Basic Punctuation

Commas Exclamation Marks Dashes
Semicolons Apostrophes Quotation Marks
Periods Colons Brackets and Ellipses
Question Marks Parentheses  


The most common and most commonly misunderstood punctuation mark must be the comma, yet it needn't cause headaches as long as we keep its basic function im mind. In fact, the common statement, "I use a comma whenever I want a pause in my sentence," shows a good understanding of comma use: to identify word groups and mark divisions within the sentence. Because we often intuit or "hear" these divisions, we naturally pause for an instant. An ear for language rhythms can help, but it isn't enough. Some comma uses must be learned. When you can apply these four rules and supplement them with your intuition, you'll know all you need to know about commas.

1. Use a comma before a coordinating conjunction that joins independent clauses.

The meaning of this rule should be clear from our discussion of Basic Sentence Concepts. The rule is easy to understand and follow, yet failure to observe it accounts for about one-third of all comma errors. In a sentence like the following, a comma goes before the conjunction that marks the important division in thought:

Change: Nadine hit a high pop-up and the pitcher caught it.
to: Nadine hit a high pop-up, and the pitcher caught it.

The comma helps readers see the essential division of thought, and in doing so it prevents them from momentarily thinking Nadine hit "a high pop-up" and "the pitcher." Sometimes in sentences this short, no comma is needed, but sometimes, as in the sentence above, the comma helps make the meaning immediately apparent. Notice, this rule doesn't ask for a comma before every coordinating conjunction, just those that connect independent clauses.

2. Use a comma to set off introductory elements, especially those that contain a verb or a verb form.

As this present sentence shows, a writer will sometimes sometimes hold back the subject of a sentence for a moment, leading up to it with an introductory phrase or clause. Putting a comma at the point where the introductory element ends and the main clause begins signals your readers that they've come to the start of the base clause and prevents them from running the two elements together.

Change: When she finally swung Nadine hit a high pop-up, and the pitcher caught it.
to: When she finally swung, Nadine hit a high pop-up, and the pitcher caught it.

By creating that slight pause before "Nadine," we let readers see that "Nadine" is not a complement to "swung" but that it begins a new thought unit, the base clause. Even shorter introductory elements should be set off with commas if they contain a verb or verb form.

Change: Swinging fiercely Nadine hit a high pop-up, and the pitcher caught it.
to: Swinging fiercely, Nadine hit a high pop-up, and the pitcher caught it.

"Swinging" is a verb form, a participle. Another verb form that commonly appears in introductory elements in the infinitive:

To cap it off, Nadine hit a high pop-up, and the pitcher caught it.

"To cap" is the infinitive. These participial and infinitive phrases should always be separated from the base clause with a comma.

When the introductory element contains no verb or verb form, use your own judgment based partly on the length of the introductory element and partly on how closely you want to connect it with the base clause.

In the last inning Nadine hit a high pop-up, and the pitcher caught it.

In the last inning of the final game of the season, Nadine hit a high pop-up, and the pitcher caught it.

The introductory phrase in the first sentence is short and contains no verb or verb form. It could be set off or not, at the writer's preference. The element introducing the second sentence, however, is longer, and a comma signals the reader's short-term memory to process the information before going on to the main clause.

3. Use commas to set an interrupting element off from the rest of the sentence.

Of our four rules, this one, because it covers a variety of grammatical situations, is hardest to explain. Fortunately, in most situations, as right now, you can pick the interruption up with your ear, which senses that something has been inserted into the sentence, breaking the rhythmic flow. A comma helps the reader to sense this interruption as something separate from, something inserted into, the rest of the sentence, a kind of supplementary comment.

One common kind of interrupter is a clause, a phrase, or even a single word that adds incidental information about a more basic sentence element . Usually it comes right after the element it modifies. See if your ear detects the interrupter in the following example:

My uncle Ben who showed me this spot is quite a fisherman.

If you can see that "who showed me this spot" adds information about Ben without selecting him out of a larger group, then you can see why the information is considered incidental, or non-restrictive, and why the element is considered an interruption. Now try to hear an interruption in the following sentence:

The man who showed me this spot is quite a fisherman.

