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The various types of punctuation serve as the road signs of English, directing the reader how to interpret what’s being communicated. Misusing them, then, can be like steering a driver down a blind alley, or telling a driver to go left and right at the same time. We’ll address these various punctuation pitfalls here.

Some folks are easily confused; I’m one of them. Understanding  the functions of the various punctuation marks, I’m easily led astray because I take the writer literally, and incorrect punctuation sends me off in the wrong direction.

The moral of the story simply is this:

A Punctuation Challenge

Add punctuation to make this string of words make sense:

“That that is is that that is not is not is not that it that it is”

NOTE: We’ve provided correct punctuation (by the way, there's more than one) at the bottom of this page, but give it a try before skipping to the end for the answer.

© 2014 Keith W. Sessions. All rights reserved.























An apostrophe is used to show possession, as in this example:

Whose car? Bob’s car.

If you need to form the possessive of a word that itself ends in ‘s’, you just add the apostrophe and omit the ‘s’, as in this example:

Plurals & Apostrophes

You don’t need an apostrophe to form a plural; simply add an ‘s’. A growing trend is to use an apostrophe when forming a plural (e.g., “Put the book’s on the table”) but this is not correct.

WRONG: “I don’t like Ford’s.”

RIGHT: “I don’t like Fords.”

RIGHT: “I don’t like Ford’s hairdo.”

Sometimes are used to form the plural:

In past times an apostrophe was also used to pluralize years, but this is no longer considered necessary:

The important thing is to be consistent. If you sometimes do and sometimes don’t use an apostrophe to pluralize years, your work will seem sloppy.


An asterisk is not really a member of the set of punctuation symbols in English; we simply included it here to set the record straight on how the word itself is pronounced.

“Asterisk” comes from the Latin word asteriscum, which literally means “little star.” It’s generally used to indicate a footnote. However, it works in this capacity only if there is but a single footnote; using more than one footnote requires that they be numbered.

And, contrary to popular belief, this word is not pronounced “asterik” or “asterix.” It’s “aster-risk.”


Brackets are most typically used to nest one parenthetical statement within another, like this:

They’re also used to indicate that you’ve altered quoted text for clarity or some other reason. Think of brackets as a way to address the reader directly, separate from the text being quoted, particularly for quoted material you’ve modified in some way:


Colons “point” at what follows, like two fingers. Use a colon to specifically direct the reader’s attention to the information that follows:

Colons are also used to introduce a list, as we’ve done consistently throughout this guide to introduce the examples we provide.

NOTE: In the bygone world of typewriters, a colon was always followed by two spaces if text followed on the same line, just as was a period. That’s no longer the case. Use only one space following a colon.

Colons Aren’t Commas

Don’t use a colon where a comma should go:

WRONG: The doctor said: “Swallow this and you’ll feel better within minutes.”

RIGHT: The doctor said, “Swallow this and you’ll feel better within minutes.”

Commas Aren’t Colons

It’s common practice for writers to use a comma at the end of a salutation; however, this is incorrect. Write “Dear Dr. Kildare:” instead of “Dear Dr. Kildare,” when starting a letter.


Commas direct the reader to pause a tad at that point in the writing:

This pause also applies to the second purpose of commas: separating elements in a series:

Commas After the Last Element in a Series

Typically the last element in a series does not require a comma, although some style guides call for it. If the series elements are all of the same type, no comma is needed after the final element:

However, when the final element in the series consists of multiple words or is dissimilar, use a comma:

Comma Splice

Commas are not used to link two independent clauses (a string of words that could stand alone as a sentence in its own right); that’s what a semicolon is for. When a comma is used incorrectly in this way, it’s called a comma splice.

WRONG: “I wrecked the car yesterday, it will be in the shop for a week.”

RIGHT: “I wrecked the car yesterday; it will be in the shop for a week.”

Superfluous Commas

One sure-fire way to annoy the reader is to stick commas in where they aren’t needed. It’s like telling a driver to slow down for no apparent reason. Drivers always want a reason for everything. Consider these examples:

WRONG: “One sure-fire way to annoy the reader, is to stick commas in where they aren’t needed.”

No good reason justifies asking the reader to pause at this point in the above sentence.

Parenthetical Statements & Commas

A parenthetical statement (additional information stuck into a sentence that could otherwise stand alone) doesn’t always have to be enclosed in parentheses. Sometimes commas are more appropriate, particularly if the parenthetical statement is deemed too important to be buried in parentheses.

An extremely common error in using commas to enclose parenthetical statements is to include only the first comma, omitting the final comma. This happens all the time in news stories, and it’s simply wrong. A parenthetical statement must be demarcated with either a comma or parenthesis at its beginning and end.

RIGHT: “Bonzo Lafarti, head of the news organization, seemed oblivious to the general rules of comma usage.”

