Punctuating Essays and Letters
There are a few special points to be considered in writing essays, reports and articles, and in writing letters. We will consider these points here. There is in practice a good deal of variation in these matters, and the usages I recommend here are those which are common and generally acceptable. You may find, however, that your teacher, your university tutor, your business firm or your publisher insists upon some different usages from those I describe here. If so, you should, of course, conform to those requirements. Note that printed books and popular magazines sometimes depart from the normal usages in order to make their pages look attractive or eye-catching; you should leave such decisions to designers and layout editors, and not try to imitate them yourself.
Titles and Section Headings
The title of a complete work is usually centred near the top of the first page; if possible, it should be printed either in large letters or in boldface, or even in both. It should not be italicized or placed in quotation marks, and it should not have a full stop at the end. Any punctuation or italics which are required for independent reasons should be used normally; this includes a question mark at the end if the title is a question. If there is a subtitle, a colon should be placed at the end of the title proper; unless the title and the subtitle are both very short, it is best to use two lines.
There are two possible styles for capitalization: you may capitalize every significant word, or you may capitalize only those words which intrinsically require capitals. (The first word should be capitalized in any case.) Here are some examples; I have used the second style of capitalization:
The origin of Mozart's Requiem
The imposition of English in Wales
Classroom discipline in
Football hooligans: why do they do it?
The parasites of the quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides)
"Thou unnecessary letter": the history of the letter Z in English
The quotation marks in the last example are used because the first phrase is a quotation from Shakespeare.
In a work which is very short (no more than five or six pages), it is rarely necessary to divide the work into sections. Longer works, however, are usually best divided into sections which are at least named and possibly also numbered; numbers are recommended if there are more than two or three sections. Section headings are usually placed in boldface but in ordinary-sized type; they are not centred but placed at the left-hand margin. A section heading may be placed on a separate line (with a following blank line), or it may be placed at the beginning of a paragraph; only in the second case should there be a full stop at the end. Here is an example illustrated in each of the two styles:
3. The dictatorship of Primo de Rivera
In 1923, King Alfonso XIII handed over power to General Primo de Rivera, who immediately abrogated the Constitution, dissolved the Cortes and installed a brutal right-wing dictatorship.... or
3. The dictatorship of Primo de Rivera. In 1923, King Alfonso III handed over power to General Primo de Rivera, who immediately abrogated the Constitution, dissolved the Cortes and installed a brutal right-wing dictatorship....
Either style is acceptable. Note that the first paragraph after a title or a section heading is not indented; all following paragraphs should be indented.
If the work is very long, or if it consists of a number of points and subpoints (as is often the case with bureaucratic and business documents), then the sections may be further divided into subsections. In this case, you should certainly number all the sections and subsections, in the following manner (these passages are taken from John Wells's book Accents of English) (Wells 1982):
6. North American English
6.1. General American
6.1.2. The thought-lot merger
A well-known diagnostic for distinguishing the northern speech area of the
A footnote is a piece of text which, for some reason, cannot be accommodated within the main body of the document and which is therefore placed elsewhere. It is usual, and preferable, to place footnotes at the bottom of the page on which they are referred to, but this usually requires a great deal of fiddling about, unless you are lucky enough to have a word processor which arranges footnotes automatically. It is easier for the writer to put all the footnotes at the end of the document, but of course this makes life harder for the reader, who is obliged to do a lot of fumbling about in order to find the footnotes. Exception: If you are preparing a work for publication, then you must put all the footnotes on separate pages at the end of your document; such notes are called endnotes. But don't use endnotes in a document which will pass directly from your hands to the reader.
There are two main rules in the use of footnotes. First:
Do not use a footnote if you can possibly avoid it.
The overuse of footnotes will make your work laborious to read: a reader who finds herself constantly directed away from your text to consult footnotes will lose the thread of your writing and possibly lose her place altogether. The use of avoidable footnotes is self-indulgent and sloppy, and it is contemptuous of the reader. Academic writers in particular are often guilty of this kind of objectionable behaviour. Far too often I have wearily chased up a footnote only to find something like this at the end of the trail:
7This term is used in the sense of Halliday (1968). or
23As is commonly assumed. or even
(The last example provides nothing but the birth and death dates of someone mentioned in the text.) Such trivial asides could easily be incorporated into the main text inside parentheses, and that's where they should be, if they're going to be present at all.
But think whether such information needs to be present at all. If the term being footnoted in the first of these examples is so obscure, why not merely explain it? What is your reader supposed to do if she doesn't recognize it — put your book down, go off to the library and find Halliday (1968), and read that book from cover to cover? You should make every effort to make your work a pleasure to read. Reading it should not be an epic struggle on the part of your hapless reader.
