Mark my words

21st April 2000 at 01:00
Our special correspondent pulls out all the stops. Illustrations: Mandy Doyle

A teaching assistant in Enfield was accosted by an imperious infant. "Tie my shoelace!" he ordered, placing his foot under her nose. "Oh dear, William," she said. "Tie my shoelace? Shouldn't there be something on the end of that?" The child raised its eyes to heaven. "Oh all right. Tie my shoelace, full stop."

The literacy hour is clearly having an effect on children's punctuation. The 1999 national curriculum writing tasks showed improvements in the use of capital letters and full stops (even at level 1 and 2c), commas and speech marks.

This is cheering, as punctuation is important in ensuring writers get their message across. In speech, we can use our voices; in writing, all we have is an arcane system of dots, dashes and squiggles - and before the literacy hour, many children had little idea of their significance. Now teachers regularly demonstrate punctuation's purpose in Shared Reading and talk about its implications in Shared Writing.

However, we're not out of the woods yet. There is no noticeable improvement in the use of the apostrophe, and in last year's key stage 2 tests there was actually an increase in the incidence of the "comma splice" - as illustrated in this example from a level 4 script:

"She turned round but there was no one there except a painting, all of a sudden the people in the painting moved and started talking again, Jade couldn't believe her eyes." (Incidentally, if a full stop would do instead of a comma, you've probably got a comma splice on your hands. Depending on the sentence, you could change to a full stop, dash, colon or semi-colon - or add a conjunction.) A problem for teachers is knowing what conventions to teach. After several decades in which punctuation was neglected by educational masters, the only official guidance has been the glossary at the back of the National Literacy Strategy framework, which often not clear. Textbooks published before the NLS, therefore, and many of those rushed out in response to it, are often at odds about usage.

However, in consultation with linguists, the NLS has revised the glossary. Its definitions of grammatical terms - including punctuation marks - are clearer and more coherent, so the next generation of text books should read from the same syntactical hymn sheet.

The definitions on the following pages are taken from this revised glossary. Nit-pickers may still have a few quibbles. See if you can spot the definition that this particular pedant considers questionable (answer p64).


We mark sentences by using a capital letter at the beginning, and a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark at the end.

A question mark is used at the end of an interrogative sentence (Who was that?) or one whose function is a question (You're leaving already?). An exclamation mark is used at the end of a sentence (which may be exclamative, imperative or declarative) or an interjection to show strong emotion: Exclamative: What a pity!

Imperative: Get out!

Declarative: It's a goal!

Interjection: Oh dear!


A comma is used to help the reader by separating parts of a sentence. It sometimes corresponds to a pause in speech. In particular we use commas:

* to separate items in a list (but not usually before and): My favourite sports are football, tennis andswimming. Or: I got home, had a bath and went to bed.

* to mark off extra information: Jill, my boss, is 28 years old.

* after a subordinate clause which begins asentence: Although it was cold, we didn't wear our coats.

* with many connecting adverbs (eg, however, on the other hand, anyway, for example): Anyway, in the end I decided not to go.

A semi-colon can be used to separate two mainclauses in a sentence: I liked the book; it was a pleasure to read.

This could also be written as two separate sentences: I liked the book. It was a pleasure to read.

However, where two clauses are closely related in meaning (as in the above example), a writer may prefer to use a semi-colon rather than two separate sentences.

Semi-colons can also be used to separate items in a list if these items consist of longer phrases: I need large, juicy tomatoes; half a pound of unsalted butter; a kilo of fresh pasta, preferably tagliatelle; and a jar of black olives.

A colon is used to introduce a list or a following example (as in this article). It may also be used before a second clause that expands or illustrates the first: He was very cold: the temperature was below zero.


A hyphen is sometimes used to join the two parts of a compound noun, as in city-centre. But it is much more usual for compound nouns to be written as single words (eg football, headache, bedroom) or as separate words without a hyphen (golf ball, stomach ache, city centre).

However, hyphens are used in the following cases:

* in compound adjectives and longer phrases used as modifiers before nouns: a well-known painter

a ten-year-old girl

* in many compound nouns where the second part is a short word such as in, off, up or by (a break-in, a write-off, a mix-up, a passer-by).

* in many words beginning with the prefix co-, non-, and ex-.

Hyphens are also used to divide words at the end of a line of print.


A dash is a punctuation mark used especially in informal writing (such as letters to friends, postcards or notes).

Dashes may be used to replace other punctuation marks (colons, semi-colons, commas) or brackets: It was a great day out - everyone enjoyed it.


A parenthesis is a word or phrase inserted into a sentence to explain or elaborate. It may be placed in brackets or between dashes or commas: Sam and Emma (his oldest children) are coming to visit. Or: Margaret is generally happy - she sings in the mornings! - but responsibility weighs her down. Or: Sarah is, I believe, our best student. Parentheses (plural) can also refer to the brackets themselves.


We use an apostrophe for the omitted letter(s) when a verb is shortened: I'm (I am), would've (would have), who's (who has).

In contracted negative forms, not is contracted to n't and joined to the verb: isn't, didn't, couldn'tI In formal style, it is usual to use the full form.

There are a few othercases when an apostrophe is used to indicate that letters are ins some sense "omitted" in words other than verbs, eg, let's (let us), o'clock (of the clock).

Note the differences between its (belonging to it) and it's (it is or it has): The company is to close one of its factories (no apostrophe).

The factory employs 800 people. It's the largest factory in town (apostrophe).


We use an apostrophe + s for the possessive form: my mother's car; Joe and Fiona's house; the cat's tail; James's ambition; a week's holiday.

With a plural "possessor" already ending in s (eg parents), an apostrophe is added to the end of the word: my parents' car; the girls' toilets. But irregular plurals (eg men, children) take an apostrophe + s: children's clothes.

The regular plural form (-s) is often confused with possessive 's: I bought some apples. (not apple's) Note that the possessive words yours, his, hers, ours, theirs and its are not written with an apostrophe.

Definitions from the revised National Literary Strategy glossary, now available on the DfEE Standards website: http:www.

Jokes and adverts adapted from Big Book Grammar by Sue Palmer and Michaela Morgan, a six-book series covering NLS sentence level requirements and how to use them to improve children's writing (Heinemann, Spring 2000).

Buy next month's TES Primary and get a copy of Sue Palmer's, A Little Alphabet Book, published by Oxford University Press, for free.

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