11) Word punctuation

Word punctuation

Another category of punctuation can be described as ‘word punctuation’. Let’s take a look at this broad group of punctuation techniques next.

1) The Hyphen

The hyphen is used to combine words into a new compound idea. Words often start off separate in a language, then become hyphened, then the hyphen is dropped as we become more used to them. For example:

play group



Any rules about when to hyphenate words have so many exceptions the best thing to do is use a dictionary to find how it is currently being written.

Let’s look at some common examples:

1.1 Compound adjectives

The hyphen can link two or more words together to link words into a compound adjective, as in:

This is my 10-year-old nephew.

The closed-minded man stormed out the room.

The four-volume work was rigorous.

1.2 Joining two or more words where the last is a participle

He was the most hard-working person there.

She was a wonderfully broad-minded person.

1.3 Compound nouns

The hyphen can link two or more words together to link words in a compound noun, as in:

My mother-in-law will be in attendance.

I will get a check-up at the doctor’s later.

1.4 To prevent three identical consonants, two identical vowels or a small letter and a capital letter from clashing

An example of a hyphen preventing three identical consonants clashing is:

The shell-like exterior looked impenetrable.

An example of a hyphen preventing two identical vowels clashing is:

The pre-eminent professor spoke first.

An example of a hyphen preventing a small letter and a capital letter clashing is:

There was a lot of pro-Communist propaganda at the meeting.

1.5 Add a prefix

Hyphens can also be used to add a prefix to a word, as in:

Her ex-boyfriend is back in town.

A co-ordinating conjunction links two independent clauses together.

1.6 To prevent confusion

The hyphen can add clarity when there could be two meanings. An example of this is:

Look at that fire fly.

There could be some confusion here in thinking that the fly is literally made out of fire. To clear this up, we add a hyphen, as in:

Look at that fire-fly.

Another example would be:

Pass me that water bottle.

In a world which is thinking of the environment, the bottle could be made out of water! To prevent this confusion we could write:

Pass me that water-bottle.

2) The apostrophe

The apostrophe signifies some form of contraction in the construction. This means that some letters have been omitted from the construction that were there before the apostrophe was added. Let’s look at some examples.

2.1 When to use an apostrophe

2.1.1 A contraction

There are many contractions in English. It is worth noting that they are mainly for use in informal writing, with the full, non-contracted version being preferred in formal writing. Some examples are:

it is = it’s

do not = don’t

would not = wouldn’t

will not = won’t

2.1.2 To show possession

Apostrophes can also omit words to show possession. In the following examples of this the first sentence is the sentence before omission, then the second one, after the equals sign, is the sentence with the possessive put in, in bold. Note how much shorter the second sentence is.

A singular example is:

The house that belongs to John is over there = John’s house is over there.

A plural example is:

The car that belongs to my neighbour just broken down in the road = My neighbour’s car just broke down in the road.

A group example is:

The wedding of John and Jane is tomorrow = John and Jane’s wedding is tomorrow.

2.1.3 Form plurals of abbreviated letters

A example of an apostrophe shortening an expression to make letters plural is:

A computer glitch has deleted every single ‘a’ and every single ‘b’ in your document = A computer glitch has deleted all the a’s and b’s in your document.

Some would have written ‘As and Bs’ in this situation, but the problem with this is it is close to the word ‘as’ and the acronyms ‘Bs’ or ‘BS’ – the latter being potentially more embarrassing considering one of its meanings.

2.2 When not to use apostrophes

2.2.1 Do not use apostrophes to form possessive pronouns

It is easy to make the mistake of using apostrophes to form possessive pronouns. For example, we should write:

That is a cute dog. Where is its owner?


That is a cute dog. Where is it’s owner? (because ‘where is it is owner’ is wrong)

Another example is:

This house is hers.


That house is her’s. (‘her’s’ is never right)

Another example is:

The room is ours.


The room is our’s. (‘our’s is never right)

Another example is:

The room is yours.


The room is your’s. (‘your’s’ is never right)

A final example is:

The money is theirs.


The money is their’s. (‘their’s’ is never right)

3) 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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

4) Italics

Italics can be used to make a word stand out. The guidelines around them vary with some even saying not to use them at all. Here are a few places you might see them:

4.1 To emphasise a word

Sometimes people use italics to emphasise a word, as in:

I do not agree with that.

This can very easily be overused, and one should probably find a way to get the point across without having to resort to it too regularly.

4.2 To show contrast

In a similar way to the above, italics can be used to show contrast between two words, as in:

Am I a man, or a boy?

4.3 To indicate a published work

Italics are also sometimes used to indicate a published work, as in:

The mass surveillance regime uncovered by Edward Snowden was reported in The Guardian.

5) Capital letters

Capital letters are used to signify a new sentence and, most commonly, to show something is a proper noun or a proper adjective. Here are a few of the common areas you will see a capital letter used:

5.1 Proper nouns and proper adjectives

Capital letters are used to show proper nouns, as in:

John Smith will be here soon.

and proper adjectives, as in:

The American countryside is beautiful.

This is useful because we sometimes want to differentiate between a specific thing (proper noun) and a general one (common noun). For example:

The United Nations was founded in 1945.

Here we are talking about the specific group.

In contrast:

We are meeting later for a coming together of the united nations of the continent.

Here we are talking about a general group of nations that are in some way being described as ‘united’.

5.2 To start a new sentence, line of verse or full quote

Capital letters are used to start a new sentence, line of verse or full quote.

An example of a capital letter starting a new sentence is:

I always used to lose my keys, and could never figure out why. I later found out my wife had been hiding them from me to prove my untidiness is a problem.

An example of a capital letter starting a new line of verse can be seen in every line of Shakespeare’s beautiful sonnet 18:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall Death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

An example of a capital letter starting a new, full quotation is:

Einstein once said ‘I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious.’

We wouldn’t use a capital letter if only a part of the quotation was used, as in:

Einstein asserted that he had ‘no special talents’, and, at least in this way, I am similar to him.

5.3 Capital letter to mark pronoun ‘I’

The pronoun ‘I’ should always have a capital letter, whether it is at the beginning of a sentence or not, as in:

I don’t know whether I should go there or not.

OK, that is the end of word punctuation, and of the punctuation course as a whole. You might want to have a look at some of the other English courses, next. Or take a well earned rest! 

Posted in Punctuation