Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

X

Navigate / search

Is the Oxford comma necessary?

Opinions differ on whether the Oxford comma is necessary.

In Standard English (including South African English) it is permissible to use a comma directly before a coordinating conjunction in a series of (usually) nouns? At school we were taught it was not permissible.

For example, may one write, ‘I saw John, Jack, Mary, and Sue’? Is the comma between the words ‘Mary’ and ‘and’ necessary?

Some people would say yes; others would say no. My gut feeling is to say no, but maybe I’m merely a product of my sheltered upbringing. The trend in American English is to accept its use; less so for British English. I am not too sure about its acceptance in South African English. All I can be sure of is that I would never use it.
What do you think?

Incidentally, the term ‘Oxford comma’ came into prominent use when high-spirited students at Columbia University formed a group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. This led to the writing of a humorous song whose message, according to Wikipedia, was more about not caring about anything than the Oxford comma. Another name is Harvard comma, although it is properly called a serial or series comma.

 

C. J. Cherryh
C. J. Cherryh

C. J. Cherryh (1 September 1942)

Carolyn Janice Cherry, better known by the pen name C. J. Cherryh, is an American writer of speculative fiction.

“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



What is a fragmented sentence?

A fragmented sentence is a linguistic expression. It denotes a word or phrase which stands by itself although, strictly speaking, it doesn’t make up a complete sentence. A fragmented sentence is incomplete because it lacks the elements of a complete sentence.

A complete sentence comprises three components:

• a subject
• a verb
• a complete thought.

In other words, a complete sentence can stand alone and still make sense. A fragmented sentence, on the other hand, is not a complete sentence – although it does make sense, but only if taken within its context.

Consider the following sentences:

• Can we win the game on Saturday? Absolutely!
• Can we win the game on Saturday? Probably not.
• We must win the game on Saturday. But how?

In the sentences above, the words in italics are the dependent or fragmented sentences. On their own they are meaningless but when read in conjunction with what appears in front of them they take on a meaning. Therefore what is left unsaid is implied.

Use fragmented sentences sparingly

Fragmented sentences are very common in ordinary speech – listen to any normal conversation – and we often come across them in newspapers and advertisements. They can be very short, consisting of no more than one or two words.
In narrative writing fragmented sentences should be used sparingly, and if used judiciously they can add variety and vibrancy. But don’t overdo them or your writing will appear disjointed and disorganised.

Correcting a fragmented sentence

It is easy to correct a fragmented sentence, if you feel it necessary to do so. The simplest way is simply to add a comma. This will connect the dependent clause (the fragmented sentence) to the main sentence. If the sentence then becomes too long or unwieldy, create a second independent sentence which can also stand alone.

Fragmented sentences have a necessary place in narrative writing, especially where the author is replicating direct speech.

 

E.L. Doctorow
E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow (6 January 1931)

Edgar Lawrence “E. L.” Doctorow is an American author. He is known internationally for his unique works of historical fiction.

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



Defining clauses define the noun

Defining clauses introduce additional information to a sentence by defining the noun. That is why they are called defining clauses.

Take a look at this sentence: This is the house that Jack built.
The defining clause is that Jack built. It defines the house.

Defining clauses belong to the category subordinate relative clauses.

There are two kinds of subordinate relative clauses:

• Defining clauses. These are usually introduced by that, but also by which or who.
• Non-defining clauses. These are descriptive and provide information about someone or something, but this information doesn’t exactly define what is being written about. Without them the sentence still makes sense and is grammatically correct. They are introduced by relative pronouns (who, whom, whose, which) which refer to a noun that appears earlier in the sentence e.g. My brother, who is older than me, owns a sports car. Note that they are never introduced by the word that. Commas (or parentheses) are used to distinguish non-defining clauses from the rest of the sentence.

Difference between defining clauses and non-defining clauses

These sentences highlight the difference between defining clauses and non-defining clauses:

(a) I dislike travelling in buses that are dirty.
(b) I dislike travelling in buses, which are dirty.

Sentence (a) means that I dislike travelling in dirty buses, and by implication that I am happy to travel in clean buses. This is an example of a sentence with a defining clause. If the defining clause is omitted, the basic meaning of the sentence would be changed from I dislike travelling in some buses to I dislike travelling in all buses.

