Basic Written English - Part 3
Home > Useful Guides > Basic Written English – Part 3

Basic Written English - Part 3

Punctuation or 'stopping' is used by the writer to help the reader to understand the construction and meaning of a passage without undue effort. It is akin to the various signs used by a composer in a piece of music, and is just like the various signs on our roads. Just as we cannot drive safely without following road signs, so we cannot write properly without using the various marks of punctuation. In speech the modulation of the voice, with its rises and falls and pauses and stresses, helps the listener to understand what is being said. In writing, without punctuation even a short sentence may have double meaning:

The boy says the teacher is stupid.

As the sentence stands, the meaning is that the teacher is thought to be stupid. A comma after 'boy' and another after 'teacher' will correct any possible misunderstanding.

The boy, says the teacher, is stupid.

Two little 'marks' on the page give the second example a completely opposite meaning, when compared to the first example. You will see that it is vital to use punctuation correctly.

The full stop [.]

We have already seen that the full stop is used to mark the end of a sentence that is not a question or an exclamation. In theory therefore it should cause us no difficulty. But if we are not careful we can easily let our sentences ramble on, making them difficult to understand. Good writers use neither all long nor all short sentences, but rather a mixture of the two, a long sentence being followed by perhaps two or three short ones. A short sentence would probably contain only one or two finite verbs (verbs with subjects) and a long one would contain three or more finite verbs.

The comma [,]

The comma is probably the most difficult stop in punctuation, mainly because it has many functions or uses. Its main uses are as follows:

1. To separate items in a list of more than two:

He plays football, rugby, tennis and squash.
She has homes in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
(Some writers would also put a comma before the 'and' in each sentence. Usually this is simply a matter of personal preference.)

2. To mark off a phrase or clause at the beginning or in the middle of a sentence:

Shortly after he retired, his wife went back to work.
Women, generally speaking, are not as tall as men.

3. To mark off single words such as 'however' and 'therefore':

However, I do not like him.
I am certain, therefore, that he is guilty.

4. To separate adjectives coming before a noun:

A noisy, overcrowded classroom.
A quiet, pleasant boy.
But the comma is omitted where the second adjective has almost become part of the noun itself:

A cheerful old gentleman.

5. To avoid ambiguity, or momentary misunderstanding. We have already looked at one example. Here are two more:

I did not do it, because I like him.
Further, crime must be seen not to pay.

The semicolon [;]

It is a pity that the semicolon is not used these days as much as it used to be, even a few years ago. It indicates a longer pause than the comma but a shorter one than the full stop, and is particularly useful before words like 'then', 'however', 'therefore' and 'nevertheless' when they are used to join two sentences to make a single sentence:

I went to the match; then I went for a drink.
I do not agree; however there is no point in arguing.

To use commas here would be wrong. 'Then' and 'however' are adverbs, not conjunctions, and they must not be used on their own to join sentences together.

The semicolon is also useful between two sentences to add emphasis to the second:

He was found guilty; but I think he was innocent.
I am in charge; and I always will be.

The colon [:]

The main use of the colon is as an introducer of, for example, a list of items:

She wants three things: hard work, loyalty and efficiency.
The following were there: Smith, Weston and Jones.

It is also often used in articles such as this one to introduce examples.

The question mark [?]

The question mark stands at the end of a 'direct' question (one that calls for an answer):

How old are you?
Where are you going?

It is important to note the difference between the direct question that requires a question mark and the indirect question that does not. In the following sentences the questions are indirect (in reported speech) and do not require question marks:

She asked who I was.
He wanted to know where I was going.
(Reported speech is when someone (the writer or speaker) tells someone else (the reader or listener) what was said.)

The exclamation mark [!]

We have already seen that the exclamation mark is used at the end of an exclamatory sentence, and with single-word exclamations (interjections) such as Bravo! and Oh! Sometimes the exclamation mark with single-word exclamations is delayed until the end of the sentence:

Ah, you caught him!
Alas, I missed her!

The exclamation mark may be legitimately used to express surprise or disgust, but we should use it sparingly if we are merely emphasising that we are being clever or amusing. Excessive use of the exclamation mark in this way can be very tiresome to the reader, and the use of double or treble marks (!! or !!!) is as ugly as it is wrong.

Brackets and dashes [( )] [-] [—]

Brackets always go in pairs and are used within a sentence to enclose a word, phrase or clause that supplies additional information or comment:

We always have been (and always will be) against it.
I am (I think) the youngest member.

They are also used to enclose references and dates:

In his best year (1962) he wrote three plays.
This suggests a plural (see page 61).

Only rarely should a whole sentence be placed in brackets, and we must then make sure that the full stop is placed before (and not after) the second bracket:

(It could be argued, of course, that he was insane.)

A single dash is used to mark a pause for effect, or a hesitation in speech:

He was found - alive.
Tell me why - why did you do it?

Double dashes are used to indicate an aside or a parenthesis:

We helped them — some would say hindered them — in their work.
We — the boys and I — will arrive tomorrow.

The Apostrophe [']

We use an apostrophe to show that we have missed out a letter or two; this is called 'the apostrophe of omission'. For example, we can shorten 'have not' to 'haven't', and the apostrophe shows that we have missed out an 'o'. In informal writing there are many instances where we can use the apostrophe of omission:

can not = can't
will not = won't
shall not = shan't
it will = it'll
they will = they'll
I would = I'd

Sometimes it is even possible to get two apostrophes into one word:

I would have = I'd've

It is essential that these contractions are only used in speech and recorded speech. They should never be used in more formal situations, whether in spoken or written English.

