Exercises for this concept can be found at Punctuation Grammar Rules: Grammar Review Practice Exercises.
Periods signify the end of a declarative sentence (a statement of fact) or an imperative sentence (a command or request is stated). For example:
- Declarative: There is a test on the Westward Expansion on Tuesday.
- Imperative: Study hard if you want to do well.
Periods also follow most abbreviations (Mr., Mrs., lb., oz., A.M., P.M., Mon., Tue., Jan. Feb., etc.), except for abbreviations that use all capital letters (NASA, CIA, FBI, YMCA, etc.) and abbreviations for states (DE, NJ, CA, KN, MO, etc.). Periods must also follow a person's initials (John F. Kennedy, T.S. Eliot, etc.).
When a sentence ends with an abbreviation that has a period, do NOT add another period at the end. Instead, leave the abbreviation's period as the endmark. If the sentence is an exclamatory sentence or question, you MUST place the exclamation mark or question mark at the end, after the abbreviation's period.
Correct: I was supposed to meet you at 4 P.M.! Was I supposed to meet you at 4 P.M.? Incorrect: I will meet you at 4 P.M.
Question Marks—Go Ahead and Ask
Question marks are used after a question (an interrogatory sentence).
- This is a difficult rule, isn't it?
Don't get indirect questions mixed up with questions. Sometimes a sentence sounds like it has a question in it, but it's really just a statement reporting a question:
- I was wondering if Lucas, Sean, and I could get together to study tonight at my house.
- I asked whether I could get together with my friends to study.
The statements I was wondering and I asked are just that—statements. Hence, they end with periods.
Exclamation Marks—Turn Up the Volume
Exclamations signify strong feelings or emotion. When a sentence is exclamatory, use an exclamation mark to end it; this includes an imperative sentence, which gives an authoritative or earnest command.
Exclamatory Sentences: Hey! This is pretty simple! I can't believe it! Look at the size of that dog! I'm glad I don't feed it! Imperative Sentences: Stop! I mean it! Be quiet now! This is important!
Fuel For Thought
Be careful not to overuse the exclamation mark in your writing. For emphasis, people tend to end their sentences with not only one, but sometimes two, three, or more. Yikes!!!!!!!
Commas—A Common Sense Approach
Of all the punctuation marks, commas are used more frequently than any other, and tend to cause writers the most headaches. Their usage is really a matter of personal style, which leaves some writers dropping them into sentences all over the place, and others placing them so sparingly, you'd think they were being charged for each one. All kidding aside, just how do you know when to use one and when not to? Here are some suggestions to help you avoid confusion, yet not cramp your style.
- When you have a series of three or more items in a sentence, use a comma to separate them. The items may be words or phrases.
- Words in a Series: Yellow, blue, red, and green are my favorite colors.
- Phrases in a Series: The cardinal flew around the house, above the tree, and under the power line.
- When you have two or more adjectives describing a noun or pronoun, use a comma to separate them.
- The young cat had gray, matted fur due to lack of care by its owner.
- If you have a series of items where the words or, and, or nor are connecting them, a comma is not necessary.
Cats and dogs and hamsters are popular pets. I like more exotic pets like guinea pigs or parakeets or iguanas. However, I like neither snakes nor mice nor spiders as pets.
Common sense must prevail when using commas. Read your sentence to make certain that the meaning is not misconstrued with too many or too few commas. Consider the following:Robert danced with Barbara, Anne, Cassidy, and Katie Lee at the prom.
Robert had a very busy evening at the prom and probably went home exhausted.Robert danced with Barbara Anne Cassidy and Katie Lee at the prom.
While Robert did dance with two girls, Barbara Anne, whose last name is Cassidy, and Katie, whose last name is Lee, it's unlikely he went home worn out.
- If a sentence begins with an introductory word or phrase, it is, in most cases, generally followed by a comma. The use of a comma after introductory sentence parts helps the reader from carrying the meaning of the introduction into the main part of the sentence, which can lead to misinterpretation. For example:
- Confusing: After eating the three little pigs and the big bad wolf played a round of golf to catch up on old times.
- (My, someone was very hungry!)
- Less Confusing: After eating, the three little pigs and the big bad wolf played a round of golf to catch up on old times.