Sentence (b) means all buses are dirty and by implication that I would rather use other means of transport.

Sentence (a) is an example of a sentence with a defining clause, and sentence (b) is an example of a describing or non-defining clause. If the describing clause is removed from this sentence the basic sense of it remains the same i.e. I dislike travelling in all buses.

A non-defining or describing clause is normally introduced by a comma. A defining clause is essential to the sentence and cannot be put within commas. It is important to note that it can’t be omitted without eliminating or severely limiting the sense of the sentence.

Defining clauses are usually introduced by that

Defining clauses are usually introduced by that e.g. I live in the house that Jack built.
Here the defining clause is so fundamental that if it were to be omitted, the sentence would be incomplete and confusing. It defines the house as being the only house built by Jack.

In the sentence I live in a house, which Jack built the meaning is that Jack has possibly built several houses and I live in one of them. This is an example of a non-defining (or describing) subordinate clause.

Points to remember

Who and which may also be used to introduce defining clauses but that is almost always preferred.
That is used to introduce defining clauses only.
That always defines rather than merely describes.
• Defining clauses must not be marked off with commas.
Who, and sometimes that, refers to people, but that and which refer to things.

Defining clauses are usually introduced by the word that, and, unlike non-defining clauses, are essential to the meaning of the sentence.

 

Tana French
Tana French

Tana French (1973)

Tana French is an Irish novelist and theatrical actress.

“Don’t get discouraged if you’re hammering away at a sentence or a paragraph or a chapter, and it keeps coming out wrong. You’re allowed to get it wrong, as many times as you need to; you only need to get it right once.”

 


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



What is a footnote?

What is a footnote? It is a note or comment which, for some reason or other, is not able to be accommodated in the main body of the text and is placed at the bottom of the page on which it applies.
A footnote provides supplementary content or information which is important, useful or interesting. Its purpose is to add to or simplify what is contained in the text. It should never contain complicated, irrelevant or non-essential information. It is used when you want to add a comment to a sentence you have written, and the comment isn’t directly related to what you have written.

Where do you put a footnote?

Footnotes are created on your computer or laptop by inserting a symbol in the most suitable place in the text and reprinting that symbol at the bottom of the page, followed by your comment. Whenever possible, put the footnote at the end of a sentence. It should be placed immediately following the full stop (period) or whatever punctuation mark completes that sentence. If, for clarity’s sake, it needs to be placed in the middle of a sentence, try to put it at the end of the most relevant phrase, after a comma or other punctuation mark. If this can’t be done then put it immediately behind the most relevant word.

Use footnotes only when necessary

The most important rule to remember regarding footnotes is: do not use them unless they are absolutely necessary.
Too many footnotes make your writing laborious to read and make it appear cluttered and disorderly. Never use information that is incorporated in a footnote if it can just as easily be incorporated in the text itself. Academic writers are often guilty of using too many footnotes which could just as easily have been placed in parentheses within the main text. So think carefully before deciding if a footnote is absolutely necessary. Your work should be a pleasure to read – or at least easy to read.

Flagging footnotes

The best way of flagging footnotes is by means of numbers, although if you don’t require too many footnotes it is permissible to use other symbols, such as an asterisk. This is not recommended, however.
Footnotes at the bottom of a page should be set apart in some way from the main body of the text. It is preferable to put them in a smaller typeface than the text itself and separate them with a horizontal line. Your program usually does this automatically. If a footnote is too long to fit at the bottom of its page then it may be continued at the bottom of the next page. But if this happens you might as well incorporate the information it contains in the document itself.

Footnotes in academic writing

In academic writing footnotes are employed mostly to refer to other work of which you have made use, or to which you wish to direct the reader’s attention. The best system to use is the Harvard system (also called the author-date system). In this system you state the author’s surname and the year of publication, e.g. (Smith, 2005). If the reference is part of the structure of the sentence, the date is placed in parentheses, e.g. Smith (2005). These in-text references will allow the reader to turn to a fully detailed list of references in your bibliography at the back of the document. Note that the numerous rules for citing references in academic works are the subject of an article on its own.

