English Writing: Punctuation Marks

Signaling Pause

The following punctuation marks are used to signal pause, and by doing so, they control the rhythm of your writing. Remember an important principle: the more pause made, the more emphasis given. Punctuation marks are like musical notes, when used correctly, they can make the rhythm of your writing sound like music. 

Commas [ , ]

Pause Length: Quarter-stop

  • It separates (like a period) but also connects (unlike a period).
  • Certain commas are required by grammar, others are optional
    • Optional ones allow you to control the rhythm of your writing.
  • Fewer commas make a more direct and faster-paced style.
  • Read here if you want more information regarding the use of commas. 

Semicolons [ ; ]

Pause Length: Half-stop

  • Slight pause that requires the reader to hesitate before continuing
  • Is a mix between both a comma AND a period because it both connects AND separates.
  • Used to separate two independent (or main) clauses WITHOUT using a coordinating conjunction word [e.g. so, yet, for (with the meaning similar to because), but etc.].
    • In this sense, it is used for stylistic effect to create more of a pause (and therefore, more emphasis) than a comma. Also, invites the reader to interact with the reading by inferring (or guessing) the missing conjunction word (perhaps subconsciously): 
      • Example: I need to go; the time is now. (missing coordinating conjunction word: for).
    • Often used for causes and consequences:
      • Example:The noise is overwhelming; I can’t think.
      • Example: It’s too late; we cannot make it on time.
    • Sometimes used because there could be one or more conjunction words implied or a meaning between them:
      • Example: I want to go; I want to stay. (missing coordinating conjunction word: possibly but or possibly and or possibly both)
  • You NEED to use it if you separate two independent clauses (clauses that have BOTH a subject AND a verb) with a conjunction adverb (e.g. however, therefore, or nevertheless).
    • Example: You shouldn’t edit while you write your first draft; however, you always need to edit before publishing.
      • Note: This rule is often broken as so:
        • You shouldn’t edit while you write your first draft, however, you always need to edit before publishing. 
  • DO NOT use a semicolon to separate a dependent clause or phrase and an independent clause:
    • Example: In the garden; I like to walk. – OR – Although I like watching movies; I don’t like to watch movies with you.  
  • DO NOT use a coordinating conjunction word after the semicolon:
    • Example: I want to go; yet I want to stay. (should use a comma instead: I want to go, yet I want to stay)
      • Note: Writers often break this rule.  

Colons [ : ]

Pause Length: Three-quarter stop

  • The colon is a mark of anticipation. Like a period, however, leaves the reader expecting more to come.
    • Used for style to create emphasis
      • Example: The time was right: midnight.
    • A sentence fragment preceding the colon creates an emphatic style
      • Example: The video: a fine piece of propaganda that influenced millions upon millions.
  • Used to introduce a list
    • Example: I wanted to focus on three subjects primarily: math, science, and geography.
  • Used to separate a second independent clause that explains the first.
    • Example: I need to learn a new language quickly: I only have 3 months to do so.

Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Points [ . ? ! ]

Pause Length: Full stop – the longest pause of all.

  • Completes a thought or an idea
  • Short sentences = more emphatic
    • Example: Language is music.
  • Sentence fragments (non-complete sentences without both a subject and verb) are even more emphatic:
    • Example: Language. Is. Music.
    • Example: Who’s to blame? The politicians? The people? Or all of society?
    • Example: Hey! Stop!
  • The pause created puts emphasis on the words immediately before it. So, put the words you want the most emphasis on before the period because when you conclude your sentence with the words you want to emphasize, you give your reader a moment to focus on them.
    • Good: Periods create emphasis when you use them correctly
    • Better: When used correctly, periods create emphasis.
  • Use question marks at the end of direct questions:
    • Example: Do you live here?
    • Example: I don’t want to go, do you?
  • DO NOT use question marks for indirect questions:
    • Example (indirect speech without quotations): The girl asked me not to tell you.
    • Example (statements with ‘wonder if’): I wonder if she will go with me.
  • Generally, use exclamation points in informal writing situations e.g. emails to friends, Instant Messaging, text messaging, blogs, quotations etc. but NOT in academic papers.

Signaling Side Notes:

Side notes refer to additional information, description, or explanation of the main idea – information that is NOT required to be in the sentence.

Parenthesis [ ( ) ]

  • Used to include additional information for clarification purposes.
    • Example: Knowing how to use punctuation marks (colons, semi-colons, periods, and commas) turns your writing into music.

Dashes [ – – ]

  • Creates an abrupt, emphatic pause.
  • Used for style
    • Used for more emphasis than commas or parentheses:
      • Less Emphasis: Knowing how to use punctuation marks (commas, semi-colons, colons, and periods) turns your writing into music.
      • More Emphasis: Knowing how to use punctuation marks – commas, semi-colons, colons, and periods – turns your writing into music.
  • When used at the end of the sentence, you begin with a dash and end with a period.
    • Example: A period indicates a full stop – the longest pause of all.

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