Academic writing


Punctuation marks help you to organise your words into clauses and sentences, and hence into identifiable units of meaning. They are the signs that alert readers to the appropriate pauses in your text. These pauses signal where you intend the emphasis and intonation to be placed, and thus how you want the text to be read. Punctuation marks help you tell the reader how to find the meaning from your organisation of the words.

Thus, punctuation is more than just an incidental aspect of writing. It is an essential skill that helps you to express yourself clearly, directly and effectively.

Click on the links below to find out more about how to use punctuation.

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End marks are used to end a sentence. They enable you to tell your reader where one thought ends and another begins. Thus, end marks help you keep your ideas distinct so that your reader can understand what you have written.

There are three ways in which a sentence can be ended:

Full stop

  • This sentence finishes with a full stop.
  • This sentence does not!

Exclamation mark
An exclamation mark should be used when you intend the sentence to be either a strong command or an emphatic declaration.

For example:

  • Do as you are told! [strong command]
  • Idiot! [emphatic declaration].

Question mark
This is used to indicate a direct question.

For example: What did you mean by that outrageous claim?

Being able to identify independent and dependent clauses will help you to decide where to put commas (or other punctuation) in your writing.

An independent clause contains a subject and a verb.

For example: The tree was losing its leaves.

So it is a complete sentence in itself. However, a dependent clause cannot stand on its own. If it is written alone, it doesn't make sense. It is an incomplete sentence. This is because it is usually missing a subject, or a verb or both.

For example: Because of the drought.

We join dependent and independent clauses together to ensure:

  1. The meaning is clear: The tree was losing its leaves because of the drought.
  2. The sentence is complete: Because of the drought, the tree was losing its leaves.

Commas are needed to clarify meaning when dependent and independent clauses are added to each other to form complex sentences.

The general rules with commas in complex sentences are:

  1. If the dependent clause comes after the independent clause (highlighted), no comma is necessary.
    Village councils play the main role in resolving disputes and meting out justice.
  2. If the dependent clause is before the independent clause, you need a comma.
    Outside of the major cities, village councils play the main role in resolving disputes and meting out justice.
  3. If the dependent clause is in the middle of an independent clause or in the middle of two independent clauses, you need a comma each side of it.
    The whole parliament, aside from the President, agreed with the proposed legislation.
    Zahra’s family, who had lived in a small village all their lives, suddenly decided to move to the city. Tehran, with a population of more than twenty million, is a busy, chaotic city

Other uses of the comma

Use a comma to separate the elements in a list.

  • We need stationery, blackboards and easels for each school.

Use a comma + a conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) to connect two independent clauses

The kittens were very cute, but they were really out of control.

Use a comma to separate adjectives (descriptive words)

That run-down, dilapidated cottage with the overgrown garden.

If you can put an and or a but between the adjectives, a comma will probably belong there.

For instance, you could say, "I live in a very old and run-down house."

Use a comma to set off quoted elements. Because we don't use quoted material all the time, even when writing, this is probably the most difficult rule to remember in comma usage.

Williams (2003) said, “It is highly unlikely that school improvement projects really work as they are intended.”

Use commas to set off phrases that express contrast.

Some say the world will end in ice, not fire.

Use a comma to avoid confusion or misunderstanding.

  • For most, the year is already finished.
  • Woman without her man would be useless.
  • Woman, without her, man would be useless

Typographical Reasons:

Use a comma between a town and a state [Bendigo, Victoria], a date and the year [June 15, 1997],

Colons (written as : ) are used mainly to introduce lists, summaries, or quotations. For example:

A list:

  • You will need the following: four cups of flour, three eggs, one cup of sugar, one teaspoon of vanilla flavouring, and some imagination.

A summary:

The company's financial position can be summarised in one word: disastrous.

A quote:

Within western philosophy, for a man the question of the sex of his body does not arise: A man never begins by presenting himself as an individual of a certain sex; it goes without saying that he is a man (de Beauvoir 1988, 15).

Semicolons (written as ;) are used to link two closely related Independent sentences. For example:

The chef prepared the fancy dishes; the assistants did the rest.

The students entered through the main doors; the lecturers had their own entrance.

You can also use a semicolon to separate comma-containing phrases within a list. For example:

  • We shall need three tents; six rucksacks containing tools, first aid kits, and insect repellents; six utilities pouches for maps, small hand tools, spare batteries and compasses; and six two-way radios.

An apostrophe is used to indicate that a subject possesses or owns an object. For example:

George's car. (i.e. the car belonging to or of George)

The council's car park. (i.e. the car park of the council).

Note that the possessive form of It is Its (without the apostrophe). It’s means It is... For example:

The snake shed its skin (i.e. the skin belongs to 'it')

It's the snake's skin (i.e. It is the skin of the snake).

For plural nouns ending with an 's', it is usually not necessary to add an 's'. For example:

cows' milk (i.e. the milk of the cows)

lawyers' fees (i.e. the fees of lawyers).

Apostrophes are also used in contractions.  For example:

don't (do not)

hasn't (has not)

Quotation marks can either be single (i.e. '...') or double ("...") and are used to indicate direct speech or material that has been written by someone else.

Direct speech:

She said, "Get the cat out of the house."

Quoting someone else's writing:

Far too many people fail to understand the sexism of Aristotle's claim that "man was a political animal".

Quotation marks can also be used to highlight a word that is being defined or named. For example:

By 'sexism', I mean discrimination of women by men on the basis of sex.

Parentheses are brackets that you can use to indicate explanatory or interrupting material (sometimes referred to as parenthetical material), which is not essential for the meaning of a sentence.

For example:

Seven different colours (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet) combine to form white light.

Brackets can be round '( )', or square '[ ]' or squiggly '{ }'.
Brackets are also used to set off numbers, especially in lists. For example:

  • See Section 1 (a)
  • An essay usually consists of three main parts: (1) an introduction, (2) a body, and (3) a conclusion.

Dashes can be used in a similar fashion to brackets to make a parenthetical comment. For example:

Three gangsters - Scarface, Itchy, and Knuckles - left before the dust had cleared.

Dashes are generally considered a weaker form of parenthetical marker than brackets.

Hyphens are used to form compound words such as 'semi-colon' or 'half-back'. Hyphens are also used to help clarify the meaning of compound words.

An ellipsis indicates that words have been left out of the material that you have quoted.

It is sometimes necessary to leave out words or lines in a quoted passage for reasons of relevance (to your point) or length. It is important that any omissions are made known to your reader. The modern way of doing this is by using three full stops (known as an ellipsis).

The conclusion is used to sum up the points that have been covered in the essay… This section should not contain any new information and should refer back to the topic/question being discussed (Cheek et al. 1995, p. 102).

In this passage, an extra sentence of twenty-seven words has been left out. The three dots occur at the end of the sentence. There is no need to add a full stop. The following example demonstrates an ellipsis indicating missing words.

This section … should refer back to the topic/question being discussed.

The most important consideration when using an ellipsis is to ensure that you do not alter the intended meaning of the original material.


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