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English Grammar Books

Simple Punctuation Guide

You know how I said pronunciation matters? Well, I'll have to ask you to believe me again, because punctuation matters too.

Punctuation means making little marks. It means putting the right kind of little marks in the right place so as to show the exact length and meaning of sentences. Proper punctuation is essential in written English to enable the reader to understand what you are trying to say.

Spacing your punctuation correctly is also important to make your writing readable.

Here are some English punctuation rules.

Common Punctuation Marks

. full stop BrE (period AmE)
! exclamation mark
? question mark
, comma
: colon
; semi colon
' apostrophe
" " quotation marks
- hyphen
Apostrophes [']
Apostrophes next to the letter ('s) indicate possession or belonging. No space is needed before or after the apostrophe.

For example:-

This is Lynne's web site.

They are also used to show missing letters in shortened words, especially in informal writing. No space is needed before or after the apostrophe.

For example:-

It's a nice day today, isn't it? I've got an idea. Let's go out.

More on the apostrophe
Exclamation marks [!]

Exclamation marks act as a full stop. An exclamation mark is most often used to show shock, surprise, horror or pleasure. As with full stops you do not put a space before an exclamation mark, but you do need at least one space after one (two spaces for purists).

There's an increasing tendency to overuse them on the internet. Shock horror!!!! Try to stick to the rule of one exclamation mark per sentence, otherwise they will lose their effect.

For example:-

Oh! Wow! Brilliant! etc...

It was shocking!

Commas [,]

Commas point out brief pauses in a complex sentence or separate items in long lists.

Commas are useful for breaking up long sentences, but only to show a natural break. You do not put a space before a comma, but you do need a space after one.

Why commas are so important.

For example:-

There were a lot of people in the room, teachers, students, and parents. The teachers were sitting, the students were listening and the parents were just worrying.

Note - We don't always put a comma before the word 'and'.

More on the comma
Colons [:]
Colons precede a list, an explanation or an example. You do not put a space before a colon, but you do need a space after one.

For example:-

"There are two main shopping areas in Nottingham: Broadmarsh Centre and Victoria Centre."

Full stops [.]

Full stops (periods in the USA) go at the end of sentences that are statements. You do not put a space before a full stop, but you do need at least one space after one (two spaces for purists, but in these days of computers and e-mails one space is fine).

For example:-

My name is Lynne. I am a teacher.

More on the full stop
Hyphens [-]
Hyphens are used to connect words or syllables, or to divide words into parts. You don't use a space on either side of a hyphen.

For example:-

There were ninety-nine red balloons.

More on the hyphen
Question marks [?]
Question marks go at the end of sentences that are questions. As with full stops you do not put a space before a question mark, but you do need at least one space after one (two spaces for purists).

For example:-

Is my name Lynne? Of course it is.

You need a question mark at the end of tag questions too.

For example:-

It's a nice day, isn't it?

Semicolons [;]
Semicolons are used to separate two sentences that would otherwise be joined with a word such as 'and', 'because', 'since', 'unless' or 'while'. You do not put a space before a semicolon, but you do need a space after one.

For example:-

"I'm looking forward to our next lesson; I'm sure it will be a lot of fun."

Quotation marks (Speech marks) | Double quotes [" "] Single quotes [ ' ' ]
Quotation marks (single or double) are used to show words that are directly spoken (direct speech). Only the words actually being quoted are enclosed by speech marks. You need a space before the opening speech mark, but no space after it, and a space after the closing one, but no space before it.

For example:-
"Could everyone sit down please," said the teacher.

Another general rule is to use a comma after the introduction to quoted speech or writing.

For example:-
Jamie said, "I love you."

Sometimes when writing a spoken sentence it is split in two. The speech marks must then be placed at the beginning and end of each part of the sentence. Commas are used to separate the spoken part from the rest of the sentence.

For example:-
"
I wonder," she said quietly, "whether people will ever truly understand each other."

However if you need a question mark or exclamation mark the markers that punctuate the quoted words are enclosed by the speech marks.

Spot the difference:-
"I don't understand", replied Nathan.
Nathan replied, "I don't understand."

"Do you understand?" asked Nathan.
Nathan asked, "Do you understand?"

"I don't understand!" shouted Nathan.
Nathan shouted, "I don't understand!"

!Note - There are some differences in use between British and American English.

A brief note from history

When Alexander Dumas completed his sequel to 'The Three Musketeers', he sent the manuscript to his publishers. After a few weeks he had heard nothing and wrote a short note:-

Dear Henri
?
Alexandre

He received the reply:-

Dear Alexandre
!!
Henri

And one final note from me. Smilies do not replace punctuation. ;)

Thanks to Hekner for proofreading this article.

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