The Queen's English Society's
PRACTICAL GUIDE TO PUNCTUATION

© Bernard Lamb, May 2008

Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Sentence Beginnings and Endings
  3. The Main Punctuation Marks
    1. The Full Stop
    2. The Question Mark
    3. The Exclamation Mark
    4. The Comma
    5. The Semicolon
    6. The Colon
    7. The Brackets
    8. The Dash
    9. The Hyphen
    10. The Apostrophe
    11. The Quotation Marks
    12. The Slash
    13. The Caret
  4. Other Punctuation or Typographic Devices
    1. The Capital Letter
    2. Italics
    3. Bold Type
    4. Underlining
    5. The Space
  5. Computers and Character Sets

l.  Introduction

Punctuation is a series of marks which can be used to separate words and groups of words to make the intended meaning clear and easy to follow.   It can be used to emphasise certain words and phrases, and to distinguish between major and minor ideas.   Skilful punctuation is the key to good sentence construction and therefore to clear expression.   It is much more important to understand how punctuation works, by studying examples here and elsewhere, than to memorise long lists of all uses of all punctuation marks.

Bad punctuation can have serious consequences, leading to difficulties in understanding and even to complete misunderstandings.   Consider this sentence from the Eastern Evening News:

Don't pick up heavy weights like groceries or children with straight legs.

That is easily misunderstood.   Sensible punctuation makes it somewhat clearer:

Don't pick up heavy weights — like groceries or children — with straight legs.

Putting with your legs straight would be better.

Bad punctuation can result in mistaken actions.   For example, a station in East Lothian was wrongly demolished in 1984 because a comma was missing from the British Rail planning document.   The list of items to preserve should have read: "Retain Drem Station, bridge.  .  ."   As the comma after 'Station' was missing, the station was demolished and had to be rebuilt, although the bridge was saved.

The amount of punctuation a sentence requires depends on the complexity of the sentence and of the ideas presented in it, and on the purpose of the writing.   In general, the longer and more complex the sentence, the more punctuation is required to make the meaning clear to the reader.   If you are unsure of where punctuation is required, try reading the sentence aloud and note where your voice puts in pauses to make the sense clear.   Punctuation is often used to separate groups of related words within a sentence, such as clauses and phrases, showing that those words form a sub-unit of sense.

In this practical guide, examples are shown in italics. Square brackets [ ] are used to enclose examples of punctuation marks when necessary to avoid confusion in the sentence quoting them.   It is not essential for the reader of this guide to know the grammatical terms which are occasionally used, although such knowledge is helpful.

There are fashions in punctuation, and differences between different authorities as to what is correct.   The advice in this guide is to use whatever punctuation makes the meaning clearest.   This guide ends with advice about computers and character sets, and how to specify certain marks, such as raised decimal points and different types of dash.


[Top]

ll.  Sentence Beginnings and Endings

The principal unit of writing is the sentence, a group of words (occasionally, just one word) which makes sense on its own, usually having a subject and a finite verb(*)   Sentences, such as this, start with a capital letter.   They end with:

  • a full stop [.] for statements: It was raining.
  • a full stop for ordinary requests: "Please pass the salt."
  • a full stop for mild exclamations: "Well, we have nearly won."
  • a question mark [?] for questions: "Are you hungry?"
  • an exclamation mark [!] for strong exclamations: "What a disaster!"
  • an exclamation mark for strong commands: "Get out of my sight!"


  • (*) A finite verb is a verb that is inflected for person and tense according to the rules and categories of the language.
    [Top]

    lll.  The Main Punctuation Marks

    1.  The Full Stop [.]

    a.  This is the strongest punctuation mark, making the most definite pause (in reading aloud or silently) when used at the end of a sentence.   As shown in the previous examples, it is used at the end of sentences unless they are questions, strong exclamations or strong commands.   It is also called a period and a full point.

