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The purpose of punctuation is to clarify meaning and make a piece of writing easier to read. Correct punctuation can eliminate ambiguity and other confusion. The art of punctuation boils down to putting the right punctuation mark in the right place. There are two broad types of punctuation: word punctuation and sentence punctuation. Word punctuation includes the apostrophe and the hyphen. Sentence punctuation consists of all the other marks: brackets, bullet points, colon, comma, dashes, ellipsis points, exclamation mark, full stop (or period), question mark, quotation marks, semicolon and slash. Let’s look at word punctuation first.
An apostrophe is used to show possession. Add an apostrophe and an “s” to a singular noun to indicate possession, for example, the department’s policy, a week’s wage, mother-in-law’s dress.
Add an apostrophe and an “s” to a person’s name to show ownership, for example, John’s house, Carol’s role, Amanda’s relationship. If the noun already ends in an “s”, either add an apostrophe at end or add an apostrophe and another “s”, for example, James’ lunch or James’s lunch.
Where a plural noun ends in “s”, add the apostrophe after the “s” where possession is shown, for example, students’ essays, judges’ comments, flight attendants’ uniforms. If a plural noun doesn’t end in “s”, add the apostrophe and then the “s”, for example, children’s books, women’s wages, people’s choice.
An apostrophe is not used for possessive pronouns, for example, its, yours, hers, theirs. Nor is one used in plurals when there is no possession, for example, computers, 1990s, apples for sale.
Where there is joint ownership, only the second owner needs an apostrophe, for example, Bill and Alice’s house. Where ownership isn’t joint, both take an apostrophe, for example, Sarah’s and Jane’s children.
An apostrophe is also used in contractions to denote the omission of a letter or letters, for example, she’s (she is), it’s (it is), they’re (they are), can’t (can not), rock ’n’ roll (rock and roll).
Hyphens tend to be a bit of a grey area, with few firm rules, and with variations between American, British and Australian English. The move is probably towards fewer hyphens rather than more.
In general, a hyphen is only used in certain complex words, e.g. twenty-five, ex-husband, re-cover (as distinct from recover), mid-Victorian, re-enter, co-worker, self-assessment.
A hyphen is sometimes used in compound words. Many adjective compounds have a hyphen, e.g. in-house training, low-key launch, well-known book (though note: the book is well known). Some verb compounds take a hyphen, e.g. I will gift-wrap it. Most compound nouns don’t need a hyphen, e.g. academic gown, interest rate, shopping centre. Adverb compounds usually have no hyphen and are treated as a single word, e.g. downtown, overall, upwind.
These punctuation marks can be divided into several groups: terminating marks, marks within sentences, brackets, and quotation marks.
– Terminating marks –
A full stop or period is mainly used at the end of a sentence. If a whole sentence is included in brackets, put the full stop before the closing bracket. If a sentence ends in an abbreviation that normally has a stop, such as etc., there is no need to put two stops.
A period is also used in certain abbreviations, although usage can vary between countries. Examples of abbreviations usually taking full stops are Tues., e.g., i.e., no. 5, pp. Examples where a full stop isn’t usually used include Mr, Dr, NY, USA, mph, kg.
A full stop isn’t needed at the end of book, movie and other titles, and also headings.
A question mark is used at the end of a sentence that asks a direct question or where a question is implied. Examples: Are we going to lunch tomorrow? As soon as tomorrow? Sometimes a question mark can be used in the middle of a sentence. Example: How could he? she asked herself.
Indirect questions or requests don’t need a question mark. Example: She asked what the matter was. Could you please tend to this.
A question mark can be used to express doubt. Example: John Smith (1754?-1821) was a pioneer …
An exclamation mark is used to express surprise, annoyance, interjection or humour. Examples: How nice of you! Damn you! Watch out!
It’s often used in advertising too. Example: Act now!
– Marks within sentences –
Along with apostrophes, commas are probably the most misused and misplaced of punctuation marks. A comma is the smallest break used to divide a sentence into parts. We tend to use fewer commas than 50 or 100 years ago, but they remain essential punctuation marks in clarifying meaning.
