One of the surprise bestsellers of Christmas 2003 in Britain was Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynn Truss. The book’s title was taken from a joke about a panda walking into a café. The panda eats a sandwich, fires a gun in the air and walks towards the door. When the waiter asks in confusion what he thinks he’s doing, the panda throws him a badly punctuated book on wildlife: “Panda. Large black-and-white bear-like mammal, native to China. Eats, shoots and leaves”. The author is showing how incorrect punctuation can cause misunderstanding or confusion. The purpose of punctuation is to make the meaning as clear as possible.
It comes at the end of complete sentences. A comma is not strong enough. It cannot come at the end of a dependent clause standing by itself: If the outstanding amount is not paid. is incorrect.
In general, punctuation with abbreviations is omitted nowadays.
Fairly obvious—but remember that a reported question is no longer a question, has statement subject-verb word-order, and therefore takes no question mark: ‘Are you going to London next week?’ > The Chairman asked if I was going to London the following week.
This is the least understood punctuation mark. It is much closer to a full-stop than to a comma, and can never be substituted for a comma. Sometimes there is a choice between full-stop and semi-colon. A semi-colon is used:
- between two closely-related sentences: I wrote the letter; John posted it. Here a comma would be wrong by itself; however, other possibilities would be: full-stop; comma + and; comma + but.
- between items on a horizontal list which are groups of words rather than individual words (as in the previous point).
Some people like plenty of commas—others don't! You have considerable freedom in the use of commas outside the important rules given here:
- A comma by itself can never be used between two independent clauses or sentences (see semi-colon).
- A comma is usually used when a dependent clause precedes an independent clause, but not when the independent clause comes first: compare Although it was raining, he went for a walk. with He went for a walk although it was raining. This is because we naturally pause when saying the first sentence, but not the second.
- While two commas can be used as brackets between subject and verb, one comma can never go between a subject and its verb: Mr Tan, the President of our company, is 63 years old. But: Mr Tan, the President of our company is 63 years old. (The second example has a different meaning. It means that you are telling Mr Tan the age of the President.
- Commas are used in horizontal lists, with an optional (and American) comma before ‘and’: He speaks French, German, Hokkien (,) and Malay. Commas are unnecessary in vertical lists.
- Commas are used with sentence-adverbs or phrases at the beginnings and ends of sentences: Finally, after many attempts, he managed to pass his driving test. He lost his licence a few months later, however.
- Commas are necessary with who/which clauses which give unnecessary or extra information. Compare The man who is sitting over there is my uncle. with Winston Churchill, who lived to be 90, was in Parliament for over 60 years.
Two useful rules:
- A colon is used when one sentence leads into, or points directly towards, another: He looked out of the window: the sky was cloudy and overcast.
- A colon is used to introduce a list or an example: after for example: or as follows:
A useful but hard-to-define mark. It can be used to:
- indicate an afterthought: We shall arrive on Monday—at least, I hope so.
- indicate a discontinuity in the thought, or an interruption: Winston Churchill—whom I briefly met when I was a child—had a career in Parliament which spanned 65 years.
Quotation marks (inverted commas)
- Single quotation marks are often used when we talk about a word, or use it in an unusual way.
- Either single (‘ ’) or double (“”) quotation marks can be used for quoting speech. For a quotation inside a quotation, use the form not used for the main quotation.
That said all publications will have their own house style, so take all of the above as guidelines,:; rather than hard and fast rules.
Guy Perring is Director, Professional Development Unit (PDU), at the British Council Malaysia. The PDU offers a wide range of learning opportunities from management and communication skills training to developing English skills. Contact the British Council in Kuala Lumpur at T: 03 - 2723 7900 or Penang at T: 04 - 263 0330 or visit www.britishcouncil.org.my.