1. What is Punctuation?
Punctuation is the collection of marks that we use to make sentences flow smoothly and express meaning clearly. It tells us when to pause or add a certain feeling to our words; it separates ideas so that sentences are clear, it points out titles, quotes, and other key parts of language—punctuation is important!
Originally, punctuation was only a tool for speech, not for writing. Writers developed it so that people would know when to pause, stop, or make other expressions when they were speaking. It wasn’t part of literature because most people didn’t even have access to printed work. But, nowadays, since everyone reads, and printed literature is available for everyone, we use punctuation in writing so that sentences read in a similar way to how we speak. Knowing how, when, and why to use punctuation is now a standard part of writing in English.
2. Examples of Punctuation
Punctuation is a part of every sentence and many other words in written language. You probably know most types. Some different parts of punctuation are underlined here:
THESE ARE CAPITAL LETTERS.
A period ends this sentence.
Here’s a comma, but have you seen a question mark?
Exclamation points are exciting!
“These are quotation marks” I said.
3. Types of Punctuation
There are a lot of types of punctuation, and each has its own purpose and rules. Here are the key types that we use all of the time:
Capitalization is when you use the capital form of a letter (A vs. a). The first letter of a sentence is ALWAYS capitalized, whether it’s one letter, like I went or A dog, or the first letter of a word, like The. Besides at the start of a sentence, we use capitalization for proper nouns, like places, people’s names, titles, and brand-named things. In dialogue, capitalization usually means the speaker is shouting.
The fox, named Mr. Brown, was fast. “RUN MR. FOX!” shouted the squirrel.
b. End marks
End marks are the types of punctuation that come at the end of a sentence. Every sentence has one (and only one), but the type depends on the tone of the sentence.
A period (.) means a stop, and it only ever goes at the end of a sentence. Truly, any sentence can end with a period (unless it is a question), but that doesn’t always mean it is the best mark. However, a period is the standard end mark for a sentence:
- The fox was orange and white.
- He was a skilled runner.
An exclamation mark (!) adds strong feelings like joy or fear to a sentence. “To exclaim” is to say something with excitement, and that’s just what an exclamation mark does—it exclaims! Since they add excitement, it’s also important not to overuse them. Here’s an example:
- The fox was faster than the wind!
Like this sentence, an exclamation mark can put emphasis on the meaning of the sentence as a whole. Here, it makes us aware that the fox really runs fast, and that seems important.
A question mark (?) is used at the end of every question. It is only ever used to show that a sentence is a question.
- How fast was the fox?
An ellipsis (…) (plural ellipses) is a “to be continued” moment at the end of a sentence, like this:
- The fox waited…
But, an ellipsis is special because it can also be used inside the sentence, usually to put emphasis on what is coming next. When you see an ellipsis, it’s usually a sign that the next word or sentence that follows it will be important. Read these two sentences:
- Now, the only thing the fox could do was run.
- Now, there was only one thing the fox could do…run.
As you can see, the ellipsis in the second sentence makes it a little more exciting than the first. It helps to build up some tension for the reader, instead of giving all of the information at one time.
A comma (,) tells the reader when to pause in a sentence. Most importantly, commas help make things clear in a sentence.
They can separate ideas or events:
- The fox ran, and then he drank some water.
We also use them for listing things:
- One, two, three, four, and five.
A lot of sentences need commas—they’re one of the most used punctuation marks. But, commas are also misused all of the time. When you are using a comma, remember it means “pause,” so try reading your sentence out loud to see if you are pausing at the right time. For example, if you read this sentence aloud:
- The fox, ran and then, he drank some water.
You can hear that the pauses come at the wrong times in this sentence. So, that means we need to move the commas:
- The fox ran, and then, he drank some water.
- The fox ran, and then he drank some water.
