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Here is a guide to punctuation.
What is punctuation? Answer
How many punctuation marks are there? Answer
What are various punctuation marks and signs? Answer
What are most common punctuation marks? Answer
When to use punctuation marks? Answer
What do you know about English language punctuation?Answer
What should you know about English language punctuation? Answer
Why do we need to punctuate? Answer
Where will you use apostrophes in an English sentence?Answer
Will you use apostrophes with masters and bachelors?Answer
What is the reason?Answer
When do you use a comma or dash in an English sentence?Answer
Where do you use quotation marks in in an English sentence?Answer
What is the difference in usage of colon and semicolon in an English sentence?Answer
How do I use the comma? Answer
What are the rules of capitalization? Answer
How do I use the apostrophe correctly? Answer
How many spaces should I leave after a period or other concluding mark of punctuation?Answer
What are various punctuation marks in the English language?Answer
Can you write English language sentences without an apostrophe, dash, or quotation mark?Answer
Why should you avoid using apostrophe, dash, or quotation marks while writing English language?Answer
What are various punctuation marks in the English language?Answer
Can you write English language sentences without an apostrophe, dash, or quotation mark?Answer
Why should you avoid using apostrophe, dash, or quotation marks while writing English language?Answer
Why was there need to write this guide?Answer
Why do some English language documents not require much punctuation? Answer
What is the purpose of punctuation?Answer
What are some of the examples?Answer
Does this type of punctuation separate words into sentences, clauses, and phrases in order to clarify meaning?Answer
Should you use punctuation marks more than required?Answer
What will happen if you use punctuation marks more than required?Answer
What punctuation marks or signs have been verified (as of September 10, 2012) to cause errors when read by computers and on the Internet?Answer
What is an example of non-required punctuation?Answer
Is there a need to add • (a bullet point) before a word, words, or sentences?Answer
Does this type of punctuation fulfill the purpose to clarify meaning of a word, words, or sentences?Answer
Is there a need to add • (a bullet point) before various words? Answer
Why do you need to add • (a bullet point) before various words? Answer

Here is a guide to punctuation.
What is punctuation?
Punctuation is the use of standard marks and signs in writing and printing to separate words into sentences, clauses, and phrases in order to clarify meaning.

How many punctuation marks are there?
At least 27.

What are various punctuation marks and signs?
  1. Apostrophe '

  2. Ampersand &

  3. Asterisk *

  4. At Sign ( @ )

  5. Bullet Point •

  6. Backslash \

  7. Colon :

  8. Comma ,

  9. Caret ( ^ )

  10. Dash —

  11. Degree ( ° )

  12. Dagger †

  13. Ellipsis ...

  14. Exclamation Point !

  15. Interpunct ( · )

  16. Guillemets ( « » )

  17. Hyphen -

  18. Oblique; Slash; /

  19. Parentheses ( ) (Round) Brackets

  20. Period (Full Stop) .

  21. Question Mark ?

  22. Quotation Mark (Inverted Commas) "

  23. Round Brackets; (Round) Parenthesis ( )

  24. Sharp #

  25. Semicolon ;

  26. Square Brackets; (Square) Parenthesis [ ]

  27. Underline __
What are most common punctuation marks?
Some common punctuation marks are the period, comma, question mark, exclamation point, apostrophe, quotation mark and hyphen.
Why do some English language documents not require much punctuation?
Punctuation should fulfill the purpose of the particular communication; sometimes meaning is best communicated with minimal punctuation.

Why was there need to write this guide?
Some people do not punctuate their English language documents at all.
Some people punctuate their English language documents more than necessary.
With computers and the Internet, some punctuation marks and signs tend to be used incorrectly.

What is the purpose of punctuation?

To separate words into sentences, clauses, and phrases with specific emphases, which helps clarify meaning.

What are some of the examples?

Some people add a bullet point before every word or sentence in a list.

Does this type of punctuation separate words into sentences, clauses, and phrases in order to clarify meaning?

No, it doe not.

An editor added 75 bullet point before various words and sentences on a page.
The computer counted these bullet points as 75 extra words.
Adding bullet points before words or sentence did not add or clarify the meaning of the document, but it padded the word count.

Should you use punctuation marks more than required?

No, you should not.

What will happen if you use punctuation marks more than required?

It will cause confusion for others.
Some punctuation (such as the instance of bullets given earlier) can be misinterpreted (by the computer in the instance given earlier, but by human readers as well).

What punctuation marks or signs have been verified (as of September 10, 2012) to cause errors when read by computers and on the Internet?

These are computer server operations issues.

What is an example of non-required punctuation?

The bullet point.

Is there a need to add • (a bullet point) before a word, words, or sentences?


Does this type of punctuation fulfill the purpose to clarify meaning of a word, words, or sentences?


Do not use unnecessary punctuation.

If any punctuation does not help in writing and printing to separate words into sentences, clauses, and phrases in order to clarify meaning, then that punctuation is not required.

Is there a need to add • (a bullet point) before various words?


Why do you need to add • (a bullet point) before various words?

You do not need to add a bullet point.
What are various punctuation marks and signs?
Abbrevations and numbers
Colon & Semi-Colon
Exclamation point !
Italics and quotation marks
Other Marks
Question mark ?
Quotation marks in dialogue
Terminating Marks
The comma after the introductory element
Summary of Punctuation Marks

Apostrophe, dash, and quotation marks display error on computer and Internet.

You should avoid using apostrophe, dash, and quotation marks.

What is a student expected to know about the English language at the ages of 5, 10, 15, and 18 years?

You can write simple declarative English language sentences beginning with a noun, pronoun, adjective, adverb, or preposition.

You should avoid beginning a declarative sentence with a conjunction or interjection.

In English the following punctuation marks are normally used: period, question mark, exclamation point, comma, semicolon, colon, quotation marks, single quotation marks, italics, underlining, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, ellipsis, and slash or virgule.

Understand that good punctuation helps people to write clearly, makes pieces of writing easier to read, and enables the reader to understand what the writer is trying to say.

Capitalization and Punctuation
This is a list of our ten most commonly used punctuation marks and a guide to their use.

