An optional, but often enriching, component of written language. Styles of puncuation vary wildly depending on context. Poets, notably e e cummings, have made use of subversive puncuation as an effective form of art.

Punctuation's primary (traditional) function is to provide meaning not supplied by bare words themselves.

Punctuation is often neglected or completely ignored by Internet users.

Correct punctuation makes your writing easy for others to read. There are a number of punctuation marks, and rules to follow in using them.

THE FULL STOP. A single full stop marks the end of a sentence. However, you can use three or four full stops in a row indicate that the sentence hasn't been completed and the idea continues. For example. "At the end of the movie, the evil genius is defeated. Or maybe not…. "

THE QUESTION MARK: Distinguishes a statement from a question.

THE EXCLAMATION MARK: Used to give a statement emphasis. In business or formal writing, it should be used sparingly and never in multiples.

THE COLON is used to separate two parts of a sentence where the second part explains or expands on the first. For example, "We received information from two sources: a telephone message and an anonymous letter." It is also used before a bulleted list, where each bullet expands on or completes the sentence started before the colon.

For example:

In the event of a fire:

  • never use the lift,
  • leave the building quickly and without panic, and
  • assemble at the designated point.

THE COMMA is the most frequently used of all punctuation marks. It indicates a slight pause in the sentence. It can be used before and after a phrase which is used as an aside. For example: "In addition, according to our records, we think there will be further demand." It is also used where there is a list of items. For example: "He collected his hat, money, ticket and umbrella."

If there is no danger of ambiguity and the sentence is quite clear without a comma, then leave it out.

THE SEMI-COLON marks a longer pause in a sentence than a comma. For example, "The semi-colon can be useful; it is used here in preference to a full stop."

BRACKETS are used to enclose an explanation, definition or an additional piece of information in a sentence: "The member who raised the complaint (Mr Foster of Levin) has since received a full explanation."

THE DASH has become popular recently and can be used instead of brackets. It is less formal than brackets, and interrupts the flow of the sentence less. For example: "He completed all the forms - including the club and association forms - but failed to include his subscription."

THE APOSTROPHE is used for two reasons. First to show that a letter has been missed out. For example: it's (it is), don't (do not), there's (there is).

Secondly, it is used before 's' to show the possessive (belonging to) case of a noun. For example 'The customer's case' rather than 'the case belonging to the customer'.

NOTE: For possessives of plurals an apostrophe only (rather than apostrophe s) is added where the plural ends in 's' or 'es', for example: customers' requirements, Officers' Club.

A couple of notes to your otherwise excellent article on punctuation:

  • Apostrophes are never used to indicate plurals. In your example of Officers' Club, for instance, Officers' is actually a possessive, and the phrase means "Club of (or for) officers," with no apostrophe on the plural. "Customers' requirements" similarly means "requirements of customers." Use of an apostrophe is permitted in odd cases where there is a need to set of the "s" of the plural form, such as "mind your p's and q's."
  • I personally use the dash (instead of what we in America refer to as parentheses, such as the marks that enclose this phrase) in cases where I want to set off the enclosed material with a little more emphasis. For example: "I'll show up only if--God forbid!--the tumor is cancerous." versus "I'll show up only if (God forbid!) the tumor is cancerous."
  • The three dots (...) are referred to as an ellipsis if they are used in place of material that has been omitted.
  • I personally think the comma is an underused mark. It is fashionable these days to omit them in many cases, but I prefer to use them whenever they would indicate a slight pause in speech, as this is their primary function.

Lynne Truss’s surprise bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves has already stressed the importance of punctuation on a life and death scale – careless comma use can lead to the murder of innocent waiters, the book teaches. But did you know that improper punctuation can play havoc with your love life as well? Here's how they teach it in school:

Jill has her eye on strapping classmate Jack. Being a bright girl, she crafts a letter that’s sure to win his heart:

Dear Jack,
  I  want  a  man  who  knows  what  love   is  all   about.  You  are  generous,
kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and
inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you; I have no feelings
whatsoever when we are apart. I can be forever happy - will you let me be
yours? Jill

Heart-warming, isn't it? However, Jill accepts that fact that appearances can be deceiving and is acutely aware of the ever-increasing divorce rate. Using her extensive knowledge of punctuation and sentence structure, she rewrites the letter for any possible future requirements. Now, if Jack dares to mess her around, she can tell him where to go in a witty, intellectual way. Watch in wonder:

Dear Jack,
  I  want  a  man  who  knows  what  love   is. All   about   you  are  generous,
kind, thoughtful people who are not like you. Admit to being useless and
inferior! You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings
whatsoever. When we are apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?
Yours, Jill

The sheer brilliance of what she has done here should not be underestimated. I hope this has been a relevant demonstration of the importance of punctuation. Class dismissed.

After much Googling I still can't find any original author for this. It seems it did the rounds as a piece of email humour a while back and subsequently there are hundreds of uncredited versions of it. If anyone knows the source, please /msg me and I'll add it to the w/u. Special thanks to Swap for the heads-up.

"So if a period is a dot, what's a comma?", she says to me.

"A period with a penis," I replied.

"What do you make of a semicolon?"


"And the regular colon?"

"Lesbian sex. And the quotation marks are gay sex."

"What's the exclamation point, then?"

"Girl on her period."

"Question mark?"

"Drunk girl on her period."

The universe seemed to make much more sense.


"Don't worry about me", he advised me from his deathbed. "It's nothing but punctuation".

A running joke, after he once explained to me that an apostrophe could mean absence. "Like my first-born", he'd said, referring to Eric, who'd died 3 weeks after an allied bombing raid in 1942.

The old newspaper man knew a thing or two about punctuation.

We sat there, in an elliptic silence, smiling at each other, replaying past conversations. Then, suddenly and simultaneously, we both stopped smiling, as we realised that this cancer would be my grandfather's full stop thirty.

Punc`tu*a"tion (?), n. [Cf. F. ponctuation.] Gram.

The act or art of punctuating or pointing a writing or discourse; the art or mode of dividing literary composition into sentences, and members of a sentence, by means of points, so as to elucidate the author's meaning.

Punctuation, as the term is usually understood, is chiefly performed with four points: the period [.], the colon [:], the semicolon [;], and the comma [,]. Other points used in writing and printing, partly rhetorical and partly grammatical, are the note of interrogation [?], the note of exclamation [!], the parentheses [()], the dash [--], and brackets []. It was not until the 16th century that an approach was made to the present system of punctuation by the Manutii of Venice. With Caxton, oblique strokes took the place of commas and periods.


© Webster 1913.

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