Academic Writing – Part 4: Punctuation

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Why use it? Its purpose is to guide the reader in the natural pauses in writing. It is also there to show how the grammar of a sentence is supposed to work: a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence and a full stop at the end.
Punctuating your sentence may involve: a selection of the following:

● Colon (:)
Is most often used to introduce a quotation or a list.

● Full stop (.)
Use full stops more than you expect to.When in doubt, your instinct should always plump for a full stop.

● Semicolon (;)
Represents a pause longer than a comma but shorter than a full stop. (If in doubt about its use don’t use it.)
It is used between clauses when the second clause expands or explains the first e.g., Neither of them moved; they waited to see if the intruder made a quick exit.
It is also used before clauses which begin with ‘nevertheless’, ‘therefore’, ‘even so’, and “for instance” e.g., He looked before he leaped; even so he landed in the water.
It is used to mark off a series of phrases or clauses which themselves contain commas. e.g., You will need the following ingredients: four eggs, preferably size 3; 4oz caster sugar; a few drops of vanilla essence; and 2oz almonds, which must be ground.

● Question mark (?)
Use a question mark every time there is a genuine direct question.That means Are you going? but not I asked if he was going? (wrong because it is a reported question).

● Dashes (-)
Use dashes but don’t overdo them.You can use a pair of dashes – in place of brackets – or a single dash to mark a break in the sentence before a punch line or a throwaway remark: In life, two things are never with us – death and taxis.

● Apostrophes (‘)
They should not be used to make things plural e.g., 1990’s, MP’s HQ’s. The general rule is: if something belongs to someone you write someone’s or e.g., the student’s.
If it belongs to several people (the students), you write the students’. Plurals like people and children, that aren’t made with an s, take apostrophes i.e., children’s.
Apostrophes are also shown where letters are missed out – can’t play, won’t play. It’s is short for it is. Beware of : its, (meaning “of it”) yours, hers, ours, theirs, and whose. None of them takes an apostrophe.

● Commas (,)
Commas, like buses, often come in pairs. It is wrong to write The reason is as it always was, to save money.Two commas should be used, like brackets, either side of the phrase as it always was.
The test is whether, grammatically, the sentence would hold up if the section between the commas were removed.The common mistake is to forget the second comma.
Commas are needed, and are not optional, when someone or something is being addressed. Kiss me, Hardy must take the comma after me. Yes Minister should have Yes, Minister.

Pairs of commas should be used when however, say, meanwhile and for instance are interjected into sentences – he might be paid, say, £50,000 a year.
At the beginning of a sentence, these words or phrases need to be cordoned off with a single comma – However, investigations into…, For instance, if we look at…..

Commas are used to mark off separate items in a list, except between the last two items.You can put a comma in before and if it’s needed to make the sentence clear – Goods are transported by lorry, horse and cart, and even handcart.
A strong adjective usually takes commas after each one except the last – old, crabby, pedantic Dr Johnson.

● Quotation marks (“)
Use double to enclose direct speech. Use a colon, not a comma before quotes – Mr Smith said: “This is good news for all poor students.”
Use a comma after quotes (before the second quotation marks) – “It will help many students,”said Jim.
Quotations direct from a book or journal also need to have double quotation marks (“) -Davis et al. (1991, p243) stated that “Equilibrium is the sense which tells you when your body is balanced and when it is tipping, turning or inverting.” Unless the length of the quotation is more than three lines of your text, in which case it is indented and no quotation marks are necessary.

● Brackets ( )
The use of brackets (whose technical term is parenthesis) should be kept to a minimum.They are used to indicate a supplementary remark, or a qualification of some sort. Grammatically they work like commas, but the remarks inside the brackets tend to be less important than those inside commas.
Brackets are always used in pairs.
If the brackets surround an entire sentence then the full stop at the end of the sentence stays within the brackets. (This is the procedure you should follow.) If the brackets only surround part of the sentence, the full stop goes outside.
This is the procedure you should follow (under normal circumstances).

● Square brackets [like these]
Square brackets are used to indicate your changes or your own comments on somebody else’s writing. The report that 25000 had been killed in battle [a figure shown to be greatly exaggerated] changed the course of the war.

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