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Use of Punctuation Marks

Updated on December 3, 2019

Punctuation marks

Truss says;

Thurber was once asked by a correspondent: "Why did you have a comma in the sentence, 'After dinner, the men went into the living-room'?" And his answer was probably one of the loveliest things ever said about punctuation. "This particular comma," Thurber explained, "was Ross's way of giving the men time to push back their chairs and stand up." Why the problem? Why the scope for such differences of opinion? Aren't there rules for the comma, just as there are rules for the apostrophe? Well, yes; but you will be entertained to discover that there is a significant complication in the case of the comma (70).

  1. Translation and the punctuation marks

Punctuation marks are not used the same way in all languages. Alqinai sees a problem with the fact that the conventional punctuation is not used by some languages in marking sentence boundaries. He says punctuation marks have rules that are “prescribed as conventional ‘good practice’ and they vary from one language to another”. For instance, “the quotation marks used to enclose direct quotation in English are not used by the French who use either a dash at the opening of a quotation or angle brackets to surround it” (3); and the Greeks use the semicolon for imperative sentences (Truss, 111).

Mogahed writes that “Punctuation plays a vital role in the interpretation of certain text”. Especially in translation, he says that haphazard use of the punctuation could result in misinformation and that differences exist between languages with regard to punctuation (as he discovers between Arabic and English) (2). He says that the comma is not always useful in translated text as “norms of the target language do not require the use of a comma in the context” (12).

Awad, in his TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) research at An-Naja National University, discovers that the respondents were not able to use some punctuation marks correctly. The comma was the most difficult to use, and that the main problem was the difference between English and Arabic Language in using the comma (224).

In German, the application of punctuation cannot be based on ones understanding of English punctuation. The independent clause of time, for instance is always set off by a comma as opposed to English where the comma is used mainly when the subordinate clause precedes the main clause (Vajda et al, 81). Vajda says, “For every instance where the use of some punctuation mark in English finds an exact parallel in Russia, there seem to be at least two others where a knowledge of English punctuation will actually interfere with the choice of the correct mark in Russia” (ix). He adds that the assumption that the English punctuation and the German punctuation are the same can cause confusion and embarrassment (x).

2. Rule-based use of the punctuation marks

On her acknowledgement page, Truss says “Thanks are due to the many writers on punctuation who did all the hard work of formulating the clear rules I have doubtless muddied in this book” (ix). Because Jane sees the uses of punctuation marks as rules, she itemizes the functions as rule 1, rule 2 etc. (52). It is, however, true that the rules are meant to emphasize proper grammaticality of language use, like in Jane’s rule 1 of the use of comma where she says “to avoid confusion, use commas to separate words and word groups with a series of three or more”. She has stated, by the use of to avoid confusion that although punctuation marks are rules, they do not require mindless abidance, but that observing the rule makes better communication.

Users seem not to understand that the comma can be used largely based on their projected outcome. They, most often, think that they should judiciously follow the rule, which causes them to have difficulty knowing whether or not a comma is needful in certain sentences. Based on this rule-based teaching, a writer is an offender only because he fails to abide by the set writing rule, not because the absence of the comma matters in the communication. Punctuation rules are important but not necessarily significant. Learners and teachers should acquire the attitude and skill to use punctuation because rules are easily forgotten (Robinson (2002); in Awad, 217).

Adorno continues that punctuation places the writer in predicament and that “the requirements of the rules of punctuation and those of the subjective need for logic and expression are not compatible”. He says that the rules of punctuation are always “rigid and crude” and the writer cannot trust in them even though he cannot ignore them as that will be a major problem in any written work (301). He buttresses how a writer could be caught between adherences to the rules or responding to subjective interest because the rules do not all the time correspond to the intension of the writer.

In the Oxford Style manual, the punctuation section is introduced by the phrase “General Rule”, and it is supported by imperative statements (9):

“use a pair of commas to surround a non-defining clause….”

“do not use commas to surround a defining clause….”

“use a comma between items in a list.”

The saying goes that ‘where there is not law, there is no sin’. Deviants are those who break rules meant to protect them. In language, rules work in the same manner – to protect users’ integrity and relationship. But many times people break rules trying to observe them; that seems to be the bane of language users. They try to observe it even when they don’t understand its essence, and in the effort, become victims of its misuse. For example;

Rule: Do not place a comma between a subject clause and a verb.

