Punctuation

These are the marks used in English writing:

xyz. Period (full stop) x, y Comma ; Semicolon
: Colon xy Hyphen x y En dash
xy Em dash ! Exclamation mark ? Question mark
xy Apostrophe “x” or ‘y’ Quotation marks x y Ellipses
( ) Parentheses [ ] Brackets Xyz Capital letters

Punctuation is one of the most overlooked aspects of English grammar. Yet these little marks are easy to learn and apply; moreover, proper punctuation can add to and enhance the clarity, pace, flow, and style of written work, while its misuse can confuse a piece of writing and the message it is trying to convey. In fact, missing or misplaced punctuation can change a sentence’s meaning entirely. Look at the following sentences:

It wasn’t my fault you were fired. John said the boss overheard you saying those bad things about the company.

“It wasn’t my fault you were fired,” John said. “The boss overheard you saying those bad things about the company.”

In the first sentence there are four people involved (The speaker, you, John, the boss). The speaker is trying to shift blame away from him/herself by reporting what John said about the boss.

In the second sentence there are just three involved (you, John, the boss). In this sentence it is John who is trying to shift blame away from himself by providing evidence to support his claim.

Both sentences have the exact same wording and syntax and the same grammatical structure, yet they have different meanings based on the punctuation.


How do we use punctuation?

The Period:

The period (called a full stop in British English) signifies that the sentence is complete and all the information that was intended has been delivered. The sentence stands alone as a package of information that does not require further elaboration. If, however, more information that is directly related to the subject or object is needed, then you might need a comma, a semicolon, a dash, or a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, etc.) in order to introduce that information with another clause or phrase. This sentence is complete. This sentence is incomplete; but now it will be completed. Although the period seems an obvious and easy punctuation mark for most language learners to comprehend, its misuse is quite common in many students’ writing. This is usually seen in examples of run-on sentences:

The package was delivered on time however it was no longer of any use to the team.

There are three ways to fix the above run-on sentence:

The package was delivered on time; however, it was no longer of any use to the team.

The package was delivered on time. However, it was no longer of any use to the team.

The package was delivered on time, but it was no longer of any use to the team.

The Comma:

The comma is one of the trickiest punctuation marks to master because of the many situations in which it must be used, should not be used, or its use is optional. The most general rule for the use of commas is to place them where a “pause” is needed. In other words, where there is a slight break in the flow of the sentence but not a full stop. This rule can be misleading, however, mostly because written English isn’t often read out loud, which means that the pause cannot be “heard” and recognized. Many writers overuse commas and create messy, stuttering sentences that make the entire work difficult to read.

Where should you use commas?

In lists: A, B, and C. (Notice the comma before the last item C; it comes before the and. This last comma, called a serial comma, is optional and depends on the stylebook you use. However, it is recom­mended.) Your list can be of any length (D, E, F, G, H and I). If H and I are considered a connected unit and must go together, use the serial comma for the unit (D, E, F, G, and H and I).

You will need to supply the passport office with photos, the completed forms, the fee, and your old passport.

We’ll have a burger, fries, a side salad, and a fish and chips.

In sentences that begin with an adverb clause: Separate the subordinate clause from the independent clause with a comma.

Although the weather was fine, we didn’t spend much time outdoors.

When crossing the street, be sure to look both ways.

If the adverb clause follows the independent clause, then do not use a comma.

Be sure to look both ways when crossing the street.

To separate an appositive: An appositive is a phrase (a reduced adjective clause) that provides extra information. The commas that separate it reflect the fact that it is not an essential part of the sentence. Place a comma on either side of the appositive. If the appositive begins the sentence, use one comma after it. If it ends the sentence, place one comma before it.

I went to see Dr. Smith, a heart specialist, last week.

Healthy and happy again, Jen finally agreed to go on a date with Richard.

You should speak with the advisor, Mr. Jones.

(You should speak with the advisor, who is Mr. Jones.)

You should speak with the advisor, Mr. Jones.

(Mr. Jones, you should speak with the advisor. = you are Mr. Jones)— In this case, we use the comma to separate the person addressed from what is said to him/her. This is not an appositive, but can be treated in the same way.

With non-identifying adjective clauses: Adjective clauses that add extra information and do not identify the noun they modify, such as those that begin with which, take a comma at either end, unless they end the sentence.

My friend’s job, which he hates, doesn’t pay very well.

He lives in that brown house, which is actually his mother’s.

They decided to hire Phil Smalls, who isn’t really qualified, because of his extensive network and charm.

With long introductory phrases: Sentences that begin with a prepositional phrase or a time expression that is more than four-words long should be followed by a comma.

In the absence of a better alternative, we should consider going ahead with the plan.

