English Punctuation Rules with Examples
This week’s topic is about English Punctuation rules. The Oxford English Dictionary defines punctuation as “The marks, such as full stop, comma, and brackets, used in writing to separate sentences and their elements and to clarify meaning.” They are also used to define pauses in sentences where one might need to catch one’s breath, used to emphasise certain words in a sentence, separate blocks of sentences or clauses, help us distinguish between important information and additional information in a text avoid ambiguity.
This is all well and good, but actually, using commas accurately is one of the key elements to avoid misunderstandings.
A prime example of this is:
Let’s eat, grandpa!
Now try it without the comma. I’m not really sure how tasty grandpa would be!
How to Use English Commas
The comma can be used:
To separate lists:
Listing commas are used in sentences to avoid repeating the conjunctions and/or, or separate a list of adjectives or nouns.
E.g.: I enjoy reading newspapers, magazines and books.
After work she had a large, hot, tasty bowl of soup.
- To separate actions:
Just like listing commas, joining commas are used to separate a sequence of actions:
E.g.: The Prime Minister walked into the room, sat down, looked around the room and smiled.
Joining commas can also join two clauses which usually contain a subject and a verb, and are often connected by conjunctions such as and, but and while.
E.g.: I wanted to go to Madame Tussaud’s, but he didn’t.
You might now be asking yourself if the comma is necessary in the sentence. The answer is no, as the main clause is short and does not cause ambiguity. However, if the main clause were longer, then I would suggest you put a comma.
E.g.: I wanted take Susan’s youngest son Joseph to Madame Tussaud’s the other day, but he’d made other plans.
- With addresses and numbers:
In addresses we separate the street address, the city and the county with a comma.
E.g.: 204 Mayflower Road, Poole, Dorset.
With numbers, we use commas, not full stops, to separate the thousands from the hundreds. E.g.: 672,948
- In relative clauses using “which”:
When two clauses are joined to form a single sentence, and one of the clauses adds extra information that can be removed without causing ambiguity, then we add commas.
These types of sentences are called non-defining relative clauses.
- Isolating commas
Another way of isolating clauses or sections of the sentence (a clause, a phrase or a single word) that are not essential, is to use commas. There are different types of isolated sentences:
- With discourse markers: Fortunately, he arrived on time.
- With linkers and connectors: I enjoyed the film. However, Tom Hanks wasn’t that good.
I think, nevertheless, that buying a flat in London is a good idea.
- To emphasise: He is late, as usual.
- When pausing
We can use commas to reflect when a natural pause might appear in spoken English.
Eg: The other day, [pause] while I was walking in the park, [pause] I saw Madonna jogging with her daughter.
- To avoid repetition
In English, when we want to avoid repetition, we often elide some words and use commas:
E.g.: I work as a teacher and my husband, (works) in finance
I ordered a sandwich, my sister a salad.
- The Oxford comma
This is an optional comma that can be placed in front of the word “and” at the end of a list.
Eg.: The Post was written by Elizabeth Hannah, directed by Stephen Spielberg, and stars Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks.
Learn more about English punctuation rules (and much more) by downloading our PDF English learning books.