When we speak we can help the listener to understand through the use of gestures, facial expressions and body language. We can also use pauses, hesitations and repetitions to add to the force of what we are saying and to make sure that the listener has understood what we are trying to communicate. When we are writing we have to use different mechanisms to do the same work. This is where punctuation comes in. It allows us to divide up our ideas into manageable chunks so that the reader understands what we are trying to say. There are many different rules and conventions regarding punctuation but even following these norms you still have flexibility in the use of a variety of punctuation marks. Many students feel anxious about the use of punctuation in their writing. If you feel this way, it may help to consider punctuation as an aid to enable you, as the writer, to make your writing as clear as possible.

It may seem strange to think about punctuation as a cohesive device when, on the surface, it looks as if punctuation breaks your writing up. By breaking up the writing into chunks and creating different weighting of importance for the parts of your writing, punctuation actually makes connections so that the writing begins to take on an overall structure. Punctuation relies on certain conventions, but it is often very difficult to describe the rules that are used. What we attempt to do here is to talk about the most common forms of punctuation that students have difficulties with and the ones that will be most beneficial to practise using in your assignment writing. It is important to remember that effective use of different forms of punctuation is an asset. It should be a help rather than a hindrance with your writing. The most useful starting point is to pay attention to the ways in which the authors that you read use punctuation in their writing.

The most commonly used punctuation marks which students have difficulties with are full stops, commas, colons, semicolons and apostrophes. We suggest that you read through the examples below to see if you know how to incorporate these into your own work. Then you can complete Activity Forty-two at the end of this section, which is designed to help you identify the different uses of these punctuation marks.

Full stops

Full stops signal the end of a sentence. They indicate that the writer has completed one complete thought or idea. A full stop can come at the end of a simple or a complex sentence:

Emily finished her book.

She did not want to begin the piece of work until she had finished reading her book.

Normally, Emily liked to begin writing before she had actually finished her research but on this occasion she wanted to be sure that first she completely understood what she had been reading.

Although these example sentences differ in their complexity, they all contain a complete thought on the part of the writer. The best way that you can make sure that you are writing in complete sentences and using full stops correctly is to read your work aloud. This will help you to decide if it makes sense.


Using commas effectively can be quite difficult. Students often feel confused about where to put commas in their writing. One of the reasons for this is that conventions for their use vary depending on the writer and the context. If you are beginning to write for a new subject you may find it easier if you use shorter sentences to begin with. This can make it easier to order your ideas and therefore to use commas more effectively. The following sentences give some examples of the situations in which you will find yourself needing to use commas:

The strange, disturbing, eerie silence was interrupted by a ghostly scream.

The author, who writes about the changing perceptions of childhood in the early twentieth century, gives numerous examples to illustrate her theoretical position.

However, in practice many students do find writing assignments a difficult and daunting process but gradually they begin to develop their own identity as writers and this gives them an increasing sense of satisfaction.

In the first example, the commas are used to separate similar words (adjectives) which are used to describe another word (a noun). When we write a list of adjectives in front of a noun we use commas to separate the adjectives. It is not usual to put a comma between the final adjective and the word that it is describing.

In the second example, the words between the commas add meaning to the rest of the sentence. Using commas in this way enables the writer to use additional material in the same sentence and to elaborate on her original thought.

In the third example, the first word is followed by a comma because it stands alone as a form of introduction to the new sentence. In fact, in a grammatical sense it is making a connection to the sentence which went before and creating cohesion in the text. It is common to put a comma after words used in this way.

If you read a piece of writing aloud you will begin to hear that certain words are connected to one another. These linkages enable us to make sense of what we hear and what we read. As with all punctuation, the purpose of commas is to help the reader separate the text into readable chunks, and if you insert punctuation marks in inappropriate places then this makes it more difficult for the reader to make sense of what you are writing. You may inadvertently separate words which need to be connected to make sense of the text. This is why the process of reading your own work aloud is so valuable.


Semicolons have two common uses. First, they are used to separate items in a list after a colon (see the section below on the colon). Second, they can indicate a particular kind of relationship and connection between two parts of a sentence. They are useful to use when the second part of the sentence is still integrally related to the first; in such a case, the use of a full stop would appear too final. At the same time, if you use a semicolon you are indicating a more important break within a sentence than you would if you just used a comma. A semicolon can also be used instead of 'and' when you are connecting two parts of a sentence:

It was snowing rather heavily; the girl pulled her coat tightly around her to keep out the cold.

Long sentences tend to cause the most problems with punctuation, as in the following:

In long sentences a number of different aspects of one idea can be expressed, and these can give the writer the opportunity to elaborate upon what it is that she wants to say; if the writer begins to lose the thread that she started out with at the beginning of the sentence, then punctuation can help to create a kind of order.

The sentence above is 62 words long and the writer has just about got away with keeping the sense of what she is trying to say. In this case, the use of the comma and semicolon are useful aids to helping the reader along. Alternatively, the writer could have chosen to express her ideas in two shorter sentences. One problem with consistently using shorter sentences is that you may find this a limitation if you are trying to express more complex ideas.


Traditionally, the colon is used within a sentence when the second part of the sentence expands upon the first:

In practice, the use of colons is less common than it used to be: in many instances the semicolon or the full stop are used where in the past writers would have been more likely to use a colon.

Another use of the colon is to introduce a list and the items in the list are then separated by semicolons:

Emily liked to get everything that she needed together before she started reading and taking notes: paper; a pencil; different coloured pens; highlighters; sticky notes.

Colons are also used to introduce a separate part of a text such as a short quote. You will find examples of this usage throughout this book.


Many students feel confused about the use of apostrophes and play safe in their writing by leaving them out. Although the meaning is unlikely to be lost if you do not know how to use apostrophes, as with other forms of punctuation they do have a purpose and do help the reader to make sense of your writing. Consequently, it is worth spending a few minutes making sure that you know how to use apostrophes in your own writing. Again, look out for how they are used in the books and articles that you read.

One of the most common confusions that students experience with apostrophes is the distinction between its and it's. This causes a lot of difficulties for students because the two forms look so similar but actually have completely different meanings.

It's is a contraction (a shortened version) of ' it is'. Instead of writing ' it is' in full the i' of is' is omitted and an apostrophe used in its place. Contractions are common in English and replace parts of the verbs 'to be' and 'to have' which have been omitted:

In contrast, its (without an apostrophe) denotes ownership or possession.

The bird went into its nest. Everything has its rightful place.

What can seem confusing is the fact that with other words ending in 's' we often use an apostrophe to indicate possession (bird's nest). The apostrophe in this case is being used instead of saying 'the nest of the bird'; it is a kind of shorthand. The apostrophe placed before the final 's' is the singular possessive form (bird's nest) and the apostrophe placed after the 's' is the plural possessive form (birds' nests).

As you write your assignments you will probably find that the same words occur repeatedly which you find confusing with regard to the use of the apostrophe. Look out for words that you frequently find yourself having difficulties with, such as these:

• proper names (Elizabeth's)

Also remember to look out for the situations when you do not use an apostrophe, when nouns are being used in their plural form:

Nowadays girls seem to be more successful than boys at every level of the education system. There is also some evidence that male students are falling behind their female counterparts in higher education and more women than men are now becoming doctors and lawyers. In many different situations men seem to be experiencing a change in their traditional roles.

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  • destiny walker
    What kind of punctuation helps you read?
    8 years ago

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