Time and again questions arise around the subject of punctuation.
- How do I use quotation marks properly?
- What are semi-colons for? Those things freak me out.
- How do I punctuate a sentence if it ends in an abbreviation and thus already has a period at the end? Do I add another one?
While this post is by no means extensive, below is a cheat sheet to help you quickly find the answers to frequently asked questions regarding punctuation.
Never use both a period for an abbreviation and a period for a stop at the end of a sentence.
- I woke at 3 A.M. (correct)
- I woke at 3 A.M.. (incorrect)
If you don’t like how that looks, it is best to rewrite the sentence.
- It was 3 A.M. when I woke.
- I woke at three in the morning.
In the case of a question flurry, you do not need to capitalize the new fragments. The most important thing is to pick a style and be consistent with it throughout the work.
- May I have a pencil? Two pencils? Three pencils? (correct)
- May I have a pencil? two pencils? three pencils? (also correct)
Statements should always be punctuated as such, even if they sound like a question.
- I wonder why he went to the store.
Indirect questions are a different story. If you chose to use a question mark, be sure to place a comma between the statement and the question segment. Note that because this is a curiosity and not a vocalized inquiry, the question is not quoted.
- The question is, did he go to the store. (correct)
- The question is, did he go to the store? (also correct)
- The question is, Did he go to the store? (allowed by some style guides, but generally not considered correct)
Question Marks vs. Exclamation Points
In the case of a single word, such as “what,” use the most appropriate punctuation to convey meaning.
- A basic question – “What?”
- An OMG moment – “What!” (Even though it is a question, if the shock is more important than the inquiry, use an exclamation point.)
Use hyphens to avoid confusion when two adjectives modify a noun.
- I want a short-haired dog. (Hair is being modified, thus the need for a hyphen.)
Use a hyphen for clarity.
- I need to re-press my pants.
- I want to repress my memories.
A dash is like a comma or parenthesis in that it offsets part of a sentence. In these cases, em dashes are generally used to draw attention or add emphasis.
- You are the one, the only one, who offered me help. (correct)
- You are the one—the only one—who offered me help. (correct and more emphatic)
Em Dashes vs Ellipses
Use an em dash when someone is cut off mid-thought or mid-sentence. Use an ellipse to replace dropped words, omit part of a quotation, or trail off a thought.
- “You said he was—”
“Yes, I did.” (The first person was cut off.)
- I wonder if he… (The thought has trailed off.)
How to type an ellipse:
Technically, ellipses are typed as: dot space dot space dot. However, despite the spaces, ellipses should never be broken over two lines. Some word processors recognize ellipses and ensure they are not broken. In other cases, some people place three continuous periods immediately next to a word. MS Word will convert three consecutive periods into an ellipse so they will not wrap on the page.
Punctuation can come at the end of an ellipse.
- What the…?
A complete sentence followed by an ellipse totals four periods….
If parentheses include additional information, the punctuation used for the main sentence resides outside of them.
- I went to the store to buy a few things (apples, peaches, bananas).
- I went to the store to buy a few things (apples, peaches, bananas), and then I went home.
If a complete sentence resides inside the parentheses, it is treated as such.
- I went to the store to buy a few things. (I bought apples, peaches, and bananas.)
In the United States, punctuation occurs within quotes.
- “No,” he said.
- I said, “No.”
In England, often the reverse is true.
- “No”, he said.
- I said, “No”.
Quotation marks within quotation marks act like brackets in algebra.
Is this punctuated properly? “So, I just walk in and say, ’Hi, Dad.’’?”
The Oxford Style Manual seems to say that in this particular case you should drop the full stop, but that is not completely clear. In section 5.13.2 (quotation marks – relative placing with other punctuation) it states, “Usually, only one mark of terminal punctuation is needed. When the requirements of the quotation and the main text differ, use the stronger mark.” So theoretically, if you consider the full stop to be less important to the sense of the sentence as a whole than the question mark is, you should use the question mark. However, The Oxford Style Manual then goes on to say that if the punctuation inside and outside the quotation marks are EQUALLY important to the sense, you should keep both. The example they give is: Did he really shout “Stop thief!”?
So, it is a matter of judgment, but basically yes, “So, I just walk in and say, ”Hi, Dad.”?” is correct.
Apostrophes – showing possession
If a name ends in s, possession can be shown in one of two ways. The choice is stylistic.
- “This is Niles’s hat.”
- “This is Niles’ hat.”
One school of though states that the sound of the s dictates the apostrophe. If it sounds like a z, using an apostrophe at the end is preferred. If it does not, using an ‘s is preferred.
