Punctuation of English
Punctuation in the English language helps the reader to understand a sentence through visual means other than the letters of the alphabet: ‘the rules for graphically structuring written language by means of a set of conventional marks’. English punctuation has always had two complementary sides: on the one hand there is phonological punctuation linked to how the sentence can be read aloud, particularly to pausing, on the other grammatical punctuation linked to the structure of the sentence. In popular discussion of language, incorrect punctuation is often seen as an indication of lack of education and of the decline of standards.
- 1 National variants
- 2 Usage of different punctuation marks or symbols
- 3 References
- 4 Further reading
There are two major styles of punctuation in English: American or "traditional punctuation"; and British or "logical punctuation." These two styles differ mainly in the way in which they handle quotation marks.
Usage of different punctuation marks or symbols
Approximate average frequencies for English punctuation marks per 1000 words based on 723,000 words of assorted texts are as follows:
(.) period/full stop 65.3
(,) comma 61.6
(;) semi-colon 3.2
(:) colon 3.4
(!) exclamation 3.3
(') apostrophe /single quotation mark 24.3
(“) double quotation mark 26.7
(-) hyphen 15.3
Colon and semicolon
The colon ( : ) is used to explain or start an enumeration. The semicolon ( ; ) is often used to break up listings with commas: "She saw three men: Jamie, who came from New Zealand; John, the milkman's son; and George, a gaunt kind of man."
The comma ( , ، 、 ) is used to disambiguate the meaning of sentences. For example, "Man, without his cell phone, is nothing" (emphasizing the importance of cell phone) and "Man: without it, is nothing" (emphasizing the importance of men) have greatly different meanings, as do "eats shoots and leaves" (to mean "consumes plant growths") and "eats, shoots and leaves" (to mean "eats firstly, fires a weapon secondly, and leaves the scene thirdly"). The comma is also used to separate numbers. For example, “January 7, 1985” and “2,000”.
Dash and hyphen
An ellipsis ( …, ..., . . . ) is used to mark omitted text.
Full stop (British), or Period (American)
Dwight D. Eisenhower's home in Gettysburg, Pa., was not very far from Washington, D.C.
The question mark ( ? ) is used to mark the end of a sentence which is a question.
The slash or stroke or solidus ( /, ⁄ ) is often used to indicate alternatives, such as "his/her", or two equivalent meanings or spellings, such as ""grey/gray".
- Coulmas, F. (1996). The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Writing Systems. Oxford: Blackwell.
- Parkes, M.B. (1992). Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Aldershot: Scolar Press.
- Halliday, M.A.K. (1985). Spoken and Written Language. Oxford University Press.
- Truss, L. (2003). Eats Shoots and Leaves. London: Profile
- Truss, Lynne (2003). Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Profile Books. ISBN 1-86197-612-7.
- Irwin Feigenbaum The Grammar Handbook 1985 p303 "... period after initials in a name and after other abbreviations. (103) Dwight D. Eisenhower's home in Gettysburg, Pa., was not very far from Washington, D.C. In a direct quotation, 3 periods are used to show that a word or words have been
Well thought-of modern descriptions are:
Trask, R.L. (1997), The Penguin Guide to Punctuation. London: Penguin
Todd, L. (1995), The Cassell Guide to Punctuation. London: Cassell
A very successful polemic on punctuation is:
Truss, L. (2003), Eats Shoots and Leaves. London: Profile
The classic historical treatment is:
Parkes, M.B. (1992), Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West. Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate Publishing
A short overall view is in:
Cook, V.J. (2004), The English Writing System. London: Arnold