This section explores sentence-level punctuation. It focuses on the main punctuation marks that are used to show how separate words, phrases and clauses are related to each other within a sentence. Here is a list of the punctuation that is discussed below:
A full stop is placed at the end of a complete sentence that functions as a statement – for example:
A full stop is also placed at the end of a fragment that has the force of a statement – for example:
Here the second part is a fragment equivalent to the complete sentence Probably they cannot.
A question mark is placed at the end of a complete sentence or a fragment that functions as a question – for example:
Note the difference in the following pair of examples:
The first has the overall form of a question, and so it gets a question mark. The second contains an indirect question (a clause that could have been a free-standing question: Are you ready to go home? but in this sentence is a subordinate clause); however, the whole sentence functions as a statement, and so it gets a full stop.
An exclamation mark is placed at the end of a complete sentence
or a fragment which functions as an exclamation, for example:
Note the difference in form between a statement and an exclamation:
It is also possible to put an exclamation mark at the end of a statement to show that it is very surprising:
Exclamation marks of this kind should be avoided in formal writing, although
they are fine for personal letters and reported conversations.
The comma has five quite different uses, which are explained in more detail below.
The main weakness in using commas at KS3 is the comma splice.
The colon has only one important use. It follows a complete sentence and introduces a restatement of what precedes it. For example:
There are four kinds of restatement; for details see below.
The semi-colon (;) joins two (or more) complete sentences to make a larger sentence, without the use of a connecting word. For example:
It may also be used in a long list where there are commas within the listed elements:
Speech marks (also called 'quotation marks') are either double ("…") or single (‘…’), and always come in pairs. It doesn’t matter whether you use double or single speech marks, as long as you are consistent; but it is best to use double marks round direct quotes.
Speech marks have four uses, which are explained in more detail below:
By far the most frequently used commas are bracketing commas. Bracketing commas differ from the other three types in an important way: bracketing commas are used in pairs. A pair of bracketing commas encloses a weak interruption within a sentence – that is, an interruption that does not dramatically disturb the flow of the sentence. For example:
In each of these examples, note that the pair of commas encloses and sets aside a weak interruption. There is a simple way of testing for this: in every case, the part of the sentence enclosed by the bracketing commas – the weak interruption – could be removed, and the result would still be a good sentence.
Bracketing commas, like brackets, are used in pairs. However, if the weak interruption happens to come at the beginning or at the end of a sentence, only one comma is used, since a comma never comes at the beginning or at the end of a sentence. Here are some examples of single bracketing commas:
Once again, if we remove the weak interruptions here, the result will always be a correct sentence.
The passage set aside by a bracketing comma or commas must be an interruption, and must not include an essential part of the sentence. In this example, bracketing commas have gone wrong:
It is easy to see that this is wrong by trying to remove the bracketed material:
This is certainly wrong. The word and is not part of the interruption, but an essential part of the sentence. The correct form is:
If we remove the interruption now, the result is correct:
A very common error, frequent among KS3 writers, is to write only one bracketing comma where two are necessary. All these sentences are incorrect:
All of these are wrong. If you try removing any text bounded by a comma, the result will be an incorrect sentence. Check this for yourself.
Single bracketing commas are very useful to prevent the reader misinterpreting what is meant:
Commas are not used in English to mark off subordinate clauses, but hey are often used to signal the end of some subordinate clauses:
and the beginning of some:
A listing comma, as you would expect, is used inside a list. It acts in effect as a substitute for the word and (or sometimes for the word or). The result might be called an "X, Y and Z list" – for example:
In each case, the listing comma might, in principle, be replaced by and (or, in the last example, by or); the result would be acceptable, if somewhat repetitive. The and (or the or) signals to the reader that what follows will be the last item in the list.
Note that, in most British usage, there is no listing comma before the word and (or or). But there is one circumstance in which the extra comma is essential. This occurs when the list element before it consists of two (or more) elements linked by and. In this case, the extra comma may be necessary to avoid ambiguity, for example:
This time the extra comma is necessary to the sense, since without it the reader might mistakenly take Jennifer Saunders and Rory Bremner as the pair who work together.
It is possible to put three or more complete sentences into an X, Y and Z list. For example:
This is fine, though such lists should be used carefully, since they can easily get out of control and puzzle the reader. However, the last and (or or) is essential to show that this is a list; without it, the punctuation produces a comma-splice.
The listing comma also has a second and slightly different use, one in which no such word as and is present. This occurs with a list of modifiers that modify the same thing – for example:
In all these cases, the listing commas could, in principle, be replaced by and; the result would be adequate, if somewhat repetitive:
A comma is wrong when and is impossible, as in these examples:
So, if you are in doubt about whether a listing comma is required in such cases, you can check by testing whether the word and can sensibly appear instead of the comma. If it can, then the comma is required; if not, then not.
A joining comma joins two complete sentences into a single larger sentence, and it must be followed by a suitable connecting word. The most usual such connecting words are and, but, for, or, so, while and yet. For example:
Poland has applied to join the EU, and Bulgaria is expected to apply soon.
You can believe him, for he is an honest man.
Beer makes me feel bloated, so I prefer wine.
A dropped goal counts three points in rugby union, while in rugby league it counts only one point.
However, it is incorrect to join two or more complete sentences with commas alone, and without a suitable connecting word. This very frequent error is known as the comma splice, and is rife among KS3 writers. All these sentences are incorrect:
Jan is British, I’m American.
The NASDAQ crashed in 2000, even the Microsoft share price fell.
Goulash is a Hungarian dish, moussaka is Greek, shish kebab is Turkish.
Borg won his fifth straight Wimbledon title in 1980, the following year he lost in the final to McEnroe.
These sentences can be corrected in one of two ways:
The gapping comma shows that one or more words have been left out to avoid repetition of words already used in the sentence – for example:
This is a short way of writing what might be written in full:
The shorter form is often more elegant. Further examples are:
Russia is famous for her composers; Poland, for her philosophers.
Fred learned to play the clarinet and Ted, the oboe.
Venus is the hottest planet; Pluto, the coldest.
A comma may be used after the word before direct-quote quotation marks, but this is not obligatory.
What follows a colon is a restatement of what is before it. This restatement may:
A colon can also be used to introduce a list:
What follows may be a complete sentence, or a phrase, or a mere list, or even a single word. For example:
Quotation marks are used in four ways:
What goes inside the quotation marks must be the exact words spoken.
A comma is often used after the word before a direct quote (see the first three examples above); however, it is not obligatory. Otherwise, quotations and the words round them should be punctuated as normal. For example:
Here the colon is required because the following quotation is a restatement of what precedes it. When text splits a quotation, bracketing commas enclose the interruption:
Note that the first comma (for no logical reason) is usually put inside the quotation mark closing the first part of the quote.
If you dislike the use of a word in a particular context, put quotation marks round it to show your distaste:
It is helpful to readers to enclose a technical term in quotation marks, especially if it is likely to be new to them:
If you are writing about a word itself, and not about what it means, putting single quotes round the word will help to make your meaning clear.