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The importance of proper punctuation

The importance of punctuation?

Punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence. Improving punctuation helps the reader understand you and makes the meaning clear.

Punctuation includes such marks as commas, quotemarks, question marks, used in writing to separate sentences and their elements to clarify meaning. In spoken language stress, pause, and tonal changes set the purpose of the sentence.

Punctuation is essential for the following reasons:

  • Punctuation separates sentences.
  • Punctuation shows us when to pause.
  • Punctuation shows us where to place emphasis.
  • Punctuation clarifies the meaning of the sentence.

Ambiguous, unpunctuated sentences can change the meaning and confuse the reader.

Consider the following sentence without punctuation.

“The fire is in the oil can you call the fire department fine powder extinguisher is good not the fire hose splashes will cause injury.”grammar

Can you imagine saying this sentence in a monotone during an oil fire? Without punctuation, the sentence is confusing. In this case, misinterpreted instructions could lead to death or injury.

Consider how the meaning changes depending on where you put the punctuation,

“The fire is in the oil! Can you call the fire department. Fine powder extinguisher is good, not the fire hose, it spreads burning oil!

The person finds the burning oil, then calls the fire department. Gets the fine powder extinguisher and not the fire hose.

In this example, the meaning changes if the punctuation changes.

“The fire is in the oil can. You call the fire department fine powder. Extinguisher is good,  NOT!  The fire hose it spreads burning oil.

While the person is looking for a burning oil can, he says the fire department is fine powder. He doesn’t look for the powder extinguisher. and doesn’t want to use the fire hose because burning oil will come out of it.

GrammarAnother example of punctuation changing meaning

“My 10 Million dollar estate is to be split among my husband, daughter, son, and nephew.

With the commas, it is clear the 10 million dollar estate is split four ways.

If the commas are removed, then the husband, daughter, and son would receive one half of the estate, and the nephew would receive the other half the estate.

A few punctuations rules

Spacing

Use one space after punctuation.  Do not put a space before or after a hyphenated word.

Periods

Two of the many rules about periods include:

  • If the last word in a sentence ends in a period, do not follow it with another period.
  • Use a period after an indirect question. For example, She asked where her keys are.

Ellipse Marks (three dots)

Ellipses are used for shortening a quote.  Use three dots when omissions occur. For example, “Four score and seven years ago…”

Commas

These are a few of the many rules concerning commas:

  • Use commas to separate words and word groups with a series of three or more. For example, 
    “Can you get eggs, bread, and beans from the supermarket?”
  • Use a comma to separate two adjectives when you do not use and. For example, “She is a fit, healthy young woman.”
  • Use a comma around a person being directly identified. For example, “I am talking to you, Anne, put out the trash.”
  • Use a comma to separate the day of the month from the year and after the year. For example, “It was May 5, 2001, the fire broke out.”
  • Use a comma to separate the city from a state and after the state. For example, “The capital is Wellington, New Zealand, that you will find the prime minister.”

Semicolons

Semicolons are a comma with a full stop above.  It is stronger than a comma.

Use a semicolon to separate two strong clauses in a sentence. For example, “Call me tomorrow; I will fill you in on the details.”

Colons

A Colon finishes a clause while continuing the sentence with a list.  Rules concerning colons include:

  • Use the colon after a complete sentence to introduce a list when introductory words such as for example, do not appear. For example,  “You are required to bring the following items: pen, paper, ruler and protractor.
  • A colon should not precede a list unless the list contains a complete sentence.
  • Capitalization and punctuation are optional when using single words or phrases in bulleted form. For example,
    The assistant should be able to do these tasks:

    • input data,
    • check reports,
    • print datasheets.
  • Use a colon instead of a semicolon between two strong clauses when the second clause explains the first clause. For example, “Release the pressure valve: the pressure valve releases the steam into the main radiator.”
  • Use a colon to introduce a long quote.

Question marks

Only use a question mark after a direct question. Do not use a question mark for an indirect question. Examples are:

  • Are you listening to me?
  • I asked if she was listening to me.

Exclamation Points

Only use exclamation points to show surprise or emphasis. Do not use exclamation points in formal or business writing.

