What are the the general rules of punctuation when writing an English essay?What are the the general rules of punctuation when writing an English essay?

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literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The rules of punctuation in the English language can be rather complicated. There are four basic types of sentences (when examining punctuation): declarative, exclamatory, interrogative, and imperative. Most essays will include declarative and interrogative sentences.

A declarative sentence is a sentence which makes a statement. These sentences end with a period. Interrogative sentences, on the other hand, ask a question. These sentences end with a question mark (?).

Most essays do not use exclamatory sentences (those which show strong feeling or excitement--Wow!). Sometimes, within a narrative essay, exclamation marks can be used. Imperative sentences are not used very often in essays given they are used as demands (most readers do not wish to be demanded about in essays). Regardless, these sentences use periods.

Other general rules to follow include understanding the use of commas, semi-colons, and parenthesis. If you follow the link below you will see a page which defines the use of other types of punctuation needed in essays.


lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Two common sentence errors are comma splices and run on sentences. In both cases, the writer is using no punctuation or not proper punctuation to join 2 independent clauses (sentences). Here are the two most useful options for joining two independent clauses:

1. use a subordinating or coordinating conjunction. An important distinction here is that coordinating conjunctions must have a comma before them, while subordinating conjunctions do not. The coordinating conjunctions can be remembered with acronym FANBOYS: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.

2. use a semi-colon. 

Here are a few example sentences.

The family was out of milk, so I went to the store to buy more.

The family was out of milk; I went to the store for more.

I had to go to the bank because I needed money. (subordinating conjunction)

I had to go to the bank; I needed money.

There are lots of "right" ways to write the sentence, just be careful and choose the methods that creates the most clarity in your ideas.



mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

All essays must be written in Standard English, not conversational English; therefore, some conventions used in conversation are not acceptable in written essays.  Here are some examples: 

  • Contractions are not to be used. Write can not rather than can't, for example.
  • Pronoun/Antecedent agreement must be observed.  Whereas it is acceptable to say "A student should always have their book," the student must write "A student should always have his or her book."
  • The Nominative Case must be used after linking verbs such as the verb to be.  For instance, in Conversational English, it is acceptable to say The student who won the prize is her.  However, Standard English demands in an essay, The student who won the prize is she.
Kristen Lentz eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One of the most common student punctuation errors that I usually see is when students misuse words that sound similar.  Most of the time they confuse contractions like the word 'you're' (you are) with the possessive pronoun 'your.'

Here are some of the most commonly confused words:

You're-- you are

Your--possessive form of you

There-- pronoun indicating place

They're-- contraction for they are

It's--contraction for It is

Its--possessive form of it.

A general rule of thumb-- do not use contractions in a formal essay, regardless!

jihyunkim67 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Other than some suggestions made above, I want to point one out that is not as commonly pointed out but still significant. Many students seemed confused about where to place the speech mark and period. When one's using the quotation mark in a sentence, it must be placed at the very end of every sentence, after all the commas and full stops. For example, "I must go now". is the wrong use; instead it must be corrected to "I must go now."

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Please remember two other things.  First, though this is not exactly punctuation, capitalize the first word of the sentence and any proper nouns.  Second, please use apostrophes correctly.  Many students use them to make a word plural.  (For example, they will say "many student's..."  This is incorrect.  Apostrophes are most commonly used to indicate possessives.  (The student's book...)

e-martin eNotes educator| Certified Educator

When starting a new paragraph you should indent. On your computer keyboard this can usually be done with the "tab" key. When manually indenting the space bar can be used (five times) to create a five-character indented space. Writing by hand, you can simply start the first line of each paragraph slightly inside the margin, (usually between a half-inch and an inch).