The Punctuation Guide

Punctuation marks divide a written text for a clearer delivery of a discourse, and it should always be a part of your editing checklist. Punctuation also offers enormous help in conveying the relations of one part to another - from building up an argument to allowing active reading by sparking up questions from the readers, but most importantly, punctuation provides emphasis and prevents confusion.

The Chief Marks

The Chief Punctuation Marks: Period, Comma, Colon, Semicolon, Interrogatory, and Exclamation
The chief punctuation marks are: the period (.); the comma (,); the colon (:); the semicolon (;); the question or interrogation mark (?); and the exclamation point (!). These are the marks that we often use and are rendered as highly significant in any writing.

The Period

The period is the most basic punctuation one will ever use in writing because it is utilized for a simple goal – to end a statement. The period is also utilized to abbreviate titles such as Mr., Ms., and Dr. among others.

The Comma

The use of comma has been questioned a lot, but no statement can present clarity without it. Comma is used for numbers, addresses, certifications, technical writing rules, dates, and geographic references among others. It lists items and simplifies complex sentences. It indicates a pause, for every word or stanza of a poem – the breath break for any reading or a song. Some say that this is the most troublesome mark because it is largely utilized, however, the very presence or absence of this tiny mark can change the meaning of a statement – the very reason why we need to dig deeper into this particular punctuation mark.

The Mechanical Uses of a Comma

  1. Numbers. A comma separates tens, hundreds, thousands, and so on such as 7,543 or 89,974,542. Imagine seeing 574655697841 as a number – you might think it is some phone number or a serial number, however, what if it is meant for the amount of money? The Chicago Manual of Style suggests utilizing a comma for every three numbers of a four-digit or more number such as 7,569 and 897,239, except for page numbers, year, or addresses.
  2. Degrees and Certifications. Degrees and certifications come after the name in formal writing, and they should be set off by a comma such as David Ramirez, PhD, APR.
  3. Date. Traditionally, stating a date and its corresponding year is separated by a comma e.g. July 31, 2019. However, note that there is no need for a comma when stating just a month and a year.
  4. Location. Writing a location within an essay is usually written in a city, country format such as Bristol, England.

Listing - The Oxford Comma

The oxford comma or serial comma is causing confusion since time immemorial – is it correct? Is it necessary? Why should we use it? Above all concerns, some people may feel like it is wrong. The truth is it is not wrong and it is very important because not using it can change the entire meaning of a statement. Furthermore, the use of Oxford comma is stylistic, and it comes in handy when it comes to creative writing. A comma represents a pause too, and that pause can be a very crucial element in narratives or other literary pieces. Not utilizing the Oxford comma is acceptable in American English, but then again, it can create weird statements especially for readers who are used to reading with Oxford comma.

Multiple Adjectives

In some instances, just one adjective simply will not cut what we actually want to say, and we do not want to use the word “and” a few times in a single statement. What we can do instead is to utilize the comma and take note of the rules of the order of adjectives. Yes, there is a proper order for multiple adjectives, so take note of this for when you write your next descriptive essay:

  • Quantity. The amount, yes. If there is only one of your noun, then you can use the article “a”, otherwise, tell your readers the quantity of your noun.
  • Opinion. There is nothing complicated about this level – just follow the quantity adjective with how you view your noun. For instance, is it wonderful or delightful?
  • Size. Is it big? Huge? A speck?
  • Temperature. Hot? Cold? Freezing?
  • Age. Age can be stated as 24-year-old girl, or you can just say young, old, or antique.
  • Shape. We know you get this.
  • Color. This too.
  • Origin. Usually, the origin refers to a nationality such as Indian, British, Japanese, or Chinese among others.
  • Material. Is it made of marble? Wood? Satin?
  • Purpose. What is the item for? Is it a frying pan? A rocking chair? A diving pool, perhaps?

