States where it is thought helpful. My preference is to use a listing comma before ‘and’ or ‘or’ only when it is necessary to make the meaning clear.

How to use the colon

The colon has two uses:

  • to indicate that what follows it is an explanation or elaboration of what precedes it (the rule being that the more general statement is followed by a more specific one) Example: There is one challenge above all others: the alleviation of poverty.
  • to introduce a list Example: There are four nations in the United Kindom: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.]

Note: A colon is never preceded by a white space, but it is always followed by a white space and it is never followed by a hyphen or a dash.

How to use the semicolon

The semicolon has two similar major uses:

  • to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence when the two sentences are too closely related to be separately by a full stop and there is no connecting word which would require a comma such as ‘and’ or ‘but’ Example: It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.
  • to join two complete sentences into a single written sentence where the second sentence begins with a conjunctive adverb such as ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, ‘accordingly’, ‘consequently’, or ‘instead’ Example: I wanted to make my speech short; however, there was so much to cover.

Note: In these uses, the semicolon is stronger than a comma but less final than a full stop.

There is a minor use of the semicolon:

  • to separate items in a list when one or more of those items contains a comma Example: The speakers included: Tony Blair, the Prime Minister; Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer; and Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education & Skills.

How to use the apostrophe

The apostrophe is the most misused punctuation mark in the English language by far, but this should not be the case since there are only two major uses of the apostrophe:

  • to indicate a contraction which is a form of word in which one or more letters are omitted Example: it’s instead of it is or aren’t instead of are not
  • to indicate possession Example: Roger’s web site

Note 1: The first use of the apostrophe should usually be avoided in formal writing.

Note 2: The second use of the apostrophe involves placing the apostrophe at the end of the word when the word is plural and ends in’s’. Example:  workers’ rights.

Note 3: There are three very, very common misuses of the apostrophe.

  • The most frequent misuse is in writing plural forms, especially in signs and notices, but it is totally wrong to write pizza’s or CD’s or even in English English 1990’s (this is the usage in American English).
  • The second misuse, which is almost as common, is it’s instead of its to indicate possession Example: It’s wrong to hit its head.
  • The final misuse involves confusion between ‘who’s’ which is an abbreviation of ‘who is’ [the man who’s coming to visit] and ‘whose’ which shows possession Example: the man whose house is over there.

How to use the hyphen

There are two main uses of the hyphen:

  • in writing compound words that would be ambiguous, hard to read or excessively long Example: no-smoking sign and black-cab driver
  • to indicate that a long word has been broken off at the end of a line (however, this should be avoided if possible)

A minor use of the hyphen is:

  • to avoid what is called letter collision {de-ice or shell-like]

How to use the dash

The dash has only one major use:

  • to use in pairs to separate a strong interruption from the rest of the sentence (a strong interruption, as opposed to a weak interruption, is one which forcefully disrupts the flow of the sentence and, as such, it usually contains a verb rather simply being a phrase) Example: All nations desire economic growth – some even achieve it – but it is easier said than done.

Note: Only one dash is used if the strong interruption comes at the beginning or the end of the sentence. Example: We earnestly desire peace for all nations of the world – and we will work hard for it.

There are several minor uses of the dash:

  • to add emphasis or drama [He said that he would go – and he did.]
  • to indicate a range of numbers [900-1000]
  • to link two connected words [the Sydney-Melbourne train]

How to use quotation marks

There is only one use of quotation marks (or quotes, speech marks, or inverted commas, as they are often called):

  • to enclose a direct quotation [Hamlet’s most famous speech begins: “To be or not to be”.]

Note 1: Strictly speaking, the only punctuation marks that should go inside the quotation marks are those that are part of the quotation itself. Example: He screamed out “Help me!” and so I went to his aid.

Note 2: International practice varies on whether quotation marks should be double or single (I use double) but, when one has a quotation within a quotation, one uses the other type of quotation marks (in my case, single) Example: He told me: “Your use of the phrase ‘in this day and age’ is hackneyed”.

Note 3: There is a version of quotation marks known informally as scare quotes and these are used when the writer wishes to signify that the quoted word or words are odd or inappropriate or the writer wishes to express irony or even sarcasm. Example: Daniel was assured that he would be ‘safe’ in the lion’s den.

Note 4: One final use of quotation marks is when one is talking about a word or phrase when one normally uses single quotation marks. Example: Someone I know overuses the word ‘actually’.

How to use brackets

There is one major use of brackets (or round brackets, as they are often called, or parentheses.

  • to use in pairs to set off a strong or weak interruption, as with a pair of dashes or a pair of bracketed commas Example: I knew she loved me (I was not wrong) which is why I proposed.

Note: Round brackets are normally used instead of dashes or bracketed commas where the interruption is something of an aside from, or a supplement to, the main sentence.

There is a minor use of brackets:

  • to enclose an acronym after the acronym has been spelt out [European Union (EU)]

How to use square brackets

There are two uses of square brackets (which, confusingly, Americans call simply brackets):

  • to set off an interruption within a direct quotation Example: Churchill said of the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few [the Royal Air Force pilots]”.
  • to set off material which is extraneous to the main text, such as the examples of the usage of punctuation in this essay or comments in a draft document which are not intended to be in the final version

How to use the ellipsis

The ellipsis (…), sometimes called the suspension or omission marks, has three uses:

  • to show that some material has been omitted from a direct quotation Example: One of Churchill’s most famous speeches declaimed: “We shall fight them on the beaches … We shall never surrender”.
  • to indicate suspense Example: The winner is …
  • to show that a sentence has been left unfinished because it has simply trailed off Example: Watch this space …

Note: Technically there should be three dots in an ellipsis, but it is acceptable to have two at the beginning of a piece and four at the end.