This can be a particularly confusing area of the English language. But it is an area that you need to understand as best you can in order to make your writing – however formal or informal – as clear as possible.
Without the correct punctuation, English is messy and extremely difficult to understand, even for a good reader. So do your best with this one. You might find that you know more than you realise.
Full stop . (also known as ‘period’ or ‘full point’)
Primarily used to end a sentence. Also used in abbreviations – for example, the M.E.N. Arena, in England, is the abbreviated name for the Manchester Evening News Arena.
However, it is quite common for acronyms (such as M.E.N.) to be written without the full stops. A very good example of this would be the BBC – known throughout the world, but very rarely written as ‘B.B.C.’.
Question mark ?
Generally used in conjunction with an interrogative pronoun (for example, what, which, who, whom, where, how) in order to ask about something, such as, ‘What is the capital of France?’
Exclamation mark !
Used to emphasise the tone of a sentence – literally, to exclaim!
Brackets (aka parenthesis)
Used to include additional information in a sentence (which might be of slightly less importance).
When you have a set of brackets in the middle of a sentence (like this), the sentence should read just as well even if you ignore the words which are within the brackets: in this case,
‘When you have a set of brackets in the middle of a sentence, the sentence should read just as well even if you ignore the words which are within the brackets.’
Note that the comma (‘,’) is present in both examples, and where there are brackets, the comma should come after the closing bracket. Also, consider brackets where they are used prior to a full stop: a full stop closes a sentence; brackets do not.
I often use a dash to aid the reader’s understanding of a sentence. A dash can be used to place a greater emphasis on the word or phrase that immediately follows it. And that particular word or phrase can come either in the middle of a sentence – like this – or at the end of a sentence – like this.
If dashes are used in a pair, rather than one dash on its own towards the end of a sentence, that pair must behave like brackets: the sentence should read just as well even if you ignore the words between the dashes. For example:
‘That particular word or phrase can come either in the middle of a sentence – like this – or at the end of sentence.’
‘That particular word or phrase can come either in the middle of a sentence or at the end of a sentence.’
I believe there are two kinds of dash – the ’em’ (or ‘M’) dash and the ‘en’ (‘N’) dash. They are of differing lengths, the ‘M’ dash being longer (because the letter ‘M’ is longer/wider than ‘N’). I disregard all this – and just use the one kind. It is far simpler.
A hyphen is used in the following situations:
- When we want to join two or more words to make what is known as a compound, particularly modifiers before nouns, such as ‘two-year-old’, ‘part-time’ and ‘wholly-owned’
- Writing numbers twenty-one to ninety-nine and fractions (eg. ‘three-quarters’)
- To create other compounds, such as ‘well-being’ and ‘fly-on-the-wall’
- When adding certain prefixes to words, for example, ‘ex-husband’, ‘self-righteous’, ‘all-encompassing’, ‘non-English’
A major difference between dashes and hyphens is that there should be no space either before or after a hyphen.
Suspended (or ‘hanging’) Compounds
I used a suspended compound earlier (when I was talking about brackets): ‘They can even surround a whole one- or two-clause sentence, such as this one.’ The bit ‘one- or two-clause sentence’ features a hanging compound.
Be careful not to use this feature too often in your writing – it can be quite annoying for your readers as you are making them do more work in order to understand what you are saying.