5 Easy Punctuation Rules for Academics (or Anyone!) to Instantly Improve Your Writing

Academic writing is notorious for being dense, convoluted, and verbose. That sentence, on the other hand, features one of the easiest ways to make your writing more clear—the Oxford comma.

Below, I list five easy punctuation rules to help make your writing as clear and easy-to-follow as possible. Each of these rules is easy to understand, and you can implement them with no exceptions each and every time you write.

(1) Always use the Oxford comma.

The “Oxford comma” is the comma that comes before the final item in a list of three things. For example, in the first sentence of this article, the comma before “and verbose” is an Oxford comma.

A comma signifies a slight pause to a reader. When we read the first sentence of this blog aloud, we naturally pause after each comma. The prosody or pitch of our voices fall at the end of each item in a list, and the voices in our heads while we read silently do the same. Omitting the Oxford comma often makes your reader double back to reread the sentence, since the lack of a comma doesn’t initially signal the pause to let the reader know it’s one of the items in the list.

Although there is some very heated debate surrounding whether and when to use the Oxford comma, it’s one of the easiest ways to ensure you avoid ambiguity or confusion in your writing. Plus, a recent $10 million labor lawsuit predicated on the interpretation of a contract that lacks an Oxford comma serves as a cautionary tale against lazy comma usage.

(2) Use commas to separate independent clauses.

Clear sentences typically convey one main idea (also called an “independent clause”). But reading sentence after sentence with just one independent clause can get more monotonous than a marathon reading of See Spot Run. It’s often necessary to have multiple independent clauses in a single sentence, because ideas in academic writing are often complicated. It’s also necessary because we will bore our readers to death not just with our ideas, but also with our writing style.

The easiest way to spot if you need a comma is if you introduce a new subject-verb pair. If you have one subject that is doing two different things, you don’t need a comma:

Donald turned on his Android phone and launched his Twitter app.

Here, the completely fictitious “Donald” character is doing two things: turning on his phone and launching Twitter. No comma needed.

If you have a new subject with that second verb, though, you need a comma first:

Donald extended his diminutive hand out towards his wife, and she swatted it away.

Here, you need a comma before “and she swatted,” because this is a new independent clause. Without the comma, the sentence starts to get more convoluted and difficult to follow.

(3) Use commas with “which” but not with “that.”

Are you sensing a pattern yet? This is the last comma rule, I promise. When you use the relative pronoun “which,” it should introduce a non-essential clause. This means you need a comma, as in the example below:

Paul lived in a garish house in Wisconsin, which has the best cheese in the United States.

Here, the fact that the state of Wisconsin has the best cheese in the U.S. is not essential to understanding the sentence about the totally made-up character “Paul.” The second part of the sentence is just added detail, so I used the word “which,” with a comma.

On the other hand, when you use the pronoun “that,” it should introduce an essential clause, which means that you wouldn’t correctly understand the sentence without it, as in the example below:

Paul proposed a health care bill that actually was a tax cut for the rich in a not-so-convincing disguise.

Here, the “health care bill” could be any old health care bill. It’s not clear which (hypothetical, imaginary) health care bill I’m talking about. It’s only after the word “that” when it becomes clear what I’m talking about, so I used the word “that” (not “which”) but no comma.

(4) Correctly use em-dashes.

We are free from the world of commas, at last. But, you ask, what is an em-dash? An em-dash is the long hyphen that you use when you want to insert something in a sentence. It often serves the same purpose as two commas—sorry, you’re never actually free from comma world!—or as two parentheses. And voila: There is your example of em-dashes!

The biggest mistakes people make when using em-dashes are:

  1. Putting spaces before or after an em-dash. There is no space either before or after any em-dash.

  2. Using the shorter en-dash instead of the em-dash. An em-dash is not a hyphen; it’s longer. An en-dash is just a normal hyphen. You use it in between words (e.g., in the word “em-dash”). Simply using a single hyphen instead of an em-dash is confusing, since single hyphens are used to connect individual words, not separate clauses and ideas.

  3. Using two hyphens instead of an em-dash. In many word processing applications, you can type two hyphens (--) and it will autocorrect to an em-dash. If it doesn’t autocorrect, though, you need to manually type one in. On a Mac, this is as easy as typing Option + Shift + - (i.e., the minus key). On a PC, you can type Alt + 0151 (yes, type out the numbers), and it will spit out an em-dash for you.

In sum, every time you use an em-dash, make sure it’s a single long line—without spaces before or after it. This will signify to your reader that you’re inserting something into the sentence.

(5) Use semicolons to separate items in long lists.

In academic writing, and in lots of writing, we need lists that involve multiple parts. A simple Oxford comma won’t do. When you have a list of things, and each thing requires one or more commas, then semicolons are needed to separate the individual things in the list. Here’s an example:

Some of the most senior administrators on the team included Mike, from Indiana; Reince, from Wisconsin; Steve, from Virginia; Rex, from Texas; and Jeff, from Alabama.

Here, the semicolons serve to separate the individual people (and the states they are from) who serve as senior administrators on this mythical, make-believe team.

And there you have it—five easy ways that punctuation can make your writing clearer, easier to read, and more user friendly. As a handy reminder, below is a little summary for you.

  • Add a comma after every item in a list (including the last one)

  • Add a comma when you introduce a new subject and verb

  • Add a comma before “which” but not before “that”

  • Take out any spaces before or after dashes, and use one long line for the dash

  • Use semicolons to separate items in a list when you use commas as part of the items