Punctuation marks, such as periods, commas, and dashes, helps the reader understand what the author is trying to say. The marks simply make the writing clear for the reader. It’s the difference between a sign that reads, “No, U Turn” versus “No U Turn.” One is telling the reader to turn immediately and the other is all, “don’t you dare.”
Another example is the old joke, “Let’s eat Grandma!” versus “Let’s eat, Grandma!”
Proper punctuation can make or break the impact of the message you are trying to convey.
No matter how long you have been writing, novels or articles, it’s always good to review proper punctuation marks. There are fourteen common forms of marks used in English grammar. Here are the basic rules followed by a downloadable list.
A period simply ends sentences that are not questions or exclamations.
It was a dark and stormy night.
His shirt was blue.
A comma indicates a separation of ideas or elements within a sentence. It also directs a slight pause in reading (helpful with long lists). Uses of commas can vary by the style guide. Here are some examples of when commas are commonly used.
To separate three or more words, phrases, or sentence parts in a series.
The album genres included rock, jazz, country, and classical.
Between the day and year of a date
On April 16, 1964, the world of rock music changed forever.
After an introductory phrase or a group of words before the subject of a sentence that does not form a complete sentence.
After the meeting was over, the staff was energized.
Before a coordinating conjunction that connects two independent statements. Conjunctions include: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.
Pam spent an hour studying the map in the car, so now she can drive the trip without any directions.
To set off a parenthetical or nonrestrictive phrase
Grape jam, for instance, doesn’t make a good spaghetti sauce.
Commas also help to separate quotations that occur within a sentence.
“We are all fools in love,” Charlotte said.
Commas separate two similar types of adjectives that describe one noun.
She met a handsome, mysterious man.
Quotation Marks have several uses. They often show the beginning and end of a quotation of a person, written text, or title of a poem or short story. In writing, they represent text as speech in dialogue.
All periods and commas go inside quotation marks. Question marks, exclamation marks, semicolons, colons, and dashes go outside of the mark unless they are part of the quotation.
The man shouted to the other driver, “Use your stupid turn signal!”
What did you do when Anna said, “I am leaving now”?
Also, if you have a quote inside of a quote, that is when the single quotes come into play. Single quotation marks should be used “within double quotation marks to set off material that in the original source was enclosed in double quotation marks” (American Psychological Association, 2010, p. 92). Look at this example where your protagonist Annabelle is discussing the local pastor.
“Pastor Jones said, ‘Paul Smith is not guilty of this crime,’ but I personally think he is,” Annabelle stated.
Exclamation points ends sentences with a sense of excitement or urgency.
We got the contract on the house!
Get out of the way!
Question marks end sentences that are questions. The use of the mark indicates a query.
Where do you get most of the decorations for your home?
What was the last photo you took?
Apostrophes show possession and indicate that one or more letters have been left out in a contraction (where two words have been combined into one. Add an apostrophe and an s to nouns to show possession (John’s house) and only an apostrophe after nouns that end with an s (My parents’ house).
It was anyone’s guess what would happen.
Cindy’s book was published.
The musician’s instruments were on already on the stage.
Hyphens are mostly used to combine words to form compound words, especially when used as an adjective. They are also used with the prefixes ex-, self-, and all-; with the suffix elect-; and with all prefixes before a proper noun or proper adjective.
There were thirty-one students.
The well-liked author gave an interview about her new book, Olympia.
Martha was excited to have lunch with her mother-in-law Daria.
Dashes (en– and em—)
Dashes—often confused with commas—are used to set off a parenthetical phrase or points attention to a summary conclusion.
An en-dash ( – ) is primarily used for dates and numbers. Think of it as meaning the word “through.”
August 1–4, 2018
The slightly longer em dash ( — ) is used to create a strong break in the structure of a sentence. They are useful in long and complex sentences, especially one with a lot of commas.
There is a job to be done — namely, teaching students that wildlife conservation and fire safety is vital in protecting the quality of life for everyone.
A pair of em dashes can be used in place of commas to enhance readability. Note, however, that dashes are always more emphatic than commas.
Slashes are used to indicate multiple possibilities.
What’s the best / worst practical joke that you’ve played on someone or that was played on you?
Speak to the teacher and/or the principal.
A solidus, which uses the same symbol as the slash, is used when we need to indicate numerical fractions in a sentence. It also indicates line breaks in quotations of multiple lines of poetry.
He used a small/tiny part of the wood to make a pencil.
The storyline is plotted around 1929/1932.
Parenthesis set off a loosely related, but non-essential, phrase within a sentence. When parentheses are used to enclose an independent sentence, the end punctuation belongs inside the parentheses
We visited several states (Vermont, New York, and Maryland) on our road trip this summer.
The rain (remember the last time it rained?) is expected to move in this weekend.
Brackets designate words, punctuation, and formatting inserted into a quote that were not included in the original source. The sentence should still make perfect sense if you remove the brackets.
They will not be present [my emphasis].
She “love[s] driving.”
Colons follow independent clauses (complete sentences) and introduce a list, summary, or important conclusion. A colon should not be used after a verb that directly introduces a list.
Lately, I have had one thing on my mind: going on vacation.
Sarah gave her mother three things: a birthday card, a cake, and a bouquet of roses.
Semicolons are used to join complete sentences by taking the place of a conjunction (and, as, because, but, for, just as, or, neither, nor, not only, so, whether, and yet). They are sometimes used to separate items in series that contain commas within single-item descriptions.
You need new brakes; otherwise, you may not be able to stop in time.
The conference has people who have come from Odessa, Missouri; Springfield, Illinois; Athens, Texas; and other places as well.
Ellipsis are three periods separated by two spaces. The marker’s use indicates omissions in quoted material. When writing dialogue, the ellipsis can be used to signal confusion, disapproval, hesitation, or to show more is to come. The mark can also be used to show that thoughts are unfinished or that the person is expecting a response.
But I thought we were meeting on Tuesday…?
“The vast flapping sheet flattened itself out, and each shove of the brush revealed fresh legs, hoops, horses, glistening reds and blues, beautifully smooth, until half the wall was covered with the advertisement of a circus; a hundred horsemen, twenty performing seals, lions, tigers…Craning forwards, for she was short-sighted, she read it out… “will visit this town,” she read.” —To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss
The Accidental Apostrophe: … And Other Misadventures in Punctuation by Caroline Taggart