What would it be like
to live in a library
of melted books.
With sentences streaming over the floor
and all the punctuation
settled to the bottom as a residue.
Wildly Constant (2009)
Punctuation is used in writing to clarify meaning. Spoken language may be supplemented by such features as pauses, tone of voice, changes in pitch, facial expressions and even gestures, all of which give additional clues as to meaning, as well as to the intentions or feelings of the speaker. Without these, written language relies on punctuation marks to convey much of the same sense and emotion.
Creative writers, of course, may play games with punctuation. Chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses, for example, contain very little punctuation at all — obliterating convention in one stream-of-consciousness fell swoop. Other literary fiction writers have adopted different ways of treating punctuation creatively or poetically — see, for example, the instances in chapter 6 of this book.
’first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.’
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
As a starting point, and certainly in formal writing, however, it is advisable to stay within the standard rules of punctuation. A good basic principle is to use only as much punctuation as is necessary to make one’s meaning clear; too much punctuation can be a distraction for the reader. This chapter sets out some standard guidance.
The full stop (.) — known in American English as the period — ends a sentence (see chapter 2, here) that is neither a question nor an exclamation (for which, see here). It can also be used to end what is called a sentence substitute, that is, a word or phrase that contains a complete thought, even though it does not include all the elements required in a sentence, for example, Yes.
More broadly, this type of point is the main mark of punctuation for showing the end of one item and the beginning of another. It can be used to indicate the end of an element of text, even when not a full sentence, for example, at the end of a note, caption or bibliographic entry.
A full stop also appears at the end of certain abbreviations, for example, etc., e.g., no., ed. (Note some abbreviations that take full points in American English, usually in the pattern of contractions that comprise the first and final letter, do not in British English, for example, Mr, Dr, St — for Saint or Street.)
Many abbreviations that consist only of capital letters, often but not always those with pronunciations that are based on initials, don’t take full stops, for example, SARS, NATO, EU. Full stops are used, however, in most cases where capital initials abbreviate any of a person’s names: J. K. Rowling, George W. Bush.
Three full points in a row make an ellipsis, a punctuation device for showing that words have been left out or that something is unfinished. An ellipsis should only be used when there’s a good reason for leaving out text. For example, if a writer quotes someone, an ellipsis can appear to show where material considered less important for the writer’s purposes has been omitted:
Among the bargains were 20th-century first editions in excellent condition…with several signed by the authors.
An ellipsis with four points occurs when text before the part being omitted ends with a full stop:
We expected the shipment to arrive at any moment…. The dispatcher had been notified that the lorry was on its way.
An ellipsis occurs at the end of a sentence or paragraph when the writer wants to show that a text is unfinished. It can also be used as a literary device to indicate speech by someone who didn’t finish his or her sentence:
’I know what you’re thinking, but you’ve got to understand that…’
The general use of the comma (,) is to introduce a break between words, phrases or clauses (see chapter 2, here) to show that they are separate from each other in some sense.
The following comma conventions are standard in written English and should generally be observed:
1. Quoted speech:
✵ A comma follows a reporting verb and precedes quoted speech:
She said, ’The treasure is buried under the sundial.’
✵ A comma ends quoted speech followed by a reporting verb when the speech is not an exclamation or a question:
’The treasure is buried under the sundial,’ she said.
2. Subordinate clauses:
✵ Non-restrictive RELATIVE CLAUSES (see chapter 2, here), often starting with which, are separated out with commas:
The novel, which was her second, proved very popular.
✵ Introductory SUBORDINATE CLAUSES of all types (see chapter 2, here) are followed by a comma:
Despite having no money, she insisted on coming with us.
3. Main clauses: Long MAIN CLAUSES (or independent clauses, see chapter 2, here) that are joined by and, but, for, or, nor, so or yet usually benefit from a comma at the end of the first clause, before the conjunction:
My mother bought fresh fruit, and my brother made several sponge cakes.
4. List items: Short items in a list or series, provided they feature no internal punctuation (see immediately below), can be separated by commas:
Dinner consisted of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans and salad.
According to some style conventions, there should also be a comma after the penultimate item (in this example, before and). This is called the serial comma, or alternatively the Oxford comma. While it is optional, it is important to be consistent in its use.
5. Parts of geographical names: In running text, a comma separates the name of a place from the name of its surrounding area, whether county, state or country, and another separates the name of the area from what follows:
She grew up in Wasdale, Cumbria, on a farm owned by her grandfather.
6. Nouns in apposition: Commas separate out a short phrase that is in apposition to a noun, in other words, that is next to it and explains it in some way:
Bella Feezer, the club’s secretary, read the report.
