Why is punctuation important?
Proper punctuation conveys a clear message that is easily understood. Using punctuation correctly in writing is like obeying road traffic signs when driving. It keeps us safe – safe from misunderstanding and incorrect meaning. Accidents in writing, because of misplaced commas or incorrectly used full stops, for example, can be almost as tragic and costly as missing a red traffic light or changing lanes without indicating.
Pass a beginner’s licence in language by understanding the more common of these:
The apostrophe has three functions:
- it indicates possession: the girl’s purple hair (the purple hair belonging to the girl)
- it takes the place of a missing letter: he’s going mad slowly (he is going mad slowly)
- it is used to form the plural of specific letters or numbers: the fashion of the ‘80s should remain there (the fashion of the 1980s should remain there)
Errors abound with incorrect placement or absence of the apostrophe. Meaning is changed and readers can become confused. Consider the following mistakes in these sentences:
- the learners’ left shoe fell down the stairs (one shoe for many learners or the left shoe of one learner?)
- your very friendly this winter (you are/ you’re)
- proofreaders will dot your is and cross your ts (i’s and t’s)
Widely used and frequently abused, the comma needs no introduction. Its purpose, however, must be understood. There are many ways to use a comma but, in a nutshell, use a comma to:
- separate items in a list (I bought bread, milk, cheese and chocolate),
- create a pause between two phrases that belong together (He arrived early to surprise her, but everyone else had too),
- separate an introductory phrase or word (Finally, he stopped talking)
Beware of these common comma problems:
- do not insert a comma between two sentences that can stand alone (My father had to ride the bicycle, his brother forgot to tighten the brakes and pump the tyres). This is called a comma splice and leads to confusion.
- refrain from using too many commas. If in doubt, omit the comma and leave it to the editor or proofreader to decide (That morning, she walked, past the school and drug store, into the park, which was littered, all over).
- if commas act as parentheses to bracket information that can be left out without changing the meaning of the sentence, always use two commas (The boy’s dog, usually sprightly and energetic, lay quietly and sulked in the rain).
They say this is the most misused punctuation mark. A semi-colon is neither a full stop nor a colon. It does not end a sentence; it does not lead to additional explanation. A semi-colon is used between two related sentences. It keeps the ideas closer together than a full stop and lets the reader understand this connection.
The hyphen and the dash
The hyphen is shorter than the dash. The hyphen is used to keep words together while the dash is used to keep words apart. The red-eyed drunkard – known for his excessive brandy consumption – stumbled up the paint-stained stairs before collapsing in a heap.
The colon is used to separate two statements, with the second statement expanding on or explaining the first. Often, the second statement is unable to stand alone as a complete sentence (unlike its cousin, the semi-colon). Three factors affect good writing: punctuation, grammar and common sense.
The exclamation mark
In formal writing, there is seldom place, if ever, for an exclamation mark. Keep this for informal writing and marketing-related statements where you want to show emphasis or express strong feeling.
The period or full stop
This marks the end of a sentence. Experience tells me we need not expand on this further as, more often than not, this punctuation mark is used correctly.
Keep right (with your writing)!
Follow these simple punctuation signs to navigate your way to acceptable writing that takes you where you want to be. Now you can drive your writing confidently with the care and caution it deserves!