Punctuation Guide – How to Use Punctuation

punctuation guide

Entering the world of punctuation can very quickly take you down a long and winding road into specifics of the English language that you may not have known existed. We know firsthand how easy it is to get lost among the seemingly endless punctuation points; that’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive punctuation guide to serve as a road map to keep you on track during your writing ventures.

Terminal Points

Period

The period is the most basic and fundamental element of terminal punctuation, but luckily, it’s the easiest to deftly employ. All the same, there are several key points to keep in mind when ending a sentence with a period.

  1. Multiple Punctuation: If a sentence ends with an exclamation point or a question mark, there’s automatically no need to include a period. This holds true even when a sentence ends with a proper name (such as that of a company or creative work) that may include either of these marks.
  2. Abbreviations: When a sentence ends with an abbreviation (such as “inc.” or “p.m.”) there is no need to add an additional terminal point; the one included in the abbreviation is sufficient.
  3. Parentheses: The period is always located outside of the closing parenthesis.
  4. Quotations: Contrary to the above rule, the period always precedes the closing quotation mark.

Question Mark

Let’s face it, many things in life often aren’t as apparent as we would like them to be. Since we all ask questions, let’s take a moment to make sure we’re formatting them correctly in a written context.

  1. Direct Questions: This is the most basic usage of the question mark. When asking a question in its simplest form (for example, “Where is it?”), the question mark appears at the end fo the sentence.
  2. Direct Questions Within a Sentence: This is where things get a little more difficult. When a direct question is appearing within the context of a longer sentence, the question mark takes the place of what would ordinarily be a comma. It appears at the end of the question with the sentence continuing after the question mark and ending with its own terminal punctuation. An example can be most easily seen in dialogue, such as: “Where is it?” he wondered aloud.
  3. As Part of a Title: When a question mark is part of the title of a mentioned work, the same rules as with “Direct Questions Within a Sentence” apply: the question mark goes at the end of the title, and if there is more to the sentence following the title, then the sentence continues after the question mark and ends with its own terminal punctuation.
  4. Requests: These do not terminate with question marks! Rather, they should end with periods, as they are more commands than questions.

Exclamation Point

An abundance of exclamation points can lead readers to your work with a grain of salt, doubting the professionalism of your writing. Therefore, these should be used in moderation.

  1. At the End of a Sentence: When ending a sentence with an exclamation point, no other punctuation and necessary, and therefore no other punctuation should be used, even to express an emphasis.
  2.  Mid-Sentence: Seen mostly in dialogue, quotations that end with an exclamation point take the place of the comma. Thus, the exclamation point is located inside the closing quotation marks.
  3. As Part of a Title: When a proper noun or a title terminates with an exclamation point, you must keep the comma that comes after it. For example: “He did an internship at Yahoo!, where he learned many of the technical skills he has today.”

Pausing Points

Comma

Given the various uses (and misuses) of the comma, it has rightly become one of the most problematic punctuation points. After all, the addition or omission of a comma can drastically change the meaning of a sentence, often straying far the meaning that the writer intended.

Conventional Uses

  1. Numbers. When presenting a four digit number, it is highly recommended that you include a comma after the first digit. The exceptions come with years, page numbers, and street addresses.
  2. Degrees and Certifications. These are usually included after a person’s name, and therefore should be separated from the name using commas.
  3. Direct Address. This applies specifically to dialogue. When someone is being directly addressed, use commas to set off their name or title.
  4. Dates. In writing dates, commas should be applied following the day of the week (when applicable) as well as the day of the month. In cases where the sentence continues following the inclusion of the date, a comma should also appear after the year. Additionally, when only the year and month are given, a comma isn’t necessary to separate the two.
  5. Geographic Elements. These deal specifically with geographical locations that occur within a larger location; for example, “Tallahassee, Florida.” The smaller location should be separated from the larger using a comma.

Listing Uses

  1. Basic Lists. When simply listing off multiple items, a comma should be used to separate words, phrases, and independent clauses.
  2. Multiple Adjectives. Sometimes multiple adjectives are used to describe the same noun. Rather than using the conjunction “and,” these adjectives should each be separated by a comma. Note that no comma should appear after the adjective that directly precedes the noun.

