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Study Skills


Punctuation helps you to express yourself clearly, directly and effectively

Punctuation marks help you to organise your words into clauses and sentences. They tell readers about appropriate pauses in your text. These pauses signal emphasis, intonation, and how you want your text to be read. They help your reader find the meaning in your organisation of the words.

Thus, punctuation is an essential skill that helps you to express yourself clearly, directly and effectively.

A review of punctuation marks

End marks

End marks are used to end a sentence. They tell your reader where one thought ends and another begins. Thus, end marks help you keep your ideas distinct so that your reader can understand what you have written.

A sentence can be ended with a full stop, exclamation mark or question mark.

Full stop

A full stop should be used when a sentence is a statement.

  • This sentence finishes with a full stop.
  • This sentence does not!

Exclamation mark

An exclamation mark should be used when you intend the sentence to be either a strong command or an emphatic declaration. They are rarely used in academic writing.

  • Do as you are told! [strong command]
  • Idiot! [emphatic declaration].

Question mark

An exclamation mark should be used to indicate a direct question.

  • What did you mean by that claim?
  • Does he have convincing evidence to support his point?

Don't use a question mark if the question is written indirectly in statement form.

  • I wonder what you meant by that claim.
  • I'd like to know if he has convincing evidence to support his point.
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Commas are sometimes considered a difficult punctuation mark to use correctly. This is because they have many different uses. These include marking:

  • sentence structure
  • introductory elements
  • lists
  • lists of adjectives
  • non-essential elements.

Sentence structure: independent clauses

To use commas correctly, you need to know about independent and dependent clauses. An independent clause contains a subject and a verb. It can stand alone as a sentence.


  • The trees lose their leaves.
  • The rains didn't arrive this year.
1. The treeslosetheir leaves.
2. The rainsdidn't arrivethis year.
       subject    verb 

We use a comma when we join two independent clauses to make one compound sentence.

  • The wet season rains didn't arrive this year, and the trees in the north lost their leaves.

Note: you do not always need a comma if the clauses are short.

  • Kim flew to Darwin but Sascha drove.

Sentence structure: dependent clauses

dependent clause contains a subject and a verb, but it cannot stand alone. It needs an independent clause to make a sentence.


  • Because an El Nino cycle causes drier weather
  • Whenever drought occurs
1. Becausethe el nino cyclecausesdrier weather
2. Wheneverdrought occurs 
 sub-ordinating conjunctionsubjectverb 

We can combine dependent and independent clauses to make a complex sentence. We use a comma when we put the dependent clause first.

  • The trees lose their leaves whenever drought occurs.
  • Whenever drought occurs, the trees lose their leaves.
  • The rains didn't arrive this year because the El Nino cycle causes drier weather.
  • Because the El Nino cycle causes drier weather,the rains didn't arrive this year.

Introductory and transitional elements

We use a comma to mark an introductory word or phrase or to mark a transition.

  • Darwin's population dropped several times in the 20th century, such as the declineafter the WWII bombing.
  • In 1974, the population of Darwin was 48,000.
  • However, the population declined to 12,000 in 1975.
  • Because of Cyclone Tracy, the population declined rapidly.


We use a comma to separate the elements in a list. The elements in the list could be words, phrases or clauses.

  • Since 2015, Australia has been hit by category 5 cyclones Niran, Veronica, Marcus, Ernie and Marcia.
  • You must prepare your cyclone kit, clear objects from your garden, fill containers with water and put batteries into your radio.

Note: in Australia, we do not usually use a comma before the final and in the list. This is known as the Oxford or serial comma. However, you must consider your readers. If an Oxford comma makes your sentence easier to understand, you should use it. Compare these two sentences:

  1. We require the support of the landlord, the local government, Family and Community Services and Community and Care.
  2. We require the support of the landlord, the local government, Family and Community Services, and Community and Care.

The final comma in sentence 2 helps the reader understand the difference between two groups: Family and Community Services and Community and Care.

Lists of adjectives

We use a comma to separate adjectives (descriptive words).

  • We must renovate that old, unpainted cottage.
  • The lanceolate, petiolate, alternatewaxy green leaves on that mature eucalyptus plant are typical.

If you can put an and between the adjectives, a comma will probably belong there. For instance, you could say: We must renovate that old and unpainted cottage.

Non-essential elements

We use a comma to mark non-essential or descriptive information. This information could be removed from the sentence and it will still be grammatically correct.

  • Dr Wang,a lecturer in the Business school,has published extensively on the subject.
  • The report, which the intern had edited, explained the agency’s strategy.
  • Introduced pests, such as cane toads, threaten Australian eco-systems.
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Colons (written as : ) are used to introduce something. They may:

  • introduce lists, explanations or some quotes
  • introduce emphasis to a word or phrase
  • introduce a sub-title or sub-heading.


You will need the following: four cups of flour, three eggs, one cup of sugar, one teaspoon of vanilla flavouring, and some imagination.

