Understanding Symbol-ism: an ESL Student’s Guide to English Punctuation

Understanding Symbol-ism
an ESL Student’s Guide to English Punctuation

Susan Verner
by Susan Verner 6,347 views |

Do your ESL students struggle with English punctuation? Do all those little symbols look the same to them after a while?

Are they frustrated (or are you) that such little symbols can cause so much trouble? Punctuation doesn’t have to get you down. Here is a simple breakdown of the most common punctuation symbols in English and how to use them. It’s a great reference for your students or you can use it to plan a simple but thorough review.

Use This Complete Guide to Help Your Students Punctuate

  1. 1

    The Period

    The period in English is used at the end of a sentence that is not a question. A period comes directly after the last letter of the last word in the sentence and should be followed by one space before starting the next word of the next sentence. (The one space rule applies when students are using a computer. If by some chance they are on a typewriter, they should include two spaces after a period.)

    A period can also appear inside a quotation mark if it follows the final word of the sentence. It cannot appear inside quotation marks when the sentence continues after them.

    • “I want to talk to you.” he said. (incorrect)
    • He said, “I want to talk to you.” (correct)
  2. 2

    The Question Mark

    The question mark in English comes at the end of a direct question. Question marks do not come at the end of an indirect question (those that are embedded in a dependent clause) unless the main clause is also a question.

    • I was asking where you were. (correct)
    • I was asking where you were? (incorrect)
    • Do you want to know where they were? (correct)

    Question marks are also used after a tag question. A tag question is a short phrase that comes at the end of a statement asking the listener if the statement is true.

    • He went to the party, didn’t he?

    Polite requests, though technically questions, frequently do not end with a question mark even though that would be grammatically correct.

    • Would you mind closing the window. I’m cold. (correct)
    • Would you mind closing the window? I’m cold. (correct)

    Question marks should not be combined with other punctuation marks at the end of a sentence though you will sometimes see this in casual writing.

    • Did you see what he did!? (incorrect)

    Question marks can also appear inside a direct quotation even if the sentence continues after the quotes.

    • “Did you see that?” he asked.
  3. 3

    The Exclamation Point

    The exclamation point in English is used at the end of a strong declaration, an interjection, or a strong command.

    • I told you not to go there!

    The exclamation point is rarely used in academic and formal writing. It can, however, appear inside a direct quotation when the sentence continues after the quotation mark.

    • “Watch out!” she yelled. (correct)
  4. 4

    The Colon

    The colon has two basic uses in English. Most commonly, writers use it to introduce a list of items in a sentence.

    • I have three things to buy: milk, bread, and eggs.

    It can also be used to introduce an explanation that comes after an independent clause. It is generally understood that the information that follows the colon is defining the thing that comes before the colon.

    • I wanted you to do one thing: get the groceries.

    Most ESL students will only use a colon to introduce lists in writing.

  5. 5

    The Semi-Colon

    The semi-colon is a frequently misused punctuation symbol among English students. Most students will only need to use the semi-colon in two different situations. The first is when linking two independent clauses which are closely related. The clauses can usually be linked by a coordinating conjunction or subordinating conjunction, but using the semi-colon instead implies the relationship rather than stating it directly.

    • I can’t go surfing: I’m afraid of sharks. (implies that the fear of sharks is why they can’t surf)
    • I can’t go surfing because I’m afraid of sharks.

    The other situation in which some ESL students will find themselves using a semicolon is for separating items in a complicated list – a list where the individual items in the list require the use of a comma, such as city state combinations or names followed by titles.

    • We saw New York, New York; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Sacramento, California.
    • These are my brothers are Jake, MD; Jason, DMD; and Julian, PhD.
  6. 6

    The Comma

    The comma is perhaps the most confusion piece of punctuation in the English language and probably deserves a post entirely to itself. Even native speakers struggle with using commas correctly in their writing. Here are some basic rules your ESL students should know about comma use.

    1. Use commas to separate items in a series. The comma before the and in a list is optional, but students should be consistent in including it or omitting it throughout their writing.

      I am taking English, history, social studies, and math this semester.

    2. Use a comma after an independent clause that is joined to another independent clause with a coordinating conjunction. These coordinating conjunctions include and, but, so, yet, or, for, and nor.

      Sam is in my English class, and Jessica is in my math class.

    3. Use a comma to offset a longer introductory phrase. To some extent, whether an introductory phrase is considered “long” is in the opinion of the writer.

      After coming to the United States, I struggled with homesickness.
      After that we went home.

    4. In recent years, commas are used to set off information that could otherwise have been put in parenthesis in a sentence. This information is often called added information or unessential information or parenthetical information. Often these phrases are adjective clauses and adverb clauses. Appositives are also punctuated in this manner.

      I called my sister, who owes me a favor, to come and get us.
      My sister, the one with the fast car, is coming to get us.

Your students and you should not be discouraged if you struggle with punctuation in English. Though it can be complicated, hopefully this guide will serve as a reference for the simple rules governing these little symbols in English.

What other punctuation rules do you point out to your students?

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