10. Comma


Use commas to separate independent clauses in a sentence, for example:

The game was over, but the crowd refused to leave.

Yesterday was her brother’s birthday, so she took him out to dinner.

Use commas after introductory words, phrases, or clauses that come before the main clause:

While I was eating, the cat scratched at the door.

If you are ill, you ought to see a doctor.

NOTE: You should not do the reverse of this. For example, the following two cases are wrong:

The cat scratched at the door, while I was eating.

You ought to see a doctor, if you are ill.

Introductory words that should be followed by a comma are: yes, however, and well. For example: Yes, you can come to the party

Use a pair of commas to separate an aside from the main body of the sentence. For example:

John and Inga, the couple from next door, are coming for dinner tonight.

You can test this by removing the aside from the sentence. If the sentence still reads correctly, you have probably used the commas as you should. In the case above, this would render: John and Inga are coming for dinner tonight.

Do not use commas to separate essential elements of the sentence. For example:

Students who cheat only harm themselves.

The baby wearing a yellow jumpsuit is my niece.

The Oxford Comma

I prefer the Oxford comma when dealing with lists. It is also known as the Serial Comma or the Harvard Comma. The Oxford comma is much more widespread in American English than British English. When using the Oxford comma, all items in a list of three or more items are separated. For example:

I love apples, pears, and oranges.

Note the comma after “pears”. Many people prefer not to use this style and will omit the final comma. We call this the Oxford comma because it is the standard method taught at Oxford University.

Use commas to set off all geographical names, items in dates (except the month and day), addresses (except the street number and name), and titles in names.

Birmingham, Alabama, gets its name from Birmingham, England.

July 22, 1959, was a momentous day in his life.

Occasionally, you will see a comma between a house number and street. This is not wrong, it is just old fashioned. It is not done in modern times, however.

Use a comma to shift between the main discourse and a quotation.

John said without emotion, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“I was able,” she answered, “to complete the assignment.”

Use commas if they prevent confusion:

To George, Harrison had been a sort of idol.

9. Period or Full Stop


The primary use of a period is to end a sentence. Its second important use is for abbreviations. There are stylistic differences here. I will discuss both.


Martin Fowler, author of Modern English Usage, says that we should place a period at the end of an abbreviation only when the final letter of the abbreviation is not the final letter of the expanded word. For example:

Jesus Christ was born c. 4-6AD

The abbreviation is for the word “circa” – as it ends in an ‘a’ and the abbreviation is normally ‘c’ – we include the period.

Mr Jones was happy to see his wife

St Patrick lived in Ireland

In the first case above, “Mr” is an abbreviation for mister. Because mister ends in an ‘r’ and the abbreviation includes that ‘r’, we omit the period.


The other use of the period for abbreviations is to always include the period, regardless of whether the final letter is included.

Mr. Jones was happy to see his wife

If an abbreviated phrase is pronounced, we do not include periods. For example: NASA is correct, N.A.S.A is incorrect. In some cases the periods are omitted even when the word is not pronounced, usually because it is a very commonly known term. For example: UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles).

In the case of a word like et cetera (etc.,) we always include the period.

8. Question Mark


The question mark is a fairly easy punctuation mark to use. It has one use, and one use alone. It goes at the end of a sentence which is a question. For example:

How many will be at the party?

you do not include a period when using a question mark. You also do not use a combination of question marks and exclamation marks in formal writing, though this is gaining acceptance in informal writing – particularly on the internet.

One thing to be careful of is to not include a question mark when it is not needed:

WRONG: I wonder how many people will come to the party?

While you are expressing a thought that seems to require an answer, you are doing so with a statement. This is the most common mistake made when using a question mark.

7. Exclamation Mark


Only use this when issuing a command or speaking forcefully! As in the case of the question mark, do not follow this with a period and do not combine it with other punctuation marks. Oh, and only one is needed. Two or three exclamation marks in a row is completely unnecessary.

6. Quote Marks


Quotation marks are used to quote another person’s words exactly, whether they be spoken, or written. For example:

John said, “We are going shopping.” – note the capitalization of “We”. You should do this unless you are quoting in a run-on sentence:

John said “we are going shopping” because they had no milk. Note the omission of the comma in this case also.

If you are quoting a person who is quoting another person, use a single quotation mark like this:

John said, “My neighbor yelled at me today! He said ‘get off my lawn!’”

When introducing a quotation after an independent clause, use a colon and not a comma to begin:

As D. H. Nachas explains, “The gestures used for greeting others differ greatly from one culture to another.” (not an independent clause)

D. H. Nachas explains cultural differences in greeting customs: “Touching is not a universal sign of greeting. (this is an independent clause)

Quotation marks can also be used to denote irony or sarcasm, or to note something unusual about it:

The great march of “progress” has left millions impoverished and hungry.

Punctuation with quotations

Punctuation that belongs to the original quote should be inside the quote marks. Punctuation relating to the entire sentence should be outside.

Philip asked, “Do you need this book?”

Does Dr. Lim always say to her students, “You must work harder”?

Always put colons and semicolons outside quotes. Put commas and periods inside quotations unless followed by parenthesis:

He said, “I may forget your name, but I never remember a face.”

Mullen, criticizing the apparent inaction, writes, “Donahue’s policy was to do nothing” (27).

5. Colon


A colon should be used after a complete statement in order to introduce one or more directly related ideas, such as a series of directions, a list, or a quotation or other comment illustrating or explaining the statement. For example:

The daily newspaper contains four sections: news, sports, entertainment, and classified ads.

The strategies of corporatist industrial unionism have proven ineffective: compromises and concessions have left labor in a weakened position in the new “flexible” economy.

The colon is also used to separate chapter and verse from the bible (I Parlipomenon 12:30), to separate hours, minutes, and seconds: 13:49:08, and as eyeballs in smiley faces.

4. Semicolon


Use a semicolon to join related independent clauses in compound sentences. For example:

Jim worked hard to earn his degree; consequently, he was certain to achieve a distinction.

Jane overslept by three hours; she was going to be late for work again.