User: In my utterance, there is a pause after yesterday.

The problem that caused me to miss my flight yesterday, can still be blame for my failing the interview.

There could always be a rest after yesterday either to take in breath or because the speaker wants the hearer to grasp the idea in the subject clause before completing the information. The most common and memorable of the rules is that which says the comma should represent a pause. But of recent, more rules are immerging and some seem to contradict this “golden rule”, and memorizing all the rules is difficult especially for those who are not compelled like most language experts are.

The problem, which no longer matters, can still be blamed for my failing the interview.

The problem that I said, matters, can equally be blamed for my failing the interview.

The pause rule cannot account for why sentence 1 has commas and sentence two does not. The two sentences seem to have pauses in the same manner or no pauses at all. The writer should learn how the comma separates ideas into related chunks and how at the same time connects them in a way that makes expression clear. So Trask says that poor punctuation makes life difficult for the reader. He says;

When we speak English, we have all sorts of things we can use to make our meaning clear: stress, intonation, rhythm, pauses –even if all else fails, repeating what we’ve said. When we write, however, we can’t use any of these devices, and the work that they do in speech must be almost entirely handled by punctuation (University of Sussex).

3. The pause and the comma

Colman says,

They write or type a line or two, then have a vague feeling that there should be some sort of mark to indicate some sort of pause. So they do a first thing they can think of. They put in a quick shapeless pen stroke, or tap the hyphen key, and presto! The thing is punctuated (39).

During speaking, air only goes out of the lungs. The lung is momentary refilled with air during which a speaker will pause before resuming a conversation. It is not all the time that the pause comes at the end of a sentence. However, a tactful speaker tries to break strategically so that a long utterance is not chopped up into some bits of uncoordinated utterances. The pause could come within a complex or compound sentence, between clauses and phrases, not because it contributes to the meaning of the long sentence, but because the speaker may need sufficient air to control intonation within or at the end of a tone phrase. It could also occur only because the speaker is unable to sustain his or her breath to the end of the utterance. Not everybody is able to sustain his or her breath through a long sentence, so the pause is sometimes not intended as part of the utterance. Therefore not all pauses are indicators of punctuation marks (like a comma). Sentences like the ones below are based on the assumption that a comma is equal to a pause.

We will pray, because we need God to help us.

That I am a soldier, is not to say that I love to kill.

According a publication of VOA (Voice of America), some have said that the comma has mainly been used to show a pause or to indicate a short stoppage or break (not for any grammatical consequence). But it is added that in more recent times, the comma serves a different purpose (VOA, 2017). But others say that to indicate an ungrammatical pause, a dash should be used.


4. Why learners find the comma difficult to use

  1. They are not friendly with rules.
  2. Mother tongue interference.
  3. It is commonly known to indicate pause.

Colman has attempted an approach that is not rule based as she has used the writer’s voice to indicate his or her desire to achieve good written communication (40-80).

I am asking a question.

I want to insert an extra thought into a sentence to make it clearer.

I want to break up a long sentence.

I want to shout, blow my sack, say something astonishing.

This is good because the writer is aware that words are not more important than the marks placed around them; that a sentence without proper punctuation is like trying to wear beads without the string that will hold them together. Learners should understand that their native languages may not be like English in terms of punctuation. So they have to master the languages according to their unique demands

People find punctuation problem difficult to solve because


  1. They are not friendly with rules.
  2. They have mother tongue interference.
  3. It is commonly known to indicate pause.

Colman has attempted an approach that is not rule based as she has used the writer’s voice to indicate his or her desire to achieve good written communication (40-80).

I am asking a question.

I want to insert an extra thought into a sentence to make it clearer.

I want to break up a long sentence.

I want to shout, blow my sack, say something astonishing.

This is good because the writer is aware that words are not more important than the marks placed around them; that a sentence without proper punctuation is like trying to wear beads without the string that will hold them together. Learners should understand that their native languages may not be like English in terms of punctuation. So they have to master the languages according to their unique demands

How would you prefer the teaching of the punctuation marks?

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