How Punctuation Can Improve Your English Writing (Part 5)

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In this final part of the punctuation series, let’s consider ellipsis and two kinds of brackets: square and round.

 

Ellipsis

An ellipsis is a set of three dots (…) that are evenly spaced. It’s most commonly used to show omission, i.e. not including some words in a sentence, usually ones that aren’t important.

 

Used Example
to shorten quotations The rule book clearly states that “members must return any borrowed item ….”
to indicate hesitation See, the thing is … he’s broke.

 

Remember, if the ellipsis appears at the end of a sentence, it is placed along with the full stop, making it a series of four dots.

 

Square bracket

Square brackets can introduce an explanation that provides clarification, or may provide a short translation of a foreign word that appears in a quoted sentence. They may also be used to indicate that the writer feels something in the original material is a possible error.

 

Used Example
to provide clarification The year I got married [2007] was an important one in my life.
to provide short translations of words in quoted materials Diana says in the interview: “He whispered je t’aime [I love you] as I walked by.”
to indicate a possible error The book says he was born in Venice [Verona?].

 

Round bracket

Also known as parentheses, round brackets are mostly used to add extra information; this may be a single word, fragment or complete sentence.

 

Used Example
to provide additional information The governor (and his family) will attend today’s event.
to provide short translations of words He said cześć (hello) as soon as he saw me.
to expand abbreviations or acronyms that the reader may not be familiar with She became CTO (Chief Technical Officer) of the company in 2012.

 

It is worth remembering that the content between brackets should not be grammatical integral to the main sentence.

 

Punctuation is one of the simplest language features to learn, so use it appropriately; people will think you are being careless if you don’t!

How Punctuation Can Improve Your English Writing (Part 4)

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In this part of the series on punctuation, we’ll explore different uses of the colon, semicolon, and slash.

 

Colon

The colon usually introduces a list or an explanation. It can also appear before direct speech, or be used to highlight the last part of a sentence.

 

Used Example
before a list We need the following: eggs, butter, sugar, and flour.
to introduce an explanation My motto is simple: live and let live.
to signal direct speech (i.e. a speaker’s actual words) She pleaded: ‘Please let me in!’
to highlight a single word or phrase at the end of a sentence Having starved for two days, I had only one thought: food.

 

Semicolon

Stronger than a comma, weaker than a full stop: this is possibly the simplest way to define the function of a semicolon. Its main use is to separate sentences that are closely linked.

 

Used Example
between two sentences that are too closely linked to be separated by a full stop Students can’t use mobile phones in class; teachers can in an emergency.
in a long list with internal commas We have stores in Bremen, Germany; Krakow, Poland; and Moscow, Russia.
between two independent clauses joined by a transitional phrase (e.g. consequently, for instance, thus) It has been raining heavily since yesterday; consequently, many trains have been cancelled.

 

Slash

Also known as the virgule, the slash has several functions but is seldom used in formal writing.

 

Used Example
to carry the meaning per 100 km/h
as shorthand for or Each passenger must carry his/her passport at all times.
to carry the meaning cum Don’s dad was his manager/coach till 2005.
in abbreviations c/o (short for care of)
to indicate a period spanning two years 2015/16 season
to show the connection between two things The London/New York flight is delayed.

 

Just like how the meaning of spoken words can vary, depending on the use of various pronunciation features such as tone or pausing, the meaning of written words may change by the use of punctuation marks. So, as far as punctuation goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

How Punctuation Can Improve Your English Writing (Part 3)

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In the previous part, we covered some uses of the exclamation mark, question mark, and hyphen. Moving on, let’s take a closer look at three more punctuation marks, beginning with the dash.

 

  1. Dash

The dash and hyphen are often confused by many language learners, as they are similar in appearance. The difference, of course, is that the dash is wider than the hyphen. However, their usage is entirely different.

 

While a hyphen holds different parts of a word (or different words) together, a dash is used to separate non-essential information in a sentence. It can also be used in a sentence instead of a comma, semicolon, or colon.

