Good English writing is like a good dish (a good meal): it has just the right amount of commas, periods (fullstops), question and exclamation points; just as a good meal has the right amount of salt and pepper, oregano, thyme and other spices. So, how do you know how much to spice or how much punctuation to use?
Too much spice in a good meal ruins it, as too much punctuation in English writing makes it too choppy and hard to read. And, too little spice in a meal makes it bland (tasteless), as too little punctuation in English makes it look empty and hard to read.
So how do you know how much to spice or how much punctuation to use?
At first, you have to follow certain rules (like a recipe in a cookbook) or a grammar book for punctuation. Then after a while you get a feel for (an idea of, an instinct for) how much you have to put in.
Have you ever watched a confident cook? He or she often stops and tastes the food to see if it needs any more spices. The same is true with a confident English-speaking writers; they test their writing by reading it over and putting in and taking out punctuation as they see necessary.
Here are my favorite “spices” for writing in English:
The Period or Full Stop .
This is the most common spice or form of punctuation in written English. We use it at the end of any statement (a sentence that is not a question (?). I find that the biggest mistake ESL students make with the period--which is what we call it in American English--is that students don’t use it enough. Often a comma (,) is substituted for a period, thus creating sentences that are too complex.
In other words, they will combine sentences like these because they think they are expressing one thought, but the sentence will go on and on and you actually feel like you’re losing your breath just by reading it, because the sentence is just too long and difficult to understand and you can see now what I mean and why this sentence should have been broken up into two or more sentences by adding a couple of periods, know what I mean?
OK, let’s look at this sentence again and I’m going to suggest where the periods should go.
In other words, they will combine sentences like these because they think they are expressing one thought. But, the sentence will go on and on, and you actually feel like you’re losing your breath just by reading it, because the sentence is just too long and difficult to understand. You can see now what I mean. This sentence should have been broken up into two or more sentences by adding a couple of periods. Know what I mean?
I think you’ll agree that the second version is easier to read.
The Comma ,
The comma along with the period are like the salt and pepper of written English; they form the basic ingredients in sentences.
Many EFL students are afraid of commas because they don’t know if they’re using them properly. While there are some hard and fast (strict) rules regarding the comma in certain situations, TK as in writing a list of things in a sentence, many times the comma is used to make reading the sentence easier.
The main use of a comma in English is to signify a momentary pause in the thought behind the sentence from the viewpoint of the person who wrote the sentence.
For example, look at the comma I just placed in this sentence.
I placed it after the word 'example'. And to make things easier for you, the comma will always come after the phrase for example. It will always come after the word however and the phrase in fact, too.
If you read the sentence out loud, you’ll find that you naturally pause after saying the words for example or in fact. This is the purpose of a comma in this situation--to pause in reading. It actually makes silent reading (reading to ourselves) easier.
The Colon :
Don’t ask me why they call it a colon. I don’t know. In English the other meaning for colon has to do with the digestive system.
All I know is that I love the colon. It signifies that something important or surprising is about to be read. The other use of the colon is before a list of items, or to introduce an example, like this:
The colon, as a signal of a surprise coming in the sentence, should be used very sparingly (a small amount, little) because too much is like using too much of a hot spice in food.
Here’s an example: (notice the colon here)
I had an incredible thing happen today: nothing. That’s right, nothing happened, and I was so glad because of all the bad luck I’ve been having lately.
In a whole essay, the colon should not be used more than once or a few times.
The Exclamation Point !
The noun exclamation comes from the verb to exclaim, which means to shout. So whenever you use an exclamation point at the end of a sentence, you are shouting what you have written. Things like: Good luck! or She was alive! or almost anything when you want to tell the readers this is important; so listen!
The exclamation point, like the colon, is a very hot spice. Only use it a bit -- only once or twice in a whole essay. The biggest mistake both native English writers and EFL students make is overusing the exclamation point. If you shout all the time, people will start ignoring you. And, that’s exactly what happens if you put too much shouting in your writing: people will ignore it after a while.
For the use of other punctuation forms in English, including the dash, parentheses, apostrophe, quotation marks, etc., see the following helpful website:
Image by Emily Mathews (CC BY 2.0)