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

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

Author: Katherine Sutton
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Identify the correct usage of exclamation points, semicolons, colons, and quotation marks.

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Hi. My name is Katie. And today we'll discuss useful punctuation-- exclamation points, semicolons, colons, and quotation marks.

We'll begin today's lesson by taking a broad look at what punctuation marks are and what role they play in the construction of your research essay. Then we'll analyze how exclamation points, semicolons, colons, and quotations are supposed to be used, as well as looking at some examples of how you can apply them to enhance your research essay.

Let's begin with the big picture. Punctuation marks are symbols used to indicate various things within sentences. And knowing how to manipulate them is very useful for controlling the delivery of your message.

Certain punctuation marks are used to indicate the end of a sentence. A period would be the most common one of this. But question marks and exclamation points are also used when it's appropriate. And although there are many different punctuation marks that you might want to incorporate into your essay, this lesson is going to focus on some of the most common ones that you'll use in an academic research paper, which are exclamation points, semicolons, colons, and quotations.

Instead of explaining each one and then giving you examples at the end of the lesson, like I normally do, I'm going to define the intended purpose of each of these punctuation marks and then give you examples directly following them to help the concepts connect together. Let's begin with exclamation points.

Generally, exclamation points are used to indicate strong emotions. They're placed at the end of the sentence instead of a period. You want to use very few exclamation points in your academic research papers because if they're overused, they can become meaningless, distracting, or annoying. And overall, they'll look kind of unprofessional if there's too many of them.

This is a selection from the thesis proposal that I'm working on right now. And this is the part where I explain my personal experiences that are related to this research topic that I'm proposing. And so I'm naturally very excited about this. So it would make sense that maybe I've inserted a few too many exclamation points because there are a few moments of surprise, a few moments that I want to highlight within the passage. But I've used too many of them. So I need to cut back.

Let's jump down to here, the first sentence that I give an exclamation point for. It says, "as an English teacher, I have found that, when urged to examine texts and their context critically, my students were insightful and very aware of many media influences in their lives!" Now, the next sentence that follows it sort of extends this idea. "As a Latin teacher, however, I experienced resistance when incorporating critical media literacy into my classes!"

Both of these are surprising or notable pieces of information. But you can see how having these two exclamation points right next to each other is actually very visually and conceptually distracting for the reader. So maybe it makes sense to use one exclamation point here because I do want to draw the reader's attention to this point. But I have to choose one or the other. In this case, I would probably take away the first one because this first sentence sets a foundation for the surprise the reader experiences in this second sentence.

Let's take a look at the next sentence I've used down here. You can see here how this term "because" is already linking the idea in this next sentence to the sentence that precedes it. So the exclamation point, again, is a conceptual distraction. It makes the reader stop and wonder about the importance of this sentence here, when really you want the idea to keep flowing into this next sentence.

The final example of exclamation point misuse in this paragraph is this one at the end. The reason why I would say this exclamation point is misused is because this sentence is already the concluding sentence of my paragraph. Conceptually, the reader knows that this is an important sentence. It's likely to wrap up all the information in there. And really, you shouldn't be adding anything that is surprising or amazing at the end of the paragraph. There are extenuating circumstances where you would use an exclamation point here, but I don't recommend it.

Now let's talk about how to use semicolons. A semicolon is a comma-period hybrid that can be a powerful piece of punctuation for drawing the reader's attention to connections between your ideas. In the same way that it's important not to abuse exclamation points, you also want to be aware of overusing semicolons because of this ability of this punctuation point to draw concepts through multiple clauses.

The two most common uses for semicolons are connecting two independent clauses, making them into one sentence. And the second is distinguishing between ideas in a list. Let's look at some examples of that here.

These two sentences here in my original draft were separated by a period. But because semicolons indicate a strong relationship between ideas in two clauses, I could employ one here instead in order to demonstrate to the reader that these two ideas are intrinsically connected.

Now that the semicolon signals that the reader should take the idea from the first clause and put it on the back burner in order to see how we did applies to the second sentence, I can remove this term "however," which was doing that job in the first place. So that's one way that you can vary the construction of your prose, as well as direct the way that the reader considers your argument.

