Before we had any punctuation, it was difficult to separate and coordinate ideas. Punctuation also tells readers when to breathe, especially when reading aloud, and helps them comprehend the meaning of sentences. When used effectively, it guides readers through a piece of writing. It also tells readers how writing should sound when they read it aloud, even if reading silently.

[For a quick guide to punctuation, see Punctuation in a Nutshell]

When we speak, we use pauses and gestures to emphasize meaning, and we vary the tempo, stress, and pitch of our voices to mark the beginning and end of units of thought. In other words, we "punctuate" our speech. We punctuate writing for the same purposes, drawing on a whole set of conventional devices developed to give the reader clues to what we are trying to communicate.

The first of these devices is spacing: that is, closing up or enlarging the space between letters or words. For example, we don't "runwordstogetherthisway."  Instead, we identify a word as a word by setting it off from its neighbors. Spacing is the most basic of all punctuating devices.

We use spacing also to set off paragraphs, to list items as in an outline, to mark lines of poetry, and the like. But spacing, of course, isn't the only punctuation we need. What, for example, can you understand from this string of words:

yes madam jones was heard to say to the owl like old dowager without a doubt the taming of the shrew by shakespeare would be a most appropriate new years present for your husband.

To make this passage intelligible, we need to add two other kinds of punctuation: (1) changes in the size and design of letters, namely, capitals and italics; and (2) marks or points, namely, periods, commas, quotation marks, apostrophes, and other special signs.

"Yes, Madam," Jones was heard to say to the owl-like old dowager, "without a doubt, The Taming of the Shrew by Shakespeare would be a most appropriate New Year's present for your husband."

The above example shows four functions of punctuation:

1. END PUNCTUATION. Capitals, periods, question marks, and exclamation points indicate sentence beginnings and endings.

2. INTERNAL PUNCTUATION. Commas, semicolons, colons, dashes, and parentheses within sentences show the relationship of each word or group of words to the rest of the sentence.

3. DIRECT-QUOTATION PUNCTUATION. Quotation marks and brackets indicate speakers and changes of speaker.

4. WORD PUNCTUATION. Capitals, italics, quotation marks, apostrophes, and hyphens indicate words that have a special character.

In questions of punctuation there is often no absolute standard, no authoritative convention to which you can turn for a "correct" answer. But two general rules serve as reliable guides:

1. Punctuation is a part of meaning, not a substitute for clear and orderly sentence structure. Before you can punctuate a sentence properly, you must construct it properly. No number of commas, semicolons, and dashes can rescue a poorly written sentence.

2. Observe conventional practice in punctuation. Though many of the rules are not hard and fast, still there is a community of agreement about punctuating sentences. Learning and applying the punctuation rules that follow will help you observe these conventions. 


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