Punctuation Marks in the English Language

Lindley Murray and Goold Brown laid down cast-iron rules for punctuation, but most of them have been broken long since and thrown into the junk-heap of disuse. They were too rigid and too strict that they were impractical to apply to ordinary composition.

The manner of language, style and expression has considerably changed since then. The old abstruse complex sentence —with its hidden meanings—has been relegated to the shade. Correct use of punctuation helps writers avoid writing long-drawn-out phrases and write with terseness, brevity and clearness. Therefore, punctuation has been greatly simplified. It is now a matter of good taste and judgment as adherence to any fixed set of rules. Nevertheless we still must follow rules governing good punctuation.

The chief end of punctuation is to mark the grammatical connection and the dependence of the parts of a composition, but not the actual pauses made in speaking. Very often the points used to denote the oral delivery of a passage differ from those used when writing a passage. Nevertheless, several punctuation marks bring out the rhetorical force of expression.

In punctuating, you should use such marks as needed to make clear what you are writing. You do not always need a mark of punctuation where you require a pause in reading or speaking. The rules of punctuation are to indicate the grammatical construction and the sense. While it is necessary to follow general rules governing the subject, you do not have to confine yourself strictly to them. A writer who understands the exact meaning of a passage, even if he has a general knowledge of how to use punctuation marks, will punctuate far better than he who blindly follows a "rule." Many writers follow the general rules of punctuation, but they also omit some rules (when applicable), such as using commas in long complex sentences containing many clauses. On the other hand, you will find it necessary to insert a comma or other mark not required by rule, to prevent ambiguity.

The principal marks of punctuation are:
1.      The Period [.]
2.     The Colon [:]
3.     The Semicolon [;]
4.     The Comma [,]
5.     The Interrogation [?]
6.     The Exclamation [!]
7.     The Dash []
8.    The Parenthesis [()]
9.     Brackets [ ]
10.The Quotation [" "]
11.  The Apostrophe [']
12. The Hyphen [-]

Punctuation marks: How to use the APOSTROPHE

The apostrophe ( ' ) is primarily the sign of the possessive case, but it has several other uses.

1) Add an apostrophe only to nouns for the possessive case, not to the pronouns, which have their separate possessive forms.

EX.—My brother's house
EX.—James' father
EX.—Children's games

2) Its is a possessive pronoun.

EX.— Seeing a fact is believing its truth.

EX.—The bird which was in its nest didn't see us.

3) It's is an abbreviation for it is.

EX.—It is raining.

EX.—It's warm outside.

4) Do not use an apostrophe with the possessive adjectives 
hers, ours, yours, theirs, its.

5) The possessive of one, with the apostrophe, is 
one's feelings; but itself,oneself.

6) All nouns in the singular and all nouns in the plural except those ending in s take an apostrophe and to form the possessive. Nouns in the plural ending in take an apostrophe only to form the possessive.

You will hear different opinions about singular nouns ending in s. To avoid the prolonged hissing sound of another s, do not add an apostrophe s to the singular noun, just the apostrophe.

EX.—Moses' hat, for Moses's hat
EX.—For conscience' sake
EX.—My boss' coffee mug
EX.—James' baseball
EX.—The horses' medication was too costly.

7) The apostrophe indicates the omission of letters in dialect, in familiar dialogue, and in poetry: wasn't, sleep o' nights, it's for it is.

8) You can abbreviate figures expressing dates, but it is better to provide the full date.

EX.—The boys of '71.
EX.—It happened in '98.

The omission of the century in dates, when the century is understood; as, 
The Fourth of July, '76 is acceptable.

9) The plural of figures and letters:

EX.—"There are three 5's in the number."

EX.—"Your n's and u's are made too much alike."

In forming the plural of figures, you can omit the the apostrophe. In forming the plural of letters, you sometimes need the apostrophe to prevent confusion: i's without the apostrophe would be is, and u's would become us. 

10) You do not need an apostrophe when you write the plural of a figure or letter in full:

EX.—"There are three fives in the number."

EX.—"This line is 120 pixels long."

11) Such abbreviations as Dep't, Gov't, Sec'y, and the like, are objectionable in print. If you need to use such abbreviations, then use the forms Dept.Govt.Secy.

12) The plural of a proper name like Henry is not formed with apostrophe and s, but by the addition of s.

EX.—The Henrys live on Elm Street.
EX.—Henrys' (with apostrophe) is the genitive plural of Henry.
EX.—The Henrys' motorcycle was stolen last night. 

