Punctuation - Reviewing and editing your work

Success in Academic Writing - Trevor Day 2018

Reviewing and editing your work

Punctuation is the use of marks in the text that serve to group or separate words to give them specific meaning. In non-fiction writing, good punctuation makes a text much easier to read, helping the reader to ’get the meaning right first time’. For example, this sentence is ambiguous:

Doctors who are so concerned about being right don’t last long.

It could mean more than one thing. The statement could apply to all doctors, or only those who are so concerned about being right. The careful use of punctuation makes the meaning clearer. This version is a generalisation about all doctors:

Doctors, who are so concerned about being right, don’t last long.

While this version refers to only a subset of doctors:

Doctors who are so concerned about being right, don ’t last long.

English punctuation has evolved over many centuries and continues to evolve. The punctuation in Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities - such as the use of dashes - is rather different from the way we punctuate today. Punctuation for UK English is slightly different from that for US English.

If academic writing depends on formulating a convincing argument, and that in turn depends on making meaning clear, then good punctuation is vital to getting your message across. Like many other aspects of writing, it is something you can improve with diligent attention and practice.

The punctuation marks that students find most challenging are shown in Table 10.2, along with their most common uses. For more guidance about the use of punctuation marks, refer to Chapters 2, 5 and 8 in Peck and Coyle (2012a) or to Copus (2009).

Table 10.2 Five punctuation marks that students find challenging

Punctuation mark

Common uses

Full stop (.)

At the end of a sentence, e.g. Sentences end in a full stop. In some abbreviations, e.g. incl. in place of’including’.

Comma (,)

A comma has numerous uses. Only four are shown here:

✵Separating items (words, phrases or clauses) in a list, e.g. The chaplain ordered egg, bacon, sausage, scrambled egg, baked beans and mushrooms for breakfast. Note: In UK English a comma is normally omitted after the second to last item in a simple list - the item before the ’and’.

✵Setting off an introductory element from the rest of the sentence, e.g. Nevertheless, many modern-day surgeons do have a good bedside manner.

✵To mark off an inserted phrase or clause (dashes or brackets/parentheses can also be used for this purpose), e.g. Numerous surveys, systematically carried out by birdwatchers over several decades, testify to the declining numbers of sparrowhawks.

✵When a clause is added at the end of a sentence, e.g. A large majority of managing directors in the retail sector are men, although this situation is gradually changing.

Colon (:)

A colon comes after a statement and introduces what follows. Of its many functions, here are four:

✵Introducing a list that is preceded by a sentence, e.g. There are severalfactors to consider: the depth of water, seawater temperature, the diver ’s experience and their physical fitness.

✵Introducing a quotation that is a few lines long, or a bullet point or numbered list, as has been done on numerous occasions in this book.

✵Reinforcing, explaining or illustrating a statement, with emphasis, e.g. Each year we find a few students who are very reluctant to work with those from other cultures: a challenge for us to address.

✵Within a sentence to give strong emphasis between two contrasting statements, e.g. Smith proposed the motion: Jones rejected it. Here, the colon replaces ’whereas’.

Semicolon (;)

Semicolons potentially have numerous uses. Two common ones are:

✵To separate items where a comma is already being used in one or more items, e.g. There are several concerns with this approach. It does not take account of individual preferences; Panad and Jones, for example, are against it; and Schmidt will be on holiday at that time.

✵To connect two closely related sentences, e.g. There were technical problems with the space mission that were finally resolved by the engineering team; we should involve them at an earlier stage next time.

✵For further examples, see Copus (2009).

Apostrophe (’)

Apostrophes have two uses:

✵To indicate possession, e.g. Christina’s book. The women’s game. The doctors’ grievances.

✵ To denote contraction (missing letters), e.g. Lets (short for ’let us’). Rock’n’roll (short for ’rock and roll’).

✵A guide to using apostrophes is downloadable from https://reading-writing- results.com/top-tips/, or see Chapter 2 of Peck and Coyle (2012a).

Avoid exclamation marks!

Academic writing tends to be understated, relying on carefully constructed argument to win over the reader. As a general rule, exclamation marks should be avoided, except when quoting speech or using dialogue.

Punctuation is not always an exact science. For example, in the use of commas, dashes and parentheses (round brackets) there is room for personal preference:

Some people, and especially those who have studied the English language or literature at an advanced level, may have strong preferences about how a sentence like this should be punctuated.

Some people (and especially those who have studied the English language or literature at an advanced level) may have strong preferences about how a sentence like this should be punctuated.

Some people - and especially those who have studied the English language or literature at an advanced level - may have strong preferences about how a sentence like this should be punctuated.

Assessors sometimes have deep-seated preferences about punctuation, some favouring the liberal use of commas, while others think they should be used sparingly. You can probably detect my love of commas, dashes and parentheses in the pages of this book.


Applying punctuation to create meaningful sentences

This is an extract adapted and simplified from Day (2008, p. 89). Punctuation has been removed except for apostrophes and two full stops. Without removing words or changing their order, break up this paragraph into ten meaningful sentences by adding eight full stops and at least seven commas, and changing eight lower case letters to capitals.

It is the unequal heating of Earths surface by the Sun that powers the circulation of the atmosphere the equator and the Tropics receive a much higher intensity of sunlight than the poles this is a consequence of several factors first the Sun is overhead or nearly overhead at the equator and the Tropics so the Suns rays are directed almost directly downward. At the poles however the Sun s rays strike Earths surface much more obliquely and have travelled farther through the atmosphere to reach Earths surface this means that each spot on the polar surface receives more diffuse light than an equivalent area at the equator added to this is an effect known as albedo a measure of reflectiveness. At the poles the pale ice and snow reflect light well so reducing light absorption in equatorial regions by contrast the green or yellow landscape and the clear oceans reflect less light the sum total of these effects is that the equator and Tropics heat up more than the poles

Compare your answer with that given at the end of the chapter.