Sentence Level Punctuation

last changed 25 March 2003

Introduction

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:

Full stops (.)

A full stop is placed at the end of a complete sentence that functions as a statement – for example:

The predominant religion in Indonesia is Islam.

Cornwallis surrendered to Washington in 1783, and the American War of Independence was over.

There are no tigers in Africa.

She asked us if we were ready to go home.

A full stop is also placed at the end of a fragment that has the force of a statement – for example:

Can England beat Australia this year? Probably not.

Here the second part is a fragment equivalent to the complete sentence Probably they cannot.

Question marks (?)

A question mark is placed at the end of a complete sentence or a fragment that functions as a question – for example:

Which country has the world’s oldest national flag?

Why did Hitler postpone his invasion of the USSR?

Are there any earthquake zones in Britain?

Can England beat Australia this year? Why not?

Note the difference in the following pair of examples:

Are you ready to go home?

She asked us if we were ready to go home.

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.

Exclamation marks (!)

An exclamation mark is placed at the end of a complete sentence or a fragment which functions as an exclamation, for example:

How beautiful she is!

What awful weather we’re having!

How terrible!

Note the difference in form between a statement and an exclamation:

She is very beautiful. [a statement]

How beautiful she is! [an exclamation]

It is also possible to put an exclamation mark at the end of a statement to show that it is very surprising:

After months of work, the scientists finally opened the tomb. It was empty!

Exclamation marks of this kind should be avoided in formal writing, although they are fine for personal letters and reported conversations.

Commas (,)

The comma has five quite different uses, which are explained in more detail below.

  • bracketing
    • I decided that, if I was ever going to succeed, I needed a clear plan.
  • listing
    • She plays tennis on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
  • joining
    • It was raining when I left home in the morning, and it was raining when I came home in the evening.
  • gapping
    • Statements need a full stop and questions, a question mark.
  • quotation
    • He said, "I never make mistakes."

The main weakness in using commas at KS3 is the comma splice.

Colons (:)

The colon has only one important use. It follows a complete sentence and introduces a restatement of what precedes it. For example:

I saw two people: Ali and Lisa.

There are four kinds of restatement; for details see below.

Semi-colons (;)

The semi-colon (;) joins two (or more) complete sentences to make a larger sentence, without the use of a connecting word. For example:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.

The Italians drink wine; the Swedes prefer beer.

Jack Sprat could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean.

I came; I saw; I conquered.

It may also be used in a long list where there are commas within the listed elements:

I met my new boss, who seemed pleasant; the secretary, a fierce young man with a beard, and his friend; and three or four other people who happened to be around.

Speech marks ("…" or ‘…’)

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:

  • round a direct quote:
  • He shouted, "Come in!"

  • round a word the writer disowns:
  • Politicians think "spin" is important.

  • round technical terms:
  • This is a "demonstrative pronoun".

  • when writing about a word:

    "This" is a demonstrative pronoun.


More details

More on commas

Bracketing commas

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:

Schliemann, of course, did his digging before modern archaeology was invented.

These conclusions, it must be said, will disturb a number of readers.

Calista Flockhart, after smoking fifty cigarettes in several hours for a film role, collapsed with nicotine poisoning.

William Bligh was a determined, even ruthless, captain.

Margaret Thatcher, who hated trains, never travelled by rail.

Henman decided that, if he could reach the next serve, he would go for broke.

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.

Schliemann did his digging before modern archaeology was invented.

These conclusions will disturb a number of readers.

Calista Flockhart collapsed with nicotine poisoning.

William Bligh was a determined captain.

Margaret Thatcher never travelled by rail.

Henman decided that he would go for broke.

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:

Before pulling out, a driver must check the mirrors.

In the last six years, Winona Ryder has not made a single successful film.

Unlike most nations, Britain has no written constitution.

The Rose Parade is held in Pasadena, a suburb of Los Angeles.

The play Smoking with Lulu is based on the life of Louise Brooks, a star of the 1920s.

Lung cancer did for Humphrey Bogart, who had smoked heavily all his life.

Once again, if we remove the weak interruptions here, the result will always be a correct sentence.

A driver must check the mirrors.

Winona Ryder has not made a single successful film.

Britain has no written constitution.

The Rose Parade is held in Pasadena.

The play Smoking with Lulu is based on the life of Louise Brooks.

Lung cancer did for Humphrey Bogart.

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:

She groped for her cigarettes, and finding them, hastily lit one.

It is easy to see that this is wrong by trying to remove the bracketed material:

She groped for her cigarettes hastily lit one.

This is certainly wrong. The word and is not part of the interruption, but an essential part of the sentence. The correct form is:

She groped for her cigarettes and, finding them, hastily lit one.

If we remove the interruption now, the result is correct:

She groped for her cigarettes and hastily lit one.

A very common error, frequent among KS3 writers, is to write only one bracketing comma where two are necessary. All these sentences are incorrect:

William Bligh was a determined, even ruthless captain.

