How to Use Punctuation Correctly

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1014

With the ever-increasing popularity of email and texting, it seems that proper punctuation has become a casualty of the times. Although a relaxation of the rules may be acceptable in some circumstances, academic and business writing still require you to adhere to the standards of punctuation. The following 8 easy steps are designed to help you express yourself correctly and professionally.

1) Commas. Commas separate related ideas and tell your reader where to pause in the sentence. Misplaced commas can cause a good deal of confusion and can even make another point rather than the one you intended. Consider the following examples; the first is a verse from the King James Bible, and the second is from another translation. Here, the placement of the second comma makes a crucial difference:

“Verily, I say unto thee, this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise.” “Verily, I say to you this day, you will be with me in Paradise.”

These were the words of Jesus to the thieves hung next to him on crosses. If you were one the thieves, the comma is very important indeed. In the first example, Jesus is saying that the thieves will be in Paradise with him immediately; but in the second sentence, he is simply saying, “Today I am telling you that you will be with me in Heaven, at some point.” It is a pretty important difference! The little comma dictates interpretation.  RULE: Use commas to separate related ideas, but be careful not to change the meaning of the sentence.2) Periods are not commas. Period. Sometimes people with a hearty fear of the comma believe that they’ll be safe simply putting a period in any place where they feel unsure. This practice leads to awkward, stilted phrasing and sentence fragments: 

“I had a dog once on a farm. When I was about ten years old.” “My teacher was very interesting. A woman who had studied at Oxford for many years.” 

In both of these examples, replace the period with a comma and make the next letter lowercase.RULE: Do not use periods as commas!3) To dash or not to dash. Some people use dashes all the time; others avoid them entirely. The dash can be a valuable tool when properly employed. It carries more emotional weight than a comma does, but it’s more informal than a colon. The dash can help you make a strong point that tells the reader, “Pay attention here.” For example, one might use a dash in this case: “His thoughts about women—if he had any thoughts at all—were not the kind expressed in polite company.”  RULE: Use dashes sparingly, but do use them when an important, related thought needs to be strongly conveyed.4) Apostrophes. A frequent problem in writing is the misuse of apostrophes to indicate possession. Like the comma, the apostrophe in a possessive can lead to misunderstandings (sometimes comically so!). Usually the author is aware of the difference, but poor proofreading may cause problems. For example, consider these questions:

“Am I eating my dessert or the dog’s?” “Am I eating my dessert or the dogs?”

In the first example, you can see that the possessive indicates that the person is questioning whether the dessert is for him or for the dog to eat. In the second, lack of possession makes it appear as if the person believes he might be eating dogs! RULE: Make sure apostrophes are appropriately placed to indicate ownership.  5) Colons. Use a colon to introduce a list or to provide an example that is closely related to...

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the clause before it. For example, one might say, “There are three things a painter requires: canvass, paint, and silence.” Or you can use a colon when you have something vivid to add to a point: “Even while they gathered and laughed, everyone at the baby shower withheld some information most knew: there was no discussion of the pain or trouble that the new mother would soon experience.”   RULE: Use colons for lists, to make a more vivid point that a comma, and a more formal point than a dash would convey.6) Semicolons. Semicolons are used to join independent clauses. An independent clause is a direct and different idea and is grammatically complete. For example, you would not use a comma in this case: “William Shakespeare’s plays are timeless, they are full of morality and intrigue.” Rather, the semicolon is appropriate here: “William Shakespeare’s plays are timeless; they are full of morality and intrigue.”RULE: Semicolons are for independent clauses. 7) Parentheses. Parentheses are used when you have some minor information to add to a sentence, but the information could be removed and still make sense. You might say, perhaps, “Chili’s is my favorite restaurant (I eat there at least once a week), but I’m getting tired of the same old thing.”  RULE: Parentheses can be added when you want to convey a small aside, but often can be omitted entirely. Read your work carefully to determine whether the minor comment should stay or go.8) Exclamation points. Think of exclamation points as garlic: a little bit can add excitement and spice things up; too much can ruin your food. When something is truly exciting, it is fine to add an exclamation point, but overuse does the opposite of what you intend. For example, if you are reading a letter from a friend who has been on an exciting trip, which do you find more compelling?

“We are now in Hawaii!!! It is fabulous!!! We saw a volcano!! And bought a grass skirt!! I even did the hula with some natives on stage!!! Wow!! Wish you were here!!!” “We are now in Hawaii. It’s fabulous. We saw a volcano. I bought a grass skirt. I even did the hula on stage with some natives! Wish you were here.”

Hopefully, in the second case, you are more likely to hone in on the truly unusual adventure of your friend. 

RULE: Use exclamation points sparingly and only when you really do want to convey excitement or surprise. 


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