Shall we start with an analogy? Take a look at these example sentences:
- Let’s eat, children.
- Let’s eat children.
While sentence A is a call to the kids to come and eat, sentence B is a call to some person(s) to come and have children for food.
With that being said, let’s consider another pair of sentence structure:
- Mikel Obi, the captain, is here.
- Mikel Obi, the captain is here.
In regard to this pair, sentence A informs some persons of the presence of Mikel Obi, who is the captain; while sentence B informs Mikel Obi of the presence of the captain.
The implications of these pairs of expressions help to corroborate the fact that punctuation marks are to writing, what pauses, tone, tune, gaze and gesture are to speaking. All of the misinformation that can be generated by the use of pitch and tone in speaking can be generated by the poor or inappropriate usage of punctuation marks in writing.
In recent times, the problem with punctuation marks is not so much that we do not know how to use them. It is, however, the laxity which comes with social media interaction that subsequently hinders people’s abilities to use punctuation marks accurately. Chat is a quasi-conversation which shares features with face-to-face communication, and many individuals assume that constant and consistent use of punctuation marks will impede the spontaneous flow of discussions. Unfortunately, an average person spends a great deal of time in reading and writing on different social media platforms, and this has dramatically affected our use of punctuation marks in official writings; hence, the poor performances in writing tasks in schools and workplaces.
It is essential to use punctuation marks appropriately, even in our chats. If for no other reason, remember that you have nothing to lose if you use punctuation marks in the course of chatting. In fact, it makes you a more proficient user of the language. In stark contrast, you have so much to lose if your letter misfires, due to the inappropriate use of punctuation mark(s). Considering the foregoing, the rest of this treatise will briefly discuss the major punctuation marks, and we will be doing ourselves the world of good if we apply the knowledge to all forms of writing, including chats.
Full stop (.): It performs the following functions:
- It is used to mark the end of a sentence: Gani loves to teach.
- It is used to indicate abbreviations (initials, degrees, titles) e.g. Feb., Rev., Prof., Ph.D., Bamgbose G.A.
Note: When the first and last letters of a word are used to form an abbreviation, one can either put a full stop or omit it. Thus, Doctor can be abbreviated as either Dr or Dr.
Conversely, a full stop should not be used for acronyms which are abbreviations for professional, business and governmental organisations: NBA, INEC, OPEC, UNICEF, etc.
Comma (,): It performs the following functions:
- It is used after a formal salutation or complementary close, as in: Dear Sir, Yours faithfully, etc.
- It is used in addresses, dates and figures: 2, Bello Road. July 29, 2015. 46, 000,000
- It is used to separate a cluster of words: Charles is a handsome, tall, fair, Nigerian man.
- It is also used to show a short break in a statement: For the first time, actually, surprisingly, moreover, in a similar vein, nevertheless, etc.
- It is used to separate a direct quotation: ‘Don’t say a word’, said his father.
- It is used to separate the names of business partners, degrees and other qualifications: Bamgbose G.A., B.Ed (LASU), M A (University of Ibadan).
- It separates words that are used in apposition (possible replacements) to nouns: Vincent Enyeama, the Nigerian goalkeeper, is diligent.
Colon (:): The colon performs the following functions:
- It is used after a speaker’s name in a dialogue, especially in a written play. Lakunle: A very good morning to you, sir!
Joseph: Good morning, Lakunle; I trust you had a good night’s sleep.
- It is used to introduce a formal listing. I found the following in the bag: her wallet, her passport, a bunch of keys and some cash.
- It is used to introduce a formal quotation. According to Fakoya (2008): ‘The only variety of English available to Nigerians is Nigerian English.’
- The colon is used to separate chapters from verses in Biblical references, as in: John 3:16.
- It is equally used to indicate time: 9:25 a.m., 11:45 p.m.
- In addition, it is used to separate a title and a subtitle of a book. Everyday English: A compilation of Common Errors.
Semicolon (;): The semicolon performs the following functions:
- Use a semicolon in place of a period (otherwise called full stop) to separate sentences where the conjunction has been left out: Call me tomorrow; I will give you my answer then.
- Use the semicolon to separate units of a series when one or more of the units contain commas: The conference was graced by people from Boise, Idaho; Los Angeles, California; and Nashville, Tennessee.
- Use the semicolon between two sentences joined by a coordinating conjunction, when one or more commas appear in the first sentence: If she can, she will attempt that feat; and if her husband is able, he will be there to see her.
Hyphen (-): The hyphen performs the following functions:
- When two or more nouns are used as adjectives, a hyphen is sometimes used to link all the nouns: A three-man committee. Moreover, to ascertain whether a compound noun is two words, one word, or hyphenated, it is of the essence to look it up in the dictionary. If you cannot find the word in the dictionary, treat the noun as separate words. The accompanying examples portray the three forms discussed: eyewitness (a one-word compound), eye shadow (a two-word compound), eye-opener (a hyphenated compound). Again, phrases that have verbal, nominal and adjectival forms should appear as separate words when used as verbs, and as one word when used as nouns or adjectives: The engine will BREAK DOWN (a verb). We suffered a BREAKDOWN (a noun) in communication.
- The hyphen joins some prefixes to the main words: co-education, anti-climax, intra-departmental.
- It is used to split a word at the end of a line such that the part which cannot be contained is taken to the next line. It is important to break a word at the edge of a line on a syllable, and not just between a syllable: accommo-dation (right), intimidat-ion (wrong), mar-ket (right), disp-enser (wrong), dispen-ser (right).
- A hyphen is also used between compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.
Dash (—): This is often mistaken for a hyphen. The hyphen and the dash are not the same. The dash is longer than the hyphen, and they perform different functions. Here are the functions of the dash:
- It is used to introduce a list: The group of companies is into so many things — housing, furniture, cosmetics and farming.
- It is also used to mark a break or an additional piece of information in a speaker’s line of thought: My brother-in-law — the proprietor of Tendermate School at Oyedeji — believes in offering a quality education.
- It is also introduced before a repeated word: The University of Ibadan — the first and the best university in Nigeria — was founded in 1948.
Quotation marks or Inverted commas (‘ ‘ or ” “): The single quotation marks are British-oriented while the double quotation marks are associated with the Americans. Be that as it may, both are allowed, provided that you use one variant consistently.
The following are the functions of the inverted commas:
- It is used to mark or indicate a quotation: Achebe once said, ‘Proverbs are the oil with which words are eaten.’
- It is deployed to show words used in special or technical senses, slang, vernacular, etc: So you mean you didn’t come with ‘kola’ for ‘oga,’ and you want to have your way? Note: ‘Kola’ is either money or any gift in this sense, while ‘oga’ refers to one’s boss, superior or principal.
- Furthermore, it is used to enclose names of songs, titles of poems, essays, stories, articles, etc.: My recent paper is entitled ‘A Critical Discourse Analysis of the Oyo State Gubernatorial Debate.’
Ellipsis (…): It is used when omitting a word, phrase, line paragraph, or more from a quoted passage. There are many methods for using ellipses. The three-dot method is the simplest, and it’s appropriate for most general works and many scholarly ones. The three-dot or four-dot method and even more rigorous methods used in legal works, require fuller explanations that can be found in other reference books.
Caret (^): It is used to show that something is missing from a sentence or text. What is more, it is used instead of having to cancel or cross an entire line or sentence because of a single omission.
With these distinct usages in mind, it behoves you to write well and deploy punctuation marks with clockwork precision.