What is punctuation?
Punctuation refers to the specific markings, signs and symbols that are used in and around sentences to give them structure and to allow for correct understanding and comprehension.
If we think of words as bricks that build a sentence (arranged in a certain pattern according to English grammar), punctuation could be thought of as the mortar that holds the bricks together. Without punctuation, our writing would just be a continuous stream of words that lacked structure, pacing, and, ultimately, meaning. For instance, let’s see how this same paragraph would look without any punctuation:
- if we think of words as bricks that build a sentence arranged in a certain pattern according to English grammar punctuation could be thought of as the mortar that holds the bricks together without punctuation our writing would just be a continuous stream of words that lacked structure pacing and ultimately meaning for instance lets see how this same paragraph would look without any punctuation
While it’s possible to discern some of the meaning, it becomes remarkably difficult to understand what is being said when no punctuation marks are used.
Providing internal meaning
In addition to providing overall structure and clarity to sentences, punctuation can also provide nuanced internal meaning as well; that is, sentences that have the exact same words can have different meanings depending on which punctuation is used (or misused). Let’s look at some sets of examples that illustrate this idea:
- “Brackets are also used to distinguish parenthetical information that appears within a larger set of parentheses. (Informally, though, it is quite common to simply use a second set of parentheses.)”
- “Brackets are also used to distinguish parenthetical information that appears within a larger set of parentheses. (Informally, though; it is quite common to simply use a second set of parentheses.)”
Now let’s look at two examples involving more complex punctuation changes:
- “If we look at our sales team’s report, an increase in consumer confidence, an upturn for our July figures, and successful budget cuts indicate a very promising second half of the year.”
- “If we look at our sales, teams report an increase in consumer confidence—an upturn for our July figures—and successful budget cuts indicate a very promising second half of the year.”
The second sentence’s meaning is now different from that of the first in three ways:
- 1) By placing a comma after sales and removing the apostrophe from team’s, the information is no longer a part of the sales team’s report. Instead, teams becomes the subject of the verb report, of which an increase in consumer confidence is the direct object.
- 2) By placing em dashes around an upturn for our July figures, it changes the information from being part of a list to instead describing an increase in consumer confidence.
- 3) Finally, because of these changes, successful budget cuts is now not a part of a list of information but has rather become another subject: the agent of indicate a very promising second half of the year.
By understanding the various nuances of how punctuation functions in a sentence, we can be much more precise in the meaning we want our writing to convey.
Minor mistakes with humorous results
Sometimes, misplacement or omission of punctuation yields silly, humorous, or absurd sentences. For instance:
While the intended meaning of such sentences will probably still be understood by the reader, it undermines the credibility of the writer to have sentences whose literal meanings are so starkly (and humorously) different, so it’s important to know where, when, and how to use the appropriate types of punctuation.
Types of Punctuation
There are 15 unique punctuation marks that are used in everyday written English. We’ve categorized them together according to the similarity of their function. We’ll briefly look at each one along with some examples, but you can continue on to their individual sections to learn more about the various ways they are used.
Terminal points are those that mark the end of a complete sentence. These include periods, exclamation points, and question marks.
Periods (Full Stops)
Periods ( . ), also known as full stops (especially in British English), mark the end of sentences that are not questions or exclamations. For example:
- “I need to buy new glasses.”
- “She didn’t really like the play.”
- “Reports are indicating increased activity in the region.”
- “If I were able to live anywhere in the world, I would move to Beijing.”
- “Please don’t be angry with him for what he said.”
Periods are also used to mark abbreviations, and they function as a decimal point in non-whole numbers. For instance:
- “Let’s find an A.T.M. [automated teller machine] so I can withdraw some cash.”
- “Your appt. [appointment] has been rescheduled for next Tuesday.”
- “At current market value, the dollar is worth 0.89901 euros.”
An exclamation point or exclamation mark ( ! ) is commonly used to express strong, intense emotions in declarations or to add emphasis to interjections and commands.
- “I can’t wait to travel to Paris next week!”
- “I can’t believe I got into law school!”
- “Yuck! I hate coconuts!”
- “That was an impressive victory! Congratulations!”
- “Please don’t stay out too late tonight!”
- “Get out of here, now!”
- “Go to your room this instant!”
Question marks ( ? ) are used, quite simply, to ask questions.
While it is usually a matter of intent and preference whether to use a period or an exclamation point in declarative, conditional, or imperative sentences, we must use question marks in interrogative sentences (sentences that ask questions); to use any other terminal point would turn a question into a statement.
Here are some examples:
- “How are you feeling?”
- “You can’t be serious, can you?”
- “It really ended just like that?”
- “How? When?”
Pauses or breaks
Marks that indicate a pause or break in the flow of the sentence include commas, semicolons, and colons.
Commas ( , ) are primarily used to join two or more elements in a sentence—such as clauses, introductory elements, or items in a list—or to set parenthetical information apart from the rest of the sentence.
- “We can go to the movies tonight, or we can just stay home.”
