Comma ,

Here are some uses of commas:

  • To separate elements in a series, for example, a three-part list (as in ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe’). I never (or at least very rarely) use a comma just before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, etc – see page 44)
  • After an introductory clause. For example: ‘Having eaten his slice of cake, he drank his tea.’
  • To set off a relative clause, such as: ‘Richard always helped his colleagues, who held him in high esteem,’ and phrases in apposition (see page 48)
  • To separate adjectives in a series: ‘The big, red, noisy bus.’ Notice how I do not place a comma between the final adjective and the noun being modified (in this case, ‘noisy’ and ‘bus’)
  • To set off quoted elements: “They are among the most passionate in the world,” said Mr So-and-so. Or, “English fans,” said Mr So-and-so, “are among the most passionate in the world.”
  • To avoid confusion. Quite simply, commas are very useful when you want to break up a sentence to make it clearer. For example, ‘For Peter, this journey was hard work.’
  • Between two related place names (London, England) or the date and the year (May 12th, 2002)

I strongly advise that whatever you do, use commas with caution. Always question whether a comma is necessary. Often they are not.

Colon :

This little-understood item of punctuation is used to set off an explanatory or introductory element. It may be useful to think of a colon as a gateway, an invitation to read on and see what the piece you are reading has to say. I have used the colon many times already in this book: they do a great job.

Semi-colon ;

This, again, is not very well understood. Put simply, it has two great uses:

  • It can be used to join two potential sentences. For example, ‘Harry loved his rabbit; it was so fluffy.’
  • It can help break up a long list, particularly if there are elements within it which are of varying degrees of importance, such as this:

‘Fifty buttons, including ten red ones; twenty shirts, all white; two rolls of cotton, also white.’


Used for…

  • Some abbreviations (contractions) – where letters have been omitted, as in Nott’m for Nottingham, or B’ham for Birmingham. Also, in the case of joining two words and omitting a letter – such as you’re for you are. Put simply, an apostrophe is used in place of the missing letter(s).
  • For possessives – Peter’s book, Harry’s rabbit, men’s department, Ladies’ Day. Generally, if the noun is singular (Peter, Harry), the apostrophe should be placed before the ‘s’; if the noun is plural, the apostrophe goes after the ‘s’ (Ladies’). But if the noun is a plural without an ‘s’, the apostrophe goes before the ‘s’ (men’s).

One thing I must say here is that I never use an apostrophe to form a plural. I hate it when I see that. It is just my opinion, but we would never write book’s when we mean books, so why write 1980’s when we can quite easily write 1980s?

Writing it’s instead of its (or vice versa) is arguably the most common mistake in written English. However, these words follow a basic rule:

It’s – an abbreviation

  • Formed from joining it and is or it and has, with the apostrophe replacing the i (in is) or the ha (in has)

Its – the possessive of it

  • As in: ‘The cat drank its milk.’

We do no want to say this:

‘The cat drank it is milk,’ or ‘The cat drank it has milk.’

This is what you are saying if you write, ‘The cat drank it’s milk.’

Speech marks or quote marks “s”

These look like ’66’ and ’99’ with the holes filled in when written by hand. The ’66’ goes at the start of the quote, and the ’99’ goes at the end of the quote, as in: “Gary Lineker scored a cracking goal,” enthused Bobby Robson.

Inverted commas ‘s’

These can also be used as quote marks, as well as to highlight – jargon, perhaps, or an example, unusual words or a new word or phrase. Here’s an example:

‘Rock ‘n’ roll’ is a term which was coined by the DJ Alan Freed.

Please note: in the above example, the ‘n’ in ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ is marked either side with an apostrophe to indicate that letters have been dropped, ie, the ‘a’ and ‘d’ from the word ‘and’. The apostrophe should not be confused with inverted commas. This is one of the most common mistakes in English.

Ellipsis …

The ellipsis consists of three evenly-spaced dots and is used for the following:

  • When you are quoting someone but you want to omit one or more words. For example: “I grew up in the same place…as Elton John.” That quote (one of my very own ?) uses the ellipsis in this case in place of: ‘Pinner, on the outskirts of London’.
  • To indicate a pause in a sentence, particularly when quoting someone or writing dialogue, for example, as part of a script: “His speech slowed…tremendously.”
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