David Appleyard's English Language User Guides and References
Page Contents
Busy writer Capital Letter Exclamation Mark  
Full Stop (Period) Apostrophe  
Ellipsis Quotation Marks  
Semicolon Brackets (Parentheses)  
Comma Dash  
Colon Hyphen  
Question Mark Spelling  

 

ABC   Capital Letter

A capital is used for the first letter of a new sentence, of quoted speech or proper nouns.

Exception: The first letter of a sentence does not need to be capitalized if it is included in parenthesis within another sentence.
In English it's customary to say "How do you do?" when you meet somebody for the first time.

We drove almost 1,000 kilometers (in the U.S. they'd say 600 miles) before we finally found a place for the night.
In more formal or academic writing, a capital can only be used for the first letter of a clause introduced by a colon if this clause constitutes a complete sentence.

In casual, everyday writing, however, this rule does not appear to be so strictly adhered to, and so widespread confusion prevails.
There was only one thing he knew for sure: He did not want to be sent back to North Korea. (Here capitalization is acceptable but not compulsory.)

There was only one thing he was afraid of: being sent back to North Korea. (In this case a capital letter should not be used.)
A capital is used for the first letter of names of months and days of the week, but not of seasons.

Holidays should also be capitalized.
After a long, hot summer she married him on a sultry Saturday in September.

January 1 is New Year's Day.
A capital letter is always used for the first person singular subjective personal pronoun "I". This capitalized form first appeared around 1250 in northern and central England in order to facilitate the correct reading of handwritten documents. Only after 1700 did it become universally accepted in the south of the country.  MORE> My boss and I agreed that I should make up for the time I had lost.

Compare: The letter i is a vowel.
Your own relatives should be given an initial capital letter when their titles are used instead of names. How's Dad doing these days?
Compare
: My dad bought me a bicycle.
A capital is used for the first letter of key words in headings and titles. If such titles are hyphenated then both components are given capitalized first letters. The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries
The Centers for Disease Control
V
ice-President Joe Biden
Unless placed first in a heading or title, non-key words, such as articles, prepositions, coordinating conjunctions and infinitive to, do not need to have their initial letter capitalized.

In order to steer clear of this particular hassle, American English often prefers to capitalize all first letters in titles, most notably in newspaper headlines.
"Gone with the Wind"
"The Lord of the Rings"



 BrE   "Miners Refuse to Work after Death"

 AmE
  "Miners Refuse To Work After Death"
A capital is used for the first letter of key words in historical events. The Battle of Waterloo
The Great Fire of London
A capital is used for the first letter of religions and many other religious words. When in doubt, consult a good dictionary. Devout Christians do daily Bible study.
Devout Catholics attend regular Mass.

 

.   Full Stop (Period)

Full stops (or periods) are used to mark the end of a sentence which is a statement.  The world is round.
They are also used to mark abbreviations. If such an abbreviation occurs at the very end of a sentence, the final dot is not usually written twice.   An overhead projector is often referred to as an O.H.P.
Nowadays it is increasingly common to omit full stops in most abbreviations, especially in the names of companies, authorities, organizations, etc.   "Big Blue" is a well known nickname for IBM.
The FDA regulates pharmaceutical sales in the United States.
In British English, full stops are also omitted in abbreviations for countries and political entities. The UK is a member of the EU. Switzerland is not, and it only narrowly voted in favour of joining the UN in 2002.
American English more often retains the full stops in country abbreviations, however, and seems especially unwilling to drop them in "U.S." This could be a reflection national pride or an attempt to avoid confusion with the objective personal pronoun "us".

In contrast to American English, British English does not need a full stop after abbreviations that include the final letter of the abbreviated word, as in Dr Jekyll, Mr Hyde, or Mrs Jones.

It is rare for either British or American English to use full stops for abbreviations treated as a single word (i.e. acronyms) like AIDS or NATO

Abbreviations of metric measurements and chemical symbols are written without full stops, e.g. 3 km, 6 kg, H for hydrogen and Pb for lead. Even for abbreviations of non-metric measurements the use of full stops is becoming increasingly rare.
 AmE  Dr. Cohen is from the U.S. Since 2009 he has been working for UNICEF at U.N. headquarters in New York. He weighs 165 lb (lb.) / lbs (lbs.) and walks 2 miles to work every day.


 BrE  Mr Jackson was born in the UK in 1971 but later became a US citizen. Nowadays he's working for UNESCO at UN headquarters in New York. He weighs 75 kg and walks 3 km to work every day.

