Punctuation explained – Simply

Posted on April 20, 2017 in Copywriting, Editing/Proofreading, Training, Writing books, Writing for the web

The paragraphs below explain each of the main types of punctuation.  But the punctuation is missing.  By doing this exercise you will therefore learn not only where and what type of punctuation to use, but also get practice in using it.  My suggested answers are given at the foot of the blog.

are used in lists of things to clarify meaning after introductory words and phrases like however (at the start or mid-sentence) when providing additional information and in more complex sentences (especially if the subject changes) after conjunctions like and. In summary they are used where a pause or breath seems natural.

Q: What is the Oxford / Serial comma?


Semi colons are used between lists of items that individually are longer/more complex in addition they can also be used between two related clauses. In the latter, each side of the semi-colon is independent and could be a stand-alone sentence a comma between them would be too short a break and a full stop too long.  In such uses they can be translated as ‘and’ or ‘but’.

Q: What are the pros and cons of using semi-colons?


Colons can be translated as either of the following ‘namely’ or ‘that is to say’.  Most commonly they are used to introduce lists and direct speech. They are also used to introduce something or announce an important idea. Here, either side of the colon is dependent on the other.  They are also used in in publishing between a book’s title and its subtitle.

Q: Why do academics use lots of colons?


Commas, Dashes and Brackets

Parenthetical phrases which can be taken out of the sentence like this can be marked either side by commas, brackets or even dashes.

A comma is used when the information is most integral to the sentence’s meaning. A bracket is for information most ‘removed’ from the sentence e.g. when providing the year someone was born and died, reference details, or to indicate something is enclosed or attached, etc.  Dashes which mid-sentence have the effect of emphasising what is within them can also be used at the end of a sentence like an aside or afterthought.

Q: Do you know about ‘en’ and ’em’ dashes?



Be careful of hyphens, the rules about which are complicated and tricky. (1) They are compulsory after a prefix (pre-, semi- etc.), where nouns and adjectives or participles combine like a red haired computer mad money saving IT specialist to avoid confusion after re- words (recover/recover), and in numbers etc. (twenty three, 35 year old, and 4 minute mile, etc.).  (2) Sometimes usage is optional, e.g. where words are on their way to becoming one word on going pre war and back office. (3) Places they are mistakenly used include between an adverb that ends in –ly and an adjective (A badly-written report).  (4) One word they are commonly forgotten in is the adjective ‘award winning’.

My suggested punctuation is given here