- “We have always wanted to buy a boat, sell everything, and set sail.”
- “Either Tom, Bill, Jen, or Michelle will lead the seminar.”
- “In a way, they are both right.”
- “When I was traveling in Croatia, I met a lot of interesting people.”
- “The office, an old colonial building, badly needed repairs.”
- “The mirror, which was a gift from my grandmother, was broken during the storm.”
- “Find me something to dig with, such as a shovel or spade, so I can plant these flowers.”
We also use commas for several technical purposes, such as listing a state or country after a city, writing the full date, writing long numbers, or separating quoted sentences from non-quoted text:
- “I’m from Portland, Oregon, but I’ve lived in Washington, D.C., for more than 10 years.”
- “I first arrived in Europe on September 6, 2010.”
- “There are over 15,000 protestors gathered outside Capitol Hill.”
- “You should,” said my doctor, “begin feeling better immediately.”
Semicolons ( ; ) function like more powerful commas that create a stronger break in the sentence. They are used to join lists when the items are complex and contain internal punctuation, as well as to join independent clauses without the need of a coordinating conjunction (though they are used with conjunctive adverbs). For example:
- “All I’m taking on the road trip is my truck, along with its spare tire; a radio, which only kind of works; and my dog.”
- “Jen hadn’t enjoyed the play; as a result, she didn’t recommend it to her friend.”
- “I hope the traffic isn’t too bad; I don’t want to be late for the movie.”
Colons ( : ) are used to add information that helps illustrate or clarify. A colon is most commonly used to introduce a list, but it can also introduce quotations and information that completes the meaning of the previous clause. Conventionally, a colon can only be used after text that can stand independently as a complete sentence.
Here are some examples:
- “There are a few things you’ll need for the trip: a flashlight, a good compass, a water purifying kit, clean clothes for seven days, comfortable hiking shoes, and a heavy-duty rucksack.”
- “If there’s anything I’ve learned from working here, it’s this: you don’t get ahead in this industry by doing the bare minimum.”
- “My father had a phrase he was fond of repeating: ‘Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.’”
We can insert text that has no grammatical bearing on a sentence by using the two parenthetical markers: parentheses and brackets.
Parentheses ( ( ) ), sometimes called round brackets, are used to separate parenthetical information that has no grammatical bearing on the structure of the overall sentence. This can be a clause, phrase, word, or even just a punctuation mark. For example:
- “As I have said before (on numerous occasions), we must find a long-term solution to this problem.”
- “The goal by Hendrickson (and what a goal!) secured the team’s entry into the championship finals.”
- “She said I had behaved ‘like a yak’ (?) as she was leaving.”
- “The last time I went to Toronto, I had an awful experience. (I won’t be visiting again any time soon!)”
Brackets ( [ ] ), sometimes called square brackets, function similarly to parentheses but are only used within quoted text, indicating clarifying or explanatory information that has been added to the quotation by the author:
- “She [the governor] insisted that the restructured budget would not result in funding shortfalls for schools.”
- “The acting president has confirmed that ‘[t]he U.N. will ultimately have oversight over reunification.’”
- “In his analysis of the play, Thompson claims that ‘the entire second act serves to underscore the persistence of hope that is always present in our subconscious mind’ [emphasis added].”
Brackets are also used to distinguish parenthetical information that appears within another set of parentheses. (Informally, though, it is quite common to simply use a second set of parentheses.) For example:
- “At least I’ll have some extra spending money this summer. (My cousin got me a job at my uncle’s [his dad’s] warehouse.)”
Connectors and dividers
When we want to demonstrate a specific relationship between different letters, words, phrases, or clauses, we variously use hyphens, dashes, slashes, and apostrophes.
Hyphens ( - ) are most often used to join two or more words and/or affixes to form a single and unique compound word. For example:
- “Do you have any sugar-free cookies?”
- “It is the only 10-storey building in the town.”
- “My old-fashioned aunt would never approve.”
- “I don’t mean to second-guess you, but you should check the work again.”
- “This behavior is decidedly un-American.”
There are also several technical uses for the hyphens, such as when creating divisions in sequences of numbers or expressing ranges.
There are two types of dashes: the en dash ( – ) and the em dash ( — ).
En dashes are the preferred punctuation mark (especially in publishing) to express ranges, scores, voting results, or connections between two people or things (although hyphens are very commonly used instead). For instance:
- “We need you to submit your expense report for January–March.”
- “I’ll be in the office 8:00 AM–4:00 PM this Friday.”
- “The board voted 5–4 to accept the proposal.”
- “We will begin boarding the Denver–Chicago flight shortly.”
- “The Republican–Democrat divide on the issue has only widened in recent months.”
Em dashes, the longest of the dash marks, are most often used in place of commas or parentheses to give greater emphasis to parenthetical information. They can also informally stand in for colons when introducing a list or illustrative information. For example:
- “Many fundamental aspects of living on one’s own—cooking, cleaning, doing laundry—are things for which many young adults are completely unprepared.”
