Some notes about punctuation

by Katie

Good punctuation is crucial for successful essay writing and it is graded as Grammatical Range and Accuracy. Many students use little punctuation in their essays beyond commas and full stops. But to be restricted to just two forms of punctuation mark, when writing your essay, is like building a house using only a hammer and a saw: you can do it; but not very well. By learning to use more, or all, of the available forms of punctuation you will be able to communicate and express your ideas, and arguments, more clearly. Here are the most common punctuation marks which you need to use properly in your IELTS essays:

 1. Full Stop (Period) (.)

Full stops have the following uses:

  •  to mark the end of a sentence. The period (.) is one of the most commonly used punctuation marks.
    • The accessibility of the computer has increased tremendously over the past several years.
  •  to indicate abbreviated words. A full stop indicates an abbreviation, unless first and last letters of the word are shown.
    • The teacher will be Mr John Smith (B. Sci.).
  • to punctuate numbers and dates
    • All assignments should be submitted by 6. 6. 04.

 2. Comma (,)

 Commas are used to indicate a break or pause within a sentence. This is another commonly used punctuation mark. There are several instances where you might use a comma.

  • Use the comma when denoting an appositive, or a break within a sentence that supplements and adds information to the subject.
    • Bill Gates, CEO of Microsoft, is the developer of the operating system known as Windows.
  • Use the comma when denoting a series. This is a set of three or more "list" items within a sentence. Many writers omit the last comma as "and" is also a connective
    • The fruit basket contained apples, bananas, and oranges.
    • The computer store was filled with video games, computer hardware and other electronic paraphernalia.
  • Use a comma if your subject has two or more adjectives describing it. This is somewhat similar to a series, except that it is incorrect to place a comma after the final adjective.
    • CORRECT - The powerful, resonating sound caught our attention.
    • INCORRECT - The powerful, resonating, sound caught our attention.
  • Use a comma when referring to a city and state. It is also necessary to use a comma to separate the city and state from the rest of the sentence.
    • I am originally from Rosebery, NSW.
  • Use a comma to separate an introductory phrase (which is usually one or more prepositional phrases) from the rest of the sentence. An introductory phrase briefly introduces the sentence, but is not part of the sentence's subject or predicate, and it therefore should be separated from the main clause by a comma.
    •  After the show, John and I went out to dinner.
    • On the back of my couch, my cat's claws have slowly been carving a large hole.
  • Use the comma to separate two independent clauses. Having two independent clauses in a sentence simply means that you can split the sentence into two. If your sentence contains two independent clauses that are separated by a conjunction (such as and, as, but, for, nor, so, or yet), place a comma before the conjunction.
    • Ryan went to the beach yesterday, but he forgot his sunscreen.
    • Water bills usually rise during the summer, as people are thirstier during hot and humid days.
  • Use a comma when making a direct address. When calling one's attention by name, separate the person's name and the rest of the statement with a comma. Note that this kind of comma is used rarely in writing, because this is something that we do normally while speaking.
    • Andy, could you come here for a moment?
  • Use a comma to separate direct quotations. A comma should come after the last word before a quotation that is being introduced. It is not necessary to use a comma in an indirect quote. A comma is usually not necessary if you are not quoting an entire statement.
    • While I was at his house, John asked me if I wanted anything to eat.  (An indirect quotation that does not require a comma)
    • While I was at his house, John asked, "Do you want anything to eat?". (A direct quotation)
    • According to the client, the lawyer was "lazy and incompetent."  (A partial direct quotation that does not require a comma)

3. Semicolon (;)

Semicolons have a few uses.

  • Use a semicolon to separate two related but independent clauses. Note that, if the two clauses are very wordy or complex, it is better to use a period (full stop) instead.
    • People continue to worry about the future; our failure to conserve resources has put the world at risk.
  • Use a semicolon to separate a complex series of items, especially those that contain commas.
    • I went to the show with Jake, my close friend; his friend, Jane; and her best friend, Jenna.

4. Single quotation mark or apostrophe (')

Single quotation marks have a variety of uses.