We also use the apostrophe to show possession (that something belongs to someone or something):

The girl's coat = the coat of the girl (one girl — singular)
The book's cover = the cover of the book (one book)

The men's books = the books of the men (more than one man — plural)
The children's feet = the feet of the children (more than one child)
The boys' classroom = the classroom of the boys (more than one boy)
The girls' cloakroom = the cloakroom of the girls (more than one girl)

From the above we should note that:

With a singular noun an apostrophe and an 's' are added to the basic form.
With a plural noun, the apostrophe on its own is added if the plural ends in 's' (as most nouns do).
Where a plural noun does not end in 's' (such as 'men', children in the examples) an apostrophe and an 's' are added to the plural form.

It is important to remember that if a singular noun ends in 's' we must still add
an apostrophe and an 's' to form the possessive:

James's house
Thomas's job
The boss's office

We must never use an apostrophe in simple plurals of words that are not possessive:

Videos for sale (not Video's)
1000s of bargains (not 1000's)
The 1960s (not 1960's)

We must also be careful not to use an apostrophe with the possessive pronouns:

hers, his, ours, its, yours, theirs

The hyphen [-]

The main problem regarding the use of the hyphen is that there are no fixed rules to guide us. There are however certain broad principles that most authorities accept, even though they do not always follow them in their own writing. These principles are as follows:

The hyphen joins together two or more words to make a single word with its own meaning. The compound may be for a particular purpose (eg 'giant-sized ego') or it may be permanent (as 'motor-car' was intended to be all those years ago).

A familiar hyphenated word should be converted into an unhyphenated single word unless to do so would result in awkwardness of spelling or ambiguity. For example, 'e-mail' easily converts to 'email', but 'cross-stitch' (because of the resultant 'sss') does not.

The hyphen should be used only when it is necessary as an aid to being understood. From this, it follows that if the hyphen is not necessary for that purpose it should not be used.

If we bear these principles in mind we can safely say that hyphens should normally be used:

To avoid ambiguity.

There are obvious differences in meaning between
'Twenty three-year-old horses',
'Twenty-three year-old horses' and
Twenty-three-year-old horses'.

There is also a difference between
'Fresh-cream cakes' and
'Fresh cream-cakes'.

To distinguish between words that begin with 're' and those that are prefixed by 're' (meaning once again). Thus, for example:

'reform' (abolish etc) and 're-form' (form again)
'resign' (give up employment etc) and 're-sign' (sign again)

In compound adjectives where the compound is used before (but not after) its noun, such as, 'piping-hot meal', 'up-to-date records', 'made-up story'.

Where more than one word follows the prefix 'ex' (meaning former). It does not matter whether we write 'ex-footballer' or 'ex footballer',for example, where only a single word follows the 'ex'. But 'ex'-fighter pilot', for example, could be a pilot who used to be a fighter. The solution is to hyphenate the second and third words following the 'ex' (ex fighter-pilot) or perhaps to leave the hyphen out altogether(ex fighter pilot).

Hyphens should not normally be used:

In compound adjectives where the compound is used after (not before) its noun, such as 'the meal was piping hot', 'the records are up to date', 'the story is made up'.

Where compound nouns (consisting of a noun qualified by a noun used as an adjective) are used as simple nouns following the verb:

The boy wants to be a train driver.
I am going to see the house agent.

In the first example the compound noun is 'train driver' (with 'train' used as an adjective) and in the second it is 'house agent' (with 'house' used as an adjective).

There is no reason at all why these compounds (and countless others) should be given hyphens when they are used as simple nouns following the verb. (When they are used as adjectives - not nouns - they may well require hyphens eg 'A train-driver vacancy', 'A house-agent advert'.)

Where the first word of any compound adjective is an 'ly' adverb, as in for example, 'A truly magnificent performance' or 'A richly deserved prize'. If the first word is an adverb that does not end in 'ly' (such as 'very' or 'little') the hyphen should still not be used unless the adverb might otherwise be mistaken for the adjective with the same spelling:

A very pretty lady but A little-known actor

In the first example 'very' cannot be mistaken for the adjective 'very' (as in 'the very thought of you') and the hyphen is not necessary. In the second example 'little' could be mistaken for the adjective 'little' (A little actor who is known) and the hyphen is essential.

Other one-off situations will frequently arise, and we must then decide for ourselves whether to hyphenate or not. It is a fact that there are many more errors committed by putting hyphens in when they are not needed than there are by omitting them when they are necessary as an aid to being understood.

The dictionaries are there to help us with hyphens, if we are not sure, but we should be aware that their recommendations often differ from dictionary to dictionary.

Postscript (PS)

You have seen here all the pieces that go to make up how we communicate with others. But why do we need to be able to write basic English? Why could we not just write anything that comes into our heads using any spelling and any punctuation? It is because we want to be able to make others understand what we want them to understand. Problems occur when people misunderstand others. When we speak to someone we have the intonation and inflection of our voice to help; we have the sound of the words and the shape of the mouth; and we have body language: all of which help make clear what we are trying to say. But when we write, we have none of these things; we have only words and punctuation.

We do not need to be able to write like a famous author or poet, but we all need to be able to write basic English; we all need to be able to make ourselves understood in speech and in writing.

In this article we have briefly looked at the individual elements that collectively make up what we have termed 'Basic written English' and we hope that these notes will encourage you to study the grammar and usage of the English language in more detail. We have already mentioned our president's book 'The Queen's English and How to Use It'; it deals much more fully with every aspect of our language than an article such as this one ever could.

Finally, if you have any questions about this Guide, or need assistance on any particular point regarding spoken or written English, please do not hesitate to contact us at