Using the Full Stop in Scholarly Prose
Although the use of the full stop in English prose is relatively straightforward, it is essential to understand and use the correct patterns to ensure clear and professional communication when writing scholarly text. Some situations can be challenging for new authors and especially for academics and scientists whose native language is not English. Reviewing the basic uses of the full stop in running prose may therefore prove helpful.
Before I delve into usage, however, a quick summary of terminology is necessary, because a full stop (.) is not always called a full stop. In some contexts it is referred to as a full point and, particularly in American English, it is called a period. This can be confusing. Technically speaking, or perhaps now it is more accurate to say traditionally speaking, the word ‘period’ refers to an entire sentence, and a full stop or full point is the piece of punctuation that closes the sentence. In this post I will avoid the problematic term ‘period’ and use ‘sentence’ and ‘full stop’ for clarity, but do be aware of the different terms whenever you consult grammar and punctuation guides.
In running prose, full stops are primarily used to mark the end of complete declarative and imperative sentences. A declarative sentence states a fact, as the following sentence does: ‘Successful authors are precise and consistent in their use of punctuation.’ An imperative sentence, on the other hand, forms a command, as this sentence does: ‘Correct your punctuation immediately.’ If the command is made with more force or the intention is to represent a raised voice or intense emotion, an exclamation mark should be used instead of the full stop (Correct your punctuation immediately!), but exclamations are rare in scholarly writing and a full stop is usually the best choice.
In informal writing and fiction, a full stop is often used at the end of a phrase or clause or even a single word as though it constituted a complete sentence (for example, ‘Black as pitch.’ as a descriptive opening line for a novel that is likely to prove a mystery or thriller). In spoken English such ‘sentences’ are frequent, but they are nonetheless incomplete and should not be a normal feature of academic and scientific writing. They can be used, however, to report direct speech with accuracy, so quotations of conversations, interviews and the like may use full stops to close such incomplete sentences, and so too might transcriptions of survey or questionnaire responses.
Remember that a single full stop suffices to close a sentence, so if an abbreviation ending with a stop or any other expression or construction that takes a full stop on its own appears at the end of a sentence, no additional stop is necessary. This means that ‘The school day starts at 9 a.m.’ is correct, whereas ‘The school day starts at 9 a.m..’ is not. An exception is presented by an ellipsis, which consists of three points and represents missing material. When an ellipsis falls at the end of a sentence, a full stop is often added for a total of four points, as in ‘There was no need to be so….’ This construction is also rare in the main running text of academic and scientific writing, but it may prove necessary when reporting direct speech or when quoting selectively from sources. Finally, a single space, not two, should follow the full stop that closes a sentence.
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