If you do not use punctuation effectively and correctly, your work is likely to seem hazy and imprecise even if you use the right words. Yet, many writers do not use punctuation correctly. This set of exercises will help you insert commas, colons, semi-colons, em dashes, and other punctuation correctly.
In general, commas should be used to achieve one of three purposes. First, commas separate two or more items in a list. These items include
- nouns, such as I like cats, dogs, and birds
- verbs and adverbs, such as I like to sleep, to eat, and to drink
- adjectives, such as The large, lazy, grey cat broke my foot
Second, commas should be used to surround phrases that could be omitted or shifted to another location—either in this sentence or another sentence. For example, in the sentence Australia, which is a large nation, is near New Zealand, the phrase surrounded by commas could be omitted without really affecting the meaning of this sentence. For the same reason, commas often surround conditional clauses—that is, a phrase that explains when, where, or why something else is true and often begins with words like when,during, while, after, before, at, by, and if. Examples of commas that surround conditional clauses include
- the girl, when cleaning her room, found a dead giraffe
- the boy, while listening to music, banged his head on the table
- by 8.00 pm, I am usually asleep. Note, in this example, because the sentence began with a conditional clause—by 8.00 pm—the comma will follow, but not precede, this phrase
Third, commas separate independent clauses—that is, parts that could be complete sentences by themselves. In this instances, the comma will tend to precede the words and or but such as
- the dog barked loudly, and the cat scampered away
- the man drank from a cup, but the woman drank from a glass
11.1. To learn how to use commas effectively, improve the sentences that appear in the left column of the following table. The solution appears in the right column, and the rationale appears in the middle column.
Commas to separate items
The strong brawny man cried during the movie
Strong and brawny are items in a list of adjectives
The strong, brawny man cried during the movie
The brawny, man cried during the movie
Brawny and man are not items in a list of adjectives, verbs, or nouns.
One word is an adjective; the other word is a noun
The brawny man cried during the movie
Commas to surround optional phrases or conditional clauses
The koala which is not a member of the bear family often seems lonely
This phrase could be omitted without changing the meaning of this sentence—and thus should be surrounded by commas
The koala, which is not a member of the bear family, often seems lonely
The koala, is a marsupial, with sharp claws
If the phrase is a marsupial is removed, the sentence is no longer grammatical. Therefore, this phrase is not optional.
Furthermore, if this phrase was shifted to the end of this sentence, the meaning of this sentence would change. The sentence would imply that only koalas with sharp claws are marsupials.
The koala is a marsupial with sharp claws
Research shows that people during upsetting moments can detect dishonesty more effectively
The phrase during upsetting moments specifies the circumstances in which people can detect dishonesty and is thus a conditional clause
Research shows that people, during upsetting moments, can detect dishonesty more effectively
Commas to separate independent clauses
The man drank from a cup and the woman drank from a glass
The woman drank from a glass could be a separate sentence and is thus an independent clause
The man drank from a cup, and the woman drank from a glass
The man lifted the cup, and the saucer.
The saucer could not be a separate sentence and, therefore, is not an independent clause
The man lifted the cup and the saucer.
11.2. In the sentences and paragraphs you have written, check all the commas you have already inserted. That is, check these commas
- separate items in a list, such as two or more adjectives, verbs, or nouns
- surround phrases that could be omitted or shifted elsewhere—especially conditional phrases that begin with terms like if, when, before, during, after, or at
- separate two independent clauses—that is, parts that could be complete sentences
You should then delete commas that do not correspond to one of these three principles
11.3. In the sentences and paragraphs you have written, attempt to insert commas you might have overlooked. For example, you might
- identify a series of adjectives that should be separated by commas
- search words like if, when, before, during, after, or at to identify conditional clauses that are not surrounded by commas
- search the word which to identify descriptions that are optional and could be surrounded by commas
- insert commas after connecting words, often located at the beginning of sentences, such as furthermore, in addition, in contrast, and nevertheless.
- insert commas before and or but—but only if the following clause is independent
The symbol ; is called a semicolon and used in only two circumstances. First, use semicolons to separate two independent, but related, clauses. Specifically
- in the sentence The dog barked loudly; the cat scampered away each part of the sentence could be a separate sentence.
- that is, a full stop could replace the semicolon
- however, the semicolon highlights the two parts of this sentence are related to each other; the behaviour of this cat is related to the behaviour of this dog.
- alternatively, a comma and the word and is equivalent to this semicolon, such as The dog barked loudly, and the cat scampered away
Second, use semicolons to separate items in a list, but only if these items comprise a comma. To illustrate
- in the sentence, My favourite songs are Happy Birthday, Yesterday, and Hey Jude none of the three songs comprise a comma.
- so, a comma is sufficient to separate these items
- however, in the sentence My favourite songs are Happy Birthday; Yesterday; and Here, There, and Everywhere, the final song—Here, There, and Everywhere—comprises two commas
- therefore, semicolons are necessary to separate these items
- if commas replaced these semicolons, the reader could not as readily differentiate the songs, such as My favourite songs are Happy Birthday, Yesterday, and Here, There, and Everywhere
11.4. To enhance your capacity to use semicolons effectively, improve the sentences that appear in the left column of the following table. The rationale appears in the middle column, and the solution appears in the right column
The man drank from a cup, the woman drank from a glass
The two parts of this sentence could be complete sentences and, therefore, are independent clauses
The man drank from a cup; the woman drank from a glass
My favourite foods are pizzas; chips; and alfalfa
None of the three items—pizzas, chips, and alfalfa—comprise commas
My favourite foods are pizzas, chips, and alfalfa
11.5. In the sentences and paragraphs you have written, check the semicolons you have already inserted. That is, search these semicolons using the Find function. Then, if you uncover semicolons, check these punctuation marks either
- separate items in a list, but only if one or more of these items contains a comma
- separate independent clauses—that is, parts that could be complete sentences
You should then delete semicolons that do not correspond to one of these three principles
11.6. In the paragraphs you have written, attempt to insert semicolons you might have overlooked. For example, you might
- identify whether any of the items that are separated by commas contain commas; if so, use semicolons instead of commas to separate these items
- identify two sentences that seem especially related to one another and, therefore, could be separated by a semicolon instead of a full stop.
