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This may sound extremely stupid, but I've never ever stumbled upon any punctuational rule in the English language.

The only rule I know is that one has to put a comma after a linking word. For example, 'To my mind, this book is very interesting' or 'What's more, lots of people are of the same opinion'.

Don't think I'm new to English, not at all. I've been studying it for more than ten years and throughout all that time I've hardly met one or two such rules.

Are there any general punctuational rules in English? Are there any recourses where one can learn them?

  • If you've never seen any rules for punctuation, how are you punctuating your question? You use commas, periods, and question marks quite accurately, so I don't understand what you're asking. I believe the more difficult punctuation "rules" depend on what style guide you're using. The general rule I follow is punctuate wherever and with whatever is necessary to make your meaning clear, and not one comma more than that :) – ColleenV parted ways Mar 10 '16 at 20:33
  • Here is a link to look at: owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/607/01 – Cascabel Mar 10 '16 at 21:38
  • @ColleenV, periods and question marks are the easy part. But where do I put commas and where I do not? BTW, should I put a comma before and in the previous sentence? – ForceBru Mar 11 '16 at 4:58
  • My point was that you seem to understand the important points and the rest is a bit more flexible. Exactly where you place commas depends on what style guide you've decided on. As long as, you don't use, too many, commas, most readers are fairly tolerant of variations in placement. Many folks aren't confident about when to use a semi-colon, and those that are don't expect others to be, so it's not that big a deal if you don't use them perfectly (unless the reader expects you to be following a particular style guide). – ColleenV parted ways Mar 11 '16 at 13:31
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Sometimes you'll hear people claim that there are no rules for how to punctuate English sentences. And if you come up with a useless enough definition for "rule", this is certainly true. No one is forcing you at gunpoint to write your sentences the same way everyone else does.

In fact, even among people who follow the standard conventions, there is quite a bit of variation. One writer might use more commas than another, or use just as many but put them in different places. To a certain extent, it certainly makes sense to characterize these choices as a matter of style.

But, It's, also true, that there!!! are, things, pretty, much, no;;;;;;one, does, with, punctuation,,,     ,,,

Why not? Well, punctuation arose as a mechanism to represent things like pauses or question intonation in spoken language. That is, it didn't have any conventions independent of spoken language; it merely reflected the way the words were intended to be pronounced when they were read aloud. Punctuation was certainly not random, but there were no rules apart from "write it the way you'd say it".

To a certain extent, this is still true today. Commas sometimes still line up with pauses in speech, for example. But often, they no longer do. Punctuation conventions have changed in ways that don't necessarily line up with the way the language is spoken, and an independent description is now required. Unfortunately, many linguists ignore the written language entirely, so there are very few fully descriptive approaches to punctuation.

In 1990, Geoffrey Nunberg published his monograph, The Linguistics of Punctuation, a descriptive approach to punctuation. He went on to co-author chapter 20 of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002) with Ted Briscoe and Rodney Huddleston, titled Punctuation. The former is a fairly lengthy attempt to characterize the punctuation conventions of English today as a set of formalized rules. The latter is an informal description, possibly more accessible but, of course, it is only a chapter in length and isn't truly comprehensive.

From a descriptive linguist's point of view, the "rules" are those patterns we can find in a corpus of natural language which fit our expectations as speakers of Standard English, and Nunberg's work takes that same idea and applies it to the written language. With this definition of "rule" in mind, yes, there are rules, but there's a lot of room for future work to be done. Unfortunately, we don't have any truly comprehensive description of English punctuation yet.

For a more historical perspective, I would like to recommend Pause and Effect: Punctuation in the West (1993) by M. B. Parkes, but it's unfortunately very hard to find. This book will show you how punctuation evolved from its original role of representing speech to the way it's used today.

I don't know of any descriptions of punctuation which are both accurate and written to be accessible to learners of English. There are plenty of books telling you how to punctuate things, but a lot of them present "rules" that are commonly broken by good writers, so they're not really rules at all. Accurate description is hard work! Personally, I recommend you keep doing what you've been doing – picking up punctuation conventions naturally rather than reading about them. It seems to be working out well for you.

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