Use a comma between coordinating clauses with different topics. Example: Copper prices rose to their highest level on the commodities market in 2011, yet lead prices peaked in 2007.
Add a comma after an initial phrase of a sentence if the absence of a comma would change the meaning, resulting in ambiguity or causing possible confusion. Compare the following sentences. In summer clothing she wore was minimal. In summer, clothing she wore was minimal. It’s easy to over-read the first sentence, whereas the meaning in the second sentence is clear.
Insert extra information with commas. Example: All of the sisters, except Joan and Helen, will be at the party. Make sure both commas in a “comma pair” are used. A common mistake is to omit the second one.
A comma is used to separate a main clause from a non-defining or non-restrictive clause, that is, a clause that enhances rather than limits the meaning of the main clause. Consider the following examples. The boats which broke from their moorings during the storm were damaged. The boats, which broke from their moorings during the storm, were damaged. The first example restricts the subject to those boats that broke their moorings. The second example doesn’t restrict the subject in this way and thus the clause within the commas in a non-restrictive clause. Note the entirely different meaning of the two sentences through the inclusion or exclusion of commas.
There are several common types of mistakes in the use of commas. One error is to use a comma to join two sentences together (or to use no punctuation). Example: The availability of childcare has risen, this allows more women to work full time. Options to fix this include the following. The availability of childcare has risen, allowing more women to work full time. The availability of childcare has risen and this allows more women to work full time. The greater availability of childcare has allowed more women to work full time. Other options would be to have two separate sentences or to use a semicolon instead of a comma.
Another error is to use a comma before a verb when the introductory phrase or clause is long. Example: Respondents who were contacted by the company during the pilot phase of the survey last month, will be included in the overall results. No comma is needed in this sentence.
A further mistake is a comma on the wrong side of a conjunction in the following example. We came back to the office late, and realising we did not have our security key, had to call the guard to let us in. The comma should be placed after “and” rather than before it.
A colon is used to define relationship or sequence. The second part of a sentence can be introduced with a colon if that part explains or elaborates on the first part. Example – Youth unemployment is high: structural changes and other factors have resulted in a decline in the number of jobs for young people.
A colon is used to introduce a list. A common mistake here is to use a semicolon. The list can be a series of bullet or dot points, or it can be part of a conventional sentence. An example of the latter is as follows. Three subjects were studied: economics, psychology and anthropology. A colon isn’t needed if the list runs on from the first part of the sentence. Example – The three subjects studied were economics, psychology and anthropology. Some people want to put a colon after “were” in the last example.
A semicolon provides a stronger break than a comma but weaker than a full stop. It can be used to compare two clauses. Example – The print quality of a laser printer is excellent; a jet ink printer isn’t quite as good. If a comma rather than a semicolon is used after “excellent”, a conjunction such as “whereas” would be needed. Or the two clauses could be made into separate sentences.
Another use for a semicolon is at the end of each item in a bulleted list, or in a list where one or more items have internal punctuation. Example of the latter – Growth industries last year included agriculture, forestry and fishing; mining; and accommodation, cafes and restaurants.
When a second clause is introduced by a connective expression like “however”, “that is”, or “therefore”, use a semicolon before it and a comma after it. Example – Most crimes have increased steadily in recent years; however, murder has fallen. Some writers incorrectly use a comma on both sides of “however” here, or a comma before “however” and no punctuation after it, or no punctuation at all. A further option in the example above would be to start a new sentence, “However, …”.
Bullet or dot points have become popular in non-fiction writing in recent decades, although they are not really used at all in fiction writing. They are used at the start of each item in a list if each item starts a new line. Bullet points always need an introductory sentence or paragraph before the bullet points themselves.
Three ways to punctuate bullet points are open punctuation (that is, no punctuation at the end of each point, except a full stop at the end of the last point) if the points are short, semicolons if at least one point is only part of a sentence, and full stops if all points are one or more sentences.
