So first things first. What is punctuation? What’s all the rage for? Is it really as necessary as people say it is? Well, it turns out, punctuating your writing is quite important. Without it, your proofreaders and editors are likely to descend into an eternal vortex of madness. You could be the world’s best writer, but if you don’t punctuate properly…well, let’s just say that you should just stick to saving trees instead. 

Punctuation comprise of a series/set of symbols commonly used in the English language that play an important role in separating parts of a sentence or sentences itself. Each type of punctuation mark plays a particular function in how they do that. It is how words jumbled up together make sense. They aid the reader in reading and interpreting the text correctly. Needless to say, a misplaced punctuation mark can make all the difference in the world.

A punctuation mark’s mission (should it be accepted), irrespective of where or how it is used, is the make the meaning of your sentence clearer. What this means for your writing is that you cannot insert a mark wherever and whenever you want to, simply because you want to. It is part of a standardized system of language that needs to be adhered to. 

The Simple Ones: How to Stop, Ask and Exclaim

Let’s get the most popular/useful ones out of the way. These three are the ones you’re most likely to use, irrespective of what you’re writing. 

Full Stops 

Full stops or periods (.), as they are known in American English, are perhaps the most well known and most commonly used of all the punctuation marks.

They have one main purpose. They mark the end of a statement sentence. 

For example: 

Al Pacino is considered to be one of the greatest actors of all time.

A minor usage of the full stop is to use it in abbreviations such as Ms. for Miss and Dr. for Doctor.

Pretty straightforward, no?

 

Question Marks 

Question marks (?) are also a common type of punctuation. They are usually used at the end of direct questions. 

Why is Al Pacino considered one of the greatest actors of all time?

Question marks can also be used within quotation marks, when the sentence inside it (ya guessed it!) is a question. Like this: 

Last week, I asked Mandy, “What is your favourite film starring Al Pacino?”

You with me so far?

 

Exclamation Marks 

You’ve definitely seen these! To be fair, they can be quite hard to miss. They’re aptly called exclamation marks (!), but you can also call them exclamation points, bangs or shrieks if that suits your fancy. 

An exclamation mark is generally used to suggest an element of surprise or excitement in your writing. These are super fun to use, and make your writing sound peppy…but like most good things in life, exclamation points are not the best in large doses. Never use more than one unless absolutely necessary. Oh, and don’t ever, ever use them in formal writing. 

Al Pacino is a wonderfully expressive actor!

It’s that simple. 

 

The Gargantuan World of Commas 

Now, here’s when it begins to get tricky. Commas may often put you in a bit of a muddle, but just a little bit of caution will make your life a whole lot easier. 

A comma (,) is a punctuation mark that can be used in many capacities. To tell you succinctly, before delving deeper, commas are generally used to separate parts of a sentence. Contrary to popular belief, you can’t just insert them wherever you think there should be a pause in your sentence. Since the whole idea of punctuation is to place them within a standardized context, how you place them is of utmost importance. Below, I have listed four situations in which commas make your writing much stronger.

 

1/ Bracketing commas:

They are the most frequently used type of commas. A pair of bracketing commas are often used for an interruption within a sentence. The words you want to separate are bracketed within the two commas (hence the name). This means that you can remove that part of the sentence from the whole sentence without destroying it. 

Al Pacino, who was born in 1940, is considered to be one of the greatest actors of all time. 

See how “who was born in 1940” is enclosed between two brackets? It’s additional information that could be important to know about Al Pacino, but it is not directly related to the main purpose of the sentence – which is about how he is a great actor. 

You can also write a sentence with one bracketing comma, if the interruption comes at the beginning or the end of the sentence. 

Like this: Born in 1940, Al Pacino is considered to be one of the greatest actors of all time.  

Bracketing commas are also known as isolating commas.

 

2/ Listing comma: 

Another way to use commas is when you list things out in a sentence. A listing comma, in this type of a situation, is used instead of and or or. It’s only used in sentences that are listing three or more things, otherwise your sentence will look rather clunky.  

The Godfather and Dog Day Afternoon and Scarface and Heat are some of my favourite films. 