The natural pause disappears, and with it the need for commas, because "who showed me this spot" is no longer incidental information. Now "who showed me this spot" selects from a large number of possible men the one man being talked about. In other words, it restricts the meaning of the word it modifies. That's why the pause disappears and also why no commas are needed to set the expression off.

Single-word modifiers can also be restrictive or non-restrictive and are treated the same as restrictive and non-restrictive clauses.

Marvin, my brother, plays a wicked sax.

My brother Marvin plays a wicked sax.

In the first sentence, "my brother" adds extra information about Marvin and therefore needs to be set off. The second sentence doesn't need commas because "Marvin" selects from all possible brothers the one being talked about and is therefore restrictive. If, as sometimes happens, you find yourself in doubt as to whether a modifier is restrictive or not, trust your ear. Listen for a pause.

Other incidental interrupters that should be set off with commas are easy to identify and seldom cause trouble. The most common are: "yes" and "no":

Yes, I'd love a lemonade.

Names of people spoken to:

I'm afraid, my friend, that it's all gone.

And miscellaneous words and phrases moved out of a more natural word order:

This, for a thirsty pilgrim, was unwelcome news..

4. Use a comma to separate items in a series.

This rule is easy to understand and follow. The series below would be punctuated correctly by almost everyone:

Plowing, planting, and harvesting were our biggest jobs.

The Yankees finished ahead of the Tigers, the Red Sox, and the Indians last year.

Some you win, some you lose, and some get rained out.

Another simple kind of series is a series of place-names:

Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is where I learned to use chopsticks.

A sequence of dates can also be treated as a series:

Friday, September 29, 1928, was a bad day for investors.

Finally, a series of adjectives modifying a single base word should be separated with commas unless the words are frequently paired:

That tattered, faded couch had become a good friend.

I found it in a quiet little village by the sea..

A Final Word on Commas

The four rules above will cover almost all situations; however, when a situation isn't clearly covered by any rule, two more guidelines may help.

1. Use a comma to prevent possible misreadings.


Change: What he had done told more about him than what he said.
to: What he had done, told more about him than what he said.

2. When in doubt, leave it out.

This explains itself. Over-punctuation can cause confusion as easily as under-punctuation. If you can't think of a good reason to use a comma, you probably shouldn't.


4.18 Using the four guidelines you just studied, supply commas wherever needed in the following sentences. Some sentences may not need to be changed at all. Others may need to have commas removed.

a. From some of the most remote parts of the country people came to the inauguration.

b. Many are called but few, are chosen.

c. What will you do with a rusted dilapidated car like that?

d. If you ever get to Boise Idaho give me a call.

e. Dan tried every trick in his bag but the ball wouldn't fall.

f. The big walleyes seem, to go for these bright yellow lures, but the crappies just take jigs.

g. The town, where I grew up was quiet but the people weren't.

h. When he came home, my father brought a souvenir from Seoul Korea where he was stationed and one from Honolulu, Hawaii where he stopped on the way back.

i. For people who don't drink this can be a serious problem.

j. Carol had wanted many things, in her life, but she couldn't remember wanting anything, quite as much as this exciting challenging job.

k. Often we'd lie awake far into the night telling jokes and swapping stories about friends we'd known back home.

l. Last summer Larry bought a light blue RX-7 which he totaled a week later.


Semicolons have two principal uses:

1. Use a semicolon to join two independent clauses together into a single sentence.


Senator Petrie is out kissing babies again. This must be an election year.

Senator Petrie is out kissing babies again; this must be an election year.

2. Use a semicolon to separate items in a series when those items contain internal punctuation.


I've lived in Hattiesburg, Mississippi; Detroit, Michigan; Manhattan, Kansas; and Boise, Idaho.

Semicolons help the reader to see the individual items more clearly than would be possible with commas alone.


