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How to Learn Punctuation: Self Study Guide for English Punctuation

written by: Heather Marie Kosur • edited by: Tricia Goss • updated: 4/5/2012

Punctuation is a convention that helps clarify writing for readers and writers. Learning to understand English punctuation is essential for competent writers to become great writers. Students can use this self study guide for English punctuation to master the punctuation marks of written English.

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    Punctuation is a convention of written language that structures and organizes writing for the ease of both readers and writers. Learning how to use punctuation marks correctly is a technical necessity for becoming a good writer. This self study guide for English punctuation explains how to correctly use punctuation marks in written English and includes activities for reinforcing the learning of these punctuation rules.

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    Punctuation Study Guide

    Give each student a copy of the following self study guide for English punctuation:

    Apostrophes

    1. Form possessive nouns
    2. Form contractions
    3. Indicate omissions of letters and sounds
    4. Pluralize lowercase letters and words used as words

    Brackets

    1. Enclose clarifications within quotation marks
    2. Enclose parenthetical information within parenthetical information
    3. Indicate errors in direct quotations
    4. Indication revisions in direct quotations
    5. Indicate word origin

    Braces

    1. Enclose numeric sets
    2. Indicate sets of equal and independent choices

    Colons

    1. Introduce lists that are not part of the grammatical structure of the main clause
    2. Introduce quotations that are independent from the grammatical structure of the main clause
    3. Introduce block quotations
    4. Introduce elaborations that provide additional details about the initial clause
    5. Join two independent clauses in which the second clause is an emphasization that emphasizes the first clause
    6. Introduce rules and principles
    7. Introduce appositives that are not part of the grammatical structure of the clause
    8. Separate hours and minutes in time notations
    9. Separate chapters and verses in Bible references
    10. End business letter salutations

    Commas

    1. Separate items in a series
    2. Separate two or more independent clauses joined by coordinating conjunctions
    3. Separate coordinate adjectives
    4. Separate nonrestrictive modifiers
    5. Separate appositives that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence
    6. Separate prepositional phrases and clauses that precede the main clause
    7. Separate alternative or contrasted coordinate phrases
    8. Transition between quotations
    9. Indicate thousands, millions, billions, and so on in higher numbers
    10. Separate the day of the week from the month, the day from the year, and the year from the rest of the sentence in dates
    11. Separate street addresses and city names, city names and state names, and state names and countries in geographical locations
    12. Separate a personal title that follows a name
    13. Separate a brief interjection from the main clause
    14. Separate a direct address from the main clause

    Dashes

    1. Separate appositive that contain commas or commas and semicolons
    2. Introduce explanations that are not part of the grammatical structure of the main clause
    3. Introduce an explanation of a preceding series

    Double Quotation Marks

    1. Enclose direct quotations
    2. Indicate titles of minor works and smaller parts of whole works including short stories; magazine, newspaper, journal, and other periodical articles; short poems; essays; songs; one-act plays; speeches, lectures, and sermons; chapters; short films; and television and radio show episodes
    3. Mark a special sense of a use of a word or phrase
    4. Indicate words and phrases being purposely misused or being used ironically
    5. Enclose translations of a foreign word or phrase
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    Ellipses

    1. Indicate omissions in direct quotations
    2. Indicate pauses and interruptions in speech

    Exclamation Marks

    1. End sentences including imperative and declarative sentences that convey strong emotion
    2. Mark emphatic interjections that are not part of the grammatical structure of the main clause

    Hyphens

    1. Spell compound numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine
    2. Separate numerators and denominators in fractions
    3. Spell some compound nouns
    4. Join coequal nouns
    5. Join compound modifiers that precede nouns
    6. Separate words in phrases functioning as modifiers that precede nouns
    7. Spell certain prefixes and suffixes
    8. Avoid confusion and misreading

    Interrobangs

    1. Ask questions with excitement or disbelief

    Italicization

    1. Indicate titles of major works including books; magazines, newspapers, journals, and other periodicals; music albums and long musical pieces; full-length plays; long poems; television and radio shows; movies and films; artworks; famous speeches; and pamphlets
    2. Emphasize words and phrases
    3. Identify letters and words used as words
    4. Identify linguistic examples
    5. Identify foreign words and phrases

    Parentheses

    1. Introduce emphasizations with a moderate level of emphasis
    2. Enclose clarifications
    3. Enclose asides and additional information that are not part of the grammatical structure of the main clause
    4. Enclose numbers or letters in a list that is part of the grammatical structure of the clause

    Periods

    1. End most declarative and some imperative sentences
    2. Mark most abbreviations
    3. Separate integrals from fractional parts of numbers
    4. Separate elements in poetry and play citations
    5. Separate computer file names with computer file extensions
    6. Separate elements of Internet addresses

    Question Marks

    1. End interrogative sentences
    2. Indicate uncertain dates and numbers

    Semicolons

    1. Join to related independent clauses of equal emphasis
    2. Join two independent clauses in which the second clause begins with an adverb or short parenthetical that is not essential to the meaning of the sentence
    3. Separate items that contain commas in a series

    Single Quotation Marks

    1. Enclose direct quotations inside direct quotations
    2. Enclose translations of a foreign word or phrase

    Slashes

    1. Separate alternatives
    2. Represent the word per
    3. Indicate certain abbreviations
    4. Indicate line breaks in poetry in quotations of less than four lines
    5. Separate numerators and denominators in numerical fractions
    6. Divide the month, day, and year in the informal representations of dates

    This self study guide for English punctuation is also available for download at Self Study Guide for English Punctuation.

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    Punctuation Practice Activities

    Use one or more of the following punctuation practice activities to supplement the information from the self study guide for English punctuation:

    • Have the students find or write an example for each rule
    • Have the student correct incorrect punctuation use in sample sentences
    • Have the students punctuate passage in which all the punctuation marks have been removed
    • Use the same sentence with different punctuation to demonstrate how punctuation marks affect meaning, e.g., "Woman, without her man, is nothing." versus "Woman: without her, man is nothing."
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    Teaching students to properly punctuate written language is easy with this self study guide for English punctuation. Once student writers learn and understand the punctuation rules for written English, punctuating their own writing will come naturally.