When learning a language, people always think about learning the grammar, the pronunciation, and the vocabulary to improve their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills. In fact, this is what most language tests focus on. With regards to improving one’s writing, punctuation is very important but often neglected.
In the next several entries, let us take a look at some of the punctuation marks in the English language and their usage. Believe it or not, punctuating properly could help you win more points on the next writing task!
Let’s start with the comma! A comma marks a short pause in speech and is used for clarification purposes.
1. Separate items in a series which has three or more items. “She was commended for her hard work, dedication, and loyalty to the job.” While some may argue that the last comma (the one after ‘dedication’) is not necessary, the presence of this serial comma or Oxford comma helps readability, especially when the items mentioned are complex or lengthy. My recommendation is to always include this comma as anything that helps your reader will mean a higher score for you! (You may find that this comma is not present in newspaper articles.)
2. Join two independent clauses with a comma and a coordinating conjunction (i.e. and, but, so, yet, for, nor, or). “She has been asked to translate for the company’s clients many times, but she was not receiving a bilingual bonus for it.”
3. Before direct speech.
She said to her clients, “We greatly appreciate your business.”
4. In non-defining/non-restrictive relative clauses.
“The people, who had lined up since last night, were able to purchase the new video game.” (Meaning: Everyone in line had lined up since last night and was able to purchase the new video game.) Notice that sometimes the ‘who’ may be missing. “The people, lined up since last night, were able to purchase the new video game.” Contrast this with: “The people who lined up since last night were able to purchase the new video game.” (Meaning: Only the people who had lined up since last night were able to purchase the new video game.)
5. To set off an introductory phrase or an interjection.
“Related to your job performance, we believe you deserve a promotion.”
“We believe, May, that your job performance should be commended.”
This also goes for greetings, like in an email message:
Hi, May (although we often see “Hi May” instead, as people treat it like “Dear May”)
Thank you, May
Good morning, May
6. To separate descriptive adjectives. (See my entry on Order of Adjectives.)
There are three instances when a comma is needed. First, when adjectives are repeated for the purpose of intensification (‘big, big project’). Second, when there are two adjectives in the same category which are similar in meaning and not incompatible with each so that if one is missing, the overall meaning is not lost (‘charming, attractive manager’). Third, a comma is needed when there are three adjectives in sequence (‘expensive, French black suit’).
7. To set off a contrasting phrase.
“It was her dedication, not her charm, which won her supervisor’s support.”
8. For typographical reasons.
With dates – “She started working for the company on December 1, 2004.” Without a date, the comma is not needed. “She started working for the company in December 2004.”
With place names – “The company is located in Santa Monica, California, a city near the coast.”
With numbers – “The net worth of the company is $1,000,000.”
With name and suffix (although the comma may often be omitted) – “The president of the company is John Smith, Jr.”
There may be other instances where a comma is appropriate to avoid confusion. However, do not overdo it either!