Some of the sentences we have looked at are harder to understand than they might be because they are not very well punctuated. Punctuation marks are the ‘stops’ in a sentence that divide it up into parts. They make it easier to follow the meaning of the words. For instance, it is easier to read this sentence of Philip's if we put a comma after ‘wealthy’:
With society becoming more wealthy, it was possible for the fathers and husbands to provide an even better standard of life for their wives and daughters.
Punctuation is the system of signals you give to your reader to show how the grammar of the sentence is supposed to work. The basics are the capital letter at the start of a sentence and the full stop at the end. You use commas to mark off any sub-parts of the sentence. Other punctuation marks are:
|semicolon ;||marks a pause which has more emphasis than a comma but less than a full stop; also often used to divide up items in a list|
|colon :||signals that a list is to follow|
|brackets ( )||always come in pairs and go round an ‘aside’ – a point which is not part of the main flow of a sentence. If you read ‘through’, missing out what is in the brackets, the sentence should still make sense|
|dash –||can be used similarly to brackets, but you can use just one to signal a shift to a related point|
|hyphen -||links words together as above in ‘sub-parts’|
|apostrophe '||indicates letters missing (as in ‘don't’ and ‘'phone’); also indicates belonging to (as in ‘Philip's’)|
|inverted commas ‘ ’||also called ‘quotation marks’, these are necessary when you want to use another author's exact words. Everything between the quotation marks, including punctuation, should be exactly as in the original text. If you deliberately add or omit something, you should signal the changes with square brackets or with an ellipsis (three dots in a row). For instance, if I were to quote Ellis' view that it was ‘vital that [these women] conformed to contemporary norms which had shifted...towards and ideal of delicate, innocent and essentially decorative womanhood’ you'd notice that my addition of the words ‘these women’ was signalled by square brackets, while the few words that I didn't need and so left out are signalled by the ellipsis. Inverted commas are also used to pick out words for ‘emphasis’|
question mark ? and exclamation mark ! are fairly obvious. You will very rarely need to use an exclamation mark in an essay.
We all make mistakes in punctuation as we write. So it is important to check through the first draft of your essay with this in mind. When in doubt, read the sentence out loud, perhaps even in an exaggerated way, and ‘listen’ to where you make little pauses as you speak it. Often, you need to put in a comma at those points.