If you decide that a footnote is unavoidable, then the standard procedure is to flag it in the text with a superscript numeral at the point at which it is relevant:
Let us consider the case of Algerian immigrants in Marseille, for whom a substantial number of case studies6 are now available.
At the bottom of the page (one hopes), the reader will find your footnote:
6I am indebted to Sylvette Vaucluse for kindly providing me with unpublished data from her own research, and to Sylvette Vaucluse and Jacqueline Labéguerie for illuminating discussions of these case studies. They are not to be held responsible for the use I make of the work here.
If you can't produce superscript numerals, then the alternative is to place the footnote numeral inside of parentheses or, preferably, square brackets:
Let us consider the case of Algerian immigrants in Marseille, for whom a substantial number of case studies are now available.
The second rule about footnotes is also a prohibition:
Do not use a footnote merely to introduce a reference to work which you are citing.
If your footnotes are very few in number (and one hopes that they are), it is permissible to use symbols rather than numerals to flag them. The symbol most commonly used for this purpose is the asterisk (*):
Let us consider the case of Algerian immigrants in Marseille, for whom a substantial number of case studies* are now available.
I do not recommend this, for two reasons. First, if you happen to be writing in a specialist field in which the asterisk is used for other purposes (as it is in mathematics and linguistics), then your reader may not immediately recognize what the asterisk is doing. Second, if you want to put more than one footnote on a page, you have a problem. Printed books sometimes trot out a startling array of further doodahs to mark additional footnotes, such as the dagger, or obelisk, or obelus (†) and the double dagger, or diesis (‡). Using these squiggles will at least force you to put your footnotes at the bottom of the page, but it is far better to use numerals.
A footnote should be as brief as possible, and here alone it is preferable to make liberal use of readily identifiable abbreviations, including those Latin abbreviations to which I objected so strongly earlier.
Footnotes at the bottom of the page must be set off in some way from the main text. The common way of doing this is to put the footnotes in a smaller typeface. If you can't do this, a horizontal line is permissible.
If a footnote is too long to fit at the bottom of its page, it may be continued at the bottom of the next page. When this starts to happen to you, though, you may well begin to wonder whether that footnote is really essential after all.1
References to Published Work
Especially in academic writing, it is frequently necessary to refer in your text to other work of which you have made use or to which you want to direct the reader's attention. There are several different systems for doing this, and they are not all equally good.
By far the best system is the Harvard system, also called the author date system, and this is the one I recommend. In the Harvard system, you provide a reference in the form of the author's surname and the year of publication; this is enough to direct the reader to the list of full references in your bibliography. Like any brief interruption, the date is enclosed in parentheses, and the surname goes there too, unless it is a structural part of the sentence. Multiple references are separated by commas. Where necessary, a few words of explanation may also be placed inside the parentheses. Here are some examples:
A recent study (Barrutia 1992) has uncovered further evidence for this analysis.
Several earlier investigators (Wale 1967, Ciaramelli 1972, Mott 1974) reported just such a correlation.
These figures are cited from Curtis (1987), the most comprehensive treatment to date.
Roberts has developed this approach in a series of publications (1981, 1984, 1989).
This topic has been explored most thoroughly by Lumley (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988).
Very many investigators (for example, Scacchi 1980) have argued for the first view.
If your work includes references to two people with the same surname, use initials to distinguish them. For example, if you have both John Anderson and Stephen Anderson in your bibliography:
This approach is explored by J. Anderson (1995).
If you need to cite two or more works by the same author published in the same year, use the letters a, b, c, and so on, to distinguish them:
The significance of these observations is denied by several workers, including Goodlet (1990b), Shiels (1992) and White (1993a).
If you need to do this, then, of course, be sure you use the letters consistently right throughout your references and your bibliography. Finally, if you want to refer the reader to some specific pages of the work you are citing, put the page numbers after the date, with a colon intervening:
For a description of this method, see
Many people do not put a white space after the colon in this usage, but I prefer to do so. Some people use a comma instead of a colon, but the colon is much easier on the eye and avoids any possibility of ambiguity, so I recommend that you use a colon.
Very occasionally you may need to cite something which somebody else has told you personally, either in conversation or in a personal letter. You do it like this:
This information has been provided by Jane Guest (personal communication).
In academic circles it is permissible to abbreviate (personal communication) to (p.c.)
A second widely-used system is the number system, which is particularly popular in some scientific circles. Here a reference takes the form merely of a number enclosed in square brackets:
A recent study  has uncovered further evidence for this analysis.
Several earlier investigators [5, 11, 23] reported just such a correlation.