4.19 Re-write the following sentences using semicolons whenever appropriate.

a. By now, Marie Antoinette had totally lost favor with the people. They would believe nothing she said.

b. In the midst of this confusion, Arnold did his best to keep calm however, he was unsuccessful.

c. When you purchase a camera, you will want to consider its features, both convenience and performance related, its lens quality, probably the most important single factor, and its price.

d. The GNP is not a very sensitive economic indicator, still it tells us the essentials.

e. The place was empty, the lights were out.


The period is a terminal mark. That means it marks the end of a sentence. It brings your reader to a full stop, gives the sentence a chance to sink in, and tells the reader the thought unit is complete. Effective use of the period, therefore, requires knowing where your sentences begin and end.

Change: The room was empty. When we first got there.
to: The room was empty when we first got there.

The first sentence is split in two by the period, which separates the base clause from the dependent clause. The period falsely signals that the thought is complete, but it isn't. As a result, "When we first got there" is left alone, an orphan, a dependent clause with no base clause to depend on. It's a fragment punctuated as though it were a complete sentence. Rejoining the fragment to its base clause solves the problem.

Sometimes the opposite happens. The end of a sentence arrives, but instead of bringing the reader to a full stop, the writer plunges right into the next sentence with no break.

Change: It was a wonderful party we had a marvelous time.
to: It was a wonderful party. We had a marvelous time.
or: It was a wonderful party; we had a wonderful time.
or: It was wonderful party, and we had a marvelous time.

The first sentence fuses two base clauses into one sentence, causing a momentary doubletake as to whether "party we had" should be read as a word cluster. To make the meaning clear, we need to emphasize the thought divisions by punctuating the independent clauses as complete sentences, or by joining them with a semicolon, or with a comma and a coordinating conjunction. A comma alone is not enough.

Change: My legs were starting to weaken, my back was ready to give out.
to: My legs were starting to weaken. My back was ready to give out.
or: My legs were starting to weaken; my back was ready to give out.
or: My legs were starting to weaken, and my back was ready to give out.

Don't run independent clauses together without punctuation or splice them together with only a comma. Join them solidly with a comma and a coordinating conjunction, or separate them completely with a period. Likewise, don't split dependent elements off from their base clause. The word "dependent" means they can't stand alone as complete sentences. Essentially, if you know where every sentence begins and ends and use a period to show that end-point to the reader, you won't have trouble with this terminal mark.


4.20 Edit the following sentences for periods. In some cases you will find more than one possible version.

a. My father is a busy man. But a generous one. And a kind one.

b. I like going to the dog races when I get off work they really relax me.

c. If you knew what we had to put up with, you might show a little more sympathy, you might even try to help us. And not act so smug.

d. Whichever way you go. You will get there in about the same amount of time. A little more than an hour.

e. Little children must be taught to use caution. Crossing the street or walking out in a parking lot. They could get killed in a minute. Or maimed for life.


Apostrophes have two main uses: to indicate possession and to indicate contractions. Most difficulties occur with the first use or with using the apostrophe to form regular plurals.

Change: At the farmers market we bought some delicious apple's.
to: At the farmers' market we bought some delicious apples.

"Farmers" needs an apostrophe to show that the market belongs to the farmers, but since nothing is possessed by the "apple's," that apostrophe is misleading and should be deleted.

1. Indicating Possession. In the strictest sense the relationship of possession is the relationship of ownership. In writing, this relationship is indicated by adding an 's to show singular possession and to show plural possession when the standard plural form doesn't end in s. Possessives of plurals that end in s are formed by adding just the apostrophe.

Singular possessives: the boy's hands, the heart's heat, the dog's fleas, Monday's paper, the bass's scales, Charles's snowshoes.

Plural possessives: the boys' hands, the dogs' fleas, the basses' scales, the geese's honking, the women's caucus, the mice's holiday.

Notice that while possession often incluses ownership, it sometimes does not. For example, while Charles clearly owns his snowshoes, it's less clear that the dog owns its fleas. In fact, the fleas may think they own the dog. Still, granting the absence of legal ownership, most of us will see how we can say that the dog "has" or "possesses" fleas. But what about Monday's paper? The paper can hardly be said to be possessed by a day of the week. Yet for grammatical purposes we consider it to be the "paper of Monday" just as the fleas are "the fleas of the dog." Somehow they go together. That's what the apostrophe shows us.

