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apostrophe (')

1. a. The apostrophe's original function in English was to show where part of a word had been omitted. It is still used this way where two words run together into a contraction, such as:

I've
he'll
we'd
let's

When a single word is telescoped, the apostrophe is again used where a letter has been lost:

couldn't
don't
e'er
ne'er-do-well

Note that in shan't and won't, there is only one apostrophe, although letters are missing in two places.

b. Apostrophes are also used by writers who want to show when a speaker pronounces words in a non-standard way, omitting one or more sounds. Common examples are:

'em (for them)
huntin' (for hunting)

2. a. The apostrophe and a following s is the regular way of marking the possessive or genitive case in English, for singular nouns and indefinite pronouns:

a dog's dinner
Japan's cities
anyone's guess

b. Plural nouns which end in s simply add the apostrophe to mark their possessive form:

the citizens' rights
politicians' arguments

Note that plural nouns which do not end in s are treated in the same way as singulars:

children's day
the mice's squeaking

c. Personal names ending in s are these days often given the regular apostrophe s, whatever their number of syllables or their sound:

Burns's poetry
Dickens's novels

Those who have occasion to refer to classical or biblical names of several syllables may still prefer the apostrophe alone, as with:

Jesus' teachings
Moses' law
Euripides' plays

d. The choice of one or two apostrophes for pairs of names is decided by whether or not they form a single unit in relation to the following noun. Compare:

Maggie and John's house
Maggie's and John's choice of clothes

e. An apostrophe is used for the plural forms of single letters or numbers, as with:

p's and q's
1's and 2's

However groups of letters or numbers do not require the apostrophe:

MPs
747s
1990s

Note that apostrophes are no longer used in several kinds of expression where the idea of possession is tenuous:

expressions of time, such as three years jail
official names, titles and phrases such as South Adelaide Girls High School, Teachers Federation, Visitors book
placenames such as Kings Cross, St Albans, Frenchs Forest

colon (:)

1. The colon is often used to signal that a set of examples will follow:

The food must be simple: chicken, salad and wine.

Colons may preface horizontal lists on the same line like the above example, or vertical ones starting on the next line.

2. Colons also serve to show that what follows is in some way equivalent to whatever has just been said. They may rephrase it in more general and summary terms, or offer more specific details:

His career was cut short by illness: a great loss to the scientific community.

The town was taken in no time: mortars over the walls, a battery assault on the gate, and a rush to capture the general in his bunker.

3. a. A colon serves to introduce a quotation. It may be integrated into the text on the same line, as in:

The politician was heard to say: 'I really need a holiday.'

Or it may preface a longer quotation which begins on a separate line. Block quotations taken from written sources would always follow on a separate line after the colon.

b. Colons are commonly used in setting out the dialogue of a play, or in transcripts of interviews used in judicial records, etc.:

Judge: Were you drinking at the Diggers Arms on Saturday night?

Prisoner: No,sir.

comma (,)

1. a. Commas serve to separate a word or set of words from others in the same sentence. They may separate an introductory word or phrase from the main statement of the sentence, as in:

John, please open the door.
Coming to the last issue, I'd like to underscore what the previous speaker has said.

Occasionally the comma is essential to prevent misreading. Consider how the following sentence would read without its comma:

Halfway along, the path was blocked by an avalanche.

Commas may not be essential if the opening phrase or clause is brief:

With that he left by the back door.
However no-one moved an inch.

Note that it is no longer considered necessary to follow words such as however and nevertheless with a comma at the start of a sentence.

b. Commas are a vital indicator to readers of the points at which they may safely pause without losing the structure of the sentence. In sentences coordinated with words such as and or but, the comma is often used before the second statement:

They wanted to buy it, and they could pay in cash.

The comma is not obligatory in such a case, although it is advisable if the sentence runs to some length, to help the reader. Note that the comma should not be used to separate the embellished subject of a sentence from the verb:

The celebrity we've all been waiting for has just arrived with his entourage.

Those who punctuate by ear might be inclined to insert a comma after 'waiting for', but it would be unfortunate as it interrupts the structure of the main clause.

2. Commas may be used in pairs to demarcate a parenthetical phrase or clause inside a sentence:

The new president, son of our next-door neighbour, will be sworn in tomorrow.
The committee, whose members are entirely new, needs to formulate policy from scratch.

Note that in the second of those sentences, the commas make 'whose members...' a parenthetic comment on the particular committee under discussion. If the twin commas are left out, the meaning of the sentence changes, and it becomes a general statement about a type of committee you might find anywhere. The relative clause in it becomes a restrictive relative clause, because it puts limits on the definition of a focal item ('committee').