    b.  It is used to indicate omitted letters in abbreviations, such as Mon. for Monday or a.m. for ante meridiem (Latin for 'before noon'), and in initials, as in B.K. Smith.  Common abbreviations, and those of scientific terms and names of organisations, are now frequently spelled without full stops, e.g. Mr (Mister), Dr (Doctor),DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), cm (centimetre), UK (United Kingdom).   A distinction is sometimes made between a contraction, where the last letter of the contracted form is the last letter of the original word, needing no full stop (e.g., Dr for Doctor) and an abbreviation in which its last letter is not the last letter of the full word, needing a full stop (e.g., Prof.  for Professor).   If an abbreviation which takes a full stop, such as etc.  (et cetera, Latin for 'and so forth'), comes at the end of a sentence, there is no need for another full stop to end the sentence: I will send you the members' names, addresses, etc.

    c.  Full stops are often used in amounts of money: £10.20 and in times: 3.20 a.m.   When used in numbers as a decimal point, it is usually just typed as a full stop, but this stop should strictly be raised above the line [·], as in 9·66.   On most computers, this can be obtained by having Num Lock on, holding Alt and typing 0183.

    d.  Three full stops together (the Ellipsis or suspension dots) [.  .  .] are used to show an unfinished sentence, omission of part of a sentence: The letters of the alphabet are a, b, c, ...  x, y, z, or hesitation in speech: She would invite him to.  .  .  No, that was unthinkable.


    [Top]

    2.  The Question Mark [?]

    This is used to end a direct question where an answer is normally expected: "Where do I buy a season ticket?" It is not used for an indirect question (which reports a direct question), to which no answer is expected: She asked where she could buy a season ticket.   It is used at the end of rhetorical questions(*) even though no answer is expected.   A question mark is needed when question phrases (question tags) are added to statements: "The concert is tonight, isn't it?"

    3.  The Exclamation Mark [!]

    This is used after exclamations showing a high degree of surprise: "Fancy meeting you here!" or strong emotion: "You filthy cheat!" or special emphasis: "You are so beautiful!" or an expletive(**)  "Damn!" It is also used after strong commands or requests, especially where the voice would be raised in speech: "Don't shoot!"  Mild requests or commands usually end with a full stop: "Come here, please." Using too many exclamation marks weakens their impact.


    (*) A question, often implicitly assuming a preferred (usually negative) answer, asked so as to produce an effect rather than to gain information.
    (**) An oath or swear word.
    [Top]

    4.  The Comma [,]

    A comma has many uses, including:

    a.  To separate items in a list:

    Jake stole her purse, keys, cheque book and credit cards.  There is no need for a comma before the 'and' unless the sense demands it.   The comma before the final 'and' is helpful in: The children played cops and robbers, hide and seek, and hopscotch.  Some people, especially in the USA, use commas before 'and' even in simple lists as in the Jake stole...  example above.   Commas can also be used to separate a series of phrases or clauses.

    b.   To separate two or more adjectives which individually modify a noun:

    He was a small, shy, sickly, red-headed child.   There is no comma after the last adjective, and the commas carry the sense of 'and'.   If the last adjective and the noun form a single unit of meaning, there is no need for a comma before the final adjective as there is no sense of 'and' connecting the two adjectives: He was a great mathematical genius.

    c.   In pairs, commas are used to separate descriptive phrases or clauses, or less important material, from the main part of the sentence:

    Her sports car, painted a vivid orange, was parked illegally.   Omitting the first comma in that sentence would initially suggest that her car could paint; omitting the second comma initially suggests that a vivid orange was parked: both commas are needed, operating as a pair.   Where correct punctuation is used, the reader should not have to re-read a sentence to make sense of it.   The test for the correctness of this use of a pair of commas is to read that which precedes the first comma and that which follows the second, omitting the words between the commas.   The result should still make sense: Her sports car [...] was parked illegally.

    It is most important to know the difference between phrases or clauses that merely comment, which have a pair of commas separating them off, and phrases or clauses that are defining, where a pair of commas would give the wrong meaning.   In: The boys, who were fit, enjoyed the race, 'who were fit' is commenting: this implies that all those particular boys were fit and all enjoyed the race.   In: The boys who were fit enjoyed the race, 'who were fit' is defining: only those boys who were fit enjoyed the race; by implication, those boys who were not fit did not enjoy the race.  