The semicolon is also used to separate items in a series if the elements of the series already include commas. For example:

Members of the band include Harold Rostein, clarinetist; Tony Aluppo, tuba player; and Lee Jefferson, trumpeter.

3. Apostrophe


The apostrophe has three uses:

1) to form possessives of nouns
2) to show the omission of letters
3) to indicate certain plurals of lowercase letters.

Forming possessives

the boy’s hat

three day’s journey

If the noun after “of” is a building, an object, or a piece of furniture, then no apostrophe is needed. For example: The car door.

Showing omission

He’ll go = He will go

could’ve = could have (Not “could of”!)

Forming plurals

Apostrophes are used to form plurals of letters that appear in lowercase. For example:

Mind your p’s and q’s

2. Parentheses


Parentheses are occasionally and sparingly used for extra, nonessential material included in a sentence. For example, dates, sources, or ideas that are subordinate or tangential to the rest of the sentence are set apart in parentheses. Parentheses always appear in pairs.

Before arriving at the station, the old train (someone said it was a relic of frontier days) caught fire.

1. Dash or Hyphen



Use the dash to emphasize a point or to set off an explanatory comment; but don’t overuse dashes, or they will lose their impact. A dash is typically represented on a computer by two hyphens with no spaces before, after, or between the hyphens.

To some of you, my proposals may seem radical–even revolutionary.

It is also used for an appositive phrase that already includes commas.

The boys–Jim, John, and Jeff–left the party early.

As you can see, the dash can be used in the same way as parentheses.


Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:

chocolate-covered peanuts

Don’t use the hyphen when the noun comes first:

The peanuts are chocolate covered

Use a hyphen with compound numbers: Forty-five

You should also use a hyphen to avoid confusion in a sentence:

He had to re-sign the contract
He had to resign his job

Use a hyphen with the prefixes ex- (meaning former), self-, all-; with the suffix -elect; between a prefix and a capitalized word; and with figures or letters:

pre-Civil War

Apostrophe He received two A�s and two B�s on his report card.
Colon: A colon is used between the digits indicating hours, minutes, and seconds � School started at 9:00 a.m.
Colons are also used to introduce a series after a complete sentence � We bought vegetables: beans, peas, corn, and kale.

Semicolon: Semicolons are used between two independent clauses, which eliminates the need for a comma and a conjunction � Some people like to ski; others like to swim. A semicolon is also used to separate words in a series when those words have punctuation � They were born on June 1, 1856; May 6, 1830; and March 31, 1851.

Summary of Punctuation Marks

Punctuation Mark Name Example
full stop or period
I like English.
I speak English, French and Thai.
I don't often go swimming; I prefer to play tennis.
You have two choices: finish the work today or lose the contract.
This is a rather out-of-date book.
In each town—London, Paris and Rome—we stayed in youth hostels.
question mark
Where is Chicago?
exclamation mark
"Help!" she cried. "I'm drowning!"
slash, forward slash or oblique
Please press your browser's Refresh/Reload button.
double quotation marks
"I love you," she said.
single quotation marks
'I love you,' she said.
This is John's car.
Have you read ______?
round brackets
I went to Bagkok (my favourite city) and stayed there for two weeks.
square brackets
The newspaper reported that the hostages [most of them French] had been released.
braces curly brackets or braces
{ b := a + 1
One happy customer wrote: "This is the best program...that I have ever seen."
Punctuation Rules
  1. Apostrophes

  2. Ampersand

  3. Asterisk

  4. Brackets

  5. Colons

  6. Commas

  7. Dashes

  8. Ellipsis Marks

  9. Exclamation Points

  10. Guillemets ( « » )

  11. Hyphens

  12. Parentheses and Brackets

  13. Periods

  14. Question Marks

  15. Quotation Marks

  16. Sharp

  17. Slash (punctuation)

  18. Semicolons

  19. Underline


Rule 1a. Use the apostrophe to show possession. To show possession with a singular noun, add an apostrophe plus the letter s.

a woman's hat
the boss's wife
Mrs. Chang's house

Rule 1b. Many common nouns end in the letter s (lens, cactus, bus, etc.). So do a lot of proper nouns (Mr. Jones, Texas, Christmas). There are conflicting policies and theories about how to show possession when writing such nouns. There is no right answer; the best advice is to choose a formula and stay consistent.

Rule 1c. Some writers and editors add only an apostrophe to all nouns ending in s. And some add an apostrophe + s to every proper noun, be it Hastings's or Jones's.

One method, common in newspapers and magazines, is to add an apostrophe + s ('s) to common nouns ending in s, but only a stand-alone apostrophe to proper nouns ending in s.

the class's hours
Mr. Jones' golf clubs
the canvas's size
Texas' weather

Care must be taken to place the apostrophe outside the word in question. For instance, if talking about a pen belonging to Mr. Hastings, many people would wrongly write Mr. Hasting's pen (his name is not Mr. Hasting).

Correct: Mr. Hastings' pen

Another widely used technique is to write the word as we would speak it. For example, since most people saying, "Mr. Hastings' pen" would not pronounce an added s, we would write Mr. Hastings' pen with no added s. But most people would pronounce an added s in "Jones's," so we'd write it as we say it: Mr. Jones's golf clubs. This method explains the punctuation of for goodness' sake.

Rule 2a. Regular nouns are nouns that form their plurals by adding either the letter s or -es (guy, guys; letter, letters; actress, actresses; etc.). To show plural possession, simply put an apostrophe after the s.

Correct: guys' night out (guy + s + apostrophe)

Incorrect: guy's night out (implies only one guy)

Correct: two actresses' roles (actress + es + apostrophe)

Incorrect: two actress's roles

Rule 2b. Do not use an apostrophe + s to make a regular noun plural.

Incorrect: Apostrophe's are confusing.

Correct: Apostrophes are confusing.

Incorrect: We've had many happy Christmas's.

Correct: We've had many happy Christmases.

In special cases, such as when forming a plural of a word that is not normally a noun, some writers add an apostrophe for clarity.

Example: Here are some do's and don'ts.

In that sentence, the verb do is used as a plural noun, and the apostrophe was added because the writer felt that dos was confusing. Not all writers agree; some see no problem with dos and don'ts.

