Punctuation Rules: Your Essential Guide to Punctuation Marks
By Mohamed Zayed
MA Researcher in English Linguistics
Using correct punctuation is important because punctuation conveys meaning just as words do. Consider these two sentences:
Both sentences are commands, but the first sentence would be correct only in a society of cannibals! Learn and practice the rules of punctuation until you are confident about using them correctly.
(1) The Comma (,)
There are many comma rules in English, but you may remember them more easily if you realize that they can be organized into just four main groups: introducers, coordinators, inserters, and tags.
a. lntroducer Commas:
An introducer comma follows any element that comes in front of the first independent clause in a sentence.
Therefore, I plan to quit smoking.
Nervously, I threw away my cigarettes.
As a result, I feel terrible right now.
After 16 years of smoking, it is not easy to quit.
Having smoked for 16 years, I find it difficult to quit.
Because I have a chronic cough, my doctor recommended that I quit immediately.
"Stop smoking today," she advised.
b. Coordinator Commas
Together with a coordinating conjunction, a comma links coordinate (equal) elements in a sentence.
She has a good job, yet she is always broke.
They were tired, so they went home early.
He does not enjoy skiing, ice-skating, or sledding.
Cecille speaks English, Spanish, French, and Creole.
(No comma with only two items: Chen speaks Mandarin and Taiwanese.)
c. Inserter Commas
An inserter comma is used before and after any element that is inserted into the middle of an independent clause.
My uncle, however, refuses to quit smoking.
My father, on the other hand, has never smoked.
There is no point in living, according to my uncle, if you do not do what you enjoy.
My aunt, his wife, died of lung cancer.
My cousins, grieving over their mother's death, resolved never to smoke.
My mother, who just celebrated her fiftieth birthday, enjoys an occasional cigarette.
"I have tried to quit dozens of times," she says, "but I can't."
d. Tag Commas
A tag comma is used when adding certain elements to the end of a sentence.
My uncle believes in drinking a daily glass of wine, too.
He appears to be in good health, however.
He swims for an hour every day, for example.
He also plays tennis, beating me most of the time.
It is not logical, is it?
He laughs as he says, "I will outlive all of you."
(2) The Semicolon (;)
Using semicolons is not difficult if you remember that a semicolon (;) is more like a period than a comma. It is a very strong punctuation mark. Semicolons are used in three places:
1. Between two sentences that are closely connected in idea
2. Before conjunctive adverbs and some transition phrases when they are followed by an independent clause
3. Between items in a series when the items themselves contain commas
a. Between Sentences
Use a semicolon at the end of a sentence when the following sentence is closely connected in meaning. You could also use a period, but when the sentences are connected in meaning, a semicolon indicates the connection.
Independent clause; independent clause.
Andrew did not accept the job offer; he wants to go to graduate school.
Computer use is increasing; computer crime is, too.
b. Before Connectors
Use a semicolon before conjunctive adverbs such as however, therefore, nevertheless,
moreover, and furthermore.
Also use a semicolon before transition phrases such as for example, as a result, that is, or in fact when they are followed by an independent clause.
Skiing is dangerous; nevertheless, millions of people ski.
I have never been to Asia; in fact, I have never been outside the country.
c. Between items in a Series
Semicolons are used to separate items in a series when some of the items already contain commas.
I cannot decide which car I like best: the Ferrari, with its quick acceleration and sporty look; the midsize Ford Taurus, with its comfortable seats and ease of handling; or the compact Geo, with its economical fuel consumption.
(3) The colons (:)
Using a colon at the end of an independent clause focuses attention on the words following the colon. After a colon, we often write lists and direct quotations.
a. Before lists
Use a colon to introduce a list.
I need the following groceries: eggs, milk, and coffee.
The causes of the U.S. Civil War were as follows: the economic domination of the North, the slavery issue, and the issue of states' rights versus federal intervention.
· Do not use a colon to introduce a list after the verb to be unless you add the following or as follows.
To me, the most important things in life are: good health, a happy home life, and a satisfying occupation.
To me, the most important things in life are good health, a happy home life, and a satisfying occupation.
b. Before long Quotations
Use a colon to introduce a quotation longer than three lines. This type of quote is indented on both sides, and no quotation marks are used.
As Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable state in their book The History of the English Language:
There is no such thing as uniformity in language. Not only does the speech of one community differ from that of another, but the speech of different individuals of a single community, even different members of the same family, is marked by individual peculiarities.
c. In Expressions of Time:
Use a colon between the numbers for hours and minutes when indicating the time of day.
Helen left the class at 12:30.
d. After Formal Salutations
Use a colon after the salutation of a formal letter.
Dear Professor Einstein:
In informal letters, use a comma.
(4) Quotation Marks
Quotation marks (“. ..”) have three basic uses: to enclose direct quotations, to enclose unusual words, and to enclose titles of short works.
a. Around. Direct Quotations
Use quotation marks around a direct quotation that is shorter than three lines. A direct quotation states the exact words of a speaker and is usually introduced by a reporting phrase such as he said or as the report stated.
· Punctuation with quotation marks can be a little tricky. Here are some rules to follow:
1. Separate a quoted sentence from a reporting phrase with a comma.
The receptionist said, "The doctor is unavailable right now. Please wait."
"We have already been waiting for an hour," we answered.
2. Periods and commas go inside the second quotation mark of a pair.
"I thought he was responsible," he said, "but he isn't."
3. Colons and semicolons go outside quotation marks.
"Give me liberty or give me death": these are famous words.
4. Exclamation points (!) and question marks (?) go inside quotation marks if they are a part of the quotation; otherwise, they go outside.
"Is it eight o'clock?" she asked.
Did she say, "It is eight o'clock"?
5. Begin each quoted sentence with a capital letter.
6. Use single quotation marks (‘.. .’) to enclose a quotation within a quotation.
As John F. Kennedy reminded us, “We should never forget the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, ‘I have a dream.’”
b. Around. Unusual Words
Use quotation marks around words with an unusual, especially ironic, meanings.
The “banquet” consisted of hot dogs and soft drinks.
The little girl proudly showed her “masterpiece”: a crayon drawing of a flower.
c. Around Titles of Short Works
Use quotation marks around the titles of articles from periodical journals, magazines, and newspapers; chapters of books; short stories; poems; and songs.
In the article “The Future of Manned Space Travel,” published in the July 19, 2004, issue of Space, the authors explore the problems of a manned flight to Mars.
The Times of London recently published an article entitled "Who Needs the Monarchy?" in which the relevancy of the English monarchy was discussed.
Note: Underline or italicize titles of books, journals, magazines, newspapers, and movies.