    Note how the presence or absence of a comma can change the meaning:
    (i) She liked Tony, who played cricket better than John.
    (ii) She liked Tony, who played cricket, better than John.
    In (i), 'better' refers to 'played cricket',
    but in (ii), 'better' refers to 'liked Tony', as the words between commas are now a descriptive aside.

    Note also the effect of omitting the comma from these sentences: (i) She hoarded silver, paper and rags.   (ii) We ate chocolate, cakes and ices.

    d.  To separate parts of compound or complex sentences, to aid comprehension by separating different ideas:

    Although he was already deeply in debt, he bought her an expensive ring.

    Do not, however, separate the subject from the verb, unless a commenting section comes between them.   Wrong: Such absurd, extravagant and distracting gestures, should not be used when speaking to a very small audience.   The second comma is wrong as it hinders the flow of meaning from the subject, 'gestures', to the verb part, 'should not be used'.

    e.  To separate sentence modifiers such as moreover, indeed, however:

    (i) The submarine, however, continued its attack.

    (ii) Indeed, I have never felt better.

    f.  To separate parts of dates and addresses, and in opening and closing letters:

    Image, the letter reads: 28, The Terrace, LONDON, SW19 6PY Dear Peter, Thank you for your invitation.  The answer is 'Yes, please!' Yours sincerely, Jacob

    Note that the comma after 28 is standard practice even though there is no logical or grammatical reason whatsoever for its use there.   Its omission would not detract from the meaning and would remove an unnecessary comma.

    Some or all of those commas in the address are now often omitted, with moving to a new line acting as a kind of punctuation.   The Post Office prefers no punctuation in addresses, the post town in capitals, and the post code on a separate line.  

    g.  To separate the figures within a number into groups of three, from right-to-left if there is no decimal point, or from the decimal point, going to the left only:
    6,457; 13,109,896; 4,678·98577; 0·9876547.   This helps the reader.   As a matter of interest, in some countries where English is not the official language commas are used where we use a full stop, and vice versa, which can be very confusing.   Thus in France, for example, 3·1 is written 3,1 and a million as 1.000.000.

    h.  To separate two independent clauses (which could usually be written as separate sentences) that are joined by a co-ordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, so, yet, either...or, neither...nor):
    It is necessary to eat, but it is better to combine necessity with pleasure.

    i.  To prevent misreading, even temporary misreading:
    If you want to shoot the farmer will lend you his gun.

    This would be clearer as:
    If you want to shoot, the farmer will lend you his gun.
    The first version initially implies shooting the farmer.

    j.  To show the omission of a word or words whose meaning is understood:
    He can tolerate no noise; she, no silence.
    One of the most common errors ('run-on sentences', with only a 'comma splice') is to use only a comma, without a conjunction, to join main clauses which could stand as separate sentences, each having a subject and finite main verb.   Wrong: We went to the races at Ascot, it was beautifully sunny, the horses sweated even more than usual.   Such 'sentences', if linked, should be joined by a stronger link than just a comma; a semicolon, or a comma plus a linking conjunction, should be used.   Use a colon if a second 'sentence' explains, expands or summarises the first.


    [Top]

    5.  The Semicolon [;]

    The semicolon is an important but often under-used punctuation mark.   It is particularly useful in long, complicated sentences, giving a longer pause than a comma, but not as long as a full stop.   There are several major uses:

    a.  Semicolons can be used instead of commas to separate items in a list, especially where some items are long or contain commas themselves, or to avoid misunderstandings:
    At the zoo we saw a brown bear, which was suckling two tiny cubs; a sleepy crocodile; two stick insects, each looking like a dead twig; and five elephants.
    Here, having a semicolon, not a comma, after 'cubs' avoids any implication that the bear was suckling all remaining items in the list.   A comma is usually sufficient before the last item, but a semicolon here makes clear that the stick insects did not look like five elephants as well as like dead twigs.