Endnotes

When you see a footnote in the main text you have the choice of reading the comments at the bottom of the page or continuing to read the text and deal with the comments later. One of the advantages of endnotes, which are the same as footnotes except that they appear at the very end of the text, is that they aren’t so intrusive and don’t interrupt the flow of the text. Personally I prefer footnotes. If you want your readers to read the footnotes immediately, footnotes are a better way of getting their attention.

Footnotes and endnotes are useful forms of punctuation, especially in academic works, but remember to use them sparingly.

 

William Faulkner
William Faulkner

William Faulkner (1897-1962)

William Cuthbert Faulkner was an American writer and Nobel Prize laureate from Oxford, Mississippi.

“Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.”


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



The apostrophe and why it is so troublesome

The apostrophe is the most troublesome punctuation mark in the English language. It certainly causes much perplexity but it is there for the sake of clarity. The word is derived from the Greek to turn away.

The apostrophe has three purposes

• It indicates the possessive case (as in the lion’s den).
• It indicates the omission or contraction of one or more letters (as in can’t for can not).
• It indicates (but not always) the plural of figures or letters (as in Mind your p’s and q’s or The swinging 60’s).

Note that English is not consistent in the use of apostrophes. American English favours using the apostrophe after figures but British English does not. So in British English one writes 60s or 1980s, not 60’s or 1980’s. In South Africa we do not follow American English.

The possessive apostrophe

The possessive apostrophe is followed by an s to indicate the possessive singular form of a noun e.g. the lion’s den. This applies even to names ending in s, such as Thomas or Jones e.g. Mr Jones’s car. Note, however, that opinions differ on how to deal with singular nouns ending in s, as in boss. Some writers say that we should add an apostrophe only (as in American English) although in British English it is correct to add an apostrophe followed by an s. So in American English the boss’ office and Mr Jones’ house is correct and in British English the boss’s office and Mr Jones’s house is correct. As mentioned earlier, in South Africa we follow British English.

For the possessive plural form the apostrophe is put behind the s. So the lions’ den tells us that the den belongs to several lions. This is understandable as nobody pronounces the word lions as if it had two esses (or is it s’s?).

Confusion caused by the apostrophe

Some confusion can arise in words such as people, women and children which, although plural, are treated in the same way as singular nouns e.g. the children’s playground. More confusion is caused by names ending in s, such as Ulysses. The possessive form is not pronounced as if it had an extra s, as in Ulysses’s travels. Therefore we say and write Ulysses’ travels.

And even more confusion occurs with the possessive plural forms of mice (plural of mouse) or dice (plural of die) or pence (plural of penny). These are treated as singular nouns e.g. mice’s tails.

The apostrophe and possessive personal pronouns

Possessive personal pronouns never take an apostrophe. These are: ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs and whose.
Except in rare cases of separate possession, as opposed to joint possession, we do not use two possessive apostrophes together. Therefore it is wrong to write Jack’s and Jill’s pail of water. Only the last-mentioned noun has the apostrophe: Jack and Jill’s pail of water.

The apostrophe indicating contractions or omissions

Omissions or contractions are shortened forms of words from which one or more letters have been left out. Common examples are it’s, we’ll, can’t and don’t. Remember that the apostrophe is placed exactly where the omitted letters should have been. It is not wrong to use omissions / contractions in formal writing, but use them sparingly. Some words that have been written as contractions for ages are still written with apostrophes: o’clock (of the clock), man o’ war (man of war) and fo’c’s’le (forecastle).

Clipped forms are fairly common in English. They are similar to contractions or omissions but differ in one important respect. They are formed by chopping off a piece of a longer word to make a word in its own right. Examples are gym from gymnasium, flu from influenza, bus from omnibus and phone from telephone. These words are accepted in their own right and are not written with apostrophes.

Contractions and omissions must be distinguished from abbreviations. They include Mr for Mister, Dr for Doctor, kg for kilograms and sci-fi for science fiction. Years sometimes appear in their abbreviated form: ’98 for 1898 but never the ’39 – ’45 war. Instead you write the 1939 – 45 war.

