How to Use English Punctuation Correctly, Part 1
In addition to learning the words and grammar of a language, getting used to the language's punctuation can be difficult as well. In this post, we'll look at how to use some of the most commonly used punctuation marks in English: period/full stops, question marks, exclamation points, commas, and a few others. In Part 2, we'll tackle a few more advanced options.
A few quick grammatical definitions before we start:
- Phrase: two or more words acting as a unit in a sentence
- Subject: the person/thing doing an action
- Predicate: the action that a subject is doing
- Clause: a group of words containing both a subject and a predicate
- Sentence: a complete, punctuated, grammatical thought, usually beginning with a capital letter and ending with a period/full stop, question mark, or exclamation point.
The period (or full stop in British English) marks the end of statement sentences. It is also used to denote abbreviations, although exact practices vary slightly between US and British English, and to show decimal places less than 1.
- I have class early on Mondays.
- Mr. and Mrs. Jones have two children.*
- The sandwich combo costs $5.99.
*In British English, abbreviations where only letters in the middle have been removed are not marked with a period. Because of this, Mr and Mrs do not take a period in British English
Exclamation points are used to show excitement and energy. This energy can be a result of happiness, enthusiasm, fear, shouting, or any other strong emotion. The exclamation point should be right next to the last word of the sentence with no space between.
- I love it!
- You scared me!
A question mark is used to show that a sentence is asking a question. Unlike some languages, English does not put any space between the final word of the sentence and the question mark.
- What do you think?
- Yesterday? I thought the quiz was today.
Commas are where correct punctuation starts to get a bit trickier. They are used to separate different parts of the same sentence, and usually suggest a slight pause while speaking. Commas also just make sentences easier to read. These marks can divide lists, combine multiple parts of a sentence with a conjunction, or set off extra information. In many cases, commas are necessary for the sentence to make sense, but in others it depends on the tastes and intent of the person speaking or writing.
In lists of more than one item, commas separate each item. A conjunction is usually required before the last item.
- I had cheese, ham, lettuce, cherry tomatoes, bacon, and mayonnaise on my sandwich.
Most commas in this sentence are necessary in order to make the sentence readable (without the comma, you might think that "cherry" and "tomatoes" were two different ingredients!). The comma before “and,” however, is a stylistic choice. This comma is known as a serial or Oxford comma (because the Oxford University Press requires its use). The Oxford comma is generally preferred in American English and left out in British English (even though Oxford University chooses to use it!). People who support the Oxford comma think that it makes the separation between the last two items clearer, yet people who don’t use this comma find that the word “and” makes it sufficiently clear.
Commas also separate lists or combinations of more than one adjective, phrase, and clause.
- The small, white, fluffy clouds didn’t suggest that it would rain.
- I went home, made a snack, sat in front of the television, and started to eat.*
- I work at the supermarket, Karen is a lifeguard, and John is an accountant.
- I woke up early today, even though I didn't have work.
*without the Oxford comma, this would read “I went home, made a snack, sat in front of the television and started to eat.”
Commas are also used to set off descriptions that come in between the rest of the sentence. In this case, it’s important to put a comma on each side of the description to make it obvious what the different parts of the sentence are.
Let’s start with a simple sentence.
- My sister went to work today.
Commas allow us to add in more information.
- My sister, whose name is Sally, went to work today.
In this example, the commas allow us to insert extra information into the sentence. Since it’s not necessary to know this information to understand the sentence, we separate it with commas on either end, which suggests that the information is just a little bit extra.
- My sister whose name is Sally went to work today.
This sentence is also grammatically correct, but tells us something different. Because the commas are not included, the author is suggesting that the information is necessary to understand the sentence. Evidently, the speaker has multiple sisters – his sister whose name is Sally went to work, but the sisters whose names weren’t Sally stayed home!
Here are other examples of how commas can set off additional information and transition words. Commas are generally required at after descriptions that come at the beginning of a sentence.
- Yesterday, I went to the gym.
- I’ve never been to Europe. However, I have been to the Caribbean.
- In Australia, Christmas takes place in summer.
Another bit of information that commas can provide is who the sentence is being spoken to. Names and titles of people being addressed should always be set off my commas.
- George, are you hungry?
- I really like your shirt, Sarah!
Commas are also used to separate groups of one thousand in numbers
A few extra things you might notice:
- Parentheses/brackets: parentheses or brackets provide further notes or commentary on the contents of a sentence. In English, there are no spaces between the parentheses and their contents. (See many examples above in this post!)
- Ellipsis: (sometimes called simply "dot dot dot"): Ellipses suggest either a gradual trailing off or a long pause at the end of a word, or else denote that words have been left out of a quotation.
How did you do? Practice makes perfect! If you'd like to learn more tricks of the English language, consider studying English abroad at one of our many schools worldwide, or let us know any other punctuation questions you might have in the comments.