- (Friendly bunch, aren't they?)
- Confusing: Bugged Bob went to the manager to complain about his cold dinner.
- (What a strange name, Bugged Bob. Does he have a sister Irked Irene, or perhaps Mad Margaret?)
- Less Confusing: Bugged, Bob went to the manager to complain about his cold dinner.
- When a word or phrase immediately follows a noun, it should be set off by commas. The word or phrase is meant to rename or enhance the noun's meaning by providing the reader with more information. This sentence interrupter is called an appositive.
- Brian, a varsity soccer player, trains daily at the gym to stay in shape.
The phrase a varsity soccer player renames Brian and adds to our understanding about who he is. This phrase, however, can be removed and the sentence will remain complete—Brian trains daily at the gym to stay in shape.
Let's look at another:
- My teacher, Mr. Moyer, is also a football coach at the high school.
Again, if we remove the appositive Mr. Moyer, the meaning of the sentence remains complete—My teacher is also a football coach at the high school.
- The pies, pumpkin and chocolate cream, were the perfect ending to our dinner.
We know exactly what kinds of pies were the perfect ending to dinner because of the appositive provided. If we remove the phrase, does the sentence meaning remain intact? Yes.
Besides enhancing a noun, appositives typically have two other functions in a sentence. They name a person being addressed in the sentence:
- See, Danielle, I told you the principal saw you running in the hall.
- Look, Courtney, I found my earring under my dresser.
And they set off expressions of opinions, conclusions, etc.:
- George Washington, in fact, is known as the father of our country.
- Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, was the most revolutionary president in American history.
Fuel For Thought
Other expressions you may encounter are yes, no, well, indeed, nevertheless, however, I believe, of course, for once, obviously, in my opinion, to tell the truth, and on the contrary.
- Use commas in dates, addresses, salutations (friendly letters only!), and closings of letters.
- Place a comma after the day of the week (if it's mentioned), the day of the month, and the year (if the sentence continues only):
Michael Jordan was born Sunday, February 17, 1963, in Brooklyn, New York.
No comma is necessary if you're writing only the day and month or the month and year in a sentence:
Michael Jordan was born February 17.
Michael Jordan was born in February 1963.
In friendly and business letters, and in sentences, there are places in addresses you are expected to place commas:
In order to receive credit for your payment, please remit check or money order to Lamp Lighters Co., 54321 Main St., Roxbury, NJ 07876.
As you can see, commas need to be placed between the business or person's name and the start of the street address, then after the street address, and then between the city and state. No commas are necessary between the state and the zip code.
When mentioning a city and state in a sentence (without a zip code), a comma must also follow the state.Last week, my dad traveled to Chicago, Illinois, on business.
The same rule holds true if you mention a country name:He sometimes travels to Paris, France, in the spring.
- Letter/Envelope Form:
- Lamp Lighters Co.
- 54321 Main St.
- Roxbury, NJ 07876
Only a comma between the city and state is necessary in this format.
- Salutations and Closings
When greeting someone in a friendly letter, use a comma after his or her name and after your closing:
Dear Aunt Josie,
- Use a comma before coordinating conjunctions that are followed by an independent clause (a sentence). Coordinating conjunctions are and, but, for, nor, or, yet, and so.
- I am 14 years old, and my brother, Jonathan, is 15.
- He is older than I am, yet I'm taller than he is, so people think I'm older.
These can all be written as separate sentences:
- I am 14 years old. My brother, Jonathan, is 15. He is older than I am.
- I'm taller than he is. People think I'm older.
It is better, though, to combine them to avoid choppiness.
- Commas are used in direct quotations (the exact words that a person says).
- Direct Quotation Identifying the Speaker First:
- Kevin said, "There's a big rip in the back of your pants!"
These are the exact words of Kevin.
- Direct Quotation with an Interrupter:
"There's a big rip," Kevin said, "in the back of your pants!"
Notice that the first part of Kevin's sentence ends with a comma (after rip), and again after the interrupting words Kevin said.
- Indirect Quotation:
Kevin said that there is a big rip in the back of your pants.
This is someone conveying what Kevin said. No commas are needed.
- Use commas with titles and degrees only when they follow a person's name.