Punctuation marks: How to use the COMMA

Using the the comma ( , ) is the most difficult of all the punctuation marks. Usage varies greatly in different types of writing. Equally good writers and proofreaders also question the use of the comma in certain passages of writing. The English language has certain general rules governing the proper use of the comma. Many cases, however, will arise in which you will interpret the rules differently or use the comma differently based on style guides like APA Style and MLA Style.

The comma is the least degree of separation. Its business is to define the particles and minor clauses of a sentence. When we look back to the last century and fast forward to present day, we can see that writers favor the semicolon more than the comma in wordy sentences. Today's writers favor simplicity of expression. They write clear and simple English. They have completely abandoned the old style of ornate writing which involved a good deal of punctuation to make it intelligible. A simple and direct writing style needs very little help--and little punctuation.

The change in writing styles over the last century and the attitude of writers wanting to simplify writing account for the difference in usage of the comma and difficulty in fixing rules to cover all cases. The present attitude toward punctuation, especially the use of the comma, is one of dislike. The writer is always accountable to explain the presence of a comma rather than its absence. Nevertheless, it is possible to go too far in removing commas in ordinary writing. It is possible to create sentences in such a way as to avoid the comma. The result is a harsh and awkward style, unwarranted by any necessity. Ordinary writing needs the companionship of commas to indicate the sense and to prevent ambiguity.

Always remember that the primary use of the comma is to help bring forth the meaning of the words and prevent ambiguity. A correct use of the comma shows clearly the separation and connection of words and phrases. If you think your readers might misunderstand your sentence without a comma, then put one in. If the words tell their story clearly, without misunderstanding, then leave it out. This rule is dependable in the absence of any recognized rule for a particular case, or where doubt exists as to the application of a rule.

1) Use a comma after each adjective or adverb in a series of two or more when not connected by conjunctions.

EX.— He was a tall, thin, dark man.

The rule holds when the last member of the series is preceded by a conjunction.

EX.— He was tall, thin, and dark.

You can omit the comma if you combine words into a single idea.

EX.— A still humid day.
EX.— An old red sock.

2) Use a comma after each pair in a series of pairs of words or phrases not connected by conjunctions.

EX.— Sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish, I give my hand and my heart to this vote.

EX.— Formerly the boss, his co-workers, even his apprentices, all worked in the same building.

3) Use a comma to separate contrasted words.

EX.— We rule by love, not by hate.

4) Use a comma between two independent clauses connected by a conjunction.

EX.— The papers were out of order, but we managed to find the bank statement.

5) Use a comma before a conjunction when the word which preceded it is qualified by an expression.

EX.—He quickly looked up, and spoke.

6) Use a comma between relative clauses which explain the antecedent, or which introduce a new thought.

EX.— The screwdriver, which was badly worn, could not tighten the screw.

6b) If the relative clause limits the meaning of the antecedent, but does not explain it and does not add a new thought, then omit the comma.

EX.— He only worked the amount of hours which he was told to do.

7) Use a comma to separate parenthetical or intermediate expressions from the context.

EX.— My new business, you may be glad to know, is very successful this year.

EX.— The books, which I have read, were returned to the library.

EX.— He was pleased, I suppose, with his work.

7b) If the connection of such expressions is so close as to form one connected idea, then omit the comma.

EX.—The computer nearest the south hallway is broken.

7c) If the connection of such expressions is remote, you might decide to use parentheses.

EX.— The Tennis Committee (appointed under vote of April 10, 2012) organized and proceeded with the next exhibition match.

8) Use a comma to separate the coordinate clauses of compound sentences if such clauses are simple and closely related.

EX.— He was kind, not indulgent, to his friends; firm, but just, in discipline; courteous, but not familiar, to all.

9) Use a comma to separate quotations, or similar brief expressions from the preceding part of the sentence.

EX.— Caesar reported to the Senate, "I came, I saw, I conquered."

EX.— The question is, "What should we do next?"

10) Use a comma to indicate the omission of the verb in compound sentences having a common verb in several clauses.

EX.—One man glories in his strength, another in his wealth, another in his learning.

11) Use a comma to separate phrases containing the case absolute from the rest of the sentence.

EX.— The form having been locked up, a proof was taken.

12. Use a comma between words or phrases in disagreement to each other.

The comma is omitted when such a disagreement is used as a single phrase or a compound name.

EX.— The poet Longfellow was born in Portland.
EX.— The word patriotic is now in extensive use.

13) Use a comma after phrases and clauses which you place at the beginning of a sentence by inversion.

EX.— Worn out by hard wear, the type at last became unfit for use.

EX.— Ever since, he has had an appetite for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

EX.—After the general plan has been approved by the committee, it will be time to discuss the details.

