Punctuation! What’s the point? 😊

When I was about 9 years old, we were given a task at school to write a short piece without any punctuation. This was then passed to your neighbour to read out loud to demonstrate how important punctuation is in enabling others to read and understand what you’ve written.

While everyone removed the full stops, commas and capital letters, I was the only one who left out the spaces. Are spaces part of punctuation? Here’s a quick rundown of the commonly accepted parts of punctuation, plus a couple of others I think deserve a notable mention.

You can skip to your favourite here:

Punctuation marks

Full Stop – .

Also known as a period in America, this punctuation mark denotes the end of a sentence. It can also be used in abbreviations (such as in the abbreviation e.g.), but many modern guidelines suggest removing them in this situation – it depends on personal preference or your organisation’s style.

Comma – ,

A comma is normally used to separate things in a sentence. If you have a list, a comma should go between each item – for example: ‘On our picnic, we took sandwiches, chocolate cake and fruit.’ Without the comma, the reader may think you took chocolate and cake as separate items (which some might argue would make the picnic even better!). There’s an argument about whether there should be a comma before the ‘and’ in the example – if you’re really interested, look up the Oxford comma, but it’s largely a question of preference. My general approach is to include the extra comma if it helps the reader make sense of the rest of the sentence.

Semicolon – ;

An often misunderstood but very useful bit of punctuation, a semicolon lets you join two separate but related ideas without using a conjunction word like ‘and’. For example: ‘The student finally finished their assignment; English wasn’t their favourite subject.’

A semicolon is sometimes used to begin a list, or to separate items in a more complex list, such as, ‘The travellers had visited London, England; Paris, France; and Berlin, Germany.’

Colon – :

A colon is used to introduce a part of a sentence that could also stand alone, but is related to the first. Theoretically, a colon can be replaced with a full stop, but the colon implies a relationship between the two parts. An example could be: “It’s hot outside: Wear sunscreen.”

You may have also spotted throughout this piece that a colon can be used to introduce speech or examples, and is also used in scripts and transcripts to show when someone is speaking.

Question Mark – ?

This one is fairly easy; a question mark follows a direct question and takes the place of a full stop. Is that simple enough?

Exclamation Mark – !

An exclamation mark indicates emphasis – it’s normally used to express surprise, commands and declarations. It isn’t often used in formal writing, but features more often (some might say too often….) in less formal circumstances. Like the question mark, it takes the place of a full stop.

Apostrophe – ‘

This little beastie causes lots of problems. The general rule is that an apostrophe replaces missing letters in a contraction (such as shortening ‘cannot’ to ‘can’t’) or indicates possession (such as Louise’s Guide to Punctuation).

Apostrophes only appear at the end of a word if that word ends in an ‘s’ and something belongs to it – like James’ computer – although it’s also acceptable to add an extra ‘s’ nowadays.

‘It’s’ is always a contraction of ‘it is’ or ‘it has’, nothing else. An apostrophe doesn’t indicate a plural of something, so ‘tomatoes’ doesn’t need an apostrophe at the end (an error so common, it’s known as the ‘Greengrocer’s Apostrophe’).

Shortened forms of words aren’t generally used in formal situations, as it makes the text sound informal and more relaxed. However, using these shortened versions can make your text sound more inclusive and welcoming if that’s the tone you’re going for.

In modern usage, it can also be used as an alternative to quotation marks.

The Grocers’ Apostrophe in the wild.
Credit Cory Doctorow, Flickr

Quotation Marks – “

Quotation marks show quotes or spoken words within text. An opening quotation mark is always followed by a closing quotation mark at the end of the statement.

If you need to mention the title of something within a quotation, you can use single quotation marks to show this: “My favourite song has to be ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder.”

You’ll often find that single and double quotation marks are used the opposite way around (as I do in this blog), and this is also acceptable – just make sure that whatever option you use, you use it consistently.

Ellipsis – …

These three dots have a couple of uses. In formal or academic writing, they show that you’re missing some words from a quote – for example, if you find a paragraph that demonstrates exactly what you mean to say, but there’s lot of irrelevant content in the middle, you can use the ellipsis to show you’re using a shortened version of that quote.

Less formally, an ellipsis is used to indicate a pause in speech – “I know… This should work!” – and can even be used to convey irony, confusion or a more relaxed tone. Be careful in its use though; it can be interpreted in many different ways by different groups 9 https://theoutline.com/post/3333/why-do-old-people-text-like-this-an-investigation)

Parenthesis – ()

 Brackets, as they’re called by most people I know, are a way to include extra information that doesn’t fit in with the general flow of your sentence. They generally contain information that will add to the meaning of what you have to say, but which isn’t critical to your understanding. For example: ‘The object weighted 2 stone (around 12kg).”

Dash, Hyphen, Em Dash, En Dash – –

Grammar experts will go into minute detail about the intricacies and characteristics of these, but as most computers now size them automatically, I’ve bundled them together.

The first dash is a hyphen – this is a little line which joins together compound words such as part-time, stainless-steel, up-to-date.

Secondly, a dash can be used to demonstrate a range of things, such as dates and times. For example: “The shop is open 10am-1pm.” (This is an en dash, so called because it should be the same width as an ‘n’.)

And the third common usage is to separate parts of a sentence. The dash generally follows the same rules as a colon, but gives a greater emphasis and makes it easier for the reader to follow your sentence. So, using the example “It’s hot outside: Wear sunscreen,” using a dash changes it to: “It’s hot outside – Wear sunscreen!” changing the tone and making the statement more exclamatory. (For any fact fans, this is an em dash, which gets its names due to being the same size as an ‘m’.)

These are the punctuation marks you’re most likely to find used and referenced in common usage. However, I would argue that there are a couple more to keep an eye out for.

Space –

Going back to the memory that sparked this blog, I would say the space is a part of punctuation; IfIwrotelikethis,youwouldfinditmuchhardertoread.

Generally, one space is fine. Some people still like to use double spaces after a full stop, but this has mostly fallen out of favour now – it’s actually a habit left over from typewriters, when using a double space after a full stop would help stop the keys from sticking. However, now we’re all using computers, the keys don’t stick and a single space is enough to keep things clear for your readers.

Emojis – 😊

I have a love/hate relationship with emojis. I resolutely refused to use them when they first started to appear, as I thought the written word should be enough to convey your message.

Now, however, emojis appear all over the place and are almost a language in themselves. From originally starting as a faces made up of pieces of punctuation, they’ve now evolved into little pictures including faces, animals, activities, flags – almost anything you can think of.

They can help make text look more visually appealing, and clarify the intention when you’re trying to convey something like sarcasm, which can be easily misconstrued.

While they’re increasingly prominent (and even inspire their own merchandise in some cases), it’s still accepted that these are informal and shouldn’t be used in formal writing. However, even formal businesses need to be aware of emojis – they appear all over social media, and it’s important to be aware of what emojis mean and when to use them if you don’t want to look like the crusty old relative who’s pretending to be ‘down with the kids.’

It’s also worth being aware that emojis can appear differently to different people – the same symbols can be depicted differently depending on whether the message is displaying on an Apple or Android device, or via Microsoft, Facebook or Twitter.

So, that’s my overview of the key parts of punctuation. What have you found useful? Is there anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments.

If punctuation and grammar isn’t your thing and you’d like some help putting your text together, get in touch – I’m happy to help!          

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