Basically, there are two types of dashes:
– the shorter en dash or en rule (–) (use Alt 0150 or click on Insert and then Symbol) and
– the longer em dash or em rule (—) (use Alt 0151 or click on Insert and then Symbol).
An en dash is used in a span of figures, for example, 2012–13, 68–74 Smith Street (although in practice, hyphens are probably more common, and in my view acceptable).
It is also used to associate words while keeping their separate identities, for example, Australia–Japan trade agreement, cost–benefit analysis. Note that these examples should have no spaces either side of the en dash.
Where one or both components are two or more words, a spaced en dash is used, for example, United States – Canada trade relations, 29 August – 5 September.
An em dash is used to mark an abrupt break in a sentence. Example: There could well be safety considerations — but this isn’t what I want to address today.
It can be used to explain or expand on a statement. Example: The effects are likely to be felt many miles away — this is why we need to relocate all residents.
An em dash can also be used instead of brackets. Example: All the countries included in the study — China, India, Singapore and Malaysia — grew rapidly over the period.
You can have a space each side of an em dash or no space, but be consistent.
There is an increasing tendency to use an en dash (with a space each side) in the above examples, because an en dash is what generally comes up in word processing packages when you type a hyphen with a space each side in the middle of a sentence. This is probably acceptable as there would be few occasions where it might cause confusion.
A slash is used to show alternatives, e.g. and/or, Dear Sir/Madam. It is also used in abbreviations, e.g. c/- (care of), b/fwd (brought forward). In mathematical expressions, a slash denotes division, e.g. ¾, (a+b)/(c-d). A slash can indicate “per” or “a” or “an”, e.g. 80km/h.
These are used to denote an omission of words from a quote. Example: Johnson found that “the number of children attending school … declined during the harvest as they had to help on the farm”.
Brackets are used for information not essential to a sentence. There are several types of brackets.
Use parentheses or ordinary brackets to enclose additional information. Examples: The Consumer Price Index (CPI) is released tomorrow. He was told to bring all information (except work samples, which would be requested later) to the interview. The firm spent 40% ($2 million) of its budget on capital equipment. Betty Jones (1899–1968) left her fortune to the cat society.
Use square brackets to insert extra information in a quote so that readers have a better understanding of what is being said. Example: Jones stated that “the number of people succumbing to the disease in the area [Eastern Hills] fell during the cooler months of the year”.
These are sometimes used in mathematical expressions. Also, a single curly bracket can be used in a table if a comment in one column refers to several items in an adjacent column.
These are often used to enclose website and email addresses in references.
Quotation marks or inverted commas are used to show direct speech. Examples:
“This is what I think we should do,” she said.
“Benjamin Wakefield,” she said, “Are you getting up today?”
The Governor noted, “All issues will have to be considered before we act”.
Do not use quote marks for indirect speech. Example:
She said she would go shopping after work.
They are also used when quoting a passage from another source. Example:
Campbell believes that “all too often, a sample is labelled ‘representative’ whether there is any sound reason for believing it is”. (Use single marks within a quote.)
Note that in fiction writing, the closing quotation mark is invariably placed after the comma or full stop regardless of whether the quote includes the whole sentence or only part of it. In other writing, the closing quote mark can go before the comma, and before the period (full stop) if the quote is only part of the sentence. This convention varies between countries, for example, the US generally puts the closing quote mark after the comma or period. Put the closing quote mark after the period if the quote comprises the whole sentence.
Quotation marks are often used for the title of a chapter of a book, an article, a conference paper, a lecture, or a short poem or song.
Use of quotation marks around a vogue or colloquial word or expression or a cliché should be minimised. Example: The schedule will be “set in concrete” once the president signs it. Overuse of quote marks in this respect indicates to the reader that you were unable to think of a better word or expression. In the above example, it would be better to write something like: The schedule will be final once the president signs it.
The US and Canada generally use double quotation marks. Both single and double marks are common in most other English speaking countries.
If you want more information on punctuation or other usage or style issues, there are a large number of general and specialised guides available electronically or in printed copy.