You’re probably familiar with each of these punctuation and how to employ them, but in case you aren’t, or even if you, I thought it’d be handy for you to have a quick reference guide to what they are and how they work. Throughout the guide, I will give you examples of correct and incorrect punctuation. Punctuation used correctly will be in green. Punctuation used incorrectly will be in red.
Periods end declarative sentences, which state information.
Most sentences are declarative.
Alabama played three rough quarters before their second wind.
Exclamation points end exclamatory sentences, which demonstrate strong emotion.
Michigan scored a touchdown!
Ohio State lost last weekend! (If only.)
Question marks end interrogative sentences, which request information.
Will you please pass the salt?
What time does the meeting start?
When you ask an interrogative in an exclamatory way, the proper way to punctuate that is “?!”
Did Mary really get to go to Paris?!
Commas are a crucial and versatile punctuation mark. One of their most common functions is to separate items in a list.
I went shopping for bread, milk, and orange juice.
The Oxford Comma
The Oxford comma is a controversial grammatical element. It is the last comma before the coordinating conjunction in a list of three or more, as in the following sentence:
I went shopping for bread, milk, and orange juice.
It’s not strictly necessary, and whether for that reason or another, you will not see it utilized in journalism. I personally think it’s worth skipping any potential misunderstanding that can arise by omitting it, and I use it and taught it as a required element.
Commas also set off other grammatical elements, such as subordinating clauses, phrases, or transitional elements:
The counties of northwest Virginia, which had tried to secede a few times before, finally succeeded in doing so during the Civil War. (This sets off a noun phrase.)
When you’re driving, be sure there’s no oncoming traffic before you make your turns. (This sets off an adverbial clause.)
To get a good night’s sleep, go to bed at least seven hours before you need to wake up. (This sets off an infinitive phrase.)
As a result, I’ll feel rested when I wake up. (This sets off a transitional element.)
Commas also separate coordinate adjectives, which describe the same object.
The tall, green beanstalk had grown past the clouds into the sky.
They set off direct speech.
“Stop,” she said, “you’re annoying me.”
Commas are also used in dates (October 13, 2015); numbers (25,000); to set off personal titles (Annie Wiltse, writer or Patrick Wiltse, BSN, RN); and addresses (1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20500).
For speeches or when reading written works aloud, commas are placed to indicate pauses.
Splicer, no splicing!
A comma splice occurs when a comma is placed improperly in a sentence:
Mary, can’t believe she saw Bigfoot.
Joe can’t believe, she saw it either.
Semicolons separate independent clauses when they are of equal importance, replacing the need for a conjunction. They may also be used to separate items in a list.
My mother should have known not to turn the television on; we haven’t gotten any work done since she did.
There are five grandchildren on my mom’s side of the family: my brother and I; my Tía Ana’s girls, Gracia and Gaby; and my Tía Rhyna’s son Mateo.
Colons set off information. The second element may be an independent or dependent clause or phrase. If it is an independent clause, or a sentence, the first word should be capitalized.
Here’s my point: The best president of the United States was Abraham Lincoln.
My least favorite color is also a popular one among girls: pink.
Quotation marks enclose direct speech, also called a quotation.
“I refuse to leave our children a planet that’s beyond their capacity to repair,“ President Obama tweeted.
Apostrophes abbreviate letters in contractions, which are shortened versions of two or three words:
don‘t, can‘t, won‘t, I‘m, she‘ll, should‘ve, I‘d‘ve, it‘s, y‘all
They can also indicate possession:
Annie‘s hopes are that this quick guide to punctuation is useful to you.
Patrick‘s motorcycle is a Kawasaki.
Patrick‘s and my parents work in education. (Note that it is not Patrick and I’s; there is no such word as I’s!)
The Wiltses‘ house is white.
Jesus‘s mission on earth was to redeem humanity.
How do I know if it’s its or it’s?
Remember that apostrophes replace letters, so when you don’t know whether to use it’s or its, try using “it is” instead. If the sentence works, use it’s. If the sentence doesn’t work, use its.
[It’s/Its] 8:45am when I start work for the day.
It is 8:45am when I start work for the day. This sentence makes grammatical sense, so we should use an apostrophe.
It’s 8:45am when I start work for the day.
Another way to determine this is to ask yourself if you’re trying to express possession. If you are, then use its. Note that this is an exception to the rule about apostrophes indicating possession!
My dog is now too big for [it’s/its] carrier.
My dog is now too big for it is carrier. This sentence does not make grammatical sense. Also, the carrier belongs to the dog, indicating possession, so we should not use an apostrophe.
My dog is now too big for its carrier.
Parentheses set off nonessential information.
Not one presidential candidate seems to understand what’s going on in this country (but that’s just my opinion).
Ellipses indicate omitted speech. I’ll use the president’s tweet above as an example:
“I refuse to leave our children a planet that’s…beyond repair.”
Ellipses are also used to indicate the trailing off of a thought or speech, even though this is not strictly their grammatical function.
“I’ll think about it…” she said.
I tweet a lot about football, which tells you about how much I love it…
Brackets enclose words that replace other words in direct quotations, usually for clarification or so that partial quotations will fit the syntax of the sentence in which they are being quoted.
- “She said to write them like they are alive and living within us and trying to win over our creative souls, telling us what they want.”
- “I’ve fallen in love with this podcast, because Liz talks about creativity and living beyond fear in a way that is just stunning and tangible and applicable and so motivating.”
If I were quoting the first without giving you prior context, I might want to clarify who “she” is, so I would use the brackets this way:
“[Liz Gilbert] said to write them like they are alive and living within us and trying to win over our creative souls, telling us what they want.”
Or if I’m quoting the second as part of a sentence I’m writing, I might have to change the syntax a little bit:
My friend Rachel wrote recently that she “[fell] in love with this podcast, because Liz talks about creativity and living beyond fear in a way that is just stunning and tangible and applicable and so motivating.”
Em-dashes, much like parentheses, set off nonessential but highly relevant information. They can also serve as a way to emphasize the speed at which events are happening.
I stopped at the store—just like I do every Sunday—to buy groceries.
The gymnast tripped—flipped—and she’s on her feet! What a great recovery!
Hyphens, or en-dashes, connect words that are abbreviated or not quite compound. They can often turn into compound words. For instance, the two words electronic mail were shortened to e–mail, which then turned into email.
Other examples of hyphenated words:
When did my cute newborn turn into a crazy two–year–old?
My sister–in–law is four years younger than I.
Hyphens can also be used to link two last names.
Got any favorite punctuation?
I’m partial to semicolons myself. I could do without commas most of the time.
Thanks to the Purdue OWL’s article on punctuation for some of the definitions included here.