This saves space, but it has several drawbacks: it gives the reader no clue as to what work is being cited, it obliges you to number all the items in your bibliography, it makes the citing of page numbers slightly awkward and it forces you to cite an author's name when that name is part of your sentence but to leave the name out otherwise. I don't like this system, and I don't recommend it, but you may at times find yourself obliged to use it.
There are several other ways of citing references, but they are all highly objectionable and should never be used. A few writers put complete references into the body of the text, which is both distracting to the reader and absurdly inefficient, especially when the same work is cited several times. Very many writers have the bad habit of putting references into footnotes and flagging them just like ordinary footnotes; not only does this practice clutter the page with pointless footnotes, but it wastes the reader's time by constantly sending her off to consult "footnotes" which are nothing but references. Do not use footnotes for references.
Worst of all is the dreadful hotchpotch used by many scholars in arts subjects, in which references are presented sometimes in footnotes and sometimes in the text and are almost always incomplete and full of cryptic abbreviations which the reader has no hope of deciphering. If you spatter your work with unexplained exotica like DCELC, REW 1317, Schuch. Prim., Urquijo BSP IV, 137 ff., and so on, then no doubt the other eighteen specialists in your field will follow you, all right, but the rest of your readers will be helpless. Do not provide incomplete references, and do not use unexplained abbreviations. If you find that the use of some abbreviation is unavoidable, then explain it clearly, either the first time you use it, or, better still, in a list of abbreviations at the beginning of your work.
The perpetrators of such inexcusable obscurity have the further outrageous habit of citing references with the Latin abbreviations ibid. and op. cit. What do these mean? Well, ibid. means "This is another reference to the last thing I cited; it's back there somewhere, maybe only a page or two, if you're lucky." And op. cit. means "This is another reference to the work by this author which I cited some time ago, and, if you want to know what it is, you can leaf back through twenty-five or fifty pages to find it, you miserable peasant." (Technically, they mean `in the same place' and `in the work cited', but my explanations are far more honest.) Don't use these ghastly things. A writer who uses them is expressing utter contempt for the reader, and should be turned over to the Imperial Chinese Torturer for corrective treatment.
Use the Harvard system. It's vastly superior to everything else.
In any piece of written work in which you have cited references to published works, it is necessary to provide a bibliography, or list of references, at the end of your work.
You should provide only one such list. For some reason, many people have acquired the curious belief that they should give two lists: one list of all the references in the order they occur, and a second alphabetical list, or something similar. This silly practice is a pointless waste of time and paper: there should be only one list of references, and the references in your text should direct the reader straight to that list, as explained earlier.
The precise form of your bibliography may vary slightly, depending on what system you have used for citing references in your document. Here I shall assume that you have used the Harvard system, as recommended.
The bibliography is put into alphabetical order according to the surnames of the authors and editors you are citing. If you cite two authors with the same surname, put them in alphabetical order by their first names or initials. If you cite several different works by the same author, put them in date order, earliest to latest. If you have two or more works with the same author and the same date, use the a, b, c system already described. When you cite multiple works by the same author, that author's name need be written out only once; for succeeding works, you can use a horizontal line instead of repeating the name. A book with no author or editor is listed alphabetically by its title.
There are just three types of work which are very commonly cited in bibliographies: books, articles in books, and articles in journals. For each type, the form of the reference is slightly different, but, above all, the reference must be complete.
For a book, you must give the name(s) of the author(s) or editor(s), the date, the title, the place of publication and the name of the publisher. For an article in a book, you must give the name(s) of the author(s), the title of the article and the first and last pages, as well as full information on the book itself, as just described. For an article in a journal, you must give the name(s) of the author(s), the date, the title of the article, the name of the journal, the volume number and the first and last pages. Names of authors should be given just as they appear in their publications.
If you are citing two or more articles from a single book, you can put that book into your list as usual, and cross-refer each article to that book, as shown below.
There are several slightly different systems for arranging and punctuating references in a bibliography, almost all of them acceptable. They differ chiefly in whether they use full stops or commas to separate parts of the reference, in whether they put quotation marks around the titles of articles, and in where they place the date. I recommend full stops rather than commas, single quotation marks around titles of articles, and the placing of the date immediately after the author's name, and that is the system used in my examples below. Standard sources like The MLA Style Guide often recommend slightly different systems, and your tutor or publisher may insist upon one of these; in that case, you should fall into line, but make sure your references are complete.
Here is a sample bibliography:
Anderson, Henrietta. 1986. A Study of Shoes.
——— 1989a. American Footwear: A Cultural History.
——— 1989b. The Rise and Rise of the Stiletto Heel.
Cannon, Felix (ed.) 1964. European Footwear: a Collection of
Ginsberg, Sylvie and Kate Bruton (eds). 1977. If the Shoe Fits: Essays on the History of Footwear.
