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Punctuation rules for non-native English speakers

Updated on April 21, 2017

About a month ago, I started writing articles for HubPages in English, my second language. Even though I worked in the UK before, writing articles is a lot different than writing emails or designing processes.

What I feel more insecure about is punctuation, especially comma rules. I know very well the comma rules in my mother tongue, Portuguese, but I am never sure if the English rules are the same.

Not knowing something is not an excuse nowadays, when we have tons of information available. I decided to review the English punctuation rules when came to my mind a purchase I have made a year ago in the UK, a book called “Improve your punctuation”, from Collins, published in 2009.

Collins Improve your Punctuation by Graham King
Collins Improve your Punctuation by Graham King

I have to confess that, while I was reviewing punctuation, I was also going back to my articles and proofreading them again. Since something can be improved, what’s the point of not doing the improvements, right?

An interesting thing about learning, at least in my case, is that: when you explain to others what you have learned, you learn better.

If you also have English as your second language, or even if you are an English native speaker, and feel insecure when using a comma or using punctuation in general, I think this article may help you.

The end of the full stop on abbreviations

Traditionally, full stop (.) has been used after abbreviations, like, for example: “Aug. 2”, “8 a.m.”, “e.g.”.

But, according to Collins, the new order is to not use them anymore. What means that the correct way to write the examples above, and other abbreviations, is:

  • Aug 2
  • 8 am (ante meridiem)
  • 9 pm (post meridiem)
  • eg (exempli gratia – “for the sake of example”)
  • 2000 AD (anno Domini – “in the year of the Lord”)
  • 2000 BC (before Christ)
  • UK (United Kingdom)
  • RSVP (répondez s'il vous plait – “please respond")
  • Capt Phillips

We still need to use full stops for money units, decimals and hours and minutes:

  • €9.99
  • 33.33%
  • 11.45 am

You can also express time like this: 11:45 am, but the use of single stop is preferred.

LOL - laugh out loud
LOL - laugh out loud
Too, many, commas…
Too, many, commas…

Too, many, commas…

According to the book’s author, Graham King, we use too many commas. King says that sometimes a comma can be grammatically correct, but redundant and a real pain to the reader. He suggests that we avoid unnecessary comma and keep it simple.

Lack of comma can be a problem too. For example, if I say: “I don’t like liars like you”. I think I will insult someone.

But I can make things better using a comma: “I don’t like liars, like you”. Now I am just sharing an opinion.

So, when should I have use commas?

Use 1 - setting off names and persons:

  • Are you calling me tomorrow, Jack?
  • And this, ladies and gentleman, is the king’s treasure.
  • Darling, don’t you think we should go home?

Use 2 - setting off interjections:

  • Stop, or I’ll call the cops.
  • Look, I want to go home.

Use 3 - setting off direct speech:

  • Peter looked at her and said, “If you are tired, then go have some rest!”

Use 4 - setting off questions:

  • They are living together, don’t they?

Use 5 - presenting a list:

  • Please place all electronic devices, bags and jackets in the lockers provided.
  • Please place any stationary, pens and pencils, books and other items on the shelves.

Notice that there’s no comma before or after “and”. Using it is not wrong and it is called the Oxford comma, but the author suggests that the use is, most of the time, unnecessary. Use it only if there is the possibility of ambiguity.

Use 6 - including additional thought or emphasizing point of view:

  • The party was, on the whole, very good.
  • The book is, in my opinion, easy to read.
  • Bread, which are made by flour, cause problems for gluten intolerants.
  • Of course, she fully deserves the job.

Use 7 – to connect two independent clauses, using a little conjunction: but, for, nor, yet, or, so:

  • She likes cooking, but she is going to order a pizza.

Use 8 - for comparative statements:

  • The more he ate carbs, the less energy he had.

Use 9 - reinforcing statements:

  • She is yelling because she had no education at home, that’s why.

Use 10 - replacing missing words

  • If you want more money, 10 Euros, maximum.

Betty Boop is a pretty, smart and sexy lady
Betty Boop is a pretty, smart and sexy lady

The tiny, flexible, complex comma

When you use comma for adjectives, you have to know two simple rules:

Rule 1: if you are describing something with different attributes, you should use a comma. Eg: The night resounded with a loud, chilling, persistent ringing.

Rule 2: if the adjectives are working together to create a single picture, you should not use comma. Eg: It was a large brick Victoria mansion.

You have to analyze your sentence to see what fits better when using the adjective “pretty”. See these two sentences:

  • Betty Boop is a pretty, smart and sexy lady.
  • Betty Boop is a pretty smart and sexy lady.

In the first sentence, it’s been said that Betty Boop is beautiful, smart and sexy; but the second sentence says that she is really smart and sexy. See the difference?

However, it’s up to you

Adverbs and adverbial phrases like however, indeed, nevertheless, in fact, needless to say, no doubt, incidentally, anyway, for example, on the contrary, of course, and as we have seen, can be between commas or not:

  • I like, indeed, living in Europe.
  • I like indeed living in Europe.

Butt, it looks like the author of the book uses it. And I think this it is the best choice since you always have to use comma when the sentence starts with an adverb:

In fact, she found out that her husband is her brother.

Using comma to parenthesize (or place in parentheses) the not essential part of the sentence

When you have a complex sentence that includes a message that could be put in parentheses, you can also use two enclosing commas. Some examples from Graham King (Collins Improve your Punctuation, 2009):

  • In 1991, the witness testified, he was never in this country.
  • In 1991 (the witness testified) he was never in this country.
  • The wild hyacinths, which are now at height of their season, tint the woods with a pale blue mist.
  • The wild hyacinths (which are now at height of their season) tint the woods with a pale blue mist.

That and which

There is a specific question I have about comma that I didn’t find in the book, but I found the answer in the article “6 Common Punctuation Errors that Embarrass English as a Second Language Learners.” Basically, we use comma before which, but we don’t use before that:

  • He found the sunflower bouquet that was her favourite, in another town.
  • He found the sunflower bouquet, which was her favourite, in another town.

You keep using a comma before that when it is requested by another rule:

She is skinny because she doesn’t eat, that’s why.

Semicolon
Semicolon

Semicolon

The use of the semicolon in a sentence requires the writer judgment. You have to decide with the semicolon is going to let the communication clearer or whether the comma is not enough.

If you have two independent clauses which have the same importance level, you can use semicolon:

  • "To err is human; to forgive, divine." - Alexander Pope

A semicolon is also useful when you want to separate groups of words in a list:

  • The dinner included Mr and Mrs Brase, their kids Jonathan and Tomke; the Volkmann twins; Lambda, Luna and Penelope; among others.

If it still confusing, this video from the TED-Ed YouTube channel explains semicolon in a clear and easy way.

I would love to know

What is your biggest punctuation challenge?

See results

I still have a lot of questions about punctuation and, even though I just reviewed some rules, I may keep making some mistakes. The goal is try to do my best and keep improving as much as possible.

Did you like it?

Let me know what you think about this article or if you want to know more about any of the topics I've mentioned, by leaving a comment below.

If you know someone else that might like it, don't hesitate to share.

And make sure you follow me on HubPages to be the first to know when I publish more articles like this.

Love,

Dani Tabalipa

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