What is punctuation?
When we speak, we use inflections, pauses, and pitch to make what we say as clear as possible. However, when we write those same words, their meaning can suddenly become much less clear. Let’s look at a sentence:
- Let’s eat Grandma!
If you heard this sentence out loud at a dinner table with your grandma sitting next to you, you might not think twice about its meaning. However, when this sentence is written down, without punctuation, it gains a completely new meaning, and not one Grandma would be very happy about. If we add punctuation, it becomes much less silly:
- Let’s eat, Grandma!
Sentences like these are the reason punctuation is so important to learn. Punctuation allows us to represent the way we speak in writing, and it allows us to ensure that our written word is as clear as possible. It also allows us to write complex, interesting sentences that engage readers and contain more detailed information. With punctuation our ideas are more easily understood, but getting punctuation wrong can change the entire meaning of the sentence.
Every student benefits from a strong understanding of grammar, but the rules of punctuation can be tricky to learn for some. In English, the most commonly used punctuation marks are apostrophes, quotation marks, commas, exclamation and question marks, full stops and brackets, but what purpose do they serve?
In this blog, we will look at why punctuation is important, and provide some exercises to ensure a full understanding for learners and teachers alike.
Types of punctuation
Punctuation is one of the foundational aspects of grammar. It allows for us to segment thoughts and concepts, show ownership, contract words, connect words together and even control volume. As there is such a wide range of punctuation, we have created individual blogs for different punctuation marks, providing room for a deep dive into how each grammar technique is taught:
Full stops and capital letters
Full stops and capital letters start and finish (almost) every sentence. A full stop represents the complete ending of a thought, and a capital letter follows a full stop to indicate a new sentence is beginning. As well as this, capital letters represent proper nouns, like names, days of the week and locations.
Of course, the full explanation of full stops and capital letters is not this simple, and there are some areas where learners may become confused or develop misconceptions - we explore these, and some possible solutions, in our full blog.
Exclamation, question and quotation marks
Exclamation, question and quotation marks allow writers to control the speaker, the intent and even the volume of a piece of writing. With these marks, writers can choose whether to shout or whisper, whether to be polite or rude, whether to ask a question or use an imperative. They can also show that a phrase has been spoken by somebody else, and create a conversation between two or more people.
Our full blog explores the usage and potential of these punctuation marks, as well as common mistakes learners make when encountering these techniques for the first time.
Apostrophes are one of the most common punctuation marks, along with commas and full stops, and allow writers to show omission - usually through contracting words, like “don’t” and “can’t” - and ownership. However, like many grammar techniques, apostrophes become more and more complicated the more plurals get involved.
One of the most difficult grammar techniques to get right, commas represent small pauses in a sentence and have multiple different purposes. Their most common purpose is to represent a break between clauses. However, commas are often one of the grammar techniques learners struggle with the most - many native English speakers move into adulthood without a strong knowledge of commas.
We explore the usage and purpose of commas (and the dreaded comma splice) in our full blog.
Colons and semicolons
Colons and semicolons can be a tricky grammar technique to master. Sometimes used in the place of conjunctions, these punctuation marks link two connected independent clauses together and are used to structure lists. For many learners (and some teachers) this technique can be a challenge to introduce to the classroom, but our blog explores the difference between the two, examples of accurate usage and possible misconceptions.
Brackets, hyphens, dashes and slashes
Brackets, hyphens, slashes and dashes each serve different purposes, but are very commonly confused. Hyphens look like dashes, and dashes act similarly to brackets... and where do slashes come into all this?
Who needs punctuation?
The short answer is everyone.
Punctuation is essential for both readers and writers. Without it, you will not be able to convey your thoughts accurately, and a reader may struggle to understand what your sentences mean. Clear, accurate sentences are crucial to written language, and each of them uses symbols and marks to show the exact way its information is meant to be understood. Even the simplest of rules, the capital letter and full stop, are types of punctuation; every sentence needs them.
