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Survival Guide
Punctuating sentences correctly is much easier if you know
why we use punctuation, what common errors there are
and how to fix them.
Full stops
Full stops are useful because they help the reader to
absorb one idea at a time. They occur at the end of
sentences, which are idea-units that typically contain at
least one of each of the following:
 Verb group–Words that represent an action (e.g. run)
or state (e.g. be) and that signal past (e.g. ran), present
(e.g. run) or future (e.g. will run) time.
 Subject group—Words that link to the main verb and
explain who or what the sentence is about (e.g. she in
she runs).
3. An afterthought from the main idea.
Main idea
Commas are helpful when adding in afterthoughts when
you elaborate on ideas,
the main idea is already
4. Items in a list when there is no linking word between
Sentence beginning
Item 1
Item 2 Items 3 and
Use commas between
items in lists of
words, numbers or
 Watch out for comma splices like this:
 Watch out for sentence fragments like this:
 Finishing university.
This is a fragment rather than a sentence because it finishes with a full stop but doesn’t contain a subject or a complete verb, i.e. a verb that indicates time.
Fix sentence fragments by adding what’s missing:
Complete verb
am finishing
Commas help readers to absorb ideas within sentences.
Use commas to separate:
1. A minor idea (dependent clause or phrase), from the
main idea (independent clause).
Minor idea
Main idea
When a minor idea
precedes a main idea,
separate these with a
2. An interruption from the main idea.
Beginning of
main idea
Completion of
main idea
Use commas if a
minor idea,
which is non- interrupts the
main idea.
 She studied commerce, he took arts.
This is an error because it joins two separate sentences with
a comma. Insert a linking word or use a full stop
Main idea
Main idea
While she studied commerce,
he took arts.
She studied commerce.
He took arts.
Alternatively, use a semi-colon (see below).
Semi-colons divide ideas that are closely linked.
Use semi-colons to replace:
1. A full stop between closely related (often contrasting)
ideas that could be full sentences.
Main idea
Main idea
She studied commerce;
he took arts.
2. Commas in a list when the list is complex and has a lot
of other internal punctuation.
Item 1
Item 2
Use semi-colons prevent confuand assist the reader,
between items in sion, which might which is the aim of
complex lists to occur otherwise; punctuation.
Grammar and Editing 5
Colons are helpful before explanations or lists that clarify or exemplify what came before.
Main idea
Explanation or list
Three forms of social media dominate today:
facebook, twitter and YouTube.
 Do not use semi-colons for this purpose:
Three forms of social media dominate today; facebook, twitter and YouTube.
‘x’ and “x”
Quotation marks
Quotation marks separate our words from the words of others. We enclose other people’s
words in quotation marks. In Australia, most referencing systems favour single quotes (‘x’) unless otherwise
specified. If you use single quotes for main quotes, use double quotes (“x”) when you have a quote within a quote:
Reference information
Main quote beginning
According to Christensen
(2013, p.14),
‘The witches foretell the “bubbling up”
Internal quote Main quote continued
of troubles in the political order of
We use apostrophes for contractions (e.g. I am = I’m; it is = it’s) and possessive nouns (e.g. the nest that belongs to
the cuckoo = the cuckoo’s nest). Apostrophes go after the possessive noun (singular or plural).
Singular possessive noun
Plural possessive noun
If one cuckoo lives in the nest, it’s the cuckoo’s nest.
If more than one cuckoo, it’s the cuckoos’ nest.
 Do not use apostrophes with possessive pronouns: my, your, his, her, its, our and their.
The cuckoo is in it’s nest.
(x) and [x]
The cuckoo is in its nest.
It’s in its nest.
Parentheses and square brackets
Parentheses (x) are useful for adding reference information to formal texts and extra ideas to informal texts.
Formal texts with reference information
Informal texts with extra ideas
Research on climate change shows global warming in People who debunk climate change (not surprisingly)
some areas and cooling in others (Phatak 2013).
haven’t looked closely at the evidence.
Use square brackets [x] when you add your own words into a quote.
Quote beginning
End of quote
‘The only time they
[other birds]
fly over the nest is when the cuckoo is not in it’
(Cluett 2013, p.11).
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