Most word processors can produce italics, which are slanted letters — like these. If you can't produce italics, the conventional substitute is to use underlining — like this. Italics have several uses.
Most commonly, italics are used for emphasis or contrast — that is, to draw attention to some particular part of a text. Here are some examples:
The Battle of New Orleans was fought in January 1815, two weeks after the peace treaty had been signed.
According to the linguist Steven Pinker, "Many prescriptive rules of grammar are just plain dumb and should be deleted from the usage handbooks" [emphasis added].
Standard English usage requires `insensitive' rather than `unsensitive'.
Lemmings have, not two, but three kinds of sex chromosome.
The first two examples illustrate emphasis and the last two illustrate contrast. This is the standard way of representing emphasis or contrast; you should not try to use quotation marks or other punctuation marks for this purpose.
Another use of italics is to cite titles of complete works: books, films, journals, musical compositions, and so on:
We saw a performance of the Messiah on Saturday.
Chomsky's book Syntactic Structures revolutionized linguistics.
Spielberg won his Oscars for Schindler's List.
An exception: the names of holy books are usually not written in italics. Thus, we write about the (Holy) Bible and the (Holy) Koran, with no italics. Don't ask me why.
Note, however, that we do not use italics when citing a name which is only a conventional description:
Dvřák's ninth symphony is commonly known as the New World symphony.
Here the label `Dvořák's ninth symphony' is not strictly a title, and hence is not italicized.
A third use of italics is to cite foreign words when talking about them. Examples:
The French word pathétique is usually best translated as `moving', not as `pathetic'.
The German word Gemütlichkeit is not easy to translate into English.
The Sicilian tradition of omertà has long protected the Mafia.
At Basque festivals, a favourite entertainment is the sokamuturra, in which people run in front of a bull which is restricted by ropes controlled by handlers.
Related to this is the use of italics when using foreign words and phrases which are not regarded as completely assimilated into English:
Psychologists are interested in the phenomenon of déjà vu.
This analysis is not in accord with the Sprachgefühl of native speakers.
If you are not sure which foreign words and phrases are usually written in italics, consult a good dictionary.
It is also quite common to use italics when citing English words that are being talked about, as an alternative to single quotes:
The origin of the word boy is unknown.
Note the spelling difference between premier (an adjective meaning `first' or `most important') and premiere (a noun meaning `first performance').
Finally, italics are used in certain disciplines for various specific purposes. Here are two of the commoner ones. In biology, genus and species names of living creatures are italicized:
The earliest known member of the genus Homo is H. habilis.
The cedar waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum) is a familiar American bird.
Note that a genus name always has a capital letter, while a species name never does.
Second, names of legal cases are italicized:
The famous case of Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark in American legal history.
In this case, note that the abbreviation v., which stands for versus (`against') stands in roman type, not in italics. Note also that the American abbreviation is vs.:
(A) The famous case of Brown vs. Board of Education was a landmark in American legal history.
Special note: If you have a sentence containing a phrase which would normally go into italics, and if for some reason the entire sentence needs to be italicized, the the phrase that would normally be in italics goes into ordinary roman type instead. So, if for some reason my last example sentence needs to be italicized, the result looks like this:
The famous case of Brown v. Board of Education was a landmark in American legal history.
Boldface letters are the extra-black ones — like these. Most word processors can produce these. They have only a few general uses.
First, they are used for chapter titles and section headings, exactly as is done in this document.
Second, they are used for the captions to illustrations, tables and graphs.
Third, they are sometimes used to provide very strong emphasis, as an alternative to italics. In this document I have used them in this way very frequently — probably too frequently:
A colon is never followed by a hyphen or a dash.
Finally, boldface is often used to introduce important new terms. Again, I have been doing this regularly in this document: the name of each new punctuation mark is introduced in boldface.
The judicious use of boldface can provide variety and make a page more attractive to the eye, but it is never essential. If you can't produce boldface, use ordinary Roman type for italics for emphasis and important terms. If you do use boldface, don't overdo it.
Small capitals are just what they sound like: they look LIKE THIS. They have only one common use: certain abbreviations are commonly written in small capitals. In particular, the abbreviations BC and AD are usually so written:
Alexander the Great died in 323 BC.