Don't use a colon if the list is incorporated into the sentence.

I went to the shop to buy flour, eggs, sugar and tea.


The new software has one major advantage: it is user-friendly.

The contractor not have time to learn Japanese: she will only be in Tokyo for a month.

Block quotations, formal speeches or transcripts

The minister began: 'Your excellency, I wish to announce...'


The company's financial position can be summarised in one word: disastrous.

Sub-titles of books and articles

Mining in the Northern Territory: a case study

Darwin: a city in flux


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Semicolons (written as ;) perform two main functions.

Linking two closely related sentences

When two independent clauses, or simple sentences, are equal in importance and closely linked, you may:

  • separate them with a full stop

We expect approval soon. The committee is waiting to begin work immediately afterwards.

  • join them with a co-ordinating conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so)

We expect approval soon, and the committee is waiting to begin work immediately afterwards.

  • join them with a semicolon

We expect approval soon; the committee is waiting to begin work immediately afterwards.

  • join them with a linking word/phrase and a semicolon

We expect approval soon; therefore, the committee is waiting to begin work immediately afterwards.

Useful linking words include conjunctive adverbs (such as however, therefore, thus) or transitional expressions (such as for example, even so).

Punctuating lists

Long complicated lists can be hard for your reader to understand. You can use a semicolon to separate items in a list which includes commas.

We shall need the following supplies: three tents; six rucksacks with clothes, food and first aid kits; six pouches for maps, spare batteries and compasses; and six two-way radios.

Lists of citations should also be separated by semicolons.

Ineffective leaders have rigid thinking (Nicoll, 2019; Taylor, 2018; Weir, 2020).


An apostrophe has two functions.


An apostrophe is used to indicate that a subject possesses or owns an object.

    single nounsadd 's
    • the student's feedback
    • the committee's report
    plural nounsadd s'
    • 30 students' feedback
    • both committees' reports
    itno apostropheThe snake shed its skin
    plural nouns that don't end in Sadd 's
    • the children's education
    • the sheep's DNA
    More than one nounadd 's after each noun

    Fong's and Alicent's research proposals

    More than one noun: joint possessionadd 's after last nounFongand Alicent's research proposal
    Proper names ending in Sadd 's
    • Burns's presentation
    • Laos's capital city


    An apostrophe is used to indicate that two words have been joined together. Note that this is rarely used in academic writing.


    • don't (do not)
    • hasn't (has not)
    • it's (it is)
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    Quotation marks

    Quotation marks are used to indicate direct speech or material that has been written by someone else.  They can either be single (i.e. '...') or double ("...").

    The Australian Government Style Manual states that single quotation marks are most commonly used in Australia, but you will frequently see double quotation marks because your unit readings may be published in other countries.

    Direct speech

    • She said, "Get the cat out of the house."

    Quoting someone else's writing

    • Far too many people fail to understand the sexism of Aristotle's claim that "man was a political animal".

    Highlighting a word

    Quotation marks can be used to highlight a word that is being defined or named.

    • By 'sexism', I mean discrimination against women on the basis of gender.

    Quotation marks can also be used for ironic emphasis, nicknames or for colloquial, humorous words.

    • This so-called 'policy' was never officially approved.
    • The event featured Greg 'The Shark' Norman.
    • The CEO said that the change would occur 'over his dead body'.



    Parentheses are brackets that you can use to indicate explanatory or interrupting material (sometimes referred to as parenthetical material), which is not essential for the meaning of a sentence. 

    Brackets can be round '( )', or square '[ ]' or squiggly '{ }', and are also used to set off numbers, especially in lists.


    • Seven different colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet) combine to form white light.
    • See Section 1 (a)
    • An essay usually consists of three main parts: (1) an introduction, (2) a body, and (3) a conclusion.

    Dashes can be used like brackets or commas to mark non-essential information. They also mark a clarification, an interruption, or a correction. Because dashes are used less frequently than brackets or commas, they help to draw your readers' attention to certain words.

    • Three gangsters - Scarface, Itchy, and Knuckles - left before the dust had cleared.
    • Little time was devoted to planning – a shortcoming that would later cost millions.

    Hyphens are used to form compound words such as 'semi-colon' or 'half-back'. Hyphens are also used to help clarify the meaning of compound words.


    An ellipsis indicates that words have been left out of the material that you have quoted. This may be necessary if part of the quote is irrelevant (to your point) or too long.

    The conclusion is used to sum up the points that have been covered in the essay… This section should not contain any new information and should refer back to the topic/question being discussed (Cheek et al. 1995, p. 102).

    In this passage, an extra sentence of twenty-seven words has been left out. The three dots occur at the end of the sentence. There is no need to add a full stop. The following example demonstrates an ellipsis indicating missing words.

    This section … should refer back to the topic/question being discussed.

    When using an ellipsis ensure that you do not change the meaning of the original material.

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