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How to Learn English Online

written by: Rob Kentworth•edited by: Donna Cosmato•updated: 7/21/2010

Information on the basics of punctuation are provided, such as how to use commas, sentences and apostrophes correctly. Also, dialog punctuation is covered. Links to other articles to assist with learning english online are also given.

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    Introduction

    The english language is pretty flexible. For example, you only need to look in various books to see the constrast of styles and language use employed. This doesn't simply come down to what words are used, but it also comes down to grammar choice. While rules pertaining to the english language are pretty much in stone, you can take the rules and tweak them however you wish. However, first you need to learn the rules before you can start experimenting if you're a writer. As such, that is the goal of the article, even if you're just looking to improve your language skills for general, rather than for writing. It is not designed to cover each aspect of punctuation in depth though and instead, it's intended to provide basic information.

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    The Basics of Sentences

    When you open a book or read a letter, you will find that the words on the page are divided into two rough sections, sentences and paragraphs. The paragraph, which we'll come to in a moment, is the larger section of the two. That leaves the sentence as the smallest. So, what is the sentence for? It basically represents one thought, though it can represent more than one (more on that later).

    So, what's meant by 'it represents one thought'? Well, an example is needed first:

    He ran with the ball.

    The above example deals with one thing and that is someone running with the ball. This represents 'one thought' in language terms. However, you've probably seen or used sentences yourself like this before:

    He ran with the ball, he scored, upon scoring his team-mates lifted him up.

    What you have there is what's called a run-on sentence. It's made up of at least three individual thoughts that should each have their own sentence. However, there is one beautiful word that can join two separate thoughts together so that they fit into one sentence nicely and that word is 'and'. Another example:

    He ran with the ball and he scored.

    Read it to yourself and you'll find it reads much better than 'he ran with the ball, he scored'. Essentially, 'and' is a joining word. One key rule to note though before moving onto other forms of punctuation is that a capital letter should always be used after a full stop. Also, a space is always needed after the full-stop, before you begin the next sentence.

    Below are links to articles on sentences:

    Lesson Plan: Correcting Sentence Fragments and Run-on Sentences

    Sentence Types: Simple, Compound, Complex, and Compound-Complex

    Lesson Plan: Sentence Combining Made Easy, Teach Students How to Create Compound Sentences by Joining two Independent Clauses Correctly

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    The Basics of Comma Use

    Commas are used to break up sentences. However, I prefer to think of them as being used to signal places where you might want a reader to stop for a second or so. Also, the comma is essentially used to make more complex sentences as long as it's done correctly and it can be used to also have more than one thought in a sentence. More on that in a moment. First, let's tackle basic comma use:

    He found he could not continue, because his leg was shattered.

    The above is a simple example of a break in a sentence. Personally, inserting a comma into a sentence above say five words helps the readability, so that's why I inserted a comma there. It also reads right though, which is key. So, what would be an example of a more complex sentence? An example from one of my own pieces is borrowed and shown below:

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    How to Use Commas, Apostrophes and Punctuate Dialog CorrectlyThe basics of comma and apostrophe use are detailed here. Information on how to punctuate dialog is also given, alongside links to other articles on language use, to further assist with improving english skills online.
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    She closed her eyes to take herself to a comforting place far away, for he could not see her face and thus, know that she only felt revulsion at the feel of his touch and at the sight of him.

    You'll note I don't have a comma after five words in the sentence and it is rather long winded, i.e. wordy. As this isn't about wordiness and writing fiction etc., it should just be noted that the sentence itself is fine and the commas are used correctly. It's not a run-on sentence either. It is one long thought, or if you prefer, several smaller ones sharing a larger thought.

    Before tackling another type of punctuation, there is one thing that was/is generally taught in school. What's taught is 'and' shouldn't really be used after a comma. In addition, that applies to sentences. However, the rules are generally more relaxed when it comes to fiction and as such, you can take more liberties with what you write. Open up a book and you should see that it's used.

    You can find some more articles on commas here:

    Comma Rules for the Classroom: Using Commas Correctly

    Commas Rules: The Ten Functions of Commas in Written English

    Using Commas Correctly in Writing: How to Avoid Comma Splices and other Common Comma Errors

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    Paragraphs and Apostrophe Basics

    Paragraphs don't need much explaining at all honestly. Just as a sentence represents one thought, a paragraph represents several thoughts that when combined, form a larger one. An example:

    Bill liked to go fishing. He had been fishing since his childhood.

    He had once claimed that he'd won a competition to give the impression that he was good at fishing, but that had been a lie. He had just wanted to be respected.

    So, with the above, there are two paragraphs. I ended the first paragraph after childhood because it stopped dealing with what Bill enjoys, alongside giving insight into how long he's enjoyed it for. Essentially, while the competition paragraph is related to Bill enjoying fishing, it's different enough to be on its own.

    Regarding apostrophes, they are mainly used when you abbreviate words. I.e, you miss letters out. They can also be used to imply ownership though.

    An example of words being abbreviated:

    It's a fine day. They're sad to be going home.

    So, in the above example, you have 'it is' abbreviated as 'it's' and you have 'they are' abbreviated as 'they're'.

    An example of ownership:

    Bobby's dog, called Rocky, ran after the ball. Rocky's ball had been thrown a fair distance.

    The above is pretty self-explanatory really.

    Below are links to articles on apostrophes:

    Lesson Plan: Apostrophe Use and Apostrophe Rules

    Punctuation Rules: How to Use Apostrophes Correctly

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    The Basics of How to Punctuate Dialog

    While this is really only used in fiction, it is an aspect of punctuation that many people seem to get wrong. Firstly, it doesn't really matter whether you use " or ' to signal the opening and closing of speech.

    So, let's show an example of incorrect dialog punctuation:

    "He said he'd meet me" said Robert.

    Everything is right there apart from where the closing speech mark is. Before the closing speech mark, you should always have a punctuation mark there whether that's an exclamation or question mark, comma or full stop. In the above example, a comma would be correct because 'said Robert' is used to indicate who spoke. Similary, another mistake people tend to make is that they often leave off a full-stop at the end like so:

    "He said he'd meet me," said Robert

    "He did?"

    Also, as indicated by the above, a new paragraph is always started for a new speaker. That's basically it.

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    Links to Articles on Semicolons and Colons

    Below, you can find links to articles dealing with semicolons and colons:

    Semicolon Usage: The Three Functions of Semicolons in Written English

    Semicolon Rules: When to Use a Semicolon

    Colon Rules: The Eight Functions of Colons in Written English