2. Indicating Contractions. The apostrophe is also used to indicate that letters have been left out of a word or that numbers have been dropped from a date. This use seldom needs much explanation except the reminder that the apostrophe goes in the place that the letters or numbers have been removed from, not at the spot where the two contracted words are joined together.

Change: You shouldnt go into that.
to: You shouldn't go into that.

Further examples:

Most members of the class of 1996 can't imagine what it was like to go to school in the 1930's.

'72 was a good year for me, but I wouldn't want to live it over again.

A Special Case:

One word that doesn't conform to the guidelines above is "its." Because the word is used so frequently, it's worth taking some time to study its ways. When "its" is contraction for "it is," it takes an apostrophe. When "its" indicates possession, no apostrophe is used.

Change: Its a shame it's wings were damaged.
to: It's a shame its wings were damaged.

The first "its" is a contraction for "it is." The second is a possessive and therefore needs no apostrophe.


4.21 Edit the following sentences for apostrophes.

a. The cookie's Bobs mother made tasted like baking soda.

b. Thats what happen's when she lets the kid's help.

c. The snow's crust had been broken in several place's.

d. If youre looking for Patti, shes down at the Womens Crisis Center.

e. Todays newspaper brought more conflicting reports on the hostages' release.

f. Its not its color that I object to. Its its strange shape.

g. Those boys hand's were caked with clay from the mines entrance.

Question Marks

Question marks show that a statement should be read as a question. Although it might make more sense, as in Spanish, to put question marks at both the beginning and end of the question, in English the question mark comes only at the end.

You're twenty-five years old?

When will we get there?

Who ate Rodney's bananas?

Is it really that simple?

Exclamation Marks

The exclamation mark indicates that a statement is extremely important or is being spoken in a very loud voice. Use it sparingly. Otherwise, you'll find that your writing takes on a shouting tone all the way through; and when you really do want to raise your voice, you'll be stuck for a way to do it except by going to multiple marks, which is not recommended.

Change: But honestly! I'm not guilty!! I swear it!!!
to: But honestly, I'm not guilty. I swear it!

Just as inflation hits our dollars so that we need two or three to do what one could do in the past, so it can hit our language. Simply turning down the volume is an effective way to fight linguistic inflation.


4.22 Supply punctuation for the following sentences. In some cases, your judgment about how to punctuate a sentence will depend on what you want to make the unpunctuated sentence mean.

a. Isnt that Roberts boat over there by the cove

b. When youve done your best youve got nothing to apologize for.

c. I know its easy for some people but I always have trouble.

d. Ouch thats my foot youre standing on.

e. The Royals the Rangers and the Angels all have a shot at the pennant but none of them will get past the Pirates.

f. After settling into our pace we knew we could go the distance.

g. These shoes which cost me $60.00 havent worn well at all and theyve never been comfortable.

h. I hate to tell you this Bob but I just sat on your lunch.

i. Natalie my favorite aunt ate supper with us last night we had a wonderful time.

j. All up and down both sides of the block people came rushing outside to watch the parade pass.

k. When I go to the beach I just like to lie in the sun watch the people and maybe play a little frisbee where I go the ocean is much too cold for swimming.

l. Its more than just its mileage I'm thinking about its styling performance and reliability.

m. Once you find the key which is never in the same place twice the rest is easy.

n. Helicopter pilots who don't have common sense dont live long.

o. If you can do all these correctly which isnt easy you can feel pretty good about your skill with commas, apostrophes, periods, question marks, and exclamation marks.

Quotation Marks

You're probably familiar with these, and you may have used them occasionally. The following guidelines and activities are intended to help you use them more effectively.

1. Use quotation marks to enclose a direct quotation. This means that whenever you want to include someone's exact words in a passage of your own writing, you should surround those words with quotation marks.

As I walked away from the car, the attendant asked, "Did you leave your key in the ignition?" It was a good thing he asked.