Commas: In an emergency, call Jackson Foster, MD. Lorraine Devonshire, PhD, has become president of our state college. No Commas: Call Dr. Foster in an emergency. Dr. Lorraine Devonshire has become president of our state college.
- Use commas when writing long numbers.
When writing numbers, especially long ones, your teachers expect you to place commas in them to help readers understand the number more easily. For instance, if you had the number 6307200 or 378432000, it would take quite a bit of thought to decipher the numbers; what with counting how many numbers there are and then mentally grouping them into threes to divide them into their billions, millions, hundred thousands, thousands, hundreds, and so on. With the help of commas, numbers are easily interpreted:
- The average student spends 6,307,200 minutes, or 378,432,000 seconds, in school from first grade through high school graduation!
To place commas properly in long numbers, begin at the far right of the number and place a comma after every three digits:The 2006 population of New Jersey, an area of 8,729 square miles, was 8,724,560.
Numbers from 1 to 999 don't require a comma. Nor do phone numbers, page numbers, zip codes, years, serial numbers, and house numbers. However, when you are writing a series of numbers, commas should be placed in between each number:Study pages 112, 113, and 114 in your textbook to prepare for tomorrow's quiz on commas.Red Bank, New Jersey, has four zip codes: 07701, 07702, 07703, and 07704.
Colons and Semicolons—The Introducers and Connectors of Punctuation
Colons are used to introduce a particular bit of information. Unlike commas, which seem to have a million and one rules to follow, a colon simply introduces anything: a word, a sentence, a list, a quotation, a phrase. It says "here is an example" or "an example is going to follow" to the reader (figuratively, of course). Now, that's not to say you can simply throw colons into your writing. There is some simple, yet important, colon etiquette to follow:
- Use a colon to introduce a list.
Please bring the following items to school on the first day: pencils, a pen, notebook paper, and a binder. A more detailed list of needed items will be given in class.
While colons usually signify a list to follow, the colons themselves may NOT follow a verb or preposition:
Incorrect: On the first day of school, please bring: pencils, a pen, notebook paper, and a binder. Incorrect: On the first day of school, please bring pencils, a pen, notebook paper, and a binder to: Mr. Stewart, Mrs. Hodges, or Ms. Louise.
Tip: To play it safe, use a phrase like as follows or the following before the colon (for example, the list is as follows: OR bring the following:).
- Use a colon to introduce an excerpt or long quotation.
- Use a colon to introduce the subtitle of a movie or book.
- Ethan's favorite movie is Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi.
- Scott read Crispin: At the Edge of the World two times already this summer.
- Use a colon to separate hours from minutes when writing the time.
- It's now 4:43 P.M.
- The school record for the one-mile relay is 5:32:47.
- Use a colon in the salutation of a formal or business letter.
In his first inaugural address to the United States of America, President John F. Kennedy said: … In your hands, my fellow citizens, more than mine, will rest the final success or failure of our course. Since this country was founded, each generation of Americans has been summoned to give testimony to its national loyalty … And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
- Dear Sir:
- To Whom It May Concern:
- Dear Mr. President:
The Semicolon—The Super Comma
The semicolon, a.k.a. the "super comma," connects two related sentences to emphasize their relationship to a reader. Typically, the second sentence that follows makes a comment of some sort about the first or offers further information about it—hence the relationship.
- Use a semicolon to separate two sentences (independent clauses) that are related in topic and meaning.
Sentence 1: Waiting until the last minute, Jamon hurriedly finished his report. Sentence 2: He made many careless mistakes. Sentence 3: Waiting until the last minute, Jamon hurriedly finished his report; he made many careless mistakes.
Jamon made careless mistakes because he hurried to do his report. This cause/effect is emphasized even more by being in the same sentence.
- Use a semicolon between two complete sentences that are separated by some transitional words or phrases, or conjunctive adverbs.
Waiting until the last minute, Jamon hurriedly finished his report; consequently, he made many careless mistakes.
Fuel For Thought
Here are some common conjunctive adverbs:
afterward accordingly besides consequently furthermore hence however indeed instead likewise moreover nevertheless nonetheless otherwise similarly so still then therefore thus
Quotation Marks—It Must Be the Real Deal
Quotation marks, a.k.a. quotes, are used in writing to show the exact words someone said—exactly. This exact account is called a direct quotation.