However, a shorter introductory phrase should be followed by a comma if there is a chance that not doing so may cause confusion:

Having said that it could have been handled differently. (Having said that it could have been handled differently, Tom discovered that his boss was in agreement.)

Having said that, it could have been handled differently.

The first sentence seems incomplete as it does not have a main verb, but rather a verb as part of a noun clause. The second sentence contains a transitional phrase, followed by the independent clause.

When joining independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction: When adding two clauses with and, but, or, etc., with the intent of demonstrating two separate but related ideas, use a comma. If both clauses share a subject, a comma is not necessary. If the ideas are similar but have different information, then no comma is needed.

I often go to the mall and hang out there with friends.

I often go to the mall to hang out with friends, and sometimes I do some shopping if there are good sales on.

I went home after the movie but Bill stayed out with his girlfriend.

To separate adjectives that describe the same noun in different ways: If two adjectives are used to describe the noun, but the adjectives don’t describe each other, separate them with a comma. If an adjective can be mistaken for an adverb, use a comma to indicate that it is adjective.

He bought a fast new car.

He sold his old, overused car.

She is a pretty young girl. vs. She is a pretty, young girl. (The first suggests pretty young, while the second suggests pretty and young)

To present quoted speech: If you are about to begin a full sentence within quotes “”, use a comma.

Tom said, ” I really thought I had a chance at that promotion.”

If the quoted speech continues from the sentence and takes on it’s grammar, do not use a comma.

Tom said that he “really thought [he] really had a chance at that promotion.”

When should you not use a comma?

With identifying adjective clauses: Adjective clauses that begin with that, for example, do not require a comma.

I went to the hotel that Mark recommended.

The manager decided to hire someone who could make an immediate contribution to the company.

When it isn’t necessary: This sounds like a trick statement, but it is as straightforward as can be—do not add a comma when it serves no purpose. Attempting to infuse your writing with style, or voice, or originality should be saved for your own creative writing projects, not for tests where such attempts will do more harm than good. That being said, you can use a comma when your intent is to slow down the pace of the prose. Use this sparingly. A common trend in today’s writing is to minimize the use of the comma. However, in terms of style and speed, the use or non-use is ultimately up to you to decide on.

I went to the store, bought a few items, and then went to my friend’s house to watch the new Star Trek movie, which he said was amazing.

I went to the store and bought a few items. I then went to my friend’s house to watch the new Star Trek movie. He said the movie was amazing.


The Semicolon:

This is the scary punctuation mark; people mostly fear they’ll use it incorrectly. However, the semicolon can be very useful. One way to think of the semicolon is that it is somewhere between a period and a comma, whereby the first idea is complete, yet needs some extra information to make it more complete.

The main point to remember when using this mark is that the items on either side of it must show a relationship, much as a coordinating conjunction would. The party was a complete success as everyone kept the surprise a secret; the look on Tom’s face when he walked in was priceless. Be sure that the relationship is very clear—if it is not, then use the conjunction instead:

e.g.: The party was a complete success as everyone kept the surprise a secret, and the look on Tom’s face when he walked in was priceless.

The party was a complete success as everyone kept the surprise a secret. The look on Tom’s face when he walked in was priceless.

The semicolon can be a substitute for the conjunction and. If you can join the two clauses with and, but choose not to, you can use a semicolon instead.

You can also split the two sentences (independent clauses) by a period as well. However, because the second sentence is related to the first in terms of providing an extension of the success, a semicolon would work better as an introduction to that explanation.

(Note that after a semicolon we begin the next sentence without a capital letter.)

e.g.: The police investigation concluded that the explosion was an accident triggered by faulty wiring, and they further concluded that a mouse must have chewed at the wires to expose them.

The police investigation concluded that the explosion was an accident triggered by faulty wiring; they further concluded that a mouse must have chewed at the wires to expose them. (Notice the removal of the conjunction and. In some cases, some writers will leave the and after the semicolon, but it is unnecessary.)

We also use a semicolon before transitional words/phrases (however, therefore, otherwise, indeed, etc.) when the following sentence is independent:

e.g.: We must finish this project on time and on budget; otherwise, this client will surely go to our rivals for their next project.

We can also use a semicolon in the same way as we use a comma in a list. We would use the semicolon instead of the comma when the items in the list are longer, for example phrases or clauses in themselves, or when the items themselves contain a comma. Doing so makes the writing less messy.

e.g.: I’ve made a list of the things we need to get done by the end of the month: make arrangements for the delivery of the new office furniture; inform security of the move-in date, and book the elevator; send change-of-address forms to our suppliers; and send a memo to all staff about the weekend hours. (Notice that the last item uses a semicolon, and the conjunction and.)