Apostrophes are sometimes used in non-English names: O’Brien, O’Hara, D’Angelo, D’Artagnan. Apostrophes are also sometimes used when representing words in non-standard forms of English. For example the Scottish poet Burns writes gi’ for give and a’ for all.

Apostrophes forming plurals of letters or figures

As a general rule an apostrophe is never used when writing plural forms. Examples of errors are pizza’s instead of pizzas, video’s instead of videos and Jones’s instead of Joneses.

In British English the apostrophe is not used when pluralising dates: the fashion of the 1980s. However, it is used when pluralising letters: there are four i’s and four s’s in the name Mississippi. Without these apostrophes this sentence would be hard to understand.

Apostrophes are sometimes used when writing a group of numbers, as in many 1000’s of birds, although it is preferable to write the number in words.

As a general rule always use the apostrophe if it seems essential for clarity.

 

Richard Bach
Richard Bach

Richard Bach (23 June 1936)

Richard David Bach is an American writer. He is widely known as the author of the hugely popular 1970s best-seller Jonathan Livingston Seagull.

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”



John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



What are square brackets and how to use them?

Square brackets ([ ]) are used to set off an interruption or insertion within a direct quotation. They are used to:

• Mark where something has been omitted from the source material and/or mark modifications to it
• Insert explanatory material in the source material
• Insert the word sic in the source material.

Marking omissions from the source material and modifications to it

If you want to quote a particular passage while leaving out a section of it, you can achieve this by inserting an ellipsis (…) to represent the missing section. If you then need to add an extra word or two to link up the pieces of the quotation, you put these extra words inside square brackets to indicate that they are not part of the quotation.

Here is an example taken from Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands:

I have read of men who… dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism… [A]t seven o’clock… [I was making] my evening toilet in my chambers in Pall Mall…

The first set of square brackets is a modification setting off the replacement of a lower-case a with an upper-case a because it is the start of a new sentence. This is permissible even though a capital a does not appear in the original, but without this minor change the ‘rules’ will be broken. The second set of square brackets sets off inserted words that give the sentence meaning.

The insertion of explanatory material and square brackets

Occasionally you may find it necessary to interrupt a quotation you are citing in order to explain or clarify something. To do this you enclose your comments in square brackets (never parentheses).

On the road [to Aliwal North] we were overtaken by a thunderstorm which lasted for five hours and we were drenched to the skin.

When this passage is taken out of context it is not clear which road the writer is referring to. The inserted words clarify which road it is and the square brackets indicate that the inserted words are not those of the original writer.

Although it is unusual to do so, some authors insert their own initials within the square brackets preceded by a dash. So my insertion above could have been written like this: [to Aliwal North – JD]. Although this isn’t wrong it’s not necessary.

Inserting the word sic in square brackets

If the material you are quoting contains a mistake of some kind – and you want to make it clear to your reader that the mistake is contained in the original material and is not yours – you insert the Latin word sic in square brackets immediately behind the mistake. Sic, meaning ‘thus’, indicates that the ‘mistake’ appears in the original source, and that its reproduction is intentional.

In the sentence below there is a typographical error and we point this out to the reader by inserting the square-bracketed word sic.

The article states that dinosaurs became extinct about 60,000 [sic] years ago.

The same applies when you want to point out that something is not a mistake and it is likely that the reader will think it is a mistake. The extract below refers to a cricket match played over the abnormal duration of nine days.

The famous ‘timeless test’ between England and South Africa in 1939 was abandoned as a draw after nine days of play [sic].

Similarly, when part of a quotation needs to be emphasised this can be done by placing that part in italics and indicating, in square brackets, that you have done so, not the author. So the sentence above could have been written as follows:

The famous ‘timeless test’ between England and South Africa in 1939 was abandoned as a draw after nine days of play [emphasis added].

I have also seen [my emphasis] or [my italics] etc.

Other uses of square brackets

In works of an academic nature square brackets are used for citing references. This is if the so-called number system is being used. In this system a number in square brackets in the text – such as [7] – draws the reader’s attention to a particular reference in the bibliography. As stated elsewhere, the Harvard System is preferred.
Specialist fields such as mathematics use square brackets but this is beyond the scope of this article.

So, to summarise, square brackets are used to mark omissions, modifications, explanations and the word sic when these have been inserted in original material.