Quotation marks help your reader distinguish your words from the words of the person you are quoting. They also tell the reader that these are the person's exact words, that you have not rephrased or altered them in any way. If you have changed them even slightly, you should not mislead the reader into thinking that they are exact. Notice the difference in the following statements.

Indirect quotation: President Kennedy said that we should ask what we can do for out country rather than what our country can do for us.

Direct quotation: President Kennedy said, "And so my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Both examples are satisfactory. The first doesn't give Kennedy's exact words, but it doesn't claim to; the second does give Kennedy's exact words and signals that fact by putting them in quotation marks. Notice, though, that the following example misuses quotation marks.

Misquotation: President Kennedy said that "we should ask not what our country can do for us but what we can do for our country."

2. Use quotation marks to enclose the titles of stories, poems, and articles when they appear in the body of your paper. Do not use them to enclose your own title at the beginning of your essay. The titles of books, magazines, plays, and motion pictures should be underlined or italicized.

Example: I haven't yet finished Dubliners, but so far my favorite story is "A Little Cloud."

3. Use quotation marks to enclose words used in an unusual or unexpected way. This practice is less common than it used to be, but it is still quite appropriate, especially when the words come from another language context or when they are being spoken of as words.

My cousin liked a "spot o' tea" as much as I liked a "slug a' whisky."

The word "mob" has an interesting history.


Even after you've learned the preceding rules for using quotation marks, you may encounter tricky situations, especially when other punctuation marks are used with them. Most problems, however, can be avoided by learning the following rule:

At the end of a quotation, periods and commas always go inside quotation marks. All other marks go inside only if they are part of the quoted material.

We read a story called "The Egg."

Have you ever read "The Egg"?

Just then Dr. Klein asked, "Who wrote 'The Egg'?"

"Sherwood Anderson wrote 'The Egg,'" I replied.

"Why?" Dr. Klein asked.


4.23 Some of the following sentences are direct quotations, some are indirect. If the sentence contains a direct quotation, punctuate it correctly. If it contains an indirect quotation, reword the sentence to make the quotation direct, adding the necessary punctuation.

a. Tim's father said that the new accounting system was a pain in the neck.

b. Now you've really messed things up Arthur shouted.

c. Who said there's a sucker born every minute?

d. The policeman said that our dog had to be on a leash.

e. How was the Chem test Miranda inquired.

f. Grandma asked us to play You Can't Get to Heaven in a Rocking Chair.

g. Doesn't it seem strange that our money says In God We Trust asked the Reverend Ike.

h. Dora said that she would pay whatever she had to for that antique clock.

i. You can't get blood from a turnip my mother used to say.

j. Patrick Henry said to give him liberty or give him death.

Brackets and Ellipses

These two marks are often used in connection with quotations. Brackets are used when you want to insert something in a quotation, and ellipses are used when you want to cut something out.

Original statement: "Another mistake there may be in the Picture of our first Parents, who after the manner of their posterity are both delineated with a Navell." --Sir Thomas Browne

Quoted version: "Another mistake there may be in the Picture of our first Parents [Adam and Eve], who . . . are both delineated with a Navell." --Sir Thomas Browne

Brackets tell us that "Adam and Eve" do not belong to the original passage but have been inserted by the person quoting it. Likewise, the ellipsis tells us that between "who" and "are" some words have been omitted. Otherwise, the quoted version is scrupulously true to the original, even maintaining Browne's antique spelling and capitalization.

Notice how the brackets and the ellipsis are indicated. Brackets (sometimes called square brackets) have distinct corners in contrast with parentheses (sometimes call curves). An ellipsis consists of three consecutive periods, each preceded and followed by a space. When the ellipses comes at the end of a sentence, a fourth dot (the sentence's period) is added.

Example: Notice how the brackets and the ellipsis are indicated. . . . An ellipsis consists of three consecutive periods, each preceded and followed by a space.


4.24 Find three examples of quotations that make use of brackets and three that make use of ellipses. Look for examples in books or in advertisements for books or movies. Briefly explain why the marks have or have not been used effectively.