Nonessential Information

  1. Information . When a detail isn’t considered integral to the point being communicated in the sentence, it is set off from the pertinent information using a comma.
  2.  Explanations . These appear as definitions of an aforementioned subject. They offer more information about the subject, but this information is not essential to the main point of the sentence. Therefore, a comma should be used both after the subject and after the appositive.
  3. Interrupting Elements. If a nonessential word or phrase is located in the middle of a sentence, it must be distinguished as such by the use of commas both before and after it.

Sentence Structure

  1. Compound Sentences. Compound sentences consists of two or more independent clauses joined by a conjunction. A comma should come after the first independent clause and before the conjunction.
  2. Complex Sentences. Complex sentences have an independent clause with two or more dependent clauses. If the dependent clause comes before the independent clause, it should be directly followed by a comma. If a sentence begins with two dependent clauses that are both linked to the same independent clause, a comma should be used after the second dependent clause.
  3. Compound-Complex Sentences. These consists of two or more independent clauses and one dependent clause. When the dependent clause appears first in the sentence and applies to both of the following independent clauses, it should be followed by a comma.

Semicolon

  1. Omitting a Conjunction. When a sentence contains two independent clauses but no conjunction, a semicolon is used to link them instead. It should follow the first independent clause.
  2. Transitional Expressions. Sometimes, two independent clauses are linked by a transitional phrase. The semicolon, in this instance, should follow the first independent clause and precede the transitional phrase.
  3. Internal Commas. Lists containing internal commas still need to have their various components separated. In this case, rather than separating these phrases with additional commas, leading to a cluttered mess of interpretative difficulties, a semicolon should be used to separate each component from the other.

Colon

There are three primary grammatical uses of the colon, as well as multiple common yet non-grammatical uses.

Grammatical

  1.  Listing . When a list doesn’t fit naturally into the flow of a sentence, it’s common to use a colon to distinguish where the introduction of the sentence ends and the detailing of the list begins.
  2.  Independent Clauses. Sometimes a second independent clause is used to explain the first; in this case, the first should be followed by a colon. If the second independent clause consists of multiple sentences, it’s important to capitalize the first letter of the first word following the colon.
  3. Emphasis. This typically appears near the end of a sentence, and is used to emphasize the final word or phrase.

Non-Grammatical

  1. Time. Here, a colon is used to separate hours from minutes.
  2. Ratio. A colon is used to express a rational relationship between two numbers.
  3. Biblical References. Colons are used in biblical references to separate the chapter from the verse.
  4. References. In a cited work, a colon is used to separate the volume from the page numbers(s).

Hyphens and Dashes

Hyphen

These are often, easily, and understandably confused with both the en dash and the em dash, so it’s imperative that you can differentiate between the three and utilize the correct one.

  1. Compound Terms. While there are three forms of compound terms, all represent a single word or idea but consist of more than one word. Hyphens are often used in these instances to unite the words (however, there is no space included between the hyphen and the words it’s joining).
  2. Compound Adjectives. Whether or not you should hyphenate a compound adjective depends on its location within the sentence. This makes them relatively difficult to handle at times. Keep in mind that two or more words that collectively act as an adjective describing a single noun should be hyphenated. However, there is an exception: when a compound adjective begins with an adverb ending in “-ly,” you should never use a hyphen.

En Dash

The en dash is used to represent a range of numbers or a span of time.

  1. Numbers: The en dash is often used to indicate a span of time, and is therefore read as “to” or “through.” It appears between the starting number and the ending number, with no space between them.
  2. Scores. Here, the en dash also appears between the starting and ending numbers without a space.
  3. Conflict or Connection. Used in this context, the en dash is indicative of a relationship between two groups. It appears between the first and second without a space.

Em Dash

Depending on its location within a sentence, the em dash can be used to replace colons, commas, or parentheses, so long as it only appears twice within the same sentence.