A semicolon can also break the repetition of many short, simple sentences that might make the writing choppy:

e.g.: The department manager was loved by his staff. Many of them quit when he was fired. The company decided to rehire him.

The department manager was loved by his staff, and many of them quit when he was fired so the company decided to rehire him.

The department manager was loved by his staff; many of them quit when he was fired, so the company decided to rehire him.

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The Colon:

The colon is another infrequently used punctuation mark, and when it is used, it is regularly done so incorrectly. There are two main reasons for using the colon: to prepare the reader for an explanation, example, statement, quotation, instruction, etc.; or to introduce a list.

The answer is quite simple: no.

We still need to buy a few things for the trip: a tent, sleeping bags, bug spray, food, and sunscreen. (Notice that after the colon you may begin without a capital. If a complete sentence follows the colon, you may use a capital, but that is a personal choice.)

Do not use a colon to introduce a list if the list follows a verb, or a transition to examples, such as like, such as, for instance, etc.

We still need to buy a tent, sleeping bags, bug spray, food, and sunscreen.

We still need to buy a few things for the trip; for example a tent, sleeping bags, bug spray, food, and sunscreen. (Here we use the semicolon, but that is a writer’s choice as well. )

The Hyphen, and Dashes:

The Hyphen (-): use this little line only to connect compound words, such as self-employed, brown-eyed girl, 10-foot-tall tree. It can also split a long word at the end of a page line indica-ting a line break. Make sure you hyphenate at a proper syllable break (i.e. between syllables).

The En Dash (–): Slightly longer than a hyphen, this line indicates a movement. Think of it as replacing the preposition to, such as fromto…. Use it especially to show a range:

Open Mon–Fri, 9AM–8PM; CEO 1999–2010; Read sections D–G

The Em Dash (—): The longest of the three dashes, the em dash acts as a comma or parentheses ( ), yet with a stronger effect. It cuts into a sentence, drawing attention to the information that follows. If the sentence returns to its original line of thought, use two dashes (as you would with parentheses). If the extra information ends the sentence, use just one, as with a comma.

Government forces entered the village and took control—with what some interpret as unnecessary use of force—only to lose it again once the rebels regrouped.

The main sentence here is Government forces entered the village and took control, only to lose it again once the rebels regrouped. The information between the em dashes is an extra thought on the part of the writer. It is not aimed at being part of the sentence’s main information, i.e., it is parenthetical, yet important enough to draw attention to.

The Exclamation Mark:

This punctuation mark is commonly overused. It acts as a period would, yet “louder”. It serves to exaggerate the emotion or sense of the situation. This does not mean that every time a strong emotion needs to be conveyed an exclamation should be used. A period will do just fine. Moreover, by using it rarely, a writer can add significance to the exclamation when it is used.

I was furious!

Bob, look out!

“Don’t ever do that again!” his mother scolded.

You may also use the exclamation when giving a command.

Stop!

The Question Mark:

The simplest of the punctuation marks—use it to indicate an interrogative (that is, a question), or a rhetorical statement (that is, a statement that sounds like a question that is meant for effect, not one that requires an answer).

Do you understand?

“Can I help you with your homework?” Heather asked. (Notice the question mark comes inside the quotation marks when the question itself is the quoted speech).

No burgers? You’ve run out of burgers? This is McDonald’s. How can you run out of burgers?

The Apostrophe:

The apostrophe has two, unrelated functions: to contract certain expressions or words (i.e., make them shorter), or to indicate possession.

Contractions: do not becomes don’t; he has becomes he’s; it is becomes it’s; because is sometimes shortened to ‘cause; until is likewise shortened to ‘til; (Notice that the direction the apostrophe faces depends on whether it comes before the word or inside/after it.) Make sure you recognize that contractions with ’s can be tricky—the reduction can be is or has (it’s nice = it is nice; it’s been nice = it has been nice).

Possessives: The apostrophe also indicates possession (something belongs to someone/thing (i.e., a noun)) using either an ’s or an s’. When the noun is singular and doesn’t end in s, or an irregular plural that doesn’t end in s, use ’s (John’s, the company’s, Canada’s, the men’s, the children’s). Plural nouns that end in s will be followed by only (friends’, countries’, cars’). In the case of uncountable nouns, or names that end in s, it is sometimes possible to have an s’s ending. It is recommended you use a stylebook as a guide, or choose one ending and be consistent in its use ( grass’s, Jones’s, Moses’s, or grass’, Jones’, Moses’).

NB: a person’s place can be indicated with an apostrophe only: “Bye, mom. I’m going to Kate’s.” Kate’s here means Kate’s house, apartment, etc.

It’s Bob’s fault we were late.

Jackie’s car broke down again. What’s your mechanic’s phone number?

The children’s teacher’s son joined them on their trip to the zoo.

