Guidelines For Punctuation

Listed below are general explanations for punctuation. I have included the most common uses for the punctuation marks described. If you know the uses described here, you will be in good shape as a writer. However, be aware that numerous exceptions to all the punctuation rules also exist— exceptions that I have not attempted to cover here. To learn about these, consult the handbook appended to most dictionaries, Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, or one of the many writer's handbooks available in libraries, bookstores, or English teachers' offices.


1. Indicate that somebody possesses or owns something. In single nouns or pronouns, place an's at the end of the word: John's sister; the girl's brother; the cat's pajamas.

For plural words, add the apostrophe, but omit the s: the boys' books; the cats' pajamas (meaning more than one boy or cat).

Notable exception:it's, since the's in this word indicates the contraction it is.

2. Indicate contraction. Use an apostrophe to indicate missing letters: can't for cannot; it's for it is.

1. Indicate that the author has added additional or substitute words in a quotation: "Then she [Susan Smith] voted again" or "Then [Susan Smith] voted again"'

2. Indicate parentheses within parentheses: (This is parenthetical [this even more so]).

1. Indicate that an example follows: This is an example of an example following a colon.

2. Introduce lists of items: The ark housed the following animals: cats, dogs, chickens, snakes, elephants, and goats.

3. Introduce quotations in your text. (MLA documentation recommends indenting quoted material five spaces or more; when you indent quotes, this identification substitutes for quotation marks.) Example: The first paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reads as follows:

4. Introduce phrases or sentences that explain or illustrate previous ones: The explanation was clear: the example made it work.

5. Separate titles from subtitles: College Writing: A Personal Approach to Academic Writing.

Note: Misplaced or missing commas account for many of our punctuation errors. You may take some comfort in knowing that even experts disagree about some of these so-called rules. Journalists, for example, don't put commas after the next-to-last item in a series; professors most likely do: The cat, the rabbit[,] and the bat.

In general, commas indicate pauses within sentences. You can usually hear the pause when the sentence is read aloud. I often read aloud to myself to tell me where commas go. However, the following guidelines will remind you more specifically when and where to use commas:

1. Separate two main clauses (complete sentences) joined by and, but, or, for, nor: I can run fast, but I can't run far

2. Separate words or phrases in a series: His favorite sports included motorcycle riding, hockey, tennis, golf, fishing, and baseball.

3. Set off a clause or long phrase that introduces a main clause (the major part of the sentence): After we attend class, we'll eat lunch and take our afternoon naps.

4. Set off transitional words from the rest of the sentence: She asked, however, that she not be quoted. It is not true, for example, that squirrels fly. In other words, writing is easy.

5. Set off extra, explanatory information not absolutely essential in the sentence: Toby, a professor of mine, occasionally gives good lectures. That dog, the black one, ate the garbage. (The same information could be set off in parentheses, which would indicate it was even less essential for an understanding of the sentence.)

6. Set off words that address or exclaim and people who say things:

"How are you, Paul?" she said.

7. Introduce or conclude direct quotations: According to the study by Smith and Rocket, "acid rain is the major cause of the decreasing trout population in Vermont"'

1. Mark abrupt changes or breaks in sentences: It isn't true—or is it?

2. Set off information not considered essential to the understanding of sentences: The stock market crash—it was 1929—did my grandfather in.

3. Summarize earlier items in a sentence: The amount of unemployment, the price of gold, the availability of oil, the weather—all these influence the amount of taxes we pay. Note: Dashes can often be used to set off apparently digressive information in the manner of commas or parentheses; however, they imply that the information is, while slightly off track, essential. Note, too, that the use of dashes to connect loose thoughts (in place of periods or semicolons) is not considered a sign of good writing in the academic world, where one's thoughts are not supposed to be loose.

1. Three dots in a quoted passage indicate an omission of one or more words in a quotation:John argued... that he should stay.

2. Four dots in a quoted passage indicate the omission of one or more sentences, or missing words at the end of a sentence (the fourth dot being the missing period): Remember Lincoln's opening words "Four score and seven years ago.. . "

3. Four dots indicate the writer's thoughts trailing off mid-stream: a deliberate strategy to convey. . . .


Indicate strong emotional statement, either positive or negative, on the part of the writer: "Stop, you can't go in there!"Henry, I love you! Note: Use these marks sparingly in academic writing as they imply over-statement—and academics are wary of overstatement. Also use them sparingly in personal writing as they give away too much emotion and tell the reader how to feel.

1. Divide a word of more than one syllable at the end of a line.

2. Connect some compound concepts: brother-in-law, know-it-all.

3. Connect some compound modifiers: student-centered program, fast-sailing ship, four-cylinder engine.

4. Connect prefixes to some words (emphasize the prefix): postoperative, self-educated.

5. Connect compound numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine: twenty-one, ninety-nine, one hundred thirty-five.

Note: like commas, there is some debate about when and what to hyphenate. Look up particular words in a current dictionary to be absolutely certain. Note too that a writer may hyphenate whenever she wishes to create a special emphasis in a word or phrase.

1. Set off explanatory material the author does not consider necessary to understand the basic meaning of the sentence: In 1929 (the year the stock market crashed) he proposed to his first wife. (The same information set off by commas would be considered more essential to the sentence.)

2. Allow an author to use a double voice and comment about her subject from a different perspective, often ironic: Parentheses allow an author to comment on his text from an ironic perspective (whatever that means).

3. Enclose numbers and clarifying information about numbers and acronyms in a sentence: forty-seven (47), NFL (National Football League).

1. End sentences. Bring readers to a full stop. Period. (Are used the same way with full sentences or deliberate sentence fragments.)

2. Indicate abbreviations in formal (Dr., Jr.) and informal (abrv., esp.) writing.


1. Indicate that a question has been asked: What do you want?

2. Indicate an author's uncertainty: (Sp?)


1. Enclose direct quotations: "What's for dessert?"she asked.

2. Enclose words or phrases borrowed from others: It really was "the best of times," wasn't it?

3. Enclose titles of poems, stories, articles, songs, chapters, TV programs: Who wrote the poem, "To an Athlete Dying Young"? Faulkner's "Barn Burning" is ultimately a comic story. My favorite chapter in this book is "Finding Your Voice."

Note: to indicate a quotation within a quotation, use single marks (' ') instead of double: "She said 'It really isn't necessary,'but that didn't stop him long."


1. Can be used in place of a period when you want to imply a close relationship to the following sentence; here that's what I want to imply.

2. Replace commas in a series of phrases when the phrases include commas: Considering the circumstances, it is dangerous to run, when you can walk; talk, when you can listen; and read, when you can write.

Note: semicolons are most frequently used in quite formal language; they are especially common in prose before the twentieth century; academics are fond of them since they imply formal relationships and make sentences long—and long sentences appear to be more intellectually rigorous; whether they are more rigorous or simply more ponderous is a question for you to decide.


1. Indicate special emphasis in typed and handwritten papers: He was very careful to underline all the examples, except this one.

2. Indicate the titles of published works, including books, movies, albums/tapes/CDs, and collections of articles, stories, poems, and essays: For Whom the Bell Tolls is a novel by Ernest Hemingway. Only a few successful plays, such as The Sound of Music, also become successful movies. My favorite tape is Bruce Live. The story "Burning" can be found in The Portable Faulkner.

3. Indicate words and letters being referred to as words and letters: Is the correct word to indicate a struggle founder or flounder? The letter x is the least used letter in the alphabet, isn't it?

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