  1. Commas. Em dashes can replace commas as a means of adding emphasis to a clause located in the midst of the sentence.
  2. Parentheses. Considered less formal than parentheses, em dashes can be used to replace these given that the surrounding punctuation is removed. When located at the end of a sentence, only the first dash should be used.
  3. Colon. The em dash can replace a colon in order to emphasize the conclusion of a sentence; it is, however, considered to be less formal.

Multiple Em Dashes

Appearing most often in dialogue, two em dashes are indicative of a missing portion of a word. When the entire word is missing, two em dashes may also be used in its place.

Quotations

Quotation Marks

Guideline

When commas and periods are part of the original quotation, they appear inside the quotation marks at the end of the sentence. However, all other punctuation that is not part of the original quote (such as semicolons and question marks) appear outside the quotation marks.

Introducing Quoted Material

  1. Comma. This is the most common mark used to introduce quoted material; it appears outside of the opening quotation mark.
  2. Colon. When the sentence that serves as an introduction to a quote could, theoretically, stand on its own, a colon is used before the opening quotation mark.
  3. No Punctuation. If the material you’re quoting flows smoothly from the introductory text that you’ve written, it isn’t necessary to provide any additional punctuation before the quotation mark.

Ellipses

Used to indicate an omission of some of information in the sentence or quote, ellipses consist of three periods each separated by a space. When the last period is being followed by a question mark, there should be no space after it.

Quoted Material

  1. Single Sentence. When omitting a portion of a quote while including the surrounding portions, it’s important to use ellipses to indicate that part of the quotation is being excluded. Remove the punctuation on either side of the ellipses unless it’s required for the grammatical integrity of the remaining quoted portion.
  2. Multiple Sentences. If you’re presenting one quote compiled from multiple sentences’ worth of material, you must include ellipses to indicate where there are segments being omitted.

Brackets

These are typically used as an editorial of the information being quoted.

  1. Clarification. If, out of context, it is unclear what a noun in the original material refers to, brackets allow you to insert clarifying information in your own words.
  2. Translation. When a foreign word or phrase appears within a quotation, you can use brackets to provide a translation of that word or phrase.
  3. Indicating Errors. If you discover an error within a quotation you’re citing, you’re given one of two options: you can reframe the quotation within your written piece to avoid the error, or you can include the Latin term sic (meaning “so” or “thus”) within brackets following the error to indicate that it is a part of the original text.
  4. Censoring. Keeping your target audience in mind, it’s sometimes necessary to censor potentially offensive language that may appear in a quote.

Other Punctuation

Parentheses

Parentheses are always used in pairs and provide additional information within a grammatically sound context.

Placement of Other Punctuation

  1. Free-Standing. When a parenthetical sentence stands alone, the terminal punctuation mark is located within the closing parenthesis.
  2. Ending of a Longer Sentence. In this instance, the terminal punctuation would be placed outside the closing parenthesis.
  3. Middle of a Longer Sentence. The punctuation surrounding the parenthetical information remains the same.

Apostrophe

Contractions

Apostrophes are used in contractions to indicate the combination of two words.

Plurals

There’s a rare exception to the grammatical rule barring the use of apostrophes in instances of plurality. When (1) abbreviations, (2) letters, or (3) words are used as nouns, an apostrophe is often used before the “s” in order to avoid confusion.

Possessives

In a singular possessive noun, the apostrophe is located before the “s” indicating possession. If the singular noun ends in an “s” already, then the apostrophe comes after that. Likewise, plural possessive nouns include an apostrophe after the “s” that indicates their plurality.

Slash

In formal writing, the only undoubtedly acceptable use of the slash comes when you’re quoting poetry. To indicate a line break, include a space on either side of the slash.

Angel Brackets

These are largely unnecessary in modern writing. Once used to separate a web address from the surrounding punctuation, many people are now able to differentiate between the two without the use of angle brackets.

Braces

Braces, or “curly brackets,” should not be mistaken for or used in place of brackets or parentheses. Instead, they are used in musical notation, mathematical expressions, and multiple programming languages.

Making your way through the wild world of grammatically correct punctuation doesn’t have to be as difficult as it may sound. With punctuation guides like this one at your disposal, you’re one step closer to creating a cohesive piece of writing that can withstand the many tests of grammar and literary technique.

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