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6.8 Use punctuation appropriately and consistently

See 6.8 of the Checklist »

Using punctuation appropriately and consistently is part of ensuring that sentences are short, simple, and precise.

The purpose of plain language is clear communication. Punctuation marks often convey meaning, and when misused they can impede clarity or convey an incorrect meaning.

I’m giving up eating chocolate for a month.
Sorry, bad punctuation.
I’m giving up. Eating chocolate for a month.

Punctuation can enhance clarity by dividing text into chunks that a reader can easily process.

Example 1

Birds fly away when startled, but rats, which have no wings, run for cover.

In this example, the commas divide 3 chunks of information:

  • birds fly away
  • rats have no wings
  • rats run for cover.

Summary: Basic punctuation use

 SymbolTermWhen to use
. full-stop To signal the end of a sentence. See below.
, comma To separate two clauses (actions within one sentence). To separate items in a list. See below.
: colon Mainly to introduce a list. See below.
dash Shows after-thought (single dash) or aside (dash on either side).  Never use a hyphen instead. See below.
- hyphen Mainly for joining two words into one. See below.
 “   ” double quote marks For showing exactly what someone said.
‘    ’ single quote marks For a quote within a quote or to highlight an unusual word.
   ; semi-colon For separating multi-part items in in-sentence lists. See below.
   ... ellipsis (three dots) For showing where text is missing.
? question mark For a direct question (“Do you have a lawyer?”) not indirect ones (They asked if she had a lawyer.)
! exclamation mark Avoid in formal documents.
apostrophe For possessives and contractions. See below.
(      ) round brackets For information that can be omitted without changing the sense of the sentence. Limit to only a few words. See below.
[      ] square brackets For information inserted by the editor, or by the author inside a direct quote.

Full stops

There’s not much to be said about the period except that most writers don’t reach it soon enough.
— William Zinsser

A full stop indicates the end of a sentence. Heavy punctuation in a sentence usually means your sentence has a complex structure. Breaking the sentence into shorter sentences with a full stop reduces complexity and means you need less punctuation:

Example 2
cross.gif The Bill, which comes into force on 1 October 2022 (except section 112 and Schedule 3, which come into force on 1 May 2021), amends the XYZ Act 1988, the ABC Act 1992, and the LMN Act 2002.
tick.gif The Bill amends the XYZ Act 1988, the ABC Act 1992, and the LMN Act 2002. It comes into force on 1 October 2022. However, section 112 and Schedule 3 come into force on 1 May 2021.

Commas

The main functions of a comma are:

  • separating a subordinate clause from a main clause
  • separating main clauses at conjunctions
  • separating off an introductory phrase
  • separating off parenthetic expressions
  • separating items in a list
  • separating off a describing relative clause.
Tip: When deciding whether and where to use a comma, ask yourself what the function of the comma is.

Commas: Subordinate clauses and main clauses

A clause is a group of words that contains a verb. A sentence can contain one or more clauses.

A subordinate clause cannot stand alone as a complete sentence, but a main clause can.

Example 3 contains two clauses. The first clause (“If the Minister declines an application for a permit”) cannot stand alone as a complete sentence, so it is a subordinate clause:

Example 3

If the Minister declines an application for a permit, the Minister must provide reasons for the decision.

A subordinate clause will often contain conditions (“If X occurs” or “Unless Y exists”), reasons (“Because Y has happened”), or other information that is additional to the main part of the sentence (“Before doing Z”).

However, the second clause (“the Minister must provide reasons for the decision”) is a main clause because it can form a complete sentence on its own and is the main statement of the sentence.

Commas: Separating subordinate clause from main clause

When the subordinate clause comes before the main clause, separating the two clauses with a comma helps provide clarity. It tells the reader that some preliminary information has ended and the main statement is beginning:

Example 4

If the Minister declines an application for a permit, the Minister must provide reasons for the decision.

When the subordinate clause comes after the main clause, you don’t need a comma because the reader has already read the main clause and intuitively understands that what follows is additional information:

Example 5

The Minister must provide reasons for their decision if the Minister declines an application for a permit.