Halliwell, C. N. 1990. `The Irish brogue'. In C. L. James and P. T. Caldwell (eds). British and Irish Footwear 17201880.
Institute for American Cultural Studies. 1978. A Sourcebook on American Costume.
Jensen, Carla. 1964. `The wellington boot'. In Cannon (1964), pp. 35871.
Kaplan, Irene. 1983. `The evolution of the stiletto heel'. American Journal of Costume 17: 3851.
——— 1990a. Review of
——— 1990b. `The platform shoe and its influence'. Boots and Shoes 23:154178.
Maxwell, Catherine. 1982. `The ski boot: practical footwear or fashion accessory?' Boots and Shoes 15: 137.
Maxwell, Catherine and Henrietta Anderson. 1981. `The great American sneaker'. Boots and Shoes 14: 7792.
Maxwell, George. 1964. `Italian Renaissance footwear'. In Cannon (1964), pp. 105138.
Shoes and Boots: a Compendium. 1950.
Note carefully how these references are given. If you need to cite some other kind of work, such as a newspaper article, a sound recording, a film, a video, a radio or television broadcast or a CD-ROM, you should consult a comprehensive source such as The MLA Style Manual. However, so long as your reference is complete, you can't go too far wrong.
One further point. If you have to enter a title in your alphabetical list, ignore the words the, a and an at the beginning. So, a book entitled A History of Footwear would be listed under H, not under A, and the newspaper called The Guardian would be listed as Guardian, under G.
If you are using the number system for citing references, then, of course, each item in your bibliography must be preceded by its number. You should still, however, put those items in alphabetical order. Many people who use the number system simply list the items in the order in which they occur in the text. This allows the reader to find a particular reference, all right, but she can no longer glance at your bibliography to see if particular authors or works are present. All readers will find this unhelpful, at best, and a university tutor is likely to be very annoyed.
It is beyond the scope of this document to treat paragraphing in detail. Here I content myself with a few brief remarks.
Every piece of written work should be broken up into a series of reasonably small paragraphs, and each new paragraph should represent some kind of break, however small, in the continuity of the text. Some people have trouble with this, and tend to produce enormous paragraphs running to a whole page or more. This is very tiring for the reader and should be avoided. If you have this kind of problem, try studying the paragraphs in any longish section of this document; this may help you to get a grasp of where it is appropriate to start a new paragraph.
As remarked above, the first paragraph after a business letters, there is another format which is sometimes preferred. In this second format, every paragraph is separated from the next by a blank line, and no paragraphs are indented. This format uses more paper, and it is not normal in other types of writing.
Letters require very little punctuation, apart from whatever is needed for independent reasons. The address on the envelope looks like this:
54 Cedar Grove
There is no punctuation at all here. Note especially that the number 54 is not followed by a comma. In
The same goes for the two addresses in the letter itself: your own address (the return address), usually placed in the top right-hand corner, and the recipient's address (the internal address), usually placed at the left-hand margin, below the return address:
17 March 1995
54 Cedar Grove
Note the position of the date, and note that the date requires no punctuation.
In British English, the greeting is always followed by a comma:
Dear Esther, or
Dear Mr Jackson,
In American usage, only a personal letter takes a comma here, while a business letter takes a colon:
Dear Esther, but
Dear Mr. Jackson:
If you are writing to a firm or an institution, and you have no name, you may use the greeting Dear Sir/Madam.
The closing always takes a comma:
Yours lovingly, or
Note that only the first word of the closing is capitalized. In British usage, it is traditional to close with Yours sincerely when writing to a named person but Yours faithfully when using the Dear Sir/Madam greeting, but this distinction is anything but crucial. American usage prefers Yours sincerely or Sincerely yours (A) for all business letters. Things like Yours exasperatedly are only appropriate, if at all, in letters to newspapers.
In a personal letter, of course, you can use any closing you like: Yours lovingly, Looking forward to seeing you, It's not much fun without you, or whatever.
Carey, G. V. 1958. Mind the Stop: A Brief Guide to Punctuation, 2nd ed.
Pullum, Geoffrey K. 1984. `Punctuation and human freedom'. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 2: 419-425. Reprinted in Geoffrey K. Pullum, 1991, The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language,
Trask, R. L. 1995. Language: The Basics.
Trask, R. L. 1997. The Penguin Guide to Punctuation. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Wells, J. C. 1982. Accents of English, 3 vols.
Other Useful Works on Punctuation
Gowers, Sir Ernest. 1962. The Complete Plain Words. Harmondsworth: Penguin. Chapter 10: `Punctuation'.
Jarvie, Gordon. 1992. Chambers Punctuation Guide.