- Direct quotations require the use of opening and ending quotation marks.
Direct Quotation: "Mark always thinks he's right," said his little sister, Cheryl. Indirect Quotation: Mark's little sister, Cheryl, says Mark, always thinks he's right.
Here, the same message is conveyed, but the reader is able to distinguish that the sentence with quotes are the exact wording from the speaker. The indirect quotation, called hearsay, means just that—someone saying what he or she heard someone else say … make sense?
- Don't place quotes around someone's thoughts (his or her ideas that are not spoken aloud).
Correct: These math problems are pretty difficult—will I pass this test? Elisabeth thought. Incorrect: "These math problems are pretty diffic—12;will I pass this test?" Elisabeth thought.
- Use quotes to convey uncertainty or misgivings.
You know, Tracy, I don't know how you can call this a "friendship" when all you do is avoid me every chance you get. We have been socalled "friends," well, "forever," and I can't believe you would do "this" to me!
Sometimes, like in the sample you just read, people can get carried away with using quotes to show emphasis, so just be cautious.
Fuel For Thought
Here are some helpful guidelines about quotations to guide you:
- Capitalize the first letter to begin a quotation:
"I feel like eating peppermint ice cream; do you?" asked Alexa.
- Periods, question marks, and exclamation marks usually go inside the closing quotes. Colons and semicolons do NOT:
Mrs. Kirby, the librarian, told me about the "rule of thumb":
Read the first page and hold up one finger for each word I don't know. If I get to my thumb, the book is too hard.
- Use a comma before the opening quotes when words that identify the speaker come right before the quote:
Sandy chided, "Your dog is staring at me and it's giving me the creeps."
- When there is an interrupter to identify the speaker in the middle of the quote, each part of the quotation is enclosed in quotation marks. The first part of the quote ends with a comma enclosed in the end quotes. The interrupting words are followed by a comma before the opening quotes:
"Soon I'll be 14," bragged Frank, "so I can get a part-time job!"
Notice also that so is not capitalized. That is because it is not starting a new sentence, but is a continuation of Frank's first sentence.
- If a speaker is saying two separate sentences, each sentence begins with a capital letter within the opening quotes. As well, a period, not a comma, is used to punctuate the interrupter:
"You're lucky, Frank," remarked Lauren. "Fourteen doesn't come for me until next October."
The Apostrophe—It's Not Just a Matter of Possession
Plurals, possessives, contractions … the apostrophe plays many important, and highly misused, roles in English grammar. Why, just down the road, a local business owner proudly displays several flashing neon signs advertising his tasty wares:
- Taco's, Salad's, and Soup's to Go!
This, unfortunately, is an all-too-common appearance in stores from coast to coast. Do you know what's wrong with this sign? None of the words in the sign needs an apostrophe because each item is a regular plural (plural means more than one). Only on rare occasions do you need to add an apostrophe to create a plural, which we'll talk about later in the lesson. Let's talk about contractions first.
Contractions—The Long and the Short of It
In informal writing, like a letter to your friend or your Aunt Josephine, you can use shortened versions of words, called contractions. Contract means "to squeeze together or shorten," and contractions are two words that have been shortened or squeezed together to make one. For instance, instead of writing cannot, you write the contraction form of the word: can't. So what happens to the n and the o? The apostrophe stands in for them (cannot = can't). What is the contraction for I am? Right! I'm is the answer.
Fuel For Thought
Here are some more contractions:
AM WILL HAVE/HAS HAD/WOULD I I'm I'll I've I'd YOU you're you'll you've you'd HE he's he'll he's he'd SHE she's she'll she's he'd IT it's it'll it's it'd THEY they're they'll they've they'd WE we're we'll we've we'd
Here are the helping verbs in negative form:
IS + not = isn't
ARE + not = aren't
WAS + not = wasn't
WERE + not = weren't
HAVE + not = haven't
HAS + not = hasn't
HAD + not = hadn't
CAN + not = can't
DO + not = don't
DID + not = didn't
SHOULD + not = shouldn't
WOULD + not = wouldn't
COULD + not = couldn't
Inside TrackRemember that only in informal writing is it acceptable to use contractions. Your teachers will likely discourage you from using contractions in schoolwork, such as reports and essays.