Commas: Conjunctions (and, or, but, so) between main clauses

Example 6 contains two main clauses. Each clause is important to the main thrust of the sentence and can stand alone as a separate sentence. Separating the main clauses with a comma before the conjunction enhances clarity. It tells the reader that one important statement has ended and another is beginning. Alternatively, Example 6 could be rewritten as two sentences, but the result may be abrupt.

Example 6
tick.gif Section 13(2) and (5) to (7) applies to a delegation under this section. Any reference in those provisions to a prison manager is taken to be a reference to a health centre manager.
tick.gif Section 13(2) and (5) to (7) applies to a delegation under this section, and any reference in those provisions to a prison manager is taken to be a reference to a health centre manager.

As always, it can come down to a judgement call. You need a balance between clarity, potential abruptness, avoiding an over-long sentence, and maintaining the flow of the text.

In Example 7, the second clause (“does not apply to …”) is not a main clause so you don’t need a comma:

Example 7

Section 18 applies to the revocation of a licence but does not apply to the suspension of a licence.

Commas: Introductory phrases

A phrase is a meaningful group of words within a clause. Using a comma after an introductory phrase enhances clarity in the same way as using a comma after a subordinate clause:

Example 8

For the purposes of subclause (1), it does not matter that annotations, indexing references, and other information are included in the electronic record.

However, if the phrase is short and simple, you can often omit the comma without affecting clarity:

Example 9

In New Zealand there are 3 official languages.

In 2020 we had fine weather for much of March.

Commas: Parenthetic expressions

See also 6.6 Sentences - Don't split verb forms unnecessarily

A parenthetic expression is an expression that could be enclosed in parentheses (round brackets) without disrupting the sense of the sentence. It is not part of the main structure of the sentence. Parenthetic expressions are often enclosed by a pair of commas instead of brackets:

Example 10
tick.gif If the Minister declines an application for a permit, the Minister must, subject to section 55(3) of the Act, provide reasons for the decision.
tick.gif tick.gif If the Minister declines an application for a permit, the Minister must provide reasons for the decision. The requirement to provide reasons is subject to section 55(3) of the Act.
Example 11
tick.gif The operator must lodge, in respect of each vessel proposed to be authorised under the permit, a statement under regulation 47.
tick.gif tick.gif The operator must lodge a statement under regulation 47 for each vessel proposed to be authorised under the permit.

Whether you use commas or brackets is a judgement call. Brackets distinguish the parenthetic text from the main structure more emphatically than commas but also interrupt the flow of the sentence. In general, brackets are best used where the parenthetic text is less integral to the main sense of the sentence (eg, for a brief reference or a short example).

If you overuse parenthetic expressions, you will not be as clear or as easily understood. This is because a parenthetic expression interrupts the flow of the main sentence. After absorbing the start of the sentence, the reader has to make a mental detour for the parenthetic expression while keeping the start of the sentence in mind. Then the reader has to resume reading the main sentence and mentally connect the two interrupted parts of the sentence to follow the sense. It is often better to reword a sentence to avoid parenthetic expressions, especially when:

  • the sentence contains more than one parenthetic expression
  • a parenthetic expression is long
  • the placement of a parenthetic expression hinders readability (eg, it appears between “to” and a verb)
  • avoiding the parenthetic expression does not create other problems.

When you use a parenthetic expression, it is important that you place the commas correctly to improve your readers’ comprehension. The most common errors when using parenthetic commas are using only one comma or putting a comma in the wrong place.

Example 12
cross.gif     commas Susan dived into the cold water and encouraged by her example, Dave followed suit.
Putting a comma in the wrong place

To work out whether the commas are in the right place, mentally remove the parenthetic expression. The remaining text should form a complete sentence and its sense should stay intact.

In the next example, when the text between the commas is removed, the result is not a grammatical sentence and the first parenthetic comma is in the wrong place:

Example 13
cross.gif     commas Susan dived into the cold water, and encouraged by her example, Dave followed suit.
cross.gif     commas removed Susan dived into the cold water Dave followed suit.

In this example, when the text between the commas is removed, the result is a grammatical sentence and the parenthetic commas are where they should be:

Example 14
tick.gif     commas Susan dived into the cold water, and, encouraged by her example, Dave followed suit.
tick.gif     commas removed Susan dived into the cold water, and Dave followed suit.

