Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s: a quick and easy guide to punctuation.

Changes in fashion affect all aspects of our lives, even grammar, but when it comes to punctuation there is little that can be modernised without distortion.  The trend in recent years has been to under-punctuate but too little punctuation can be confusing for the reader.  

Some famous writers have experimented with using no or very little punctuation in their work, such as James Joyce in ‘Ulysses’.  The results can be dramatic but require a clarity of purpose and consistency of approach to be successful.  The average writer follows the general rules of punctuation for one very good reason: he wants his work to be read and understood by as many people as possible.

Good grammar is a mixture of common sense and custom, so a few simple rules can make all the difference to the quality of your book.  Don’t leave it up to your editor.  Make sure your book is punctuated the way you want it to be.

The full stop.
This is the easiest rule to follow.  A full stop marks the end of a sentence and is followed by a capital letter.  It is also used after an abbreviation or initials.

He saw the Revd. Smith enter the church.

The comma,
The use of commas varies according to taste and the meaning you wish to convey.  It is not used to separate sentences, only phrases, clauses and individual words.  It is, in essence, a pause rather than a stop.

The child, sitting by herself on the bench, pointed at him in horror.
She was a quiet girl, soft spoken and gentle.

A comma is unnecessary before ‘and’ unless it is required for extra emphasis.
It is also used to clarify meaning and avoid ambiguity.  Consider the following two sentences:

For the girl Mary Ellen was like a mother.
For the girl Mary, Ellen was like a mother.

The colon:
The colon is not as strong as a full stop, but is stronger than a comma or a semi-colon.  It is mainly used before a list of objects or to amplify what has gone before.

She emptied her shopping basket onto the table: potatoes, onions, tomatoes, beans and carrots tumbled out.
The average writer follows the general rules of punctuation for one very good reason: they want their work to be read and understood by as many people as possible.

The semi-colon;
The semi-colon is not as strong as the full-stop but it is used to break up long sentences.  It can be used to link together short sentences that have a close meaning.

She is in Spain and she is on her own; for the first time in her life she is travelling alone.
She is a seasoned walker she tells herself; she has walked many miles in these boots, not hard walks, but she has put in the distance.

The question mark?
The question mark is only used when you are asking a direct question.

What time is it?
I wonder what the time is.
I asked if she had the time.

The exclamation mark!
The exclamation is used to denote surprise or as emphasis but should be used sparingly, otherwise your text will read like a child’s comic.

Good God!  I can’t believe it!

The dash-
The dash can be used instead of a comma or brackets, when you want to add some background information to your sentence.

She approached the man warily – they had met once before, when she was visiting the prison- and handed him the packet.

The dash can also be used after the colon to introduce a list.

He packed for the journey:-  three shirts, spare shoes, a second pair of trousers and some underwear.

It can also be used at the end of an unfinished sentence

‘I don’t think I can carry on.  It’s just too -’
She paused.

Many years ago a professor of mine accused me of using too many dashes.  ‘Your essay reads like a Victorian novel,’ was his comment.  I have never used a dash since without considering if it is appropriate.

‘Quotation marks or Inverted commas’
Single quotation marks are used for direct speech.

‘Hi, hope I didn’t disturb you,’ he says with a lazy smile.  ‘I want to get off early, before the hordes.’

Single quotation marks are also used for book titles, films, plays etc.

‘Wuthering Heights’ is an excellent novel.

If you use a title within direct speech then double quotation marks are used.

‘Have you read “Wuthering Heights” yet?’ she asked.

The apostrophe’
The apostrophe is often misused or omitted.  It is required when a letter is left out from a word or to denote possession.

‘Don’t touch that dish; it’s hot.’
That’s Mary’s bag.
The pilgrims’ robes were dirty and stained.

Note that ‘its’, when it is used in the possessive sense, does not have an apostrophe.

Its cover was badly torn.
It’s sad that he does not take care of his books.