Rule 2c. English also has many irregular nouns (child, nucleus, tooth, etc.). These nouns become plural by changing their spelling, sometimes becoming quite different words. You may find it helpful to write out the entire irregular plural noun before adding an apostrophe or an apostrophe + s.

Incorrect: two childrens' hats

The plural is children, not childrens.

Correct: two children's hats (children + apostrophe + s)

Incorrect: the teeths' roots

Correct: the teeth's roots

Rule 2d. Things can get really confusing with the possessive plurals of proper names ending in s, such as Hastings and Jones.

If you're the guest of the Ford family—the Fords—you're the Fords' guest (Ford + s + apostrophe). But what if it's the Hastings family?

Most would call them the "Hastings." But that would refer to a family named "Hasting." If someone's name ends in s, we must add -es for the plural. The plural of Hastings is Hastingses. The members of the Jones family are the Joneses.

To show possession, add an apostrophe.

Incorrect: the Hastings' dog

Correct: the Hastingses' dog (Hastings + es + apostrophe)

Incorrect: the Jones' car

Correct: the Joneses' car

In serious writing, this rule must be followed no matter how strange or awkward the results.

Rule 2e. Never use an apostrophe to make a name plural.

Incorrect: The Wilson's are here.

Correct: The Wilsons are here.

Incorrect: We visited the Sanchez's.

Correct: We visited the Sanchezes.

Rule 3. With a singular compound noun (for example, mother-in-law), show possession with an apostrophe + s at the end of the word.

Example: my mother-in-law's hat

If the compound noun (e.g., brother-in-law) is to be made plural, form the plural first (brothers-in-law), and then use the apostrophe + s.

Example: my two brothers-in-law's hats

Rule 4. If two people possess the same item, put the apostrophe + s after the second name only.

Example: Cesar and Maribel's home is constructed of redwood.

However, if one of the joint owners is written as a pronoun, use the possessive form for both.

Incorrect: Maribel and my home

Correct: Maribel's and my home

Incorrect: he and Maribel's home

Incorrect: him and Maribel's home

Correct: his and Maribel's home

In cases of separate rather than joint possession, use the possessive form for both.

Cesar's and Maribel's homes are both lovely.
They don't own the homes jointly.

Cesar and Maribel's homes are both lovely.
The homes belong to both of them.

Rule 5. Use an apostrophe with contractions. The apostrophe is placed where a letter or letters have been removed.

Examples: doesn't, wouldn't, it's, can't, you've, etc.

Incorrect: does'nt

Rule 6. There are various approaches to plurals for initials, capital letters, and numbers used as nouns.

She consulted with three M.D.s.
She consulted with three M.D.'s.

Some write M.D.'s to give the s separation from the second period.

Many writers and editors prefer an apostrophe after single capital letters only:

I made straight A's.
He learned his ABCs.

There are different schools of thought about years and decades. The following examples are all in widespread use:

the 1990s
the 1990's
the '90s
the 90's

Awkward: the '90's

Rule 7. Amounts of time or money are sometimes used as possessive adjectives that require apostrophes.

Incorrect: three days leave

Correct: three days' leave

Incorrect: my two cents worth

Correct: my two cents' worth

Rule 8. The personal pronouns hers, ours, yours, theirs, its, whose, and oneself never take an apostrophe.

Example: Feed a horse grain. It's better for its health.

Rule 9. When an apostrophe comes before a word or number, take care that it's truly an apostrophe (’) rather than a single quotation mark (‘).

Incorrect:Twas the night before Christmas.

Correct: ’Twas the night before Christmas.

Incorrect: I voted in 08.

Correct: I voted in ’08.


Serious writers avoid the word 'til as an alternative to until. The correct word is till, which is many centuries older than until.

Rule 10. Beware of false possessives, which often occur with nouns ending in s. Don't add apostrophes to noun-derived adjectives ending in s. Close analysis is the best guide.

Incorrect: We enjoyed the New Orleans' cuisine.

In the preceding sentence, the word the makes no sense unless New Orleans is being used as an adjective to describe cuisine. In English, nouns frequently become adjectives. Adjectives rarely if ever take apostrophes.

Incorrect: I like that Beatles' song.

Correct: I like that Beatles song.

Again, Beatles is an adjective, modifying song.

Incorrect: He's a United States' citizen.

Correct: He's a United States citizen.

Rule 11. Beware of nouns ending in y; do not show possession by changing the y to -ies.

Correct: the company's policy

Incorrect: the companies policy

Correct: three companies' policies


A colon means "that is to say" or "here's what I mean." Colons and semicolons should never be used interchangeably.

Rule 1. Use a colon to introduce a series of items. Do not capitalize the first item after the colon (unless it's a proper noun).

You may be required to bring many things: sleeping bags, pans, utensils, and warm clothing.
I want the following items: butter, sugar, and flour.
I need an assistant who can do the following: input data, write reports, and complete tax forms.

Rule 2. Avoid using a colon before a list when it directly follows a verb or preposition.

Incorrect: I want: butter, sugar, and flour.

I want the following: butter, sugar, and flour.
I want butter, sugar, and flour.

Incorrect: I've seen the greats, including: Barrymore, Guinness, and Streep.

Correct: I've seen the greats, including Barrymore, Guinness, and Streep.

Rule 3. When listing items one by one, one per line, following a colon, capitalization and ending punctuation are optional when using single words or phrases preceded by letters, numbers, or bullet points. If each point is a complete sentence, capitalize the first word and end the sentence with appropriate ending punctuation. Otherwise, there are no hard and fast rules, except be consistent.


I want an assistant who can do the following:

  1. input data
  2. write reports
  3. complete tax forms

The following are requested:

  • Wool sweaters for possible cold weather.
  • Wet suits for snorkeling.
  • Introductions to the local dignitaries.

These are the pool rules:

  1. Do not run.
  2. If you see unsafe behavior, report it to the lifeguard.
  3. Did you remember your towel?
  4. Have fun!

Rule 4. A colon instead of a semicolon may be used between independent clauses when the second sentence explains, illustrates, paraphrases, or expands on the first sentence.

Example: He got what he worked for: he really earned that promotion.

