Language makes it possible for us to communicate effectively. But poor grammar can completely lose everything you are trying to say. Marks of punctuation are one of the most important aspects of written English, but it’s often taken lightly. This feature of writing not only gives meaning to the written words, it indicates pauses and changes in tones of the voice when speaking. A mistake in punctuation can express a completely different meaning to the one that is intended.
Full stops (.)
Full stops are generally used to mark the end of a sentence that is a complete statement, such as:
She is reading in her room.
Please close the door on your way out.
Full stops are also used for abbreviations:
Question marks (?) and exclamation marks (!)
Use question marks (?) to indicate that what is said is a question. When we use a question mark, we don’t use a full stop:
How was your day?
Did you receive my parcel today?
Use exclamation marks (!) to express excitement, surprise, astonishment, or any other strong emotion. In informal writing, many people use more than one exclamation mark to emphasise their excitement. Some also choose to include exclamation points with question marks to express shock, protest or dismay:
No way! This behaviour is not acceptable at all.
“Get out of my house!” Steven yelled
How did you forget the concert tickets?!?!
Use commas to separate a list of similar words or phrases:
We adore Emma because she is kind, loving and responsible.
Daisy was more open, more willing to share her feelings with us this time.
A comma isn’t commonly used before “and” at the end of a list of single words:
We visited Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore this month.
A comma is commonly used in list before “and” in American English:
We brought bread, butter, and jam for everyone.
Commas are used to separate words or phrases that indicate where the one would pause slightly:
James, the math teacher, got married this morning.
They are, in reality, very inconsiderate people.
If the clauses have the same subject, a comma isn’t commonly used when main clauses are separated by and, or, but. However, commas are normally used if the clauses have different subjects:
Danny is teaching English and learning Chinese in China. (same subject)
Doctors make a healthy living but health care reform and efforts to control medical costs are affecting the way they do business. (same subject)
Lydia wants to live in Sydney, but she decided work prospects are better in Melbourne. (different subjects)
When a subordinate clause comes before the main clause, it’s common to use a comma to separate the clauses. However, it’s not always done in short sentences:
If you want to update the company website, please feel free to email or phone me.
If you want the website updated just call us.
Use subordinate or non-finite comment clauses to give further details or more information, it is common to use commas to separate the clauses:
In my honest opinion, their performance was extremely good.
You do need more exercise, if I may say so.
Commas and relative clauses: Commas are used to mark non-defining clauses. Such clauses normally add extra, non-essential information about the noun or noun phrase:
Her aunt, who arrived one hour late, was the first person to get on the dance floor.
Bathurst, the city where I lived throughout my childhood, is home to many of my friends.
Commas are not used to mark defining clauses:
Blackburn is the eastern suburb that has been selected for the Eastern District Junior Basketball tournament.
Commas and speech forms: Normally tags and yes-no responses are separated with commas:
You are attending Joanne’s wedding, aren’t you?
Yes, please. I would love another slice of the cheese cake.
Commas are used to show that direct speech is following or has just occurred:
He declared to everyone, “I am getting married.”
When the direct speech is first, use a comma before the closing of the quotation marks:
“Please make sure this doesn’t happen again,” he said sternly.
Colons (:) and semi-colons (;)
Use colons to introduce lists:
He wanted to see three cities in Malaysia: Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Ipoh.
Use colons to indicate a subtitle or to indicate a subdivision of a topic:
The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century
Colons are normally used to introduce direct speech:
She kept repeating: “I really want that car!”
A colon is normally used between sentences when the second sentence explains or justifies the first sentence:
The town reminded me of my childhood vacations: both were on the beach.
Semi-colons are not commonly used in contemporary English. Full stops and commas are more common. Semi-colons are used instead of full stops to separate two main clauses. In such cases, the clauses are related in meaning but are separated grammatically:
I had a huge meal; however, I am already hungry again.
Quotation marks (‘…’ or “…”)
Quotation marks in English are ‘…’ or “…”. In direct speech, what is said is enclosed within a pair of single or double quotation marks, although single quotation marks are becoming more common. Direct speech begins with a capital letter and can be preceded by a comma or a colon:
The king shouted, “Let the games begin!”
The reporting clause can be placed in three different positions. Note the position of commas and full stops here:
My mother always said, “A penny saved is a penny earned.” (quotation mark after comma introducing speech and after full stop)
“I hope you will be here,” he said. (comma before closing quotation mark)
“What would you do,” I asked, “if money didn’t matter?” (commas separating the reporting clause)
Question marks are commonly used inside the quotation marks unless the question is part of the reporting clause:
“Do you know where the toilet is?” she asked.
Did the manager just announce “Tomorrow is a company holiday”?
A single quotation mark is used to draw attention to a word. Quotation marks can be used in this way when we want to question the exact meaning of the word:
I am not happy with his ‘explanation’. It doesn’t make sense.
Articles or chapters within books, or titles of short stories, are normally punctuated by single quotation marks:
The most popular song voted by her fans is called ‘Love Galore’.
Dashes (–) and other punctuation marks
Dashes are more common in informal writing. They can be used in similar ways to commas or semi-colons. Both single and multiple dashes may be used:
All of my work—articles, videos, photos, blogs—got wiped away when my computer crashed.
My mum – who often gets upset when I bring my boyfriend home – wasn’t concerned at all. I could not believe it!
Want to learn about commonly confused words?
In written English, it is important to know the correct spelling of a word you want to use. You don’t want to write “weak” when you mean “week” even though they sound the same. In spoken English, spelling is less important, but pronunciation is. Think about the word “lead” which can be pronounced as “led” or “leed.” Because these words cause a lot of confusion, it’s well worth to spend a few minutes to know the difference: homophones vs homographs vs homonyms.
People often use elude when they mean allude, or write allude when they should really write elude. There are other commonly confused words too: Do you know the difference between belief or believe? That is the question of another article where we explain the difference between these two commonly misused words: Check out Belief vs believe.