    b.  To separate clauses which could have been two different sentences, but which are closely related in meaning, and are of similar importance:
    It was long past midnight, in a remote part of the forest; she shivered with fear.
    Although one could use a full stop after 'forest', making two sentences, joining the sentences with a semicolon shows better that her action was related to, not independent of, the time and place.
    Two statements joined by a semicolon may provide contrasting ideas:
    The very young often wish to be older; the very old would prefer to be younger.
    The second or later statement may complement the first:
    The road to Bristol seemed unusually smooth; the recent repairs had been costly but effective.
    A colon could be used here instead of a semicolon.

    c.  To come before linking words (those quoted are adverbs, or adverbs and conjunctions) such as therefore, nevertheless, however, besides, when they join two independent clauses or sentences:
    She hated London; nevertheless, she flourished there.
    A semicolon is often equivalent to, and replaceable by, a comma plus a conjunction:
    (i) She liked Robert; he disliked her.
    (ii) She liked Robert, but he disliked her.

    With this equivalence, some textbooks state that it is wrong to have a semicolon followed by an ordinary conjunction (e.g., and, but, for, nor), but other books permit it.


    [Top]

    6.  The Colon [:]

    A colon is generally a punctuation mark of introduction, signalling 'look ahead', rather than of separating or stopping things.   It is used:

    a.  To introduce a list:
    I suggest the following for promotion: Enid Brown, Peter Scott and John Reid.
    Use a colon (without a following dash), not a semicolon, to introduce lists.

    b.  To introduce direct speech:
    He said: "I don't give a damn".
    A comma could be used instead of the colon.

    c.  To introduce an explanation, expansion or summary of the first part of a sentence:
    There were two problems: his small income and her taste for luxury.

    d.  Colons are used in proportions and ratios: a 3:1 ratio and in expressing time: 10:25:45 (45 seconds past 10.25 am).

    e.  There are some occasions when either a colon or a semicolon could be used to join two sentences, but choose a colon if the second one expands, explains or summarises the first one, with the colon signalling 'look ahead!':
    At last he told us Peter's secret: the old tramp had been extremely wealthy, but had gambled his fortune away.


    [Top]

    7.  The Brackets [( )]

    Brackets are always used in pairs, to separate supplementary, subsidiary or explanatory material from the main flow of a sentence:
    Visitors arriving for the conference in Glasgow on 2nd January (a bank holiday in Scotland) should make their own arrangements for lunch that day.
    The same, strictly speaking, holds true for paragraph numbering: (1)...  (2)... but this is frequently ignored, only the closing bracket being used [ 3) ].
    The material inside the brackets can be referred to as being 'in parenthesis'.(*)  In equations, there may be different types of brackets,
    ( ), { }, [ ], to show different hierarchies of terms.   Brackets are also used to enclose references, interruptions and afterthoughts:
    Mr Brown's comments (letter, The Times, Aug.  3) show a total ignorance of Germany's history.
    Brackets make a firmer separation of the enclosed material than do two commas.   If the words in brackets come at the end of a sentence, a full stop (or [?] or [!]) comes after the second bracket.   If the words inside the brackets make a complete sentence, put a full stop (or [?] or [!]) before the closing bracket.
    Square brackets, [ ], are used to enclose editorial comments or explanations in material written by a different author:
    Rachael [his second wife, who died in 1983] left the cottage at Amberley to her sister Rebecca.

    (*) Note that any of the following can form a parenthesis:
    The boys, who were fit, enjoyed the race   [a pair of commas]
    The boys who were fit enjoyed the race   [a pair of m-dashes]
    The boys (who were fit) enjoyed the race.   [a pair of round brackets]

    [Top]

    8.  The Dash [- or — ]

    A single dash is used:

    a.  To mark a pause for effect:She wore her most stunning dress — a billowing ocean of multi-coloured taffeta.

    b.  To introduce an afterthought, a summary, an elaboration or a change in direction of thought:
    "I was in the artillery during the war — but I mustn't bore you with ancient history."

    c.  A pair of dashes is used to show an interruption in the flow of thought, to enclose a side comment or a subsidiary idea:
    His grandmother — a brilliant actress in her day — encouraged him to apply for the leading part.
    Pairs of dashes, brackets and commas are sometimes interchangeable, but may give a different emphasis.