If a complete sentence follows a colon, as in the previous example, it is up to the writer to decide whether to capitalize the first word. Although generally advisable, capitalizing a sentence after a colon is often a judgment call.

Note: A capital letter generally does not introduce a simple phrase following a colon.

Example: He got what he worked for: a promotion.

Rule 5. A colon may be used to introduce a long quotation. Some style manuals say to indent one-half inch on both the left and right margins; others say to indent only on the left margin. Quotation marks are not used.

Example: The author of Touched, Jane Straus, wrote in the first chapter:
Georgia went back to her bed and stared at the intricate patterns of burned moth wings in the translucent glass of the overhead light. Her father was in "hyper mode" again where nothing could calm him down.

Rule 6. Use a colon rather than a comma to follow the salutation in a business letter, even when addressing someone by his or her first name. (Never use a semicolon after a salutation.) A comma is used after the salutation in more informal correspondence.

Formal: Dear Ms. Rodriguez:

Informal: Dear Dave,


Commas and periods are the most frequently used punctuation marks. Commas customarily indicate a brief pause; they're not as final as periods.

Rule 1. Use commas to separate words and word groups in a simple series of three or more items.

Example: My estate goes to my husband, son, daughter-in-law, and nephew.

Note: When the last comma in a series comes before and or or (after daughter-in-law in the above example), it is known as the Oxford comma. Most newspapers and magazines drop the Oxford comma in a simple series, apparently feeling it's unnecessary. However, omission of the Oxford comma can sometimes lead to misunderstandings.

Example: We had coffee, cheese and crackers and grapes.

Adding a comma after crackers makes it clear that cheese and crackers represents one dish. In cases like this, clarity demands the Oxford comma.

We had coffee, cheese and crackers, and grapes.

Fiction and nonfiction books generally prefer the Oxford comma. Writers must decide Oxford or no Oxford and not switch back and forth, except when omitting the Oxford comma could cause confusion as in the cheese and crackers example.

Rule 2. Use a comma to separate two adjectives when the adjectives are interchangeable.

Example: He is a strong, healthy man.
We could also say healthy, strong man.

Example: We stayed at an expensive summer resort.
We would not say summer expensive resort, so no comma.

Rule 3a. Many inexperienced writers run two independent clauses together by using a comma instead of a period. This results in the dreaded run-on sentence or, more technically, a comma splice.

Incorrect: He walked all the way home, he shut the door.

There are several simple remedies:

Correct: He walked all the way home. He shut the door.

Correct: After he walked all the way home, he shut the door.

Correct: He walked all the way home, and he shut the door.

Rule 3b. In sentences where two independent clauses are joined by connectors such as and, or, but, etc., put a comma at the end of the first clause.

Incorrect: He walked all the way home and he shut the door.

Correct: He walked all the way home, and he shut the door.

Some writers omit the comma if the clauses are both quite short:

Example: I paint and he writes.

Rule 3c. If the subject does not appear in front of the second verb, a comma is generally unnecessary.

Example: He thought quickly but still did not answer correctly.

Rule 4a. Use a comma after certain words that introduce a sentence, such as well, yes, why, hello, hey, etc.

Why, I can't believe this!
No, you can't have a dollar.

Rule 4b. Use commas to set off expressions that interrupt the sentence flow (nevertheless, after all, by the way, on the other hand, however, etc.).

Example: I am, by the way, very nervous about this.

Rule 5. Use commas to set off the name, nickname, term of endearment, or title of a person directly addressed.

Will you, Aisha, do that assignment for me?
Yes, old friend, I will.
Good day, Captain.

Rule 6. Use a comma to separate the day of the month from the year, and—what most people forget!—always put one after the year, also.

Example: It was in the Sun's June 5, 2003, edition.

No comma is necessary for just the month and year.

Example: It was in a June 2003 article.

Rule 7. Use a comma to separate a city from its state, and remember to put one after the state, also.

Example: I'm from the Akron, Ohio, area.

Rule 8. Traditionally, if a person's name is followed by Sr. or Jr., a comma follows the last name: Martin Luther King, Jr. This comma is no longer considered mandatory. However, if a comma does precede Sr. or Jr., another comma must follow the entire name when it appears midsentence.

Correct: Al Mooney Sr. is here.

Correct: Al Mooney, Sr., is here.

Incorrect: Al Mooney, Sr. is here.

Rule 9. Similarly, use commas to enclose degrees or titles used with names.

Example: Al Mooney, M.D., is here.

Rule 10. When starting a sentence with a dependent clause, use a comma after it.

Example: If you are not sure about this, let me know now.

But often a comma is unnecessary when the sentence starts with an independent clause followed by a dependent clause.

Example: Let me know now if you are not sure about this.

Rule 11. Use commas to set off nonessential words, clauses, and phrases (see the "Who, That, Which" section in Chapter One, Rule 2b).

Incorrect: Jill who is my sister shut the door.

Correct: Jill, who is my sister, shut the door.

Incorrect: The man knowing it was late hurried home.

Correct: The man, knowing it was late, hurried home.

In the preceding examples, note the comma after sister and late. Nonessential words, clauses, and phrases that occur midsentence must be enclosed by commas. The closing comma is called an appositive comma. Many writers forget to add this important comma. Following are two instances of the need for an appositive comma with one or more nouns.

Incorrect: My best friend, Joe arrived.

Correct: My best friend, Joe, arrived.

Incorrect: The three items, a book, a pen, and paper were on the table.

Correct: The three items, a book, a pen, and paper, were on the table.

Rule 12. If something or someone is sufficiently identified, the description that follows is considered nonessential and should be surrounded by commas.

Freddy, who has a limp, was in an auto accident.
If we already know which Freddy is meant, the description is not essential.

The boy who has a limp was in an auto accident.
We do not know which boy is meant without further description; therefore, no commas are used.

This leads to a persistent problem. Look at the following sentence:

Example: My brother Bill is here.

Now, see how adding two commas changes that sentence's meaning:

Example: My brother, Bill, is here.

Careful writers and readers understand that the first sentence means I have more than one brother. The commas in the second sentence mean that Bill is my only brother.

