Maybe you have heard the story about how punctuation saves lives. Clearly, there is a difference between
In addition to saving lives, using punctuation properly will help your writing be clean and clear and help you build your credibility as a writer.
Do we really need apostrophes?
When you send a text message, you probably do not bother with apostrophes right? It makes sense that we might not worry about properly punctuating possessives and contractions in a text message, but it’s very important to remember that we do need to use apostrophes correctly in other writing situations.
Academics frequently debate about whether or not text messaging is going to kill the poor apostrophe. In his essay “Dear Apostrophe: C Ya,” Rob Jenkins (2012) writes, “[O]ne of my professors, talking about the way language evolves over time, predicted that the next evolutionary stage would involve common punctuation marks. Specifically, he said, the apostrophe would eventually cease to exist” (para. 1).
This may be true, but the apostrophe is not dead yet!
So if you have been text messaging so long that you forgot what the apostrophe is for, the following pages should be helpful.
Using Apostrophes to Make Words Possessive
Beginning writers sometimes mistakenly add apostrophes to make words plural, but this is not how the apostrophe is used; the apostrophe is used to show possession or ownership.
my friend’s DVD
Here’s a test you can use to determine whether an apostrophe is needed—we call it the “of” test. In other words, can you reword the sentence and substitute the apostrophe with “of”?
|Using an Apostrophe||Using “of” test|
|my friend’s DVD||the DVD of my friend|
|Beth’s zombie plan||the zombie plan of Beth|
|James’s canned goods*||the canned goods of James|
|*James’ is also acceptable|
If you just mean to make a word plural, you should not add an apostrophe. Here is an example of incorrect usage:
Here, you would not use an apostrophe because there is no ownership being established. You can double check this example and see that this use of the apostrophe would not pass the “of” test.
The planned of the students just does not make sense.
The sentence above would not pass the test and should read as follows:
Making plural words possessive can be confusing at times because we so often add an sto a noun to make it plural. All of those s’s can be a little overwhelming.
But the rules are pretty clear on this issue.
To make plural nouns that do not end in s possessive, add ’s.
the mice’s tiny tails
To make plural nouns that end in s possessive, add just the ’.
our zombie fortresses’ weaknesses
Using Apostrophes to Create Contractions
Apostrophes are also used in contractions where the apostrophe takes the place of letters that are omitted when you join two words. Here are some examples:
you are = you’re
it is = it’s
did not = didn’t
You can also use an apostrophe to stand in for omitted numbers.
It’s important to note that contractions and using apostrophes to stand in for omitted numbers is generally considered too informal for formal, academic writing.
Some students wonder why they should bother learning these rules, then. The answer is that there are plenty of writing situations where contractions are appropriate. It’s just that contractions are too informal for most of the formal papers you write for college and should be avoided in those situations.
Tips from the Professor
While most of the rules regarding apostrophes are pretty straightforward, there are some situations related to apostrophes that seem to give a lot of people a lot of trouble. Here are some helpful tips:
- It’s is a contraction for it is. If you need to make it possessive, as in its creepy eyes, you shouldn’t use an apostrophe. Because of the contraction, the possessive its goes against the normal rules.
- Sometimes, you’ll see writers use an apostrophe when referring to decades like the 1980’s. However, it’s standard now to write the 1980s without the apostrophe.
- To make a compound word such as mother-in-law possessive, just add an ’s to the last word. Here is an example:
- If you need to show joint possession, only the last word should be made possessive, as illustrated in this example:
Watch this video of the grammar professor, as she helps her student understand how to use apostrophes correctly.
Using Brackets for Clarity
A man carrying a bow and arrow in a mystical image.You may not use brackets often, but they can become helpful punctuation in academic writing as you integrate quotes into your essays. You should use brackets when you have to alter text within a quote to make something clear for your readers.
The brackets let your readers know you have made changes to the quote in some way. The material inside the brackets is your addition.
For example, if you need to add information to a quote for clarity, you would use brackets.
She said, “They [the vampire hunters] were after me, but it was all a big mistake.”
Here, your readers would know the vampire hunters were not a part of that particular quote and you added the words for clarity.
When do you use the colon?