 

Used Example
to separate information that is not essential to understand the sentence Getting the train ‒ though it’s often crowded ‒ is the fastest way to the city centre.
in place of a comma, semicolon, or colon, to show breaks in a sentence He lives in a cottage ‒ which was built in the 1950s ‒ beside the lake.

 

  1. Apostrophe

There are two main uses of the apostrophe: to show possession (i.e. something belongs to somebody) and to show omission (i.e. not including something).

 

Used Example
to show how a person or thing is related to, or belongs to, someone or something Ben’s car (= a car owned by Ben)
to indicate that letters or numbers have been left out she’ll (short for  she will) | We got married in ’83 (short for 1983).
with the plurals of letters and digits He hit four 6’s in an over. | There are two m’s in this word.

 

Using an apostrophe to form the plural form of decades or abbreviations is considered incorrect these days. For example:

 

1930s ✔ (1930’s)

several MPs ✔ (several MP’s)

 

  1. Quotation mark

Known as inverted commas in British English, quotation marks can be single (‘s’) or double (“d”). They are commonly used at the beginning and end of direct speech – i.e. words someone said that are written down exactly as they were spoken.

 

Used Example
to mark the beginning and end of direct speech The air hostess asked, “What would you like to have?”
to separate a word or phrase that is being discussed His new book is called ‘The Rising Sons’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How Punctuation Can Improve Your English Writing (Part 1)

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Ever felt punctuation is just a set of decorative symbols that can be done away with? Well, think again!

 

A poorly punctuated sentence can severely distort meaning, thereby confusing the reader. Here’s a good example:

  1. I had lunch with my parents, an architect and a Labrador.
  2. I had lunch with my parents, an architect, and a Labrador.

 

What these two sentences mean are entirely different, the change in meaning caused by the presence or absence of a comma after the word architect.

Sentence 1 means: I had lunch with 2 people, i.e. my parents. One of them is an architect, whereas the other is a breed of dog (Labrador).

Sentence 2 means: I had lunch with 3 people and an animal, i.e. my parents, an architect, and a dog.

 

Though many of us make an effort to use punctuation, we often restrict ourselves to just two – comma and full stop. It’s a shame that a dozen other punctuation marks that can make our writing cohesive remain largely ignored.

 

In this series, we’ll explore the entire set:

 

full stop comma exclamation mark question mark hyphen dash apostrophe
. , ! ?
quotation marks colon semi colon slash ellipsis square bracket round bracket
“ ” : ; / [ ] ( )

 

  1. Full stop

The most common use of a full stop is to signal the end of a statement; it is also used in indirect questions and abbreviations. Do keep in mind that there is no space between the last letter (in a word) and the full stop.

 

Used Example
to signal the end of a statement I work as a teacher.
at the end of an indirect question She asked me where I had been.
with abbreviated (shortened) forms etc. | e.g. | Sept. | p.m.

 

 

  1. Comma

Generally speaking, commas indicate slight pauses or breaks in a sentence: they may separate items in a list, extra information, or clauses.

 

Used Example
to separate each item in a list We bought flowers, fruit, pudding, and sweets.
to separate extra information that is not part of the main sentence Graham’s brother, Phil, is very naughty.
to separate a clause Tim, who lives in London these days, was at the party.

 

Remember, efficient use of punctuation can make your writing a lot clearer.

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

do away with (something)
Form : phrase
Meaning : remove; get rid of
Example : We’re doing away with all the traditions this Christmas and not having a tree.

 

distort
Form : verb
Meaning : to change a piece of information so that it is no longer accurate
Example : Newspaper articles sometimes distort the truth. 

 

a shame
Form : phrase
Meaning : used to mean that something is disappointing
Example : It’s a shame that they lost the match even after playing so well.

How to Master Letter Writing in English (Part 2)

stamps

Image courtesy of Chris (CC Flickr)

 

In the first part, we looked at the concept of tone and its importance in making your letter sound appropriate. To decide what kind of tone is suitable, we said it’s useful to consider who you are writing to (the recipient).