 

...   Ellipsis

An ellipsis is used to indicate missing words in an incomplete quotation. Headline: "Popular heart remedy debunked...Treating the bloodstream with chelation therapy fails to relieve heart disease."

;   Semicolon

A semicolon loosely separates two sentences that are either closely related or serve to complement each other.   This was the second time he had been in Toronto; the places — the faces — all seemed strangely familiar.
Secondly, the semicolon is used to indicate stronger divisions in longer sentences already broken up by commas. He wanted to talk to Maria, whom he had admired for a long time, and was delighted to see her running toward him; but alas, before he could greet her, she thumbed down a taxi and was swiftly driven away.  
Thirdly, it is used to show the main divisions in lists of longer items. The following issues were raised at last night's PTA meeting: what the kids get up to in the lunch break; what is to be done about smoking in the playground; how we should solve the problem of graffiti in the restrooms; and lastly, the vexing question of unpaid school lunches.

 

,   Comma

The comma provides a key indication of when to pause when reading a text in order to clarify meaning and avoid ambiguity. It is frequently used with a co-ordinating conjunction to separate two main clauses. In the case of very short sentences, where a pause might seem unnatural, the comma may be omitted.   Tom goes jogging at six in the morning, but he doesn't usually run more than two blocks.

The cloud burst and he got soaked.

She wanted to help him(,) but she didn't know how.
Introductory elements are conveniently separated off with a comma. In the case of very short introductions, where a pause would interrupt the flow of natural speech, this comma may be omitted.
Not knowing what to do, he jumped from a ninth floor window.
Immediately he regretted his decision.
A comma separates off multiple adjectives before a noun, but not in cases when the final adjective forms a compound with the noun itself.

If you can insert and or but between the adjectives, then you can also insert a comma.
Giovanni was a tall, dark, handsome, Italian social worker.

It was a dirty, dastardly, despicable thing to do.

They enjoyed an excellent French wine.
It is used to separate a non-defining relative clause from its antecedent.   My cousin Sheila, who was recently awarded an MBA, has just landed a job on Wall Street.
It is also used to separate items in a list, especially shorter ones. The following issues were raised at last night's PTA meeting: lunch breaks, playground smoking, restroom graffiti(,) and unpaid school lunches.
Before the final item in a list a comma is not usually necessary before and, unless this helps to clarify the meaning. 
The bedding materials were available in a variety of colors: red, blue, yellow, green, orange, black and white.

The bedding materials were available in a variety of colors: red, blue, yellow, green, orange, and black and white.
In more formal or academic writing, where even the opportunity for ambiguity is to be avoided, the systematic insertion of a serial comma after the penultimate item in a listing is taken very seriously by U.S. academia.

Nevertheless, it is not incorrect to leave out the comma before the final and — as long as you are sure no ambiguity arises. Most newspaper editors adopt this less pedantic approach.
This research is based upon interviews with high-ranking government officials in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.


This research is based upon interviews with high-ranking government officials in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.  
In larger numbers, commas are used to mark off and thus facilitate easy reading of hundreds, thousands, millions, billions and trillions. The soft-wear tycoon Jill Bates is said to make $20,000,000 each night while she is sleeping.

 

:   Colon

The colon is used to separate two main clauses where the first is an introduction to the second.   Halfway across the Atlantic, the pilot had an awful realization: he had forgotten to turn off the gas at breakfast time.
If the second sentence is a quotation, using a colon instead of a comma makes this more emphatic.   I gave it to him straight:  "Don't under any circumstances ever come near me again!"
The colon also introduces a list of items separated by commas or semicolons.   The new teacher could speak several foreign languages:  Chinese, Arabic, Spanish and French.

 

?   Question Mark

A question mark is used instead of a full stop (or period) to mark the end of a sentence which is a question.   "You work in Atlanta?"
"Yeah, that's right. And you?"
It can also be found (often in brackets) expressing doubt or uncertainty about the word or phrase it is placed immediately after. The novel "Robinson Crusoe" was written by Daniel Defoe (1660[?]-1731).

 

!   Exclamation Mark

An exclamation mark is used instead of a full stop (or period) after a word, phrase or sentence that is a strong appeal, a command, a warning or an expression of surprise, enthusiasm, emotion, pain or disgust in the form of an exclamation or interjection.

Note: There is a tendency to overuse exclamation marks. It should not be necessary to add them to every single remark or witticism in order to attract a reader's attention. Good quality writing is sure to get read anyhow.
"Help!"
"All hands on deck!"
"Watch out!"
"Oh, my goodness!"
"That's brilliant!"
"I loathe your guts!"
"Ouch!"
"How revolting!"