Many writers think the colon is such a confusing piece of punctuation that they simply avoid it altogether, but it can be fun to use a colon every now and then. Plus, the colon can add some important variety and excitement to your writing. So why not review this list of uses for the colon and give it a try?
In most cases, essentially, a colon signals “anticipation”—the reader knows that what follows the colon will define, illustrate, or explain what preceded it. This is certainly the case in the colon’s first three uses, as described below:
- Use a colon to separate two independent clauses (complete thoughts) when you want to emphasize the second independent clause.
- Use a colon to separate an independent clause from a list that follows the independent clause.
TIP! You shouldn’t use a colon when the introductory portion of the sentence is a dependent clause (incomplete thought). The first part of the sentence must be an independent clause or a complete sentence. So the following would NOT work:
- Use a colon to separate an independent clause from an appositive (a noun or noun phrase that renames or identifies a noun or noun phrase right next to it) that follows the independent clause.
- You should also use a colon at the end of a formal, business letter greeting.
- And, of course, you should use a colon to separate the hour from the minutes when writing numerical time.
The Comma: Tricky, Mysterious, and Subjective?
People often think commas are tricky and mysterious, and while they may be tricky if we aren’t familiar with the rules, they are not mysterious at all. They are not subjective, and no matter what your third-grade teacher told you, it’s probably not a good idea to place a comma wherever you feel the need to take a breath. What happens if you have a stuffy nose from a cold? Your essay might be littered with unnecessary commas.
There are actually some pretty clear-cut rules regarding commas, and while some rules seem to be clearer than others, at least in terms of how much most people understand, there are some basic comma rules that can help you know when and when not to use a comma.
With Coordinating Conjunctions
Use a comma with a coordinating conjunction when combining two independent clauses.
An independent clause is a term for a complete thought or sentence with both a subject and a verb. A coordinating conjunction is a conjunction that combines two equal elements and can combine two complete sentences. We have seven coordinating conjunctions in American English:
You may have heard of these referred to as the FANBOYS, which is a great way to help you remember all seven of the coordinating conjunctions.
Coordinating conjunctions can connect all kinds of words and phrases, but when they are used to connect independent clauses, we must place a comma before the coordinating conjunction, as illustrated in the following example:
TIP! If the coordinating conjunction does not connect two independent clauses, you would not need a comma before the coordinating conjunction, as illustrated in the following example:
In a Series
Use a comma to separate items in a series (three or more things).
You should even place a comma between the last two, although some writing style guidelines now omit this comma. In academic culture, we still use the serial or “Oxford” comma, so even punctuation rules have a rhetorical context. In some situations, you may not use the serial comma, but in academic writing you should, as illustrated in these examples:
She stayed up all night watching scary movies and ate popcorn, peanuts, and chocolate.She ran into the house, shut the door, and locked all of the locks because she thought a werewolf was behind her.
With Introductory Phrases
Use commas after introductory words or phrases.
Subordinating conjunctions are words that connect, but unlike coordinating conjunctions, which connect equal parts, subordinating conjunctions connect dependent clauses (incomplete thoughts) to independent clauses. When you see a subordinating conjunction at the beginning of a sentence, this signals an introductory phrase, and you know a comma is coming at the end of that subordinate phrase, as illustrated in these examples:
Because his favorite team lost the Super Bowl, he would not speak to anyone about the game for two years.Although they have stored a lot of food in their basement, I am not sure if they have enough for a zombie apocalypse.
Some of the most common subordinating conjunctions include the following:
TIP! When these same phrases appear at the end of a sentence, they are not set off by commas, except in cases of strong contrast—for instance, in the case of the word although.
He would not speak to anyone about the game for two years because his favorite team lost the Super Bowl.I am not sure if they have enough for a zombie apocalypse, although they have stored a lot of food in their basement.
You should also place a comma after introductory words, as illustrated in this example:
Essential & Nonessential Information
Use commas in the middle of a sentence to set off words or phrases that are not essential to the meaning of the sentence.
The New York Yankees, who happen to be my favorite team, have won more World Series than any other team in baseball.The Boston Red Sox, however, have won the World Series only seven times.
