Punctuation: A broader view

Punctuation is the use of special marks or signs to mark off units of utterances, either to show their grammatical relationships or to give them some emphasis. Punctuation corresponds to pauses and changes of pitch in speaking. It, as a result, supports one’s writing by preventing misreading and assuring clarity. Considering this, I present and discuss the absolutely crucial ones below.

Full stop (.):

It performs the following functions:

1. It is used to mark the end of a sentence: Gani loves to teach.

2. It is used to indicate abbreviations (initials, degrees, titles, etc.), for example, Feb., Rev., Prof., Ph.D., Bamgbose G.A.

Note: When the first and last letters of a word are used to form an abbreviation, one can either put a full stop or omit it. That is to say, from “Doctor,” we have “Dr” or “Dr.”

The full stop should not be used for acronyms or initialisms which are abbreviations for professional, business and governmental organisations: NBA, INEC, UNESCO, PHCN, etc.

Comma (,):

It performs the following functions:

1. It is used after a formal salutation or complimentary close: Dear Sir, Yours faithfully, etc.

2. It is used in addresses, dates and figures: 2, Bello Road; July 29, 2015; 46,000; etc.

3. It is used to separate a cluster of words: the handsome, tall, fair, Nigerian man.

4. It is also used to show a short break in a statement: for the first time, actually, surprisingly, etc.

5. It is used to separate a direct quotation: “Don’t say a word,” his father instructed.

6. It is used to separate names of business partners, degrees and other qualifications: Bamgbose G.A., BEd (LASU), MA (University of Ibadan).

7. It separates words that are used in apposition (possible replacements) to nouns: Vincent Enyeama, the Nigerian goalkeeper, is diligent.

Colon (:):

The colon performs the following functions:

1. It is used after a speaker’s name in a dialogue, especially in a written play, as in:

Lakunle: A very good morning to you, sir!

2. It is used to introduce a formal listing.

I found the following in the bag: her wallet, a passport, a bunch of keys and some cash.

3. It is used to introduce a formal quotation.

According to Fakoya (2008): “The only variety of English available to Nigerians is Nigerian English.”

4. The colon is used to separate chapters from verses in biblical references, as in: John 3:16.

5. It is deployed to indicate time, as in: 9:25 a.m.

6. It is also used to separate a title from a subtitle of a book, as in: Everyday English: A Compilation of Common Errors.

Read also: The state of English language teaching in Nigeria

Semicolon (;): The semicolon performs the following functions:

1. Use a semicolon in place of a period to separate sentences where a conjunction has been left out: Call me tomorrow; I will give you my answer then.

2. Use the semicolon to separate units of a series when the units contain commas: This conference has people who have come from Boise, Idaho; Los Angeles, California; and Nashville, Tennessee.

3. Use the semicolon between two sentences joined by a coordinating conjunction (e.g. “and”) when one or more commas appear in the first sentence: If she can, she will attempt that feat; and if her husband is able, he will be there to see her.

Hyphen (-):

The hyphen performs the following functions:

1. The hyphen is used in compound adjectives, as in: a three-man committee, a four-year-old boy.

To ascertain whether a compound noun is two words, one word or hyphenated, you may need to look it up in a dictionary. If you cannot find the word in the dictionary, treat the noun as separate words. Here are the three forms mentioned: eyewitness (one-word compound), eye strain (two-word compound), eye-opener (hyphenated compound).

2. The hyphen joins some prefixes to main words: co-education, anti-climax, etc.

3. It is used to split a word at the end of a line such that the part that cannot be contained is taken to the next line. It is important to break a word at the end of a line on a syllable and not just in between a syllable: accommo-dation (right); intimidat-ion (wrong).

4. A hyphen is also used between compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.

Dash (–):

This is often mistaken for a hyphen. The hyphen and the dash are not the same. The dash is longer than the hyphen, and they perform different functions. Here are the functions of the dash:

1. It is used to introduce a list: The group of companies is into so many things – housing, furniture, cosmetics and farming.

2. It is also used to mark a break or additional information in a speaker’s line of thought: My brother-in-law – the proprietor of Tendermate School – advocates a quality education.

3. It is also introduced before a repeated word: The University of Ibadan – the first and the best university in Nigeria – was founded in 1948.

Quotation marks or inverted commas (‘ ’ or “ ”):

The single quotation marks are British-oriented while the double quotation marks are associated with the Americans. However, both are allowed, provided one is consistent with one’s choice. The following are the functions of the inverted commas:

1. It is used to mark or indicate a quotation: Achebe once said, “Proverbs are the oil with which words are eaten.”

2. To show words used in a special or technical sense, slang, the vernacular, etc.: So you mean you didn’t come with “kola” for “oga,” and you want to have your way? Note: “Kola” is either money or any gift in this sense.

3. To enclose the names of songs, as well as titles of poems, essays, stories, articles, etc.: My recent paper is titled “A critical discourse analysis of the Oyo State gubernatorial debate.”

Ellipsis (…): It is used when omitting a word, phrase, line paragraph, or more, from a quoted passage. There are many methods for using the ellipsis. The three-dot method is the simplest and is appropriate for most general works and many scholarly ones. The three- or four-dot method and even more rigorous method used in legal works require fuller explanations that can be found in other reference books.

Caret (^):

It is used to show that something is missing from a sentence or text. It is used instead of having to cancel or cross an entire line or sentence because of a single omission.

This treatise has considered the most important punctuation marks, hence it can always be a reference material for the proper deployment of these marks.