We’ve all seen them, those glaringly obvious typos, ambiguous sentences, and misplaced punctuation marks or worse, no punctuation at all. Newspapers, magazines, flyers, shop signs and websites are all guilty of perpetrating punctuation crimes and misdemeanors.
In fact, we’ve all committed the occasional punctuation misdeed and some of us are serial offenders. Our wayward use and abuse of apostrophes, commas and exclamation marks can create havoc with what we’re really trying to communicate. And that’s what punctuation is supposed to do–make your communication clearer.
Punctuation really does matter, because without it, all you have is a spray of words with no proper conversational rhythm, flow, tone, emotion, emphasis, sense or clarity. Think of punctuation as little visual cues that clarify the meaning of your message.
Take for example the sentence: “Let’s eat Grandma!” and again “Let’s eat, Grandma!” It’s the same sentence but with two very different meanings. The first sentence implies to eat poor, old, grandma while the second sentence invites grandma to eat. One small comma makes a big difference to the meaning of a sentence.
So without trying to sound like a crotchety, old, school teacher, let’s take a look at the 10 most common, misused and abused punctuation marks that cause us so much confusion.
The apostrophe is used:
- To indicate missing letters – in a contraction or shortened words such as: don’t (do not); they’re (they are); it’s (It is or it has); I’ll (I will or I shall).
- To indicate possession – Mary’s plate of cupcakes; the two boys’ bicycles, three dogs’ lives; the people’s choice.
Crime: The “retail apostrophe” such as ‘Cheap Cauliflower’s or Bargain Shirt’s.’ These are statements that are not possessive or missing any letters. To be avoided at all costs.
The colon is used to introduce:
- A list: You will require the following ingredients: flour, eggs, milk, butter.
- Direct speech: She said: “It’s getting late, we should go home.”
- An explanation or expansion of the first part of a sentence: There were two problems: his small income and her taste for luxury.
- Or indicate proportions, ratios and time: 3:1 ratio, 10:35 am
Crime: Adding the colon after connecting words or expressions like including, such as, namely, are, and, is. An example of incorrect colon use: My three favourite friends are: Jenny, Susan and Peter. The colon is not necessary in this sentence because the word “are” introduces the second part of the sentence.
The comma indicates a break or pause in the flow of a sentence and helps clarify meaning.
- Use the comma to separate items in a list: She lost her purse, keys, phone and credit cards.
- To separate two or more adjectives: He was a small, shy, sickly child.
- To separate two independent sentences that are joined by the words: and, but, or, so, yet, either, neither, nor. For example: It is necessary to eat, but it is better to combine necessity with pleasure.
- To separate descriptive phrases from the main part of the sentence: Her sports car, painted a vivid orange, was parked illegally.
- To separate a complex sentence with different ideas to clarify meaning: Although he was already deeply in debt, he bought her an expensive ring.
Crime: Using commas in short sentences of five to ten words. Overusing commas, use your judgement whether a comma is needed to ensure your message is clear.
The dash can be used in the same way as a comma to set off, clarify or expand on information but with added emphasis. The dash is used to signify an abrupt change, or introduce an explanation or amplify a point.
- Use a dash to indicate a pause or interruption in a sentence: My twin cousins–Gemma and Sarah–are visiting Melbourne next week.
- To isolate a list or incidental information within a sentence: On your travels you must visit–Prague, Rome and Paris.
- To link sentences: We were all very tired–it had been an exhausting day of sightseeing.
Crime: Overusing dashes–only use–when you want–to show special–emphasis in your content.
The ellipsis mark is used to indicate missing words in a sentence or quotation without changing the meaning of the original text.
For example: “Of all the gin joints in all the … she walks into mine.” Humphrey Bogart From the film Casablanca.
Ellipsis can be used to indicate a pause, indecision, unfinished thought or a trailing off into silence. For example: Last night while you were sleeping …
And ellipsis can also indicate that there is more information to follow as in: To be continued … or I remember a long time ago …
The only punctuation mark that does not follow the ellipsis mark is the full stop for obvious reasons.
Crime: Overusing and overdoing the dots, the ellipsis has only three. Your content will look like weird Morse code if you overuse and overdo the dots, especially if you’ve used the dash too.
! Exclamation Mark
The exclamation mark is used to add emphasis or indicate strong emotion and is commonly used in direct speech.
Use an exclamation mark to indicate: Surprise, anger, excitement, disbelief, dismay, indignation, exasperation, orders, greetings, wishes and interjections.
You would not use an exclamation mark in formal writing; it’s primarily used for informal conversational style writing.
Crime: Inserting too many exclamation marks too often. Its effect is lost if overused and is irritating to your readers. You only need the one exclamation mark to make your point!!!
. Full Stop
The full stop or period is used to end a sentence that is neither a direct question nor an exclamation. The full stop has a few special rules that apply in certain circumstances such as headings, page titles, abbreviations, initials and acronyms.
Crime: Full stop in headings and page titles; certain abbreviations such as Mr, Rd, Pty Ltd, Bros and dept do not need a full stop. No full stop required on acronyms such as TAFE, Anzac, CSIRO and ASIO. Then there are the initial abbreviations such as, NSW, SBS, TV, PC, IQ and CEO. Check your dictionary if unsure.
? Question Mark
The question mark is used to indicate a query or to express doubt.
A direct question is always followed by a question mark: Did they follow the established procedure?
A non-interrogative question can also be followed by a question mark: That is the policy?
Tag questions with an interrogative tag at the end of a statement also are followed by a question mark: The department is obliged to, isn’t it?
Rhetorical questions are followed by question marks: What on earth was she thinking of?
Crime: Using a question mark after an indirect question or polite requests that don’t need a verbal response. Again, one question mark at the end will do, adding more doesn’t make the question any more urgent or forceful. Does it???
“ ”Quotation Marks
The quotation mark is used to show direct speech and the quoted work of other writers. Quotation marks are also used to enclose titles of songs, stories or articles and for drawing attention to an unusual term.
Use single quotation marks for direct speech and when adding, “he said, she said” at the end or beginning of a quote. Use double quotation marks to show speech within speech: ‘I didn’t know what to say when you said, “I’m quitting my job.” ’
You can use quotation marks for ironic emphasis, for colloquial words, nicknames, slang, humorous words or phrases in formal writing.
Crime: Using quotation marks with indirect speech or to enclose familiar expressions. For example: ‘Hot’ Coffee – ‘Big’ Sale – ‘Real’ Bargains are incorrect. The quotation marks in this instance indicates irony that the coffee is actually not hot at all, that there is no big sale or real bargains to find.
; Semi Colon
The semi colon indicates a stronger break than a comma. The semi colon is used to link two parts of a sentence that are closely linked in meaning: The film was over; the credits were rolling.
Sometimes the second part of a sentence is introduced by a connective word such as however, nevertheless, alternatively, that is or therefore, to underscore the connection between the two statements – for example: Rain is forecast; however, there are no clouds to be seen.
A semi colon can also be used to separate items or lists in a series especially if a comma is already included. For example: The results were surprising: adult males, 35 per cent; adult females, 52 per cent; and children, 13 per cent.
Crime: The semi colon is the underdog of the punctuation marks; it’s an elegant alternative to the comma and is greatly undervalued and under utilized.
That concludes the ten most common punctuation offences committed against the English language. It’s by no means a comprehensive guide but it should at least clarify some common misunderstandings when it comes to getting your message across clearly.