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The User Friendly Guide to Punctuation

Punctuation is necessary to clarify the writer's meaning in a sentence. Punctuation marks are used to indicate a sentence has ended, show the relationships between words and groups of words in a sentence, and set off direct quotations and dialogue.

The punctuation marks that are used to end a sentence are the period, the question mark, and the exclamation mark.

The Period

The period indicates a complete stop.

There was nothing left for us to do, so we left work and went home.

The question mark is used at the end of a question that is being asked.

We've finished our work now, may we go home?

It can also be used to show surprise, uncertainty or incredulity.

You mean we can leave work early today?

I wonder if I should try and leave early?

Did you really get to leave work early yesterday?

The exclamation mark is used to emphasise something that is strongly felt.

Stop doing that!

Oh no!

Don't ever come near me again!

The exclamation mark should be used sparingly, and only when genuine emotion or feeling needs to be expressed. Overuse of it will lessen its impact.

The Comma

The comma is the most frequently used form of punctuation. Its main purpose is to separate words or groups of words from one another in order to clarify the meaning of a sentence. When words and groups of words are separated from one another, the comma also shows the relationship between them.

The following sentence is confusing as written.

Mr. Smith was thinking of various things for his own benefit as Charley bit his nails while he waited for the answer.

The placement of a comma helps to clarify the meaning of the sentence:

Mr. Smith was thinking of various things for his own benefit, as Charley bit his nails while he waited for the answer.

As it is written, the following sentence is quite confusing:

I’m very good at what I do and amongst other talents, I've polished, I'm very good at crisis management.

Punctuating the sentence helps to clear up any ambiguity:

I'm very good at what I do, and amongst other talents I've polished, I'm very good at crisis management.

A comma is used before a coordinating conjunction such as and, but, or, for, yet, and so.

The trip was long and tiring, for we were delayed by the eruption of the volcano.

We hadn't paid our electricity bill, so the power was cut off.

File your tax form on time, or you'll be faced with a hefty fine!

There is no need to slam the door, but someone always does so.

We are going to Spain for the summer, and plan to stay for three months.

Ellipsis ...

When part of a quotation has been omitted, three points are used to indicate that information is missing. This is known as an ellipsis.

We received news from the hotel we were booked into, informing us that: "Your reservation has been verified for the week of.... Please message that our hotel has a full range of services..., and cots can be provided for small children at no extra charge".

When used in dialogue, an ellipsis can indicate a thought that has been interrupted:

"Do you think that we should... oh, never mind. I know you wouldn't be interested anyway."

It can indicate speech that trails off:

"Yes, Brian said he was on his way home," Jane said, "but still, it's been three days...."

Semicolon ;

The semicolon is used in order to join two independent statements that are closely related, particularly if the second statement provides additional, specific information that helps to explain or clarify the first one.

You might find it uncomfortable to be back home; your parents have rented your room out to a college student.

Janice was nervous during the flight to Europe; in fact, it was the first time she had ever flown.

It is also used before conjunctive adverbs such as moreover, however, therefore or indeed, that show the relation between the two clauses:

Normally the department store closes at 7 o'clock; however, during the holiday season it will remain open until 9.

The boys didn't respect their curfew Friday night; therefore, they are grounded for the rest of the weekend.

Colon :

A colon serves to formally introduce lists of things, quotations, extracts, an explanatory clause, or speeches. These can also be preceded by a comma, but using a colon serves to make it more formal:

When preparing for a trip, the following items are mandatory: passport, tickets, and money.

I wish I knew who first said: "A penny saved is a penny earned", and whether or not he had a lot of savings.

Everything was ready for the dinner party: the food was prepared, the table was set, and the guests had arrived on time.

The President stepped up to the podium and began his speech: "Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Distinguished Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, citizens of America, and citizens of the world:

I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility..."

A colon is also used when writing the time of day, to differentiate between an act and a scene from a play, to separate a book's title from its subtitle, and when using Biblical references, in order to separate chapter from verse:

The time is now 8:45

Romeo and Juliet IV:3

“The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary”, was written by Simon Winchester.

The visit of the Magi is recounted in Mathew 2:1-12

Dash --

The dash can be used to show a break of shift of thought:

I was going to explain it to you -- but never mind now, you don't seem to be interested.

His reputation should have warned her he wasn't -- well, perhaps the less said the better.

If a sentence ends with a dash, the period is omitted:

If you really feel that way --

The dash can be used to increase suspense, as emphasis, or to set off parenthetical information.

They already knew -- they had to have known -- that the project wasn't likely to obtain approval.

The presentation was up to the standards we expected -- indeed, it exceeded our expectations.

The set back is minor, I tell you -- truly minor -- and the delay won't inconvenience you whatsoever

The dash can be used to show that letters or words have been omitted:

Reverend M- gave his usual stultifying sermon last Sunday morning.

The Spanish Flu pandemic, 1918-1919, is thought to have been responsible for 50-100 million deaths world wide.

