in English Language, Essay Technique, Writing Skills

Punctuation is an often overlooked part of writing… but, guess what? It makes a HUGE difference to your expression! If you find yourself using full stops and commas (and not much else) then this page is for you! It gives you the lowdown on the most important types of punctuation, and how to use the more difficult ones — including semi-colons, colons, and dashes.


If you find this resource useful, please visit our website for full access to our English language courses, including Basic Grammar and much more!

Check out our article on adjectives here.

FORMAL OR INFORMAL?

Bear in mind that there is a time and a place for each type of punctuation: semi-colons and colons, for instance, are considered hyper formal. Exclamation marks and question marks are far more informal. Depending on the type of writing you’re doing, you may need only the formal pieces of punctuation: ( ) . “ ” : ; , ‘. If it’s more informal, you can go ahead and use them all! You’ll find that this greatly improves both the clarity and pacing of your written work.

FULL STOP .

  • Helps to break ideas up into smaller chunks that are easier to understand.
  • Grammatically, all sentences must start with a capital letter and end with a full stop — we call these declarative sentences.

QUOTATION MARKS “…”

  • Indicates speech – if you want to show a difference between the general ideas of the sentence and the speech of one specific person.
  • For characters in a story, when they use dialogue (speech).
  • Can indicate an ironic or sarcastic tone (not genuine), E.g. she is sooo ‘nice’.
  • If you’re quoting from a text or another source, especially in essays and articles. E.g. As Juliet says in Shakespeare’s play, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”
  • You can break up a quotation with your own words like this: E.g. “Vaulting ambition” according to Macbeth, is the “only” emotion he has left, which suggests that this is the main motivation for his evil deeds.

QUESTION MARK ?

  • Demonstrates the idea that a sentence is phrased as a question (interrogative sentence) e.gIs he alive? – the speaker is not sure whether the person is alive.
  • Can express uncertainty, surprise, or confusion. e.g. He is alive? – the speaker is confused or surprised that the person is alive.
  • Some informal writing can use multiple question marks to show extra emotion e.g. Why did you do that?? – extra surprise/confusion.

EXCLAMATION MARK !

  • Demonstrates the idea that a sentence is phrased as an emotional outburst. (exclamatory sentence) E.g. Oh gosh!
  • Can combine with a question mark to show both emotion and a request for information E.g. So that’s what you want, is it?!
  • Always considered an expression of informality.
  • Can be angry, happy, excited, frustrated.. Conveys a range of different emotions.

TYPES OF BRACKET () [] <> {}

  • Curved brackets (parentheses) are the most common. They show an additional thought or detail that is not necessary for the whole sentence to make sense. E.g. My best friend (Jenny) is an amazing person; The books (which I had lost) had to be returned to the library. – The parenthesis in this add humor.
  • Parentheses can have entire sentences or multiple sentences within them E.g. I hate maths. (But I don’t need to tell you that, my grades speak for themselves.)
  • Parentheses can show dates or numbers E.g. The Second World War (1939-45) was a huge factor in destabilizing the European economy.
  • Square brackets [] are more specialist. They can be used to clarify unclear information. E.g. He [James] was a terrible person. – this can usually be avoided.
  • Square brackets are used to demonstrate a shortened quotation, along with ellipsis […] E.g. Romeo says “Love is a perfume […] a smoke […] a choking gall […] a preserving sweet”, demonstrating the changing and difficult nature of love. – Instead of quoting the whole speech, the square brackets and ellipsis allow you to focus on the most important ideas for your essay or analysis.
  • Angle brackets < > are only used with websites, emails, etc. E.g. <www.wikipedia.org>
  • Braces { } are only used in maths equations and music.

COLON :

  • Introduce an important idea E.g. Listen to this: I used to hate rap music, but now it’s my favourite. / E.g. There are only two types of people: good ones and bad ones.
  • It has the effect of creating quite a large pause in the sentence, which usually adds dramatic emphasis to the idea that is being expressed.
  • Introduce speech E.g. He said: “Watch out!”
  • Introduce a list E.g. I need to buy the following items: a sketchbook, a pen, a pot of paints, a pencil and an eraser.
  • Used during a POINT COLON QUOTATION structure. Make a point or give an idea, put a colon, then give the quotation (offset quotation) E.g. It is interesting to note that Mercutio’s death is blamed equally on both families: ‘a plague on both your houses!’.

-My point is that the character’s death is not the fault of one person.

-The colon gives a pause.

-The quotation proves the point with a direct reference to the text.

SEMI-COLON ;

  • Used to separate two ideas that could be different sentences E.g. I love holidays. I love the sunshine. When it could be “I love holidays; I love sunshine“, as this creates an association between the sentences.
  • Longer pause than a comma, shorter than a colon.
  • Use it to gain control over the pace of your writing.

E.g. The poet uses a strong emotional tone to create empathy with his readers; the exclamatory sentences also create an intensity of feeling. – Could be two separate sentences, but can be linked by a semicolon to show a deeper connection.

E.g. I said something rude and offensive to him because he was annoying me and I wanted him to go away; he didn’t go away, instead he only got worse and tormented me further. – Very long, complex sentences can still be linked by a semicolon – but you have to be careful about losing clarity.

COMMA ,

  • Used to separate clauses (part of a sentence)

E.g. It’s raining outside, I want to go home. – Two separate ideas that could stand by themselves, if you choose to put them together into the same sentence, you have to use a comma or a conjunction.can be used to separate items in a list:

  • Can be used to separate items in a list E.g. I bought bread, milk, eggs, and cheese from the shop.
  • Used with subordinate clauses to add extra information E.g. The umbrella, which was broken, barely sheltered me from the rain. – The commas separate a subordinate clause so that we know it’s extra information.

DASHES –

  • Short dash (hyphen) is used between words to create compound words E.g. The sky was a grey-blue-white colour / It is a 15-year-old cat / My brother-in-law
  • Quite often you can choose whether to hyphenate a word or not, if you hyphenate then the compound words are read more quickly together.
  • Long dash – can create a dramatic pause and add suspense to informal and semi-formal writing. It’s not used in very formal writing, such as essays. E.g. I was just about to go out when I heard the doorbell ring – – Creates a long pause, adds suspense.

ELLIPSIS …

  • Has a ‘trailing off’ effect, leaves an idea unfinished.

E.g.

I was wondering… – Creates a sense that the request, or an idea is being difficult to finish.

The door creaked open slowly… – Creates a tense atmosphere, trails off, emulates the slow pace of the door.


Thanks for reading! If you found this resource useful, please visit our website for full access to our English language courses, including Basic Grammar and much more!

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