'   Apostrophe

The primary use of the apostrophe is to indicate possession. It is positioned before possessive "s" in singulars, and after it in plurals (except in the case of men, women and children). The boy's father
The girls' mothers
The children's clothes
When a person's name already ends in "s", the addition of a possessive "s" after the apostrophe is sometimes deemed unnecessary. Charles Dickens' novel "A Tale of Two Cities" was first published in 1859.
A negative trend in modern English is for the apostrophe to be dropped altogether, thereby clouding the all-important distinction between the possessive and plural forms of the noun. Many tourists find credit cards more convenient than travelers' checks. (Nowadays it is not uncommon to see "travelers checks" with no apostrophe, which purists might call a catastrophe.)  
The other major use of the apostrophe is to replace missing letters in contractions. He's never said he wouldn't like to cross into Canada while he's in the States, but it's hardly likely he'll have time.
An apostrophe is never to be used in the possessive adjective "its". Nor can its use be justified in contractions of decades, age-groups, or any other mere noun plurals. It's on its way.
In the 1970s she was still in her 30s.
That store stocks 1000s of CDs.
These are the dos and don'ts of apostrophe usage.

 

" ' ' "   Quotation Marks

These are used to highlight direct speech, quotations and titles.   "Come over here," he said with ill-concealed rage in his eyes, "and you'd better make it snappy!"
Double quotation marks are widely used for the main quote, single ones for quotes or titles inside quotes or titles. "Did you know that the 'Mr. Bean' TV comedy became a worldwide success because it was all done with mime?"
Especially in printed matter, however, the reverse arrangement is common. 'The only thing I regret saying to my husband is "I do" at our wedding.'
The final quotation marks should always come after any other punctuation marks, unless you are ending with a title or quote within a quote. Suddenly Sue turned to me and asked, "Did you ever manage to finish 'War and Peace'?"
Please note that American English likes to place the final punctuation mark inside a title or quotation, even though it doesn't belong there. To Brits this seems illogical.
 AmE  He's always wanted to read "Moby Dick," "Oliver Twist," and "The Great Gatsby."

 BrE  He's always wanted to read "Moby Dick", "Oliver Twist" and "The Great Gatsby".

 

( [  ] )   Brackets (Parentheses)

Brackets are convenient for parenthesizing comments, explanations or supplementary information without interrupting the flow of a sentence. The first brackets are rounded, and brackets inside brackets are squared. Clearly, so called "spamming"  (i.e. bombarding tens of thousands of unsuspecting computer-users with e-mails [electronic messages] for advertising purposes) is a major curse of the 21st century.

 

—   Dash

A dash is used to indicate a pause, either for hesitation or explanation. "Don't you think you should have said something?"

"She said her boss was getting on her nerves that's what she always said when she quit jobs!"
As an alternative to brackets or commas, a set of two dashes can be used to insert asides or other parenthetical information.   Most people would agree that if one disregards the typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis Japan is still a relatively safe country to live in.
Lastly, a dash can also be used to avoid writing the worst words when quoting bad language. It is left to the reader to figure out exactly what was said. " off!" yelled the yob in an uncouth manner.

 

-   Hyphen

The dear old hyphen is found linking the elements of many compound nouns and adjectives. English allows a good deal of scope for personal preference in this area and so there are few hard and fast rules. Generally speaking, however, hyphens are very useful for linking compound elements that belong together syntactically. And on occasion they are indispensable! Hot-dog lovers usually also like hamburgers.
I saw many hot dog-lovers walking their pets on a summer's day.

Two radically different headlines:
"Police catch man-eating crocodile"
"Police catch man eating crocodile"
Although gradually becoming less common, especially for joining single-syllable elements, the hyphen — well applied — can allow one to make subtle distinctions that would otherwise be lost. I'm an English teacher.
I'm an English English-teacher.
I'm an English-English teacher.

While we're about it, let's compare a changing room with a changing-room. In the first case we have a room that is changing (which is clearly absurd), and in the second case a much more logical compound noun. Now consider a writing desk,  a walking stick or even laughing gas in the same way. Sadly, there seems to be a growing reluctance to make this fine distinction between sense and nonsense.
Hyphens are also very useful for avoiding awkward collisions of similar sounds in words like co-operation.

American English, however, prefers cooperation, in spite of this being trickier to read.
 BrE  Democracy has become re-established in Nigeria.


 AmE
 Democracy has become reestablished in Nigeria.
Last but not least, the hyphen is used to mark the division of a word split between two lines.   Despite our best efforts, we have so far failed to dis-
cover life on other planets.