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Punctuation in English Academic Writing, Part 1: Period, Comma, Colon, and Semicolon

Announcement! As of August 1, 2019, the TOEFL Reading, Listening and Speaking sections will be shortened. The TOEFL will also make changes to its prep materials and scoring system. Because of this, some of the info in our blog posts may not yet reflect the new exam format. We cover all the changes here.

Punctuation is one of the things you may not focus on as often as other aspects of written English. But it’s quite important in English composition. You will definitely need to understand the correct use of common punctuation marks in TOEFL Writing.

In this series of posts, we’ll review the names of the most common punctuation marks in written academic English and go over the uses of each kind of punctuation mark.

  • Period
    The period is looks like a little dot (.).In fact, when used in web or email addresses, the period is actually called a “dot.” That’s why web-based businesses are sometimes called “dot coms.” It’s most often used at the end of sentences to mark a sentence’s grammatical end. The period also appears at the end of abbreviations, such as Mr., Ms., etc., and so on.
  • Comma
    The comma looks like a period with a little tail hanging down off of it (,). The main use of commas is grammatical. Commas separate certain kinds of clauses, phrases, and words. There are many complex rules for comma usage, actually. I’ll cover those rules in a later post.
  • Colon
    A colon looks like two periods on top of each other (:). Colons are used to introduce lists of things or examples. To give one example of colon use, I have introduced you to five forms of punctuation in this article so far: periods, commas, apostrophes, parenthesis, and colons. And let me give you another important example of colon use: introducing examples, as seen in this very sentence!
  • Semicolon
    A semicolon looks like a comma with a period on top of it (;) Semicolons are used to put two complete sentences together, combining them into one complete sentence.In a way, semicolons are like a substitute for a period. You can take two sentences that are separated by a period and replace the period with a semicolon so that the two sentences become one. For example, you could say: Let’s include semicolons in this punctuation lesson. They’re pretty important to academic writing. Or you could say: Let’s include semicolons in this punctuation lesson; they’re pretty important to academic writing.But remember—semicolons should only join to sentences together if those sentences are closely related. The idea here is to illustrate the close connection between two statements.

These four punctuation marks are the most common ones for sentence-level grammar. Use these marks to divide and manage different parts of sentences in academic writing.  In my next post on this subject, we’ll take a look at two types of punctuation marks that are used to manage information rather than grammar.


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