A good general rule to remember is that when you list more than two things, you probably have to use a comma, like this:
- The fox was fast, sneaky, and quiet in the forest. CORRECT
- The fox was fast, sneaky and quiet in the forest. CORRECT
- The fox was fast sneaky and quiet in the forest. INCORRECT
- The fox was fast, sneaky, and quiet, in the forest. INCORRECT
Sometimes, whether or not to use a comma is up to the author and his style. The first two sentences are correct—using one or two commas is up to the writer. The third sentence, without a comma, and the last, with too many commas, are incorrect. With two things or less, you don’t need a comma, like this:
- The fox was fast and sneaky in the forest. CORRECT
- The fox was fast, and sneaky in the forest. INCORRECT
An apostrophe (’) does two important things.
First, we use it to show possession:
- “The fox’s coat was orange.”
Second, we use it for contractions, like turning “cannot” into “can’t” or “you are” into “you’re.”
The biggest mistake people make with apostrophes is using them to create plurals—this is WRONG. For example, “dogs” means more than one dog, but “dog’s” shows something that belongs to the dog.
Quotations (“”) are used for lots of things, but probably the most important way we use quotations is to “quote” someone’s exact words:
- Witnesses say that they heard the fox yell “I like pancakes!”
- The newspaper article stated, “a fox’s main source of food is pancakes.”
Likewise, they show that a character is speaking (dialogue):
- “I like pancakes,” said the fox.
Quotations can also show that the author is using a slang or unusual word:
- The fox didn’t know what a “fork” was.
We also use quotations for titles of poems, articles, song names, and brand names of things, like Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18” and a the burger “Big Mac.”
e. Colons and Semi-colons
A colon (:) says that the writer is about to give a list:
- The fox liked three things: pancakes, syrup, and butter.
A colon may also separate two sentences, where the second sentence gives more information about the first:
The fox was great at hiding: a human had never seen him.
A semicolon (;) can connect two independent clauses that are related to each other:
- The fox liked pancakes; he ate them every day for breakfast.
A semicolon can be combined with a transition, like “but,” to connect two related sentences:
- The fox liked pancakes; but he couldn’t eat them without syrup and butter.
A semicolon can also separate items on a list that might be confusing:
Lisbon, Portugal; Barcelona, Spain; Venice, Italy; Paris, France; and Berlin, Germany are all popular places to visit in Europe.
Parentheses ( ) hold additional information that authors want to use as an aside, like here:
- The fox loved pancakes (he ate them every morning), and he had a great recipe for them.
The important information is that the fox loves pancakes and has a good recipe. But, the author also wants to make a side note to the readers that he eats them every morning—this emphasizes how much the fox likes pancakes, while also giving the reader more information.
Or, you can use parentheses to clarify something, like this:
- The fox paid a lot of money for good maple syrup ($50 per bottle).
Here, the writer wants to say that the syrup is expensive, but the reader might not know how much money is a lot. Putting the price inside the parentheses shows that $50 is what the author means by “a lot of money.”
Furthermore, you can also see in these sentences that: a. if the information inside parentheses comes at the end of a sentence, the end mark goes outside the parentheses; and b. that commas usually come after parentheses.
4. How to Use (and Not Use) Punctuation
In a sentence, punctuation can be as important as the words you use! It’s an essential and key part of every single sentence. Imagine a note from a girl to her boyfriend:
I’m sorry I love you.
I’m sorry, I love you.
I’m sorry. I love you.
Letter A has a different meaning than Letters B and C. Letter A has a negative meaning; expressing that Jill regrets being in love with Jack. In Letters B and C, however, Jill expresses an apology to Jack, and then tells him she loves him. So, you can see how much a simple comma can affect a sentence’s meaning.
When we are speaking every day, it’s easy to change our voice and emphasize different words so that our meaning is clear. But in writing, you need to mark the places where those changes should happen. Here are three sentences that are similar to the “Grandma” comic above that will show you why:
Without Proper Punctuation
- Do you want to eat Sally?
- I want to eat Sally.
- Let’s eat Sally!
With Proper Punctuation
- Do you want to eat, Sally?
- I want to eat, Sally.
- Let’s eat, Sally!
Like you can see in all of the examples above, forgetting to use punctuation or using the wrong marks at the wrong time can make a sentence confusing or even completely change it’s meaning. Here, a comma makes the difference between eating Sally and eating with Sally!