Notes about punctuation in formal writing

When writing formal pieces, some pitfalls in the punctuation are easy to avoid once you know them. Punctuation marks such as the comma, the semi-colon, the colon and the period are useful for organising phrases and clauses, facilitating the reading, and disambiguating. However, these marks are also liable to underuse, as in the case of run-on sentences; misuse, as in the comma splice; and overuse, as it often happens with the Oxford comma.

Run-on sentences: insufficient punctuation

Example (notice the absence of punctuation marks around ‘therefore’):

* Specific agendas in media organisations lead to information being manipulated or hidden therefore individual research efforts are valuable.

Possible alternative:

Specific agendas in media organisations lead to information being manipulated or hidden. Therefore, individual research efforts are valuable.

  More information

Comma splice: misused punctuation

A type of run-on sentence, the comma splice is characterised by the use of of too-weak punctuation forms; often, using a comma instead of a semi-colon or a period.

Example (notice the comma before ‘therefore’):

* Specific agendas in media organisations lead to information being manipulated or hidden, therefore individual research efforts are valuable.

Possible alternative: see above.

  More information

Oxford comma: sometimes overused

The Oxford, or serial, comma (namely, the comma preceding the word ‘and’ before the last item in a series) has the purpose of facilitating the reading and disambiguating. Where that purpose is not necessary, neither is the comma.

Fiver without Oxford comma

Find out more:

  Oxford University guidelines

  The Guardian guidelines

  Overuse of Oxford comma


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Pablo Bernabeu
Psychology PhD student
and teaching assistant
at Lancaster University

After doing a research master's, I became a PhD student and graduate teaching assistant in Psychology at Lancaster University. I'm investigating how conceptual processing is supported by linguistic and sensorimotor brain systems. I use methods such as behavioural and electroencephalographic experiments, corpus analysis, statistics and programming.

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