The Full Stop
The full stop (.), also called the period, presents few problems. It is chiefly used to mark the end of a sentence expressing a statement, as in the following examples:
Terry Pratchett's latest book is not yet out in paperback.
I asked her whether she could tell me the way to Brighton.
Chinese, uniquely among the world's languages, is written in a logographic script.
The British and the Irish drive on the left; all other Europeans drive on the right.
Note how the full stops are used in the following article, extracted from TheGuardian:
The opening of Ken Loach's film Riff-Raff in New York casts doubt onWinston Churchill's observation that the United States and Britain were two countries separated by a common language. In what must be a first, an entire British film has been given sub-titles to help Americans cut through the thick stew of Glaswegian, Geordie, Liverpudlian, West African and West Indian accents. With the arrival of Riff-Raff, English as spoken by many British citizens has qualified as a foreign language in the US. Admittedly, the accents on the screen would present a challenge to many people raised on the Queen's English. But it is disconcerting to watch a British film with sub-titles, not unlike watching Marlon Brando dubbed into Italian.
There is one common error you must watch out for. Here is an example of it (remember, an asterisk marks a badly punctuated sentence):
*Norway has applied for EC membership, Sweden is expected to do the same.
Can you see what's wrong with this? Yes, there are two complete statements here, but the first one has been punctuated only with a comma. This is not possible, and something needs to be changed. The simplest way of fixing the example is to change the comma to a full stop:
Norway has applied for EC membership. Sweden is expected to do the same.
Now each statement has its own full stop. This is correct, but you might consider it clumsy to use two short sentences in a row. If so, you can change the bad example in a different way:
Norway has applied for EC membership, and Sweden is expected to do the same.
This time we have used the connecting word and to combine the two short statements into one longer statement, and so now we need only one full stop at the end.
Here are some further examples of this very common error:
*Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries, its annual income is only $80 per person.
*The British are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages, the Dutch are famously good at it.
*The proposal to introduce rock music to Radio 3 has caused an outcry, angry letters have been pouring into the BBC.
*Borg won his fifth straight Wimbledon title in 1980, the following year he lost in the final to McEnroe.
All of these examples suffer from the same problem: a comma has been used to join two complete sentences. In each case, either the comma should be replaced by a full stop, or a suitable connecting word should be added, such as and or while.
Later, I'll explain another way of punctuating these sentences, by using a semicolon.
Full stops are also sometimes used in punctuating abbreviations.
Summary of full stops:
· Put a full stop at the end of a complete statement.
· Do not connect two statements with a comma.
The Question Mark
A question mark (?) is placed at the end of a sentence which is a direct question. Here are some examples:
What is the capital of Wales?
Does anyone have a pen I can borrow?
Who told you that?
In which country did coffee originate?
If the question is a direct quotation, repeating the speaker's exact words, a question mark is still used:
"Have you a pen I can borrow?" she asked.
"How many of you have pets at home?" inquired the teacher.
But a question mark is not used in an indirect question, in which the speaker's exact words are not repeated:
She asked if I had a pen she could borrow.
The teacher asked how many of us had pets at home.
Here only a full stop is used, since the whole sentence is now a statement.
The question mark also has one minor use: it may be inserted into the middle of something, inside parentheses, to show that something is uncertain. Here are two examples:
The famous allegorical poem Piers Plowman is attributed to William Langland (?1332?1400).
The Lerga inscription fascinatingly contains the personal name Vmme Sahar (?), which looks like perfect Basque.
The question marks on the poet's birth and death dates indicate that those dates are not certain, and the one in the second example indicates that the reading of the name is possibly doubtful.
Summary of Question Marks:
· Use a question mark at the end of a direct question.
· Do not use a question mark at the end of an indirect question.
· Use an internal question mark to show that something is uncertain.
The Exclamation Mark
The exclamation mark (!), known informally as a bang or a shriek, is used at the end of a sentence or a short phrase which expresses very strong feeling. Here are some examples:
What a lovely view you have here!
Johnny, don't touch that!
Examples like these are quite normal in those kinds of writing that try to represent ordinary speech — for example, in novels. But exclamation marks are usually out of place in formal writing. Using them frequently will give your work a breathless, almost childish, quality.
An exclamation mark is also usual after an exclamation beginning with what or how:
What fools people can be!
How well Marshall bowled yesterday!
Note that such sentences are exclamations, and not statements. Compare them with statements:
People can be such fools.
Marshall bowled very well yesterday.
You can also use an exclamation mark to show that a statement is very surprising:
After months of careful work, the scientists finally opened the tomb. It was empty!
It is also permissible to use an exclamation mark to draw attention to an interruption:
On the (rare!) occasion when you use a Latin abbreviation, be sure to punctuate it properly.
Otherwise, you should generally avoid using exclamation marks in your formal writing. Don't write things like this:
*Do not use exclamation marks in formal writing!
*In 1848, gold was discovered in California!
Don't use an exclamation mark unless you're certain it's necessary — and never use two or three of them in a row:
*This is a sensational result!!!
This sort of thing is all right in <A HREF="node52.html>personal letters, but it is completely out of place in formal writing.
Summary of exclamation marks:
· Don't use an exclamation mark unless it's absolutely necessary.
· Use an exclamation mark after an exclamation, especially after one beginning with what or how.
A Final Point
Note that a full stop, a question mark or an exclamation mark is never preceded by a white space. Things like the following are wrong:
*How well has Darwin's theory stood up ?
A sentence-final punctuation mark is always written next to the last word of the sentence.
A fragment is a word or a phrase which stands by itself but which does not make up a complete sentence. Fragments are very common in ordinary speech, in advertisements and even in newspapers. They may be used very sparingly in formal writing; when used, they should be followed by a full stop, a question mark or an exclamation mark, as appropriate:
Will the Star Wars project ever be resumed? Probably not.
We need to encourage investment in manufacturing. But how?
Can England beat Australia? Absolutely!
The judicious use of fragments can add vividness to your writing, and they are quite acceptable in writing which is somewhat informal. But don't overdo them: if you use too many fragments, your work will become breathless and disjointed.