The pillars of punctuation: explained

Punctuation example

Punctuation is the foundation of good writing. Put simply, it allows your words to breathe and be made sense of. Without it, readers would be faced with long uninterrupted strings of words, leaving them confused and disoriented.

Most of you will be familiar with punctuation and have a grasp of its key elements (colons, commas and the like).

Whilst some of you might fastidiously follow punctuation rules, others may see punctuation as little more than an inconvenience.

But, before we go any further, let’s remind ourselves of what punctuation is.

The Oxford Dictionary defines punctuation as: the marks, such as full stop, comma, and brackets, used in writing to separate sentences and their elements and to clarify meaning.

Simple, right? In theory perhaps, but in practice many writers struggle to use even some of the most basic punctuation marks correctly and mistakes are frequent.

So, to help us clear the fog surrounding this topic, let’s look at our handy list of punctuation fundamentals that every writer needs to nail.

Punctuation essentials

1) Apostrophes

Misused and misunderstood in equal measure, the apostrophe is one of the most common punctuation pitfalls.

The main functions of the apostrophe are:

  • To show omission

For example: let’s (let us), don’t (do not), she’ll (she will), it’s (it is or it has)

  • To show possession

For example: my sister’s car, the hotel’s facilities

The crucial thing about apostrophes and possessives is to put them in the correct place. This can be tricky with plural words that don’t end in an ‘s’, such as children. In this scenario, the apostrophe comes after the final letter, e.g. the children’s school.

If you have a word that’s plural or already ends in an ‘s’ and you want to show possession, place the apostrophe after the ‘s’, e.g. the girls’ rucksacks (the rucksacks belonging to the girls).

Apostrophes should not generally be used to form the plural.

However, there are one or two exceptions where you can use an apostrophe to form a plural for the sake of clarity, e.g. I‘ve dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.

Finally, beware of the common blunder that occurs with its versus it’s. To avoid making errors with this, remember that it’s means it is or it has, whereas its denotes possession.

2) Commas

Entire essays could be written about commas and when/where to include them, but we’ll try to keep this snappy!

Commas are generally used to indicate pauses within a sentence.

Their main uses are as follows:

  • In lists

For example: I went to the supermarket to buy milk, bread and wine.

  • To separate clauses in complex sentences (i.e. sentences with a main clause [that can stand alone in its own right] and at least one subordinate clause)

For example: I met him in a cafe in Bangkok, when I was travelling twenty years ago.

  • To mark off parts of a sentence

If explanatory text can be omitted without changing the general meaning of the sentence, it should be enclosed using commas.

For example: Her latest film, Midnight in Paris, premieres next week.

The name of the film here is an optional aside, it isn’t essential to the overall meaning of the sentence and could be removed.

  • In direct speech

Direct speech is the term for when a writer quotes a speaker’s words exactly.

If the direct speech occurs after information about the speaker, then it needs to be preceded by a comma. For example:

Sarah sighed and said, ‘No, that’s wrong’.

If the direct speech occurs before information about the speaker, then it needs to be followed by a comma. For example:

‘It’s not,’ he replied.

There are, however, a couple of exceptions to this:

If the direct speech takes the form of a question or an exclamation, you should end it with a question mark or an exclamation mark. For example:

‘You’re mistaken!’ she said.

If the direct speech is broken up by information about the speaker, you should end the first piece of speech with a comma (inside the quotation mark) and insert another comma before the second piece of speech (before the quotation mark). For example:

‘Yes,’ Sarah said, ‘and you know I’m always right.’

  • With ‘however’

Use a comma after ‘however’ when it means ‘by contrast’ or ‘on the other hand’. For example:

However, the jury is still a long way off reaching a unanimous verdict.

Do not use a comma with ‘however’ when it means ‘in whatever way’. For example:

However the story plays out, the book has been a fantastic read.

Finally, take care to avoid the ‘comma splice’. This occurs when a comma is incorrectly used to link two main clauses (which could stand alone in their own right).

3) Colons (:) vs semi-colons (;)

Deciding between these two is the source of much uncertainty for many a writer. Despite being dead ringers, these punctuation marks are not interchangeable! Firstly, let’s look at colons.

Colons indicate a stronger pause in a sentence than semi-colons and have three main uses:

  • To separate two main clauses, where the second clause follows on from or explains the first. For example:

There was an issue with his work: he was sloppy and often made mistakes.

  • To introduce a list. For example:

The price included the following: tickets, transport and a complimentary glass of fizz on arrival.

  • Before a quotation and/or direct speech. For example:

The front page headline read: ‘NHS in dire straits!’

And now, semi-colons…

Semi-colons generally indicate a pause in a sentence that’s stronger than a comma, but not as strong as a colon. They have two principal uses:

  • To separate two main clauses that are grammatically independent but closely linked in meaning. For example:

It’s a plausible explanation; let’s hope she’s telling the truth.

  • To separate items in a list (particularly when they’re grammatically complex). For example:

You can use the gym’s facilities at any time during opening hours if you pay your monthly membership fee; sign in on arrival; leave the changing rooms in a tidy state.

4) Quotation marks/inverted commas

Quotation marks, or inverted commas, have three main uses.

  • To indicate the beginning and end of direct speech. For example:

Sarah sighed and said, ‘No, that’s wrong’.

  • To indicate a word or phrase that’s being discussed, or that’s being directly quoted from elsewhere. For example:

What does ‘digital first’ mean?

  • To indicate direct speech within direct speech. In this scenario, use single quotation marks around the direct speech and double quotation marks to show the quoted material within it. For example:

‘Her parting words, said Tom, were “I won’t be back”, she was adamant about it’.

So, there you have our guide to the pillars of punctuation. Whilst this overview is by no means exhaustive, we hope it gives you a basic understanding of some commonly-used punctuation marks and their function(s).

Punctuation and good grammar are not inconsequential. With the prevalence of social media they might be seen to be falling out of fashion, but all writers need to have a handle on punctuation to write effectively.

After all, would you (or could you) read a book or browse a website without punctuation?

And if punctuation is still tying you up in knots despite your best efforts, don’t despair as a good copy-editor will help you unravel them!