WRONG: “Bonzo Lafarti, head of the news organization seemed oblivious to the general rules of comma usage.”


Dashes are cool. Yet, how would you know it? You see them used correctly so very rarely. In fact, you’ve probably seen hyphens used in place of dashes more often than not.

Yet, hyphens are not dashes.

The ‘Em Dash’ & ‘En Dash’

Dashes come in two flavors: the em dash (—) and the en dash (–). This is one of those strangely interesting parts of the English language. An ‘em dash’ is so-called because it’s approximately the same width of the letter ‘M’ in the same font. Likewise for the ‘en dash; it’s the same width of the letter ‘N’.

An em dash is useful for enclosing something you might be tempted to enclose in parentheses but in the end deemed too important to be relegated to that degree.

An en dash may look a lot like a hyphen, but actually it’s slightly wider. It’s used to indicate a range of values, like this:

In the world outside publishing (e-mail, informal correspondence, etc.), a hyphen would suffice in the examples above, but in the world of typesetting—of publishing—the en dash is used.

NOTE: If you do use hyphens to form an en dash, do it this way: one space followed by two hyphens followed by one space, like this:


An ellipsis is three periods in a row, to indicate omitted material. Not four dots, not five dots, not two dots. Three dots.

When embedded in text, as in the example above, an ellipsis should always be preceded and followed by a space.

In the world of typography, an ellipsis is not just three periods in a row; it’s space period space period space period.

And, oh, by the way, if no material is being omitted, you don’t need an ellipsis. You’ll see them often used when the writer just thought they looked cool.

They don’t look cool when they are not needed.

Ellipses should not be broken at the end of a line; all three periods should always be kept together. This isn’t a problem if you’re inserting an ellipsis as all one piece. However, if you’re using true ellipses—with spaces in between the periods—the line break shouldn’t be allowed to fall between the periods.

NOTE: If you insert an ellipsis as a special character within Microsoft Word®, the periods can’t be split up at the end of a line (because the ellipsis is all one piece).

Exclamation Point

Exclamation points should be used sparingly for an obvious reason: they are akin to shouting at the reader. Sometimes, it’s appropriate; more often than not it’s not.


A hyphen’s most common purpose is to break a word at the end of a line of text, a  task largely taken over by modern word-processing systems.

Other uses of hyphens are described below. Note that no space separates the hyphen from the adjoining text.

Writing Numbers & Fractions

Typically, however, the numbers zero through nine are spelled out, with actual numbers used for 10 and above.

Creating Compound Words

Compound words are simply words tied together to form a single word, such as “daughter-in-law.” Some are tied together with hyphens, some are simply joined seamlessly, and some are separated with a space:

HYPHENATED FORM: “Master-at-arms”

CLOSED FORM: “laptop”

OPEN FORM: “middle class”

Note that when you use an open-form compound word as an adjective (as in “middle-class family”), a hyphen is needed.


Hyphens are Not Dashes

The key on your keyboard located between the ‘0’ and ‘=’ can create two characters: a hyphen and an underscore. In the general world of the Internet, this key is also used to create a stand-in for an em dash, generally a space followed by two hyphens followed by another space:

Nothing wrong with this use of hyphens—to form em dashes—but for anything that’s going to be published or widely distributed in print, it’s better to use a real em dash.

When Not to Use a Hyphen

When an adverb modifies an adjective, there’s really no need for a hyphen, even though it’s common practice to use it in this way (as was done on the tombstone illustrating this topic):

WRONG: “The quickly-escalating blaze soon became too much for the local firehouse to handle.”

It’s wrong because what the heck else is an adverb going to do except to modify the verb or adjective following it? To include a hyphen conveys information to the reader that’s already been conveyed—by the “ly” at the end of the adverb.

RIGHT: “The quickly escalating blaze soon became too much for the local firefighters to handle.”

The adjective “escalating” has no choice but to modify “blaze” because that’s what adjectives do; the adverb “quickly” has no choice but to modify “escalating” because, again, that’s what adverbs do. The reader, then, doesn’t need to be told that “quickly escalating” is modifying “blaze.” There’s no possible point of confusion, so no hyphen is needed.

Hyphens & Prefixes

Typically the prefixes ‘de’, ‘on’, ‘non’ and ‘pre’ don’t take hyphens:

RIGHT: “Deportation is a likely result.”

RIGHT: “Prequalifying for the loan is an easy three-step process.”

RIGHT: “Online access is available 24 hours a day.”

RIGHT: “Please provide a nontechnical explanation.”

Of course, as in many places in English, there’s an exception. If the prefix ends with the same letter that starts the word, a hyphen typically is used:


Parentheses are used to indicate material that is not essential to the meaning being conveyed, but simply provides additional information. The additional information is parenthetical.