Why? In the first sentence, Bill is essential information: it identifies which of my two (or more) brothers I'm speaking of. This is why no commas enclose Bill.

In the second sentence, Bill is nonessential information—whom else but Bill could I mean?—hence the commas.

Comma misuse is nothing to take lightly. It can lead to a train wreck like this:

Example: Mark Twain's book, Tom Sawyer, is a delight.

Because of the commas, that sentence states that Twain wrote only one book. In fact, he wrote more than two dozen of them.

Rule 13a. Use commas to introduce or interrupt direct quotations.

He said, "I don't care."
"Why," I asked, "don't you care?"

This rule is optional with one-word quotations.

Example: He said "Stop."

Rule 13b. If the quotation comes before he said, she wrote, they reported, Dana insisted, or a similar attribution, end the quoted material with a comma, even if it is only one word.

"I don't care," he said.
"Stop," he said.

Rule 14. Use a comma to separate a statement from a question.

Example: I can go, can't I?

Rule 15. Use a comma to separate contrasting parts of a sentence.

Example: That is my money, not yours.

Rule 16a. Use a comma before and after certain introductory words or terms, such as namely, that is, i.e., e.g., and for instance, when they are followed by a series of items.

Example: You may be required to bring many items, e.g., sleeping bags, pans, and warm clothing.

Rule 16a. Commas should precede the term etc. and enclose it if it is placed midsentence.

Example: Sleeping bags, pans, warm clothing, etc., are in the tent.


Dashes, like commas, semicolons, colons, ellipses, and parentheses, indicate added emphasis, an interruption, or an abrupt change of thought. Experienced writers know that these marks are not interchangeable. Note how dashes subtly change the tone of the following sentences:

You are the friend, the only friend, who offered to help me.
You are the friend—the only friend—who offered to help me.
I pay the bills; she has all the fun.
I pay the bills—she has all the fun.
I wish you would…oh, never mind.
I wish you would—oh, never mind.

Rule 1. Words and phrases between dashes are not generally part of the subject.

Example: Joe—and his trusty mutt—was always welcome.

Rule 2. Dashes replace otherwise mandatory punctuation, such as the commas after Iowa and 2013 in the following examples:

Without dash: The man from Ames, Iowa, arrived.

With dash: The man—he was from Ames, Iowa—arrived.

Without dash: The May 1, 2013, edition of the Ames Sentinel arrived in June.

With dash: The Ames Sentinel—dated May 1, 2013—arrived in June.

Rule 3. Some writers and publishers prefer spaces around dashes.

Example: Joe — and his trusty mutt — was always welcome.

Ellipsis Marks

An ellipsis (plural: ellipses) is a punctuation mark consisting of three dots.

Use an ellipsis when omitting a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage. Ellipses save space or remove material that is less relevant. They are useful in getting right to the point without delay or distraction:

Full quotation: "Today, after hours of careful thought, we vetoed the bill."

With ellipsis: "Today…we vetoed the bill."

Although ellipses are used in many ways, the three-dot method is the simplest. Newspapers, magazines, and books of fiction and nonfiction use various approaches that they find suitable.

Some writers and editors feel that no spaces are necessary.

Example: I don't know…I'm not sure.

Others enclose the ellipsis with a space on each side.

Example: I don't know … I'm not sure.

Still others put a space either directly before or directly after the ellipsis.

I don't know …I'm not sure.
I don't know… I'm not sure.

A four-dot method and an even more rigorous method used in legal works require fuller explanations that can be found in other reference books.

Rule 1. Many writers use an ellipsis whether the omission occurs at the beginning of a sentence, in the middle of a sentence, or between sentences.

A common way to delete the beginning of a sentence is to follow the opening quotation mark with an ellipsis, plus a bracketed capital letter:

Example: "…[A]fter hours of careful thought, we vetoed the bill."

Other writers omit the ellipsis in such cases, feeling the bracketed capital letter gets the point across.

For more on brackets, see "Parentheses and Brackets."

Rule 2. Ellipses can express hesitation, changes of mood, suspense, or thoughts trailing off. Writers also use ellipses to indicate a pause or wavering in an otherwise straightforward sentence.

I don't know…I'm not sure.
Pride is one thing, but what happens if she…?
He said, "I…really don't…understand this."

Exclamation Points

Rule 1. Use an exclamation point to show emotion, emphasis, or surprise.

I'm truly shocked by your behavior!
Yay! We won!

Rule 2. An exclamation point replaces a period at the end of a sentence.

Incorrect: I'm truly shocked by your behavior!.

Rule 3. Do not use an exclamation point in formal business writing.

Rule 4. Overuse of exclamation points is a sign of undisciplined writing. Do not use even one of these marks unless you're convinced it is justified.


There are two commandments about this misunderstood punctuation mark. First, hyphens must never be used interchangeably with dashes (see the "Dashes" section), which are noticeably longer. Second, there should never be spaces around hyphens.

Incorrect: 300—325 people

Incorrect: 300 - 325 people

Correct: 300-325 people

Hyphens' main purpose is to glue words together. They notify the reader that two or more elements in a sentence are linked. Although there are rules and customs governing hyphens, there are also situations when writers must decide whether to add them for clarity.

Hyphens Between Words

Rule 1. Generally, hyphenate two or more words when they come before a noun they modify and act as a single idea. This is called a compound adjective.

an off-campus apartment
state-of-the-art design

When a compound adjective follows a noun, a hyphen may or may not be necessary.

Example: The apartment is off campus.

However, some established compound adjectives are always hyphenated. Double-check with a dictionary or online.

Example: The design is state-of-the-art.

Rule 2a. A hyphen is frequently required when forming original compound verbs for vivid writing, humor, or special situations.

The slacker video-gamed his way through life.
Queen Victoria throne-sat for six decades.

Rule 2b. When writing out new, original, or unusual compound nouns, writers should hyphenate whenever doing so avoids confusion.

I changed my diet and became a no-meater.
No-meater is too confusing without the hyphen.

The slacker was a video gamer.
Video gamer is clear without a hyphen, although some writers might prefer to hyphenate it.

