A Proper Punctuation Primer
This is a short and simple guide to demonstrate the proper use of basic punctuation in American English, as well as to point out and correct common punctuation mistakes.
Table of Contents
Typically used at the end of a sentence, as self-demonstrated here in this one.An ellipsis, or three periods (...) can be used to indicate missing or snipped information, or when someone’s speech trails off or pauses. For example:
MISSING INFO: The paper was damaged, nearly incomprehensible. All she could make out was “By the … at midn… with the … See you there.”
TRAIL OFF: “I don’t know if that’s a good idea…”
PAUSE: “Well… in all my days I’ve never seen anything like that!”
Trailing ellipses can be followed up by a question mark or exclamation point if appropriate:
QUESTION: “What’s that…?”
Beware: overusing ellipses, particularly in text-based communication, can get annoying very fast. It’ll also make you look uncertain, vague, or wishy-washy, which is not at all how you want to present yourself if you want people to take you or your ideas seriously.
These are used to put emphatic emphasis on the end of a sentence, such as to indicate that the sentence is being shouted or said forcefully.
EXAMPLE: “You get back here and clean up the mess you made!” she shouted.
Question marks are used at the end of… well, questions. If you’re writing dialog in which someone asks a question, don’t not end it with a question.
If a question needs the emphatic emphasis of an exclamation point, you can place an exclamation mark after a question mark to form an interrobang, like this: ?!
INCORRECT: “What is making all that noise.” she demanded.
INCORRECT: “What is making all that noise!” she demanded.
CORRECT: “What is making all that noise?” she demanded.
CORRECT: “What is making all that noise?!” she demanded.
Quotation marks typically enclose spoken words. If the quote is to be followed up with something like “he said” or “she asked,” a new sentence does not start, even if it ends with a question mark or exclamation point.
INCORRECT: “I ate a waffle,” He said.
INCORRECT: “I ate a waffle.” He said.
INCORRECT: “I ate a waffle” he said.
CORRECT: “I ate a waffle,” he said.
INCORRECT: “I have a balloon!” She said.
CORRECT: “I have a balloon!” she said.
INCORRECT: “Is that a rabbit?” She asked.
CORRECT: “Is that a rabbit?” she asked.
Quotation marks can be put around a word to call into question the authenticity or reality of the thing being quoted:
EXAMPLE: The “fresh” eggs were at least a week old.
EXAMPLE: The “coffee” tasted like someone ran compost through a coffee mill and brewed it.
It can also be used to mark a euphemism:
EXAMPLE: Yeah, we “fired” him, all right… with a pistol.
In a similar fashion, they can be used to indicate that something isn’t supposed to be taken completely literally, and is intended as a metaphor or as an approximation:
EXAMPLE: With this program, you can create anyone you want - even yourself - and “you” can live in a virtual world of your own creation.
Quotation marks are never to be used to emphasize a word - that’s what bold and italic text is for. In cases where bold or italic text is unavailable, enclosing a word with *asterisks* or /foreslashes/ are acceptable substitutes.
Apostrophes are used to mark missing letters in contractions, or to indicate possessive forms. Apostrophes are never used when pluralizing a word.
INCORRECT: I cant go to the park, and I dont want a sandwich.
CORRECT: I can’t go to the park, and I don’t want a sandwich.
INCORRECT: Did you find Casses glass’s?
CORRECT: Did you find Cass’s glasses?
INCORRECT: I left Sallies house today with a carton of egg’s.
CORRECT: I left Sally’s house today with a carton of eggs.
Now, let’s move onto handling possessive plurals.
INCORRECT: The girls’s father gave them gloves for Christmas.
CORRECT: The girls’ father gave them gloves for Christmas.
There are a few exceptions to the possession rule. Its is one of them: It’s is already a contraction of it is, so the possessive form of it is spelled as its.
INCORRECT: The sun follows it’s path across the heavens.
CORRECT: The sun follows its path across the heavens.
Another is your. You’re is a contraction of you are, so the possessive form of the word has no apostrophe.
INCORRECT: Get you’re coat on.
CORRECT: Get your coat on.
Commas are used to separate clauses in a sentence, or to separate list items.
Lately, many people have been using periods where commas would be appropriate, resulting in fragmented sentences:
INCORRECT: Sarah ran her hand over the dress. Feeling the softness.
CORRECT: Sarah ran her hand over the dress, feeling the softness.
And the on the inverse, people use commas when other punctuation marks would be more appropriate:
INCORRECT: Paul made salad, then Peter tasted it and said it was awful, that’s why Paul is angry.
CORRECT: Paul made salad, then Peter tasted it and said it was awful. That’s why Paul is angry.
INCORRECT: The soup needs three more ingredients, onions, carrots, and celery.
CORRECT: The soup needs three more ingredients: onions, carrots, and celery.
Learn to love the Oxford comma - that is, a comma before the final “and.” Far from being redundant and unnecessary, it can make sentences much easier to parse and clear up potential ambiguities.
WITHOUT OXFORD COMMA: We have tiles in black and white, red and gold and blue and silver.
WITH OXFORD COMMA: We have tiles in black and white, red and gold, and blue and silver.
WITHOUT OXFORD COMMA: We brought along the chickens, Henrietta and Percy.
WITH OXFORD COMMA: We brought along the chickens, Henrietta, and Percy.
Commas can also be used to separate two or more adjectives. Commas do not come between the last adjective in the list and the noun they’re describing.
INCORRECT: It was a cold, clear, night.
CORRECT: It was a cold, clear night.
Colons precede lists, list items, and declarations.
EXAMPLE: You must gather the three sacred objects: the scepter, the cup, and the bell.
EXAMPLE: And the farmer had this to say: “There were an awful lot of gophers.”
EXAMPLE: Pick one of the following:
A: Royal Razingaberry
B: Precious Peachaplum
C: Beatiful Blossibell
The semicolon is used in cases where the sentence doesn’t properly end, but a comma is still too weak or “runny.”
INCORRECT: “Not really, it’s actually quite comfortable.”
CORRECT: “Not really; it’s actually quite comfortable.”
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