Punctuation rules may be troublesome to learn, but they certainly make your writing much easier to read. Generally, we add punctuation to signify certain things and the most vital of these is to indicate natural pauses in what we are reading. This is perhaps the most important thing about punctuation; we are using marks to indicate that each thought doesn’t just run into another thought without stopping.
Thus, one of the first punctuation rules you absolutely must know is to end your sentences with end punctuation. What exactly is a sentence? It contains a subject and a verb. An example of a complete sentence would be the following:
He used his money.
Note that “he” is the subject, and “used” is the verb.
An incomplete sentence could be any of the following:
Used his money
It is sometimes difficult when sentences get complicated to observe punctuation rules. If you’re unsure, break the sentence down to make sure you have a main subject and a verb. Follow the complete sentence with a period (.) or if the sentence is an exclamation, use an exclamation point (!). Alternately, if your sentence is a question, end it with a question mark (?).
Understanding punctuation rules on the ends of sentences naturally leads to probably the biggest error in modern punctuation. This is to end an independent clause (having a subject or verb) with a comma (,), connecting the sentence to a second independent clause. This tactic is called a comma splice, and it is an inappropriate use of the comma. If the period, exclamation point or question mark indicates a pause, the comma can be said to indicate a much shorter pause.
There are a few ways to get around comma splicing and observe punctuation rules. When you realize that you’ve joined two independent clauses together, you can change the sentence by adding a conjunction (and, or, but, yet). Alternately, you can separate the clauses with a period. Another method is to add a semi-colon (;) to separate the clauses, which indicates that they are related but are each independent.
The shorter pauses that commas represent throw many people off. A few examples of how we use commas include these:
- Use commas to separate words in a list (I am getting pizza, salad, a soda, and ice cream. )
- Use commas between the names of cities and countries (Fairbanks, Alaska or Rome, Italy).
- Separate day and year with commas (July 24, 1976 but no comma in 24 July 1976)
- Separate multiple adjectives with commas (The fat, brown, lazy, ugly dog)
These are only a few uses for commas, and you’ll need to study more regarding whether you should use an end comma in a sequence or list. There’s also much to be studied when you use commas with subordinate phrases and clauses, and whether you ought to use them with conjunctions. A good grammar book or book on punctuation rules can help.
Punctuation rules get significantly more complicated as you write more complex sentences, and there are variations and exceptions. Some people argue that you do not need punctuation, especially if you’re going for “artistic” expression. The counter to this is that you always need to know the punctuation rules, so that when you break them, you are doing it on purpose and for artistic effect. Breaking them because you really don’t know them generally looks less educated rather than artsy and makes your work much more difficult to read.
It is never too late to learn punctuation rules. Invest in a good punctuation and grammar book and start working through the exercises. When you write (essays, memos, emails), reread your work and insert or delete punctuation as necessary, and when you read, see if you can catch punctuation errors in the writing of others. Punctuation and understanding grammar are inexorably tied; expect to be studying a little grammar too as you learn to insert these natural pauses in your work.