How To Use English Punctuation Correctly

So you're looking to improve your writing skills, are you? Are you finding out that all of those punctuation lessons from your grade school teachers weren't as thorough as you once thought? Even if you've got the basics of English punctuation under your belt, it's always a good idea to brush up on your English punctuation skills. Especially if you're trying to impress a potential boss with a stellar résumé, you need to make sure that you are using English punctuation correctly. Follow these 5 pointers for using correct English punctuation.

  1. Periods. Use a period at the end of a sentence that isn't a question or an exciting point. Anytime you've used a short form of a word or an abbreviation, you'll also need to use a period where you've cut the word short (for example, instead of "et cetera", you would write "etc."). In this case, you need to know that it's okay to have the period there and at the end of the sentence, since they are being used for different reasons.
  2. Commas. This is perhaps the most confusing punctuation mark in the English language. It's very versatile, almost too much so. You can use a comma to separate a list of words, to separate two phrases in the same sentence, or even to separate the parts of a date (for example, you would write Thursday, December 25th, 2008). You need a comma when you are using more than one adjective to describe something (like a big, fat, expensive mortgage). And you also need to use a comma if you're inserting something into a sentence that breaks up the natural flow of it (I thought, as I was sitting here, that I should mention this one as well). Notice that the section within the commas breaks up the flow of an otherwise normal sentence, so it needs to be separated by commas. You'll also need to use a comma when you're writing the proper address of a place such as Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Each place is followed by a comma. And if you can handle one more, you'll need to use a comma before you quote something (for example, she said, "I really enjoyed meeting you"). Believe it or not, this is not an exhaustive list, but it covers most of the key uses for a comma.
  3. Exclamation marks. Use an exclamation mark to end a sentence that is exciting. If someone is yelling, use an exclamation mark at the end of their words. Or, if you've included sound effects that are loud or dramatic, use an exclamation mark (BAM! Pow! Smack!) Got it?
  4. Question marks. Okay, this is a no-brainer, but just in case, let's review. Use a question mark at the end of a sentence that asks a question. Moving on....
  5. Quotation marks. If someone is speaking, you need to separate their words with quotation marks. Or, if you have borrowed words that someone else has written, you need to separate their words from your own with quotation marks.
  6. Apostrophes. Apostrophes have two uses in correct English punctuation. Use an apostrophe when using contractions (didn't, couldn't, isn't). In this case, the apostrophe replaces the missing letters - "did not" loses the o, and the o is replaced with an apostrophe to look like "didn't". Also, an apostrophe is used when talking about someone's possessions, or things that belong to them. For example, that is Santa's sleigh, and Rudolph's nose. Leaving out the apostrophe here would simply make the words look plural, and that's not the correct use of English punctuation here.
  7. Colons. Use a colon before you insert a list of words or phrases after an otherwise complete sentence. (I'm a great writer for four reasons: my passion, dedication, education and qualifications.) You should also use a colon when you're linking two closely-related sentences, or if you're wanted to separate a really important word or phrase from the rest of a sentence (for example, She made my favorite meal: spaghetti). And you also need a colon when you're introducing a long quote (instead of using quotation marks) or when you're beginning a letter (like Dear Santa: Thank you for the toys).
  8. Semi-colon. Use a semi-colon when separating independent clauses (smaller sentences that make sense on their own in part of a bigger sentence). Use a semi-colon if before the word however or therefore if it falls in the middle of a sentence. You'll also need to use a semi-colon if you've got a long and complicated list (instead of using a comma).

This may seem overwhelming, but it's actually only the beginning to using English punctuation correctly. This list will get you more than on your way to using correct English punctuation. And with a little practice and double-checking, your writing skills will definitely improve.


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