Polishing Your Punctuation

October 28, 2018 by Andrea Castro Andrea Castro

Even though punctuation is one of the most important features of writing, English students (and native speakers) often take it too lightly. In other words, it's common for people to focus on choosing the right words when writing, but little else. This, however, is a mistake; good writing in English is much more than just vocabulary and grammar. Another important element, punctuation, helps your reader to clearly follow and understand your message, much like pauses and changes in intonation help your listeners when you’re speaking.

To truly understand the importance of punctuation, take a look at the paragraph below taken from a sample Writing Task 2 and answer the questions:

Is the paragraph easy to follow? Why/Why not?

Sample Writing Task 2 answer

In my opinion families should be responsible for providing quality care for their elderly family members I’m of the belief that families should remain together and aging loved ones should be looked after at home where they can feel loved and safe however if this is not an option for the family either due to practical emotional or health issues the family should then take responsibility by paying for care in a home where qualified professionals can look after their senior family members

If you struggled to follow and understand the message, you’re not alone. Even though the writer is showing a wide range of vocabulary and seems to have good control of a variety of grammatical structures, something crucial is missing in the paragraph: punctuation. Now, take another minute or two and add any punctuation that you think would help a reader to better understand the message. When you finish, check your suggestions with the paragraph below.

Sample Writing Task 2 answer – with correct punctuation

in my opinion, families should be responsible for providing quality care for their elderly family members. I’m of the belief that families should remain together and aging loved ones should be looked after at home, where they can feel loved and safe. However, if this is not an option for the family, either due to practical, emotional or health issues, the family should then take responsibility by paying for care in a home where qualified professionals can look after their senior family members.

As you may have noticed, the initial paragraph lacked even the most basic aspects of punctuation: starting a new sentence with a capital letter and ending it with a full stop. Chances are you probably already do this and don’t need to put much thought into it when writing. But the truth is that there are other less obvious punctuation uses, and this is why we’ve created a quick guide to correct punctuation for your IELTS tasks and for your everyday writing:

High Angle View Of Typewriter Keys

Capital letters

  • You need to use capital letters when starting a new sentence and for proper nouns.

Example: My parents went to Puerto Rico to help rebuild some of the homes that were damaged by Hurricane Maria.

Comma (,)

  • We use commas when separating a list of items.

Example: Some of the most important technological devices these days include laptops, smartphones, tablets and smartwatches.

  • You need to use commas before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) that links two independent clauses.

Example: Educating children about keeping a healthy diet is important, but parents should also set an example for their children.  

  • You should use a comma after introductory phrases (linking words, discourse markers and dependent clauses).

Examples: However, this isn’t always the case.

In my opinion, families should be responsible for providing quality care for their elderly family members.

This is especially true in developing countries, where government funding is limited.

  • You need to use commas in conditional clauses when the ‘if clause’ comes first.

Example: If family members don’t take responsibility, then nobody will.

  • In more complex writing, you should use commas when a concept requires additional information (to separate essential and non-essential information).

Example: The book, written by a British author, describes the country’s history in great detail.

Semi-colon (;)

  • You can use semi-colons when joining two independent clauses that share the same general idea. It suggests a closer link between the clauses than a full stop does.

Example: Polar regions have lost a shocking amount of ice in recent years; sea levels have been raised exponentially.   

Colon (:)

  • The colon is normally used to introduce a list of items. You can also use a colon to separate two independent clauses (when the second clause explains or illustrates the first clause) or for emphasis.

Examples: The first floor of the building is divided into three sections: the cafeteria, the study room and the washrooms.

Nowadays, people don’t even take time off to eat lunch: employees eat at their desks while doing work.

The CEO’s of large corporations care about one thing, and one thing only: money.

Brackets ()

  • You can use brackets when you wish to include information that is not essential. If this information is removed from the text, the meaning of the sentence remains the same.

Example: In Beijing (and probably other Chinese cities too), graduate competition for jobs is tough.

Keep in mind that there are other punctuation marks such as quotation marks (required when you use someone else’s words in your writing), exclamation marks (used to express strong emotions such as excitement) and question marks (used when direct questions are being asked). Even though you’re less likely to use these punctuation marks on your IELTS exam, it’s also important that you know how to use them appropriately, as much of our communication these days is in writing and you will most certainly need to use them in other contexts.

Directly Above Shot Of Pencil By Laptop On Wooden Table



Andrea Castro

Andrea is an experienced English teacher who has worked since 2009 in Costa Rica, Dubai and now Canada. When not working for IELTS, she spends her time with her little girl and her two canine siblings.

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