7. Serial adjectives: Commas separate two or more serial adjectives that precede a noun when the adjectives could logically be linked by and:
Long, narrow, dark corridors crisscrossed the building in all directions.
However, in both informal and technical writing, long strings of adjectives may precede a noun without being separated by commas:
A great big fat green caterpillar was stuck to the bottom of his shoe.
The replacement part is a 9 volt 2.4 amp 60 watt LPS power source.
8. Bibliographies: In certain styles of bibliography or reference list, a comma is used to break up elements in an entry:
Roese, H. (1982), ’Some Aspects of Topographical Locations of Neolithic and Bronze Age Monuments in Wales’, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies, 29 (1): 763—5.
9. Numbers: A comma separates thousands in numerals. If no figures larger than 9999 appear, the comma is optional, but if there are both four- and five-figure numbers, the comma should be used to set apart thousands, millions, billions, trillions, etc.:
(Note, however, that in scientific, mathematical and similar writing, spaces rather than commas may be used.)
A comma should not be used in the following cases:
✵ To break up independent clauses that are not connected by a conjunction. The technical term for this is comma fault or comma splice. For example:
Her new car is a Golf, it runs on diesel.
Such clauses should be divided into two sentences, separated by a semi-colon, joined by a conjunction, or reworded so that one or other clause is subordinate.
Her new car is a Golf and it runs on diesel.
✵ To separate list items that are long or contain internal punctuation:
The topics included the increase in crime, things the police were doing to stop it, complaints that residents have had, including ones about police harassment, and a list of things that residents could do to minimise the crime in their neighbourhood.
Items in such a list are better separated by semicolons:
The topics included the increase in crime; things the police were doing to stop it; complaints that residents have had, including ones about police harassment; and a list of things that residents could do to minimise the crime in their neighbourhood.
The semicolon (;) can be thought of as a stronger version of the comma, introducing a more definite or prolonged pause between text elements. In many cases, semicolons are used in places similar to where commas appear, but the items requiring separation are longer or more complex, or the material in the second clause already contains commas:
I thought about trying to convince her to join us; but the timing was bad, there wasn’t any space, and I don’t think she was really interested.
’It was not easy to make out Little Dorrit’s face; she was so retiring, plied her needle in such removed corners, and started away so scared if encountered on the stairs.’
Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857)
A semicolon is typically used to separate two main clauses. Often it appears before a clause that begins with a contrastive conjunction, such as accordingly, also, anyhow, besides, consequently, furthermore, hence, henceforth, however, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, nevertheless, otherwise, still and then:
Many of the protesters were arrested; however, they were all released soon after questioning.
Semicolons are also used to separate lengthy list items or those that feature internal punctuation (see COMMAS, on here).
The colon (:) introduces an even more pronounced pause than the semicolon. It is used mainly for the following purposes:
✵ To introduce a list that needs to be set apart from what precedes it. In this case, care must be taken not to insert the colon between a verb and its object, between a PREPOSITION and its object (see chapter 1, here), or between a verb and its COMPLEMENT (see chapter 1, here). So, this is acceptable:
The meeting will take up the following subjects: deadlines, holidays and unpaid leave.
But this is not:
The meeting will take up: deadlines, holidays and unpaid leave.
✵ To introduce a second clause that is an explanation, illustration, justification or restatement of the first. In this case, the second clause is usually, though not always, independent and could stand as a sentence. Starting it with a capital letter is optional, though it is important to be consistent within any particular text. For example,
No one was willing to answer the most important question: Who was responsible?
The takeover was not in the economic interests of the company: it was done mainly to oust the CEO.
’No one seemed to even glance at him, and he realized what he had known before, only now it came to him differently: He was just an old man with a sloppy belly and not anyone worth noticing.’
Elizabeth Strout, Olive, Again (2019)
If the second clause is a subordinate clause that requires a pause, it is often better to introduce it with a semicolon than with a colon.
✵ To set apart, that is, to follow, a speaker’s name in transcripts of conversation or dialogue:
Reporter: But how did you know that the captors would be ready to negotiate?
Officer Collins: I am not prepared to comment about that right now.
✵ To give quoted speech more emphasis than usual, or to indicate the anticipation of it:
His response was direct, forceful and unambiguous: ’Fire him immediately.’
The exclamation mark, also called the exclamation point (!), is used after interjections, sentence fragments and sentences to show that they are accompanied by strong feeling or great surprise. For example:
Drain the swamp!