Possessives—Whose Is It, Anyway?
Possessives are nouns that show ownership—that something belongs to something else. Be careful, because these can be tricky. First, before adding an apostrophe, you need to make certain that the word you're using actually implies possession. Take the word story, for example:
- Singular: The ghost story had a scary plot.
- Plural: The ghost stories had a scary plot.
Neither of these sentences uses the word story or stories in a possessive way.
- To make a singular noun possessive, add an 's.
Singular Possessive: The ghost story's plot was scary.
Here, the sentence implies that the plot belonging to the one ghost story was scary. The story possesses the plot, thus making it the story's plot. Let's try another one:
- My younger brothers name is Christian.
Where does the apostrophe need to be placed? What word is implying possession of something? Right, brother's—the name, Christian, belongs to my younger brother. The word brother needs an 's.
- To make a plural noun ending in 's possessive, add an apostrophe AFTER the final 's.
Plural Possessive: The ghost stories' plots were scary.
Here, the sentence implies that the plots belonging to more than one ghost story were scary. The stories possess the plots, thus making them the stories' plots. Let's try another one:
The boys soccer trophies were placed on the table in rows.
Again, where does the apostrophe need to be placed? What word is implying possession of something? Right, boys'—the trophies belong to the boys. The word boys needs an apostrophe AFTER the 's in boys.
Do all plural nouns end in s? Most do, but not all. There are some nouns that take on a completely different spelling when they turn plural, like children, for example. Or women. Can you think of others? How about geese, mice, people, feet, men, teeth…? There are many more. In any of these cases, these words are treated like the singular nouns, and 's is added to them to form a possessive.
- The geese's V formation in the sky was impressive as they flew overhead.
- To make a singular noun ending in s possessive, you can add an 's OR add an apostrophe after the s.
To some, it may seem odd to add an 's after another s somehow, but that's one correct way to do it!
Marty Reynolds's jacket was left on the school bus yesterday.
You may also write the sentence like this:
Marty Reynolds' jacket was left on the school bus yesterday.
It is best to follow the way your teacher wishes to avoid problems.
Hyphens and Dashes—So Alike, Yet So Different
Aside from their similar looks—hyphens getting the short end of the bargain, so to say—they each perform completely different jobs in our writing. Hyphens, for instance, divide words at the ends of lines, hyphenate numbers and compound words, and help out some prefixes and suffixes to help avoid confusion.
- Use a hyphen with the prefixes great-, all-, half-, ex-, self-, and the suffix -elect:
great-grandfather great-grandmother all-knowing all-powerful half-hearted half-truth ex-girlfriend ex-president self-control self-reliant mayor-elect governor-elect
- Use a hyphen to join capital letters to form a new word:
X-ray T-square T-shirt R-rated
or at the syllable break and between double letters of a word at the end of a line of writing:
Jan-u-ary ten-nis ad-o-les-cent but-ter-fly
- Use a hyphen to write numbers 21–99 in word form and to write fractions as words:
Twenty-nine forty-six one-third eight-tenths
or write numbers as a score or a date:
- The final score of the Force vs. Sonics play-off game was 16-18.
- The newspaper dated 3-17-06 contains the detailed article.
The date may also be written using slashes instead: 3/17/06.
- Use a hyphen to clarify some words where re- means to redo something, or where the spelling of two words put together would be awkward:
Michael tried to recollect how he planned to re-collect the books he mistakenly deposited in the library bin.
Michael is trying to remember how he planned to get the books back that he gave to the library by mistake.
- The shell-like glass dish was badly chipped.
Without the hyphen, shell-like would have been written shelllike, which is an awkward combination of three l's together.
- Use a dash to emphasize a "by-the-way" or incidental thought in your writing:
Her father brought two-dozen roses—beautiful pink and white ones wrapped in tulle—to her graduation party!
- Use a dash to set off a short series or list in a sentence:
Acceptable: At the zoo, we saw many exotic animals like bongos, capybaras, echidnas, kinkajous, and an okapi. Better Choice: At the zoo, we saw many exotic animals—bongos, capybaras, echidnas, kinkajous, and an okapi.
