End punctuation marks
End marks generally signify that a sentence has come to an end, but they can be used in other specific circumstances, as we will see. The end marks we will explore are full stops, exclamation marks and question marks. Let’s look at each in turn:
1) Full stop (or periods) as end marks
Full stops (‘.’) – otherwise known as periods – mark the end of most declarative sentences and some imperative sentences. Declarative sentences are sentences that make any form of statement, and, therefore, make up the majority of sentences in the English language. Some examples of declarative sentences are
If you keep running, you will fall off that cliff.
I did not steal the cookies from that jar.
The English language has only existed for 1 second.
Note that all of these make a statement of some kind (even if some statements are more likely than others!), and they all end in a full stop.
Imperative sentences also end with a full stop. Imperative sentences articulate a command, or a request. For example:
Leave me alone.
Could you please give me some time alone.
Pass me the salt.
Note that they are all making a request, or command, of some sort, and they all end in a full stop.
It should be noted here that some sentences which make a statement (declarative), and some which make a command, or request (imperative), end with exclamation marks. We can change the name of these sentences to ‘exclamatory sentences’ when this happens, even though they have a similar function to their declarative and imperative counterparts. We will look at exclamation marks to end a sentence shortly.
1.1 Full stop use when not at the end of a sentence
The full stop can also be used in some specific circumstances which aren’t the end of a sentence:
1.1.1 The full stop for abbreviations
The full stop can be used to abbreviate certain words or phrases. Let’s look at some examples:
i) ‘et cetera‘ (meaning ‘and other things’) is shortened to ‘etc.‘
The sight of all this fruit (apples, oranges, pears, etc.) is making me hungry.
ii) ‘et alli’ (meaning ‘and others’) is shortened to ‘et al.‘
This is very common for references within sentences in scientific papers where there are three or more authors in the paper being referenced. This leads to sentences like:
A previous study (Smith et al., 2005) suggested the hippocampus is involved in short term memory.
iii) ‘exempli gratia (meaning ‘for example’) is shortened to ‘e.g.‘
There are many potential reasons for the crash (e.g., poor regulation of the banks).
iv) ‘id est’ (meaning ‘that is’) is shortened to ‘i.e.’
Today we will resume the normal opening hours, i.e., 11am-7pm.
In all of the above examples where there was something extra to say after the abbreviation, I followed the abbreviation with a comma. Some disagree with this and prefer to leave the comma out.
1.1.2 Three full stops for ellipsis
If we want to leave out part of a quote, or show a hesitation or thought left unfinished, we use an ellipsis, which is signified by 3 full stops in a row.
We might want to leave part of a quote out when it is very long and we just want a bit at the beginning, and at the end. For example, something like:
Smith forcefully makes the case that ‘Everyone who lives here…should have access to free education.’
The original quotation could be something like:
Everyone who lives here – including people outside of the traditional ages for learning – should have access to free education.
We can also use 4 full stops if the ellipsis comes at the end of a declarative sentence within the quote, for example:
Smith forcefully makes the case that ‘Everyone who lives here…should have access to free education….Educating parents is just as important as educating their kids.’
Note how in the second ellipsis there is a fourth full stop, which is signifying the full stop at the end of the sentence from within the quote. To make this clearer, let’s look at what the original quote could have been:
Everyone who lives here – including people outside of the traditional ages for learning – should have access to free education. Are we doing enough to make sure that not just children have access to education, but their parents too? It would be a mistake to forget that the parents are in a prime position to teach their child in a one-one setting. Educating parents is just as important as educating their kids.
I have put ‘education.’ in bold above to highlight where the ellipsis began in the previous example, and to show that there is a full stop at this point. To clarify, ‘education’ has a full stop after it, and then two sentences which were omitted from the original example follow it. Consequently, we denote omitting a full sentence – in this case two –with one full stop to signify the end of the declarative sentence, and then 3 more to signify the ellipsis.
The other use of ellipsis, probably most common in fiction, is as an effect to show hesitation, or a thought left unfinished.
An example showing hesitation is:
‘But Jane, what am I to do… without you?’ he said.