The symbol : is called a colon. This punctuation mark can be very helpful. In essence, colons inform the reader that you are just about to clarify your previous phrase or present a list. For example
- in the sentence Cats like only one activity: sleep, the colon indicates the writer is just about to clarify which activity cats like
- in the sentence I own three pets: a cat, a dog, and an ant, the colon again indicates the writer is just about to clarify which pets they own
- as this illustration reveals, colons often precede a list
Nevertheless, many writers include unnecessary colons. Specifically, you should omit colons unless the sentence breaks suddenly. To illustrate, in the sentence
- The seven dwarves are: doc, grumpy, happy, sleepy, dopey, bashful, and sneezy, the sentence does not break between are and doc.
- this colon should be removed
- in the sentence Snow White met seven dwarves: doc, grumpy, happy, sleepy, dopey, bashful, and sneezy, the sentence does break suddenly between dwarves and doc.
- the colon should be retained.
- indeed, if the colon was removed, the sentence would not be grammatical
Often, the first word after the colon is written in lowercase. But, if the phrase after a colon could have been a complete sentence, the first letter of this phrase should appear in uppercase, like a typical sentence.
11.7. To learn how to use colons effectively, improve the sentences that appear in the left column of the following table. The rationale appears in the middle column, and the solution appears in the right column
I have dedicated my life to one pursuit, writing
The word writing is designed to clarify the previous, incomplete claim
I have dedicated my life to one pursuit: writing
My favourite foods are: pizzas, chips, and alfalfa
The sentence does not break suddenly between are and pizzas
My favourite foods are pizzas, chips, and alfalfa
11.8. In the paragraphs you have written, check the colons you have already inserted. That is, search these colons using the Find function. Then, if you uncover colons
- check these punctuation marks precede a phrase that clarifies the preceding phrase
- check these punctuation marks, if removed, would compromise the grammar of this sentence
11.9. In the paragraphs you have written, attempt to insert colons you might have overlooked. For example, you might
- identify an instance in which one phrase clarifies a previous phrase
- consider whether a colon could separate these phrases
Some writers often include phrases in brackets, sometimes called parentheses. Unfortunately, when writers include many phrases in brackets, the writing often seems choppy and disjointed rather than cohesive and logical. So, unless citing references, you should use brackets only sparingly if at all. In particular
- phrases that are not vital enough to include in the text should be omitted
- phrases that are vital should be included in the text rather than surrounded by brackets. These phrases may be surrounded by commas or em dashes—the long dash in this sentence.
The keyboard does not include an em dash. To generate an em dash, simply write two hyphens with no spaces around or within these hyphens. Microsoft Word will then convert these two hyphens to a long em dash.
11.10. Identify the brackets in your paragraphs that you could perhaps omit. For example
- omit phrases that appear within brackets if these phrases are not vital
- decide whether you can replace these brackets with commas or em dashes instead
Some writers use too many quotes and quotation marks. In scientific writing, avoid using quotation marks, except to indicate actual quotes—in which case, you also need to specify the page numbers. In most disciplines, include quotes only when the precise wording is vital; otherwise paraphrase these quotes, because too many quotes may be perceived as lazy. Similarly, do not use quotation marks to earmark approximate or informal terms. To illustrate
- in the sentence, The dog “yelled” at us, some writers might insert the word yelled in quotation marks to acknowledge that dogs do not actually yell
- instead, in formal writing, attempt to use a more precise word, such as The dog barked viciously at us
11.11. Identify the quotation marks in your paragraphs that you could perhaps omit. For example
- rather than include quotes, paraphrase these quotes unless the precise wording is telling and informative
- use precise language rather than fuzzy words in quotation marks
Many writers use slashes liberally. For example, they might write
- If you want your baby to grow, you should sing to him/her
- At parties, people often eat/drink
- I like reading books/magazines
Unfortunately, slashes are often ambiguous. This punctuation mark can imply and, or, a combination of, as well as other meanings. Therefore, in general, you should abstain from including slashes. To illustrate,
- to avoid the need to include both the masculine and feminine pronouns, consider plural nouns—such as If you want babies to grow, you should sing to them.
- you could write At parties, people often eat, drink, or both to avoid slashes
- you could write I like reading literature rather than I like reading books/magazines
11.12. Search and identify the slashes in your paragraphs that you could perhaps omit. For example
- search phrases such as his/hers, him/her, he/she
- furthermore, search phrases such as his or hers, him or her, and he or she—phrases that do not comprise slashes but are still unwieldy
- replace these phrases with the plural form—such as people sleep better in their own bed instead of a person will sleep better in his or her own bed
In scientific writing, instead of quotation marks, use italics to indicate words that are foreign or used in a different context to usual. For example
- write “Participants read the words and and if”.
- the and is not used in the usual way and so italics are appropriate.
- do not use italics to emphasise an argument; the words alone should be sufficient.