BASIC GUIDE TO THE 13 COMMON PUNCTUATION MARKS
OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE


Quick! Can you name them all?

 

This guide describes the 13 common punctuation marks of the English language and gives examples for using them.

Please note this guide is not comprehensive, merely a quick reference for general use. For further information, see the additional references at the end of this section.

Period                  

A period indicates the end of a sentence, or a group of words containing a subject and predicate.

He went to Las Vegas last week.

They have a happy family.

Note that sentences ending with a period in traditional print are usually followed by two spaces. In electronic media, however, only one space is commonly used because it is more visually appealing.

Comma                

A comma indicates a pause or break in the text. As a result, it has many uses.

1.  Separate a list of items. This is one of the most common uses of a comma.

I like reading, listening to music, taking long walks, and visiting my friends.

They need books, magazines, DVDs, video cassettes, and other learning materials for their library.

In these examples, a comma is included before the conjunction (e.g. and, or) in the final item of a list, which is called the Oxford comma. Using the Oxford comma is strictly a matter of style. Whether you use it or not, the important thing is to be consistent.

2. Separate phrases (clauses). This is especially true after a beginning dependent clause or a long prepositional phrase.

In order to qualify for your certificate, you will need to take the exam.

Although he was interested, he wasn't able to attend the course.


3. Separate two independent clauses that are connected by a conjunction such as and, but, or, while, and yet.

They wanted to buy a new car, but their financial situation would not allow it.

I'd really enjoy seeing a film this evening, and I'd like to go out for a drink.


4.  Introduce a statement, declaration, or quotation.

The boy said, "May I please have an extra scoop of ice cream on my cone?"

Her teacher declared, "It`s good that you are learning about punctuation."


5.  Separate appositives (a noun, or noun phrase) or non-defining relative clauses.

Bill Gates, one of the richest people in the world, lives near Seattle.

My sister, who is a fantastic tennis player, is in great shape.

NOTE: Be careful not to overuse commas. They should help readers, not hinder them. As a basic rule, if the comma does not replace a word such as and or or then it is probably not necessary.

Apostrophe         

Lynne Truss, the author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation called the apostrophe one of the hardest working punctuation marks in the English language. Quite so. Few punctuation marks have more uses.

1. Contract a word. This is probably the most common use. The apostrophe replaces letters removed in words or between two words.

It's a beautiful day.

Isn't that a huge cat?

He was in born in '82.

An easy way to check if an apostrophe is appropriate is by replacing it with the full text. For example, It's a beautiful day is correct when replaced with It is a beautiful day. But I mixed the egg yolk with it's whites does not sound correct when replaced with I mixed the egg yolk with it is whites, therefore you shouldn't use an apostrophe.

2. Indicate possession.

The boy's hat.

The police officer's car.

When the possessor is plural, but does not end in an s, the apostrophe precedes the s.

The children's books.

The women's movement.

But when the possessor is plural, the apostrophe follows the s.

The babies' clothing.

The high school students' prom.


3. Indicate time or quantity.

In one year's time.

The worker gave a week's notice.
(or, when plural, “The worker gave two weeks' notice.”).

Question Mark    

The question mark is used at the end of a sentence to indicate a question or inquiry.

Where do you live?

Is tomorrow morning a good time to meet?

Exclamation Mark

The exclamation mark (sometimes called an exclamation point) is used at the end of a sentence to indicate surprise. It is also used for emphasis when making a point.

That ride was fantastic!

I heard they are having a baby!

Be careful not to use an exclamation mark too often since it can diminish its impact. Never use a double exclamation point.

Colon                  

A colon is typically used for two purposes:

1. Introduce additional details, an example, or an explanation.

He had different motives for joining the club: to get in shape, to make new friends, and to get out of the house.

She resigned her job for many reasons: bad pay, horrible hours, poor relations with colleagues, and her boss.


2.  Introduce lists containing the words as follows or the following.

He used a colon for the following purposes:
1) To introduce a list.
2) To introduce additional details.

Semicolon          

A semicolon generally has two uses:

1. To separate two independent clauses. One or both of the clauses are short and the ideas expressed are usually very similar.

He loves studying; he can't get enough of school.

What an incredible situation; it must make you nervous.


2. To separate groups of words that are themselves separated by commas.

I took a holiday and played golf, which I love; read a lot, which I needed to do; and slept late, which I hadn't done for quite a while.

They looked over their itinerary: eat, drink, and sleep for part of the time; sightsee, explore, and take pictures for some of the time; and visit, shop, and maybe get to the beach with any remaining time.

Hyphen              

The hyphen is used in several situations:

1. To divide a word across two lines of text.

The hospital noticed that the patient suffered from acute intra-
abdominal pain.

Never before had he seen such clear div-
ision of labor among work groups.


2. To separate compound words.

The movie was a hair-raising thriller.