You do not have to have all of these adjectives, of course. You just have to follow the order, even if you just have the size, age, and purpose adjectives, however, if you happen to need to state all these types of adjectives, that is where the serial comma comes in. If you write these multiple adjectives in one sentence without a comma, it becomes really mouthful, but it does not mean you are wrong. However, it helps in preventing confusion, but what really helps is you do not have to use all types of adjectives in one go, unless that is your creative peg.

Non-Restrictive Information

A comma sets off a non-essential or non-restrictive information – these are information which are not necessary for the sentence to complete its meaning, however, they are added for modification and specification. For instance, “vanilla ice cream, my favorite dessert, goes really well with chocolate lava cake”. The non-restrictive information here is the fact that vanilla ice cream is my favorite dessert – take that fact out, and you will be left with a complete statement: “Vanilla ice cream goes really well with chocolate lava cake.” A non-essential or non-restrictive information is also known as a modifying dependent clause.

Compound and Complex Sentences

The very structure of a sentence indicates if there is a need for a comma. The general rule is if the non-restrictive or non-essential clause comes before the independent clause, separate the clauses with a comma, however, note that you can always write a sentence in a simpler form:

If you adjust your sleeping routine to a constant schedule, you will feel less tired as you take good care of your mental health

You will feel less tired if you adjust your sleeping routine to a constant schedule.


The only grammar conflict you may encounter is the prolific presence of a comma in a single statement - a common grammar mistake most students make. In compound-complex sentences, there can be two or more non-restrictive clauses, hence, you can eliminate this conflict by simplifying your sentences, unless you need the clauses for a creative purpose. Notice that the last statement contains a lot of comma because it is a compound-complex statement, but it can be simplified or reduced: “You can eliminate the conflict by simplifying your sentences unless you need them for creative purposes.”

The Colon

The colon is most commonly used for listing. It precedes the first item of a list such as: architecture, graphic design, computer programming, and engineering. The colon is also used between independent clauses, if and only if the proceeding clause elaborates the former clause such as: We got two new hires: Joseph will start on Monday, Jill will start on Wednesday. Colons are also used for emphasis – for instance, “the jury finally reached the verdict: not guilty.” The other uses of a colon includes: time (13:00); ratio (5:3); biblical verse reference (John 3:16); and correspondence (cc: Anna Tchaikovsky).

The Semicolon

A semicolon emphasizes the connection between two independent clauses – this means that even though two clauses can stand on their own, a semicolon ensures that the connection is presented. For instance, hyperinflation can note an accelerated price hike; a loaf of bread can cause $2 in the morning, and become $15 by 7PM. A semicolon can be used as a comma too for transitional expressions including: consequently, for example, so, and hence among others, and as internal commas the same way an Oxford comma is utilized.

The Question (?) and Exclamation (!) Marks

We all know how to use this. The only thing we need to remind you is you do not need a period after using any of these marks. It is simple: use the question mark for an inquiry, and the exclamation mark accentuates a feeling, be it anger or surprise:

  1. In some cases, writer utilize these punctuation marks together – that is wrong. Both marks are terminal punctuation, hence, you should only choose one, even if it is a question. For instance, “what were you thinking!” not and never “what were you thinking?!”
  2. Using any of these marks in between sentences because of a direct quotation automatically exempts you from utilizing a comma. For instance, “Don’t touch that!” Kevin yelled, not “Don’t touch that!”, Kevin yelled, unless…
  3. Unless the said punctuation mark is a part of a noun – a title of a piece. For instance, “This movie, Get Out!, is very disturbing!”

Reminder: Never use the exclamation mark in formal writing.

Secondary Punctuation Marks

Secondary Punctuation Marks: Hyphen and Dashes, Apostrophe, Parentheses, Slash, Quotation, and Ellipsis
The other punctuation marks that enhance our reading are: the hyphen and dashes (-,—); the parentheses (); the quotation marks (“”); the apostrophe (’); the ellipsis (…); and the slash (/).