Writers using familiar compound verbs and nouns should consult a dictionary or look online to decide if these verbs and nouns should be hyphenated.

Rule 3. An often overlooked rule for hyphens: The adverb very and adverbs ending in -ly are not hyphenated.

Incorrect: the very-elegant watch

Incorrect: the finely-tuned watch

This rule applies only to adverbs. The following two sentences are correct because the -ly words are adjectives rather than adverbs:

Correct: the friendly-looking dog

Correct: a family-owned cafe

Rule 4. Hyphens are often used to tell the ages of people and things. A handy rule, whether writing about years, months, or any other period of time, is to use hyphens unless the period of time (years, months, weeks, days) is written in plural form:

With hyphens:
We have a two-year-old child.
We have a two-year-old.

No hyphens: The child is two years old. (Because years is plural.)

Exception: The child is one year old. (Or day, week, month, etc.)

Note that when hyphens are involved in expressing ages, two hyphens are required. Many writers forget the second hyphen:

Incorrect: We have a two-year old child.

Without the second hyphen, the sentence is about an "old child."

Rule 5. Never hesitate to add a hyphen if it solves a possible problem. Following are two examples of well-advised hyphens:

Confusing: I have a few more important things to do.

With hyphen: I have a few more-important things to do.

Without the hyphen, it's impossible to tell whether the sentence is about a few things that are more important or a few more things that are all equally important.

Confusing: He returned the stolen vehicle report.

With hyphen: He returned the stolen-vehicle report.

With no hyphen, we could only guess: Was the vehicle report stolen, or was it a report on stolen vehicles?

Rule 6. When using numbers, hyphenate spans or estimates of time, distance, or other quantities. Remember not to use spaces around hyphens.

3:15-3:45 p.m.
300-325 people

Rule 7. Hyphenate all compound numbers from twenty-one through ninety-nine.

thirty-two children
one thousand two hundred twenty-one dollars

Rule 8. Hyphenate all spelled-out fractions.

Example: more than two-thirds of registered voters

Rule 9. Hyphenate most double last names.

Example: Sir Winthrop Heinz-Eakins will attend.

Rule 10. As important as hyphens are to clear writing, they can become an annoyance if overused. Avoid adding hyphens when the meaning is clear. Many phrases are so familiar (e.g., high school, twentieth century, one hundred percent) that they can go before a noun without risk of confusing the reader.

a high school senior
a twentieth century throwback
one hundred percent correct

Rule 11. When in doubt, look it up. Some familiar phrases may require hyphens. For instance, is a book up to date or up-to-date? Don't guess; have a dictionary close by, or look it up online.

Hyphens with Prefixes and Suffixes

A prefix (a-, un-, de-, ab-, sub-, post-, anti-, etc.) is a letter or set of letters placed before a root word. The word prefix itself contains the prefix pre-. Prefixes expand or change a word's meaning, sometimes radically: the prefixes a-, un-, and dis-, for example, change words into their opposites (e.g., political, apolitical; friendly, unfriendly; honor, dishonor).

Rule 1. Hyphenate prefixes when they come before proper nouns or proper adjectives.


Rule 2. For clarity, many writers hyphenate prefixes ending in a vowel when the root word begins with the same letter.


Rule 3. Hyphenate all words beginning with the prefixes self-, ex- (i.e., former), and all-.


Rule 4. Use a hyphen with the prefix re- when omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with another word.

Will she recover from her illness?
I have re-covered the sofa twice.
Omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with recover.

I must re-press the shirt.
Omitting the hyphen would cause confusion with repress.

The stamps have been reissued.
A hyphen after re- is not needed because there is no confusion with another word.

Rule 5. Writers often hyphenate prefixes when they feel a word might be distracting or confusing without the hyphen.

With no hyphen we get deice, which might stump readers.

With no hyphen we get coworker, which could be distracting because it starts with cow.

A suffix (-y, -er, -ism, -able, etc.) is a letter or set of letters that follows a root word. Suffixes form new words or alter the original word to perform a different task. For example, the noun scandal can be made into the adjective scandalous by adding the suffix -ous. It becomes the verb scandalize by adding the suffix -ize.

Rule 1. Suffixes are not usually hyphenated. Some exceptions: -style, -elect, -free, -based.

Modernist-style paintings
Mayor-elect Smith
sugar-free soda
oil-based sludge

Rule 2. For clarity, writers often hyphenate when the last letter in the root word is the same as the first letter in the suffix.


Rule 3. Use discretion—and sometimes a dictionary—before deciding to place a hyphen before a suffix. But do not hesitate to hyphenate a rare usage if it avoids confusion.

the annual dance-athon
an eel-esque sea creature

Although the preceding hyphens help clarify unusual terms, they are optional and might not be every writer's choice. Still, many readers would scratch their heads for a moment over danceathon and eelesque.

Parentheses and Brackets

Parentheses and brackets must never be used interchangeably.


Rule 1. Use parentheses to enclose information that clarifies or is used as an aside.

Example: He finally answered (after taking five minutes to think) that he did not understand the question.

If material in parentheses ends a sentence, the period goes after the parentheses.

Example: He gave me a nice bonus ($500).

Commas could have been used in the first example; a colon could have been used in the second example. The use of parentheses indicates that the writer considered the information less important—almost an afterthought.

Rule 2. Periods go inside parentheses only if an entire sentence is inside the parentheses.

Example: Please read the analysis. (You'll be amazed.)

This is a rule with a lot of wiggle room. An entire sentence in parentheses is often acceptable without an enclosed period:

Example: Please read the analysis (you'll be amazed).

Rule 3. Parentheses, despite appearances, are not part of the subject.

Example: Joe (and his trusty mutt) was always welcome.

If this seems awkward, try rewriting the sentence:

Example: Joe (accompanied by his trusty mutt) was always welcome.

Rule 4. Commas are more likely to follow parentheses than precede them.

Incorrect: When he got home, (it was already dark outside) he fixed dinner.

Correct: When he got home (it was already dark outside), he fixed dinner.


Brackets are far less common than parentheses, and they are only used in special cases. Brackets (like single quotation marks) are used exclusively within quoted material.