The exclamation mark is frequent in reported dialogue and has become more acceptable in journalism. It is advisable to use it sparingly. If writing is set out in a logical order and explained in sufficient detail, there are not likely to be surprises sufficient to call for an exclamation mark.
The question mark (?) is used to end a sentence that is in the form of a question:
Is this the director’s office?
What time did you say you got off work?
In a sentence that is written in conventional word order (that is, subject, verb, object), a question mark at the end indicates that, despite this, the speaker was in fact asking a question. The verbal equivalent is a rising tone of voice.
Surely you don’t really think she stole it?
Similarly, a question mark at the end of a sentence fragment or a single word indicates that it is a question:
How long will it take to get there? Twenty minutes? An hour? A day?
Apart from this, the question mark can be used in some contexts to indicate that material presented is uncertain, of questionable authenticity, or appears not to make sense. For example:
St Bede (673?—735)
Here, the question mark indicates that Bede’s birth year is not known for certain.
A question mark in square brackets [?] following a quoted word or passage is usually intended to indicate that the material could not be read accurately, or does not appear to make sense. This is not the same as [sic] (see SQUARE BRACKETS on here).
A hyphen (-) is used to separate the elements of a compound word. Dictionaries offer advice on whether a compound is spelt open (that is, with a space but no hyphen), hyphenated, or solid (that is, with no space and no hyphen, as in playwright). Since conventions vary, the principle to bear in mind is that consistency in hyphenation needs to be maintained within the same piece of writing.
In some dictionaries, standard prefixes, for example anti-, bi- extra-, meta-, micro-, mid- multi-, non-, super-, trans-, un-, and standard suffixes, for example, -like, -fold, have their own entry with advice on how to hyphenate in various compounds.
Note that whole numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine are hyphenated.
Sometimes a compound word may be hyphenated or open, depending on where it appears. The logic is essentially to avoid ambiguity and enable ease of understanding. For example, adjectives used ATTRIBUTIVELY (see chapter 1, here) may need a hyphen:
She gazed at the deep-blue sea.
There aren’t any well-known paintings in this museum.
But when the same adjective appears as a complement, it’s not hyphenated:
The sea was a gorgeous deep blue.
This painting is particularly well known.
The same rule usually applies to compounds formed by combining a noun with a participle. These phrases are hyphenated when used attributively, but open when part of the predicate:
She insists on wearing only designer-made clothes.
The label says it is designer made.
A dash ( — ) is an unofficial separator of text similar in function to PARENTHESES (see here) or a COLON (see here). Dashes predominantly occur in opening and closing pairs, but sometimes appear singly. (Note that in British English a spaced en rule (—) is usually used to represent a dash, whereas in American English a closed em dash (—) is often preferred.)
Dashes can be used:
✵ To separate out a gloss (an explanation following an unfamiliar word or concept):
One of the common diseases caused by protozoa — microscopic amoeba-like organism — is leishmaniasis.
✵ To separate out, in a more informal way, a comment that would otherwise be put in parentheses:
His comment — and I’m quoting directly now — was ’That should teach them about withholding information from us in the future.’
It is advisable not to use dashes too freely in formal writing, since it can give the impression the writer doesn’t understand the role of semicolons or colons.
Quotation marks are used to mark:
✵ quoted speech or text
✵ titles of articles from magazines or chapters from books; in general, any title that specifies a section of a work that has a title of its own
✵ titles of short poems and songs: ’Time is Hardcore’
✵ words being treated in a special way, in order to ensure the reader understands that they’re special: Hund in German means ’dog’.
For fiction writers, the main use is likely to be the first, that is, quoted speech, and often this means dialogue.
It’s worth noting, however, that there is a literary tradition of overturning this convention. Cormac McCarthy, for example, prefers a less cluttered effect, and uses no punctuation in dialogue, starting a new line with each speaker.
’She’s gone to San Antonio, said the boy.
Don’t call her she.
I know it.
They drank their coffee.’
Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (1992)
In more standard works, British English uses single quotation marks (’Hooray!’) to mark quoted text or speech. (In American English, double quotation marks (“Hooray!”) are preferred.)
If the quoted material ends with a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark, most style guides suggest the mark of punctuation should appear before the closing quotation mark. (Some style guides advise, however, that a closing full stop should come after the closing quote — as ever, consistency through the piece of writing as a whole is key.)
If quoted material ends with a full stop but is followed by he said, she said, or words to that effect, the full stop should be converted to a comma:
’Thank you,’ she said.
Any final colon or semicolon should appear outside the quotation marks. Note that these are not part of the quoted material, but rather help structure the surrounding sentence:
I loved his ’little jokes’; she was less keen.