Hyphen (-) and Dashes (—)

Surprise, not all lines you see is called just a hyphen or a dash! But really, we do understand the confusion – what is the difference, right? Here:


The hyphen is that button above the underscore on your keyboard, and it is used for compound terms (e.g. 38-year-old woman, merry-go-round, well-being, on-site visits, etc.) Now, be careful in deciding whether you should use a hyphen or not, because the use of a hyphen for a compound term depends on its function (usually utilized for nouns). The key is to avoid any ambiguity. Ask yourself if it changes the meaning without the hyphen – for example, “English language learners” versus “English-language-learners”, does this mean English people learning languages or people learning the English language?

The En Dash

The en dash works so much like a hyphen making it really confusing, however, note that the en dash is mostly used in adjectives for mostly aesthetic choice. The difference really is just the length of each dash, take it like – for hyphen, -- for en dash, and --- for em dash. The en dash is used for score presentations: UCLA beat USC with 20-11 in the last game, as well as to represent “to” for ranges such as: 1985-1995.

The Em Dash

The em dash takes on a much more important function than the en dash as it can be utilized as a comma, parentheses, or colons. Notice how much em dashes we used in this article:

“There is nothing complicated about this level --- just follow the quantity adjective with how you view your noun.”

“The non-restrictive information here is the fact that vanilla ice cream is my favorite dessert --- take that fact out, and you will be left with a complete statement.”

“A semicolon emphasizes the connection between two independent clauses --- this means that even though two clauses can stand on their own, a semicolon ensures that the connection is presented.”

You can use the em dash whenever you can in place of the parentheses or colons, especially the comma. Sometimes, we tend to pepper our papers with commas, when in fact, the em dash can take its place.

Another thing about em dash, it can take the place of any missing word, unclear statement, or intentionally omitted part from a statement. For one, in research reports where the respondent’s name is omitted for privacy: “The juvenile suspect, ---, understood the consequences of being charged as guilty for the murder.” Another thing is its use for transcriptions: “Mayday, mayday! We --- fire ---.” The Alt Code for the em dash is Alt 0151 (—).

The Parentheses

The parentheses is a substantial punctuation mark in avoiding a bad case of plagiarism. Most academic styles, especially the APA, MLA, and Harvard referencing styles uses parentheses so much for every information that needs to be cited. This is probably the principal function of parenthesis. In between is the insertion of non-restrictive elements such as the numbering in a list e.g. “We need: (1) sugar, (2) vanilla, (3) milk, and (4) lots of egg yolks”; a few specifications e.g. Law Degree (Yale, Class of 1997); time zones e.g. 17:00 (PST); or notes e.g.

The Quotation Marks

Quotation marks are primarily used in for direct quotations – this refers to using a statement by somebody else word for word. Direct quotations are used in writing literary analysis for a particular analysis of a part, and dissertations for actual quotes from a source or authority, but these marks are for short quotes only. Any quote beyond 25 words must be set of with another inch of margin – these are referred to as block quotes. Quotation marks are also used in citing aliases (Greg “The Shark” Norman), inch measurements (5’2” is 5 feet and 2 inches), translations (sayonara “goodbye”), sneer quotes (your “best friend” is right behind your back), and quoting a noun (“Mississippi” has four S’s and two P’s).

The Apostrophe

Three words: (1) contractions, (2) possessives, and (3) plurals.

  1. Contractions. Contractions are simple – shorten all what you can shorten such as: let us, it is, she is, he is, you are, do not, cannot, would not, and so on into let’s, it’s, she’s, he’s, you’re, don’t, can’t, wouldn’t, and so on.
  2. Possessives. Remember the rules of possessive nouns – add an “’s” to nouns that do not end with unless it is a proper noun e.g. lawyer’s versus Jones’s; and just add the apostrophe after a plural noun e.g. twins’ toys and Joneses’ car. However, if a proper noun is plural in itself, just use the apostrophe e.g. United States’ president or Beverly Hills’ shoppers. Another thing, if the proper noun is already in possessive form, it should remain as is. Joint possession only needs one apostrophe + s e.g. Robert and Nancy’s, or Scarlett and Tony’s. Finally, nouns that ends with the sound of “s” only takes the apostrophe when followed by the word “sake” e.g. for goodness’ sake – other words follow the conventional rule e.g. for comfort’s sake.
  3. Plurals. Let us clear the confusion on plurals and apostrophe. It is seldom used, but you need an apostrophe to form the plural of abbreviations, letters, numbers, or words that are used as nouns. For instance: three M.D.’s, four S’s, seven 9’s, eight yes’s over seven no’s.