Let’s try writing a sentence without any of these rules:
this is a sentence without any punctuation there is no capital letter to show where the sentence starts and there are no full stops to show where it ends and maybe you feel like you need to take a breath by now but because we have no punctuation you dont know where to stop
Punctuation helps us to break more complex sentences down into manageable clauses. Every sentence in this blog has used punctuation to make the sentences as clear as possible and, when faced with a sentence like the one above, it is easy to see why punctuation matters so much.
Punctuation is vital for communicating through the written word and allows students to communicate, both verbally and in writing, with the world around them. There are many types of punctuation used in the English language, and some of them are much more complicated than others to learn.
Punctuation and social media
When looking at punctuation, it is important to bear in mind social media. Whether this relates to the world of academic writing or it doesn’t, it’s impossible to deny that the landscape of social media has changed the way grammar and punctuation are used online.
Many pieces of writing on social media tend to avoid being grammatically correct, and instead use intentionally incorrect punctuation to sound more casual online. This may have originated as a solution to a tight character limit, such as on Twitter, or as a response to a pay-per-letter texting system in the 2000s; whatever the reason, the internet has resulted in more contracted sentences with fewer punctuation marks.
As the internet, and the style of writing that comes with it, has matured over time, some writers and businesses have adopted this style of writing intentionally to avoid a corporate, overly formal tone. This has led to a rise in a new kind of written English online, one which is grammatically incorrect but still consistent across websites.
When working with your learners to improve literacy, considering different types of media and critical literacy is an important part of their development. Therefore, it’s important to remind learners that much of the language they read online does not follow grammar rules, but that they still matter in professional settings. Learners should be able to switch between the tones they use online and the tones they use in academic writing.
Here are some activities which can be used in the classroom to help your learners become more comfortable using punctuation.
Try printing out some sentences on strips of paper and cutting them up, separating all the words and punctuation, and see whether your class can put the sentence back together correctly. If you want to challenge the class, try using sentences which have semicolons or brackets. Some sentences can be structured in all kinds of ways!
- Daniel went to the shop for three things: a newspaper, an apple, and a toothbrush.
- Even though he didn’t want to, Luke ate all his vegetables.
- Last Sunday – after football practice – Joe had mud all over his shirt.
Change the meaning
Come up with some sentences that change their meaning depending on the punctuation used. We have highlighted a couple of these sentences already (“Let’s eat grandma” and “My favourite people are my parents, the prime minister and Beyonce”), but can you come up with any others?
In class, try to name the punctuation marks so that your class begins to associate the sound with the meaning. You could ask the class to shout “bang!” when an exclamation mark appears in a sentence, or make a sound of thought when they see a question mark.
This technique is particularly effective for younger learners, and provides a great opportunity to stretch them beyond the expectations of the National Curriculum.
One of the easiest ways to teach punctuation to your class is to make mistakes on purpose. A great idea to get the whole class correcting grammar mistakes is to write sentences that have deliberate errors, such as missing full stops, capital letters, maybe even misspellings. Then, encourage the class to work individually or in pairs to correct the sentences, putting the punctuation in the right place.
If you have a class that is particularly confident with grammar, why not sneak grammar mistakes into your own lesson plans and presentations? Incentivise learners to correct mistakes when they are not expecting them by rewarding those learners who spot grammatical errors. Maybe you could make a competition with the whole class.
How Bedrock teaches punctuation
Punctuation is a fundamental part of how sentences are constructed. For this reason, it is a fundamental part of Bedrock's grammar curriculum, both for primary and for secondary learners.
On Bedrock's core curriculum, punctuation (and other grammar skills) are taught through engaging teaching videos, bespoke prose, contextualising activities, recap tasks and formative assessments. Not only does this structure support mastery of different grammar skills, but it also provides teachers with concrete diagnostic data on learners' progress using the core curriculum. With this data, teachers can be confident that every learner has the grammar knowledge they need to thrive across the curriculum - and to make it even better, this data collation is done through a self-marking curriculum, saving teachers time and supporting classroom learning.