A Short Guide to English Punctuation


Punctuation is difficult. It exists to make a piece of writing easier to digest; to let people know when they should pause, take a breath, and continue reading. Personally, I’m quite liberal with punctuation. I use it to best express how I think whatever I’m writing should be read. But there are rules-rules that change from language to language.

With English and Spanish there are differences that range from the very obvious to the more obscure. If I asked you what the most obvious difference was, there would likely be two that immediately came to mind: the inverted exclamation mark (¡) and the inverted question mark (¿). However, as these punctuation marks don’t exist in English, there’s never any problem that they could be confused, or used badly. Problems come up* when there are punctuation marks that appear in both English and Spanish, but with different uses. If you are a Spanish person studying English, it’s likely that you make simple mistakes just because you aren’t aware that the rules change. Hopefully, this list of common English punctuation rules should help you.

The Oxford Comma
It’s true that not every dialect of English uses the ‘oxford’ or ‘serial’ comma. In fact, it is often said to be ‘optional’. Personally, I’m a fan because I think it makes potentially difficult sentences clearer. The oxford comma is used before the final ‘and’ or ‘or’ in a list of three or more items. For example: I like eating, running, and watching films. The comma after ‘running’ is the oxford comma. In the sentence above the meaning is clear, but when you have longer and more complicated sentences, the oxford comma can be very useful.

Decimals and Thousands
This one can be extremely confusing. If you are writing a number in Spanish, let’s say ‘a thousand,’ it is generally written as ‘1.000’. In English, however, this is written as ‘1,000’. So, quite literally, the punctuation marks are the exact opposite. If, in English, you want to express a decimal, it’s ‘3.5’ (three and a half), whereas in Spanish it’s ‘3,5’. In the same vein*, when writing a number with a currency symbol, the symbol, in English, goes beforehand. E.G. ‘€1,000’ not ‘1,000€’.

I must admit this one still confuses me in Spanish. If I’m reading a story, I often have difficulty understanding who exactly is talking. When signifying dialogue in Spanish, the ‘em dash’ (—) is often used. However, in English, conversations are shown using inverted commas (“”). For example: “Hello,” I said, looking at him.
“How are you?” he replied.
And that’s all there is to it.

For the most part, these are used very similarly in both languages. In general the point of an ellipsis (…) is to show that information is missing. This could be used in formal writing to shorten a quote, in informal writing to show a thought has trailed off*, or in a number of other, quite specific ways. However, when I was a teacher, I noticed a use of ellipses among my students that confused me a little. I don’t know if this is a formal Spanish rule, but I often noticed people using ellipses to indicate further possible, yet unwritten, examples on a list. For example: ‘We went to the restaurant and we ate chicken, rice, vegetables, ice cream…’
I’ve never seen this use of the ellipsis in English. To express the same idea, we would generally use ‘etc.’ or a short expression like ‘among other things’ instead.

Sentence length
This last tip isn’t so much about punctuation but the lack of it. Spanish sentences are, on average, a lot longer than English ones. I’m sure you could give any number of reasons for this, from newspaper-style writing to Hemmingway’s pared back* approach. Either way, in English they’re shorter. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever have longer sentences. The idea is for every sentence to be as long as it needs to be. If it needs to be long, it needs to be long. If you can express it more succinctly—do.


Come up – arise
In the same vein– Similarly
Trailed off – slowly faded
Pared back– without much ornamentation

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