 

Another important fact to think of is the purpose, i.e. the reason for writing.

 

The purpose

How we write may change depending on why we are writing, even if the recipient happens to be the same person. To understand this better, let’s consider the following:

 

Situation A: Write a letter to your manager informing him/her about some problem you face at work.

Situation B: Write a letter to your manager inviting him/her to your house-warming.

 

Though you’re writing to the same person in both cases, situation B is personal, whereas A is work-related. Naturally, situation B may make use of language that’s less formal than the one in A.

 

Consistent use of tone

Once you identify the appropriate tone, how do you then ensure it is used consistently across a letter or email? Here are some ways to do this:

 

More formal Less formal
Do NOT use contractions

E.g.: We are pleased to…

Use contractions

E.g.: We’re really happy to…

Use long words / less common vocabulary

E.g.: hold a discussion

Use simpler vocabulary

E.g.: have a chat

Do NOT use abbreviations

E.g.: February, Monday, as soon as possible

Use abbreviations

E.g.: FebMon, asap

Complete sentences

E.g.: I am sorry about the confusion.

Incomplete sentences

E.g.: Sorry about the confusion.

Use one-word verbs

E.g.: Can you visit my office and collect the files?

Use phrasal verbs

E.g.: Can you drop into my office and pick up the files?

 

So, the next time you attempt a letter writing task, begin by identifying what tone is appropriate for the given situation. Then, use various language features (some are given in the table above) to keep the tone consistent throughout your letter.

 

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

concept
Form : noun
Meaning : an idea related to something
Example : Oliver finds it difficult to understand even the simplest concepts of science.

 

appropriate
Form : adjective
Meaning : suitable for a particular situation
Example : I think it isn’t appropriate to wear jeans to work.

 

abbreviation
Form : noun
Meaning : a short form of a word or phrase
Example : St is an abbreviation for the word ‘Saint’.

 

How to Master Writing Emails/Letters in English

postbox-med

Image courtesy of Davina Ware (Flickr)

 

Letters may seem outdated in this digital age, but the skills needed to produce one are still considered important. Naturally, many international language tests evaluate the test taker’s ability to produce pieces of communication, such as letters, memos or emails.

 

In the IELTS General Training format, the writing module has two tasks. In the first one, candidates are given a situation and asked to write a letter. Depending on the situation, they have to choose from one of three kinds of tone – friendly, semi-formal, or formal.

 

Tone Example situation
Friendly Write a letter to a friend inviting him/her to a party you are having next month.
Semi-formal Write a letter to your manager requesting him/her for one week’s leave.
Formal Write a letter to the general manager of a restaurant complaining about the poor service you received during your visit there.

 

So, what exactly is tone? Simply put, it is the style of writing that is most suitable for a given situation.

 

Identifying the appropriate tone for a letter can be tricky at times. In fact, it is not uncommon in IELTS for test takers to get the tone horribly wrong. As a result, the letter sounds rude or inappropriate, thereby affecting their overall writing score.

 

So, how can you identify the appropriate tone? Well, here’s one key factor to consider:

 

The recipient

Is the person you are writing to (i.e. the recipient) someone you know? What sort of relationship do you share with them ‒ formal or friendly?

 

If the recipient is unknown, or if they are much senior to you (in age or rank), the letter needs to have a respectful tone (semi-formal to formal). On the other hand, if it’s a friend you’re writing to, the letter will certainly be chatty, looking more like a conversation.

More about tone in the next part!

 

 

GLOSSARY

 

outdated
Form : adjective
Meaning : no longer useful or fashionable
Example : The computer systems in Kevin’s company are really outdated.

 

tricky
Form : adjective
Meaning : difficult to deal with
Example : Aged people sometimes find smart phones tricky to operate.

 

horribly
Form : adverb
Meaning : in a bad way
Example : He got injured when a karate move went horribly wrong.

 

chatty
Form : adjective
Meaning : describes writing style that is friendly 
Example : Judith sent me a bright, chatty letter about her life in Greece.

 

 

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