Quotation Marks

Punctuation goes inside the quotation marks at the end of a quotation. For example,

“Do you want to go to the beach?”

If a sentence is a question including a quote, the question mark goes outside the quotation marks.  For example,

Do you agree with the saying “All is true in love and war”?

Apostrophes

Use an apostrophe with contractions at the place of the omission. For example, don’t, isn’t

Use an apostrophe to show possession. For example,  the girl’s hat.

When showing plural possession, make the noun plural first. Then follow with an apostrophe — for example, The Joneses’ hats.

When a title is used as a noun, then use the apostrophe after the title to show plural where the apostrophe is needed to show possession. For example,  I went to three M.D.s’ offices yesterday.

Hyphens

It is not always clear when to use a hyphen to separate a compound noun. For example,

  • eyewitness
  • eye shadow
  • eye-opener

If you are not sure when to use a hyphen, then consult a dictionary.

Use a hyphen in a prefix of a proper noun — for example, un-American.

Parentheses

Use parentheses to encapsulate words or figures that support a statement. Examples are:

  • I expect one hundred dollars ($100) to be paid into my account by Monday.
  • Carbon reacts with Hydrogen (refer to the chapter on Hydrocarbons).

Use full parentheses to enclose numbers or letters used for a list.  For example,

Before using the hand-gun (1) Perform a safety check (2) Check the chamber for ammunition (3) Check the safety switch is on.

Why should we care about punctuation?

If writing is confusing because of incorrect or missing punctuation:

  • People might stop reading, and you lose your audience.
  • People might be offended because the opposite meaning is conveyed.
  • If you use poor grammar, spelling, and punctuation, you will lose credibility.

These articles will help in developing a good writing style:

Grammarly is an essential tool for writers.  Grammarly checks writing in real-time, providing feedback with suggestions of grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary.
thebluebookofgrammar

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is a straight-forward easy to understand reference book.

Aaron Skudder

17 Comments

  1. This is great advice. Many younger people either have not been taught or don’t bother using correct and effective communication. I remember being taught these things in school and laughing about the potential misunderstandings that could come from getting them wrong. This is a great web page, very thorough and detailed. In New Zealand we have over 213 ethnic groups from 196 countries. I have employed a number of very smart people for whom English is a second language. Many of them work in IT, including setting up websites!. Getting it wrong could be disastrous for their employers and their careers.

  2. Hi,

    This is great! I have been looking for a website to help a friend of mine who isn’t very good at the English language and this looks perfect. The idea of being able to write a sentence or even a paragraph is so daunting but with your advice and lessons it looks like they could do it! 

    Punctuation is something that is so underrated in this day and age as text speak takes over from proper English. It’s great to see a website that cares about others who are trying to learn the language. Do you or will you be doing any other languages in the future?

    Many thanks

    Tony

    • Hi Tony.

      I am not sure what you mean by ‘doing any other languages’.

      I hope to specialize in problems that foreigners have learning English.  I have covered specific problems that Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and others encounter.

  3. Punctuations are integral to speech but very visible only in writing. The importance of proper punctuation can not be overemphasized since it helps to state our intention during speech. You are spot on with the various roles that you stated for punctuations and it does even more. Mastering the use would ensure proper communication devoid of ambiguity

    • Hi RoDarrick.

      The rules of punctuation that I have outlined are only a beginning.  I have summarised half a book on the subject and I have left a lot of rules out for brevity.

  4. Wow, this is very good and educative. Punctuations are truly very important in a writing. When we speak, we punctate and that is why what we say is understandable the way we want the hearer to understand it. Conversely, if punctuations are not properly employed in writing, one will lose readers who will get disinterested. I have learnt quite a number of things from this post that I will implement in my writings now. That’s ks

    • Thanks, Henderson.  What you say about word stress is particularly important for Japanese learners of English.

  5. Educating!  Punctuation is a very important part of English  and grammar as a whole… The understanding of a sentence is pass acrossed with the use of punctuations.they can change the meaning of what a speaker is trying to say and thus are important in order to avoid passing the wrong message to a fellow interlocutor.i must say a big kudos for such a remarkable and educative review.

