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Learn English Punctuation

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Introduction

English punctuation seems to be the easiest to learn of all areas of English grammar. Much punctuation seems common sense to those who grew up with the English language and for whom it is not a second or third language.

For others who are ESL students or even those who know other languages, English language punctuation can require a lesson or two.

Can you drive a car? Punctuation in the English language is similar to road signs. We are taking a drive to make this trip and subject a little more interesting.


Periods

See the period as a full stop sign.

Use it at the end of a sentence, or after abbreviations. Place the period inside a complete parenthetical sentence and outside a partial sentence, and inside quotation marks.

  1. Ex. A stop sign signals a complete stop (like this).

    ("See the period as a full stop.")


Commas

Treat the comma as a yield sign.

The intent of a comma is to slow the reader down so the parts of the sentence do not crash into one another.

Use a comma between two connected independent clauses, in a series, after introductory phrases, and to separate non-essential clauses. A non-essential clause is one that can be deleted and the sentence still has meaning.

Let's look at some examples:

  1. As we sat down to eat, beans boiled over on the stove.

    (Without the comma, the reader may think we sat down to eat beans.)

  2. Beans, a tasty vegetable except when burned, were no longer on the menu.

    (The clause needs the commas since the sentence stands alone without "a tasty vegetable except when burned".)


Semicolons

Consider the semicolon as a pitch backward as the car is stopped.

It connects two independent clauses or long elements in a list. It goes outside the quotation marks.

  1. We stopped abruptly at the sign; it came upon us too quickly.

Use a semicolon to join a series that already contains commas, such as a string of cities and states.

  1. We traveled through Amarillo, Texas; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Las Vegas, Nevada and San Diego, California before we headed north along the Pacific Coast.

Colons

Know the colon as a pitch forward in the car. It is used instead of "as follows."

Use a colon after an independent clause when the clause is followed by a list.

  1. Here's what we need for the trip: bread, milk, butter and jam.

The colon also separates the hours and minutes in time:

  1. It's 1:30 p.m.

The colon is used to separate chapter and verse in the Bible and sometimes other books.

  1. John 3:16 is chapter 3, verse 16 of the Gospel of John.

Apostrophes

Review the apostrophe as a trailer attached to a truck or car on the road.

Add an apostrophe and "s" to any plural noun that does not end in "s"; and to any proper noun that ends in "s".

If a plural noun ends in "s", just add an apostrophe.

  1. The children's toy and Chris's poetry made the babies' game fun.

Hyphens

See the hyphen as a piggyback trailer. The two trailers are attached, and towed by the truck-tractor.

The hyphen is used when two adjectives come before a noun.

  1. The well-known man drove the piggyback-trailer truck to the destination.

The hyphen is not used if the adjectives follow the noun.

  1. The man was well known and the truck had a piggyback trailer.

Use a hyphen for differentiation when necessary.

  1. She re-covered the overstuffed chair that she had recovered from the dump.

Use a hyphen for fractions used as adjectives but not for fractions used as nouns.

  1. We had two-thirds cup of sugar left, and that was not enough to make two thirds of the candy recipe.

Parentheses

Read the parentheses as cars between you and your destination. It has extra material enclosed.

Do not put a comma after a parenthesis unless it would be required otherwise. The period goes inside the parentheses if it is a complete sentence and outside the parentheses if it is not.

  1. While driving at night (and many old people do not) you may see dancing lights and strange phenomena.

Dashes

Use a dash much like the parentheses in separating an aside or explanation from the rest of the sentence.

It is not usually a necessary element of punctuation in English grammar — chosen by some for optical emphasis — but it gets the point across.


Exclamation Points

Review the exclamation point as an emphatic or exciting point of English grammar punctuation.

  1. It is the red convertible in your travel through the punctuation drive!

In all of these elements of English grammar punctuation, there is only one of each used at a time.

Do not use multiple question marks or exclamation points. It is incorrect use and does not add emphasis.

Do not use a period after a non-sentence. If there is no subject and verb, there is no period.


Closing

Drive correct English grammar by knowing the signs and when they are used.

Follow the rules of the punctuation road: stop with a period, yield with a comma, pitch backward with a semicolon and pitch forward with a colon. Whether you drive a piggyback trailer — or a red convertible — you can learn the rules of the (English grammar punctuation) road.


For more punctuation information, see: Purdue's Online Writing Lab