Don’t overuse parentheses. If the additional information is important enough to include in the first place, then it most likely shouldn’t be included parenthetically, but should instead be a full-blown part of the sentence. Consider this example:

If you have more to say about the fact that it wasn’t the first time she was late, parentheses aren’t appropriate. Why? Because the information enclosed in parentheses would be directly related to what you have to say, and so is too important to include parenthetically.

On the other hand, if nothing more is to be said about the fact that it wasn’t the first time she was late, then including the information parenthetically is entirely appropriate; it’s simply a brief aside to the reader that the tardiness has happened before.


Not much to say about a period; everyone knows they’re used to mark the end of a sentence. However, one usage note: Most of us were taught that a period should be followed by two spaces. This was true in the bygone world of typewriters, but with the advent of the personal computer, the rules of professional typography and typesetting have taken over. In that world, a period is followed by a single space, not two.

Question Mark

Like periods, question marks indicate the end of a sentence; and, like periods, there’s not much to say about them since even a child is well familiar with their use.

Like periods, question marks typically go inside of quotation marks.

RIGHT: She boldly asked, “Will you be grading on a curve?”

WRONG: She boldly asked, “Will you be grading on a curve”?

If the question mark isn’t part of the quoted text, however, it goes outside the quotation marks, as in this example:


This is becoming more and more prevalent, and it wouldn’t be accurate to say that it’s starting to bug me because it’s been bugging me for a long time.

Uptalkis the tendency of English speakers to inflect upward at the end of a sentence, as though they were asking a question:

“I was walking down the street yesterday? And I saw this car? And this guy got out?”

And on and on. Really annoying.

If it’s not a question, don’t inflect upwards at the end. When you do so, your language sounds weak, as though you were seeking approval or confirmation from the listener—constantly.

Take ownership of your words:

There was a time when only gum-chewing girls from “The Valley” in Southern California did this, but now it’s spread to mainstream society.

Please, everyone, just quit it.

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are used to indicated quoted speech, or dialog, as in these examples:

Open Quote & Close Quote

The quotation mark that most of us are familiar with comes from the standard computer keyboard: ", the so-called “straight quote.” In the world of typography, however, quotation marks come in two flavors: open quote and close quote. One marks the beginning of the quote, the other the end.

When Quoted Text Exceeds a Single Paragraph

When quoted material exceeds a single paragraph, the close quote of the previous paragraph is omitted and the next paragraph again starts with an open quote, to signal to the reader that the quoted material continues into that paragraph.

Quotation Marks & Other Punctuation

With one exception, periods and commas go inside the quotation marks. This rule dates back to the 1800s when type was set by hand and printers thought it was ugly to have the period or comma hanging out there all by itself―so they made up the rule that the period and comma go inside the quotes, and we still live with that rule today.

The exception is this: When you are writing a sentence that is conveying to someone what to type literally, the period (or other punctuation) goes outside the quotes. Here’s an example:

The period goes outside the quotes in this instance to ensure that the reader understands that it’s not part of the string to be typed. The quotes delineate only what should be typed, and anything that isn’t part of that literal goes outside the quotes. In all other instances, the period goes inside the quotes.

Quotations Within Quotations

Sometimes quoted text itself contains a quote. In situations such as this, the nested quote is delineated with single quotes:


You know what a period does (denotes the end of a sentence), but do you know when to use a semicolonin place of it? Use a semicolon to link two closely related but independent clauses. (An independent clause is simply a group of words that could stand alone as a sentence in its own right.)

Consider these two examples:

When a period is used in place of a semicolon above, it puts too much distance between the two closely related thoughts. Semicolons make the writing less tedious by helping the reader to group the thoughts into meaningful chunks.

Semicolons & Quotation Marks

Quotation marks go inside the semicolon; that’s because a semicolon is a “concrete barrier” between one independent clause and another. If the quotation mark applies to the independent clause to the left of the semicolon, then the quotation mark goes inside the semicolon. Here’s an example:


A slash is used to separate options: either/or, left/right, etc. The slash can be thought of as standing in for the word “or.”

Spaces should not be used before and after the slash when it is used to join text as described above. However, when a slash is used to indicate the end of lines of poetry, spaces are used:

NOTE: A slash is also known as a virgule or solidus.

The Backslash

A backslash goes downhill from left to right (\), a forward slash goes uphill (/). The backslash isn’t used in writing except when indicating a folder structure on a PC-based computer system:

On Unix-based systems, a forward slash is used in describing a folder structure. Since the Internet was originally based in Unix, forward slashes are used in uniform resource locators (URLs), not backslashes.



















A Punctuation Challenge: The Answer

Here’s the answer to the punctuation challenge we provided at the top of this page. (Are you cheating or did you actually try?)

That that is, is. That that is not, is not. Is not that it? That it is.