Using Punctuation Correctly In Your Essay
Punctuation helps to keep your writing flowing smoothly and makes it more understandable to the reader.
The most common errors students make relate to commas, colons and semi colons.
I often see work that either entirely omits the use of commas or litters them right the way through the text at every pause or break in the flow of writing. The hard and fast rule is that you DON'T use a comma unless to omit it would change the meaning of the text.
Read through the examples for more guidance.
To avoid confusion, use commas to separate words and word groups with a series of three or more.
For example, my £10,000,000 estate is to be split among my husband, daughter, son, and nephew. If you omit the comma after "son", this would indicate that the son and nephew would have to split one-third of the estate.
Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the word "and" can be inserted between them.
For example, "He is a strong, healthy man."
Here's another example: "We stayed at an expensive summer resort." You would not say expensive and summer resort so no comma is necessary.
Use a comma when an "ly" adjective is used with other adjectives.
NOTE: To test if a "ly" word is an adjective, see if it can be used alone with the noun. If it can, use the comma. "Felix was a lonely, young boy." - lonely can be used with boy so it is adjective and therefore a comma should be used. "I get headaches in brightly lit rooms" - brightly is not an adjective because it cannot be used alone with rooms; therefore, no comma is used between brightly and lit.
Use commas before or surrounding the name or title of a person directly addressed. "Will you, Shirley, do that assignment for me?" "Yes, Doctor, I will."
Use a comma to separate the day of the month from the year. For example, "Kathleen met her husband on December 5, 2003, in Mill Valley, California."
- If any part of the date is omitted, leave out the comma. For example , "They met in December 2003 in Mill Valley."
- Use a comma to separate the city from the county or state and after the state. Some businesses no longer use the comma after the state. For example I lived in Radcliffe on Trent, Nottinghamshire, for 20 years. OR I lived in Radcliffe on Trent, Nottinghamshire for 20 years.
- Use commas to surround degrees or titles used with names. For example "Jennifer Wiss, LL.B, knew Sam Sunny, Jr." NOTE: Sometimes people having names with Jr. attached do not use a comma before the Jr. If they do not use the comma, then you should not.
- Use commas to set off expressions that interrupt the flow of the sentence. For example, "I am, as you have probably noticed, very nervous about this".
- When starting a sentence with a weak clause, use a comma after it. Conversely, do not use a comma when the sentence starts with a strong clause followed by a weak clause. For example, "If you are not sure about this, let me know now." "Let me know now if you are not sure about this."
- Use a comma after phrases of more than three words that begin a sentence. For example, "To apply for this job, you must have previous experience." "On February 14 many couples give each other chocolates or flowers."
- If something or someone is sufficiently identified, the description following it is considered nonessential and should be surrounded by commas. For example, "Freddy, who has a limp, was in an auto accident." - Freddy is named so the description is not essential. "The boy who has a limp was in an auto accident." - We do not know which boy is being referred to without further description; therefore, no commas are used.
- Use a comma to separate two strong clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction-and, or, but, for, nor. You can omit the comma if the clauses are both short. For example, "I have painted the entire house, but he is still working on sanding the doors." "I paint and he writes." - this is short and does not need a comma.
- Use the comma to separate two sentences if it will help avoid confusion. For example, "I chose the colors red and green, and blue was his first choice." - without the comma, it could be that green and blue were his first choice, or it could be that I chose red and green.
- A comma splice is an error caused by joining two strong clauses with only a comma instead of separating the clauses with a conjunction, a semicolon, or a period. A comma splice creates what is known as a run-on sentence. So for example, incorrect - "Time flies when we are having fun, we are always having fun." (Comma splice) Correct - "Time flies when we are having fun and we are always having fun." Also correct - "Time flies when we are having fun; we are always having fun." Also correct - "Time flies when we are having fun. We are always having fun."
- If the subject does not appear in front of the second verb, do not use a comma. For example, "He thought quickly when asked that difficult question but still did not answer correctly."
- If the sentance read "he thought quickly when asked that difficult question, but he still did not answer correctly", a comma would be appropriate.
- Use commas to introduce or interrupt direct quotations shorter than three lines. For example, He actually said, "I do not care." "Why," I asked, "do you always forget to do it?"
- Use a comma to separate a statement from a question. For example, "I can go, can't I?"
- Use a comma to separate contrasting parts of a sentence. For example, "That is my money, not yours."
- Use a comma when beginning sentences with introductory words such as well, now, or yes. For example, "Yes, I do need that report." "Well, I never thought I'd live to see the day..."
Colons and Semi Colons
Good writing in English will usually make use of the colon and the semi-colon.
Unfortunately many students fail to use these correctly. Although these look similar and have similar names, their functions are completely different.
A colon consists of two dots, one above the other:
The colon is often used to introduce a list of items. For example:
The animal enclosure contains four interesting species: crocodiles, gorillas, tigers, and lions. This sentence contains a list of four animals. The first part of the sentence tells you that there will be four animals; then the colon tells you "here are the four animals". You can also use a colon to introduce an explanation or a definition of something. For instance:
I'll give you the definition of boredom: watching soap operas on a Friday evening!
"Giraffe: a large fleet African ruminant mammal."
A semi-colon consists of a comma with a dot above it:
The semi-colon is often used to join together two independent clauses -- in other words, it joins two clauses that could be sentences. For example:
Andy has white hair; Jessica has pink hair.
These two clauses could be separate sentences: "Andy has white hair. Jessica has pink hair." However, when we use a semi-colon, we are usually suggesting that there is a relationship between the sentences, but we are not making that relationship clear. Usually, you can tell from the context what the relationship is.
In the example above, the relationship is probably one of contrast; we could also use "but" to make this clear: "Andy has white hair but Mary has pink hair." When we use a semi-colon, it is often because we want to make the reader think about the relationship for herself. This is useful in many situations, such as when writing cautiously, ironically, or humorously.
One more very common use of the semi-colon is to join two clauses using a transition such as however, therefore, on the other hand, etc. Here are some examples:
- She drives a red car all week; in addition, she drives a lorry at the weekends.
- Muriel is a size 12; however, she wears size 14 jeans.
- You should always eat healthily; otherwise, you might get ill.
- Andrew does not eat red meat; therefore, it is necessary to serve him only white meat and vegetables.