Charlemagne was crowned in Rome on Christmas Day, AD 800.
Recall too that American usage prefers to write the time of day with small capitals:
(A) The earthquake struck at 6:40 AM.
In British usage, this would appear as follows:
The earthquake struck at 6.40 a.m.
A few publishers have recently adopted the practice of putting all abbreviations in small capitals, but this is not something you should imitate.
Many word processors can produce small capitals; if you can't produce them, use full capitals instead:
Alexander the Great died in 323 BC.
Very occasionally, small capitals are used for emphasis, but it is usually preferable to use italics for this, or even boldface.
Parentheses (( )), also called round brackets, always occur in pairs. They have one major use and one or two minor uses.
Most commonly, a pair of parentheses is used to set off a strong or weak interruption, rather like a pair of dashes or a pair of bracketing commas. In the case of a strong interruption, very often it is possible to use either dashes or parentheses:
The destruction of Guernica — and there is no doubt that the destruction was deliberate — horrified the world.
The destruction of Guernica (and there is no doubt that the destruction was deliberate) horrified the world.
As a rule, however, we prefer parentheses, rather than dashes or bracketing commas, when the interruption is best regarded as a kind of "aside" from the writer to the reader:
On the (rare!) occasion when you use a Latin abbreviation, be sure to punctuate it correctly.
The battle of Jutland (as you may recall from your school days) put an end to Germany's naval threat.
The Basque language is not (as the old legend has it) exceedingly difficult to learn.
We also use parentheses to set off an interruption which merely provides additional information or a brief explanation of an unfamiliar term:
The number of living languages (currently about 6000, by most estimates) is decreasing rapidly.
The bodegas (wine cellars) of the Rioja are an essential stop on any visit to northern Spain.
The royal portraits of Velázquez (or Velásquez) are justly renowned.
The German philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848–1925) laid the foundations of formal logic and of semantics.
In the last two examples, the phrases in parentheses merely provide an alternative spelling of the painter's name and the birth and death dates of the philosopher. In all these examples, neither dashes nor bracketing commas would be possible, except that you might conceivably use dashes in the first. Note also the way I introduce each new punctuation mark in this document.
It is possible to put an entire sentence into parentheses, or even a series of sentences, if they constitute an interruption of an appropriate type:
It appears that 33% of girls aged 16–18 smoke regularly, but that only 28% of boys in this age bracket do so. (These figures are provided by a recent newspaper survey.)
Note that a sentence in parentheses is capitalized and punctuated in the normal fashion.
Do not overdo parentheses to the point of stuffing one entire sentence inside another:
*The first-ever international cricket match (very few cricket fans are aware of this) was played between Canada and the United States in 1844.
This sort of thing is very common in the writing of those who neither plan their sentences ahead nor polish their writing afterward. If you find you have done this, rewrite the sentence in some less overcrowded way:
Very few cricket fans are aware that the first-ever international cricket match was played between Canada and the United States in 1844. or
The first-ever international cricket match was played between Canada and the United States in 1844. Very few cricket fans are aware of this.
Parentheses may also be used to represent options:
The referees who decide whether an abstract should be accepted will not know the name(s) of the author(s).
The (French) horn is an unusually difficult instrument to play.
The point of the last example is that the names French horn and horn denote the same instrument.
Finally, parentheses are used to enclose numerals or letters in an enumeration included in the body of a text:
A book proposal prepared for a potential publisher should include at least (1) a description of the content, (2) an identification of the intended readership, (3) an explanation of why the book will be necessary or valuable and (4) a comparison with any competing books already in print.
Observe that, in contrast to what happens with dashes and bracketing commas, we always write both parentheses:
He was smitten by a coup de foudre (as the French none too romantically put it).
Occasionally you may find yourself placing one set of parentheses inside another. Sometimes this is unavoidable, but you should avoid it whenever possible, since it makes your sentence hard to follow.
There is only one common use for square brackets ([ ]). Square brackets are used to set off an interruption within a direct quotation.
Very occasionally square brackets are used for citing references.
Specialist fields like mathematics and linguistics use square brackets for certain purposes of their own, but these are beyond the scope of this document.
The ellipsis (...), also called omission marks or the suspension, has just two uses.
