One of the most difficult things that we encounter while training students who learn English as a second language in Speakwell A English Speaking classes in Mumbai is their punctuations. Punctuation Marks are a set of symbols with specific rules for the usage of each one.
Before proceeding further, let us understand why punctuation is required in a language. The complete meaning of a sentence depends on the punctuation that is used in a sentence. Let me share a small story that I tell my students very often. The story goes like this.
Once the Czar of Russia condemned a man to death. The Czar sent an order to the jailer ‘Pardon Impossible. To be executed.’ The Czarina, who had a soft corner for the prisoner, changed the place of the full stop from after the word impossible to before it and the order stood as ‘Pardon. Impossible to be executed.’ And the prisoner was saved from execution. This small story explains the significance of punctuation very well.
Punctuation helps put spoken words into writing. Punctuation helps bring the right kind of expression into writing for which voice intonation, volume, tone, pauses are used while speaking. Let us look at another example: ‘Don’t Stop.’ means carry on, you are not required to stop. Rewriting the same words as ‘Don’t. Stop’ means stop whatever is being done with immediate effect. Definitely, both sentences would be spoken in a different manner.
These days we tend to ignore punctuation. Appropriate use of punctuation shows that a person has good knowledge of grammar. A person likes to pay attention to what is being written and what is meant from the same. It helps create clarity of meaning.
Here are some of the most common punctuation marks along with their usage:
Period/ Full Stop (.): It is used to depict
- Completion of a sentence;
e.g. The thieves have been arrested.
- In abbreviations;
e.g. Dear Ms. Sharma, ……
Comma (,): It is used as the shortest pause that is made while speaking. It can be used at many places in a sentence, but the most common usage of the comma is :
- To separate a list of words in a sentence;
e.g. Smita, Sheetal, Priyesh and Mahesh are going to a movie.
Semi Colon (;): Represents a pause of greater significance and length than a comma. It is used to separate closely related independent clauses;
e.g. He was a tall, gallant warrior; we all loved him.
Colon (:): A colon also represents a pause, more complete than a semi colon, but less a full stop. It is generally used before a list or an explanation.
e.g. The teacher said: “ Reading is important if you want to learn a language.”
Question Mark (?): A question mark is the sign of the interrogative and is used after direct questions;
e.g. Would you like to have a cup of tea?
Exclamation Mark (!): The exclamation mark is used after sentences used to express emotion or a wish, and interjections;
e.g. O Father! In heaven ….
Inverted Commas/ Quotation Marks (“ “): These are used to depict quoted or spoken language. They are used when the words are repeated as they were said.
e.g. The Principal said: “All teachers are required to be present for the staff meeting.”
Having seen the significance of punctuations, let us see some tips to effectively use punctuations in written English.
- Correct use of the apostrophe
Maybe it’s because of its miniature size, but the apostrophe tends to be neglected and misused in equal measure.
The apostrophe is used to form possessives (e.g., the school’s faculty, our family’s crown, the shirt’s collar, Saumya Shreyas’s house) and certain contractions (e.g., it’s, let’s, she’s, they’re, I’ve, don’t).
The apostrophe is not used to form most plurals (e.g., she is looking at several schools, the families have similar crowns, these shirts are on sale, we are dining with the Shreyases). There are three exceptions: plurals of lowercase letters (e.g., dot your i’s and cross your t’s); plurals of certain words used as words (e.g., we need to tally the yes’s, no’s, and maybe’s); and plurals of certain abbreviations (e.g., the staff includes a dozen Ph.D.’s and four M.D.’s).
- Placement of quotation marks
Periods and commas go inside quotation marks, even if they aren’t part of the material being quoted. All other punctuation marks go outside the quotation marks, unless they are part of the material being quoted.
“Any further delay,” she said, “would result in a lawsuit.”
His latest story is titled “The Beginning of the End”; wouldn’t a better title be “The End of the Beginning”?
- Placement of parentheses
When a parenthetical element is included at the end of a larger sentence, the terminal punctuation for the larger sentence goes outside the closing parenthesis. When a parenthetical sentence exists on its own, the terminal punctuation goes inside the closing parenthesis.
She casually told us she would be spending her birthday in Venice (Italy, not California). (Unfortunately, we weren’t invited.)
- Hyphen for compound adjectives
When two or more words collectively serve as an adjective before the word they are modifying, those words should normally be hyphenated. The major exception is when the first such word is an adverb ending in -ly.
The hastily arranged meeting came on the heels of less-than-stellar earnings.
- Distinguish between the colon and the semicolon
The colon and the semicolon can both be used to connect two independent clauses.
When the second clause expands on or explains the first, use a colon. When the clauses are merely related, but the second does not follow from the first, use a semicolon.
Semicolon: Only a third of Indians have a passport; the majority of Americans have a passport.
Colon: Only a third of Indians have a passport: for most, foreign travel is either undesirable or unaffordable.
- Avoid multiple punctuations at the end of a sentence
Never end a sentence with a question mark or exclamation point followed by a period. If a sentence ends with a period that is part of an abbreviation, do not add a second period.
I don’t particularly like the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I didn’t like it even when I worked at Yahoo! I especially didn’t like it when I saw it at 5:00 a.m.
- Use a colon to introduce a list only when the introductory text is a complete sentence
Not all lists should be introduced with a colon. The general rule is that if the introductory text can stand as a grammatically complete sentence, use a colon; otherwise, do not.
Correct: Please bring the following items: a flashlight, a comfortable pair of hiking boots, and a jacket.
Incorrect: Please bring: a flashlight, a comfortable pair of hiking boots, and a jacket.
Correct: Please bring a flashlight, a comfortable pair of hiking boots, and a jacket.
Correct: Please bring the typical evening hiking gear: a flashlight, a comfortable pair of hiking boots, and a jacket.
- Use commas to indicate nonessential information
If explanatory matter can be omitted without changing the general meaning of the sentence, it should be set off with commas. If the explanatory matter is essential to the meaning of the sentence, do not set it off with commas.
Correct: The novelist Chetan Bhagat seldom gives interviews.
Incorrect: The novelist, Chetan Bhagat, seldom gives interviews.
Explanation: The identity of the specific novelist is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Otherwise, there is nothing to indicate which of the multitude of novelists is being referred to.
Correct: America’s first president, George Washington, served from 1789 to 1797.
Incorrect: America’s first president George Washington served from 1789 to 1797.
Explanation: America has only one first president. Identifying him by name is not essential to the meaning of the sentence.
- Use a dictionary
Is it U.S.A. or USA? Co-worker or coworker? Lets or let’s? Teachers’ college or teachers college? Though these examples implicate punctuation marks (the use or omission of periods, hyphens, or apostrophes), the correct form can be easily determined with a good dictionary.
- If in doubt, rewrite
The easiest way to solve a vexing punctuation problem is to avoid it. If you aren’t sure how to properly punctuate a sentence—or if the proper punctuation results in a convoluted, confusing, or inelegant sentence—rewrite it. Perhaps as more than one sentence.
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