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Punctuation Guide - Empower Your Writing

Is punctuation becoming less important? Certainly there is less of it in modern writing. But less important? Emphatically NO!

By learning a few simple rules you can make your writing clear, powerful and stylish. Punctuation, properly employed, can lead a reader on to the conclusion you want.

Look over this brief summary of key punctuation marks and see if you are exploiting these clear writing power tools to the full.

(These guidelines are general and fit 90% of cases. There are exceptions of course which are beyond the scope of this overview.)

Apostrophe | Asterisk | Bracket | Bullets | Capitals | [Colon | Comma | Dash | Ellipsis | Exclamation | Hyphen | Parenthesis | Period | Question | Quotation | Semicolon | Slash

Apostrophe '

Apostrophes are used in two different ways.

1) to indicate possession

2) to indicate missing letters when words are shortened (contraction).

"Let's all go in John's car."

The apostrophe in the word "Let's" indicates a shortening of "Let us" and the apostrophe in "John's" indicates the car belongs to John.

The position of the Possesive Apostrophe can indicate singular or plural.

Stand outside the girl's school. (one girl)
Stand outside the girls' school. (a group of girls).

So to use apostrophes without grammatical catastrophes, think which use you need. Is the apostrophe needed to show possession or to show contraction? If neither, then you don't need an apostrophe.

Asterisk *

The asterisk is a reference mark indicating that a footnote or explanatory paragraph appears somewhere else on that page, generally at the foot of the page. See this example.*

* Another use of the asterisk has developed. To indicate swear words without being objectionable yet conveying the same force meant by the speaker. Example: "He replied, 'Don't be such a b**** fool!'"

Bracket [ ]

The functions of the square bracket and the round bracket (parenthesis) are quite different.

Square brackets have limited use, primarily being used in publishing to indicate editorial comment or a comment from an authority.

He [President Clinton] was about to embark on a tour of the Far East.

See Parenthesis


Bulleted lists are extremely effective in capturing the interest of your audience.

Persons who browse the internet want to find information quickly. They want to be able to read it easily without having to wade through pages of text.

Bullets direct the eye to the main points quickly.

They encourage writers to be brief, stating the main point in a few words or a phrase.

They summarize a list of points or conclusions.

Bottom line: If you want to write effective copy, USE BULLETS!

Capitals A

The main rules are:

Capitalize proper nouns

Example: Take a trip to New York City.

Capitalize the first word in a sentence.

Capitalize the first letter of each word in a title except for words like and, the, a, an etc.

Capitalize a person's title when it comes before their name.

Example: Doctor Jones

Capitalize the first word in a quoted sentence.

Example: Derek said: "That book is worth reading."

Caution: Do not capitalize everything in a title. While the desire may be to attract attention, the effect can be tiresome and overdone.

Colon :

Enrich your writing style with discreet use of the colon. It is generally used to introduce something that follows. Here are some places where a colon is well used

To introduce a list

Example: Send the letter to the following departments: Sales, Marketing and Admin.

To introduce a quotation

To introduce a question

To introduce a conclusion

Example: The conclusion of the matter was: Let bygones be bygones.

Comma ,

Mastering the versatile comma can transform your writing. Here is a brief list of some of it's most important functions:


Example: On the stationery order, pencils, rubbers, pens, staples, paper clips and notepads were listed.

To set apart persons and names

Example: John, what are you doing here?

Adding an additional thought

Example: The wedding was, on the whole, very enjoyable.

For reinforcement

Example: He was a strong man, very strong.

To set off comparisons

Example: The louder she spoke, the more he shouted.

Dash -

The dash can be more powerful than a comma or a semicolon or parenthesis. However, use it judiciously. Overdone, it can make a passage seem jerky!

What is the difference between a dash and a hyphen? A dash is used in the construction of sentences. A hyphen is used in the construction of words.

The dash can be used to:


Example: The room was decorated with three strong colors - blue, green and red..


Example: The train arrived as expected - one hour late.


Example: "I must ask you Sir to - well, I'm sorry - to leave!"

Extend a sentence

Example: The heckler hurled abuse at the speaker - and then quietly sat down.

Separate a list

Example: She collected all her tools - brushes, oils, palette, cloths, crayons, canvass - and started to paint.

Ellipsis ...

The three dot ellipsis is primarily used to indicate missing words or phrases. It can can be subtly used in these instances to indicate:

An unfinished thought

Example: He was about to jump but then he thought . . .

An implied word or phrase the reader is expected to know

Example: When asked why he was afraid of flying he merely said: "What goes up must . . ."