All the stolen cars’ serial numbers have been recorded.


Quotation Marks:

These are relatively simple to use, yet often create confusion when it comes to incorporating other punctuation, such as periods and commas, into the quotation.

Firstly, quotation marks are used to indicate direct reported speech (“I’m sorry to hear that,” Linda said.); or to imply that a word or expression has other meanings than the words themselves traditionally signify (He called it “charity” but everyone knew it was a bribe.); or to cite information that is not your own (The report found that “falling incomes across the district” were the main catalyst for budgetary cuts at all levels of the municipal government.) In the first example we can see the exact words that Linda spoke. In the second example we understand that charity doesn’t mean charity here, but rather a bribe (though the explanation that follows isn’t necessary to understand that charity is used here lightly). In the last example we understand that it is not the writer who claims to know the reason for the budgetary cuts, but rather that this information was taken from somewhere else (in this case, the report).

Now we need to look at other punctuation in relation to quotation marks:

When reporting speech, as in the first example above, notice that even though the sentence within the quotation marks is complete, we do not end it with a period. Because it is a sentence within a sentence, we merely indicate that the quote is complete with a comma inside the quotation marks, and end the whole sentence with a period at its end. The same would be true for a question or exclamation mark:

“How can I get to Winslow Street?” Kevin asked the officer.

“Did you hear what Nancy said to Shannon?!” cried Jill.

If the reported speech ends the sentence, however, we end both quote and sentence with a period inside the quotation marks:

The president declared, “This is a day of mourning.”

Shannon approached Steve, and without any hesitation said: “Steve, I think I’m in love with you.” We can use a comma or colon to introduce direct speech. In this case, begin the quotation with a capital letter.

When she said, “Steve, I think I’m in love with you,” I was a little shocked.

When the quote is a continuation of the sentence, don’t capitalize:

I told her “this is a shock to me.”

The lawyer indicated that “the defendant’s rights have been abused.”

Single Quotation Marks:

We use single quotation marks to quote speech within speech (“Then Jake said to Carolyn, ‘It wasn’t my fault,’ but she wouldn’t hear of it,” said Jim.); it can also be used to highlight a technical term within a sentence (This style of work, called ‘postmodern’, reflects a turn away from classical interpretations of art.)

Notice the capital letter usage

The Ellipses:

Many people consider the ellipses (…) to represent the idea of and so on. To a certain degree this is acceptable. However, it is often used in place of those three words incorrectly, for example when ending a list or assuming the reader knows what continues after. Avoid using the ellipses when the continuation is not obvious.

The ellipses’ main function is to signify that something has been left out, such as when citing something and cutting it down to the main idea, or to show a pause.

If the ellipses end a sentence, be sure to use a period as well (xxxxxx….) The last ‘dot’ is a period. Within sentences, be sure to place the ellipses directly following the last word.

Well…, I guess I could do that. (pause)

The report states that “those responsible… must face criminal charges and… be held responsible.” (reduced quotation) The information that has been cut and is represented by the ellipses here is deemed unimportant in the case of this sentence. The writer simply wants to get to the main idea.

In Paris I saw all the main attraction: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Seine, …. (This is a poor example of using the ellipses because it is not obvious what you saw. One person’s idea of main attractions might not be the same as another’s.)

Parentheses:

These curvy brackets function somewhere between a comma and an em dash (—). The information within the parentheses is considered parenthetical, that is, not crucial to the sentence. It is “extra” information that many readers might not even look at. In other words, it is information that the author considered important to mention, but not important enough to include in the sentence.

Another use of parentheses is to include information such as source, or dates, etc.

Pablo Picasso (25 October, 1881– 8 April, 1973), was a Spanish artist famous for his unique styles (his Guernica is one of the most famous paintings in the world and is priceless) and prolific output.

NB: Titles of works are italicized.

Brackets:

Square brackets have very limited uses in terms of writing: they signify a change in wording/usage within a quotation. Original: The CEO, Bill Richards, stated that “in light of the recent changes to the tax laws of the country, the company will be moving its headquarters to the new location in an effort to preserve profitability while maintaining the workforce at its current levels, a feat which the new laws would make impossible to achieve.”

Quoted: Bill Richards announced that “[due to] changes to the tax laws…, the company will [move]… to preserve profitability while maintaining the workforce at its current levels….”

Capital Letters:

These are fairly straightforward—use capital letters to begin a new sentence, though not if it follows a semicolon; use them with personal names or the names of companies, places, or trademarks; use them in formal titles, including acronyms and abbreviations.

A letter came for Dr. Hanley.

I bought a new laptop computer; it’s an Apple, and it has 500 GB storage capacity.

Leonard received his BA (or was it his Master’s degree?) from Harvard University.