Punctuation - a Quick Guide Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Punctuation - a Quick Guide

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Language is a wonderful thing; so many words, so little time. However, the problem with languages is the fact that there are so many of the damn things. French, Zulu, English, Latin, Russian - the list is almost endless. But - one thing is for certain, punctuation is universal. Well, generally speaking anyway. At least the majority of languages use the same punctuation. Umm... some do anyway.

In case you panic at those tricky tests, here's your handy-to-use, pocket guide to the world of punctuation1.

The Old Favourites

Some prior knowledge is assumed, but here's the low-down in any case:

  • Comma (,) - A handy little thing, useful wherever you feel a pause is required. A pause for breath, a pause for thought, pauses for asides, pauses for extraneous information - pauses galore. Of course, there is another use - those pesky lists. Separate individual items with this wonderful mark. Each use merits a single space afterwards.

  • Full stop (.) - Of course, no sentence would be complete without it, but what about those expectant pauses (...) so often needed, so little used (these, by the by, are called 'ellipses'; singular 'ellipsis'). A full stop is traditionally followed by a double space, but this is mostly considered a habit left over from the days of typewriters.

  • Question mark (?) - What, you mean you don't know where this goes? Also traditionally double-spaced.

  • Exclamation mark (!) - Don't overuse it: multiple exclamation marks are the work of the criminally insane! Double spaces here too.

Of course, in these days of computerised text, double-spaces are redundant: you can set up how you want your spaces to appear using style-sheets and suchlike.

The Humble Hyphen

Things are going to get a bit complicated here, because there are actually two types:

  • The em-dash - This is used when the handy hyphen is used to separate clauses. It is so named due to its characteristic quality of being the same width as the good old letter m. Use it thus:

    The em-dash can be used to separate clauses - it's very useful - and it's my favourite piece of punctuation.

  • The en-dash - This is used when the handy hyphen is used to create words, such as e-mail or pen-knife or twenty-one. It is so named due to its characteristic quality of being the same width as the good old letter n.

Most of this is purely typographical however.

Parentheses ()

Rooks vs castles, tissues vs hankies, fractions vs those thingies that are a bit less than one - these differences in nomenclature are so common, yet so vital. And the word 'bracket'? Well, please, for their sake, call them parentheses.

Also, it is worth noting that the abominable word 'bracket' is justifiable in one case - [ and ]. These are called brackets, and are used when parentheses are found inside other parentheses.

Inverted Commas (")

Quotations, colloquialisms, speeches, the list isn't that endless. They're very easy to master, so this report won't dwell any longer.

Now this is important. The use of inverted commas as " is only this writer's preference. It is far more common in British print to find ' around the phrase, and if speech is found inside that... Well, follow this example - 'John said, "It's all a matter of preference." and Sarah agreed.'

No spaces here, but use a comma before speech - Jack said, "Let's go up the hill."

Colons and Semicolons (: ;)

How a piece of punctuation came to be named after that rather unpleasant piece of the digestive system (or vice-versa, it was never certain) is unclear, but they can still be utilised. Much used in days of yore, but now, sadly, falling into disrepair, graced only by their presence here.

  • Semicolon - Longer than a comma, shorter than a colon, use to separate connected pieces of information (when they can also be considered as separate sentences)- 'This page is wonderful; it took a long time to type', for example.

  • Colon - Longer than its cousin the semicolon, shorter than a full stop, use it to begin a list, or to expand upon a point.

Each deserves its own, single space.

Apostrophes (')

And now we come to that hard-to-master, seemingly useless mark, the apostrophe. Here's the low-down on how to use the blasted thing.

  • In a contraction - Naturally, words are slurred, and these have gradually come into being as words in their own right - use an apostrophe to signify where letters have gone astray. Thus, do not becomes don't, have not becomes haven't and it is (or it has) becomes it's.

  • In a possessive - Bill's pen, Ben's pencil, the Flowerpot Men's home - they all need an apostrophe. But please, don't use them in phrases like for its own sake! (In its possessive form as belonging to it, anyway.) More on that in a blink.

Now, the definitive answer - Why the apostrophe?

This reporter can now reveal some startling information - All apostrophes are used for contractions! But what about possessives? I hear you cry. Well, the possessives like Jack's or the chair's are all in fact contractions of the Middle English Jackes and the chaires. These in turn are contractions of Jack his and the chair hers back in the Old English days of gender.

One Final Note

It is important to remember that the terms and uses of punctuation in this article are purely UK based, so apologies to all non-natives who are at a loss. US definitions would have been included but then things would start to get really complicated. But hey, you've just had a free lesson in John Bull Grammar!

1Note that punctuation in the Edited Guide follows slightly different rules to those mentioned here: see SubEditors-Style.

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