It’s often assumed that all a student needs to master the English language is a good command of grammatical structure, excellent use of tenses, and a rich and varied vocabulary. However, there is a vital aspect of the English language that shouldn’t be disregarded —English punctuation.
Punctuation helps readers understand clauses and sentences through visual means by telling them where they should pause and what kind of connections exist between different elements in a sentence. So, even if your grammar and your use of vocabulary are flawless, when it comes to good writing incorrect English punctuation might ruin your best efforts.
Below, you’ll find a detailed guide on how to use English punctuation marks correctly.
What do a man-eating snake, a 200-page novel, and a well-known footballer have in common?
To talk about them, we need to use hyphens. In English punctuation, a hyphen is a mark that writers use to join words.
A dash, on the other hand, is a longer marker that people use to indicate a pause, the beginning of an independent construction, or a parenthetical comment. For example, we can say something like: A dash —which looks like a long, horizontal line— is a useful mark of separation that will make your sentences clearer and more relaxed than if you were only using commas.
The hyphen is an English punctuation mark used to join words or parts of words to make a single concept. Constructions like “daughter-in-law” or “a 20-year-old girl” are examples of hyphenated words.
Use hyphens in the following cases:
- to join words that serve as a single adjective, when followed by the noun they modify:
- a two-way road
- chocolate-covered cherries
- a little-known writer
Remember: a compound modifier only is only hyphenated when it is immediately followed by a noun. Otherwise, it doesn’t need a hyphen.
- a pet-friendly apartment
- the apartment is pet friendly
- With compound numbers:
- Our much-loved aunt was seventy-three years old.
- R.R Tolkien published his first book when he was forty-one years old.
- To avoid confusion due to a tricky combination of letters:
- re-sign a document (as opposed to “resign from a job”)
- semi-independent (to avoid having to “i” together)
- with the prefixes ex-, all- self-; with the suffix -elect; and between a prefix and an upper-case word.
Longer than a hyphen, dashes are a type of English punctuation mark commonly used to indicate a range or a pause. In their book The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White describe hyphens as “marks of separation stronger than a comma, less formal than a colon, and more relaxed than parentheses”.
Want to know what different types of dashes there are and how to use them in a sentence? Keep reading our guide on English punctuation!
En dashes, which are called like that because they have the width of an upper-case N, are used as a kind of super hyphen that allows you to add clarity when forming complex compound constructions, i.e, multi-word adjectives that can’t easily be hyphenated.
- Mariah Carey–style high-pitch vocals.
Since “Mariah Carey” is not a common compound modifier, adding a hyphen would look odd.
- pre–World War II alliances
Sometimes, it’s easier to simply paraphrase, and say something like “alliances made before World War II”.
En dashes are an element of English punctuation that is crucial in scientific and scholarly writing because they replace the word “to” when used between numbers, in the sense of “through” or “up to”.
- “Find more information on T cells on pages 79–113”.
- “In the years 500–1066 AD, during a period known as The Dark Ages…”
The Em dash, which is about as wide as an M, is used to indicate a pause in a sentence, but it’s used in rather informal contexts. Stronger than a comma, but weaker than a semicolon, it’s a relatively lax punctuation mark compared to the highly technical en dash.
You can use em dashes for the following purposes:
- To draw the reader’s attention to supplementary information:
- The new teacher—who was wearing a highly inappropriate skirt—entered the classroom as if she was walking on a catwalk.
- She opened the gate and there he stood—her long lost son.
- You can also use Em dashes to indicate a sudden interruption. This is especially common in dialogue:
- “Listen to me! Promise me that—” But then the man cut the phone cord and I didn’t get to hear the rest of her phrase.
A colon is an English punctuation mark that introduces a piece of information that illustrates or explains the information that precedes the colon. It does the job of directing the reader to the information following it.
Think of a colon as an arrow that points to whatever comes next, as if saying “thus”, “as follows,” or “which is/are,”:
There are four types of bones in the body: long, short, flat and irregular.
Colons are also used to introduce quotes:
I would like to finish by quoting the great Joni Mitchell: “Chase away the demons, and they will take the angels with them.”
In this section, we will attempt to answer one of the most frequent questions asked by English students: How (and when!) are semicolons used?
- Stronger than commas but not as isolating as periods, semicolons are used to join two independent phrases that are closely related without using a word to state that. For example, in the sentence below, the semicolon is replacing a cause-effect word, such as “since”.
We can go to the library to write our paper; Fridays are pretty quiet there.
As you can see, both clauses are completely independent, which means that they could make standalone sentences. However, they can be separated by a semicolon because there is a logical connection between them.
- You can use semicolons to separate the elements of a list when these are too long or contain internal punctuation. In such cases, the semicolon helps us keep track of the separations between the elements.
The Chronicles of Narnia series has seven novels: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; The Silver Chair; The Horse and His Boy; The Magician's Nephew; The Last Battle.
Commas, which are used to indicate a small break or pause, are the most popular marks in English punctuation. But are you sure you know how to use them?
First, let’s start by saying when you shouldn’t use them.
- You shouldn’t use commas between a subject and a verb.
My sister Julia, is a wonderful cook. (Incorrect)
My sister Julia is a wonderful cook. (Correct)
- You shouldn’t use commas with compound predicates:
Walter will sing, and play the guitar (Incorrect)
Walter will sing and play the guitar. (Correct)
- Commas should also be avoided when you want to join two independent clauses. In such cases, you should use a semicolon.
We were out of food, I went to the supermarket. (Incorrect)
We were out of food; I went to the supermarket. (Correct)
Use commas in the following contexts:
- After a participial phrase that introduces a clause:
Smiling to the crowd, the musicians walked onto the stage.
- Between parenthetical comments
The ocean, I was happy to see, had a wonderful colour.
- Before a question tag.
You’ve seen this film before, haven’t you?
- When addressing a person by name.
Dave, come over here right now.
- With an appositive (a phrase that provides additional information)
My brother, Julio, is a wonderful father.
- After “but”, when it introduces an independent clause.
He’s a great husband, but he’s an even better dad.
What is the Oxford comma? The Oxford comma is the one that comes right before the last element in a list.
This is one of the most divisive elements of English punctuation. As we said earlier, when listing three or more elements, commas should divide each item of the list. However, the last comma—the one that comes before “and”—is not mandatory. This comma, which is often called the Oxford or serial comma, is a stylistic choice.
Martin needs milk, cereal, and butter. (With the Oxford comma)
Martin needs milk, cereal and butter. (Without the Oxford comma)
So, what’s all the debate about? Well, in some cases, not using the Oxford comma can cause misunderstandings. Consider the following example:
I love my teachers, Ricky Martin and Oprah.
Though many people would argue that it’s clear that this is a list because of the context, some others may interpret that Ricky Martin and Oprah are the aforementioned teachers. Oxford comma detractors, then, would say that if the sentence is confusing, it should be rephrased. Some possible alternatives are:
- I love Ricky Martin, Oprah and my teachers.
- Besides my teachers, I also love Ricky Martin and Oprah.
Whether you prefer to rephrase the original sentence or use an Oxford comma will depend greatly on the stylebook you have to follow or your own personal preference.
As you can see, correct English punctuation is your best ally when writing professional emails or academic papers. Punctuation allows you to make your message meaningful and clear and it helps your readers follow your arguments better.
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