    Some printers do not put spaces before and after a dash, but putting those spaces, as in the examples in points 1 and 2 in this section, helps to distinguish a dash from a hyphen.   Distinctions are sometimes made between en-dashes (or en-rules), originally the length of the letter 'n', and em-dashes, originally the length of an 'm'.   En-dashes [-], without spaces, are used for a span, as in The 1939-45 war or in joining names, as in The Rome-Berlin axis or The Hardy-Weinberg law.   Em-dashes [—], with or without spaces, are used to enclose commenting statements, as in: His taste in clothes —which was appalling —had many followers.   Some word-processors automatically put en-dashes and em-dashes where they are appropriate, but not always correctly.   With most computers, en-dashes can be obtained by having the Num Lock on, holding Alt, and typing 0150, with 0151 for em-dashes.   For most purposes, typing [space][hyphen/dash][space] is sufficient for an en-dash.   In MS Word, the em-dash will automatically appear if the word following the en-dash is followed by a space.   In cases where this does not happen, the em-dash can be forced by typing a letter/space/en-dash/space/letter; to convert: * -* into * —* type * m - m * then delete the two 'm's.


    [Top]

    9.  The Hyphen [-]

    The hyphen has no surrounding spaces and is a joining mark within words and compound expressions:
    ex-wife, short-sighted, blue-eyed; do-it-yourself, non-stick.
    American usage is often to omit the hyphen, and that trend is now increasingly apparent in British English, although 'blueeyed' would be absurd.   There is no such word as non in normal English, so non aggression treaty is wrong; the non must be hyphenated to the following word: non-aggression.
    A hyphen is particularly useful to distinguish words with the same letters but different meanings:
    To re-cover the chair with velvet; to recover the chair from the rubbish dump.
    To resign from one's job; to re-sign the lease agreement for another year.
    Hyphens are valuable for avoiding ambiguity.   Note the differences in meaning between:
    An ancient-history teacher and An ancient history-teacher.  [See separate article]
    There is ambiguity in this sentence: Forty odd people were present.  Does it mean about forty normal people or forty unusual people?  A hyphen could resolve that:
    Forty-odd people were present, but putting About forty people were present is even better.
    Contrast a cross-party group of MPs with a cross party group of MPs.
    A hyphen is often used if combining two words, or a prefix with a main word, would result in two identical vowels or three identical consonants coming together from different component parts of the word: pre-emptive; co-opt; co-operation and co-ordination or grass-seed.
    Note that cooperation could read as cooper (a barrel-maker).   The principle is that where English has double-vowel combinations as a sound in their own right, e.g.  seed, food, look, such double vowels should be separated by a hyphen when they belong to separate words or a prefix or a suffix and are pronounced separately.   Hence:
    Co-operate and not cooperate (which the Americans use).
    Pre-emptive and not preemptive.
    Socio-oriented and not sociooriented.
    As English does not have words with the "aa", "ii" or "uu" combinations, this separation is not essential but is still to be preferred, e.g.
    Contra-action is better than contraaction (looks like a misspelling of contraction).
    Anti-incendiary is better than antiincendiary.
    A Hindu-union movement rather than a Hinduunion movement.
    One would not put a hyphen in seed as the two identical vowels are not from different components of the word, as they are in 'pre-emptive'.
    Hyphens are also used when writing numbers, and fractions used as adjectives, if consisting of more than one word:
    By the age of twenty-three, he had spent his one-third share of his father's legacy.   Note that one third of the class would not have a hyphen after 'one', as 'one third' is then a noun phrase, not an adjectival phrase.   It is unusual to hyphenate 'twenty three' in that sentence.
    The man with many children paid thousands of pounds for their twenty first birthday parties is ambiguous: it needs a hyphen after twenty or after first, depending whether '21st birthday' or '20 first-birthday' is intended.
    The hyphen is used to divide a word at the end of a line.   Do not divide one-syllable words and do not divide a word so as to leave only one letter before or after the division.   In general, divide words at the ends of syllables (pronounce them, if unsure where the syllables end, e.g., mi-cro-scop-ic). Avoid distracting fragments, as in: the-rapist or depart-mental.