Rule 1. Brackets are interruptions. When we see them, we know they've been added by someone else. They are used to explain or comment on the quotation.

"Four score and seven [today we'd say eighty-seven] years ago..."
"Bill shook hands with [his son] Al."

Rule 2. When quoting something that has a spelling or grammar mistake or presents material in a confusing way, insert the term sic in italics and enclose it in nonitalic (unless the surrounding text is italic) brackets.

Sic ("thus" in Latin) is shorthand for, "This is exactly what the original material says."

Example: She wrote, "I would rather die then [sic] be seen wearing the same outfit as my sister."

The [sic] indicates that then was mistakenly used instead of than.

Rule 3. In formal writing, brackets are often used to maintain the integrity of both a quotation and the sentences others use it in.

Example: "[T]he better angels of our nature" gave a powerful ending to Lincoln's first inaugural address.

Lincoln's memorable phrase came midsentence, so the word the was not originally capitalized.


Rule 1. Use a period at the end of a complete sentence that is a statement.

Example: I know him well.

Rule 2. If the last item in the sentence is an abbreviation that ends in a period, do not follow it with another period.

Incorrect: This is Alice Smith, M.D..

Correct: This is Alice Smith, M.D.

Correct: Please shop, cook, etc. We will do the laundry.

Rule 3. Question marks and exclamation points replace and eliminate periods at the end of a sentence.

Question Marks

Rule 1. Use a question mark only after a direct question.

Correct: Will you go with me?

Incorrect: I'm asking if you will go with me?

Rule 2a. A question mark replaces a period at the end of a sentence.

Incorrect: Will you go with me?.

Rule 2b. Because of Rule 2a, capitalize the word that follows a question mark.

Some writers choose to overlook this rule in special cases.

Example: Will you go with me? with Joe? with anyone?

Rule 3a. Avoid the common trap of using question marks with indirect questions, which are statements that contain questions. Use a period after an indirect question.

Incorrect: I wonder if he would go with me?

I wonder if he would go with me.
I wonder: Would he go with me?

Rule 3b. Some sentences are statements—or demands—in the form of a question. They are called rhetorical questions because they don't require or expect an answer. Many should be written without question marks.

Why don't you take a break.
Would you kids knock it off.
What wouldn't I do for you!

Rule 4. Use a question mark when a sentence is half statement and half question.

Example: You do care, don't you?

Rule 5. The placement of question marks with quotation marks follows logic. If a question is within the quoted material, a question mark should be placed inside the quotation marks.

She asked, "Will you still be my friend?"
The question is part of the quotation.

Do you agree with the saying, "All's fair in love and war"?
The question is outside the quotation.

Quotation Marks

The rules set forth in this section are customary in the United States. Great Britain and other countries in the Commonwealth of Nations are governed by quite different conventions. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rule 3a in this section, a rule that has the advantage of being far simpler than Britain's and the disadvantage of being far less logical.

Rule 1. Use double quotation marks to set off a direct (word-for-word) quotation.

Correct: "When will you be here?" he asked.

Incorrect: He asked "when I would be there."

Rule 2. Either quotation marks or italics are customary for titles: magazines, books, plays, films, songs, poems, article titles, chapter titles, etc.

Rule 3a. Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.

The sign said, "Walk." Then it said, "Don't Walk," then, "Walk," all within thirty seconds.
He yelled, "Hurry up."

Rule 3b. Use single quotation marks for quotations within quotations.

Example: He said, "Dan cried, 'Do not treat me that way.' "

Note that the period goes inside both the single and double quotation marks.

Rule 4. As a courtesy, make sure there is visible space at the start or end of a quotation between adjacent single and double quotation marks. (Your word processing program may do this automatically.)

Not ample space: He said, "Dan cried, 'Do not treat me that way.'"

Ample space: He said, "Dan cried, 'Do not treat me that way.' "

Rule 5a. Quotation marks are often used with technical terms, terms used in an unusual way, or other expressions that vary from standard usage.

It's an oil-extraction method known as "fracking."
He did some "experimenting" in his college days.
I had a visit from my "friend" the tax man.

Rule 5b. Never use single quotation marks in sentences like the previous three.

Incorrect: I had a visit from my 'friend' the tax man.

The single quotation marks in the above sentence are intended to send a message to the reader that friend is being used in a special way: in this case, sarcastically. Avoid this invalid usage. Single quotation marks are valid only within a quotation, as per Rule 3b, above.

Rule 6. When quoted material runs more than one paragraph, start each new paragraph with opening quotation marks, but do not use closing quotation marks until the end of the passage.

Example: She wrote: "I don't paint anymore. For a while I thought it was just a phase that I'd get over.
"Now, I don't even try."


It's no accident that a semicolon is a period atop a comma. Like commas, semicolons indicate an audible pause—slightly longer than a comma's, but short of a period's full stop.

Semicolons have other functions, too. But first, a caveat: avoid the common mistake of using a semicolon to replace a colon (see the "Colons" section).

Incorrect: I have one goal; to find her.

Correct: I have one goal: to find her.

Rule 1. A semicolon can replace a period if the writer wishes to narrow the gap between two closely linked sentences.

Call me tomorrow; you can give me an answer then.
We have paid our dues; we expect all the privileges listed in the contract.

Rule 2. Use a semicolon before such words and terms as namely, however, therefore, that is, i.e., for example, e.g., for instance, etc., when they introduce a complete sentence. It is also preferable to use a comma after these words and terms.

Example: Bring any two items; however, sleeping bags and tents are in short supply.

Rule 3. Use a semicolon to separate units of a series when one or more of the units contain commas.

Incorrect: The conference has people who have come from Moscow, Idaho, Springfield, California, Alamo, Tennessee, and other places as well.

Note that with only commas, that sentence is hopeless.

Correct: The conference has people who have come from Moscow, Idaho; Springfield, California; Alamo, Tennessee; and other places as well.

Rule 4. A semicolon may be used between independent clauses joined by a connector, such as and, but, or, nor, etc., when one or more commas appear in the first clause.

Example: When I finish here, and I will soon, I'll be glad to help you; and that is a promise I will keep.

Last Updated: December 22, 2021