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



The question mark is the easiest punctuation mark to use

The question mark is the easiest of punctuation marks to use as apposed to the apostrophe which, as we have seen, can be the cause of confusion.

There are a few exceptions where the question mark can cause problems. In English a question mark (?) is placed at the end of a sentence to indicate a direct question. These simple sentences provide no difficulties: Will it rain this afternoon? How old are you?

The question mark also has a specialised use in areas such as computing or medicine, but this doesn’t concern us here.

Direct questions and the question mark

In direct questions, in which the speaker’s exact words are indicated by means of quotation marks, the question mark is used in the normal way although now you have to be a bit more careful.

Look at these simple sentences and you will see that the speaker’s exact words appear within speech or quotation marks, as you would no doubt expect. And because these sentences are framed as direct questions the question mark, being part of the inquiry, is placed within these quotation marks – never outside them.

“May I borrow your pen?” he asked.
“What is your name?” the teacher inquired.

Indirect questions and the question mark

So far so good. But where do you put the question mark in indirect speech? Sorry! This is a trick question. The answer is you never use questions marks in indirect questions because the speaker’s exact words are not repeated. By way of explanation here are a few examples:

• Direct question: “May I borrow your pen?” he asked.
• Indirect question: He asked if he could borrow my pen.
• Direct question: “What is your name?” the teacher inquired.
• Indirect question: The teacher asked him what his name is.
• Direct question: “When will I see you again?” she asked.
• Indirect question (incorrect): She asked “when I would see her again.”
• Indirect question (incorrect): She asked when I would see her again?

Indirect questions are not really questions; they are statements. Therefore we don’t use question marks, and the sentences end with full stops. In my experience this is where many people make mistakes (see the two incorrect answers above).

Internal question marks

The question mark has other limited uses, albeit fairly minor. When inserted inside parentheses it indicates that something is unknown or uncertain. Here is an example:

Harold II (?1022 – 14 October 1066) was the last Anglo-Saxon King of England.
This indicates that the date of King Harold’s birth is uncertain. Note that the question mark is placed in front of the date.

In cases where writing is illegible or doubtful, or a word or name is uncertain, a question mark within parentheses may be used. Look at the sentence below:

I met an interesting man who introduced himself as Featherstonhaugh (?).
This indicates that I didn’t catch his name or I don’t know how to spell it.

In informal writing bracketed question marks can also be used for rhetorical questions – Oh, is that so (?) – but this is not recommended. And remember you should avoid using a question mark in combination with other punctuation marks unless it is in very informal writing e.g. You did what!?

Although the question mark typically occurs at the end of a sentence, it may also occur within a larger sentence where it replaces a comma. See the example below of a direct question, followed by a question mark, in the middle of another sentence:

When will they arrive? she wondered.

Personally I don’t like this construction but, as in every aspect of English, exceptions to rules abound and we can get horribly bogged down if we delve too deeply into the complexities of punctuation.

So let’s keep your use of the question mark simple.


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



What are italics?

Italics are a style of font slanting to the right. The word has its roots in the Latin and Greek adjective ‘pertaining to Italy’. Italics are most often used for emphasis or contrast, and to distinguish certain words from others within the text.

Usage of italics

Italics are used in several ways. These are the most common:

Emphasis or contrast
He wasn’t the only one to blame (emphasis).
English usage requires ‘insensitive’ rather than ‘unsensitive’ (contrast).

• Titles
Titles of books, films, musical compositions, music CD’s, academic journals, plays, poems, periodicals, newspapers, websites and television or radio programmes.

These apply to works that can stand by themselves. Works that appear within larger works (short stories, poems etc.) are not italicised and are placed in quotation marks. For some reason the same applies to tracks on a music CD.

Names of ships, trains, aircraft and spacecraft
Names such as Titanic and Mayflower (ships), Orient Express (train), Enola Gay (aircraft) or Challenger (spacecraft) are italicised. Brand names are not italicised, e.g. Boeing or Ford. The initials HMS and USS (as in HMS Victory and USS Constitution) are never italicised and do not have full stops. Note that when using an apostrophe to create the possessive form of a name, only the name itself is in italics. E.g. in the words ‘the Titanic’s lifeboats’ the apostrophe and the ‘s’ are in roman.

