Writing with Precision
English punctuation calmingly demystified
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|Capital Letter||Exclamation Mark|
|Full Stop (Period)||Apostrophe|
|Question Mark||Em Dash|
ABC Capital Letter
|A capital is used for the
first letter of a new sentence, of quoted speech, or
Exception: The first letter of a sentence does not need to be capitalized if it is included in parenthesis within another sentence.
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.
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
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 because what follows the colon is not a sentence.)
|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
she married him on a sultry Saturday in
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
Compare: The letter i is a vowel.
|Your own relatives should be given an initial capital letter only when their titles are used instead of names.||How's
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
of Agriculture and
The Centers for Disease Control
Vice-President Kamala Harris
placed first in a heading or title, non-key words, such as articles,
and infinitive to,
do not need to have their initial letter capitalized.
To avoid this particular hassle, American English often prefers to capitalize all first letters in titles, most notably in newspaper headlines.
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
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.||Many
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.|
|It is nowadays 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 not a member of the EU. Nor is Switzerland, which only narrowly voted in favour of joining the UN in 2002.|
English more often retains the full stops in country abbreviations, and seems especially unwilling to drop them in "U.S." This
could be a reflection of national pride, or simply to avoid
confusion with the
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. km for kilometers, kg for kilograms, 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
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.
|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."|
|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 behind the bicycle shed; how we should address the issue of graffiti in the restrooms; and last but not least, the perennial problem of unpaid school lunches.|
|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
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.|
|The comma 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 certain no ambiguity arises. Most modern style guides 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.||Soft-wear tycoon Jill Bates is said to make $20,000,000 each night while she is sleeping.|
|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
mark (or exclamation point) is used instead of a full stop
(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 surprising remark or witticism to attract the reader's attention. Good quality writing is sure to convey the intended mood anyhow.
"All hands on deck!"
"Oh, my goodness!"
"I loathe your guts!"
"How utterly revolting!"
|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
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
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
used to highlight direct speech, quotations, and titles (especially those of
shorter works, such as articles, essays, poems, songs,
chapters in books, episodes of TV series, pages of
Most influential style guides now recommend italicisation or underlining to highlight tiltes of complete works such as books, newspapers, magazines, CDs, movies, TV series, etc., although it is not incorrect to use quotation marks for these, too.
over here," he
said with fury in his eyes, "and
you'd better make it snappy!"
"Love me do" was the Beatles' very first hit single.
Of course, "Love me do" was also included on their 1963 debut album Please, Please Me.
|Double quotation marks are widely used for the main quote, single ones for quotes or titles inside quotes or titles.||In a 1980 interview, John Lennon is reported to have said, "'Love me do' is Paul's song. He wrote it when he was a teenager. ..."|
|In printed British English, however, the reverse arrangement is common.||'The only thing I regret saying to my husband is "I do" on our wedding day.'|
|The final quotation marks should always come after any other punctuation marks, unless you are ending with a title or quote within a quote.||The teacher asked, "Did you all read chapter six entitled 'New Horizons'?"|
that American English likes to place a comma or period inside a title or quotation, even though,
strictly speaking, it doesn't
belong there. To Brits this seems illogical.
AmE On her
characterized herself as
BrE In her CV she'd characterised herself as "kind", "caring" and "considerate".
|Colons and semi-colons are always placed outside quotation marks, as are question and exclamation marks not part of any title or words being quoted.||
In 1996, Bill Clinton
promised his fellow Americans
bridge to the 21st century";
they’d have all gotten there anyhow.
Have you ever heard Roger Whittaker's poignant 1970s environmental song "Why?"?
( [ ] ) 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.|
|The dear old hyphen is found linking the elements of many compound nouns and adjectives. English allows plenty of scope for personal preference in this area, so there are few hard and fast rules. Generally speaking, hyphens are useful for linking compound elements that belong together syntactically. 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 — allows us to make subtle distinctions that otherwise would 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 kind of fine distinction between sense and nonsense.
|Hyphens are also
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.
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.
– En Dash
|The en dash (or en rule), so named because its width corresponds to that of a letter N, is commonly used in place of 'to' in ranges between two items such as numbers or dates, as well as in scores and sports results.||The students
were told to do exercises 7–10 as homework.
Chelsea thrashed Everton 5–0.
April 1–March 31 is our fiscal year.
|It can be used to indicate movement or direction.||The Sydney–Hobart
A French–English dictionary
|Use it for
clarity in complex compound adjectives where one of the
elements consists of two words not joined by a hyphen, i.e.
a so-called open compound, such as a proper noun.
In rare cases, a complex compound adjective might consist of two hyphenated terms either joined with an en dash or (preferably) separated with a comma.
Academy Award–winning movies
China has a quasi-communist–quasi-capitalist economy.
(It has a quasi-communist, quasi-capitalist economy.)
|An en dash is used between the names of joint authors or creators to show that two people are involved and not just one person with a hyphenated surname.||If Robert
Fitch and Stewart Baker compiled a report it might be
published as the Fitch–Baker
If John Fitch-Baker and Steve Collins conduct a joint inquiry it will be referred to as the Fitch-Baker–Collins Inquiry.
|Use the en
dash when two nations are concerned, and a hyphen for mixed
If one of the nationality words cannot stand alone, a hyphen must be used.
The Irish-American vote
A Sino-American summit meeting
Unilever is an Anglo-Dutch conglomerate.
— Em Dash
|The em dash (or em rule), so named because its width corresponds to that of a letter M, is used to indicate a pause for emphasis, hesitation or explanation.||"His promises
are worth nothing —
"Don't you think you should have — said something?"
"Sue said her boss was getting on her nerves — that's what she always says when she quits jobs!"
|As an alternative to brackets or commas, a set of two em 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.|
|An em dash can also be used to avoid writing offensive 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.|