3. Sets of commas help to separate a series of items presented in a horizontal list:

A bouquet of waratahs, hakeas, grevilleas and wattle was presented to the soloist.

In the past some have argued that there should always be a comma (a 'serial comma') before the 'and' in such a series. But these days it varies according to whether the last item is like all the others (as in the above example), or needs to be separated off:

A bouquet of waratahs, hakeas, bird of paradise, and wattle was presented to the soloist.

The third item in this list is differently phrased, and a comma is needed to prevent it being misread with the final item.

Note that it is no longer considered necessary to put a comma between every adjective, even if there are several in front of a noun, as in:

a bright red sports car

4. How commas combine with quotation marks is discussed below, in section quotation marks or inverted commas below.

dash (em rule or en rule) (— or –)

1. a. The dash is conventionally used to show where a sentence has been broken off. It may then continue on a different grammatical tack, or remain unfinished:

He was about to – Oh, I mustn't spoil the story for you.
'I thought you were – .'Her tone was full of confusion.

b. A dash is often used in informal writing to separate fully formed parts of a sentence, instead of commas and other regular punctuation marks:

I'll come as fast as I can – once the speeches are over.

This rather casual use of the dash is not favoured in formal writing.

2. In pairs, dashes may be used to enclose a parenthesis in mid-sentence:

He had crawled up to the road – heaven knows how – with two broken legs.

Note that the dashes here could be replaced by parentheses (round brackets).

3. a. A dash is used to link words (usually geographical names) which are the terminal points of a route as in:

the Sydney–London route

b. The dash also expresses a link between two people, countries, etc.:

the Gilbert–Sullivan partnership
the Australia–Japan Foundation

Note that sometimes the use of a dash rather than a hyphen (or vice versa) can alter the meaning:

the Spanish–American War

The dash in this term indicates that the war in question was between Spain and the United States of America. The use of a hyphen (Spanish-American War) would indicate that the war was within the area known as Spanish America.

c. Dashes serve to mark spans of numbers, such as periods of time, or the extent of pages being quoted:

1875–1896

pp. 131–5

ellipsis points (…)

The three dots of ellipsis indicate where a word or words have been omitted from a sentence quoted, as in:

The gist of the treasurer's final statement was: 'You'll be grateful to us … in a year's time.'

Note that these days three dots are used for an ellipsis whether it occurs at the beginning, the end or in the middle of a sentence. (Four dots were once recommended for an ellipsis at the end.)

exclamation mark (!)

1. The exclamation mark is used to end an utterance which expresses strong feelings of any kind – surprise, excitement, pleasure, indignation.The utterance may or may not be a full sentence:

I'm thrilled for you!
Half your luck!

2. In commands, the exclamation mark is reserved for those which are emphatic or curt. It is withheld from those intended to guide or instruct the reader. Compare:

Quick march!
Get out!
Consider the effects of such a move.
Place the meat on a well-greased baking dish.

full stop or period (.)

1. a. A full stop is used to mark the end of sentences other than those which are direct questions or emphatic exclamations – which have question marks or exclamation marks instead. For example:

Parliament adjourned at midnight.
He asked what we were going to do.
Would you shut the door please.
That's a bright idea.

Notes:

The second sentence above has a full stop because it is an indirect question.

The third sentence, although worded like a question, is actually a polite command.

The fourth sentence is a low-key exclamation, not an emphatic one.

b. A full stop is not usually used in headlines and headings, nor in the captions on pictures, diagrams and tables. Full stops are also usually dispensed with for the items contained in a vertical list.

2. a. Full stops have been used extensively to mark abbreviations. In the past they have been used for both upper-case and lower-case abbreviations, and this is still the practice of some institutions and individuals. There is however a tendency to confine full stops to abbreviations consisting entirely of lower-case letters, so that ones like the following are written without stops:

WTO
Lt
PhD
Rev
St

Lower-case abbreviations are still given stops provided they are true abbreviations and not contractions. A contraction is a telescoped word which preserves at least the first and last letter of the original. Compare the abbreviation y. and the contraction yr as shortened forms of 'year'. Note that this distinction between abbreviations and contractions is observed by many in Australia and Britain, but is little known in North America.

b. No full stops are used in standard symbols such as those used for points of the compass:

NE
NNW
SE
SW

for SI units in the metric system:

kg
mm
ml
km

or for chemical symbols:

Fe
Pb
He
Na

hyphen (-)

1. a. Hyphens serve to link the two (or more) parts of a compound together, as in:

all-embracing
go-ahead
mother-in-law
owner-operator
thirty-five
two-thirds

Cases like the above, in which the hyphen always makes an appearance, are not so common. In many compounds, especially noun compounds, the hyphenated form varies with either a spaced variant or one which is set solid, or both. Compare:

email              e-mail

On the whole, established compounds are more likely to be hyphenated or set solid than new ones, although those in which either word is polysyllabic are likely to remain spaced forever. So hyphenated forms are often just one alternative, although British dictionaries are more inclined to list them than their American counterparts. Australians may decide for themselves, or follow their preferred dictionary.

b. The same elements may appear with and without a hyphen, depending on the part they play in the grammar of the sentence. Hyphens are regularly used in compound adjectives, but the same words are not hyphenated when used as part of the verb phrase. Compare:

Their well-executed routine drew applause.
The routine was well executed and drew applause.

Note that even the compound adjective would have no hyphen if it embraced an adverb ending in -ly. Compare:

The routine was perfectly executed and drew applause.
Their perfectly executed routine drew applause.

But spaced noun compounds normally gain a hyphen when they become compound adjectives or verbs, as in:

Such high-level reports are not usually red-pencilled by the minister.

2. a. In compounds and some complex words (those formed with prefixes or suffixes), a hyphen sometimes serves to separate the two parts, to prevent misreading. The hyphen in under-age serves this purpose, as in re-educate.

b. The separating hyphen serves to distinguish recent formations such as re-creation and re-mark from their long-established counterparts recreation and remark. In such cases a considerable difference in meaning hangs on the hyphen.

3. Hyphens are the standard way to show where a word has been broken off at the end of a line and carried over to the next. Usually you have some options as to where to break the word, provided it has at least six letters. There are several things to bear in mind:

  • words of one syllable should never be broken
  • proper names should not be broken
  • at least three letters should be kept on each line, unless the part being separated is a two-letter prefix or suffix
  • letters belonging to the same grapheme should not be divided, such as the ea or the th in feather
  • wordbreaks can usually be made between two independent or identical consonants, as in con+fes+sor
  • a consonant helps to begin the second part of the word, except when word structure overrules, as in pour+ing and dis+allow

parentheses (round brackets)

1. Parentheses help to demarcate a statement which interrupts the ongoing discussion, but which is germane to a particular point in it:

Computer analysis of the posthumously published novel The Dark Tower by CS Lewis has shown it to be a forgery. (Many readers thought it too unpleasant to be the work of the master.) The computer compared its language with that of his other novels, and found marked differences in style.

When the parenthetic text is a separate sentence like that in the above example, it carries the normal full stop. When it is embedded in another sentence, the full stop is left off:

The details of the analysis (see below) have surprised many readers.

2. a. Parentheses often enclose a word which is offered to explain or supplement a point:

She set forth for Cambridge (UK) with the highest academic credentials.

b. Parentheses may be used to surround a letter which permits an alternative reading of the sentence:

The speaker's grasp of the issue(s) was less than strong.

3. Parentheses are used to enclose numbers or letters used in mid-sentence as enumerative devices:

His aims were (a) to earn as much money as possible, and (b) to do it in the shortest possible time.

4. Running references embedded in the text are enclosed in parentheses:

The idea of a global village (McLuhan, 1966) has been realised in a surprisingly short time, with the phenomenal advances in communications technology.

5. When something is included in parentheses at the end of another sentence, the final full stop always goes outside, whatever it is: whether a reference, an explanatory word or two, or a whole parenthetical sentence.

question mark (?)

1. The question mark is used to end any string of words which functions as a question, whether they form a complete sentence or not:

Can you give me a lift to the station?
When?
After the meeting?

Note that those are all direct questions: indirect questions do not require question marks. Compare:

I asked when she wanted to be picked up.

Note also that sentences which are phrased like direct questions, but which function as polite commands, also have full stops rather than question marks. (See section full stop or period 1. a. above)

2. A question mark is used after a word or number about which the writer is unsure. In formal documents it usually occurs in connection with dates which are not known precisely:

William Caxton 1422?—1491

quotation marks or inverted commas (“ ” or ‘ ’)

1. People's preference for single or double quote marks tends to depend on habit, and whether they write for institutions which dictate one way or the other on this. The Australian government, like the British, calls for single quotes, while the Australian press uses double quotes. Double quotes are standard in the USA.