His job was to cross-reference the titles with the computer entries.

Note that there are many rules governing the use of compound words, some of which are contradictory depending on the source consulted. For a full explanation of compound words, please consult the additional references at the end of this page.

3. To separate prefixes ending in a vowel with words beginning with a vowel.

He was assigned to co-ordinate the entire event.

She installed an anti-occilation device in the fan.


4. To describe pronunciation of words.

Demo-cra-cy

Lab-or-a-tor-y

Dash                  

There are two types of dashes: an en dash and an em dash. An en dash is twice as long as a hyphen and written by entering two dashes ("–"). The em dash is three times as long as a hyphen ("—"). En dashes never have spaces before or after them, but em dashes can appear with or without spaces before and after them, depending on style or personal preference.

1. En dash   –

The en dash is used as a substitute for to in figures or words.

The years 1990–1999 were the last decade of the 20th century.

You can take the Finch-Spadina subway to get downtown.

The quote was from pages 6–7 of the text book.

An en dash is never used if the numbers are preceded with from. In such cases, the word to is inserted.

Wrong: The railway was constructed from 1878–1885.
Right: The railway was constructed from 1878 to 1885.

Wrong: The quotation was taken from pages 6–7 of the book.
Right: The quotation was taken from pages 6 to 7 of the book.


2. Em dash   —

There are three general uses for an em dash:

1. To mark a suspension of the sense, a faltering in speech, or a sudden change in topic.

No doubt she could see — who could not? — the dazzling sunset.

Instead I wrote — but let me quote his own words.


2. To set off a parenthetical expression whenever commas appear in that expression.

The face — thin, harsh, cold, and forceful — was disquieting.

The book — a portion, it may be noted, was torn — was her favourite.

Be careful not to use em dashes where parentheses are more suitable, for instance when text supplements information in the sentence.

Confusing: The younger group — those under 40 — performed better than the older group — those over 40.

Clearer: The younger group (those under 40) performed better than the older group (those over 40).


3. To mark unfinished sentences.

"But if we —" he began.

"It's best if you —" He stopped suddenly.

Parentheses      

Parentheses, often incorrectly called brackets, are used to highlight a statement where commas and em dashes are inappropriate, notably when text is an aside or has no essential connection to the sentence.

The samples collected (under extremely difficult conditions) were the best.

The song is attributed (whether rightly or wrongly) to more than one lyricist.

If the text is related to the sentence, then it should appear between commas or em dashes.

The samples were collected — many during the winter — and they were the best.

The song is attributed, as is often the case, to more than one lyricist.

Note that when parentheses are are part of a sentence, sentence-ending punctuation appears outside the closing parenthesis. When the parentheses are a sentence itself, the punctuation appears inside the closing parenthesis.

It has been noted that the samples were collected under extremely difficult conditions (though not so difficult as to prevent them from being collected).

(Several of the sample were collected under very difficult conditions.)

Brackets            

Brackets (not "square brackets") are generally used in the following situations:

1.  To enclose editorial remarks or additions to the text.

As a negatif [sic] force, the Ros[s]eta Stone is unmatched.

The literary efforts of Homer mark the beginning of epic poems [though Homer may have made this style popular, he may not have invented it].


2.  To denote additional parenthetical text already in parentheses.

The mountains were referred to the Peaks (or the Points on this
side [i.e., the Canadian side] of the boundary).

Scarring can be a result of the disease (opinions vary as to the extent [Rogers, 1990]).

Quotation Marks 

Quotation marks are generally used in two situations:

1.  To mark direct quotations.

"Get thee to a nunnery," said the cleric to his sister.

She told her brother, "I'm stopping for a drink first."


2.  To distinguish words or phrases from surrounding text.

The "working principle" of punctuation is emphasis.

The sign indicated a "big sale," but only three items were discounted.

Note that in these circumstances quotation marks can be used more or less interchangeably with italics. Choose one and use it consistently.

Ellipses            

Ellipses are typically used in the following situations:

1.  To indicate an omission.

We usually count from one, two, three...eight, nine, ten.

As Shakespeare noted, "...get thee to a nunnery."

Note that when an omission occurs at the end of a sentence, a fourth point is used to denote the period.

He quoted Shakespeare as saying "...get thee to a nunnery...."


2. To demonstrate a lapse of time, typically in speech.

He mused, "Hm-m. Yes, malaria...mosquito infection, I believe...tricky thing."

"I happen to think...," he stammered "that...well, that you are wonderful."

 

ADDITIONAL REFERENCES

Canadian Style: A Guide To Writing And Editing. Toronto: Dundurn Press Limited, 1997.

The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th Ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Strunk, W. Jr. And E.B. White. The Elements of Style, 4th Ed., New York: Macmillan, 2000.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots and Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, New York: Gotham Books, 2004

Words Into Type. 3rd Ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1974

 

 

 

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