Commas: Lists

See also 3.4 of the Checklist (Using paragraphs to enhance readability and clarity)

In a run-on list, a comma separates each list item:

Example 15

The Minister may make ordinary rules relating to standards, specifications, restrictions, and licensing requirements.

PCO style is to use a comma before and or or with the last item. This is called a serial comma or an Oxford comma.

For clarity and accuracy, it is important that you make sure you place the commas to clearly identify each list item. This is especially important where a list is embedded within another list as in Example 16. You can avoid the problem by keeping the lists separate and using shorter sentences. If that isn’t feasible, it is often clearer to delineate the main list by using bullet points, or, in legislation, paragraphs:

Example 16
cross.gif In this section, person means an individual who is employed or engaged by a service provider of an early childhood service, is supervising or controlling a child on behalf of a service provider of an early childhood service, or owns, manages, or controls an early childhood service.
tick.gif In this section, person means an individual who―
  (a) is employed or engaged by a service provider of an early childhood service; or
  (b) is supervising or controlling a child on behalf of a service provider of an early childhood service; or
  (c) owns, manages, or controls an early childhood service.  

Commas: Relative clauses

See also 7.3 of the Checklist (Avoid relative clauses that compromise clarity)

A relative clause is a clause that can be connected to a main clause by a relative pronoun (who, which, that, or whose). The two types of relative clause are identifying and describing relative clauses. Each type is punctuated differently.

The relative clause in Example 17 is an identifying relative clause, because it tells the reader which house is being discussed. It is essential to the sense of the main clause, and “the house that he used to live in” is a unified concept. A comma before the relative clause would divide that unnaturally:

Example 17 (Identifying relative clause)
cross.gif It reminded him of the house, that he used to live in.
tick.gif It reminded him of the house that he used to live in.

The relative clause in Example 18 is a describing relative clause, because it does not tell the reader which items are being discussed. “The items” means that preceding text has already told the reader what the items are. The relative clause simply provides further information about them. Removing the relative clause does not affect the sense of the main clause. For this reason, it is treated as a parenthetic expression and uses commas:

Example 18 (Describing relative clause)

The items, which are believed to be family heirlooms, include a grandfather clock worth around $3,000.

Apostrophes

Apostrophes convey meaning. If you use an apostrophe where it is not needed or if you put it in the wrong place, you won’t convey the correct meaning and may confuse readers.

Apostrophes indicate:

  • possession (eg: the sun’s rays = the rays of the sun)
  • contractions (eg: doesn’t, wouldn’t, it’s, would’ve, I’m, she’d, o’clock).

Apostrophes in contractions seldom cause problems of meaning. Their use is more a matter of formal vs informal tone. But misuse of possessive apostrophes does affect meaning and clarity. The most common issues are:

  • using an apostrophe in a simple plural where there is no sense of possession
  • incorrect placement of the apostrophe.

Apostrophes: No sense of possession

This example uses an apostrophe incorrectly with a simple plural noun. There is nothing that is “of the cars” and therefore no sense of possession:

Example 19
cross.gif Students have nowhere to park their car’s.
tick.gif Students have nowhere to park their cars.

Apostrophes: Nouns with regular plural

Most nouns have a regular plural formed by adding the letter ‘s’ to the singular form of the noun (eg: girl/girls, book/books).

For the possessive form of these nouns, an apostrophe before the s means the noun is singular. An apostrophe after the s means it is plural. Putting the apostrophe in the wrong place confuses the meaning:

Example 20 (singular)
cross.gif Someone stole that boys’ bike.
tick.gif Someone stole that boy’s bike.
Example 21 (regular plural)
cross.gif Someone stole those boy’s bike.
tick.gif Someone stole those boys’ bike.

Apostrophes: Nouns with irregular plural

An irregular plural noun has a different spelling to its singular version and is not formed by adding the letter s (eg: man/men, tooth/teeth, person/people, mouse/mice). For the possessive form of these nouns, use ’s after both the singular and the plural form. In these examples, mans’ and mens’ would be meaningless:

Example 22 (singular)
cross.gif Someone stole the mans’ lunch.
tick.gif Someone stole the man’s lunch.
Example 23 (irregular plural)
cross.gif Someone stole the mens’ lunch.
tick.gif Someone stole the men’s lunch.

apostrophes: Its/it’s

An exception to the normal rule is the possessive form of it, which has no apostrophe:

Example 24

The Board did not follow its own procedures.