The argument usually raised in favour of single quotes is that they are more elegant, although that is a matter of taste. Those arguing in favour of double quotes usually note that they prevent confusion with apostrophes. The potential for confusion is at its greatest on typewriters and printers which do not distinguish opening and closing quotes by their shape. Whichever you use as your standard quotation marker, you'll need the other for contrast when it comes to quotes within quotes.

2. The prime function for quotation marks is to show when you are quoting the exact words of a speaker or writer. Some modern writers do without them when presenting regular dialogue in a novel. But for the occasional quotation, they are standard practice. Note that in block quotations which run to several paragraphs, the quote marks are affixed to the start of each paragraph, but only to the end of the last one.

3. Quotation marks are also used from time to time to draw attention to a word which the writer feels is out of the ordinary. It may be technical, or one which has ironic implications. In either case it would have quote marks only on its first appearance. Whether it should be given double or single quote marks depends on (a) which kind of quote marks you normally use for quotations, and (b) whether you prefer to use that, or the alternative for words which are not quotations. There is no standard practice.

4. a. Quote marks are used for certain kinds of names, such as those of special vehicles:

the 'Orient Express'
the 'Challenger' spacecraft

b. The titles of smaller segments of publications, such as poems and short stories within anthologies, and articles within journals, are often set with quotation marks:

'The Highwayman' was once a very popular poem, often taught to primary school children.

5. a. Before the quotation begins, it is usually preceded by a comma or colon. The older practice was to use a comma, and this is still observed in novels, although there is also a tendency to replace it with sheer space. In newspapers, magazines and reports, the tendency is to use a colon.

After detailing the improved unemployment figures, the minister added: 'We think the worst is over.'

Note that the quotation begins with a capital letter. For the position of the final full stop, see 5. c. below.

b. Before the presentational material (the 's/he said', etc., which often goes with a quotation), any of the major punctuation marks belonging to the quotation go inside the closing quote marks. This applies to quotation marks, exclamation marks and the comma which replaces a full stop:

'It ended yesterday,' she said.

In American editing practice, the comma goes inside the quote marks, whether it belongs to the quotation or the carrier sentence. But the British practice is to place the comma outside if it does not belong to the quotation. Compare:

'It's over,' she said 'and done with.'
'It's over', she said 'and done with.'

Note that the quotation is resumed without a capital letter after the presentational material.

c. The placement of the final full stop is again a matter of difference between British and American practice. In American practice the full stop always goes inside, unless the final quotation mark encloses a 'special word' (see 3 above). In recent British practice it depends on the whether the quotation is an independent sentence or included in another. The full stop only goes inside if the quotation stands by itself. Compare:

His final word was 'Let's keep in touch'. (British)
She mused over his final words. 'Let's keep in touch.' (American)

Note that things were different in older British practice. The position of the final full stop varied for included quotations, depending on the relationship between the carrier sentence and the quotation. The newer British practice has fewer complications, although the American convention is the most straightforward of all on this point.

semicolon (;)

1. Semicolons mark the boundary between main clauses which are juxtaposed in the same sentence:

He had no further plans; he just wanted out.

Typically there is no conjunction following the semicolon, although words like also and nevertheless and other conjunctive adverbs often do:

He had no further plans; nevertheless he wanted to stay there.

Note however that the distinction between conjunctions and conjunctive adverbs is not so clear-cut, and in speech and informal writing they do service for each other. These exchanges are increasingly registered in writing of all kinds, and but might well appear instead of 'nevertheless' in that last example.

2. The semicolon complements the comma in demarcating items in a series, when the items themselves contain commas:

My tour group included two Japanese couples, loaded with camera equipment; five Americans in Hawaiian shirts; three hitchhiking Australians; and a lone New Zealander, with a beard, and a chip on his shoulder.

Without the semicolons, commas would have to serve both within and between the items listed, and the boundaries between would be less clear.

square brackets ([ ])

1. a. Comments and explanations offered by the editor to the author's text are enclosed in square brackets:

The main problem [shortage of staff] has immediately led to an increase in class sizes.

b. Mistakes in quoted text may be drawn to the reader's attention by use of the editorial [sic] meaning literally 'thus', or less literally 'that was how the author wrote it':

The ship floundered [sic] on the reef.    (Correct word foundered.)

2. Square brackets may be used to enclose a word or words substituted by the editor for the original one(s) in quoted material:

Being in a large family has made [growing older] a less lonely proposition.