Punctuation creates structure and organizes writing in a manner that allows for relaying the intended meaning in a clear, unambiguous way. Punctuation helps writers create sense, clarity, and emphasis in their sentences. Correctly applied punctuation rules allow for quick, smooth, uninterrupted reading through complex grammatical structures. They identify where one idea ends and another begins. Misreadings and unclear interpretations are often the result of misused punctuation.
The English language uses many punctuation marks. The most common of these are the period, the comma, the semicolon, the colon, quotation marks, parentheses, the apostrophe, the question mark, the ellipsis, brackets, the dash, and the slash. Academic writing typically uses some of these punctuation marks more than others. The list below provides an overview of a number of these marks, in order from the most common to the least frequently used in academic writing.
- Marks the end of a statement.
Example: Sue asked if class would be canceled.
- Clarifies intended meaning of written phrases.
Example: Wow, I cannot believe that you managed to clean the whole apartment in one day.
- Indicates a separation between words, phrases, or clauses.
Example: She is a competent, intelligent woman, and I enjoy working with her.
- Allows readers to pause briefly to decipher what they just read.
Example: I was so happy that, when I got home, I opened a bottle of wine to celebrate.
- Joins two complete thoughts that have something in common and that have equal grammatical rankings.
Example: Proper punctuation ensures the clarity of writing; sometimes a punctuation mistake can change the intended meaning of the sentence into its opposite.
- Stronger than comma; signals a stronger break or a longer pause.
Example: Our tour was rushed, taking us to London, England, on Monday; Rome, Italy, on Tuesday; and Madrid, Spain, on Wednesday.
- Gives readers a sense of expectancy by encouraging them to read on for further clarification.
Example: Paul walked into the room; suddenly everyone became quiet.
- Calls the reader’s attention to the words that follow it.
Example: No teacher can overcome one obstacle: lack of student motivation.
- Signals what is to come, introduces long lists, or separates phrases that are too complex to be punctuated with a comma.
Example: The committee chose these colors: red, blue, green, yellow, and orange.
- Encloses speech in written conversation.
Example: “Sam went downtown,” explained Tracey, “to buy new shoes.”
- Encloses words or statements quoted from other sources.
Example: Helen Hayes once said, “If you rest, you rust.”
- Encloses explanatory statements (such as citations, supplemental information, minor digressions, and afterthoughts) that are not built into the structure of the sentence.
Example: She is going with John (you know, the handsome one) to the conference.
- Indicates a contraction between two words.
Example: I can’t go on Friday.
- Indicates a possessive relationship.
Example: That is Judy’s house.
- Punctuates the end of a direct question.
Example: How was dinner?
- Indicates that the writer has deleted words within a direct quote.
Example: “Legend has it…he played his harp while the city went up in flames” (Smith, 2000, p. 32).
- Encloses personal words added to a direct quote.
Example: “Rome had several ‘mad emperors.’ [Nero] was the maddest of them all” (Smith, 2000, p. 32).
- Sets off emphasized phrases and appositives that contain commas.
Example: The boys—John, Jeff, and Joe—left the party early.
- Prepares the reader for a list, a restatement, an amplification, or a dramatic shift in tone or thought.
Example: To some of you my proposals may seem radical—even revolutionary.
- Separates two or three lines of poetry that are quoted in the written work.
Example: Shakespeare reveals his philosophy on lasting love: “Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, / But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”
- Occasionally separates paired items.
Example: Our instructor used the pass/fail method to grade us.