Here the ellipsis shows a moments hesitation, implying he is imagining the pain he will feel from losing her. I put it before ‘without you’ because these are probably the most important words in the sentence in regards to making it feel real that she is leaving him.
An example of showing a thought left unfinished is:
‘I don’t know what to say I just…’
‘Tell me; I can take it.’
Here the person in the first sentence doesn’t finish what he is saying, and the person in the second sentence asks him to finish what he is saying.
2) Exclamations marks as end marks
Exclamation marks are used to mark the end of exclamatory sentences, clauses and phrases.
Exclamatory sentences are declarative, or imperative, sentences, which have an exclamation mark on the end to show a more powerful emotion. For example:
I am never going back in there!
This is a declarative sentence with an exclamation mark on the end to add strength to the statement. Let’s look at it without the exclamation mark:
I am never going back in there.
Do you think the exclamation mark adds much in this situation? One problem with sentences like this is the exclamation mark can take away some of the subtlety, which may be the case here. Moreover, exclamation marks are practically never used in formal writing situations. They are probably most used in texting, or informal emails, because they convey emotion in a way which can make the writing seem more friendly.
Another example is:
This is an imperative sentence with an exclamation mark on the end. It is really valuable in this situation, as can be shown by writing it without the exclamation mark:
It doesn’t seem like someone is shouting it anymore, does it?
An example of an exclamation mark at the end of a phrase is:
Damn! I just dropped the keys in the water.
In this example, the exclamation mark is showing a sudden burst of emotion.
Next, let’s look at the final punctuation mark able to end a sentence: the question mark
3) The Question mark
Questions marks signify the end of an interrogative sentence. Interrogative sentences are sentences which ask a question.
A simple example is:
What time will you be there?
This is a simple question looking for an answer.
Not all questions actually want a direct answer, however. Rhetorical questions are questions which are used for persuasive effect, rather than to get a reply. For example, in a speech about human rights someone might say something like:
Can we really continue to sit back and watch these human rights violations continue?
The question is just to make the point that we can’t, and therefore is implying we must do something to stop it.
Question tags are another interesting construction. A question tag involves tagging an interrogative grammatical fragment onto the end of a declarative, or imperative, statement, to turn it into a question. In other words, a group of words with a question mark after it (interrogative grammatical fragment) is tagged onto the end of a group of words which states a perceived fact, or argument (declarative statement) or a group of words which gives an order, or request (imperative statement). Question tags are common in spoken English, and can sometimes be found in informal written English, but are very rare in formal written English. An example of a question tag is:
You are hungry, aren’t you?
Here the interrogative fragment ‘aren’t you’ is added onto the end of the declarative statement ‘you are hungry’, thus turning it into a question.
Another informal technique is to add an inflection to the end of a declarative sentence which turns it from a statement of some kind into a question. For example:
He is the manager.
He is the manager?
The second example would be pronounced with a raise in tone at the end, and changes the meaning from making a statement to asking a question. In this particular example, the question could be a bit sarcastic, where the person asking has just been told this man is the manager, and is looking down his nose at him while asking the question. In reality, if he really wanted to know who the manager is, it would be clearer to say:
Is he the manager?
This change of tone at the end of sentences, to turn them into a question, has, in recent times, become a habit that a lot of people use in almost every sentence, even when they aren’t trying to convey a question. This leads to not only an overuse, but also a misuse, of the technique, which soon makes the speech monotonous and difficult to listen to. This sort of change of tone should definitely be used sparingly, and especially only when one is trying to express a question of some sort.
Considering some of the more contentious uses of question marks, an easy mistake to make is to use a question mark for indirect questions. Indirect questions are questions alluded to within declarative or interrogative sentences. Let’s compare them with direct questions:
Direct question: ‘Have I been here before?’
Indirect question: ‘She asked if I had been here before.’
Direct question: ‘Where is the nearest toilet?’
Indirect question: ‘Jane wants to know where the nearest toilet is.’
Note that the indirect questions in both examples don’t have a question mark because they are being reported second hand, and are therefore indirect.
That is all for end punctuation marks; let’s look at internal punctuation marks next.