    [Top]

    10.  The Apostrophe [ ' ]

    This has several uses:

    a.  To indicate that a letter or letters have been omitted: don't (do not); I'll (I will or I shall); it's (it is or it has — note that the possessive pronoun 'its' does not have an apostrophe).   Do not use an apostrophe in possessive pronouns: its, hers, his, ours, yours, theirs, but there is one in one's.

    b.  To form plurals of expressions with no natural plural: The 1980's were a better decade for us.  Many writers would omit that apostrophe.  [See note N.B. in separate article]

    c.  To form the possessive case of a noun:
    (i) With a singular noun, add an apostrophe and an "s" to the basic form: John, John's hat; the car, the car's wheels.   One may optionally omit the "s" if it makes an awkward combination of s-sounds: James's house, but James' serious suspicions.
    (ii) With a plural noun, add only the apostrophe if the plural ends in s already: the two boys' bicycles; the books' prices; the ladies' hats.
    (iii) If the plural noun does not end in "s" already, add an apostrophe and an "s": the men's choice; the people's reactions.

    d.  To form the plurals of letters (There are two c's and two r's in 'occurred') where the combination "cs" and "rs" might be confusing, although there is no recognised rule to this effect and it would be far better to use quotes rather than an apostrophe, thus: "c"s and "r"s).
    Do not use an apostrophe in the plurals of ordinary words which are not possessive.   Wrong: cheap cauliflower's! Bargain shirt's.  These are ordinary plurals, with no sense of possession, whereas The shirt's price does need an apostrophe, showing possession of the price by the shirt.   Such wrong apostrophes in plurals are often called "greengrocer's apostrophes".
    The power of the apostrophe is shown in the newspaper headline: BRITON'S BATTLE FATIGUE.  This was an account in Metro of one Briton's battle fatigue.   If the apostrophe had been after the "s", it would have indicated the battle fatigue of more than one Briton.   Without the apostrophe, Britons battle fatigue, the word "battle" changes from a noun to a verb, indicating that more than one Briton was battling with fatigue, not battle fatigue specifically.


    [Top]

    11.  The Quotation Marks [ " " ] or [' ']

    Quotation marks are also called inverted commas, speech marks or quotes.   Use common sense to decide where other punctuation comes in relation to them.   British and American usages differ at the end of the quoted text:
    The Englishman said, "Carry on, chaps".
    The American said, "Carry on, you guys."

      Common sense dictates as follows:
    1. "It is raining."   The whole sentence, including the full stop forms the quotation.
    2. John walked into the room and said, "It is raining".   Only the last 3 words are quoted but the sentence is a complete unit from John to the end of the quotation so the full stop comes at the very end, after closing the quotation mark.
    3. When a quotation comprises several sentences, the end quotation mark comes after completion of the last sentence, i.e. after the last full stop: He said, "It has been a long day.   You look pretty exhausted.   I suggest we go home."

    a.   They are used in pairs to enclose direct speech; that is, the exact words spoken:
    "We've won!" she shouted.
    When the words spoken come before the verb relating to the act of saying, they are followed by a comma (or [?] or [!]) before the closing inverted comma, not by a full stop, even though the spoken sentence has ended:
    "I'm going to France soon," she declared.
    The first word spoken has a capital letter.   Where the spoken sentence is broken by the subject and verb of saying, the continued speech after the break is still the same spoken sentence and so continues with a small letter (unless the first word always has a capital letter):
    "It is my wish," the comedian said, "to bring laughter to this troubled world."
    In quoted speech lasting more than one paragraph, there is an initial quotation mark and one at the beginning of each subsequent paragraph (to indicate that the speech continues), but no quotation mark at the end of each paragraph (the speech has not finished), until the final closing quotation mark.   Extended quotations are sometimes shown by indenting a whole section, without quotation marks.
    Although sets of either single or double inverted commas can be used — different publishers have different conventions — using double inverted commas avoids possible confusion when an apostrophe follows a final "s".   For example, in: are often called 'greengrocers' apostrophes', it is not immediately clear whether the marks after 'greengrocers' or 'apostrophes' are apostrophes or closing single quotation marks.   It would be clearer to write: are often called "greengrocers' apostrophes".

