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Improving Your Writing

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Improving Your Writing


Punctuation is the name for certain marks that we use in writing. When used correctly, punctuation is an invaluable aspect of making meaning clear.


Commas let the reader know that there is some kind of gap or separation in thought. When reading aloud, the comma indicates where you would take a breath or pause slightly. The joke behind the title of Lynne Truss’s bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves revolves around an extra comma. The panda reads the dictionary definition as ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ and goes on a rampage. In fact the dictionary definition of ‘panda’ was ‘Eats Shoots and Leaves’ – an entirely peaceable activity.

Here are three important situations where you need to use commas:

Semi–Colons & Colons

A semi-colon (which is a full stop over a comma) is generally used as a full stop would be. It is most effective when joining two clauses, which could stand alone as separate sentences, when you want to accentuate the contrast between them.

Example: ‘Nelson believed he could reach the summit; however, his team was to fail him before he reached 11,000 feet.’

A colon (two dots one over another) introduces something. It is commonly put before a quotation, a series or an example.

Example: ‘Many things can affect immunity: nutrition, exposure to infection and hygiene can all be factors.’

Apostrophes (its vs. it’s)

The correct use of the apostrophe causes many people difficulty nowadays. Perhaps in time to come we will enter a new, apostrophe-less, phase of English. However, unless and until that happens, the correct use of the apostrophe is considered one of the hallmarks of good writing. Job application cover letters have been discarded due to a misplaced apostrophe, so it is worth mastering its use.

1. The apostrophe used in contractions

When two words are combined to form one, in many cases an apostrophe will mark the missing letters. It is important to understand how contractions work, but in fact you should not use contractions in academic writing.

2. The apostrophe showing belonging

a. To one person or thing [a form that grammarians call the possessive]: Often – but not always – we use an apostrophe to show that something belongs to someone (or something). Examples are: Mark’s car or the film’s scariest moment.

The big exception to this rule is that when something belongs to ‘it’ there is NO apostrophe. ‘It’s’ only ever means ‘it is’ or ‘it has’.

b. The apostrophe showing something belonging to more than one person or thing: We also use the apostrophe in this case, but when the something belongs to more than one person or thing, that plural word usually ends in s. In this case, we put the apostrophe after the ‘s’. For example: the students’ rooms means that several students possess more than one room, whereas the student’s rooms means that one student possesses more than one room.