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A Comprehensive Guide To Punctuation

It may be hard to believe but there was a time when you might pick up a book and be expected to decipher a text without the aid of uppercase letters, punctuation, or (horrors!) spacing. Can you imagine? One word would run into another, not to mention entire sentences and paragraphs.

We are mighty thankful that punctuation exists—even if that means we have to experience the minor inconvenience of sorting out which one to use in those tricky instances that can provoke heated grammar debates.

If you too like a little punctuation with your words, you might start here to learn not only the basics, but also the nuances of each kind of mark.

Types of punctuation marks 

Let’s take a trip back to our schooldays, shall we? These are the basic marks that we learned when we were first starting to read and write. But our learning didn’t stop there. Each type of punctuation mark has unique uses we explored in later grammar courses—or are here to discover!

 

  • Periods, question marks, and exclamation marks
  • Commas, colons, and semicolons
  • Hyphens and dashes
  • Quotation marks and ellipses
  • Brackets, braces, and parentheses

Periods, question marks, and exclamation marks 

To start, these three punctuation marks find use at the end of sentences. Each has a specific purpose, and they’re all common enough we rely on them every day. That’s why we include them in our guide “6 Common Types of Punctuation Marks,” where you can learn more about each one.

Periods ( . ) 

Periods are placed at the end of a declarative sentence when a statement does not require an answer. Of course, they’re also used to punctuate some abbreviations and initials. But did you know the period is at the heart of a generational debate about spacing

Question marks ( ? ) 

Question marks are used at the end of a sentence after a direct interrogatory statement or one expressing doubt. You may be curious as to whether to place a question mark inside or outside of quotation marks. British and American English have different answers to this tricky question.

Exclamation marks ( ! )

The exclamation mark is used to show surprise, incredulity, praise, a command—basically, it shows emotion in a statement. It also have some special uses: it may replace a question mark when irony or an emphatic tone is meant, e.g., How could you! You might be wondering if this punctuation mark is used differently in formal and casual (i.e., text messages) writing. The answer is yes! (Or yes!!!)

Commas, colons, and semicolons 

Once students master the basic punctuation marks, they’ve got to decipher the difference between commas, colons, and semicolons, which often confuse even the most experienced writers. Fortunately, we have the usage guides you need. 

Commas ( , ) 

The comma is most commonly used to separate or set off items that might otherwise be misunderstood, such as: members of a series that includes and, or, or nor; two verb phrases in a sentence; or an appositive. Commas are also used in dialogue, placed before a quotation following an introductory phrase, e.g., She said quietly, “I love you.” 

Of course, commas have countless uses—and writers have countless questions about how to use the comma: Are you pro Oxford comma or not? How are they used with conjunctionsHow are they used in greetings? We have these guides too.

Colons ( : ) 

A colon can introduce explanatory information and lists. For example, it’s used before a final clause that explains, or amplifies something in that sentence, e.g., The dissertation needs work: it lacks flow. A series or summarizing statement can be introduced with a colon as well, e.g., The following is on our list of places to go: grocery store, toy store, doughnut shop. You’ll want to know how to capitalize after a colon, and how to tell them apart from commas and semicolons. 

Semicolons ( ; )

Sometimes this punctuation is regarded as a weak period or strong comma, and it is used in ways similar to both periods and commas. And that’s why it can baffle some writers; a semicolon can do several tasks. For example, it marks the end of a clause and indicates that a clause following is closely related to it. Or it can divide a sentence to make its meaning clearer. Before you dive into debates about how to use it with fellow grammar lovers, make sure you know the ins and outs of this mark.

Hyphens and dashes 

You’ll find it important to learn the distinctions between all the dashes. Some might say the hyphen, along with its cousins the en and em dash, may be the most misunderstood of all punctuation marks.

Hyphens ( – )

A hyphen is a short line that connects the parts of a compound word or a word divided for any purpose. They can also connect words themselves. For example, in the phrase up-to-date technology, we hyphenate up-to-date to signal that these three words are to be read as one concept. Believe it or not, the use of the hyphen has changed a lot over time—words like tomorrow were once hyphenated (to-morrow)

En dashes ( – )

Next up (according to length) is the en dash. This mark denotes a range (of numbers, for example) or connects the endpoints of a route. It can also show a contrast or connection between two words. There are varied uses for the en dash, so the easiest way to learn more about them is by reading a comprehensive article dedicated to this line.

Em dashes ( — )

If you’re in the em dash fan club, you likely need no introduction. (Some have proclaimed their love of this punctuation mark with em dash tattoos.) This one is handy for writers because it offers a way to set off a word or clause for emphasis. Or, it can signal an interruption (see our article on interrupting sentences for more on that!) or amplification of an idea. But don’t just take our word for it—read all about it here!

Quotation marks and ellipses 

Quotation marks ( “” )

Quotation marks set off direct quotations—which are what we call the sentences that indicate someone in a book or article, for example, is quoted exactly as written. A quotation begins and ends with quotation marks: “I am getting worried,” he said, “that she has not called.” Of course, that’s not their only use, and dealing with quotation marks can be problematic (especially when trying to decide if another punctuation mark goes within or outside of a quotation mark). We’ve got this topic and more covered in our guide to quotation marks.

Brackets and parentheses

Brackets, braces, and parentheses offset extra information, which can be as short as a number or a word, or as long as a few sentences. Many of these marks also appear in computer science and programming, too, where they perform unique roles. Our guide to brackets and parentheses explains the difference between these commonly confused marks.

Brackets ( [ ] )

Angle brackets ( < > )

The angle bracket or chevron is most often used in complex math problems. How are they related to goats? You’ll have to read more to find out!

Square brackets ( { } )

Square brackets are used inside of parentheses to denote something subordinate to the subordinate clause. Here’s an example from the 13th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style: “During a prolonged visit to Australia, Gleuk and an assistant (James Green, who was later to make his own study of a flightless bird [the kiwi] in New Zealand) spent several difficult months observing the survival behavior of cassowaries and emus.”

Curly brackets ( { } )

Curly brackets have a variety of names; they are called braces, curly brackets, or squiggly brackets. Usually these types of brackets are used for lists, but online, they also signify hugging in electronic communication. (Aw!)

Parentheses ( )

Parentheses always appear in pairs to set aside a part of a sentence or discussion. They’re sometimes used where commas would also be appropriate. Parentheses can also be used as interrupters in sentences to create a more informal, casual style of writing. Before you add too many of these to your writing, make sure you’re using them appropriately.

Apostrophes and slashes

Apostrophe ( ‘ )

An apostrophe can show possession or indicate that letters or numbers have been omitted. For example: I can’t instead of I cannot, let’s dance instead of of let us, and it’s a beautiful day instead of it is. An apostrophe can also indicate ownership. Beyond these common uses, an apostrophe also accompanies single letters and numbers that designate decades. (The apostrophe also creates some thorny problems: is it Veterans’ Day or Veteran’s Day?)

Slash ( / )

The slash is also sometimes known as a virgule, solidus, oblique, or slant. (How’s that for fancy names?) It can represent a word that has been omitted. For example, it can take the place of a conjunction (yours/mine, love/hate) and accompany conjunctions (and/or). It has many uses; you’ll also want to note the difference between a forward slash and backward slash.

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