One of the side effects of the ever-increasing take-up of electronic communication is that punctuation is being overlooked and forgotten. That might be alright for mobile phone users – but is not so if you are communicating in more formal contexts or in academic writing.
Punctuation is essential because, above all, it clarifies and shapes meaning. If we are speaking with someone, we can easily clarify meaning by asking questions and seeking more information. Writing does not give us that luxury – we need to express ourselves clearly and ensure that misunderstanding is avoided. Punctuation is therefore essential in the written context.
Punctuation is like the markings, signage and lights on a road, which help the driver to keep in the right lanes, watch out for problems and know when to slow down, to accelerate and to stop. However, punctuation is largely ignored by many people – which is unfortunate, because the sloppier we become with punctuation, the less clear and precise will be our writing and thus, our meaning.
“Eats Shoots & Leaves” by Lynn Truss
The well-known example from a book by Lynn Truss, ‘Eats shoots and leaves’ (2009), illustrates the importance of punctuation. The title can be interpreted in two ways, as below: “Eats, shoots and leaves’ (1) gives us a different meaning from ‘Eats shoots and leaves’ (2).
- In example 1, we can presume that someone eats, then shoots, then departs
- In example 2, we can presume that an animal, for example a Koala, eats shoots and leaves.
The only difference in these two sentences is the comma in example 1. The use of the comma can change the meaning of the sentence completely!
Elements of punctuation
Among the most common and necessary elements of punctuation are:
- commas (,)
- semi-colons (;)
- colons (:)
- full stops (.)
- exclamation marks (!) and
- question marks (?).
These punctuation markers affect the flow of sentences and writing in general. They also can have a significant impact on meaning.
Another punctuation element that is much omitted or abused is the apostrophe (‘), which is either ignored altogether or used inappropriately or unnecessarily. The rules for some English language punctuation, such as the comma, are more flexible than for some European languages such as German, for example. This may have made some people very lazy about punctuation. Correct use of punctuation, however, will make your writing much more precise and balanced and, above all, easier to read and understand.
A full stop (or a question mark or exclamation mark) needs to be used at the end of a sentence. A very simple definition of sentence is “a group of words that contain an idea” or, according to the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary (1997), “a set of words complete in itself as the expression of a thought”. The sentences in the examples below illustrate some of the common mistakes that people make in sentence structure.
Examples of full stop usage
- The research indicated that early exposure to reading made students better readers and the report recommended that the school should implement an early reading strategy that would be of benefit to all early childhood students. (Really two ideas, so should be two separate sentences).
- As a result of early reading programs. (Not a sentence, because the verb is missing. This ‘sentence’ leaves the reader with a question about its conclusion)
Commas are used to indicate a pause or a break in the sentence. Their use can be flexible in some cases, but in others, the comma is almost mandatory. The following are some examples of the necessary use of commas.
Examples of comma usage
- A wide range of items, such as men’s and women’s clothing, make-up products, women’s shoes, cookware and children’s toys is available in this department store. (Used between items or ‘lists’ in a sentence)
- Furthermore, the company is developing a new range of products. These products, however, will not be ready for sale and distribution until next year (Used with certain transition words or phrases, such as ‘furthermore’ or ‘however’)
A semi colon is usually used to indicate a longer break than for a comma and where the second part of the sentence fits neatly with the first. In some of these cases, when you use a semi-colon you could probably use a full stop instead. A semi-colon is also used to separate a list of points or clauses. See the examples below.
Example sentences with semi-colons
- As a result of discussion with the estate agent, the property was renovated and updated; in the end, this led to a better sale price.
- Staff development is an important issue in any industry: it ensures a skilled workforce; it generally leads to better company outcomes; and it provides employees with incentives to keep improving.
The use of a colon is easier to decide. Usually after a colon there is a list of some sort, made up either of single words or of clauses. And of course, the colon is needed before the common use of bullet point lists. Consider the examples below.
Using the colon
When developing a staff development program, managers need to ensure that planned activities will:
- provide continual skill development for all employees;
- give employees the sorts of incentives they desire; and
- help to achieve the company’s goals and objectives.
Many people show a particular disregard for the common apostrophe. They leave it out when it should be there; and they put it in the wrong place when they do remember to include it.
The apostrophe’s main purpose is to show possession, and for use in contracted forms (where letters have been omitted). The use or misuse of apostrophes creates confusion about the sentence’s meaning. Study the examples below.
The secretary’s agenda did not list all items for the Board’s discussion. (Apostrophe used to show ownership – the agenda was ‘owned’ by the secretary, the discussion by the Board).
The secretaries’ agendas were very clear and concise (More than one secretary is involved in writing more than one agenda.
Other examples of the apostrophe in writing
- The company’s records….. (the records of the company)
- The companies’ records ….(the records of the companies)
- The client’s proposal..(the proposal of the client)
- The clients’ proposal (more than one client)
Apostrophes are also used to show contraction and an apostrophe then marks where a letter or letters have been omitted. Therefore, ‘it’s’ means ‘it is’ and ‘its’ means ‘of it’.
- It’s possible that he’ll (he will) organise the staff’s leave schedule today.
- Its proposal (the proposal of the company) was accepted by the client.
- It’s (meaning ‘it is’) probable that the company’s issues (the issues of the company) with the client will be resolved.
Please note: Contracted forms such as ‘it’s’ and ‘he’ll’ are casual forms not often used in academic writing, which generally requires a more formal style.