How Punctuation Can Improve Your English Writing (Part 4)

Image courtesy of Iain Farrell (CC 2.0 Flickr)

 

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.

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