While this sentence isn’t really incorrect (other than the crowded usage of words, of course), your sentence will sound infinitely better with the usage of a listing comma. 

So instead, you should say:

The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon, Scarface and Heat are some of my favourite films.

 

3/ Joining comma: 

A joining comma is used to merge two complete sentences into one. But why, you ask? What is the point of joining two sentences that are already perfectly meaningful by themselves? That’s a great question. See, sometimes sentences can be closely related to each other in such a way that making them in to two sentences will make them sound rather bland. For these types of situations, a joining comma would be apt to give your work the depth and feeling it deserves. 

The comma must be followed up with one of the following five words: and, but, while, or, yet. 

Al Pacino was nominated for seven Academy Awards. The only time he won was in 1993 for The Scent of a Woman.

Sounds a bit plain, doesn’t it? The same thing would sound much better if you wrote it something like this:

Al Pacino was nominated for seven Academy Awards, but the only time he won was in 1993 for The Scent of a Woman.

Much better, right?

 

4/ Gapping comma: 

Last, but certainly not the least, a gapping comma is used to replace a word or a phrase that was already in the sentence previously. This is an alternative to repeating the same word or phrase twice.  As an example, rather than saying: 

Al Pacino’s most famous role was as Michael Corleone in The Godfather, and Robert de Niro’s most famous role was as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. 

You might want to say: 

Al Pacino’s most famous role was as Michael Corleone in The Godfather; Robert de Niro’s, as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. 

In this example, a gapping comma is used to replace the phrase, “most famous role was”, which would have otherwise appeared twice in the same sentence. 

 

Colons and Semicolons 

Here comes the fun stuff. A knowledge of these marks may seem pointless, but believe me when I tell you that they do your writing wonders!

The use of a colon (:) in the English language has one and only one major use: it elaborates whatever was preceding it. (See what I did there?) While the first half of your sentence is more general, the second half is more specific. 

Paramount Pictures did not want to cast Al Pacino in The Godfather: the studio had been going through losses. 

You can do the opposite as well (specific: general) but it’s rarer. Another thing you need to remember: do not follow a colon up with a hyphen or dash with a white space. If school taught you that, then that was another occasion when school was just wrong.

 

A semicolon (;) is also used in a similar context of joining two closely related sentences. Usually the lesser used of the two, they can be used like this: 

Paramount Pictures did not want to cast Al Pacino in The Godfather; but the director of the film was adamant in his faith in the young actor. 

 

Pretty clear, right? But in case you’ve hit a snag, there’s an easy way to remember the difference between the two. Colons are used when you want to convey a cause-effect relationship in your sentence. B happens because of A. The studio did not want to hire an unknown actor like Pacino because they were going through losses. Semicolons, on the other hand, convey a more symbiotic – or two way – relationship. In other words, the sentence would work just as well if you switched the order. 

 

Apostrophe

Apostrophes are so widely despised that even linguists have argued to do away with it altogether! Apostrophes are truly an enigma. Despite not being the vogue though, they are used for two purposes: for contractions and possessives

Apostrophes are used to indicate things that are possessed by the subject(s) of a sentence. 

The hat of Daisy was blue.
The hat belonging to Daisy was blue.

Daisy’s hat was blue. 

An apostrophe mark, followed by an “s” is used for the possessor in the sentence. The sentence describes the hat of Daisy. So the apostrophe goes like this: Daisy’s hat. 

There’s no doubt that the first two sentences conveys what it wants to, but you have to admit, it sounds unnecessarily convoluted. The apostrophe makes the sentence much cleaner. 

Apostrophes are also used in contractions. You’ve definitely seen these around, and probably wondered how on earth you should place an apostrophe in the middle of a word! The thing is, it’s not all that hard. When used in contractions, an apostrophe mark is placed wherever letter have been omitted. 

For example, “should not”, “could not”, “can not” and “will not”
become “shouldn’t”, “couldn’t”, “can’t” and “won’t” as contractions. 