First, the ellipsis is used to show that some material has been omitted from the middle of a direct quotation.
Second, the ellipsis is used to show that a sentence has been left unfinished. Unlike the dash, which is used to show that an utterance has been broken off abruptly (recall the unfortunate General Sedgwick!), the ellipsis shows that the writer or speaker has simply "tailed off" into silence, deliberately leaving something unsaid:
Colonel García leered at the prisoner: "We want those names now. If we don't get them..."
San Francisco gets a major earthquake about every sixty years. It has been ninety years since the last one...
This second usage is more typical of journalistic prose than of formal writing; excepting only when you are citing a direct quotation which seems to require it, you should generally avoid the ellipsis in formal writing.
The slash (/), also called the oblique, the virgule, the stroke, the solidus or the shilling mark, has several uses, all of them rather minor.
First, it is used to separate alternatives:
Applicants must possess a good university degree in French and/or have worked for two years in a French-speaking country.
Each candidate must bring his/her identity card.
If your work is badly punctuated, your reader may quickly decide that s/he has better things to do.
This usage is rather hard on the eye, and it is usually preferable to write the alternatives out in full:
Each candidate must bring his or her identity card.
This style is particularly frequent in job advertisements:
The University of Saffron Walden wishes to appoint a lecturer/senior lecturer in media studies.
Second, the slash may be used to represent a period of time:
The 1994/95 football season was marred by frequent scandals.
This office is open Tuesday/Saturday each week.
Third, the slash is used, especially in scientific writing, to represent the word per in units:
The density of iron is 7.87 g/cm3.
Light travels at 300,000 km/sec.
Fourth, the slash is used in writing fractions, as in ^@ or 3/4; in this use, it is often called the scratch.
Fifth, the slash is used in writing certain abbreviations. Virtually the only one of these you will find outside of specialist contexts is c/o for `care of' in addresses:
Write to me at Sylvia Keller, c/o Andrea Mason, 37 The Oaks, Plumtree, East Sussex BN17 4GH.
Finally, slashes are used to separate lines of poetry when a poem is written solid, instead of being set out line by line:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep/And nodding by the fire, take down this book/And slowly read of the soft look/Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep. (W. B. Yeats)
Numerals, Fractions and Dates
The compound numerals from twenty-one to ninety-nine are written with hyphens:
France is divided into ninety-six departments.
Mozart was only thirty-five years old when he died.
No additional hyphens are used in writing larger numbers:
A leap year has three hundred and sixty-six days.
The maximum possible score with three darts is one hundred and eighty.
In formal writing, the numerals from one to twenty are almost always written out:
The American flag has thirteen stripes.
We have four candidates for president.
Do not write:
*The American flag has 13 stripes.
*We have 4 candidates for president.
Larger numbers, however, may be written with digits:
The bomb killed 37 people and injured over 200 others.
Writing was invented less than 6000 years ago.
When writing a four-digit numeral in digits (other than a date), American writers never use a comma, but British writers usually do. Hence Americans write 2000 years and 3700 people, while Britons often write 2,000 years and 3,700 people. I consider such commas completely pointless, and I don't use them myself, but others may insist that you do so. A five-digit or larger numeral always takes one or more commas: 53,000 refugees, 170,000 cases of AIDS, 2,760,453 patents.
Naturally, we make an exception for addresses and other special cases, in which numerals are always written with digits:
I lived for years at 4 Howitt Road in Belsize Park.
Observe that it is bad style to start a sentence with a numeral: either the number should be written out, or the sentence should be rewritten:
*650 MPs sit in Parliament.
Six hundred and fifty MPs sit in Parliament.
There are 650 MPs in Parliament.
Fractions are always written with hyphens:
Almost three-fourths of the earth's surface is water.
More than one-half of babies born are male.
But note the following case:
One half of me wants to take the job while the other half doesn't.
Here the phrase one half is not really a fraction at all.
In formal writing, a fraction is always written out. You should not write things like the following:
*Almost ¾ of the earth's surface is water.
When we write a date, we usually put commas around the year:
It was on 18 April, 1775, that Paul Revere made his famous ride.
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
She died on the last day of November, 1843.