The publication of The Hobbit in 1937, marked the beginning of Tolkien’s career as a fantasy writer.

Calista Flockhart, after smoking fifty cigarettes in several hours for a film role collapsed with nicotine poisoning.

Henman decided that if he could reach the next serve, he would go for broke.

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:

Without knocking, my friend crept into the room.

Contrast:

Without knocking my friend ...

She was brought up in France, as a Frenchman had married her mother.

Contrast:

She was brought up in France as a Frenchman ...

Commas are not used in English to mark off subordinate clauses, but hey are often used to signal the end of some subordinate clauses:

If you do not stop taking nonsense immediately, your reputation will be ruined.

Because the children had not learned to swim, they were frightened of the sea.

and the beginning of some:

He was taken down to the dungeon, where he was locked in irons.

I do not mind your smoking, as long as you do not mind my being sick.

Listing commas

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:

We toured Italy, France and Spain.

My favourite films are Casablanca, Singin’ in the Rain and High Society.

This dish is made with chicken, red peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms and bacon.

Albanian is spoken in Albania, in Kosovo and in part of Greece.

We can fly to Sydney via Bahrain, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore.

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:

My favourite comedians are the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, and Rory Bremner.

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:

Goulash is a Hungarian dish, moussaka is Greek, and shish kebab is Turkish.

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:

I prefer delicate, light-bodied wines.

This is a provocative, disturbing book.

Her long, dark, glossy hair fascinated me.

In all these cases, the listing commas could, in principle, be replaced by and; the result would be adequate, if somewhat repetitive:

I prefer delicate and light-bodied wines.

This is a provocative and disturbing book.

Her long and dark and glossy hair fascinated me.

A comma is wrong when and is impossible, as in these examples:

I prefer Australian red wines.

I prefer Australian and red wines.

I prefer Australian, red wines

 

This is a provocative literary work.

This is a provocative and literary work.

This is a provocative, literary work.

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.

Joining commas and the comma splice

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:

  • by inserting a suitable connecting word before the comma:
  • Jan is British, while I’m American.

    The NASDAQ crashed in 2000; even the Microsoft share price fell.

Gapping commas

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:

    In Britain the summer game is cricket and in America, baseball.

This is a short way of writing what might be written in full:

    In Britain the summer game is cricket and in America the summer game is baseball.

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.

Quotation commas

A comma may be used after the word before direct-quote quotation marks, but this is not obligatory.

Bernard Shaw said, "I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation."


Colons

What follows a colon is a restatement of what is before it. This restatement may:

  • specify what precedes, i.e. make it more specific:

    There were three men: Ned, Fred and Jed.

  • or explain it:

    Ned was the cleverest: he could speak five languages.

  • or summarise it:

All were short, fat and pimply: in short, ugly.

  • or exemplify it, as in all the preceding bullet points.

A colon can also be used to introduce a list:

    Fred was kind: to his friends, to children and to animals.

What follows may be a complete sentence, or a phrase, or a mere list, or even a single word. For example:

Africa is facing a terrifying problem: drought is ruining the crops year after year.

I propose the creation of a new post: Manager with responsibility for stock control.

Popular culture revolves around three things: football, soap operas and pop music.

This strike is about just one issue: money.

 

Quotation marks

Quotation marks are used in four ways:

Quotation marks round a direct quote

What goes inside the quotation marks must be the exact words spoken.

Bernard Shaw said, "I often quote myself. It adds spice to my conversation."

Robert Graves wrote, "There is no money in poetry."

There was an old person of Lyme

Who married three wives at a time.

When asked, "Why the third?"

He replied, "One’s absurd,

And bigamy, sir, is a crime!"

Robert Graves wrote that there was "no money in poetry".

"My indecision is final!" he said.

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:

An election time bumper sticker: "Be thankful only one of them can win!"

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:

"That," he said angrily, "is simply ridiculous."

Note that the first comma (for no logical reason) is usually put inside the quotation mark closing the first part of the quote.

It is probably better to use double quotation marks round a direct quote, in case you want single quotation marks for something else inside the quote.

Cynthia Heimel wrote, "Never may a man be permitted to call any female a ‘chick’."

Quotation marks round a word the writer disowns

If you dislike the use of a word in a particular context, put quotation marks round it to show your distaste:

Cynthia Heimel wrote "Never may a man be permitted to call any female a ‘chick’."

This ludicrous idea was dreamed up in a ‘think-tank’.

Quotation marks round technical terms

It is helpful to readers to enclose a technical term in quotation marks, especially if it is likely to be new to them:

Such substances are called ‘hallucinogens’.

If an illness is unintentionally caused by medical treatment, it is known as ‘iatrogenic’.

Quotation marks when writing about a word

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.

‘Deer’ , ‘sheep’ and ‘trout’ are irregular plurals.

The word ‘perfect’ was used by the Cathars to describe those far advanced in their faith.

Contrast:

Deer, sheep and trout are all found in the Highlands

The weather was perfect.