Let’s face it; punctuation saves lives. There’s a massive difference between “Let’s eat, grandpa” and “Let’s eat grandpa.” Punctuation creates sense in writing. Some of it comes as second nature, some of it tends to get misused (like commas). This blog will teach you how to use punctuation to prevent more grandpas from being eaten.
To define punctuation: it is a technical tool used to separate sentences, highlight certain elements and clarify meaning. Mastering punctuation marks will help you master written English, making all of your writing entirely legit.
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- Full Stop
- Question Mark
- Exclamation Mark
- En Dash
- Em Dash
- Double quotation marks
- Single quotation marks
Without further ado, here’s a list of punctuation marks and symbols that we will discuss in this article.
- Full stop
- Question mark
- Exclamation mark
- En dash
- Em dash
- Double quotation marks
- Single quotation marks
Full Stop (Period in American English)
Of all the English punctuation marks, the full stop is second nature. Full stops tell the reader “this is where the sentence ends.” A full stop does not elevate the content of a sentence in any way; it merely signals completion.
Example: Paris is a beautiful city.
If the sentence is a direct question, it will have a question mark at the end. But ONLY if it’s a direct question.
Example: Are you feeling hungry?
If the sentence is a reported question, it does not need a question mark.
Example: She asked if I was feeling hungry.
If the sentence is a request phrased as a question it does not need a question mark.
Example: Would you please take your seats and fasten your seatbelts.
If the sentence is super long (like the ones asked by reporters), it needs a question mark.
Example: Is it true that plastic and metal pollution has been the biggest threat to sea life and has fueled rising sea levels causing the death of hundreds of thousands of marine animals annually?
Question marks can also appear inside sentences. This is often due to a quote or an author’s comment in brackets (see Brackets).
Example: “What am I doing here?” Harry asked.
Example: I enjoyed that movie by Christopher Nolan (or was it Michael Bay?)
The exclamation mark is used to emphasize, dramatize, express feelings of astonishment, excitement, or signal urgency; it is the most emotional of all punctuation marks. Using an exclamation mark in your essay title will definitely make it attention-grabbing.
Example: Quick! Get to the chopper!
It is often used in sarcasm; when the person means the opposite of what they’re saying.
Example: Fixing a flat tire with scotch tape. Very clever, Shawn!
The exclamation mark can also be mixed with the question mark for a heightened sense of surprise. This is usually done in informal settings.
Example: Linda and Davis have a child!?
Since we’re living in a digital world, things tend to get dramatized very easily in SMS, chats, and social media. Putting a few extra exclamation marks at the end of a sentence is a regular practice for extra emphasis. Keep in mind that in professional settings, this could be regarded as a sign of illiteracy.
Example: I told you a million times, I am not a Hippie!!!
The comma is a complicated punctuation sign because of its many grammatical, mechanical, and stylistic uses. To keep this entry brief, we have dedicated a separate blog post to it. Head there for a detailed description of the comma and all its uses.
In brief, a comma is a tool used to separate elements in a sentence. Using a comma creates a slight pause or a break between two sentence fragments. The importance of separating sentences with commas can be seen in the example below:
No comma: It’s time to eat kids!
With comma: It’s time to eat, kids!
Here are some more common uses of the comma:
Stacking adjectives in a sentence.
Example: She is a sharp, punctual woman.
Making a list of items.
Example: To film this scene we need lights, props, stabilizers, and a tripod.
Separating the name of the city from the country.
Example: He was born in Berlin, Germany.
Directly quoting someone.
To quote Steve Jobs, “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”
Semicolons can be used instead of conjunctions (and, but, if, yet) to separate two independent but related clauses in a long sentence.
Example: I gave Mark my guitar to fix, and he said he’ll have it done by Thursday.
The conjunction and can be eliminated in favor of a semicolon.
Example: I gave Mark my guitar to fix; he said he’ll have it done by Thursday.
Using the semicolon instead of conjunction improves this sentence by making it easier to read.
