Punctuation. When I was at school, just the mention of the word by the teacher would cause the class of students to groan. Boring! We hated practising punctuation. It seemed so pointless and complicated. We wanted to be able to write down on paper exactly what we were thinking, a stream of consciousness. Commas, full stops and capital letters were just a waste of time!
Lots of adults, too, hate punctuation because they don’t really understand the purpose of it or find the rules confusing. Some languages use punctuation symbols in a different way to English, which adds to the confusion. These days people often opt not to use it much, especially when interacting online. The advance of social media platforms such as Twitter, where there is a character limit, and Facebook, where you are communicating informally between friends, means that a different kind of written language is evolving where punctuation is becoming optional.
However, there is still a very distinct difference between informal and formal language in English and both have different rules and expectations. Just because you can reply to a friend’s Facebook post using no full stops and writing in upper case (capitals) does not mean this is acceptable in an academic essay or a business letter.
This is the case in the IELTS exam. Punctuation matters. Greatly. Today’s post looks at why this is so.
What is punctuation?
The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition is “The marks, such as full stop, comma, and brackets, used in writing to separate sentences and their elements and to clarify meaning.”
These symbols are shown here:
Punctuation shows how the sentence should be read and makes the meaning clear.
It is very important for IELTS for the following reasons:
- Mistakes in basic punctuation indicate to the examiner that your level of English is low
- Punctuation can change the meaning of sentences depending on the position within the sentence
- Poor punctuation makes it difficult for the examiner to follow and understand what you’ve written
Have a look at the following examples of poor or non-existent punctuation. Can you clearly and easily understand them?
hey lou thanks for your message all good here the boys started school yesterday wanna do yoga tomorrow class starts half ten will leave house at 10 if you wanna lift in my car
(a text message from my friend this morning. Is this a suggestion, an offer or an arrangement? Is it clear?)
Time to eat Grandma! Time to eat, Grandma!
(Which sentence suggests we eat with Grandma? Which sentence suggest we eat Grandma herself?)
This New Zealand is a true leader not a conglomeration of losers misleading the public with snowflake values
(a comment on a Facebook news post yesterday about Trump. Who is the writer referring to as a ‘true leader’ – New Zealand or Trump?)
Can you see now why punctuation is important?
Common punctuation errors found in IELTS Writing
Not using enough full stops between sentences. This means the examiner can’t tell where one sentence finishes and the next begins. This affects the reader’s ability to read the text easily and understand clearly. This would affect your score in Cohesion and Coherency in IELTS.
Using commas throughout a paragraph to separate sentences instead of full stops, with only one full stop at the end. This is wrong and would also negatively affect your score in Cohesion and Coherency.
Using exclamation marks in formal writing. This is wrong. Exclamation marks are only used in informal writing as a sign of strong emotion – shock, surprise, anger or danger. They should never be used in formal academic writing.
Using it’s to show possession. The apostrophe is only used with it as a contraction for it is or it has.
General rules for punctuation in IELTS
Full stops (known in American English as ‘periods’) are used between complete sentences
Eg. The graph shows the difference in grades between Group A and Group B. The group with the highest grades overall was Group B.
Capital letters are for starting a new sentence, place names, people’s names, nationalities, etc
Apostrophes are used for contractions (but don’t use contractions in formal IELTS writing) and to show possession (give plural/singular example)
Eg. That’s Emma’s ball. [singular] There’s the students’ ball over there. [plural]
Commas have a variety of functions and have the most number of rules for their use. They are used for lists, after linking words/connectors at the start of a sentence and for separating clauses in complex sentences, especially conditional clauses. In speaking we use pauses and intonation to do this. In writing we use commas.
Commas can change the meaning of a sentence depending on where they are placed within it. Consider the following meme (TIP: reading it aloud and pausing at the punctuation symbols helps you to understand it more clearly).
It’s an interesting illustration of just how much commas can alter the meaning (although did you notice that both the English professor and his students forgot to end their sentences with a full stop?).
You may have heard of the Oxford comma. This convention is more common in American English than in British English but both options (using it or not) are correct and acceptable. An example is a comma before ‘and’ in the following sentence: I went to the shop to buy sausages, eggs, bacon, and butter.
Be careful with commas. Without them, sentences can run on unnaturally without any breaks. Too many and your sentence will look strange to the reader. This is also a sign that your sentence is probably too long.
Sentences should generally be between 15 and 20 words long. If your sentence is less than one line, it may not be long enough. Try writing a complex sentence using clauses and a linking word. If, however, your sentence is three lines long before you use a full stop, or you have several linking words, it may be too long. Try re-writing what you are trying to say in several sentences separated with a full stop. Remember, fluent writers try to vary the length and style of their sentences to make their writing interesting to read.
Finally, avoid using complicated punctuation which even English speakers have trouble with, such as colons and semi colons. You don’t need them and you risk using them inaccurately and making a negative impact on the examiner.
Next week we will look at the hyphen, which is a particular form of punctuation with specific uses, yet often causes confusion when it is used to join words together.