How to Correctly Use Punctuation Marks

Almost everyone has doubted, at least once in their life, where to put a comma or a semi-colon or where to put a full stop when using quotation marks. In this post, we hope to provide you with a few simple explanations and examples for you to use punctuation correctly when writing.

If you first need a little assistance in the basics like how to correctly use a full stop, comma, colon and semi-colon make sure to take a look at our previous blog here. Then, after you are confident in your skills you can move onto other punctuation marks explained below.


Brackets and Parentheses

Round brackets (also called parentheses) are commonly used to add new information that clarifies the main statement, although it is not essential. That way, if the bracketed material is removed, the sentence will still make sense.

Parentheses should be written without leaving a space before and after the words included. They do, however, require a space before and after the parentheses within the sentence. If a punctuation mark follows that parenthesis, there is no space.

Example: David (Tim’s brother) fought like a lion because he had no choice but to.

Square brackets are used similarly to parentheses. However, the new information is typically provided by someone other than the original speaker or writer.

Brackets should be written next to the first and last word they frame and are separated by a space from the words or punctuation marks that come before them and that follow them.

If a punctuation mark comes after the bracket, there is no space.

When parentheses and brackets appear at the end of a sentence, the final punctuation should go after it.

Example: She drove 60 [miles per hour] on the highway to town.


Quotation marks

Quotation marks can be single (‘,’) or double (“”). They have different uses depending on whether the speaker is using British or American English.

Inverted commas are used at the beginning and at the end of direct speech.

Example: ‘No’, he said ‘I don’t love you’.  

In this case, in British English single quotation marks are commonly used whereas in American English double quotation marks are more used.   

Moreover, quotation marks have a metalinguistic sense since it can also mark off a word or phrase that is being discussed or has been mentioned before.

Example: In this poem, “bird” means freedom.  


Em Dash / En Dash / Hyphen 

Firstly, the use of the em dash or long dash (—), is similar to that of the parentheses or the brackets. It marks off information or ideas that are not relevant to the main clause but they provide additional information.

Example: Please call my lawyer—Richard Smith—on Tuesday.

It can also replace a comma, semicolon or colon.

Example: The house rule is simple — clean up after yourself!

In all cases there is no space added on either side of an em dash. They are more common in informal writing so its use should be limited if you are writing formally.

The en dash (–) is slightly shorter than the em dash and longer that the hyphen. The en dash is used to connect things that are related to each other by distance, as in the May–September issue of a magazine or when a range of pages is cited as in an index (e.g., 48–55). Nowadays, the en dash is used less and less, and instead people prefer the hyphen.

The hyphen connects two things that are related or function together as a single concept. That way, they can be classified into:

  • Hyphens in compound words: They show that the component words have a combined meaning (e.g. brother-in-law). In this sense we can also find compound adjectives that are made up of a noun + an adjective, a noun + a participle or an adjective + a participle.

Example: good-looking, sugar-free, computer-assisted.

We have to keep in mind that adjectives formed from the adverb well + participle or from a phrase (e.g. well-known) are hyphenated when they come before the noun but do not when they come after the noun.

Example: This is a well-known book.

We should use a hyphen when a verb is formed from two nouns such as to ice-skate or court-martial. Hyphens should NOT be used within phrasal verbs. However, if that phrasal verb is made into a noun, you SHOULD use it.

Example:  break in (verb) vs. break-in (noun)


Apostrophe

Apostrophes can show both possession and omission.

In the sentence, “That’s Carl’s dog”, the apostrophe marks that something belongs to somebody. Some guidelines are:

  • It is used with most personal names as well as singular nouns.
  • Personal names ending in –s: if we pronounce the extra –s after the name and it sounds natural, we should add it after the apostrophe (e.g. St. James’s Hospital). Nevertheless, there are some exceptions as in St Thomas’ School.
  • When a plural noun ends in –s, we just add the apostrophe (e.g. the students’ desk).
  • When a plural noun do not end in –s, we should add the apostrophe plus –s. (e.g. children’s literature)

The apostrophe can also be used to show omission for example in letters or numbers.

Example: I’m vs. I am

               Spring ’98 vs. Spring 1998

Thanks for reading and, if you’ve find it useful … please share it with your friends!

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