- “The committee—which I have helped set up—will investigate spending irregularities by CEOs of charities and other not-for-profit groups.”
- “There are only two things I want to do on my vacation—sit on the beach and read books.”
- “Remember—keep your friends close, and enemies even closer.”
Em dashes can also be used to represent omitted or censored words, as well as to indicate an interruption in written dialogue:
- “Countess M——, a prominent member of the aristocracy, was in fact a leading contributor to the resistance.”
- “You ———!” he shouted. “I’m going to make sure everyone knows the truth!”
- “I don’t think this is a— ” he started to say when the branch suddenly broke.
Slashes ( / ) work in a similar way to hyphens, combining words and letters into compounds. The slash is generally considered an informal punctuation mark, as it provides a shorthand way of expressing connections between words. For example:
- “Each candidate must be sure to provide his/her [his or her] references before the interview.”
- “Whoever is leading the group study, he/she [he or she] needs to keep detailed notes about how the time is spent.”
- “We’ll need a signed statement from you and/or your employer [one, the other, or both].”
- “Rent is $650/month [$650 per month], due on the first day of each month.”
- “This singer/songwriter’s [singer who is also a songwriter] work never fails to impress.”
Slashes are also used to form abbreviations in very informal writing, as in quick notes or messages. For instance:
- “Use hyphens b/w [between] compounds.”
- “Our shop has been open 24/7 [24 hours a day, seven days a week] since we first started up 30 years ago.”
- “Will be late b/c [because] of traffic.”
In formal writing, such as academic papers, slashes are used to show line breaks in poetry quotations. Conventionally, this is the only time when spaces are used around a slash. For example:
- “I’d like to include the following lines from Shakespeare’s ‘Sonnet 116’ in our wedding ceremony: ‘Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds, / Or bends with the remover to remove: / O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark, / That looks on tempests and is never shaken.’”
The apostrophe ( ’ ) is used to form contractions (two words shortened and merged into one) as well as to show possession.
When used in contractions, the apostrophe replaces the letters that are omitted from one of the two words. For instance:
- “This plan doesn’t [does not] make any sense.”
- “It’s [it is] a very unfortunate circumstance.”
- “I hope you’re [you are] happy in your new job.”
- “Please don’t [do not] do anything you aren’t [are not] sure about.”
When showing possession, the apostrophe comes before the letter “s” for singular nouns (and irregular plurals) or after the letter “s” in regular plural nouns:
- “We were looking everywhere for Jonathan’s bike!”
- “The kids’ play room is a mess.”
- “We could stay in my family’s cabin for the weekend.”
- “Police are gathering witnesses’ testimonies regarding the incident.”
- “We’ll have to rely on people’s donations to stay open.”
When we quote something that someone else has written or said, we distinguish it from our own writing through the use of quotation marks. If we omit (leave out) any portion of a quote but keep the rest of it in its original form, we can use ellipses to show where the omission exists within the quote.
Whenever we reproduce exactly what someone else has said, whether it’s a word, phrase, or entire sentence, we use quotation marks—either double ( “ ” ) or single ( ‘ ’ )—to separate it from the rest of our writing. For instance:
- John said, “I’ll never live in this city again.”
- The CEO has expressed his ‘genuine concern and remorse’ over the developments.
If we use a quotation that already has a quotation within it, we alternate between double and single marks:
- The president said, “I’ve been assured by the prime minister that she is ‘taking all appropriate steps in response to the crisis.’”
We can also use quotation marks to highlight text that is or might be considered somehow questionable, dubious, or uncertain, as in:
- His “promise” turned out to be a complete lie.
Quotation marks also have the technical use of marking the titles of smaller pieces of written or creative works, such as poems or songs:
- My favorite song has always been “Auld Lang Syne.”
An ellipsis (plural: ellipses) is a series of three dots ( . . . ) that represents material that has been omitted from a quotation for the sake of neatness and brevity. In general, this is only done when an omission is made in the middle of a quoted sentence; any other punctuation necessary for the structure of the sentence must be kept intact. For example:
- “In response to the outcome of the trial, the president said, ‘I don’t think the decision today reflects the . . . opinion of most Americans.’”
- “The final passage sums up the protagonist’s view: ‘I’m sure of one thing in life: I value family over all other things, . . . and I will never forget it again.’”
- “Our local correspondent told us that ‘[a]dvocates from around the state are rallying around a new law aimed at reducing the number of roadside accidents. . . . Still, there are some critics . . . who feel the law will have a greater and more negative impact on commuters.’”
Less formally, ellipses are commonly used to indicate when a statement trails off or is broken up due to uncertainty or hesitation, as in:
- “I sure hope this works. . .”
- “But. . . I don’t understand. . .”
In addition to the 15 punctuation marks above, there are many different signs and symbols that are commonly used in everyday writing, such as the asterisk (*) or the ampersand (&). These are not standard punctuation marks—they are never necessary to the grammatical or syntactic meaning of a sentence—but they appear often enough that it’s important to know how they might be used. Continue on to the section Other Signs and Symbols to learn more about them.
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