    b.  Inverted commas are used in pairs to indicate direct quotations in writing.   For quotations within quotations, one alternates single and double inverted commas: The colonel said: "My happiest times as a soldier were with 'the boys in the bush' in North Africa."

    c.  Inverted commas can also be used to enclose slang, dialect or foreign expressions, and technical terms or other terms that seem out of context:
    (i) He punched him viciously in the 'bread basket'. [slang for stomach]
    (ii) Her natural 'joie de vivre' [French for 'joy of living'] was accentuated by several glasses of champagne.

    d.  Inverted commas are sometimes used to enclose the titles of books, plays, poems, newspapers, etc., when quoted in writing, but such marks are often omitted.   Italics are now often preferred to quotation marks for titles, slang and foreign expressions.

    e.  Inverted commas are used when a word is used in a sarcastic, ironic or figurative sense:
    I don't know what the girls see in him; it must be his "good looks" [he is ugly].
    She is our "Margaret Thatcher". [The strong lady of our group.]


    [Top]

    12.  The Slash [ / ]

    The slash is also known as the solidus, the slant, the oblique or oblique stroke or simply the stroke.   It is used in fractions: 3/5ths of the distance; in dates: 21/12/02;
    to show alternatives: (i) Your coach/train/boat/plane ticket;
    (ii) He/she should go... Both the forward slash (/) and the backslash (\) are used in computing.


    [Top]

    13.  The Caret

    The last of these is also known as the circumflex accent in French and Portuguese, although it serves a different purpose in those languages; in English, the caret indicates where omitted material (usually shown above in smaller print) is to be inserted.
    [The above symbols do not display correctly on all systems.   They can be described thus: The first is an upside-down letter "y"; the second is an upside-down letter "V"; the third is exactly like the French circumflex accent.]


    [Top]

    lV.  Other Punctuation or Typographic Devices

    1.  The The Capital Letter [ A,B,C...  ]

    Capital letters, sometimes called upper-case letters, are visual symbols, helping the reader in the same way as punctuation marks.   They are used in many places, including: the beginning of a sentence or piece of speech; in proper names (London, Joan Smith, River Thames, North Pole, Fleet Street, Senate House); in titles, for example, of people, plays, films, books and newspapers (the Prime Minister, Princess Diana, the Earl of Essex, the Managing Director, The Tempest, The Spy Who Loved Me, The Daily Telegraph); in days of the week; in months; in the name of God or other divine figures, and in the pronoun I.   Capitals are not used for the seasons (spring, winter), nor for points of the compass unless part of a proper name: "Go east, to East Sheen."   In titles, less important words such as a, of, or the, often do not have a capital letter, as in: The Applied Genetics of Humans, Animals, Plants and Fungi.
    Be careful not to use a capital letter for a word which had a capital as part of a title, but is no longer part of a title: This morning Prince Charles opened the bridge over the River Crane.   He then sailed up the river in a small yacht.   In the second sentence, 'river' is not part of a title.
    The importance of using the right case, upper or lower, is shown by the difference between a DSC and a DSc.   A DSC is a military award, the Distinguished Service Cross, while a DSc is an academic higher doctorate, a Doctor of Science degree.
    In scientific Latin names, by international convention, the genus always has a capital letter and the species always has a small (lower case) letter, even if based on a proper name: Salmonella typhimurium; Rosa chinensis; Homo sapiens.   Newspapers frequently get such capitals and lower case letters wrong.   In English, but not in some other languages, adjectives of nationality normally have a capital letter: a French wine; an American flag; German measles.   Adjectives derived from proper names have a capital letter: Mendelian laws (from Mendel).