In these days of minimal punctuation, however, many people now prefer to omit such commas:
It was on 18 April 1775 that Paul Revere made his famous ride.
On December 7 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
She died on the last day of November 1843.
You may use either fashion, so long as you are consistent.
Important note: In British usage, a date is written day-month-year, while American usage prefers month-day-year. Hence, Britons write 23 March, while Americans write March 23. This is a potentially serious problem when we use the abbreviated style of writing dates often found in letters and business documents: to a Briton, 5/7/84 means 5 July, 1984, while to an American it means May 7, 1984. If you are writing something that might be read on the other side of the Atlantic, therefore, it is best to write out a date in full, to avoid any misunderstanding.
Diacritics, often loosely called `accents', are the various little dots and squiggles which, in many languages, are written above, below or on top of certain letters of the alphabet to indicate something about their pronunciation. Thus, French has words like été `summer', août `August', ça `that' and père `father'; German has Wörter `words' and tschüss `good-bye'; Spanish has mañana `tomorrow' and ángel `angel'; Norwegian has brød `bread' and frå `from'; Polish has Nza `tear', ^@le `badly' and pica `five'; Turkish has ku^@ `bird' and göz `eye'; Welsh has t^@ `house' and sïo `hiss', and so on. When you are citing a word, a name or a passage from a foreign language which uses diacritics, you should make every effort to reproduce those diacritics faithfully. Fortunately, most word processors can produce at least the commoner diacritics.
You are most likely to need to do this when citing names of persons or places or titles of literary and musical works. The French politician is François Mitterrand, the Spanish golfer is José-María Olazábal, the Polish linguist is Jerzy KuryNowicz, the Turkish national hero is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the beleaguered town in the former Yugoslavia is Gora^@de, Wagner's opera is the Götterdämmerung and the French film is Zazie dans le Métro. So far as you can produce them, therefore, these are the forms you should use even when writing in English. But don't overdo it. If an accepted English form exists, use that: write Munich, not München, Montreal, not Montréal, The Magic Flute, not Die Zauberflöte.
In English, diacritics are not normally used, but they occur in three situations. First, many foreign words and phrases have been borrowed into English, and some of these are not yet regarded as fully anglicized. Such forms should be written with their original diacritics, and they should also be written in italics, if possible, to show their foreign status:
Lloyd George was the Tories' bête noire.
She was an artist manqué.
The Wörter und Sachen approach is favoured by some etymologists.
Many other such items have become so completely anglicized that they are now usually treated as ordinary English words. Hence, most people now write cafe, rather than café, naive, rather than naïve, and cortege, rather than cortège, and such words are not normally italicized in any case. If you are in doubt about these, you should, as always, consult a good dictionary.
Second, one particular diacritic, the diaeresis (¨), is very occasionally written in English to show that a vowel is to be pronounced separately. A familiar example of this is the name Zoë, but other cases exist. A few people write coöperate, rather than cooperate, and aërate, rather than aerate, but the spellings with the diaeresis are now decidedly old-fashioned and not recommended. Usage varies with the surname Brontë: all the members of this famous family spelled their name with the diaeresis, which should therefore perhaps by retained by the usual rule of respecting the preferences of the owner of a name, but many people nevertheless now write Bronte.
Third, a grave accent (`) is occasionally written over the letter e in the ending -ed to show that it is pronounced as a separate syllable. Thus we write a learnèd scholar or an agèd man to show that learnèd and agèd are each pronounced here as two syllables. Compare I learned French at school and He has aged rapidly, in which learned and aged are pronounced as single syllables.
For convenience, here are the names of the commoner diacritics:
the acute accent
the grave accent
the circumflex accent
the diaeresis, or trema, or umlaut
the ring, or bolle
the slash, or solidus, or virgule
The Other Marks on Your Keyboard
Your keyboard contains a number of other characters, most of which are not properly punctuation marks at all, and very few of which are normally used in formal writing, except in certain specialist disciplines. Here are the ones which are found most commonly, or which can be produced with a word processor; such special symbols are often informally called dingbats:
the per cent sign
the dollar sign
the pound sign
the cent sign
the hash mark (in computer parlance, the `pound sign')
the asterisk (in the US, informally called a `bug')
the at sign
the ampersand, or and sign
the paragraph mark, or blind, or pilcrow
the section mark
the swung dash (informally called the `twiddle' or `tilde')
the less-than sign
the greater-than sign
braces (also called curly brackets)
guillemets (French quotation marks)
reversed guillemets (German quotation marks)
the plus sign
the plus-or-minus sign
the equal sign
the pipe You will undoubtedly be familiar with the use of the per cent sign, the dollar sign and the pound sign:
Over 40% of Australia is desert.
