More sophisticated punctuation

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Advice Leaflets

Advice leaflets originally produced for the Study Advice Service in the University of Hull, which holds the copyright:

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A semi-colon (;) is a good example: as its appearance suggests, it is half way between a full stop and a comma. Use it when you write two separate sentences, know they are separate and should have a full stop, but you'd like to keep them very closely linked. For example:

"In the 1960s, the USA was the world's strongest nuclear power; the USSR was not far behind."

"South Korea is a democratic country with independent political parties; North Korea is a one-party (communist) state."

A semi-colon can also be used as a separator in lists of longer items. Usually items in a list are separated by commas. When we make a shopping list, for example, short items (simple names) are separated by commas: milk, butter, eggs, tea, brown sugar etc. In academic writing, however, the items may be quite long. For example:

"Among the most important causes of the Second World War were: the growing desire, and indeed policy, of Hitler for increased lebensraum for the German people; the growing fear and distrust of the democratic states for this and other manifestations of Fascism; and the sympathy of the democratic nations for the plight of helpless countries in the centre of Europe."

(Each of the 'causes' mentioned above is so long that the three of them together need the semicolon to make them easier to read. The semi-colon shows the structure of the sentence to the reader. Each cause could be dealt with in a sentence of its own.

Suggestion: if you find punctuation getting out of control, 
try to break your thoughts into separate sentences.

On the other hand, one way of sounding academic is to write in long sentences.
So if you feel in control, keep your thoughts together.)

A colon (:) is used to express a logical link between two sentences, that should normally be separated by a full stop. Think of it as having a meaning: "now I'd like to tell you some more about what I've just said". There are several examples in this guide: try to find them, and see how they are used.

Dashes ( - ) and Brackets (()), with some uses of commas (,), are all types of parenthesis. The thing to notice about these is that they come in pairs. If you use one, you must use two - unless there is an over-riding need to use some other form of punctuation. The last one of a pair of commas or dashes is over-ridden by the end of a sentence - use the full stop instead. (You must always close brackets.) Here are two particular notes:

A dash is not the same as a hyphen - though they are the same key on a computer keyboard. A hyphen comes inside compound words like double-edged and anti-nuclear. Don't use spaces. A dash, on the other hand, comes between words. It is a longer line than a hyphen, and should have a space before and after the horizontal line - like this. (If Microsoft WORD messes up - as it sometimes does after corrections - and gives you a symbol that is too short, use the Insert menu; go to Symbol; choose Special characters and choose En dash (the second on the list that Microsoft offers you). Then press Insert and Close.) See also Hyphen or dash?.

With brackets, note that any full stop at the end goes with the sentence it closes. If the sentence is wholly inside the brackets, then the full stop should come before the closing bracket. (This rule looks like this.) If the bracket is inside a sentence, then the full stop comes after the closing bracket (like this).

With quotation marks, the best guidance is to do roughly the same.

With commas, note that there is a difference between a defining and a non-defining relative clause - to be technical. In general terms, it is to do with 'which' (and other 'wh-') clauses. (A clause is a sub-sentence, linked to another clause, in a sentence.) Briefly, if a 'which' clause tells you what the word is talking about, or what it means, (a 'defining relative clause'), you should have no commas. E.g. "the man who was in bed 6 has been discharged". ('Which man?' "the man in bed 6": the 'which' clause has defined him.) If the 'which' clause is adding extra, less important details (a non-defining clause), there should be a comma before and one after the clause. (It may help to think of it as a sort of junior bracket.) E.g. "the car, which was red, ran over his foot". (It doesn't matter what colour it was - I'm only adding a bit of description. I haven't defined the car.) See also wh-word.

See also: