Punctuation is the use of certain established marks (punctuation marks) or symbols within a piece of written text. Punctuation prevents a piece of text from being just a string of words by breaking up the string of words into meaningful units and by making the text more fluent. Basically, punctuation marks can be seen as symbols which are used to separate and join units of language into a cohesive text.
Modern writers tend to punctuate much more lightly than their older counterparts did. This goes hand in hand with the modern tendency to use less formal language and a plainer style. However, the importance of punctuation, even in these less formal modern times, should not be underestimated.
Appropriate punctuation creates order in what might otherwise be a piece of linguistic confusion.
The important punctuation marks are the full stop, question mark, exclamation mark, comma, brackets, dash, semicolon, colon, hyphen, quotation marks, apostrophe, asterisk, three-dot ellipsis and the oblique.
The full stop, also called period, is a punctuation mark consisting of a small dot (.). It is one of the most important punctuation marks and the most emphatic, because its main function is to mark the end of a sentence and so separate one sentence from another. Only sentences that are either questions or exclamations (see Questions and Exclamations) do not end in a full stop. Instead, they end respectively in a question mark or an exclamation mark. The following are examples of sentences ending in a full stop:
The children behaved very well.
They are getting married next week.
We are moving house soon.
The car broke down.
You can choose the restaurant.
I went by bus.
NB: The stop
The full stop is also used to mark the end of a group of words which is not actually a sentence, but which is complete in itself, as in the following underlined words.
‘When do we leave?’
The Full Stop and Abbreviations
The full stop has another function. It is used with certain types of abbreviation, although the modern tendency, particularly in British English, is to use full stops with abbreviations far less than was formerly the case. For example, abbreviations involving initial capital letters are generally written without full stops, especially in British English, as TUC, BBC, USA. In such cases full stops should definitely not be used if one or some of the initial letters do not belong to a full word, as TV. TV is the abbreviation for television and the letter V is simply the initial letter of the second syllable of the word, not that of a new word.
There are usually no full stops in abbreviations involving the first and last letters of a word
(contractions), as Dr, Rd, St, but whether they are used or not can be a matter of taste. The important thing is to be consistent in whether you use full stops or not in such cases.Abbreviations involving the first few letters of a word are the most likely to have full stops, as in Feb. for February and Sept. for September.
The Full Stop in Email and Website Addresses
The full stop is also used in email addresses such as
and in website addresses such as
In these cases the inclusion of the full stops and their correct placing are necessary to send the email successfully or access the website.
The question mark (?) is sometimes also known as the query and it is used to mark the end of a sentence
which asks a question (see 1). The following sentences are all questions ending in a question mark:
- Where are we?
- Is that the right time?
- Who is that?
- Why did they leave so early?
- Does he always behave so badly?
- Would you pass me the salt, please?
- Can I help you?
- Whose coat is this?
NB: Writing questions
It is not recommended to use more than one question mark at the end of a sentence.
When writing college essays or literary interpretations it may be tempting to intersperse your writing with questions, as in:
- ‘So what do we learn from Wordsworth’s view of nature?’
- This is too informal for such a composition. It is better to write:
- ‘What we learn from Wordsworth’s view of nature is …’
The exclamation mark (!) is used to mark the end of an exclamation or sometimes a directive.
The following sentences are all exclamations or directives ending in an exclamation mark:
- Save me!
- What a beautiful day!
- How marvellous!
- Well done!
- You must be joking!
- Let me go!
NB: Watch out!
Be careful not to overuse the exclamation mark. It is easy to do so, particularly in a piece of informal English. One is enough at the close of a sentence. Overuse of such sentences within a piece of writing can detract from the potential dramatic effect of the occasional use of the mark.
It is common for people to overuse exclamation marks in emails, because the communication is
often informal and because we are often trying to convey points of view and emotions that we wouldnot normally be doing in a formal piece of writing.
Capital letters are not technically speaking punctuation marks, but their use is so closely associated with the use of the full stop, and with the question mark and exclamation mark that it makes sense to treat their use here. Just as a sentence ends with a full stop or, occasionally, with a question mark or exclamation mark, so it always begins with a capital letter. The opposite of a capital letter is a lowercaseletter. Capital letters are used in a number of situations:
A capital letter is used as the initial letter of the first word of a sentence or a direct quotation, as in
They left early. and He said weakly, ‘I don’t feel very well.’
A capital letter is always used as the initial letter of a name or proper noun, as in Mary Brown, South America, Rome, speak Italian, Buddhism and Marxism.
A capital letter is also used as the initial letter of the main words in the titles of people, places or works of art, as in the following:
Uncle Fred, Professor Jones, Ely Cathedral, Edinburgh University, Glasgow Caledonian University, reading Wuthering Heights, watching a production of Guys and Dolls, listen to Beethoven’s ThirdSymphony and buy a copy of ‘The Potato Eaters’ by van Gogh.
They are also used in the titles of wars and historical, cultural and geological periods, as in the Wars of the Roses, the Renaissance and the Ice Age. Only the major words of titles, etc, begin with capitalletters. Words, such as the, on, of, etc, are in lower-case letters, as The Mill on the Floss.
A capital letter is used as the initial letter of the days of the week, months of the year, and religious festivals, as Monday, October, Easter, Yom Kippur. It is a matter of choice whether the seasons of the year are given capital letters or not, as in spring/Spring, autumn/ Autumn.
A capital letter is used as the initial letter of God, Allah or Jesus Christ, or similar words. When a pronoun is used to refer to God or Christ the pronoun begins with an initial capital letter, as God asks usto trust in Him.
A capital letter is always used as the initial letter of a noun that is a trade name as in Peugeot, Xerox, Hoover.
When verbs are formed from such nouns, they are usually spelt with an initial lower-case letter
as in xerox the letter and hoover the carpet.
The opposite of a capital letter is a lower-case letter, also known informally as small letter. Lowercase letters are used for most words in the language. It is capital letters that are exceptional in their use.
Rewrite the following passages, inserting the appropriate punctuation mark at the end of each sentence.
- Ouch I slipped on the ice and hurt my ankle I can hardly walk Do you think my ankle could be broken
- Perhaps I’d better get a doctor to have a look at it
- Could you possibly take me to the hospital in your car if you’ve time
- It shouldn’t take very long, should it
- It’s not far
- If you’re in a hurry you can justdrop me outside the hospital and leave
- I’ll phone my parents from the hospital and they’ll come and get me