This differentiates it from the contractive it’s (a contraction of it is):

Example 25

It’s a pity Susan couldn’t be here today.

The difference is one of meaning, although the context will normally tell the reader the meaning even if the apostrophe is incorrectly used or not used.

Apostrophes: Proper nouns ending with ‘s’

Placing apostrophes after proper nouns that end with s can be tricky, but this is a style issue rather than a question of clarity and meaning. There are 2 schools of thought:

tick.gif Ross’ Bill is ready for introduction.
tick.gif Ross’s Bill is ready for introduction.

Colons and semi-colons

Colons and semi-colons are both used to join two clauses in a single sentence but in different circumstances and with different meanings. Using a colon where a semi-colon would be correct (or vice versa) affects the meaning and clarity of a sentence.

Colons

A colon may be used to link two parts of a sentence where the second part explains, expands on, or illustrates the first. In this example, the text following the colon explains what the person worked for:

Example 26

He got what he worked for: international recognition as an artist.

You should use this colon when—

  • the second clause is directly related to the first clause (not just vaguely related) and
  • the emphasis is on the second clause.
Examples 27 and 28

A dolphin is not fish: it is a warm-blooded mammal.

The research is conclusive: climate change is a reality.

A colon is also used to introduce a list of bulleted or labelled paragraphs:

Example 29 (non-legislation)

The office is making changes to how it organises itself, with a new System and Stewardship group and with our Access group now responsible for the office’s digital strategy. These changes will better enable us to deliver on this goal, by giving the office:

  • a strong and visible focus on stewardship
  • a clearer focus on the end-users of legislation
  • a flexible and agile structure and collaborative operating model so we can continue to respond to new priorities and changing demands.
Example 30 (legislation)
A person operating a heavy motor vehicle or combination of vehicles must not operate the vehicle or combination of vehicles in breach of any of the following:
(a) the prescribed maximum mass limits for axles:
(b) the prescribed maximum mass limits for axle sets:
(c) the prescribed maximum mass limits for groups of axles:
(d) the prescribed maximum gross mass limits for motor vehicles.
Colons in legislation
Semi-colons

Using a semi-colon to join two main clauses is now rare and not normally used in legislation. It is often better to divide the sentence into two or use a conjunction. This is a good strategy if you aren’t sure whether to use a colon or a semi-colon:

Example 31
tick.gif

A kahawai has scales; a tui has wings.

tick.giftick.gif

A kahawai has scales. A tui has wings.

tick.giftick.giftick.gif

A kahawai has scales, but a tui has wings.

If you do use a semi-colon in this way, use it when:

  • you want to emphasise a closer connection between the clauses than would be made by using a full stop and separate sentences; and
  • there is no co-ordinating conjunction (eg, and or but); and
  • a colon would not be correct (because the second clause does not explain, expand on, or illustrate the first).

In the next example:

  • a colon would not be correct because “it was bad news” does not expand on “it was good news”
  • you could replace the semi-colon with a full stop (to make two separate sentences)
  • you could replace the semi-colon with a conjunction:
Example 32
tick.gif semi-colon It was good news; it was bad news.
tick.gif full stop It was good news. It was bad news.
tick.gif conjunction It was good news, and it was bad news.
Round brackets

We mainly use brackets to enclose a parenthetic expression (see Commas: parenthetic expressions, above) or other supplementary information such as a reference. They separate text from the main sentence in a more distinct way than commas.

Example 33

A registered log trader must adhere to the forestry practice standards (see section 63ZZL).

Any amount held on trust is not available for the payment of any creditor (other than the Secretary) of the debt collector.

I received a small bonus ($500).

Use them sparingly to enclose asides, clarifications, and extra information that can be removed without affecting the main point of the sentence:

Example 34

The regulations must specify the persons (if any) to be exempt from paying the levy.

He finally answered (after taking five minutes to think) that he did not understand the question.

Because bracketed words interrupt the flow of the sentence, make them short or consider putting a longer passage of bracketed words in a separate sentence:

Example 35
cross.gif (3) This section is subject to section 81 (unless the person is a body corporate, in which case the requirement in section 81(3)(a) does not apply).
     
tick.gif (3) This section is subject to section 81.
  (4) However, if the person is a body corporate, the requirement in section 81(3)(a) does not apply.
cross.gif John (who was born in 1850 and died in 1903) did not live to see the war.
tick.gif John (1850–1903) did not live to see the war.

