Guide - Empower Your Writing
punctuation becoming less important? Certainly there is less of
it in modern writing. But less important? Emphatically NO!
a few simple rules you can make your writing clear, powerful
and stylish. Punctuation, properly employed, can lead a reader
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
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."
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
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.
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!'"
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
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!
The main rules are:
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.
a person's title when it comes before their name.
the first word in a quoted sentence.
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.
Enrich your writing style with discreet use of the colon.
It is generally used to introduce something that follows. Here
some places where a colon is well used
introduce a list
the letter to the following departments: Sales, Marketing and
To introduce a quotation
To introduce a question
introduce a conclusion
conclusion of the matter was: Let bygones be bygones.
Mastering the versatile comma can transform your writing. Here
is a brief list of some of it's most important functions:
On the stationery order, pencils, rubbers, pens, staples, paper
clips and notepads were listed.
set apart persons and names
John, what are you doing here?
an additional thought
The wedding was, on the whole, very enjoyable.
He was a strong man, very strong.
set off comparisons
The louder she spoke, the more he shouted.
The dash can be more powerful than a comma or a semicolon
or parenthesis. However, use it judiciously. Overdone, it can
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:
The room was decorated with three strong colors - blue, green
train arrived as expected - one hour late.
must ask you Sir to - well, I'm sorry - to leave!"
heckler hurled abuse at the speaker - and then quietly sat down.
She collected all her tools - brushes, oils, palette, cloths,
crayons, canvass - and started to paint.
The three dot ellipsis is primarily used to indicate missing
words or phrases. It can can be subtly used in these instances
He was about to jump but then he thought . . .
implied word or phrase the reader is expected to know
When asked why he was afraid of flying he merely said: "What
goes up must . . ."
Words or phrases omitted from a quotation
He was so shocked he could only mumble, "What the . . .I mean
to say . . . Where in the . . ."
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:
convey irony or reverse meaning
You must be joking!
You blithering idiot!
convey anger or disgust
That smell is absolutely revolting!
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:
guides to pronunciation
To divide a word at the end of a line
I said, "I'm f-r-e-e-z-i-n-g".
separate grouped names
The Anglo-French Alliance
(round brackets) insert relevant, additional material into a
sentence although the sentence would still read smoothly
are some uses for parenthesis:
The house was in an ideal location near the sea (just a five
minute walk) so there was no problem in getting tenants.
The speaker was totally unprepared for this kind of audience
(or so it seemed).
Their action was in violation of the Terms and Conditions (page
2, paragraph 3) they had signed.
add personal remarks
They were so proud of their newly decorated apartment (to me
it seemed a little tacky) they insisted on giving every
Please put the document(s) in the tray on the secretary's desk.
The period or full stop may only be a dot, but what a powerful
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.
In modern usage however this is becoming more infrequent and abbreviations
now regularly appear without periods.
The most obvious use of the question mark is at the end of a
sentence which asks a direct question.
are you going this weekend?
However, when an indirect question is raised a question mark is
She asked me if I enjoyed her cooking.
The question mark can also be used to create other effects:
Did you really think you could get away with this?
Here the question mark tinges the expression with anger and frustration.
Isn't that a beautiful sunset?
The question adds force to the statement making it an exclamation.
invite an answer
This seems the wrong color, don't you think?
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
said, "It was his fault we were late."
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
Should ending punctuation be within the quotes or outside the
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
Here are a number of instances where quotation marks are effective:
indicate a title
He started reciting Shakespeare's classic, "Julius Caesar".
indicate doubt or disbelief
The back-street clinic had one "doctor" on duty that
indicate that a word of phrase should not be taken literally
New synthetic fibres have made "grass" playing surfaces
The uses of semicolons are numerous. Here are the main ones:
To join words, phrases and sentences
separate word groups that already contain commas
The committee was made up of M. Harding, President; J. Gower,
Vice-president; B. Gardner, Secretary and W. Taylor as
provide a pause before certain adverbs and conjunctions
He just scraped past the finishing line by a hair's breadth;
nevertheless, he won!
emphasize opposite statements and contrast
The house looked beautiful after the renovation; pity about
The slash has limited functions. Primarily it is used:
That will be his/her choice.
care of - c/o
account - A/c
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