These two examples here show when and when not to use semicolons when you're making a list. The first sentence, even though it's rather lengthy, doesn't need any semicolons. This is one long list comprised of many elements. But the commas do a good job of just separating the elements for the reader. And you don't need to throw any semicolons in there.

However, the second sentence does need a semicolon. You see here that now I'm using the same long list of elements. However, I'm talking about the differences between them. This first part of the list is elements of media production. And then I list what these elements of media production are.

Then I give a semicolon. And then I talk about elements of audience and examples of those. And then I give another semicolon. And I talk about elements of bias, and I list those. So what we have are three lists within a list. And the semicolon helps the reader conceptually understand the organization of the sentence.

Next, we need to discuss colons. Colons are a form of punctuation that are similar to semicolons but more forceful. Because of the power that they have, you need to be careful of overusing them, or they'll lose their emphasis and significance. Like semicolons, colons draw connections between ideas.

The most common ways that you'll see colons used in research essays are in front of quotes preceded by an independent clause, in front of lists preceded by an independent clause, separating two parts of a title or in front of an extended idea preceded by an independent clause, or connecting two independent clauses, making them into one sentence. The way that some of these work is sort of obvious, such as with the quoting and titling examples. However, the way that I referred to some of these might be a little unfamiliar to you. So let me walk you through them to explain what I mean.

Here we have an example of using colons with a list. I write that "I instructed my students to consider all aspects of media production." And then I give a colon, and I list those aspects of media production. You can see here how the colon illustrates the connection between the idea that I present and the list that follows.

It does a similar job in this sentence here. Instead, here I use a phrase to signal for the reader that I'm going to use a colon, where I say, "into the following categories." And you can see again how the colon facilitates the reader's understanding of this list.

Now let's move down to here. These next two sentences are examples of colons that are used to extend the idea of a first sentence. The first says, "there was one key element that they haven't considered." And then the colon presents what that key element is. Similarly, this next sentence says, "the corporate marketing agents wanted just one thing." What is that one thing? Increased sales.

These last two examples show an uncommon but still accurate use of the colon. These are two clauses that can stand on their own as complete sentences. But I'm using colons to demonstrate that there's a very strong conceptual connection between them. Normally, you can do this job with a semicolon. But sometimes you want to use a colon for emphasis.

The first one says, "there was one key element they hadn't considered-- they had forgotten to analyze the process of media production." It's similar to the clause that I showed you before. However, these could stand on their own. I could put a period in instead of the colon, and it would be fine. But you can see how this tightens the concept that I'm trying to highlight in my essay.

And finally, "my students were particularly bright this semester," colon, "their research essays were among the best I had ever seen." Again, we have two sentences that can stand on their own. But you can see a direct conceptual relationship between them. The colon signals this to the reader.

The last concept that we need to discuss is how to use quotations. In addition to indicating words that you take directly from the source, quotation marks can be employed to draw attention to specific words and ideas. Normally, this is employed to indicate sarcasm or disbelief, similar to when people use air quotes when they're talking.

See how I use them in this example here. "The company invested more funds in advertising this act of 'charity' than it actually donated in the first place." You can see how these quotes indicate the sarcasm that I intend the reader to notice in my use of the word "charity."

These two sentences down here are examples of using quotations to draw the reader's attention to a word that you're explicitly discussing in your sentence. The first one says, "some students chose to analyze classical genres but others reported they found 'peace' in hard rock music."

Here I've used quotation marks because this is ironic and somewhat unexpected. You can see here in this third example that I write, "though they called themselves my 'students,' many of them spent the remainder of the semester sleeping in the back of the classroom." Here is sort of a hybrid of both of these two first examples because you can tell that I'm trying to draw your attention to the word because of sarcasm, however, also directly attending to the term within my sentence.

We began today's lesson by looking at the big picture of punctuation and identifying four different types of punctuation marks that are commonly used in academic research papers. Then we took a close look at how to incorporate exclamation points to note surprise, how to incorporate semicolons to connect ideas and differentiate between items in a list, how to use colons as a powerful way to connect concepts, and how to use quotation marks to draw your reader's attention to specific terms used in your essay. I hope that this lesson was helpful. Thank you very much for joining me today.