How to Correctly Use a Full Stop, Comma, Colon and Semi-colon

The use of punctuation is not meant to be followed simply because that is the rule; however, it should not be used at random either. Punctuation marks are essential for organising information to communicate ideas according to their value, in other words they help to organise a text and influence the narrative flow of what is written. When used correctly, they also clarify meaning by eliminating ambiguities or misinterpretations.

Take a look at these two examples: the sentence “I like cooking, dogs, and children” is not the same as “I like cooking dogs and children”. Knowing and understanding how to correctly use punctuation helps us write and communicate effectively.

The most commonly used punctuation marks include the full stop, comma, colon and semi-colon. Although there are various ways to properly use these punctuation marks, in this blog post we will be focusing on their use in British English.

Full stop (.)

A full stop is used to mark the end of an idea and tells the reader that they should take a long pause before moving on. A capital letter should normally follow a full stop, except if the full stop is being used in abbreviations or part of an ellipsis (a series of three dots).

            Other common uses of a full stop:

  • After an abbreviation: As a general rule, full stops should be used after abbreviations (using etc. instead of etcetera). Exceptions to this rule are abbreviations used for units of measurement, cardinal directions and chemical elements (Kg for kilogram, N for North and He for Helium).

    It is more common in British English to not use a full stop after an abbreviation if it contains the first and last letter of a word (Dr, Mr and St). However, if the abbreviation only consists of the first part, it should be included (Wed. and Dec.).

    Numbers should be written in standard form when they are used before abbreviations (write 3 km instead of three km).

  • After the letters of an acronym: The general rule is that you can choose to either use a full stop after the letters of an acronym or not, but the British norm is to opt not to use one (BBC instead of B.B.C.).
  • An ellipsis (series of three dots): An ellipse is generally used when parts of a text or sentence are left out or when someone should pause in thought (..we vetoed the bill. OR James considered the problem for several minutes…and then spoke.)

Comma (,)

Commas are used to help organise a text syntactically and they also indicate that the reader should pause briefly.

  • They are used to separate independent clauses that are parted by conjunctions such as but, or, yet, etc. (The game was over, but the crowd refused to leave).
  • They are used to separate words within a list. When there is a quantifiable list that does not use a word to continue such as , the last element of the list should be introduced with a conjunction (and or as well as). You can choose whether to add a comma before that word or not although it is more common to not include one (I bought a pencil, paper, and a journal OR I bought a pencil, paper and a journal). If the list is incomplete, you can add a comma after the last written element and follow that by the word etc. or among other things (In summer, I like to play football, swim, run, etc.)
  • Commas should be used after introductory words, clauses, or phrases (although I like dogs,….meanwhile,… however,… ).
  • Use a pair of commas in the middle of a sentence to set off a clause, phrase, or words that are not essential to the meaning (The food, on the other hand, was delicious. OR I went to the park yesterday, which was my birthday, to run around the pond). In these sentences the words within the commas are not necessary for the sentence to make sense and only serve to add additional information. However, be careful when using clauses with the word that, whom or who because they may not include a comma as the information is generally essential for the context (The apples that I dropped on the floor are bruised).
  • Commas should be used to separate geographical cities and countries, items in dates (except the month and day) and addresses (except the street number and name) (I was born on July 22, 1959 and I live at 1297 South Amber Avenue, Dublin, Ireland).
  • Use a comma near the end of a sentence to separate contrasting ideas or to indicate a distinct pause or shift (the monkey seemed reflective, almost human. Brad is a really nice boy, isn’t he?).

Semi-colon (;)

The semi-colon is used to show a longer pause than with a comma but less than a full stop. The first word that follows a semi-colon should be written in lower case.

  • The most common use of a semi-colon is to separate two independent clauses. To eliminate a long pause between two short sentences, a semi-colon can be used in its place (The boy went to the park with his friends; they played at the park all day). These two clauses could have been two sentences but instead they were joined and the sentence was easier to read. Important: semi-colons should not be used with words like and, but or yet. If those words are used in a sentence, they should include a comma.
  • Semi-colons can also be used in place of commas in a list to avoid confusion (On my vacation I visited London, England; Tokyo, Japan; and Paris, France.). If you are making a list, it is acceptable to use words like and to end the list.
  • You can also use them when you want to link clauses connected by transitional phrases like however and as a result (When write their own work, they are allowed to make their own decisions; as a result, many people swear by their own writing method).

Colon (:)

A colon should be used to draw attention to the information that follows it. According to the Oxford Living Dictionary, colons have three general uses.

  • The easiest way to use a colon is when you are introducing a list (On my vacation I was able to travel to the following places: London, Tokyo and Paris).
  • Between two main clauses where the second part explains something from the first part (That is where we will find happiness: within ourselves).
  • You can also use a colon before a quotation (They shouted: “We need help now!”. and The sign read: “Do not swim in the pond.”.)

Thanks for reading our blog post today; leave a comment below with anything you found interesting or if you think there is something we left out that you would like to add!

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