Rethinking Punctuation: Modifying a Sentence

Rethinking Punctuation: Modifying a Sentence

Episode Three

Hello once again, teachers! We’re at our thrilling conclusion to the mini-series Rethinking Punctuation. If you’re joining us for the first time, check out our other episodes, or stick around to discover new ways of grouping punctuation. This series is aimed at teaching students at the beginning levels of English and ESL learners. Today we’ll be looking at sentence modifiers! These strange punctuation marks belong to neither sentence splitters nor enders, so we decided to group them into a different group entirely. Let’s get started!


The Quotation Mark

This set of punctuation marks is easy to follow. Like parentheses, quotation marks are always used in pairs. They simply show the reader when someone is speaking. Remember that the marks go on either side of the quote itself. The more complicated aspect of these marks is where to place commas besides them. Commas often go right before the subject speaks, and/or after the quote itself. Here are two examples to show these rules:


The boy said, “That’s my dog.”


“That’s my dog,” the boy said.  


Notice where the commas and periods are situated. When the quote starts the sentence, the comma goes before the end quotation mark (as in the second example sentence). When the identifying phrase starts the sentence, the comma goes after the speaking verb (as is the case for the first sentence). Notice a full stop is applied at the end of the quote, before the end quotation mark. The best way to cement these rules into your mind is to read works of fiction in which characters speak often. You’ll pick up the marks soon enough!

The Dash

The dash comes in three forms, though if you ask a native English speaker, they may not know this themselves. These are the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. Each is longer than the one before it, with the em dash being the size of two hyphens. We’re going to focus on the hyphen and the em dash, because the en dash, while it has certain uses in English, isn’t as important as the other two.

Hyphens glue words together. Specifically, they glue together certain compound words, called hyphenated compounds. Unfortunately, there isn’t a steadfast agreement on when to form hyphenated compounds. A good rule of thumb is to add hyphens to compounds when you need clarity. Here is an example:


He left the academy for his own well-being.


A good method is to use a dictionary if you’re unsure. Another great way to recognize hyphenated compound rules is to find them in books. Otherwise, use your own discretion for deciding compounds.

The em dash is a bit more versatile. Think of it as being able to replace commas, colons, and parentheses. Just remember that if you’re replacing a pair of commas, use two em dashes as well. Check the example below:


Johnny—who has a law degree—loves to watch shows about lawyers.


Notice the spacing, or lack thereof, between the words and the em dashes. Just like commas, colons, and parentheses, leave no space between the punctuation and the words.


The Apostrophe

Our final punctuation mark is the bane of English learners and even native speakers. Have no fear! We’re here to make it easy by breaking it down into simple concepts. The apostrophe has two primary functions. The first use is for possession. Whenever someone or something owns something else (or holds an important relationship with them), an apostrophe is used. Here are two examples:


Mary’s dog is too big for his cage.


Josh’s brother is too tall for the hut.


Notice how the relationship in the second sentence also has a possessive apostrophe in English. This is most commonly seen in familial, social, and business relationships. Examples include: Josh’s boss, Josh’s girlfriend, and Josh’s teacher.

The second major use of the apostrophe is to show contractions. Contractions aren’t unique to English, but what they eliminate is a bit different from French or Chinese. English contractions usually get rid of a single vowel in favor of shortening a phrase to one word. A few examples would be can’t (can not), don’t (do not), and shouldn’t (should not). Contractions are also built using irregular breaks that don’t follow the single vowel rule. These examples include won’t (will not), and the informal contraction y’all (you all). Again, we hate to tell you that the best way to get a better feel for this is to read more, but it will certainly bolster your English punctuation capabilities.


We’ve done it! Thanks for following us to the end of this mini-series: Rethinking Punctuation. We’re very excited to have come this far with you and your students, and we hope these brief guides can help you get a better understanding of English punctuation. Want to review? Check out our lessons. Think you’ve mastered sentence modifiers? Head over to to test your skills.