The Joy of Punctuation

The Living End: The Period Image

The Period is the red light at the end of a sentence

A straightforward sentence that states rather than asks or exclaims something starts with a capital letter and ends with a period


If a sentence ends with an abbreviation, don’t add a final period:

Example: As a new immigrant, Apu’s nephew felt welcome in the U.S.

If a sentence ends in an ellipsis (three dots that indicate an omission), put a period first to show that the sentence is over:

Example: He recalled the old saying, Neither a borrower nor a lender be. . . .

If a sentence concludes with the title of a work that ends in a question mark or an exclamation point, don’t add a final period

If a sentence has a smaller sentence within it (surrounded by dashes or parenthesis), don’t use a period to end the inside sentence

Uncommonly Useful: The Comma 

The comma is the yellow traffic light of punctuation, it slows down the sentenceImage

Common comma complications:

Use a comma to separate big chunks of a sentence with and between them. If there is no and between clauses, use a semicolon instead

Use commas to separate a series of things or actions

Use commas before and after the names of people you are talking to:

Example: “Good-bye, Mom. Dad, have a good day at work,” she said, and hung up the phone.

Use commas before or after a quotation

Example: “Let’s see,” said Tina. OR Tina said, “Let’s see.”

Use a comma after an introductory phrase is a pause is intended

Use commas around an aside, information that could just as well go in parenthesis

Use commas around which clauses but not that clauses

Semi-Avoidance: The Unloved Semicolon

The semicolon is one of the most useful but least used punctuation marks.

It is used for times when you want something stronger than a comma but not quite so final as a period

Use a semicolon to separate clauses when theres no and in between

Use semicolons to separate items in a series when theres already a comma in one or more of the items:

  Example: Fred’s favorite things were his robe, a yellow chenille number from Barney’s; his slippers; his overstuffed chair, which had once been his father’s; murder mysteries; and single-malt Scotch.

Let Me Introduce You: The Colon Image

Use a colon instead of a comma, if you wish, to introduce a quotation. Many people wish to introduce a longer quotation with a colon instead of a comma.

Use a colon to introduce a list, if what comes before the colon could be a small sentence in itself:

Example: Harry bought three wines: Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, and Burgundy

Don’t use a colon to separate a verb from the rest of the sentence.

Huh? The Question Mark 

A question mark is used to suggest a question, obviously, but it can also be used to express skepticism or surprise

ImageCommon questions about questions:

What do you do when a sentence has a series of questions?

Answer: You can put the question mark at the very end or, for emphasis, you can put a question mark after each item.

How do you introduce a question within a longer sentence?

Answer:The simplest way is to use a comma and start the question with a capital letter.

What comes after a question mark?

Answer: If the sentence continues after the question, don’t use a comma after the question mark.

The Silent Scream: The Exclamation Point ( ! )

The exclamation mark is like the horn on your car, use it only when you have to.

When you do use an exclamation point, use it alone and don’t add a comma after even if it is in a quotation.

A Brief Interlude: Parentheses 


A parentheses can enclose a whole sentence standing alone, or something within a sentence.

Punctuation never precedes an opening parenthesis

When the aside is a separate sentence, put punctuation inside the parentheses, and start with a capital letter

When the aside is within a sentence, put punctuation outside the parentheses, and start with a small letter.

Too Much of a Good Thing: The Dash ( — )

Today, the dash is far too overused.

The dash is like a detour; it interrupts the sentence and inserts another thought. A single dash can be used in place of a colon to emphatically present some piece of information.

Use no more than two dashes per sentence. And if you do use two, they should act like parenthesis to isolate a remark from the rest of the sentence.

If the gentler and less intrusive parentheses would work as well, use them instead of the dash.

Betwixt and Between: The Hyphen ( – )

While the dash separates ideas or big chunks in a sentence, the hyphen separates (or connects, depending how you look at it) individual words or parts of words

When a word breaks off at the end of a line in your newspaper and continues on the next line, a hyphen is what links the syllables together

ImageGuidelines for when you need a hyphen and when you don’t:

If the description in a sentence comes after the noun, don’t use a hyphen:

  Examples: Father is strong willed.
My cousin is red haired.

If the description comes before the noun, use a hyphen when either of the two words in the description wouldn’t make very much sense by itself:

  Examples: He’s a strong-willed father.
I have a red-haired cousin.

Exceptional situations:

If self or quasi is one of the words, always use a hyphen

If both words could be used separately and still make sense, don’t use a hyphen even if they come before a noun

Example: Phoebe is a naughty old cat.

If very is one of the two words, forget the hyphen.

If one of the two words ends in ly, you almost never need a hyphen.

If one of the words is most, least, or less, leave out the hyphen.

Some cases where you must use a hyphen:

When ex is being used (meaning “former”)

When adding a beginning or an ending to a word that starts with a capital

When adding like would create a double or triple l

  Example: Shell-like

When adding a beginning or ending would create a double vowel, but pre and re are often exceptions to this.

With fractions

Common endings and beginnings that don’t usually need a hyphen:


  • ache: toothache
  • less: ageless
  • most: uppermost
  • like: lifelike
  • wide: citywide


  • anti: antifeminist
  • bi: bicoastal
  • co: coauthor
  • extra: extracurricular
  • inter: intergalactic
  • micro, mini, or multi: micromanage
  • mid: midstream
  • non: nonperson
  • over, under: overcautious
  • post: postwar
  • pre: prenuptial
  • pro: promarriage
  • re: reexamined
  • semi: semiconductor
  • sub, super: subbasement, supersaturated
  • trans: transsexual
  • ultra: ultrachic
  • un: uncool

A Multitalented Mark: The Apostrophe Image

A. How to use an apostrophe with possessives:

To indicate ownership, add ‘s to a singular noun that does not end in  s. Add the apostrophe alone to a plural noun that ends in s.

How to use an apostrophe with some unusual plurals

Add ‘s to make plurals of numbers and letters, including abbreviations

How to use an apostrophe with missing letters

An apostrophe can show where letters have been dropped in a shortened word or phrase
  Example: shouldn’t

How to use an apostrophe with a comma or period

When you need a comma or period after a possessive word that ends with an apostrophe, the punctuation goes after the apostrophe.

Enough Said: Quotation Marks ( “ “ )

What’s in and what’s out concerning quotation marks:


  • Period
  • Comma


  • Colon
  • Semicolon

Sometimes in, sometimes out:

Question mark:

  • “Who goes there?” or Who starred in “Dynasty”?

Exclamation Point

  • “Captain!” or The screen just went blank after reading “Situation Normal”!


  • Sam had the last word (“I told you so”). or “Maybe next time you’ll listen to me (if there is a next time).”


  • “The Raven”’s first stanza is the best. or “The Raven’s are cool.”

B. The Slant on Titles

Use Italics:

  • Books
  • Magazines
  • Newspapers
  • Movies

Use Quotation Marks:

  • Articles
  • Essays
  • Poems
  • Short stories
  • Paintings, Sculptures
  • TV series
  • Song titles

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