Foreign words
Italics are used if the word is not regarded as being sufficiently assimilated into English (deo volente, matelot, gesundheit). Scientific names, e.g. for flowers or plants, are in Latin and are therefore italicised.

• Symbols
Algebraic symbols and symbols for mathematical constants and physical quantities
These are conventionally set in italics.

A character’s thought process
In novels, writers sometimes put their characters’ thoughts and ideas in italics, e.g. Surely no one could have done such a terrible thing, he thought.

Works of art
The Mona Lisa hangs in the Louvre.

Famous speeches
One of Churchill’s most famous speeches is Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat.

Representing sounds
Words that imitate sounds are italicised. The train sped past with a loud whoosh. These are often followed by an exclamation mark.

Points to remember about italics

• Newspapers usually have their own way of doing things, so many of the above do not necessarily apply.

• An exception to italicising the names of books is holy books. Although it makes no sense it is customary to write Bible and Koran in roman lettering, not italics.

• The names of legal cases are often italicised, although this custom seems to be disappearing. The ‘v.’ as in Smith v. Jones is always a roman letter.

• Be careful, when italicising, to make certain if punctuation marks should be included. In this example the question mark should not be italicised: ‘Have you seen the Mona Lisa?’

• Underlining words would achieve the same purpose as italicising them. Note that one does not underline words that are italicised.

• Sometimes it depends on the context, or it can be a matter of personal choice, whether or not a foreign word is italicised.

• Do not overdo the use of italics. This causes them to lose their effect.

• Be consistent with your italicising.

Remember that, like so many rules in the English language, the rules for using italics can vary.


John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History



 

Punctuation changes the meaning of a sentence

Punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence dramatically so why are we so lazy about using it?

When I asked an acquaintance the other day how she knew if the punctuation in an article or report she had written was correct she replied, “If it feels right then it must be right.”

More often than not it probably is right. But not always.

This led me to ask myself why it should be necessary to punctuate properly. After all, many highly successful people have never learnt the difference between a colon and a semicolon and it hasn’t impacted adversely on their careers.
However, punctuation is only one aspect of written or typed language. How about the others, such as spelling? Is spelling important? Would you write proceed when you meant to write precede, or principal when you meant to write principle? Hopefully not.

Yet when you punctuate your writing you probably make mistakes that could lead to equally confusing consequences. Or maybe you use punctuation as a form of self-expression and write whatever takes your fancy.

Poor punctuation can make life extremely difficult for your reader, especially if he or she has to make allowances for your individual style of punctuation. Remember that punctuation is there to assist readers in their understanding of what you have written, not to make their lives more difficult. If they have a right (or is it write, wright or rite?) to expect standard English spellings and grammatical forms, the same should apply to punctuation.

Consider this well-used example:

“Let’s eat grandma.”
“Let’s eat, grandma.”

When speaking we use several ways in which to make our meaning clear, such as stress, intonation or pauses, or rolling our eyes to convey a meaning different from that of the spoken words. And we can usually see if the person we are speaking to understands what has been said. This is not true of the written word.

What is punctuation?

The following punctuation conventions are used:

• A pause in the flow of thought, for example, to allow additional information, is indicated by a comma (,)
• A complete sentence (one thought or idea) is indicated by a full stop (.)
• A semi-colon (;) is used to indicate a fuller pause than a comma, but not the final end of the sentence
• A colon (:) is used to indicate the beginning of a list
The apostrophe is the most troublesome punctuation mark in the English language and needs some clarification
Square brackets ([ ]) are used to set off an interruption or insertion within a direct quotation
The question mark is quite straightforward and should provide no problems
Italics are a style of font slanting to the right.

Written language has developed a universal and easily understandable system of punctuation, with each punctuation mark having a particular function. When writing use punctuation properly and your readers will thank you for it.

John DorringtonJohn Dorrington (27)

John is a freelance copy-writer, editor and proof-reader, and has written four books. He has edited several novels and factual books, although much of his work involves editing students’ academic dissertations, including several Master’s and Doctoral theses. He is a graduate of the University of Cape Town where he studied English and History