Note: Many would argue that consistency between the use of s’s and s’ is more important than the z sound; therefore, in Scary Modsters I chose to consistently use s’ for these two names.
For the plural of something ending in s, use ’.
- I went to the Joneses’ house.
A Serial Comma separates more than two items in a list.
- I want apples, peaches, bananas, and pears.
Separate adjectives are distinguished by a comma.
- I have a small, blue ball.
Two complete sentences (independent clauses) are spliced with both a comma and a conjunction. (Conjunctions are FANBOYS; for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so.)
- I have a ball. I went to the store.
- I have a ball, and I went to the store.
Commas offset Subordinating Conjunctions where two independent clauses are placed together, thus making one dependent (or “subordinate”) upon the other. (Subordinating Conjunctions are: after, although, as, as if, as long as, as much as, as soon as, as though, because, before, even, even if, even though, if, if only, if when, if then, in as much, in order that, just as, lest, now, now since, now that, now when, once, provided, provided that, rather than, since, so that, supposing, than, that, though, till, unless, until, when, whenever, where, whereas, where if, wherever, whether, which, while, who, whoever, why.)
- Because it is raining, we have an umbrella. (When the dependent clause is placed first in a sentence, use a comma between the two clauses.)
- We have an umbrella because it is raining. (When the independent clause is placed first and the dependent clause second, do not separate the two clauses with a comma.)
Use commas around non-essential elements where the absence would not change the meaning of the sentence.
- His friend, Johnny, went to the store.
- His friend went to the store.
Use commas in “if clauses” where the action depends on something else.
- If you have any questions, let me know.
If a sentence starts with an interjection, use a comma or an exclamation point.
- “Hey! I can ride a bike.”
- “Hey, I can ride a bike.”
Use a comma to separate an introductory word (or phrase) from an independent clause. Introductory words are frequently adverbs, such as: above all, actually, finally, for example, furthermore, hesitantly, in fact, instead, quickly, nevertheless, right now, slowly, still, suddenly, therefore, thus, and (un)fortunately. An exception can be made when the introductory phrase is short (fewer than 5 words) and begins with a preposition (to, for, at, etc.).
- Slowly, he walked down the road.
- Instead of walking, he ran.
- By flashlight we walked down the road. OR By flashlight, we walked down the road.
A semicolon splices two complete (closely related) sentences that use conjunctive adverbs. If presented separately, the sentences should make as much sense.
- The temperature was below zero; I wondered if I would freeze to death. (correct)
- The temperature was below zero. I wondered if I would freeze to death. (correct)
Use a semicolon with conjunctive adverbs to splice two sentences. (Conjunctive adverbs are: accordingly, additionally, also, besides, comparatively, consequently, conversely, finally, further, furthermore, elsewhere, equally, hence, henceforth, however, in addition, in comparison, in contrast, in other words, indeed, instead, likewise, meanwhile, moreover, namely, nevertheless, next, now, on the contrary, otherwise, rather, similarly, still, subsequently, then, therefore, thus, yet.)
- The drive to Reno is long. I will stop on the way. (correct)
- The drive to Reno is long; hence, I will stop on the way. (correct)
Note: If a conjunctive adverb is used in any other position in a sentence, it is set off by commas.
- “Nonetheless, some colleges are making efforts to trim budgets and pass along the savings.”
- “Secretary Bennett, however, maintains that more federal aid would only encourage universities to count on the government to meet any increases they might impose.”
Never use semicolons with coordinating conjunctions (FANBOYS) unless for clarity in a list that requires commas.
- I will visit San Francisco, California; Reno, Nevada; and Provo, Utah. (correct)
- I will drive to Reno, Nevada, and I will fly to Provo, Utah. (correct)
- I will drive to Reno, Nevada; and I will fly Provo, Utah. (incorrect)
Colons work great in a list. If you can substitute the word “namely” for the colon, you are using it properly.
- My favorite foods are pasta, pizza, and chocolate.
- I have several favorite foods: pasta, pizza, and chocolate.
- I have several favorite foods, namely pasta, pizza, and chocolate.
Colons can splice two sentences together without an additional word, thus emphasizing the relationship. Never use a colon after a fragment.
- This band is wildly popular: they sold out Madison Square Garden. (correct) (Note, the attached sentence is not capitalized.)
- This band is wildly popular. They sold out Madison Square Garden. (correct)
Got any more quick tips? I’d love to hear them. Please also check out these grammar posts, also on this blog: