Punctuation is vital for ensuring that written text makes sense. All text has a message. If the audience of the text includes many and varied experienced readers, then it is important for us to agree on the meaning of the symbols we use. Now — more than ever– the context of the written word dictates how punctuation is used and, in some cases, what it means. The dynamic nature of language has become more apparent as the rapidly changing communication technologies are used more widely. As teachers of literacy (and we are all teachers of literacy), it is vital that we understand: both simple and advanced punctuation symbols, how they are used in different contexts, exceptions to the rules and variations of punctuation in context. The emoticon, for example, has made the colon (:) a more commonly used punctuation symbol. However, we all know that a colon used in an emoticon certainly symbolises something very different when a colon is used in a formal written text.
Organisations of the academic world, such as universities and government education departments, often publish their own Style Guides. These clearly define formal writing conventions that are to be standard for all publications. That is, they define the standard of punctuation, spelling, grammar, bibliographies, appendices and foot notes that are used in any publication approved by the organisation. Some institutions even dictate the font and size of word processed documents intended for inter-office use. Other organisations rely on rules and standards defined by such universities as Harvard or Oxford. Much to the surprise of many teachers at my school, I discovered yesterday that our Department of Education and Training has a Style Guide which thoroughly sets out fonts, font sizes, acceptable spelling as well as punctuation and grammar rules. While I quickly skimmed this document and checked that information contained in my quick reference guide was consistent; I wouldn’t recommend it as a reference. It certainly isn’t user-friendly.
I created the following quick reference guide. It is two A4 pages and I printed them for our teachers, back-to-back so that teachers have one piece of paper that can fit in their diary and be checked quickly and easily. All the ins and outs are not included but the basics are there and general rules are included. If you click on the link below you will be able to download the file and print it. I have loaded the colour version here, but I also created a black and white version to save on photocopying, so if you would prefer it, contact me via the comments and I would be happy to oblige.
Obviously, my word is not the absolute truth; therefore, you will find a list of websites that you might find useful below. These websites will give you examples and non-examples. If you are particularly interested, I found online dictionary sites useful for basic definitions of each punctuation symbol; word derivation is also provided which often helps to explain the purpose of specific symbols (click here to see how this is true for the comma).
GRAMMAR GIRL is a favourite of mine. She often uses images and mnemonics to help readers remember the rule she is explaining. You can follow Grammar Girl or you can simply type the specific punctuation symbol (or grammar question) into the search box at the top right corner of the page.
GRAMMAR MONSTER is an excellent site if you want to go beyond having a ‘reference’ in your folder. This website has links for all the punctuation symbols, several grammar terms and commonly confused words. The links include simple definitions, explanations of appropriate use and common mistakes. There are also short quizzes so you can test yourself with a view to improve your own grammar knowledge and skills.
AUSTRALIAN!! The ANU Academic Writing Guide was published for Australian National University Students to support them with the transition to university and writing for more formal contexts. The explanations are a little heavy — remember that the target audience are university students — but if you want a thorough explanation this is a good place to go.
AUSTRALIAN!! FLINDERS UNIVERSITY also published a punctuation guide for students and this one is a little more user-friendly than the ANU guide. I still wouldn’t give it to my middle school students but teachers would find it useful as a more detailed reference.
GRAMMAR BOOK is a searchable ‘go to’ website for detailed information about punctuation and grammar rules. Remember that these rules are standard for US language conventions, so it is important to cross-check information with a website or style guide that is aligned with the English Language Conventions that are standard for your context (English is spoken in many countries but some countries follow UK conventions while others have US conventions). Australian Standard English is usually the same as UK English, but it is important to cross-reference information if there is doubt.
I hope the quick reference guide I produced is helpful to you. Many of the staff at my school have found it useful and were quite excited about having a point of truth for their own writing and for explaining punctuation rules to students. Remember, if you are a confident writer and incorporate grammar and punctuation correctly into your writing, you need to keep up with the changes in language conventions. Acceptable use can change according to context as well. So, consider the purpose and mode (formal or informal) of your writing before getting in a tizz about your punctuation or someone else’s.