A dash can be used much like a colon. It gives your writing a less formal tone, where colons are more formal.
Parentheses and Brackets—By the Way
Between the two punctuation marks, you are bound to see many more parentheses than brackets in writing simply because they are more "functional."
- When you want to provide your reader with extra information in the middle, or even the end, of your sentence, you can place that information inside parentheses (this is called a parenthetical comment).
- Dates and page numbers are commonly placed inside parentheses.
- Parentheses can be used to enclose numbers or letters meant to itemize information.
- When you want to insert an editorial (your own comments) within quoted material, use brackets.
- Use brackets to alter the capitalization of a word in a quote in order to make it fit in your sentence or paragraph scheme. For example:
Margie (who is one of the best dancers on the team) took a spill on stage last night and twisted her ankle.
Important: You can take the information in the parentheses out of the sentence, and the sentence still will make sense to the reader.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827), one of the world's most famous composers, continued to write musical masterpieces even though he went deaf in his thirties. More information about Beethoven can be found in Chapter 22 (pages 97–113).
To make your bed, choose your favorite sheets and (a) place the fitted sheet snuggly around the mattress; (b) drape the flat sheet on top (preferably straight and even) and tuck the bottom of the sheet between the mattress and box spring; (c) place your pillow inside the pillowcase and put it at the head of the bed; and (d) cover the bed with a quilt or blanket to stay toasty-warm. All that's left is to hop in and snooze!
Note: (a), (b), (c), and (d) may be replaced with (1), (2), (3), and (4).
Bill said, "It [the Super Bowl] was great! They [the Colts] played like champions today!"
The directions specifically say to "[t]urn off the power before trying to connect the VCR to the television."
The directions would have originally read Turn off the power … in the source this quote came from.
Italics and Underlining—The Attention Getters
Before modern technology, writing was done mostly by hand. The option of italicizing words was all but impossible, so underlining was used to emphasize words. Today, we use both interchangeably, with just the touch of a button.
- Italicize or underline the titles of long works, such as books, magazines, newspapers, movies, TV shows, albums, plays, long poems, and musicals.
Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting The Chicago Sun The Chicago Sun Robert Frost's poem Birches Robert Frost's poem Birches
Use quotation marks around the titles of stories, songs, short poems, articles, and other smaller works.
Don't be fickle and use italics in one paragraph or entry, and then underline in the next one. You must be consistent in your choice. Pick one and then stick with it the entire time.
- Italicize foreign words in your writing.
- Italicize or underline words in sentences you want to emphasize for the reader.
The French word bonjour means "hello."
Can you tell the difference in the meanings of these four sentences?
Maria was sad. [Okay, Maria was sad.] Maria was sad. [Oh, it was Maria who was sad.] Maria was sad. [Good, Maria's no longer sad.] Maria was sad. [I see; she wasn't glad, she was sad.]
When we read, we have to sometimes interpret the speech patterns of the writer (or speaker). Using italics allows us to help our readers in that interpretation.
The Ellipsis—You Don't Say …
When you encounter three single-spaced periods in your reading … it means one of a couple of things:
- An ellipsis indicates that some words before or after the dots have been left out.
- An ellipsis indicates a pause in between words or thoughts.
"… but I didn't do it!" sobbed AJ.
Grandpa went on. "You know, when I was a little boy I had to walk seven miles, barefoot, in the snow … and then over that mountain over there, and then …"
"I'm not afraid of the dark … but I'd still like the light on until I fall asleep," Raymond whispered.
When you write and want to use an ellipsis, be careful not to leave out important information that would intentionally mislead the reader of the speaker's message:
Journalist Jess D. Faks reports that actress superstar, Holly Wood, said in her acceptance speech, "I owe ALL of my success to … me … not … my fans and my manager."
Hmm … it seems that Mr. Faks decided to omit some very important words from his citation. If Mr. Faks had not misused the ellipses, we would have known what Holly had REALLY said:
"I owe ALL of my success to many special people who have supported me through my highs and lows: my parents and teachers, and of course, I cannot forget my fans and my manager."
Exercises for this concept can be found at Punctuation Grammar Rules: Grammar Review Practice Exercises.
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