Hyphens and dashes

Hyphens, em dashes, and en dashes look similar but have different functions.

-     hyphen (do not use as an em dash or en dash)

—  em dash (or em rule)

–      en dash (or en rule)

Hyphens

The main functions of hyphens are to:

  • link the words that form a compound word. Check the dictionary, because usage changes fast – emails used to be e-mails (see Example 36)
    • link a prefix to a word (see Example 36)
    • link a pair of words before a verb (see Example 37)
    • divide a word at a line break.
Example 36
Hyphenated compound wordsHyphenated prefixes
check-in co-operation
merry-go-round ex-wife
mother-in-law self-expression

For clarity, we use hyphens to link up words that go before and modify a noun.

Compare:

  • “man eating shark” with “man-eating shark”
  • “cat related drama” with “cat-related drama”
  • “Touch averse people who don’t want to be hugged are not rude.” with “Touch-averse people who don’t want to be hugged are not rude.”                       
Example 37
all-you-can-eat buffet BUT there are exceptions
first-rate film secondary school students
fourth-floor flat dining room chair
nasty-looking injury beautifully arranged sentences
up-to-date language highly paid lawyers

The exceptions cause the complications, but one reliable rule is, if the word that modifies the noun ends in “ly”, it doesn’t take a hyphen.

Hyphens and ages confuse a lot of people:

Example 38

My daughter is seven years old.

My seven-year-old daughter rides her bike to school.

My daughter, a seven-year-old, rides her bike to school.

dashes (en dashes or en rules)

Use en dashes:

  • singly to show the start of an aside, explanation, or addition
  • singly to add emphasis
  • singly to interrupt dialogue
  • singly to span a range of dates, page numbers, or sports results (with no spaces)
  • in pairs to set off a word or phrase from the surrounding sentence. Using dashes (instead of brackets) adds emphasis to the word or phrase.
Example 39

Justifying their case, smokers introduce a herring so red that it glows like coal: that if their illnesses are self-inflicted, well, so are most people’s – look at traffic accidents, look at potholers.

He shot big game for status, pleasure – and greed.

“The murderer,” she intoned, “is someone in this –”.

A shot rang out.

“Once upon a time – yes, I know you’ve heard this story before – there lived a princess called Snow White.”

1999–2000

pp 3–21

Everton stuffed Liverpool 7–0

Visitors may stay overnight – or for as long as they wish – in the hostelry run by the friars.

He packed his bag with all the things he thought he’d need for the weekend – an array of T-shirts, two pairs of socks per day, all the clean underwear he could find – and made his way to the airport.

Dashes (em dashes or em rules)

Use em dashes in pairs to set off a word or phrase from the surrounding sentence. Using dashes (instead of brackets) adds emphasis to the word or phrase.

Note: The UK style is to put a space either side of the em rule. The US style is no spaces. There is no “correct” style but, whichever style you choose, stick with it and do not use both styles in the same document or email.

Example 40

While I was shopping — wandering aimlessly up and down the aisles — I ran into our old neighbour.

An etymological dictionary is one of the few books — no, it’s the only book — you’ll ever need.

There has recently been an increase—though opposed fiercely by many people—in alternative education practices.

Travelling—that is, travelling by public transport—can be a relaxing activity if you take music and reading material with you.

If your sentence already includes commas to separate off additional information, and adding more commas would confuse the reader, use em dashes instead:

Example 41

Four of us — Hector, Mary, Ron, and I — went to the conference last week.

Mr Smith glanced surreptitiously at his watch—his gold, diamond-encrusted watch—and suggested the meeting might adjourn for the day.

The question words — who, what, when, where, why, and how — are used to retrieve information in English.

You can also use em dashes to draw attention to a list. When the list follows a clause, you use a colon between the clause and the list. When the list comes first, it’s better to use an em dash to connect the list to the clause:

Example 42

Dishes, laundry, dusting — they’re all done now, and I need a rest.

Chocolate, strawberry, vanilla—all ice cream tastes good, especially on a hot summer’s day.

Em dashes in legislation

 

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