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Many English learners struggle with understanding when and how to use various punctuation marks, which can lead to confusion and miscommunication in their writing.
Over the years, I've received countless questions about punctuation.
Proper punctuation is essential for communicating complex ideas clearly, and it can make or break your credibility in professional or academic settings.
But worry not! I've created a simple guide to help you master English punctuation in just three easy steps. By following these steps, you can get past the "intermediate wall" and unlock the world of international research, collaborations, and opportunities.
1. Independent Clauses & End Punctuation
Marks like periods, question marks, and exclamation marks signal the end of sentences.
- :Independent clauses, which can stand alone as complete thoughts, should be terminated with end punctuation marks.
Now, I know that many English learners often struggle with connecting independent clauses correctly, and I totally understand why – it can be quite tricky!
Sometimes it's tempting to just stick two independent clauses together without any punctuation, but that leads to what's called a :run-on sentence, and it can be confusing for readers. For example, consider the following sentence:
|The scientist discovered new species of bacteria and graduate students and the lab technicians will conduct further research.|
In this sentence, the lack of proper punctuation between the independent clauses can cause the reader to initially interpret the sentence as...
"The scientist discovered a new species of bacteria and [a new species of] graduate students."
This misinterpretation forces the reader to re-read the sentence to understand the intended message.
Now let's correct the sentence by using proper punctuation and conjunctions:
|The scientist discovered new species of bacteria, and graduate students and the lab technicians will conduct further research.|
By separating the independent clauses with a comma and a :coordinating conjunction, the reader can easily understand the distinct ideas being presented. The proper punctuation eliminates confusion and ensures a smooth reading experience.
When joining 2+ independent clauses together, you've got a few options:
- One option is to use a comma and a coordinate conjunction, such as "and," "but," or "or." This method is great for linking related ideas or contrasting statements.
- Another option is to use a semicolon, which is handy when you want to show a closer relationship between two independent clauses.
- Finally, if the two ideas are not closely related then you can always separate them with end punctuation.
Let me give you some examples, so you can see these rules in action:
|❌||Jane is a great scientist her research is groundbreaking.|
|✅||Jane is a great scientist, and her research is groundbreaking.|
|✅||Jane is a great scientist; her research is groundbreaking.|
|✅||Jane is a great scientist. Her research is groundbreaking.|
2. Commas in Series and Parallelism
One of the most common punctuation challenges I've seen my students face is using commas correctly in a series.
- When you have a series of 3+ compound phrases or subordinate clauses, you need to separate them using commas.
- The last item in the series should be separated by a comma and a coordinate conjunction (like 'and' or 'or').
This might sound a bit technical, but it's actually quite simple once you get the hang of it.
The Oxford Comma
A mistake that often comes up in my students' writing is leaving out the final comma, also known as the Oxford comma. Although it's sometimes considered optional in less formal writing, I strongly recommend using it for clarity–especially in academic and professional settings.
The Oxford comma often helps to prevent ambiguity and ensures clarity in your writing. When it is ignored or used inconsistently, it can lead to confusion and misinterpretation of the intended meaning of a sentence.
Let's look at a few examples to better understand the impact of including or excluding the Oxford comma:
|❌||I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Superman.|
|✅||I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Superman.|
In the first example without the Oxford comma, it's unclear whether the writer is saying they love their parents who are Lady Gaga and Superman, or if they love three separate entities: their parents, Lady Gaga, and Superman.
The Oxford comma in the second example makes it clear that the writer is referring to three distinct subjects.
|❌||The conference featured presentations about renewable energy, artificial intelligence and virtual reality and climate change.|
|✅||The conference featured presentations about renewable energy, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, and climate change.|
In this case, without the Oxford comma: are artificial intelligence and virtual reality part of the same presentation? Or are they two separate topics?
The Oxford comma in the second example helps to clarify that there are three distinct subjects being discussed.
By adopting the Oxford comma as a standard practice, you'll ensure that your writing is easy to understand and conveys your intended meaning accurately.
Another key aspect of handling series correctly is ensuring that the components of the series are :parallel. This means that they follow the same grammatical structure.
This concept might seem a bit tricky for English learners because the rule might not exist in your native language. English grammar relies on the order of words to create meaning, so the way we organize items in the sentence is really important.
But with some practice, you can master this skill.
When the components of a series aren't parallel, your sentences can become confusing, and readers might find it harder to grasp your intended meaning.
Let's take a look at an example to clarify this concept:
|❌||Jane loves reading scientific articles, attending conferences, and to network with other researchers.|
|✅||Jane loves reading scientific articles, attending conferences, and networking with other researchers.|
In the incorrect sentence, the components of the series aren't parallel. The first two items are gerunds (reading, attending), but the last item is an infinitive (to network).