  •  Use the apostrophe together with the letter s to indicate possession. Be aware of the difference in using an apostrophe with singular or plural nouns. A singular noun will use 's, whereas the plural version of that singular noun will use s'. Also, be mindful of nouns that are always considered to be plural, such as children and people - here, you should use 's. Be aware of pronouns that are already possessive and do not require apostrophes, such as hers and its (it's is used only for the contractions of it is and it has). Their is possessive without apostrophe or s, except as a predicate adjective, where it becomes theirs.
    • The hamster's water tube needs to be refilled. (A singular noun with possession.)
    • In the pet store, the hamsters' bedding needed to be changed. (A pluralized singular noun with possession.)
    • These children's test scores are the highest in the nation. (A plural noun with possession.)
    •  Friends of hers explained it's her idea, not theirs, to refill the hamster's water tube and change its bedding. (Possessive pronouns (hers, theirs, its), contraction of it is, and a singular noun with possession)
  • Use the apostrophe to combine two words to make a contraction. For example, cannot becomes can't, you are becomes you're, and they have becomes they've. Be sure to use correctly possessive pronoun your and contraction you're - it is one of the most common mistakes to confuse them!
  • Use the single quotation mark within a regular quotation to indicate a quotation within a quotation.
    • Ali said, "Anna told me, 'I wasn't sure if you wanted to come!'"
  •  Note that an apostrophe is not used with s to make a plural noun from a singular. This is a very common mistake and should be avoided.
    • CORRECT - apple ---> apples
    • INCORRECT - apple ---> apple's

 5. Question mark (?)

Question marks are used at the end of a sentence, suggests an interrogatory remark or inquiry.

What has humanity done about the growing concern of global warming?

 6. Exclamation point (exclamation mark, shout mark) (!)

An exclamation point suggests excitement or emphasis in a sentence.

I can't believe how difficult the exam was!

Exclamation marks should be used very sparingly and are not often used in IELTS writing.

7. Colon (:)

Colons have multiple uses.

  • to introduce a list. Be careful not to use a colon when denoting a regular series. Usually, the word following suggests the use of a colon. Use only after a full sentence which ends in a noun.
    • The professor has given me three options: to retake the exam, to accept the extra credit assignment, or to fail the class.
    •  INCORRECT - The Easter basket contained: Easter eggs, chocolate rabbits, and other candy.
  •  to separate an initial sentence/clause from a second clause, list, phrase or quotation that supports the first in a particular way.
    • The Television set, as the icon of the information age, represents the realisation of a dream for humankind: that knowledge and experience can be transmitted and shared across the boundaries of time and space.

8. Hyphen ( - )

Hyphens are used in a number of other areas:

  • Use a hyphen when adding a prefix to some words. The purpose of this hyphen is to make the word easier to read. If you were to leave the hyphen out of a word like re-examine, it would be reexamine, which would be harder to read. Understand that some words do not require a hyphen to separate the prefix from the word, such as restate, pretest, and undo. Let a dictionary be your guide for when to use the hyphen after a prefix. When you use a hyphen, the two words have to rely on each other. Example: re-arrange, ex-girlfriend.
  • Use hyphens when creating compound words from separate words.
    • The up-to-date newspaper reporters were quick to jump on the latest scandal.
  • Use a hyphen when writing numbers out as words. Separate the two words of any number under one hundred with a hyphen.
    • There are fifty-two playing cards in a deck.

9. Dash (--)

A dash should be used when making a brief interruption within a statement, a sudden change of thought, an additional comment, or a dramatic qualification. It can also be used to add a parenthetical statement, such as for further clarification, but should still be relevant to the sentence. Otherwise, use parentheses. Keep in mind that the rest of the sentence should still flow naturally. Try to remove the statement within the dash from the sentence; if the sentence appears disjointed or does not make sense, then you may need to revise. There should be spaces before and after the dash in British English.

  • An introductory clause is a brief phrase that comes -- yes, you guessed it -- at the beginning of a sentence. This is the end of our sentence -- or so we thought.

10. Double quotation ( " )

A double quotation encloses a direct quotation, whether made by a person or taken from a piece of literature.

  •  "I can't wait to see him perform!" John exclaimed. According to the article, the value of the dollar in developing nations is "strongly influenced by its aesthetic value, rather than its face value."

11. Parentheses (( ))

  • Parentheses are brackets used to include extra or nonessential material in sentences. Parentheses should be used sparingly and always appear in pairs.
    • Steve Case (AOL's former CEO) resigned from the Time-Warner board of directors in 2005.

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