The USA bought Alaska for only $3 million.
This word processor costs £1800.
Note that we write £42.50, and not *£42.50p, and similarly for other currencies.
Most computer keyboards lack the pound sign, but it can usually be produced in one way or another. If you absolutely can't produce a pound sign, it has become conventional in computing circles to use the hash mark instead (hence its other name):
This word processor costs #1800.
In American English, the hash mark is used informally to represent the word `number' before a numeral, as in look for # 27 (A). This is not usual in British English, and it is out of place in formal writing.
The asterisk is occasionally used to mark footnotes. It also has one other rather curious use: it is sometimes used to replace a letter in writing a word which is felt to be too coarse to be written out in full, as in f**k. This is a usage mostly found in newspapers and magazines, in which writers are often careful to avoid offending their very broad readership. In most other types of writing, such words are normally written out in full if they are used at all. (Compare the somewhat similar use of the dash.)
A bullet may be used to mark each item in an enumeration if numbering of the items is not thought to be necessary; look at the summaries at the ends of most of the earlier sections of this document.
The at sign is chiefly confined to business documents, in which it stands for `at a price of ... each':
200 shower units @ £42.50
It is also used in electronic mail addresses to separate a username from the rest of the address, as in my e-mail address:
The ampersand represents the word `and' in the names of certain companies and legal firms, as in the name Barton & Maxwell, Solicitors. Except when citing such a name, you should never use an ampersand in place of `and' in formal writing, nor should you use a plus sign for this purpose. The word `and' is always written out.
The paragraph mark and the section mark are occasionally used to represent the words `paragraph' and `section' when referring to some part of a work: in ¶ 2, in § 3.1. They are only appropriate when brevity is important, such as in footnotes; in your text, you should write these words out: in paragraph two, in section 3.1.
The remaining symbols in my list have various particular uses in specialist disciplines, and sometimes in dictionaries, but they have no function in ordinary writing.
Priority Among Punctuation Marks
As I hope you have gathered by now, punctuation marks are, in most cases, independent of one another. Each mark is inserted to do a particular job, and using one mark neither allows you to drop another one which is independently required nor permits you to insert one or two extra marks which are not needed. There are, however, a few exceptions.
First of all, we never write two full stops at the end of a sentence. Observe the following examples:
According to tradition, Rome was founded in 753 b.c.
Leo Durocher never in fact made that famous remark "Nice guys finish last."
The abbreviation and the direct quotation already end in full stops, so no second full stop is written. Similarly, if a sentence would logically end in two question marks, only the first is written:
Who wrote the sonnet that begins "How do I love thee?"
If a sentence-final quotation ends in a question mark or an exclamation mark, no full stop follows:
Pontius Pilate famously asked "What is truth?"
However, a question mark is written after a full stop if this is logically required:
Are there any Latin texts earlier than 500 b.c.?
You already know that the second of two bracketing commas or dashes is not written at the end of a sentence. This is because the comma or dash that would logically appear there is "outranked" by the full stop or other mark that appears at the end of the sentence:
The Spaniards and the Canadians are close to war over fishing rights, it would appear.
We commonly assume that there are only two sexes ‹ but could we be wrong?
In the same way, a comma that should logically appear is suppressed if a colon or a semicolon is present at the same position:
The planet Venus is a hellhole, as the Russian probes have revealed; no human could survive for a moment on its surface.
Only two groups are excluded from the French Foreign Legion, according to the rules: women and Frenchmen.
In these examples the second bracketing commas that would logically appear after the words revealed and rules are suppressed by the following colon and semicolon. Here is a useful rule of thumb: a comma is never preceded or followed by any other punctuation mark at all, except possibly by a quotation mark or by a full stop which forms part of an abbreviation.