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Overview of punctuation

Punctuation is subject to trends. Investigate the purpose of punctuation and what some trends are in this article.
A wide range of punctuation marks

Did you take the learners’ poll to share which punctuation mark is most difficult for you? And did you see the range of punctuation marks that cause other people difficulty?

Whatever your particular problem area is, and whether English is your first or your fifth language, you are not alone.

Let’s get started improving our understanding of how to use the main punctuation marks!

Like any other convention associated with language, the use of punctuation is subject to trends. A recent trend is to limit the use of punctuation, particularly commas. So while this course describes correct and incorrect usage, you must apply these with a sensitive and thorough understanding of the context.

Style and usage guides can differ on when and how to use the various types of punctuation, and some people and institutions don’t follow so-called punctuation ‘rules’. For example, most newspapers rarely seem to distinguish between ‘which’ and ‘that’ in relation to restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, while writers of fiction frequently use commas ‘stylistically’ to suit the tone and voice of their writing.

The purpose of punctuation

Photo of hands doing sign language signs. Words written on the image are: Punctuation - a signal system for readers.

In the … English sentence, punctuation presents a set of signal systems for the readers. If your code is clear, the reader will get your signals. If it is faulty, the reader will be confused and you will have failed to communicate.
Some marks guide the eye; others, the ear, that is, they indicate the mental intonation (pause, stress, pitch) the reader should use. For instance, the period signals a full stop with the pitch of voice dropped to indicate a long pause, whereas an exclamation point ‘shouts’ and implies the raising of the writer’s voice.
The period indicates a long pause; the comma indicates a short pause. The semicolon signals not only a stop but also ‘equality’; something equally structured will follow.
The colon signals that the thought is not complete, that something explanatory will follow: an important word, phrase, sentence, or a formal listing. The colon is a very formal mark, the dash is less formal, and the material within parentheses just ‘whispers’ to the reader.
Generally speaking, these marks are not interchangeable; each has its own function to perform.

Longknife and Sullivan, The Art of Styling Sentences, page 146

There’s a lot to think about here, isn’t there? As we go through the course, we will cover some of these punctuation marks in detail and the ‘signal systems’ will become clearer.

Let’s take punctuation marks on their own now, beginning with the comma. The comma is one of the trickiest punctuation marks to use. Let’s master it!

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Understanding English Punctuation: Commonly used Punctuation Marks

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