EX.— We found them at the entrance of the subway station, waiting for us to come.

13b) Omit the comma if you use a short phrase.

EX.— Of success there could be no doubt.

14) Use a comma to separate introductory phrases beginning with if, and, but, nor, when, wherever, whenever, and the like, even when the statement may appear to be direct.

EX.— When your e-mail has not been answered, it is best to follow up with a phone call.

EX.— If your thesis paper is hard to read, the professor might grade it lower.

15) Use a comma to separate introductory words and phrases and independent adverbs from the rest of the sentence.

EX.—Now, what are you going to do there?

EX.— I think, also, Scott owed much of his success to his strong common sense.

EX.— This idea, however, had already been patented by your competitors.

15b) Do not use the comma when these adverbs are used in the ordinary way.

EX.— They also serve who only stand and wait.
EX.— This must be done, however contrary to their demands.

16) Use a comma to separate words or phrases of direct address from the context.

EX.— I submit, gentlemen, to your judgment.

EX.— From today, my son, your future is in your own hands.

17) Use a comma between the name of a person and his title or degree.

EX.— Woodrow Wilson, President of the United States.
EX.— Brian W. Elliot, Ph.D.
EX.— Jordan A. Williams, Esq.

18) Use a comma before the word of connecting a proper name with residence or position.

EX.— Senator Lodge, of Massachusetts.

EX.— Elia B. Trump, Senator from New York.

19) Use a comma after an informal salutatory phrase at the beginning of a letter.

EX.—Dear John,

19b) When the salutation is formal, use a colon instead.

EX.—Dear Mr. John Smith:

20) Use a comma to separate two numbers.

EX.— January 31, 2012.

EX.— By the end of 2009, they had built 762 homes.

21) Use a comma to indicate an ellipsis.

EX.— Subscription for the magazine, five dollars.

21b) Exceptions to this rule are made in very brief sentences, especially in advertisements:

EX.— Tickets 75 cents.
EX.— Price two dollars.

22) In numeration, commas are used to express periods of three figures.

EX.—Mountains 25,000 feet high
EX.—1,000,000 dollars.

Sometimes you may have to slightly alter or break the above rules in certain situations. Use the following six principles to guide you:

1) The comma is used to separate for the eye what is separate in thought.

2) The comma is not intended to break the content up into lengths suited to the breath of one reading aloud.

3) The comma is not an aesthetic device to improve the appearance of the line.

4) The sole purpose of the comma is to unfold the sense of the words.

5) The comma cannot be correctly used without a thorough understanding of the sense of the words.

6) When in doubt, leave it out.

Punctuation marks: How to use the COLON

The colon ( : ) emphasizes the place of transition in a long sentence consisting of many members and involving a logical turn of the thought. Both the colon and semicolon are much less used now than formerly. Today's writers focus toward short, simple, clear sentences, with little punctuation, which we refer to as "the open style." Such sentences need little or no aid to tell their story.

Rules for Using the Colon

1) You have the choice to use a colon after as, such as, that is, namely, for example, etc., when these words introduce a series of particular terms in relation with a general term.

EX.— The American flag has three colors, namely: red, white, and blue.

EX.— I can play various musical instruments, such as: the trumpet, the guitar, and the piano.

2) The colon is used also after a general term followed by several statements in relation with it; the statements are separated from one another by semicolons.

EX.— The darkness of death is like the evening twilight: it makes all objects appear more lovely to the dying.—Richter.

EX.— "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

3) The colon is sometimes used to separate two members of a compound sentence which are subdivided by semicolons. Such cases, however, are rare.

EX.— One's age should be tranquil, as one's childhood should be playful; hard work at either extremity of human existence seems to be out of place: the morning and the evening should be alike cool and peaceful; at midday the sun may burn, and men may labor under it.—Dr. T. Arnold.

4) Use a colon before particular elements in a definite statement.

EX.— Bad: He asked what caused the accident?
EX.— Right: He asked, "What caused the accident?"

EX.— Napoleon said to his army at the battle of the Pyramids: "Soldiers, forty centuries are looking down upon you."

EX.— The job duties of the boss are categorized under three heads: first, second, etc.

5) Use a colon before formal quotations.

EX.—Write a short essay on the following topic: "How does the Internet help you research?"

6) When the formal introduction is brief, it is better to use a comma.

EX.—Julia said, "Come shopping with me."

7) Use a colon after the formal salutatory phrase at the opening of a letter.

EX.—Dear Mr. John Henry:

When the letter is informal, use a comma.

EX.— Dear John,

8) Use a colon between the chapter and verse in scriptural references.

