Wednesday, July 12, 2006



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.

Punctuation Marks

Mark Name
. Period (Am)
Full stop (Br)

, Comma

: Colon

; Semicolon

! Exclamation point

? Question mark

“ “ Quotation marks (Am)
Inverted commas (Br)

‘ ‘ Single quotation marks (Am)
Single inverted commas (Br)

‘ Apostrophe

- Hyphen

-- Dash

( ) 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.

Relative clauses

--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
--he cried

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.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Definite Article (the)

Definite and indefinite articles are difficult for speakers whose native language does not contain them. This is a problem which most students must struggle with for years, but it is possible to learn how to use articles correctly or at least greatly improve your usage of them. It just requires patience, practice, and attention to detail.

Extended exposure to English is, in the end, the best way to mastering articles. Reading often and observing how and where articles are used will help a lot. As with most aspects of any language, there are no “laws” or “rules” for articles which apply 100% of the time. Grammar is not prescriptive, but descriptive. That is, grammar does not make rules but describes how a language is spoken.

Still, there are general patterns of usage for articles which can be logically described and which you can learn. The following is a list of these patterns (“rules”) which will help you decide when, and when not, to use an article.

Use the definite article . . .

with a noun that has been previously mentioned:

I saw a film last night. The film was very interesting.

with postmodification of nouns – this is perhaps the most useful “rule” to remember. If the noun is followed by a relative clause (beginning with words like who, which, that, etc.) or a prepositional phrase (beginning with a preposition: of, in, to, etc.), then the definite article is needed. These postmodifications make the noun specific, and therefore we use the definite article:

I study history. But-- I study the history of biology.
Can you see the man in the blue sweater?
The friend who I told you about is coming.

Notice that sometimes the relative pronoun may not actually be present, though it is still implied:

The friend I told you about is coming.
The woman I spoke with on the phone had a nice voice.

for unique objects – if there is only one of something, or it is clear from the context which one is meant:

The sun, the prime minister, the capital (city),
the universe, the pope

this includes superlatives:

They say that the best beer comes from Belgium.
The Nile is the longest river in the world.
That was the most exciting day of my life.

and ranking adjectives:

The answer is on the third page.
I live on the second floor.
The last lesson will be on Friday.

with periods of time:

the fourteenth century, the 1960s, the Middle Ages

with species – use the definite article with the singular form when speaking about the species as such

The elephant lives in Africa and India.
The dodo was extinct by the seventeenth century.
I am interested in the mating habits of the porcupine.

with plural nationality:

The Chinese invented paper.
The French drink more wine than beer.

to discuss groups of people (the + adjective):

the rich, the homeless, the unemployed, the dead

with certain phrases:

the same
We have the same car.
Romanian and Moldovan are the same language.

the right
Is this the right article to use?
I don’t know the right answer.

the wrong
We got on the wrong bus.
I set my alarm clock for the wrong time.

with places associated with entertainment:

the theater, the cinema, the opera, the ballet, the pub


Is there a pub near here?
I think there is a cinema on this street.

with modes of public transportation:

Let’s take the bus.
I take the metro to work every day.
I don’t like taking the tram.

Do not use the definite article. . .

for generic meaning:

x scientists think that the universe is at least ten billion years old.
I love x animals.

with abstract nouns (without postmodification):
I would like to study x philosophy.
x love is an illusion.
I am very interested in x art.
The Prime Minister wants to reduce x poverty.

with premodification – if the noun is preceded by a word like this, that, these, some, any, each, every, no, none, my, etc.:

x my friend is quite funny.
x these apples are delicious.
I love x all kinds of music.

with singular proper nouns (names):

x Prague, x Edith, x Windsor Castle, x Cambridge University

Geography and the definite article

Use the definite article . . .

with the names of oceans, seas, and rivers:

the Atlantic Ocean, the Dead Sea, the Ganges

with the names of deserts:

the Sahara, the Painted Desert

with mountain ranges:

the Rocky mountains, the Alps, the High Tatras

with groups of islands:

the Canary Islands, the Hawaiian Islands, the Bahamas

with the names of certain countries:

a) countries whose name is plural:

the Netherlands, the Philippines

b) countries with republic, kingdom, federation, etc.

the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom, the Russian Federation

c) other exceptions*

(the) Ukraine, (the) Sudan, (the) Congo

*countries are in this last category due to etymological and historical reasons, and it is acceptable to omit the article

Do not use the definite article . . .

with lakes:

x Lake Victoria, x Loch Ness, x Lake Michigan

with individual mountains:

x Mount Blanc, x Mount Everest, x Mount Kilimanjaro

with names of countries (other than those exceptions discussed above):

x France, x Chile, x Mali

with names of cities:

x the Bratislava, x the New York, x the Osaka

there is one exception to this: The Hague

* * *

That’s all for now. Remember that these are not rules but patterns, and there may be exceptions. The definite article has been evolving along with the English language for at least 1,500 years, so it is bound to be complex!