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Guide to Punctuation

An overview and guide to punctuation marks in English

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Types of Punctuation

Punctuation is used to mark the cadence, pauses, and tone in written English. In other words, punctuation helps us to understand when to pause between fully formed ideas when speaking, as well as organize our thoughts in writing. English punctuation marks include:

period .
commas ,
question mark ?
exclamation mark !
colon :
semi colon ;

Beginning English learners should focus on understand the period, comma and question mark. Intermediate to advanced student should also learn how to use colons and semi colons, as well as an occasional exclamation mark.

This guide provides instruction on the basic rules of using a period, comma, colon, semicolon, question mark and exclamation point. Each type of punctuation is followed by an explanation and example sentences for reference purposes.

Period

Use a period to end a complete sentence. A sentence is a group of words containing a subject and predicate. In British English a period is called a 'full stop'.

Examples:

He went to Detroit last week.
They are going to visit.

Comma

There are a number of different uses for commas in English. Commas are used to:

  • Separate a list of items. This is one of the most common uses of a comma. Notice that a comma is included before the conjunction 'and' which comes before the final element of a list.

    Examples:

    I like reading, listening to music, taking long walks, and visiting with my friends.
    They would like books, magazines, DVDs, video cassettes, and other learning materials for their library.

  • Separate phrases (clauses). This is especially true after a beginning dependent clause or a long prepositional phrase.

    Examples:

    In order to qualify for your certificate, you will need to take the TOEFL exam.
    Although he wanted to come, he wasn't able to attend the course.

  • Separate two independent clauses that are connected by a conjunction such as 'but'.

    Examples:

    They wanted to purchase a new car, but their financial situation would not allow it.
    I'd really enjoy seeing a film this evening, and I'd like to go out for a drink.

  • Introduce a direct quote (as opposed to indirect speech i.e. He said he wanted to come ...).

    Examples:

    The boy said, "My father is often away during the week on business trips."
    His doctor replied, "If you don't stop smoking, you run the risk of a heart attack."

  • Separate appositives (a noun, or noun phrase) or non-defining relative clauses.

    Examples:

    Bill Gates, the richest man in the world, comes from Seattle.
    My only sister, who is a fantastic tennis player, is in great shape.

Question Mark

The question mark is used at the end of a question.

Examples:

Where do you live?
How long have they been studying?

Exclamation Point

The exclamation point is used at the end of a sentence to indicate great surprise. It is also used for emphasis when making a point. Be careful not to use an exclamation point too often.

Examples:

That ride was fantastic!
I can't believe he is going to marry her!

Semicolon

There are two uses for a semicolon:

  • To separate two independent clauses. One or both of the clauses are short and the ideas expressed are usually very similar.

    Examples:

    He loves studying; He can't get enough of school.
    What an incredible situation; it must make you nervous.

  • To separate groups of words that are themselves separated by commas.

    Examples:

    I took a holiday and played golf, which I love; read a lot, which I needed to do; and slept late, which I hadn't done for quite a while.
    They plan to study German, for their travels; chemistry, for their work; and literature, for their own enjoyment.

Colon

A colon can be used for two purposes:

  • To provide additional details and explanation.

    Examples:

    He had many reasons for joining the club: to get in shape, to make new friends, to lose some weight, and to get out of the house.
    She gave notice for the following reasons: bad pay, horrible hours, poor relations with colleagues, and her boss.

  • To introduce a direct quote (a comma can also be used in this situation).

    Examples:

    He announced to his friends: "I'm getting married!"
    She cried out: "I never want to see you again!"

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