Yeah, that’s right, you heard me. Punctuation. This is going to be the longest of this series (by quite a margin), and really more of an optional read. You should still read it, though, you might learn something.
Let’s start with the basic concepts: I look at punctuation as a bunch of signs that tell me how to read a piece of writing. I’m going to go through the major and minor punctuation marks, and make sure that you know firstly how to use them right, then how to use them with style. Let’s kick things off with an easy one: the full stop.
A full stop closes a sentence, and tells the reader to take a breath. If you pay attention, you can actually hear people use full stops in their speech. I find listening to newsreaders helps with this. Bring up a spoken news report and listen to not to what is being said, but when the journo takes a breath. It will be at the end of a sentence. Or before the start of one.
The estranged cousin of the full stop is the comma. This weirdo, you might have noticed, is one of my favourites. This last sentence is a good example of what commas do: they enclose an idea within a sentence. It’s kind of like having a side-note inside a sentence. The comma has two other mates, and the three can be used interchangeably. Dashes are great for a quick little punch. They surround a note without interrupting—too much—the flow of the sentence. See what I did there? How it read? That’s how dashes work.
You can use the single dash too—sparingly. It adds emphasis or contrast, as you can see in that last sentence. The single dash is quicker than the double, and slyer. That makes it more potent. Be careful, though, because when misused, dashes can detract from the point. This is why I say to use them sparingly. The last thing you want is a sentence eight lines long with a dash in the middle. A hard to read sentence will cost you marks.
The last of the three—and my personal favourite—are parentheses (otherwise known as brackets). If you were reading this aloud, the bit in brackets would be said from the corner of your mouth, or really quickly, or as an aside. Brackets are the whispers you exchange with mates in lectures, a bit of humour in an otherwise totally academic situation. This is the second biggest strength of the brackets (the other being (and I will talk about this in a second, despite using an example now) their ability to have infinite layers).
You just encountered the double-brackets. The bracket’s ability to have brackets inside itself is one of the most useful and least used tools that English stole from Mathematics (thanks, Maths). It’s super easy to get away with if you use a quote inside brackets, too. This works particularly well with MLA style referencing. The best part is, theoretically (I wouldn’t do this further than two levels of brackets (although you could)) you can keep putting things in brackets, ad infinitum—to borrow from Latin—which means ‘to infinity’.
Glad we got them out of the way? But there’s more: the colon. No, not your colon, you uncouth swine, the punctuation mark. The colon was described to me (and this is how I use it) as the mark of an announcement. Read the start of this paragraph again. Read it aloud. You paused at the colon didn’t you? I meant for that to happen. I suppose that is a good way to think of the colon: it is a pause for effect. But you need to use it to say something effective, otherwise it falls limp and dead like an asphyxiated squid.
Speaking of which (by which I mean that this next bit has nothing to do with squid at all), ever looked at the colon’s flatmate? The one who shares the same key just next door to ‘L’? They’re related too. The semi-colon is a bit shy, and has trouble making up its mind; this is why I call it the Fence-sitter. See how it is part full-stop, part comma? That’s exactly how it should be used; neither here nor there. Not sure if you should finish the sentence here, or chuck in a comma? Try a semi-colon, and keep the ambivalence going. Notice how I am using them in this paragraph? Not a mistake. In my opinion, the semi-colon is up there with brackets; a misunderstood and under-eaten slice of the awesome cake.
Flip side of that coin (or cake) is the exclamation mark! Not only does it have absolutely no place in an academic essay, it is one of the most over-used and least helpful marks of punctuation. Hear me out. The less you use these, the more effective they become. So don’t use them unless you mean it, when you really mean it. And never more than one at a time. Hand these out like you would hand out your kidneys: only ever twice (okay, so the comparison isn’t exact, but you get the point).
Same goes for the ampersand (who shares a key with ‘7’) and percent. The inclusion of an ampersand makes it look like you texted your essay to your tutor on a Nokia 3315. Remember when you had to save space in ur txt msgs & they lookd cheap & confusin? You don’t have to do that in essays. Do the opposite; you have a word count to consider. Which is why I say avoid the percent mark (the ‘5’ key’s monster in the attic). If you use “ten per cent” instead of “10%”, not only does it look more intelligent (and it is technically more correct in its native Latin), you are two words closer to your word count. You’re welcome.
“Dude,” you complain. “You’ve spent nearly a thousand words talking about punctuation. I’m just here to put flair into my essay.” Hang on a sec, there’s one more mark that your tutors will love you using: square brackets. These guys are like the pedantic cousins of the parentheses. Square brackets are used solely to adapt quotations. So if the quote says “is” but your sentence needs “was”, you put that in square brackets. If the quote is unclear, and you can fix it with a couple of words, put them in square brackets. Pick up a newspaper. If a journalist is quoting someone, and the quote doesn’t quite fit with their sentence, or is unclear, you bet that journalist is using square brackets. Using square brackets does two things: it lets your tutor know that you’ve modified the quote, and makes your essay stronger. And, because not many students do it, it adds flair.
Now we get to the good part. Adding flair to your essay couldn’t be simpler (in theory). The trick is not to take the essay too seriously. Still answer the question, still edit out your mistakes, still reference correctly, but when it comes to making jokes (sensible ones), pointing out ironies, even having fun with punctuation, include it. Cutting these out makes for dullness. You are writing to entertain, as well as present an opinion, maybe even more so. Remember that the person marking your essay is a person who knows this shit already. They’ve heard it all before. They know the sources you’re using, sometimes they wrote the sources you’re using. So have a laugh with them in your essay (without addressing them in it). Point out flaws with the film/novel/poem/abstract philosophical/psychological concept that your essay is on. Analyse the hell out your subject, and present in your essay its good and bad points. Tear the shit through your subject, and worship it. This will make your essay a really good read, as well as balanced and potent—the sort of thing that tutors and lecturers love. Try not to bullshit or waffle or fluff your way through it. These are the sorts of essays that go down about as well as a high-five in a leper colony. The point I’m trying to make here is: make your essay say something about the subject. An essay is an opinion piece, review and analysis all in one.
If there is one thing I want you to take from this part of Why Your Essay Sucks, it is…well all of it should be useful, but get your punctuation sorted. Know how and when to use each of the little squiggles and lines and marks, and your essay will stand out. The way your essay reads, and the way it sounds, will be less Steve-O from Jackass, more Stephen Fry. And everyone listens to Stephen Fry.
Words by S. Hooley