Illustration by Aamnah Arshad
Illustration by Aamnah Arshad

Zohaib was an intelligent boy and aspired to be among the top students in his class. But he had one flaw — he was careless. Despite knowing the answers to the exam questions, he would still not get good grades and then he would be sad and depressed.

Both his parents and teachers repeatedly told Zohaib to pay more attention to what he wrote in exams, as they could see that he lost marks because of his careless errors. Especially troublesome was Zohaib’s punctuation, for which his English teacher had often complained. Zohaib thought punctuation was as simple as putting a period after the sentence ends and

giving a comma was only when he wanted to break a long sentence into two short ones. As far as the rest of the punctuation marks were concerned, those were not necessary, so why keep them in head, he thought?

So why is punctuation so important?

To understand this, let’s first brush up what punctuation is. It is the system of small signs and symbols that are used to make it easier for the readers to read and understand a written text. It is an important part of writing, as it helps to make the meaning of the sentences clear.

Punctuation marks denote pause, stop, emphasis or a question, using a comma, a period, an exclamation mark or a question mark. Proper use of punctuation marks adds clarity and precision to a piece of writing, telling the reader where the writer wants them to pause, stop or give emphasis.

The correct use of punctuation marks allows readers to perceive the right message and helps emphasise pauses, thoughts, ideas and even the tone and emotion of your writing, just like when we talk. Without correct punctuation, it becomes difficult to comprehend what the writer is saying. Missing or misused punctuation marks can completely change the meaning of a sentence or even convey the wrong message. One small comma can make a lot of difference in the meaning of a sentence.

A very pertinent example of a missing comma is: “Let’s eat kids.” This sentence should have a comma after ‘eat’, otherwise it appears as if the writer is about to eat the kids, not asking the kids to join him in eating. The correct sentence should be: “Let’s eat, kids.”

Now that we have understood why punctuation is so important, we will move on to discuss the important types of punctuation marks and their proper usage, along with relevant examples to make things clearer for you.

Symbols of punctuation

Comma (,), full stop (.), exclamation mark (!), question mark (?), semicolon (;), colon (:), apostrophe (’), quotation marks (“ ”), hyphen (-), brackets ( )[ ].

Period or full stop (.)

Period, or more popularly known as full stop, is one of the most commonly used punctuation marks. It is mostly used at the end of a declarative sentence and a statement to denote that the sentence has ended.

Full stop is also used to indicate the abbreviation of commonly used words, such as telephone number (Tel. No.), pages (pp.), etc.

Comma

Comma is the most commonly used punctuation mark after full stop. It denotes a small pause in a sentence to provide clarity. Commas are also used to separate items on a list and make the sentence clearer, for instance: ‘Dad bought milk, fruits, vegetables, cereal and juices.’

A comma is also used for grouping items and separating adjectives when more than one is being used in a sentence. It is also used after introductory adverbs, such as however, consequently, next, furthermore, etc.

Since commas represent a pause, it would help you where to place a comma if you read out loud whatever you have written, paying attention to where you make natural pauses as you read.

Commas are often overlooked, but they can make a huge impact on the meaning of your sentence. The omission or improper use of a comma can give the text a very different meaning.

For example: The teacher said, “We will learn how to cut and paste children!” appears to say that the teacher is going to cut and paste the children. The addition of a comma after ‘paste’ (“We will learn how to cut and paste, children!”) makes the meaning clear.

Commas are also used to add a phrase or clause that gives some additional information. For example, in the sentence, “The boy, who was waiting for his mother, ran quickly towards the door.” The clause between the commas gives us more information about the boy’s action. If the clause is removed, the sentence would still mean the same, though there would be less information.

The Oxford Comma

Then there is the ‘Oxford Comma’, which is mainly used when three or more items are listed in a sentence and is placed before the last listed item. Without an Oxford comma, you may confuse your audience. For example, the sentence: ‘I love my parents, Ruth Pfau and Sattar Edhi’ gives the impression that Ruth Pfau and Sattar Edhi are your parents. The correct way would be to say, ‘I love my parents, Ruth Pfau, and Sattar Edhi.’

Semicolon (;)

The semicolon is a very useful and perhaps the most difficult to use punctuation mark. It is used to indicate a pause which is a little stronger than a comma, but not as definitive as the period. It is used where two related clauses are written in one sentence. For example: ‘We began our journey at dawn; the weather was beautiful.’

