Punctuation marks are the traffic signs to control and guide the reader through written work.

Signs and signals. If you are aware of punctuation that suggests there’s something amiss. If you don’t notice the punctuation then it’s doing its job. A page peppered with commas and semicolons is a signal they’ve got the better of you. Too many marks confuse the reader. Faulty punctuation leads to misunderstanding and ambiguity. And they are just as crucial as correct spelling – perhaps more so. Here’s a recap.

Of all the marks, the full stop is the most powerful: it signifies the end of a sentence. It keeps length to the ideal 30-word limit for sharp, clear copy. Aim for two to three sentences per paragraph. An A4 printed page without illustrations needs six to eight paragraph breaks, otherwise it’s turn-off time.

The colon is used to amplify or explain something. Its main purpose is to introduce a quote. Don’t put a hyphen after it (:-) when starting a list.

The semicolon is for linking related clauses and for lists.

Three commas in a sentence usually mean one too many. Through wrong positioning they are the cause of confusion. Also the culprit when sentences become too long and when a full stop would be better. A hyphen denotes two or more words to be read as one but try to cut and join if you can. Check dictionaries.

The apostrophe is mostly for the possessive: it goes before the ‘s’ in the cat’s paws, when it is one cat but after it for more than one. And it is used in omissions (shan’t) but not for plurals or abbreviations (MPs). Put double quote marks for direct speech, single for quotes within a quote. Don’t use exclamation marks in formal writing – save them for emails only.

Down with capitalism. I keep seeing capital ‘a’ for autumn: it’s lower case for seasons, points of the compass, but upper for proper nouns, full titles of organisations, names of companies and organisations, political parties, trade names, books, films, publications.

It’s small ‘i’ for internet, worldwide web, the government, descriptive job titles as in communications director, but capitals when a formal title as is President of XYZ organisation, thereafter president. Go small whenever you can.

To each his own. It can be hard to decide whether each takes a singular or plural verb. Each of the releases is – not are – likely to be used. Easy rule: when each precedes the noun or pronoun to which it refers, use the singular; when it follows its plural: they each were.


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