Parentheses ( )

Parenthetical information consists of words or groups of words that interrupt the main structure of the sentence. This information is usually not necessary to the meaning of the sentence, and it is punctuated with either commas, dashes, or parentheses. The use of a dash can be quite dramatic; parentheses serve to isolate the words or phrases, making them seem remotely connected to the sentence.

If you see any strawberries at the market (they have to be available by now, I'm sure), please buy several kilos so I can make jam.

We've been told to eat a healthy amount of fruits and vegetables (many of them are reputed to have anti-aging properties), but it's often difficult to find good quality produce at reasonable prices, particularly during the winter months.

Apostrophe '

An apostrophe is used when words are contracted, in order to signal the absence of one or more letters. A contraction is a shortened form of a word or group of words.

Some of the more commonly used contractions are:

did not = didn't

could not = couldn't

cannot = can't

will not = won't

would not = wouldn't

I am = I'm

You are = You're

He is = He's

They are = They're

We will = We'll

They will = They'll

The apostrophe is also used to indicate that a noun or an indefinite pronoun is possessive.

The dog's leash was hanging by the back door.

My brother's birthday was last month.

Erica's wedding gift was ordered in plenty of time for the celebrations, but it arrived a week after the festivities took place.

An apostrophe is also used when one or more digits in a number are left out:

The winter of '87 was notoriously harsh in Europe.

However, if the date mentioned spans several years, no apostrophe is needed.

The American Civil War was fought between 1861-65.

Hyphens -

Hyphens are used in order to separate prefixes in certain words, and to connect the parts of some compound words and phrases.

Hyphens are used in spelling compound words in order to avoid confusion of meaning.

My coworker called in sick today is a statement that makes more sense if it is written thus: My co-worker called in sick today.

Hyphenate two nouns that are different but equal in terms of the meaning conveyed:

actor-director

director-producer

secretary-treasurer

Compound nouns consisting of three or more words are also hyphenated:

father-in-law

know-it-all

stick-in-the mud

fly-by-night

The suffixes -designate, -elect, and -odd are hyphenated:

The chairman-designate will lead the meeting this week.

The president-elect and her political supporters partied until the early morning.

A thousand-odd people marched in the streets to protest the budget cuts.

Prefixes that require hyphenation are all-, great-, half-, and self-:

The recipe calls for the use of all-purpose flour.

My great-grandparents lived on an isolated farmstead.

His excuse was half-hearted, and came across as being insincere.

He is a good athlete, but his self-confidence was shaken when he came in second.

Hyphens are used with proper nouns and adjectives that have prefixes:

The anti-war activists led a march for peace over the weekend.

Much has been said about the post-modern age, but I have never understood what is meant by it.

When two or more words are joined to form a compound adjective that precedes a noun, the hyphen is used:

The music-loving public crowded the concert hall when the famous opera star give his ultimate performance.

Nineteenth century audiences flocked to hear the well-known author, Charles Dickens, read from his works.

There is a store two streets over that stocks hard-to-find plumbing fixtures.

However, if the compound adjective follows the noun, it is not hyphenated.

Plumbing fixtures that are hard to find are in stock at a store nearby.

Punctuating dialogue

Dialogue and reported speech are set off by punctuation marks, 'either single ones', ''or double ones". Either form is acceptable, but usage should be consistent throughout the story.

The comma is also used extensively when punctuating dialogue and reported speech. If the quoted speech is preceded by expressions such as he said, they replied, Ellen asked, just to cite a few, these expressions are usually separated from the quotation with a comma outside the quotation marks. If the expression follows quoted speech which required a comma, it is placed before the closing quotation marks.

Quotation marks set off direct speech in dialogue. Without it, some sentences would make no sense at all.

The dog said Susan is on the couch.

"The dog," said Susan, "is on the couch."

Each character's speech is given a separate paragraph.

"Be home before midnight," said mother.

"Can I stay out later, please?" she asked. "All the other kids get to stay out as long as they want!"

In the preceding example, "Be home before midnight" is part of a complete sentence of dialogue. In this case, there is a comma placed before the closing quotation marks, and the period is at the end of the completed sentence, after the word mother. "Can I stay out later, please?" is also part of a complete sentence of dialogue, but does not end the sentence, so the following word, she, is not capitalised, even though there is a question mark before the closing quotation marks.

The punctuation would be confusing and incorrect if done as follows:

"Be home before midnight." Said mother.

"Can I stay out later, please?" She asked. "All the other kids get to stay out as long as they want!"

Even more confusing is the following example:

"you were told to come home before midnight weren't you?" She said, I nodded "well then what excuse do you have for being so late?"

It should be written and punctuated as follows:

"You were told to come home before midnight, weren't you?" she said. I nodded. "Well then! What excuse do you have for being so late?"

Does punctuation go inside or outside the quotation marks?

Usually, punctuation marks are placed inside the quotation marks when writing direct speech in dialogue.

Sometimes, however, the punctuation will be placed outside the quotation marks. One example of this is when relating reported speech, with the closing punctuation mark outside the quotation marks:

I remember the public health nurse telling us, "Always cover your mouth when you cough".

However, that can also be written with the punctuation inside of the closing quotation marks:

I remember the public health nurse telling us "Always cover your mouth when you cough."