Double quotation marks (“Exactly.”) are typically used for quotations within quotations:
’This charge of “fraudulent conversion” will never stick,’ he remarked.
(Note that in American English the convention is reversed, and a quotation within a quotation appears in single quotation marks.)
The apostrophe (’) has two main uses in English, which rarely conflict with each other, to indicate a contraction and to show the possessive case.
In contractions, that is, words shortened by leaving out some letters, the apostrophe shows the point at which letters have been omitted. Many contractions are so convenient, and so firmly established in English, that they are widely used in writing, and in both formal and informal speech. These include:
✵ contractions of AUXILIARY VERBS (see chapter 1, here) with not: isn’t, can’t, wouldn’t, haven’t, etc.
✵ contractions of the PERSONAL PRONOUNS (see chapter 1, here) with finite forms (that is, forms showing PERSON, NUMBER AND TENSE, see chapter 1, here) of be: he’s, they’re, I’m, etc.
✵ contractions let’s, that’s and there’s, for let us, that is and there is
✵ contractions of the personal pronouns with MODAL VERBS (see chapter 1, here) shall or will: I’ll, he’ll, etc.
In very formal writing, contractions tend to be avoided altogether. Their use is a question of judgement. There’s usually no need to avoid them entirely, especially if the spelt out forms make one’s writing sound stilted.
There are a number of more informal contractions that are probably better avoided in formal writing, however, unless used in quotation. These include contractions of had or would that consist of only a terminal ’d: it’d, where’d, they’d, etc. Similarly, in formal contexts it is safest to avoid contractions of is and are with question words: why’re, how’s, when’s, etc.
When the apostrophe indicates the POSSESSIVE CASE (see chapter 2, here) after nouns, it usually occurs with the letter s:
a dog’s life,
the architects’ drawings.
The difference between the architect’s drawings and the architects’ drawings is that one architect is designated in the first, and more than one in the second.
Because the pronoun its is a possessive pronoun, there may be a temptation to add an apostrophe, but it would be incorrect. It’s with an apostrophe is not the possessive form of it; it’s is the contraction of it is.
There are a few other contexts where use of an apostrophe is appropriate. One case is plurals of letters of the alphabet. For these, an apostrophe helps dispel potential ambiguity:
Dot the i’s and cross the t’s.
An apostrophe may also appear to indicate that letters have been omitted from the end of words in dialectal pronunciations:
What are you doin’ sittin’ on the bed?
The use of the apostrophe to indicate the plural of a word that is written in capital letters, or of a number, is best avoided. For example, it is safest to stick with: YMCAs, 3s, 8s, 1950s.
Parentheses and brackets
Both parentheses ( ) and square brackets [ ] are used to separate out text that’s optional. It is important to be sure that, first, the text separated out is not required for the meaning of the whole. Secondly, it should be possible to read what’s written without the parenthetical material (text separated out) and for it still to be grammatical. If these conditions are not met, then the parenthetical material should be reworded, or set apart by means of other marks of punctuation, for example, COMMAS or DASHES (see here).
Common uses of parentheses include the following:
✵ To indicate a person’s birth and death dates:
Benjamin Disraeli (1804—81) was prime minister twice.
✵ To provide an expansion of an abbreviation or the explanation of a technical term:
The species is identified by markings on the worm’s parapodium (unjointed limb-like part).
✵ To introduce an abbreviation that will be used in the rest of the document, after the full form has been given:
He was appointed director of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
✵ To refer to a figure, table or other point in the same text:
The results were ranked to give a gradation of risk over the area analysed (Table 4).
✵ To refer to an entry in a bibliography or list of references:
Tasseled Cap transformation offers a way to optimise data viewing for vegetation studies (Erdas, 1998).
In formal writing, parentheses are the best choice for presenting in context short pieces of information outside the flow of the text, and should be used in preference to dashes. They should be used sparingly, however. It is irritating for readers to have to wade through large amounts of parenthetical material, and it also presents a challenge for anyone wanting to read the text aloud.
Square brackets appear in a more limited set of standard circumstances:
✵ To mark off editorial comments in quoted material. A question mark in brackets [?] indicates that the material quoted is either illegible or unclear. The word [sic] in square brackets indicates that material is being quoted faithfully, even though it appears to be incorrect or misspelt, or is surprising:
The letter was signed ’Yours sincerly [sic], Anne Benson.’
✵ To set apart material added to quoted material for clarification:
’Those works [the late string quartets] are in my estimation the fullest expression of his creative genius.’