Some find the presentation about punctuation rules in English
textbooks confusing. Remember, they are written to cover broad
styles of academic and creative writing. The material presented in
this section takes an alternative perspective -- punctuation is used for
a reason. If there is not a clear reason to use punctuation,
The suggestions presented here work if they are used
consistently. Students need to remember, however, that their
"intended audience" is usually an instructor. BE SURE TO
WRITE IN A STYLE THAT MEETS THEIR EXPECTATIONS. If in doubt, talk
to them. Because writers are usually given the "benefit of
the doubt," Punctuation Quick Tips will probably
be acceptable for most situations, but these suggestions can also be used to start a dialog
with a teacher about what THEIR expectations are for punctuation.
Apposition. Set off phrases used to specify or clarify
information with commas.
- My friend, Lisa Jones, was born on May 15, 1994, in Wayne, Nebraska.
- The waitress, Tracy, was the best server in Rockford, Illinois.
- Mark, the assistant coach, will miss the next game in Clinton, Wisconsin.
- Deon Sanders, an announcer for CBS, will not play for the Raiders this year.
Parenthetical. Set of non-essential phrases with commas.
- Lisa was, however, born on a cold morning.
- Kevin, would you shut the door.
- The college entrance exam, as you know, will be held on Saturday.
- You must, however, sign up in advance.
- It is important, therefore, to see your counselor.
Series. Use commas to separate listings of two or more items. Use 1 less comma than the number of listings. To avoid confusion, use the comma before the conjunction.
- Lisa's brothers include Sam, Max, and Barrett. They play hockey, football, soccer, and tennis.
- We were selling Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and Mug Root
- The North division in the NFC includes the Packers, Bears Vikings, and Lions.
- The "blue plate special" comes with chicken and rice
soup, soft drink, and coleslaw.
Words Omitted. When words are left out of a phrase, separate them with commas.
Often, the word that is omitted is "and." If you could
write the sentence with the word "and," use a comma.
- Lisa is 16 years old; her brother Joshua, 12.
- Lisa is a spirited, independent person.
- The Bears had a rough, unfortunate season this year.
- This year was disappointing; last year, great.
- Next year the bears will be better; in the future, champions.
- The cold, tough steak was returned to the kitchen.
Introductory. When a dependent clause precedes an independent clause, use a comma.
- While the angry crowd outside the embassy waited, the ambassador ate dinner.
- Before men walked the face of the earth, there were dinosaurs.
- To be in first place, the team had to win all their games.
- For fun, we all went to the amusement park.
- To kill time, we went to the mall.
Nonrestrictive. When sentences contain clauses, use commas to set off the clause when it is non-essential.
- Our new product, which is to be released next month, will be sold in several cities.
- The first draft, which I have written, needs to be revised.
- The movie, which won top awards, dealt with serious issues.
- The railroad, which has been part of our community for years, will no longer come to town.
Note: Do not use commas when the clause is essential. Example:
- The cars in the parking lot that have dents need to be fixed.
When in doubt, however, it is probably best to set the information off
with commas. In most cases, writers will be given the
"benefit of the doubt" when determining whether or not a
clause is essential.
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Semicolon Because of Comma. Use a semicolon to
separate independent clauses when one or both the clauses contains a
- Your idea is good; but John, my friend, is against it.
- The Packers won; and I am sure, with Brett healthy, they will win
- It isn't right, John, to tease your sister; however, Lisa should
not have hit you on the head.
Semicolon No Conjunction. When two independent clauses
are not linked with a conjunction, use a comma.
- Lisa and her brothers love living in Nebraska; they love growing up
on a farm.
- Jerry and his sisters love growing up in the city; they have so
many things to do.
- Writing is an important skill; one cannot write for professors
without mastering punctuation.
Colon Listing. Colons are used to introduce a list of
items. A comma series is also used if more than two items are in
the listing. Do not capitalize the first word unless the listing
is a complete sentence or is a proper noun.
- We sell two kinds of watches: Rolex and Timex.
- Today's soup choices are: chicken and rice, beef barley, or
- My favorite vegetables are: carrots, corn, barley, tomatoes,
Colon Illustration. Use a colon when making an emphatic
statement and then identifying why you believe it.
- Today is a wonderful day: it is Friday, the last day of
- Mrs. Jones is a wonderful person: she is my mother.
- Mastering punctuation is important: professors expect papers
to be readable.
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Periods & Commas. Always place these punctuation
marks inside of quotation marks.
Semicolons & Colons. Always place these outside of
Question Marks & Exclamation Points. These
punctuation marks may occur inside or outside quotation marks. If
the entire portion of the sentence is a question, then the question mark
goes inside of the quotation mark.
If the quoted material is not part of a directly quoted entity but
the sentence ends with quotation marks the question marks goes outside.
- Tom said, "Do you think this is right?"
- Betty exclaimed, "We won; WE WON!"
- Did you read the book, "Ethics"?
- Do you want to renew my subscription to the "Wall Street
Possession. Use apostrophes to show possession after
determining if the noun is singular or plural. i.e. man, men,
If a word (either singular or plural) does not end in "s,"
add an apostrophe and "s" to form the possessive.
- The woman's book -- The women's book
- The child's book -- The children's book
- The man's book -- The men's book
- Someone's book -- People's book
If the singular of a word ends in "s", add an apostrophe
and "s" unless the second "s" makes pronunciation
difficult. In these cases, add only the apostrophe.
- Lois's book -- James's book
- Moses' leadership -- Sophocles' dramas
Note: Adding the second "s" would change the
pronunciation of "Moses" to "Moseses" and
"Sophocles" to "Sophocleses." Reasonable people may find these hard to pronounce. When in doubt, do not
add the second "s"; the writer will usually be given the
"benefit of the doubt."
If the plural of a word ends in "s", add only the apostrophe.
- The girls' books
- The students' ability
- The Smiths' books (referring to at least two persons named Smith).
In compounds, make only the last word possessive.
- Father in law's book (singular possessive)
- Mothers in law's books (plural possessive)
- Someone else's book
In nouns of joint possession, make only the last noun
nouns of individual possession, make both nouns possessive.
- John and Paul's book (joint possession of same book)
- Mary, Joan, and Bill's graduation party (joint possession of same
- John's and Paul's books (individual possession, referring to each
having a book)
- Mary's, Joan's and Bill's graduation party (individual possession,
each having their own party)
Omission. Use apostrophes to indicate that letters or
numbers have been left out.
- Can't (can not)
- Doesn't (does not)
- It's (it is)
- O'clock (of the clock)
- Blizzard of '89 (blizzard of 1989)
- Will-o'-wisp (will of the wisp)
Be Careful! Do not use apostrophes with the possessive
form of personal pronouns. Do not confuse the possessive pronoun
"its" with the contraction "it's" (it is).
- His father
- A book of hers
- A friend of theirs
Inanimate Objects. Do not use possessive form with
inanimate objects -- they cannot actually "possess"
anything. Find a way to re-write such statements to remove
inferences that inanimate objects are "possessive."
- Correct: The leg of the table
- Incorrect: The table's leg.
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