EX.— John xix: 22.

9) Use a colon between the city of publication and the name of the publisher in literary references.

EX.— "The Practice of Writing." New York: Stepping Stone Press, Inc.

10) Some publishers use the colon in the imprints on the title pages of books.

EX.—New York: Harper & Brothers, 2011.

11) Use a colon between the hours and minutes of time, like: 11:45 a.m.

12) Use a colon only when the sentence directly introduces an explanation, list, or quotation which immediately follows.

EX.— The apparatus should be set up as follows: First, clamp the flask in a position a few inches above the table; next, etc.

Punctuation marks: How to use the DASH

The dash is a very useful mark in a sentence. It is also the most overused—and abused—punctuation mark used carelessly by writers. The visibility of the dash makes it a useful mark for guiding the eye of the reader to the unity of the sentence. Writers like to use the dash to emphasize repetition of statement and elaboration of detail. In long wordy sentences, the inexperienced writer stuffs the sentence with too many commas, semicolons, and even parentheses which often confuse readers. The dash can clear a sentence of needless punctuation because of its multitude of uses.

Dashes are similar to hyphens, but differ from them primarily in length, and serve different functions. The most common versions of the dash are the en dash (
) and the em dash ().

Rules for Using the Dash 

1) Use a dash to mark abrupt changes in sentiment and in construction.

EX.— Have you ever heard—but how should you hear?
EX.— Some men are full of affection—affection for themselves.

2) Use a dash to mark pauses and repetitions used for dramatic or rhetorical effect.

EX.— They make a desert, and call it—peace.
EX.— The lovely Anne, who donated money for our fundraiser—she passed away last night.
EX.— He has lost wealth, home, friends—everything but honor.

3) Use a dash to express in one sentence opposition of action or emotion or to increase the speed of the dialogue by a succession of snappy phrases.

EX.— She starts—she moves—she seems to feel the thrill of life with her career.

EX.— The three stellar words in the vocabulary of the freelance writer to trade and technical journals are—Accuracy—Timeliness—Importance.

EX.— Nature instantly ebbed again—the sunset returned to its place.

EX.— The pulse fluttered—stopped—went on—throbbed—stopped again.

EX.— Should I go on?—No.

4) Use a dash to separate the repetition or different amplifications of the same statement.

EX.— You speak like a boy—like a boy, who thinks the old gnarled oak can be twisted as easily as the young sapling.

EX.— Let no sad tears be shed, when I die, over me, but bury me deep in the sea—in the sea.

5) At the end of a series of phrases which depend upon a concluding clause.

EX.—The Amazon Kindle, Apple's iPad and iPod, and other mobile devices—these are e-reader devices to read ebooks.

EX.— To pull down the false and to build up the true, and to uphold what there is of true in the old—let this be our endeavor.

EX.— He excelled in three branches—arithmetic, algebra, and geometry.

6) Use a dash when you abruptly terminate a sentence.

EX.— If I thought he said it, I would—
EX.— I was left speechless, hurt, scared—

7) Use a dash to precede expressions which you add to an apparently completed sentence, but which refer to some previous part of the sentence.

EX.— He wondered what the police officer would say—he had a way of saying the unexpected.

EX.— I know my wife was hurt—I shouldn't have said those things.

8) To connect extreme dates in time indication.

EX.— The war of 1961-1965.
EX.— In memory of Steve Jobs, 1955-2011.

9) Use a dash to define verse references in the Bible or page references in books.

EX.— Matt, v: 1-11. Matt, v: 1-11. See pp. 50-53. See pp. 50-53.

NOTE. In instances in the two preceding rules, the en dash (–) may sometimes serve if the em dash (—) appears too conspicuous.

10) Parenthetical Expressions

Use the dash before and after a parenthetical expression that is too much detached from the sentence to take commas, and yet is too closely related to enclose within parentheses.

EX.— That done, she turned to the old man with a lovely smile upon her face—such, they said, as they had never seen and never could forget—and clung with both her arms about his neck. They did not know that she was dead, at first.—DICKENS.

11) Sideheads and Extracts

You can use a period and a dash after a sidehead; that is, a heading at the beginning of a paragraph. You can also place these marks after an extract, when the name of the author or work follows in the same paragraph. In these cases the dash is an ornamental mark used by the printer.

EX.— THE AGE OF ELIZABETH.—Lectures on the History of English Literature, from the Revival of Learning to Milton, exclusive of the Drama.

EX.— Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally save their lives.—ANTHONY ROBBINS.


Use the dash mark sparingly. Do not use it to take the place of other punctuation marks nor to separate complete sentences.