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Get to the point: punctuation

Many people find punctuation confusing, and some even ask, what’s the point of it? Yet punctuation plays a vital role in clear writing. Just about everyone knows where the question mark goes. That’s easiest punctuation mark, isn’t it. Without the question mark, a question doesn’t look like a question and the sentence is spoken without the rising querying tone at the end. So even punctuation avoiders or despisers use this: ?

Sprinkling commas over the page

The comma seems to confuse a lot of people; so much so that people like my daughter cheerfully talk about sprinkling commas across the page, hoping some of them land in the right place. The confusion is compounded by the modern journalistic practice of minimising the use of commas. Unfortunately this practice isn’t complemented with short sentences. The result is a long sentence of several clauses with no indication to the poor reader of where one clause ends and the next begins. It may take two or three reads of such a sentence to work out what the writer is actually saying. This exactly demonstrates the point of punctation. The word punctuation comes from the Latin punctum, point. Punctuation actually means to prick the written text (to add the punctuation marks). I like to say the point of the punctuation in a sentence is to get the point across.

Two well-known examples of the importance of commas:

Let’s eat Granma!
Let’s eat, Granma!

I’m pretty sure Granma would prefer the comma.

With commas, a handy rule is to put the comma where you would naturally pause to take a breath. It signals a short pause before continuing to read, silently or out loud. The Full Stop, on the other hand, is just what it says. STOP! (Other countries may call it a period, which implies a longer pause than a comma’s quick breath.)

The colon and semicolon

These two have nothing to do with physical bodies, but they are important to the body of the sentence or paragraph. The colon is used to mark the start of a list or sequence of items. It clarifies the place where the list starts. A comma would cause confusion, especially if the list items are separated by commas.

Here are two delightful examples of the importance of the colon:

We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin.
(How many people were invited?)

We invited the strippers: JFK and Stalin.
(only two people)

That dreaded Oxford comma!

However, if the party organisers wanted the politicians AND the strippers, they would need to use a specialist comma—the Oxford or serial comma—which many people love to hate. It is used less and less in an age of minimising commas, but sometimes it is just necessary. Using the single comma in the example above, leads to confusion that perhaps JFK & Stalin did stripping on the side. So to have the whole crowd, we insert another comma:

We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.

Commas vs colons – when to use?

Since commas and colons have similar but different uses, it’s important to be clear on what you’re trying to say, and use the appropriate punctuation mark. As we can see from the strippers, different punctuation changes the meaning of a sentence. Here’s a famous example:

A woman without her man is nothing.
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.

What about the semicolon?

The poor little semicolon; like the Oxford comma it is hated and derided. Author Kurt Vonnegut really put the boot into it: “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

However, like the Oxford comma, semicolons do have a place. And like the Oxford comma, they should be used sparingly. Semicolons are used to link two connected phrases together in a sentence. They create a break in the sentence that is longer than the pause for a comma, but shorter than a full stop. You could do without the semicolon and write two short single-phrase sentences. But too many short sentences sound choppy. A semicolon can make a more complex sentence that flows better. Even Hemingway, the master of short sentences, wrote longer ones using the semicolon. The words of the old Irish folk song:

“The water is wide; I can’t get o’er.”
would not sound so affecting written as
The water is wide. I can’t get o’er.

An important use of the semicolon is to link two phrases separated by connective words such as however, alternatively, therefore, that is. These words always have a semicolon after them when starting the next phrase.

Rain is forecast, however, there are no clouds yet
should be
Rain is forecast; however, there are no clouds yet.

Here’s a discussion on the pros and cons of semicolons

What about the exclamation mark!!!!

The overuse of the exclamation mark (exclamation point), particularly in social media posts, shows its great popularity. In fact, the poor thing is frequently over-used. Known by old-style printers and journalists from the hot lead era as a ‘bang’, the exclamation mark provides emphasis. Other than in social media, its use in writing should be sparing or even avoided. Scott FitzGerald wrote to a writer he was mentoring: “Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”

The apostrophe deserves a page of its own

However, I will just briefly describe its correct use.
1/ To mark a possessive: A dog’s dinner. Joanne’s umbrella, James’s hat. Names like James can take the apostrophe after the s and not need a second s. Possessive pronouns such as his, hers, theirs, its do not need apostrophes. Possessive plural words have the apostrophe after the s, for example: governments’ budgets, students’ problems

2/ To show contractions of words such as aren’t, isn’t, haven’t, don’t, it’s (it is)

3/ Apostrophes do NOT mark a plural – the “greengrocer’s apostrophe”, often following a vowel at the end of the singular word such as ‘apple’s, banana’s, radio’s .

Here are 20 amusing images displaying common punctuation errors:

You can find helpful pointers on the use of grammar and punctuation in the Commonwealth of Australia Style Manual.

Until next time,



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