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Learning to use punctuation

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Please read this reference guide to punctuation to prepare for the next writing task. You might like to print it out and highlight or underline the key parts. Alternatively, you could take some notes to help you remember the most important points.

A short reference guide to punctuation in Legal English

Commas (,) are used:

  • To link two independent clauses into one sentence, use both commas and a conjunction: The defendant intentionally accessed the government system, and he intentionally denied access to authorized users.
  • After an introductory phrase or clause: At the time of the accident, the defendant was intoxicated.
  • To separate parts of a sentence that are not essential to its meaning. This includes legal citations: In the Morris case, 489 U.S. at 192, that point was discussed by the court.
  • To separate the items in a series: The defendant was armed with a sawed-off shotgun, a semi-automatic pistol, and a hunting knife when he entered the bank.
  • To set off transitional phrases: therefore, moreover, furthermore, also…; In addition, the court ruled against the other party.
  • To set off dates, titles, geographical names and short quotations: Robert Sherwood, Deputy Minister of Finance, testified in Geneva, Switzerland.

Semicolons (;) are used:

  • To join two independent clauses without a conjunction: Mr. Munoz had just witnessed his wife’s death; he was in a state of shock.
  • When two independent clauses are joined by a transitional expression: The witness had no personal knowledge of the event; therefore, her testimony was of no value.
  • To separate the items in a complicated series: Evidence was heard from the following countries: Turkey, China; Oman; Guatemala; Nigeria; and Thailand.

Colons (:) are used:

  • To introduce a series: We must interview the following witnesses: Jones, Chappuis, and Gonzalez.
  • To introduce a summary or an illustration: The plaintiff failed to prove two key elements: assault and battery.
  • To introduce a long quotation: She invoked the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Dashes (-) are used:

  • To set off material that interrupts a sentence
  • To emphasize the material

Apostrophes (‘) are used:

  • To form possessives: William’s briefcase (not the briefcase of William); The clans’ movement across the desert; Pavel and Roger’s boat.
  • In contractions and abbreviations: can’t, won’t haven’t, etc.

Hyphens (-) are used:

  • For compound terms
  • Where two words act together as a single modifier (before the word modified): My hard-headed boss (not My boss is hard-headed)
  • With certain prefixes: ex, quasi, anti, self
  • For compound numbers and fractions: fifty-two, one-third

Other punctuation marks:

  • Full stops (.) are used to end a declarative sentence, a command, or an indirect quotation.
  • Question Marks (?) are used t the end of a direct question
  • Do not use exclamation marks (!) in professional writing.
  • Use double quotation (“) marks for short, direct quotations
  • Alternate double (“) and single (‘)quotation marks for material quoted within a quotation
  • Use square brackets [] around anything you change
  • Use … to indicate an omission (=that you have left something out that was in the original text).
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