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Useful Punctuation: Exclamation Points, Semicolons, Colons, and Quotation Marks

Useful Punctuation: Exclamation Points, Semicolons, Colons, and Quotation Marks

Author: Gavin McCall

This lesson teaches the basics of some useful punctuation marks: exclamantion points, semicolons, colons, and quotation marks.

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Welcome to English composition. I'm Gavin McCall. Thanks for joining me. What are we going to learn today? We're going to be learning about how to correctly and effectively use several kinds of punctuation marks, from exclamation points to semicolons, and colons to quotation marks, we're going to take a look at them all.

Just to make sure we're all on the same page, punctuation refers to the many symbols that writers use to indicate various things within their sentences. Controlling punctuation is critical to controlling meaning. And the thing is, not all punctuation marks are used to signal the end of the sentence, though some do-- periods, exclamation points, and question marks. There are more punctuation marks out there than we'll have a chance to cover here, but we'll cover the ones most commonly used an academic writing.

Exclamation points are used to indicate strong emotion, usually placed at the end of the sentence instead of a period. These are easily the most overused punctuation mark, at least in my experience they are. Ideally, they should be used very sparingly, especially in academic writing, because like many of a writer's tools, if they're used too often they become meaningless and can be distracting to the reader. Ideally, the emotional impact of your writing should show through because of your words, not because you tell readers it's important with punctuation. Take this passage for example, and see if you think that the exclamation points in it are helping.

"The first time Kevin had seen Dragon, he'd known the difference between a trained guard dog and somebody's mean-because-he's-been-neglected kind of guard dog! Dragon wasn't some junkyard mutt, he was a German Shepherd, and he looked like the dogs the police cruise around with whenever they think somebody might be holding. But Dragon wasn't trained to look for drugs; he was trained to look for drug addicts, and keep them out of Floyd's yard! The fence was nine feet tall and topped with razor wire. And now the gate, the only thing separating Dragon from the rest of the world, hung open, swinging just a little in the idle morning breeze!"

As you can probably tell, the exclamation points here aren't doing much. In my opinion, the language and the subject itself would build enough emotion, enough dramatic tension without them. In fact, it'd probably do it better without them. You could make the argument that maybe the last exclamation point could stay, but I'd still say to just use a period. Consider how much more ominous that last image of the swinging gate and no Dragon would be without it. So here's the text with no exclamation points. I won't read it again, but if you like, pause the video and see if you don't agree that it's better now.

Semicolons confuse many writers, especially those new to academic writing. However, they're really pretty simple. It's best to think of a semicolon as a cross between a period and a comma. It even kind of looks like it, right.

Writers use semicolons for two primary reasons. The first is to connect two independent clauses, making them into one sentence. Doing this indicates a stronger relationship between the clauses than a period, which separates them more completely. For example, in this sentence. "I wanted to go to the party; you know I'm always down for a good time." The semicolon helps to make sure the reader understands the close relationship between the two clauses.

Or how about this one. "Walt had never felt comfortable in the car; he always had the feeling that it didn't belong to him." In both of these sentences, something, something small, but still something, would be lost if we'd used period I made two sentences out of each. That being said, it's not a good idea to use semicolons too often. Like most other punctuation marks, overuse makes each one of them less meaningful and more distracting to the reader.

The other place writers you semicolons is in lists, where the items being listed have multiple words or contain commas within them. For example, "there are two ways to write, with a pen or pencil, which is cheaper but slower; or with a computer and printer, which is more expensive, but faster." If we'd use a comma instead of the semicolon the reader would have a hard time understanding where one option ends and the other begins.

Usually though, we're better off using commas. Any time the items in the list can be separated with commas without confusion, we should do that. For example, "my favorite sports are soccer, football, and rugby." As you can see, semicolons are useful tools to have, even if we don't use them often.

Colons are similar to semicolons, but as their name suggests, they're more complete, more forceful. And just like the other punctuation marks we've looked at, colons are prone to being overused, which has the same detrimental effects. Still, they are useful and there are several places writers use them to great effect. The first is front of quotes preceded by an independent clause. We also use them in front of lists, again preceded by an independent clause. For example, "I gave you three jobs today-- washing the car, cleaning your room, and folding your clothes." Here the colon is signaling that a list has begun and so readers will approach the rest of the sentence differently.

Here's another example. "The following students have achieved perfect attendance-- Janice, Mark, and Roland." We also use colons to separate two parts of a title. This is especially common with academic books and articles, which often have both a title and a subtitle separated by a colon.

Then we can use them in front of an extended idea after an independent clause. For example, "he knew there was only one option left to him-- fight." Or for a slightly less dramatic example, "it was a dream come true-- a bar with an endless happy hour." In both of these sentences, the colon is used to draw the two ideas closer. For this last one, to make sure the reader understands that it's the bar with the endless happy how that is his dream come true, not something else in the narrative.

The last place writers tend to use colons is between two independent clauses, making them into one sentence. For example, "I have a serious problem-- I can't decide between chocolate and vanilla." Here the colon is being used to indicate a strong relationship between ideas in the two clauses, stronger even, than using a semicolon. Consider this sentence too. "The senators remained entrenched-- neither was willing to compromise." The connection here is supposed to be strong, and so a colon is an acceptable choice of punctuation.

The last kind of punctuation we'll look at today are quotation marks. We all know that they're used to indicate a verbatim quote from a source, as well as indicating speech in narrative, but quotation marks can also be used to draw attention to specific words and ideas. They can be used like this to indicate sarcasm or disbelief, like people do when using air quotes when talking. For example, in this sentence. "I'm sure her new boyfriend is a "winner," just like the last one." It should be pretty clear that the word "winner" is being used ironically, even without having it read out loud.

I should say here though, that writers should be careful when using quotation marks like this. It's easy for readers to confuse them for quotation marks signaling an actual quotation or dialogue depending on the genre. And in general, irony and sarcasm of this kind is rarely the best way to convey an idea, at least not in the academic context.

Writers can also use quotation marks to draw attention to words or terms that they're defining are discussing directly. For example, "Though people still use it to try to sound intelligent, the fact is that "irregardless" is not a word." Here the quotation marks pull the word "irregardless" out of the context of the rest of the sentence, keeping it from being lost among the other words, and make it more clearly part of the sentence's subject matter.

Here's another example, "The text's use of terminology like "ideological" and "rhetoricality" tends to intimidate new readers." As you can see, quotation marks are an effective tool for directing a reader's attention, but here again, keep in mind that over using them can have the opposite effect.

So what did we learn today? We learned about four punctuation marks that writers can and do make use of-- exclamation points, semicolons, colons, and quotation marks. I'm Gavin McCall, thanks for joining me.