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The (incomplete) Punctuation FAQ

Hopefully this will grow in time, as other questions are asked and answered, and other people add to this.
Hopefully (!) some kind moderator or adminstrator will mark this thread as sticky.


INTRODUCTION
In grammar, the rules are forged in a delicate balance between history and culture. History defines the formal rules, culture defines the usage rules, and most of the English-speaking world resides somewhere between the two. You can make a new usage rule merely by inventing it and using it, but the only way to make a new formal rule is wait for a very long time - these rules do change, but they change slowly.

Punctuation rules, on the other hand, change much, much faster. These rules are set by publishers, newspapers, and so on, and so can vary from publisher to publisher, let alone from country to country. For example, the Sunday Times prints "the home secretary", wheras the Times prints "the Home Secretary". Who is right? Well, there are the people who effectively set the rules, so perhaps the question is moot.

I am personally inclined to the view that punctuation doesn't matter much, largely because of the reasons stated above, but also because punctuation is an artifact of writing. Our language had beauty, structure, and the logic of real grammar, long before anyone ever dreamed of writing it down. However, punctuation rules do exist in practice, and people keep asking for them (so these really ARE frequently asked questions), so, here goes with what I've been able to look up.

The sources for this information are the Oxford Language Reference (British) and the Harbrace College Handbook, Ninth Edition (American). Both are accepted reference standards.

Rommie


TRUE GRAY AREAS

These can't really be called "rules", because disagreement exists among the rulemakers. These are the areas in which you must make up your own mind.

CAPITALIZATION
The fixed rules are that sentences and proper nouns are must be capitalized. Beyond that, you pretty much have to decide for yourself. Some people think that words derived from proper nouns should be captialized (like "Boolean" or "Pasteurized" / "boolean" or "pasteurized"), others disagree, arguing that there is no such thing as a "proper adjective". Some people think that abbreviations which are pronouncable should be treated as ordinary vocabulary words and therefore lowercased, others disagree ("ufo", "Nato", etc. versus "UFO", "NATO", etc.). The capitalization of book and film titles is a total free-for-all. You can capitalize pretty much any word you want.


RULES COMMON TO BOTH BRITAIN AND AMERICA

APOSTROPHE-S
In general, plurals are formed with an -s (no apostrophe), and possessive case is formed with an -'s (apostrophe-s). However, there are exceptions to this rule, as follows:
1. The pronoun "its" (possessive case of it) requires no apostrophe. The entirely separate word "it's" is short for "it is".
2. It is CORRECT to write: "My name contains two m's" (with an apostrophe) - basically because, without it, the sentence wouldn't read correctly.

BRACKETS
Round brackets () enclose a relatively unimportant piece of information.
Square brackets [] enclose an explanation by someone other than the author/speaker of the surrounding text.
Punctuation marks that refer only to the parenthetical material go inside the parentheses.
Punctuation marks that refer to non-parenthetical material go outside.

HOW TO SEPARATE CLAUSES
A comma is used to separate the main clauses of a compound sentence, and to separate words and phrases which do not belong together. A comma is not "powerful" enough to completely separate clauses on its own, however - you need a conjunction as well.
A semicolon unites clauses which are of similar importance and closely related.
A colon separates clauses when there is a step forward, for instance from introduction to main point. It is also used to introduce a list. Sentences, and even paragraphs, may end in colon.

QUOTES
If a quotation contains the end of a sentence (and would normally require a period), but is not itself the end of a sentence, use a comma instead of a full stop.

Question marks and exclamation marks go within quotes if they refer to the quoted material only; place them outside when they apply to the whole sentence.

You are supposed to use a comma before quotes, like this:
He said, 'hello.'
In practice, this is often dropped if the quoted material is not at least one whole clause.


RULES UNIQUE TO BRITAIN

QUOTED MATERIAL
Quoted material is enclosed in single quote marks: 'like this'
Alternate quote marks when nesting, as in: he said 'she said "they said 'I said "hello"'"'.

In Britain, the following is correct. Observe the placement of the first comma. This would be incorrect in America;
'That', he said, 'is nonsense.'
The comma goes outside the closing quote - IF the contatenated quote wouldn't contain it. (In other words, he said 'That is nonsense', not 'That, is nonsense'.)

In Britain, actual quotations (extracts from literary works, etc.,) should be quoted exactly, including punctionation, so, if there was no comma in the original, there should also be no comma in the copy. If the sentence demands one, it must go outside the quotes.


RULES UNIQUE TO AMERICA

QUOTED MATERIAL
Quoted material is enclosed in double quote marks: "like this"
Alternate quote marks when nesting, as in: he said "she said 'they said "I said 'hello'"'".

Periods and commas go inside the quotation marks. Colons and semicolons go outside the quotation marks.
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Comments  (Page 2) 
English_LearnerThank you very much. It was very usefull for me.
It should be 'useful'. (Is it a typo?)
Yoong Liat
English_LearnerThank you very much. It was very usefull for me.
It should be 'useful'. (Is it a typo?)

Thank you for pointing it out. Unfortunately that was a mistake, to be honest (it doesn't make any sence to say it was a typo Emotion: smile ).
Site Hint: Check out our list of pronunciation videos.
English_Learner
Yoong Liat
English_LearnerThank you very much. It was very usefull for me.

It should be 'useful'. (Is it a typo?)

Thank you for pointing it out. Unfortunately that was a mistake, to be honest (it doesn't make any sence to say it was a typo Emotion: smile ).

It should be 'sense'. I believe this is a typo.

Yoong LiatIt should be 'sense'. I believe this is a typo.
You're right, it should be 'sense'. Emotion: embarrassed
Thank you. Emotion: smile