Illustration by Aamnah Arshad
Illustration by Aamnah Arshad

It can also be used to give detailed lists, for example: The zoom meeting was attended by Sofia, Karachi; Ahmed, Lahore; Imtiaz, Multan; Farhana, Peshawar; Saleem, Quetta; and Faizan, Islamabad.

Colon (:)

A colon is used after a word to introduce an explanation, example, or another phrase that explains the first one. For example: There were scarves of three colours: green, blue, and red.

The colon within a sentence makes a very pointed pause between two phrases. It is most commonly used when listing, for example: The following places were on her itinerary: England, France, Italy, and Turkey.

It can also be used within a heading, or descriptive title, for example: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.

Semicolons and colons are often confused with each other. For example: it would be wrong to use a colon in the sentence, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t respond: I was very busy.’ The correct sentence would be: ‘I’m sorry I didn’t respond; I was very busy.’ as semicolon is used in place of a conjunction ‘but’.

Exclamation mark (!)

An exclamation mark is used to indicate strong feeling or emotions, such as fear, anger, or love. For example: “Help! Help me, please!” or “Stop! Police!”

It is also used to indicate humour: “Ha! Ha! Ha!”

It is not a good practice to use exclamation marks to emphasise what you think are important points in your writing. Even when using an exclamation mark, do not use more than one for emphasis or added effect; one is enough to convey your point. An exclamation mark should only be used when absolutely essential, or when taken from a direct quote.

Also, remember not to put a full stop if you are using an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence; there is no need to do so.

Question mark (?)

The question mark always comes at the end of a sentence and simply indicates that a question is being asked. There is no need to use a full stop with a question mark as it serves the same purpose. For example: ‘Have the grandparents arrived?’

Apostrophe (’)

The apostrophe has two main uses. It indicates possession or ownership. For example, the sentence, ‘The boy’s cap was blue’, tells the reader that the cap belongs to the boy.

Another use of the apostrophe is to indicate where a letter is omitted. For example, you can write: ‘We’re going to do this course’, instead of ‘We are going to do this course’.

Many people confuse words with an apostrophe with another similar sounding word, such as its with it’s. Please remember, its (without an apostrophe) is the possessive of the pronoun “it”, while it’s (with an apostrophe) is a contraction of “it is”. There are many examples, but we will deal with them some other time.

Quotation marks (“….”)

Quotation marks are used to indicate speech and when quoting what someone else said. For example: “Will you open your books, please?” said Miss Ruby, the teacher. However, when you are reporting what happened the quotation marks are not required. You can simply say, Miss Ruby told the students to open their books.

Hyphen (-)

The hyphen is used to link words together. For example: check-in, merry-go-round, two-fold, seventy-two, long-term, up-to-date, etc.

It is also used with most prefixes, such as all-, ex-, and self- (e.g. all-encompassing, ex-employer self-service). A hyphen should also be used with a prefix where the word could be misread without a hyphen, e.g., re-pair, meaning to pair again, not repair, meaning to fix.

If the prefix ends in the same vowel with which the main words starts, they should be separated with a hyphen, for example: semi-industrious, re-enter, re-emerge. However, there are some exceptions especially with the letter ‘o’ in prefix and as the first letter which can be used without the hyphen, for example: coordinate, cooperate, etc.

The hyphen is also used at the end of a line where there is not enough space for the whole word. The word is divided between syllables, and a one-syllable word is never divided. The word document does this automatically while, when writing in hand you, have to be careful where to break the word.

Brackets ( ) [ ]

Brackets always come in pairs and are used to give some extra information, or make a point which is not part of the main sentence, but if you remove the words between the brackets, the sentence would still make sense.

There are two main types of brackets: round () and square [].

Round brackets ( ), also called parenthesis, are basically used to add extra information to a sentence or to explain or clarify something. For example: ‘The English teacher (Miss Salma) left the school.’

Brackets are also used to indicate plural or singular, for example: ‘Please leave your mobile telephone(s) at the door.’ They are also used to define abbreviations, as in the sentence: ‘The matter will be decided by the IOC (International Olympic Committee).’

Square brackets [ ] are used when we modify another person’s words, to denote that the modification is ours and not that of the original writer. For example: The man said: “He [the thief] snatched his phone.” Or to modify a direct quotation: He “love[s] driving”, where the original words were “I love driving.”

They are also used to add missing words, for example: “It is [a] good question.”

Square brackets are sometimes used for nesting, i.e. using brackets inside brackets, for example: Several prestigious organisations (e.g. the United Nations Organisation [WHO]) supported the initiative.

Today, September 24, is National Punctuation Day in the USA.

Published in Dawn, Young World, September 24th, 2022

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