The Ellipsis

Among all these punctuation marks, only the ellipsis can speak alone.

Kevin: How are you feeling?

Anne: . . .

An ellipsis is that three consecutive dots you see in many writings – be it formal or creative. What most people do not know is that an ellipsis must be written with a space in between each period (. . .), unless it is adjacent to a quotation mark (“A B C…”). The ellipsis is mainly used in quotations – direct quotes from scholarly sources to be cited within a research paper – as well as, actual quoted script. Specifically:

  1. An ellipsis is utilized in scripts to represent a trail of thought: “I wish I thought of . . . But, it I guess it won’t matter now.”
  2. It can also be utilized to show that a direct quote is a part of a bigger paragraph: Researchers proved that “…insert the part you need to quote here…”
  3. Another use of an ellipses in direct quotes is the spanning of two or more statements within the same context: “Insert the part you need here . . ., followed by another quote within the same context.”

The Slash

The virgule (/), or simply slash, has many meanings depending on its usage, however, a slash should never be used in formal writing except in a few instances. Here the most common uses of a slash:

Poetry. A slash in poetry indicates a line break. This is not used all the time as poems are normally written with each new stanza starting on another line. In some literary analyses, the corresponding part of the poem is written in a single line, therefore the slash is utilized to suggest a line break: “Then took the other, as just as fair,/ And having perhaps the better claim,/ Because it was grassy and wanted wear;/ Though as for that the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same,” – The Road Not Taken, Robert Frost

  1. As Per. The slash is also used to mean “per” such as $1,000/scholar is to $1,000 per scholar.
  2. As And. Unknown to many, a slash can also mean “and” in some cases such as in names of courses: JD/MBA program at Yale.
  3. As Or. The slash is most known for being utilized as “or” for instance in technical writing. The slash is seen in most documents citing various instances e.g. “An accumulation of 30 minutes of tardiness and/or three instances of tardiness, whichever comes first, is equivalent to one offense;” “The plaintiff shall proceed to court hearing, by then, he/she is allowed…”
  4. As “Cum”. “Cum” is a Latin preposition used in English compositions to mean as “also used as”, “along with”, or “combined with”. For example, “library-cum-office (library/office)” means a library which is also utilized as an office, and “editor-cum-writer (editor/writer)” means an editor and a writer at the same time.
  5. Abbreviation. We see this all the time, we just do not realize it. Examples of abbreviated terms with a slash are: c/o (care of), w/ (with) and w/o (without), and N/A (not applicable) among others.
  6. Fractions or Division. We all had a little while with the slash back in grade school when we were learning about fractions where it is used to separate the numerator from the denominator e.g. ½, ¼, and so on, or to indicate a division equation separating the dividend and the divisor e.g. 8/4 = 2, and 700/50 = 14.

It is extensive, yes, however it the use of punctuation is simple. If it feels wrong, it must be wrong. When using various punctuation marks, ask yourself the following questions, and know their corresponding answers:

1. Did I use two terminal punctuation marks? (Revise because there should only be one.)

2. Am I sure this is a compound adjective? (No you are not, grab a dictionary.)

3. Did I lose my breath when reading this sentence? (If you did, you may want to use a comma.)

4. Was I supposed to use a colon? (Did you introduce a list? If not, you probably should not.)

5. Why is there too much commas? (Revise your sentence, you might have too much non-essential information.)

6. Should I use apostrophe + s or just apostrophe? (Well, we can answer this question anytime for you!)

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