Similarly, commas can combine two short sentences for the same effect. This can only be done if both sentences are related; if they make the same point.
Example: Daphne has a big presentation tomorrow. She can’t hang out tonight.
These two sentences are similar; they both signify that Daphne is staying home. This is a great place to put a semicolon instead of a full stop.
Example: Daphne has a big presentation tomorrow; she can’t hang out tonight.
Semicolons can also separate items that contain commas in a list.
Example: I studied in Phoenix, Arizona; Atlanta, Georgia; and Los Angeles, California.
The colon punctuation mark usually introduces a list.
Example: Your daughter must take the following required courses: digital media marketing, investigative journalism, and film studies.
If the writer does NOT introduce a list, use commas instead.
Example: Your daughter must take digital media marketing, investigative journalism, and film studies as these are all required courses.
Writers also use the colon between two independent clauses, when the second clause illustrates the first.
Example: My fellow Imperials: think not what the Empire can do for you—but what you can do for the Empire!
Lastly, colons are an excellent tool for emphasizing the ending of a sentence. Using the em dash is also correct in this case.
Example: Three weeks in a mansion by the seaside, an easy summer job, all the beautiful girls in the world: this will be the best summer ever.
Writers use parentheses to provide clarification or insert an afterthought into a sentence. It can be a word, a phrase, or a couple of sentences, depending on the author’s intentions.
Example: Pop music is all the same to me (not that I have anything against it).
The writing inside the parentheses does not in any way affect the grammar of the sentence. Many writers often make this mistake. The trick is just to read your sentence without the parentheses to see if it makes sense.
Correct: Drake (and his manager) ate pizza at the local pizzeria.
Incorrect: Drake (and his manager) were invited to eat pizza in the local pizzeria.
The primary function of a hyphen is to create compound words. These are terms with more than one word representing a single item or idea.
There are Open Compound Words (living room, coffee mug), Closed Compound Words (notebook, baseball), and Hyphenated Compound Words (long-term, nickel-and-dime, Spider-Man).
A hyphen also separates numbers written in words.
Example: My dog is fifty-nine in dog years.
The en dash is often confused with the Hyphen and the em dash punctuation signs.
Most frequently it is used to represent a range of numbers, distance, or a relationship. This may sound a bit confusing, so let’s take a look at examples.
A range of numbers represented by the en dash could be dates, time, or years. In the example below, the en dash substitutes the word through.
Example: Your homework is to read chapters 4–6.
In the next example, the en dash is used to show the scores of a football match.
Example: Liverpool beat Manchester City 2–0.
The relationship signified by the en dash can be conflict, connection, or distance.
Conflict: The American Civil War started from the north–south slavery debate.
Connection/ distance: The Berlin–New York flight.
The em dash is more commonly used within sentences. It is very versatile, allowing writers to use it instead of commas, colons, and parentheses. The general idea is to make an interruption within the sentence for a specific effect (depending on the context)
Example (Em dash instead of comma): When Mark gave me back my guitar—two weeks after I asked him to—it was all greasy and scratched.
Similarly, em dashes can be used instead of colons and parentheses as demonstrated in the examples below.
Example (Em dash instead of colon): Three weeks in a mansion by the seaside, an easy summer job, all the beautiful girls in the world—this will be the best summer ever.
Example (Em dash instead of parentheses): Pop music is all the same to me—not that I have anything against it.
Double Quotation Marks
Quotation marks have a straightforward purpose. They signify that the following sentence is a quote.
“I can’t believe you’re late to class again,” Miss Dolores said.
Any other use of quotation marks is plain wrong. Using quotation marks for emphasis is a “huge error”, especially when you have italics for that very purpose. It’s Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, not “Pulp Fiction.”
Single Quotation Marks
Single quotation marks are a simple grammatical sign.
They show possession: Is that Jake’s bike?
They also show contractions (we have those covered in a separate blog): You’re a hilarious guy, you know that?
Single quotation marks are also used when someone is quoting someone else in a sentence: “Miss Dolores told you a million times, ‘Don’t be late to class,’” Mom said.
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