The Full Stop

The full stop (.), also called the period, presents few problems. It is chiefly used to mark the end of a sentence expressing a statement, as in the following examples:

Terry Pratchett's latest book is not yet out in paperback.
I asked her whether she could tell me the way to Brighton.
Chinese, uniquely among the world's languages, is written in a logographic script.
The British and the Irish drive on the left; all other Europeans drive on the right.

Note how the full stops are used in the following article, extracted from TheGuardian:

The opening of Ken Loach's film Riff-Raff in New York casts doubt onWinston Churchill's observation that the United States and Britain were two countries separated by a common language. In what must be a first, an entire British film has been given sub-titles to help Americans cut through the thick stew of Glaswegian, Geordie, Liverpudlian, West African and West Indian accents. With the arrival of Riff-Raff, English as spoken by many British citizens has qualified as a foreign language in the US. Admittedly, the accents on the screen would present a challenge to many people raised on the Queen's English. But it is disconcerting to watch a British film with sub-titles, not unlike watching Marlon Brando dubbed into Italian.

There is one common error you must watch out for. Here is an example of it (remember, an asterisk marks a badly punctuated sentence):

*Norway has applied for EC membership, Sweden is expected to do the same.

Can you see what's wrong with this? Yes, there are two complete statements here, but the first one has been punctuated only with a comma. This is not possible, and something needs to be changed. The simplest way of fixing the example is to change the comma to a full stop:

Norway has applied for EC membership. Sweden is expected to do the same.

Now each statement has its own full stop. This is correct, but you might consider it clumsy to use two short sentences in a row. If so, you can change the bad example in a different way:

Norway has applied for EC membership, and Sweden is expected to do the same.

This time we have used the connecting word and to combine the two short statements into one longer statement, and so now we need only one full stop at the end.

Here are some further examples of this very common error:

*Bangladesh is one of the world's poorest countries, its annual income is only $80 per person.
*The British are notoriously bad at learning foreign languages, the Dutch are famously good at it.
*The proposal to introduce rock music to Radio 3 has caused an outcry, angry letters have been pouring into the BBC.
*Borg won his fifth straight Wimbledon title in 1980, the following year he lost in the final to McEnroe.

All of these examples suffer from the same problem: a comma has been used to join two complete sentences. In each case, either the comma should be replaced by a full stop, or a suitable connecting word should be added, such as and or while.

Later, I'll explain another way of punctuating these sentences, by using a semicolon.

Full stops are also sometimes used in punctuating abbreviations.

Summary of full stops:

  • Put a full stop at the end of a complete statement.
  • Do not connect two statements with a comma.

Copyright © Larry Trask, 1997

Maintained by the Department of Informatics, University of Sussex