When you are in the initial stages of learning a foreign language, punctuation is not so important. But now that you are using English in university-level courses, you should familiarize yourself with the fundamentals of punctuation in English and begin using them in your writing.
The uses of punctuation marks are conventions which evolve over time and which differ from language to language (and even, as we will see, within a single language). Punctuation is not the same thing as grammar, and it may or may not be based on grammar. In English, early systems of punctuation were formed by two competing schools of thought: one which believed punctuation should be based on articulation (how the sentence reads) and another which believed it should be based on the underlying grammar of a sentence. The latter school of thought (the syntactical method) is the one we use today. Therefore, punctuation marks are used to articulate the grammatical structure of a sentence and clarify meaning.
English punctuation differs from punctuation in other languages, and learning these differences will greatly improve the clarity and effectiveness of your writing. I will first present the basic punctuation marks with their English names, followed by a more detailed explanation of the most tricky aspect of punctuation – the comma.
. Period (Am)
Full stop (Br)
! Exclamation point
? Question mark
“ “ Quotation marks (Am)
Inverted commas (Br)
‘ ‘ Single quotation marks (Am)
Single inverted commas (Br)
( ) Parentheses (Am)
Brackets (‘round brackets’) (Br)
[ ] Brackets
. . . Ellipses
Many native speakers of English do not use commas properly because they have never learned the rules. There can be further confusion in that the conventions sometimes differ between British and American English, and the situation is even worse in British English, as there is no single, agreed on standard. I often got conflicting advice from my professors in England. In American English, however, there is a standard set of guidelines issued by the Modern Language Association. As this is the most widely used system worldwide, and as British punctuation usually differs very little from this system, we will proceed with our discussion of commas according to these guidelines.
At a more advanced level of semantics and stylistics, commas can be rather difficult, particularly in their function of clarifying meaning and avoiding ambiguity. But the basic rules of commas are logical and easy to learn.
Use a comma . . .
1. Between numbers when writing dates:
Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809.
The exam is scheduled for 13 December 2007.
If the sentence continues, use another comma after the year:
Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809, in Shrewsbury.
2. Between the name of a city and state/country:
I live in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Jimi Hendrix was born in Seattle, Washington.
As with dates, use another comma if the sentence continues:
Bratislava, Slovakia, is a lovely city.
3. With items in a series. This can include objects, subjects, adjectives, etc.:
She drank two vodkas, three rums, and seven beers.
Jana, Petra, and Pavel passed the exam.
Look at those big, round, juicy oranges!
*Note: It is possible to leave out the last comma in lists of nouns:
She drank two vodkas, three rums and seven beers.
but there are some examples when it is necessary:
My mother’s favorite musical artists are the Beatles, Neil Young, Simon and Garfunkel, and Sting.
Without the final comma, it is not clear whether the group is “Simon and Garfunkel” or “Garfunkel and Sting.”
Because there are such situations where a final comma is necessary, it is probably better to use it always. The choice is yours, of course, but which ever way you do it, do it consistently – that is, use the final comma always, or only when necessary.
4. With non-restrictive or non-defining clauses (phrases which could be removed from the sentence without changing its meaning or making it ungrammatical). If the clause occurs in the middle of the sentence, use two commas – before and after the phrase.
--Frank’s mother, who turned 79 last month, is in great shape.
--Samuel Beckett was influenced by James Joyce, whom he greatly admired.
--That disgusting beer, which I couldn’t even finish, cost me fifty crowns!
Appositives (nouns which further define another noun)
--Vaclav Havel, former president of the Czech Republic, is favored to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
--Mister Novak, my neighbor, stole my cat.
Other phrases which are interruptive or not essential
The situation is, of course, very complicated.
The solution, I think, is rather simple.
Solving the problem, on the other hand, will be difficult.
Notice that all of these sentences are fine without the clauses which are separated by commas
--Frank’s mother is in great shape.
--Samuel Beckett was influenced by James Joyce.
--That disgusting beer cost me fifty crowns!
--Vaclav Havel is favored to win this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
--Mister Novak stole my cat.
--The situation is very complicated.
--The solution is rather simple.
--Solving the problem will be difficult.
notice also that not all appositives are non-defining:
--My sister, Annie, married a director in New York.
--My sister Annie married a director in New York.
the speaker of the first sentence has only one sister, and it is not necessary to include her name in the sentence. The speaker of the second sentence, however, has more than one sister and has to specify which sister married a director in New York.
5. With dependent clauses which precede independent clauses: DC, IC
For this and the following rule, we need to learn about dependent and independent clauses. An independent clause is a group of words which can stand as a complete sentence:
--John lost his banana
Dependent clauses are just what they sound like – clauses which depend on another clause to make a complete sentence. They cannot stand alone:
--because John lost his banana
--after the revolution
--although Freud was born in Moravia
--having won the lottery
--to learn English
These clauses require an independent clause to form a sentence and are separated with a comma:
--Because John lost his banana, I gave him my orange.
--After the revolution, there were many more books available.
--Although Freud was born in Moravia, he was not Czech.
--Having won the lottery, John bought himself a million bananas.
--To learn English, one must have patience and determination.
When a dependent clause follows an independent clause, it is more difficult to know whether or not to use a comma. In general, do not use a comma:
--I gave John my orange because he had lost his banana.
--There were a lot more books available after the revolution.
Use a comma for emphasis or when you want to contrast something:
--John was a generous person, after he won the lottery.
--Jana passed all of her exams, although she never studied.
6. With two independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction. IC; and IC.
There are seven coordinating conjunctions which can join two independent clauses: and, or, nor, for, so, yet, but.
--Charles Darwin is credited with the theory of evolution, but Alfred Russel Wallace also formulated the same theory.
--Vasco da Gama sailed around Africa, and Magellan sailed around South America.
--Galileo’s ideas conflicted with orthodox teachings, so he was questioned by the Inquisition.
These seven words are the only possible coordinating conjunctions. Independent clauses can be joined by a comma only with one of these words. If two or more independent clauses are joined by a comma without one of these words, it is called a comma splice. All of the following examples are incorrect:
x Animals behave selfishly, there is no altruism in nature.
x Galileo was condemned by the Church, the Church officially forgave him more than 350 years later.
x Population A had four cases of deformities but population B had forty cases of deformities.
That is all for now. Remember that these conventions are meant to help you be more effective writers, and are therefore worth learning.