How to Use English Punctuation Correctly, Part 2
We're back again to go over all the complicated rules of English punctuation. In Part 1, we looked at periods/full stops, question marks, exclamation points, and commas. Here are some more complicated marks that you'll likely come across in your interactions with English.
Unlike commas, semicolons combine clauses without the use of conjunctions. This means that the clauses on either side of the semicolon must be capable of being their own sentence, and also the sentences must be closely enough related to justify combining them. In English, there is no space between the semicolon and the word it follows.
The example from the previous post would correctly be written:
- I flew home for my mom’s birthday birthday; she was really surprised!
Another example might be:
- I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Jack; he left before I was awake.
This sentence is correct, because both sides of the semicolon can stand alone as their own sentence (“I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.” and “He left before I was awake.” could both be acceptable sentences). Also, they are very closely related; the second half gives an explanation for the first. Because the two halves are closely connected, a semicolon is preferable to dividing the sentence into two smaller sentences.
- I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Jack; although my sister did. INCORRECT
This sentence is incorrect. “Although my sister did” could not stand alone as its own sentence, so the semicolon does not work – in this case, the semicolon should be replaced with a comma.
- I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Jack; did you like the story he told us about Paris? INCORRECT
This sentence is not correct. The clauses on either side of the semicolon could stand alone as their own sentences, but they are not closely related enough to be linked with a semicolon. They are two separate thoughts, and should be written as two separate sentences with a period between.
Colons are usually used to start a list, but can also be used to introduce a quotation or an explanation. The general idea of a colon is “I’ve just mentioned something, and now I’m going to list or explain what I mean.” In English, there is no space between the colon and the word it follows.
- He plays three instruments: piano, violin, and cello.
- When my train was canceled, I had three options: wait for the next one, walk home, or call a friend for a ride.
Quotation marks are used to mark what someone has said. They can also be used to point to a specific word.
The use of punctuation marks varies slightly across types of English
In American English, the primary quotation mark is the double (“ ”). Single quotes (‘ ’) are used as a quotation within a quotation.
- She said, “I’m happy to see you.”
- “Are you the one who said, ‘I’m happy to see you’?” he asked.
- “I am,” she said.
- Did you know that you misspelled the word “misspell”?
Notice that in American English a period or comma will always go on the inside of the quotation marks.This is not the case, however, when this would cause unnecessary confusion. (For example: Your password is "password123". In this case, it should be made clear that the period is not a part of the password.) Other punctuation marks, such as question marks, exclamation points, semicolons, and colons, will go on the outside if they are a part of the larger sentence or on the inside if they modify the quoted text.
In British English, the single quotation mark (‘ ’) is sometimes preferred for the primary, with the double(“ ”) as the secondary . In British English, punctuation that is part of the words being quoted will be included inside the punctuation marks, while anything not part of the quote will usually be written outside of the quotation marks.
- She said, ‘I’m happy to see you’.
Notice that the period is now outside of the quotation mark. The same applies to the below.
- ‘Are you the one who said, “I’m happy to see you”?’ he asked.
- ‘I am’, she said.
- Did you know that you misspelled the word "misspell"?
The American style is sometimes preferred even in the UK for works of fiction.
An apostrophe (pronounced a-POS-tro-fee) looks like a single quotation mark, and has two primary functions in English: showing possession and marking contractions. Even native speakers often use it incorrectly, so it's important to know the rules.
The general rule in English is that for singular nouns, you form the possessive by adding ‘s and, for plural nouns, s’. Sometimes there can be confusion with the possessive and plural, which is formed by adding s. Remember that an apostrophe is used to show possession, not plural.
- Student – one student
- Students – more than one student
- Student’s – belonging to one student
- Students’ – belonging to more than one student
With some words, it might be confusing whether to have an s after the possessive apostrophe. A general rule is that if you pronounce an s, you should write one.
- Children: this word is plural, but doesn’t end in s. Because of this, you treat the word as if it were singular and add ‘s. This gives you: children’s, pronounced “childrenz.” The same is true for men, women, and other irregular plurals.
- Success: there are so many Ss in this word. Surely you don’t add another one? If you’re talking about your “success’s cause,” since the possessive s is pronounced as a separate syllable (“suc-cess-es”) you do in fact added an ‘s.
Contractions are a way of shortening words and speaking more informally in English. We use apostrophes to represent the letters that have been left out.
- Does not = doesn’t
- Is not = isn’t
- Are not = aren’t
- Will not = won’t [be sure not to say win’t!]
- She is = she’s
Its or it's
One of the easiest mistakes to make in English is confusing its and it’s.
The first is the possessive form of it, which like his, hers, yours, and theirs does not include an apostrophe. The second is a contraction of it is or it has. When in doubt, remember that the apostrophe replaces missing letters. If the sentence works just as well with “it is” or "it has" instead of “it’s,” you need the apostrophe!
Hyphens and dashes
These commonly used punctuation marks in English look similar but perform different roles.
Hyphens are short lines used to connect related words. Some words and expressions always require hyphens.
Other times, hyphens are used when multiple words form a single description before a noun.
- 7-year-old child (however, note: a child who is seven years old)
- well-known reasons (however, note: the reasons are well known)
- eye-opening experience
- long-term courses
Many times it's hard to know whether something should be hyphenated or not – oftentimes you just have to remember!
Dashes look a lot like hyphens, but are longer. There are two main types, em dashes (—) and en dashes (–). They get their name because historically they are the same length as an m and an n respectively.
Em and en dashes do essentially the same thing; it's mainly a question of style which you choose. Dashes suggest more energy and relation than other punctuation marks, and perform similar functions to commas and semicolons. Generally, one would either use an em dash with no space on either side, or an en dash with spaces between it and the surrounding words. Dashes can either express a strong interruption, or a sort of reaction to another portion of the sentence. Be careful not to overuse dashes, as they can quickly become excessive, and give a slightly less formal feeling to the writing.
- Hyphen use can be difficult – even I have to look it up the rules sometimes!
- When I went home, my family—and especially my dog!—were really excited to see me.
Well, that's it! You now know how to use all of the major punctuation marks of English. Put them into practice by studying at one of our schools throughout the world!
Any other punctuation-related questions? Let us know in the comments!