In the corrected sentence, all three items are gerunds, making the sentence parallel and easier to understand.
By paying attention to these details, you'll find that your writing becomes more polished, helping you to communicate your ideas more effectively.
3. Separate Modifiers from the Main Clause
:Nonrestrictive modifiers are a common stumbling block for English learners. They provide extra information, but they aren't essential for understanding the main clause. Think of them as a little bonus insight you're giving your reader!
- To set nonrestrictive modifiers apart from the rest of the sentence, you can use commas, dashes, parentheses, or colons.
It's essential to ensure these modifiers are correctly punctuated to avoid confusion.
A frequent mistake I see among students is forgetting to separate nonrestrictive modifiers from the main clause, making the sentence harder to read. This often happens because they might not be familiar with the concept of nonrestrictive modifiers in their native language (for example, there's no distinction between restrictive/nonrestrictive modifiers in the Korean language) or they simply haven't had enough practice using them.
|❌||Jane's research in nanotechnology a field with numerous applications has earned her international recognition.|
|✅||Jane's research in nanotechnology, a field with numerous applications, has earned her international recognition.|
In the first sentence, the nonrestrictive modifier "a field with numerous applications" is not separated from the main clause "Jane's research in nanotechnology has earned her international recognition."
The problem is that the two noun phrases - "Jane's research in nanotechnology" and "a field with numerous applications" - are placed side-by-side without any punctuation. This makes it difficult for the reader to understand that the second phrase is meant to provide additional information about the first one.
|Jane's research in nanotechnology,
By adding commas to separate the nonrestrictive modifier, the improved sentence becomes easier to read and understand. The punctuation helps to clarify the relationship between the two noun phrases and allows the reader to process the information more effectively.
|❌||After the conference ended Jane felt inspired.|
|✅||After the conference ended, Jane felt inspired.|
The first sentence is difficult to read and understand because the initial modifier, "After the conference ended," is not separated from the main clause, "Jane felt inspired." As a result, the reader has a hard time identifying the main clause.
The second sentence fixes this issue by adding a comma after the initial modifier. The comma signals a brief pause in the sentence, which helps to clarify the relationship between the modifier and the main clause.
In this case, the comma shows that "After the conference ended" provides context for when "Jane felt inspired." By using the comma correctly, the sentence becomes more readable and its meaning becomes clearer to the reader.
Now, let's talk about :sentence connectors (aka conjunctive adverbs) like "however," "therefore," and "thus."
These handy words help connect ideas in your writing, but they also need to be separated from the main clause using commas. I often see students forget these commas, which can disrupt the flow of the sentence and make it harder to understand.
|❌||Jane received a prestigious research grant therefore she could expand her laboratory.|
|✅||Jane received a prestigious research grant; therefore, she could expand her laboratory.|
|✅||Jane received a prestigious research grant. Therefore, she could expand her laboratory.|
In the incorrect sentence, the conjunctive adverb "therefore" is used to connect two main clauses without any punctuation, forming a run-on sentence.
In the corrected sentences, punctuation is used to separate the conjunctive adverb "therefore" from the main clauses.
- In the first correction, a semicolon is used before "therefore," and a comma follows it.
- In the second correction, a period is used to end the first main clause, and a comma follows "therefore" in the second main clause.
Both options effectively separate the ideas, making the sentence clearer and easier to read.
Additionally, it's important to use internal punctuation (usually commas) to separate names in direct address.
- When addressing someone directly in a sentence, it's essential to use commas to set their name apart from the rest of the sentence.
This small change can make a significant impact on the clarity and readability of your writing. Let me share an example that highlights this issue and how to correct it.
|❌||Hey John do you want to grab lunch?|
|✅||Hey, John, do you want to grab lunch?|
In the incorrect example, the sentence is difficult to read, and the flow seems unnatural. That's because the comma represents a pause in speaking, and when we address someone by their name, it's natural to pause between saying someone's name and saying what you want to say to them.
By adding commas around "John," we create a pause that makes the sentence more conversational and easier to understand.
Remember, practice makes perfect! The more you work with nonrestrictive modifiers, conjunctive adverbs, and direct address, the more comfortable and confident you'll become in using them correctly.
- Independent clauses & end punctuation: use periods, question marks, exclamation marks; connect independent clauses with either a comma and a coordinate conjunction or a semicolon;
- Commas in series and parallelism: separate compound phrases or subordinate clauses with commas; use the Oxford comma for clarity; ensure components of a series are parallel;
- Separating nonrestrictive modifiers and conjunctive adverbs: use commas, dashes, parentheses, or colons to separate nonrestrictive modifiers; separate conjunctive adverbs from main clauses with commas; use commas for direct address