Did you know that, when it comes to writing at an advanced English level, it is not usually grammar or vocabulary, but punctuation that gives students away?
That’s right. No matter how much effort you’ve put into memorising lots of workplace idioms, or how many past tenses you can handle in one single paragraph, if you keep imitating the punctuation rules of your native language, any alert English-speaking reader will know that they are reading the work of a foreigner!
But, how can you tackle these fossilised punctuation habits?
Luckily, it’s much easier than you might think. Below, we are going to cover the aspects of English punctuation that tend to differ from the languages most widely spoken by our readers.
You might think that polishing your English punctuation is a matter of style, but in fact, using the right punctuation can be as relevant when it comes to expressing meaning as using the right vocabulary, especially when you’re dealing with something as precise as numbers.
In English, it is the use of commas and decimal points that is completely
different from languages like Spanish and Portuguese. For example, a decimal number like 2.5 in English, would be 2,5 in Spanish, while 1,825,250 in English would be 1.825.250 in Spanish.
In English, commas are not used to write decimal numbers, but to make large numbers easier to read, the exact opposite of what happens in other languages, where dots are used with big numbers and commas are used before decimals.
If you’re writing a document in English that contains a lot of numbers, you will want to make sure that you’re not mistaking commas for decimal points, or someone else will have to correct all the figures.
Talking about numbers, if you have to write lots of emails and invoices containing large amounts of money, you must make sure you know what full and abbreviated terms for money are acceptable according to English punctuation and abbreviation rules. As usual, consistency in how you express numbers is paramount to achieving clarity and avoiding time-consuming misunderstandings.
When it comes to talking about money in English, full versions are recommended in prose, while the abbreviated versions are suitable for charts, tables and captions.
In a text, use the currency symbol, such as “£”, whenever figures are used. For example, ”Wages are set to remain at £2,300 for 2021–22.”
For sums not including pence, however, you do not need to use decimal points. Don’t write “£6.00” when you can just say ”£6”. Also, if you’re writing in prose, avoid using “k” to abbreviate thousands; instead, write the full figure: ”£200,000”. It looks better and it is seen as more formal.
However, make sure you memorise the following abbreviations for charts and graphics:
When writing about foreign currencies, the name of the currency should be written in lowercase before the number. So, for example, if you want to write a figure in euros, just use the symbol “€” or “EUR” followed by the figure. This rule also applies to other European currencies:
Being the most widely used currency, US dollars normally just take the ‘$’ symbol, unless there is a mixture of dollar currencies in the text, in which case you should write US$ or U$. For dollars from other countries, ”$” should be prefixed with each specific abbreviation.
For other currencies, just write the number first, and add the currency name after it, for example, “200 million yuan”.
We warned you that English punctuation rules differed greatly from the rules of other languages? But what happens when there is a disagreement between how different English-speaking countries punctuate things?
The most common example of this is how quotations are used in different countries. In American English, punctuation (for example, interrogation marks) goes inside the inverted commas, while in other varieties of English it goes outside. In this regard, American English is more similar to Spanish, where marks for exclamation and interrogation also go inside quotation marks. However, when it comes to full stops, English and Spanish deal with things differently:
Quiero leer “Hamlet”.
I want to read “Hamlet.”
Speaking about question marks, there is one major difference between English and Spanish and some of its related languages like Galician and Asturian. In English, there are two forms in which a writer indicates that a sentence should be read as a question. First of all, the grammar and the order of the elements in a phrase change to indicate interrogation. For example, we say “Is it Monday?” instead of “It is Monday”, inverting the order between verb and subject. Second, we use a closing question mark at the end of the interrogation.
In the languages mentioned above, however, there is no inversion in the order of the elements in a phrase or sentence. The statement Es lunes and the question ¿Es lunes? are only distinguished by using punctuation. However, as you can see, Spanish uses an extra, opening question mark at the beginning of questions to avoid confusion.
In Spanish, the dash is used most frequently in dialogue, to indicate a change in speakers in a novel, a play, or a news story,
—¿Fuiste al supermercado?
—Sí, estaba lleno de gente.
In English, it is also customary to separate each speaker’s lines into separate paragraphs, but instead of using dashes, quotation marks are used instead:
“Did you go to the supermarket?”
“Yes, it was crowded.”
This English punctuation rule is probably one of the most problematic among Spanish users. While people from Spain and Latin American countries have been taught throughout their school years to never use a serial comma before the word “and” at the end of a list of items, this rule differs from the English, where a serial comma is used before the word “and”. Bear in mind, however, that it is also acceptable to skip the serial comma in some contexts. It will depend on the stylebook that the writer follows.
Mi padre trajo chocolates, vino, maní y helado.
My father brought chocolates, wine, peanuts, and ice cream.
The same rule applies for the word “or”:
¿Vienes hoy, mañana o el jueves?
Are you coming today, tomorrow, or on Thursday?
English punctuation rules for using capitalisation can be summarised with the next phrase: if in doubt, just use capital letters.
Jokes aside, it is very true that English tends to capitalise a lot of elements that are written in lowercase in other languages. You don’t believe us? Let’s see it with an example from Portuguese and English, then.
Meu aniversário é em dezembro. Este ano, será em um domingo. Meus amigos italianos estão vindo.
My birthday is in December. This year, it will be on a Sunday. My Italian friends are coming.
As you can see, while English capitalises months, days of the week, and nationalities, other languages like Portuguese and Spanish are much more austere when it comes to capital letters.
In conclusion, if you want to write like a native speaker, you can’t keep on disregarding English punctuation rules. Rather than being a matter of style, punctuation rules help you achieve clarity and thus allow your readers to focus on what you have to say. Want to learn how to write the best emails and reports in English? Contact us now and we’ll pair you up with a native teacher of English who will tell you all the differences that exist between the punctuation rules of your native language and those of English.