    [Top]

    2.  Italics [a,b,c,A,B,C, ]

    Italics or cursive script, with sloping print, are used to show special emphasis, as in: "You were meant to come next Tuesday, not today!"  If one read the sentence aloud, the part in italics would be read emphatically.   Italics are also used for the titles of books, newspapers, films, and similar items.
    Scientific names are usually printed in italics, as in Homo sapiens.  Latin and other foreign words used in English are often printed in italics, such as in vitro [in glass, in scientific equipment], in vivo [in life], in situ [in place], jeu d'esprit [witticism].   In a priori [from first principles], having the a in italics helps to prevent one from initially misreading it as the indefinite article, 'a'.
    Furthermore, as is clear from this Guide, italics are used to highlight the examples given, to make them stand out from the descriptive text.


    [Top]

    3.  Bold Type

    Bold-face type is heavier than ordinary type.   It is used to make certain words stand out from the rest, as in the headword entry in a dictionary, to distinguish it from that word's definition.   It is used in this guide for section headings.


    [Top]

    4.  Underlining

    Underlining or underscoring was used on old-fashioned typewriters for emphasis or Latin names.   It has largely been replaced by bold type or italics, respectively.   Underscored spaces are sometimes used in computing, especially in e-mail addresses, such as John_Smith@xyz.com. A wartime poster used underlining for emphasis, capital letters for clarity and impact, and moving to a new line as a kind of punctuation — but not consistently.
    YOUR COURAGE
    YOUR CHEERFULNESS
    YOUR RESOLUTION
    WILL BRING
    US VICTORY


    [Top]

    5.  The Space

    The space is not normally listed as a punctuation device but it is the commonest of all and is vital to show where one word ends and another begins.   The earliest manuscripts had no spaces between the words, making them hard to read.   Note the difference between The rapists are evil and Therapists are evil; Her cake was not iced and Her cake was noticed; The joy of his life was a trophy and The joy of his life was atrophy.  A space can change a specific type, such as a blackbird, into a general type, such as a black bird, which includes crows and rooks.   As mentioned under "full stop" earlier in this guide, it is advisable to use two consecutive spaces between sentences for ease of reading.


    [Top]

    V.  Computers and Character sets

    Early computers used only a limited set of characters familiar to Americans.   Various later attempts have been made to provide much fuller character sets including foreign letters, accented letters and various currency symbols, e.g., ß, é, ¥.   There have been different systems at different times, and the extra characters used on one computer may come out differently on other computers or printers.   Since the mid-nineties, the main computing systems have been Windows and Unicode (including Microsoft's 16-bit coding) and the UTF-8 generally used in Linux systems.
    The following punctuation marks are part of the original ASCII character set and should transfer without problems: full stop, colon, semicolon, question mark, exclamation mark, hyphen, slash, brackets (round, square, curly); the old vertical single and double quotes (the same for opening and closing quotations).   Problems may arise with: "curly quotes" or braces, single and double (where opening and closing quotes differ), en-dash, em-dash, ellipsis, caret, raised decimal point, currency symbols, accented and foreign letters.
    When using Microsoft Windows, extended character sets can be found using Start > All Programs > Accessories > System Tools > Character Map, then choose the font required and scroll down to find the desired character.   This can then be copied [Ctrl C] and pasted [Ctrl V] or one can record the key combination to use with the Num Lock on; for example, Alt+0183 for a raised decimal point [·], Alt+094 for a [^] caret.


    ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

    Written by the President of the Queen's English Society, Dr B. C. Lamb, who thanks Michael Gorman and Ray Ward for their very useful comments. This is a slightly amended version of the original 2008 printed version; it was prepared in November 2009 with the help of Martin Estinel, for the on-line QES ENGLISH ACADEMY



    To go to the top of this page:[Top]         OR follow this link to see a list of all GUIDES in the series