  6. Thanks, Aaron! Relearning correct grammar and punctuation is advantageous. Even if we have discussed about it in school, it’s advisable that we go back on these things from time to time because there are some rules that we tend to forget or simply wasn’t cleared to us before. I am guilty with the proper use of colon and semi colon. I would always use a comma to substitute those punctuation marks. I’m gonna have to bookmark this article for my kids for reference. Your explanation on this is really simple and clear. Thanks for sharing again  

    • Hi MissusB

      I am constantly updating my blogs and writing new blogs on Learning Englsih.  Please check for updates.

  7. Wow! Awesome post you’ve got here.

    I  It’s very important to know all the punctuation marks, what they mean, and also when to use them in so as to produce a good piece of writing – and more importantly, to convey the correct message. Thanks for taking time to write on this.

    Regards.

  8. I live in New Zealand, as do the author’s of this web site. Totally coincidental. This page should be compulsory reading for people who live in a country where English is the main language and it is a second language for this person. This page is very thorough and includes some great, if not slightly complicated examples. The first one about the fire is very good but also complex. You might consider swapping the first and second examples around to make it a bit easier for an ESOL reader. 

    In the section on commas. I’m not sure whether it was deliberate because of the topic, but for purposes of being correct, the example is a question, but doesn’t end in a question mark.

    I use Norton Site Safe on my browser as an extension. I sent them a note telling them that I felt the site was safe, because I got a warning before I visited, saying the site is safe but new and asking me if I want to still visit it. That might put off potential customers. You might want to try visiting the site using a browser that doesn’t recognise you as the person who owns the site.

    I feel like the site is targeting an Asian audience, although this article was not written by an Asian. The reason I mention this is because I’m not sure what is culturally appropriate, or if there should be a difference between audiences. If I was addressing a European audience for example, I might use a little less detail, spread it into more pages and use a little humour. However someone who has come to this page with a purpose and is already committed to learning from this page, the detail is great. Just a thought. 

    I don’t always do it, but I try to inject something personal, an experience or something that bonds me to the audience. I’m sure we all have funny experiences about accidental misuse of words or phrasing and the impact on meaning. That might not be easy in this case, but one example I thought of when reading about commas, was I’ve noticed on the New Zealand TV Soap series Shortland Street, that many of the characters are very correct in the way they speak. So the example of surrounding a person’s name with a comma is exactly how many of the people speak. If they were speaking this phrase they would take a clear pause after the word you and another after the person’s name, making it not only very clear who they are talking to, but in the way they emphasize the name, they also make clear that this is an instruction or a strongly directed statement : Use a comma around a person being directly identified. For example, “I am talking to you, Anne, put out the trash.”

    Bottom line, I think this is an excellent page and should be read by young adults, for whom English is their first language who have been taught these things but have forgotten some of them. Language changes, and it is in a state of rapid change currently. This creates real problems in the business world where near enough is not good enough.

    Well done!
     

  9. Thank you for this very informative article on punctuation. I thought your cartoon was very funny and also the different ways you distributed the punctuation to change the meeting. I was never really sure on how to use a semicolon, until now. I think your article will help a lot of people learn English because you explain everything so well and you have very good examples. I hope that people searching for help with their English find your website.

  10. This is a general review or what I consider to be a review
    Overall Blog Layout
    great use of Headline and tagline that refers to the objective of post
    easy to use navigation and categories
    great use of visuals
    good paragraph structure
    proper use of examples
    clear purpose
    Overall Content
    Great use of punctuation and grammer
    knowledgable on subject
    no gaps, inconsistencies, or contradictions
    expresses essential points accurately in a clear and logical manner
    Cons:
    lack of relevant links to other posts in website
    lack of statistical data to support claims
    overall post is great and interesting. Im still stuck on resizing pictures. Great work. I smell success in your near future.
    c

  11. From the primary school I learned about the importance of punctuation. I think in any Language it is important to communicate in writing. At ECDL (the driving license of the computer in Europe) I learned how to write on the computer and how to use punctuation marks. Exactly as you presented. It is an excellent post. Thanks. Carmen

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