 

Ellipsis

An ellipsis is judiciously used, when used as a punctuation mark. An ellipsis is written out with three full stops. No more, no less. It can add finesse to your writing but, like commas, look terrible when overused.  

An ellipsis can be used in one of two situations. 

Uno. When you want to give your sentence an effect of suspension or when trailing it off. It doesn’t do much to clarify meaning, but it adds a wonderful, dreamy element to your work: 

She knew that going to Spain to meet her friends would be a once in a lifetime experience. If only she had booked tickets on time…

Dos. This reason to use an ellipsis is much less common, and is generally used while quoting long passages (so as to omit the excerpts you don’t need) in academic work. For example, I have quoted this paper in a concise way: 

A lot of musicians still find inspiration in the Beatles’ songs….they are still very famous and allusions to their work, lives etc can be found almost everywhere. (pg 37)

 

Quotation Marks

Okay, there are two types of quotation marks (aka inverted commas): the single quotes (‘’) and the double quotes (“”). You can easily find them on your keyboard next to the “Enter” button. There’s not much of a difference in how they are used in grammar, but there are slight variations to notes if you are writing in a specific style of English. 

When writing in British English, single quotes are used to encapsulate direct quotes, and double quotes are used when you are quoting something within the existing quote. 

Lisa said, ‘I am going to see “Scarface” in the cinema hall tomorrow.’

When adhering to rules of American English, the opposite is generally followed. So the same sentence will look like this: 

Lisa said, “I am going to see ‘Scarface’ in the cinema hall tomorrow.”

 

There’s also something called scare quotes. These are used in specific contexts, generally when using words or phrases that are not universal. They may be specific to the situation, or even the person using them. Sometimes, they are also used to express irony or sarcasm (like air quotes with your fingers). 

JK refers to detergent as “laundry sauce”, much to everyone’s amusement. 

 

Brackets

There are two types of brackets that are commonly regarded as punctuation marks in English: round brackets or parentheses () and square brackets []

Round brackets are always used in pairs and encapsulate an interruption within a sentence. 

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was born in Kentucky. 

A square bracket is usually used to encapsulate an interruption within direct quotes. 

“[Don Corleone is] going to make an offer he can’t refuse” – The Godfather (1972)

 

Dashes and Hyphens 

I know what you’re thinking. Why have so many dashes, and how do you differentiate them? Just hang in there a sec. Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way. 

A hyphen (-) can be found between the “0” and “=” keys on any keyboard (the bottom half). It can be used for many purposes, although it mainly used to create compound words. 

For instance: time-table, long-term, mother-in-law

 

Aside from hyphens, dashes are also used to punctuate your prose. There are two kinds: the em dash (—) and the en dash (–). They are so named, since each dash is as long as the width of the capital letter they are named after. 

The em dash is often used instead of commas and parentheses if they are used to encapsulate interruptions in a sentence – sometimes even instead of colons (like in this sentence!). 

Al Pacino – who was born in 1940 – is considered to be one of the greatest actors of all time.

The en dash is used while writing out ranges of numbers and scores. 

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was born in Kentucky. 

Argentina won against Brazil 4-0 in last year’s World Cup. 

 

Slashes (the bonus!)

Although not considered officially as part of the 14 punctuation marks of the English language, let’s give a moment to the immensely useful slash. It may not feature heavily in your work, but has many minor functions nonetheless. Many abbreviations and shorthands – like and, per and the latin word cum – can be easily replaced with a slash to provide ease for writing (not to mention reading).

 

 

Okay. Now that we are done (more or less, but YOUR journey’s just begun), some final notes

  1. Do not follow punctuation (except colons and semicolons) with a white space. Ever. That’s just a no-no. 
  2. Always remember that punctuation is used only when necessary (esp. commas), since the ultimate goal of ANY punctuation mark is to make the meaning of your sentences clearer. 
  3. So, don’t overuse punctuation.

As a fun exercise, you could even see how we’ve used punctuation to make this article more lively. If you liked it, let us know! 

Fun resources for further reading: 

  1. RL Trask’s The Penguin Guide to Punctuation
  2. Wren and Martin English Grammar and Composition
  3. The Punctuation Guide