Words or phrases omitted from a quotation

Disjointed speech

Example: He was so shocked he could only mumble, "What the . . .I mean to say . . . Where in the . . ."

Exclamation !

Judicious use of the exclamation mark adds emphasis to important statements. Overuse kills it's effectiveness. So think twice before using an exclamation mark.

Here are some situations where nothing but an exclamation mark will give the same sense:

To command

Example: Get back!

To convey irony or reverse meaning

Example: You must be joking!

To emphasize insults

Example: You blithering idiot!

To convey anger or disgust

Example: That smell is absolutely revolting!

Hyphen -

Hyphens are used to join two associated words. To illustrate, the hyphen in "man-eating tiger" changes the meaning entirely from "man eating tiger". In the first instance we are talking about a tiger who has a taste for humans. In the second we are talking about a man who has a taste for tigers.

Hyphens are also used:

As guides to pronunciation

Examples: co-operation, re-establish

To divide a word at the end of a line

For emphasis

Example: I said, "I'm f-r-e-e-z-i-n-g".

To separate grouped names

Example: The Anglo-French Alliance

Parenthesis ( )

Parenthesis (round brackets) insert relevant, additional material into a sentence although the sentence would still read smoothly without it.

Here are some uses for parenthesis:

To add information

Example: The house was in an ideal location near the sea (just a five minute walk) so there was no problem in getting tenants.

To add afterthoughts

Example: The speaker was totally unprepared for this kind of audience (or so it seemed).

For clarification

Example: Their action was in violation of the Terms and Conditions (page 2, paragraph 3) they had signed.

To add personal remarks

Example: They were so proud of their newly decorated apartment (to me it seemed a little tacky) they insisted on giving every visitor a guided tour.

To show options

Example: Please put the document(s) in the tray on the secretary's desk.

Period .

The period or full stop may only be a dot, but what a powerful dot!

It is used to separate sentences. Reading a passage not delimited with periods would be extremely tiresome and the meaning would become quite ambiguous.

So remember, whether the sentence is short or long, it MUST conclude with a period.

Periods have also been used traditionally to indicate an abbreviation.

Example: a.m. and p.m.

In modern usage however this is becoming more infrequent and abbreviations now regularly appear without periods.

Example: am and pm

Question ?

The most obvious use of the question mark is at the end of a sentence which asks a direct question.

Example: Where are you going this weekend?

However, when an indirect question is raised a question mark is not needed.

Example: She asked me if I enjoyed her cooking.

The question mark can also be used to create other effects:

To declare

Example: Did you really think you could get away with this?

Here the question mark tinges the expression with anger and frustration.

To exclaim

Example: Isn't that a beautiful sunset?

The question adds force to the statement making it an exclamation.

To invite an answer

Example: This seems the wrong color, don't you think?

Quotation "

Quotation marks are used to indicate direct speech. They are extremely important in conveying accurate meaning. Without them it can be hard to know who is speaking or who is being spoken about; whether the quotation is a paraphrase or whether it is direct speech.

Example: Tom said, "It was his fault we were late."

Tom said it was his fault "we were late".

In the first example Tom is blaming someone else. In the second example he is taking responsibility himself. The quotation marks make all the difference to the meaning.

Should quotations be double or single? There you have a controversy. Suffice to say, whichever one you choose, consistently stick with it!

Should ending punctuation be within the quotes or outside the quotes?

In American English, all punctuation marks come within quotation marks at the end of a sentence.

In British English, a punctuation mark comes within the quotation marks if it directly relates to the quote. If the punctuation relates to the sentence as a whole then it comes outside the quotation marks.

Here are a number of instances where quotation marks are effective:

To indicate a title

Example: He started reciting Shakespeare's classic, "Julius Caesar".

To indicate doubt or disbelief

Example: The back-street clinic had one "doctor" on duty that evening.

To indicate that a word of phrase should not be taken literally

Example: New synthetic fibres have made "grass" playing surfaces very durable.

Semicolon ;

The uses of semicolons are numerous. Here are the main ones:

To join words, phrases and sentences

To separate word groups that already contain commas

Example: The committee was made up of M. Harding, President; J. Gower, Vice-president; B. Gardner, Secretary and W. Taylor as Chairman.

To provide a pause before certain adverbs and conjunctions

Example: He just scraped past the finishing line by a hair's breadth; nevertheless, he won!

To emphasize opposite statements and contrast

Example: The house looked beautiful after the renovation; pity about the garden.

Slash /

The slash has limited functions. Primarily it is used:

To indicate options

Example: That will be his/her choice.

To abbreviate

Example: care of - c/o
account - A/c


Punctuation Guide - Return to Top


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