The primary use of the colon is to provide a formal introduction, especially to a series or to a quotation. Use it to bring your readers to a complete stop and focus their attention on what follows. Notice how colons work in the following examples:

Without colon: All campers should have a warm sweater, a swimming suit, toothbrush and toothpaste, and enough clothing to last for a week.

With colon: All campers should have the following items: a warm sweater, a swimming suit, toothbrush and toothpaste, and enough clothing to last a week.

Without colon: The law says, "Any person convicted of the possession of more than one ounce of this substance shall be sentenced to not less than ten nor more than twenty years in a state correctional institution."

With colon: The law reads as follows: "Any person convicted of the possession of more than one ounce of this substance shall be sentenced to not less than ten nor more than twenty years in a state correctional institution."

Notice that in both cases the wording has been changed slightly to emphasize the formality of the introduction and to help bring the rhythm to a full stop. That is important. Don't give your reader conflicting signals by letting the sentence rhythm suggest continuation and then inserting a colon, which suggests a complete stop.

Conflicting signals: Sarah participates in: tennis, golf, and gymnastics.

More consistent: Sarah participates in three sports: tennis, golf, and gymnastics.


4.25 Write five sentences that make use of the colon. When you have finished, rewrite the sentences without colons.


Dashes are so easily abused that most discussions of them are sprinkled with warnings and cautions about overuse. That's because inexperienced writers, learning the dash indicates a pause or a shift in the direction of thought, sometimes use it in place of commas and even periods. It's true that you should use the dash sparingly. However, there are instances when no other mark will enable you to capture your intended meaning.

1. Use a dash to introduce a base clause summarizing a series of introductory elements.

Example: Murder, armed robbery, extortion--these are all major felonies.

2. Use a pair of dashes to set off a sentence interrupter that contains internal punctuation.

Example: I noticed that the tulips--dusty, faded, slightly rubbery--were not real.

Used this way, dashes help the reader to see the interrupter as a whole composed of parts. In doing this, they also tend to emphasize the interrupter.

3. Use a dash to attach an afterthought to a sentence that already feels complete.

Example: Last week my daughter phoned to say that she had bought a new pet--a trained armadillo.

Used carefully, the dash can be effective, but it should be used deliberately. Don't, for example, use a dash to attach the trailers to your base clause in a cumulative sentence. The dash creates the feeling that what follows it has been tacked on as an afterthought--a surprise.


4.26 Read the following sentences and comment on the ways in which they do or don't make effective use of the dash. Change sentences that should be changed, and be ready to explain your decisions to the rest of the class.

a. Whenever I eat those green apples, I get sick--really sick.

b. Through several generations of interbreeding, these species of trout, the cutthroat, the rainbow, and the California golden, had become almost indistinguishable.

c. By this time the educational system was already in trouble--the bond issue had been defeated, soundly thrashed.

d. One of the most important thinkers of our century--Ludwig Wittgenstein is almost unknown in this country.

e. The eager young fighter out to make his mark; the ambitious, fast-living girlfriend; the kindhearted trainer--it's a familiar story.

f. The local historical society is fighting to preserve that cabin--which--they feel--is an important landmark.

g. General Jackson was waiting for a break in the weather--but he was waiting in vain.

h. Flatfooted, overweight, dreamy Milton had no business trying out for quarterback.

i. The spotted salamander generally makes its home under rotted logs--or among piles of dead leaves.

j. Many people, old, young, and in between, are beginning to wonder about their chances for a secure retirement.


Parentheses are used to enclose interruptions that are awkward to work into the normal punctuation of the sentence. They tend to de-emphasize the words they enclose (in contrast with the dash, which emphasizes), and they allow you to make supplementary comments about your main ideas. As with the dash, they should be used sparingly. Too many parentheses or unusually long parenthetical statements can distract your reader by setting up a whispering undercurrent to your main line of thought.

Consider the following examples:


4.27 Write five sentences that illustrate the use of parentheses. Make sure that at least one of your sentences contains a complete sentence in parentheses, one an abbreviation in parentheses, and one a parenthetical statement at the end. You may use the examples above as models for imitation. Then exchange and discuss them with a partner.