This rule can be a little tricky because of some misinformation we may have received at some point in elementary school. Were you ever taught that the trick to determining whether or not you need commas around information in the middle of a sentence was to pull out that information and see if the sentence was still complete? If the sentence was still complete, then you would know you needed a comma around that extra information.
Well, that doesn’t always work so well.
The best tip is to think about how meaning would be affected if you pulled out the word or phrase. If the meaning is not really affected, the word or phrase is not essential and should be placed inside a set of commas.
Conversely, it’s important to remember that essential words or phrases should not be set off with commas.
An adjective is a word that describes a noun, and when we have two coordinate or “equal” adjectives describing the same noun, we need to place a comma between those adjectives, as illustrated in this example:
If the adjectives aren’t coordinate, or “equal,” you should not separate them with a comma, as illustrated in this example:
A good trick to help you determine whether or not adjectives are coordinate is to try reading the sentence with the adjectives in reverse order or to add the word and between them. If the sentence would still make sense to you, the adjectives are coordinate, and you would need to separate them with a comma if they are describing a single noun.
Shifts at the End
Use a comma to separate coordinate elements at the end of a sentence or to indicate a distinct shift at the end of a sentence.
This comma rule is pretty straightforward. If you have a distinct shift at the end in content or a shift at the end for emphasis, you should set off that shift at the end with a comma.
You want me to fight Chuck Norris for you? I am brave, not crazy.You are going to stand in line for the new Halo 4, aren’t you?
Use a comma between the main discourse and a quote.
Whether you are writing dialog or setting up a quote from a source in your research essay, you should use a comma to separate the main discourse from your quote.
As Bilbo Baggins said, “I like half of you half as well as I should like, and like less than half of you half as well as you deserve!”My favorite line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth is when the witches say,“Double, double, toil and trouble; fire, burn; and cauldron, bubble.”
Places & Dates
Use commas to set apart geographical names and to separate items in dates, except for between the month and the day.
When I heard zombies had been located in New York, New York, I knew it was time to move to Los Angeles, California.It is a good thing that letter made it to 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey, England.
I know the Mayan calendar indicates the end of the world on December 21, 2012, but I am going to stick with Nostradamus because he gave us until 3797.
Finally, don’t abuse the poor comma. It hasn’t done anything to you. Well, it may have caused you some stress from time to time, but you should not abuse it. You should definitely not use a comma in the following instances:
- To separate a subject from a verb.
- Between two verbs or verb phrases in a compound predicate.
- Between two nouns or noun phrases in a compound subject.
- To set off a dependent clauses at the end of a sentence, except in cases of strong contrast.
Tips from the Professor
Students often struggle with commas when it comes to using them correctly with the coordinating conjunctions—and, but, or, for, nor, so, and yet.
The important thing to remember is that you have to keep in mind what else is around that conjunction. You can’t assume that every time you use and you’ll need a comma. Sometimes, you will, and, sometimes, you won’t.
In the following interactive video, the Grammar Professor will explain more about why you have to think about what surrounds your coordinating conjunction before you can decide whether or not you need that comma.
What is that dash for anyway?
The dash is kind of like the superhero of punctuation. Not only does it have a cool, sleek name, it’s often referred to as the “super comma.” But you can’t just go around using dashes because you want super commas. There are some rules you should follow, and you don’t want to overuse any one type of punctuation.
The following two rules should help you make good decisions regarding that dashing dash:
- You use dashes to set apart or emphasize the content that is within the dashes or after a dash. The content within the dashes or after the dash gets more emphasis than it would if you just used commas or parentheses.
His ideas regarding an evacuation in case of a zombie attack are certainly controversial—even radical.I think the reason those books became so popular—so much so that they became a cultural phenomenon—is that the world was ready for a little bit of magic.
- You can also use dashes to set apart an appositive phrase or extra information that contains commas.
Of course, while the rules related to using dashes are relatively simple, there seems to be great confusion over how the dash is actually created in word processing programs.
To be sure, the dash is no hyphen. The hyphen is smaller and comes between words like mother-in-law. The dash is longer and is created by placing two hyphens in a row. Then, after you space after the word after the dash, most word processing programs will turn those two little hyphens — into a dash—like so.
What are those three little dots for?
A lot of people seem to use an ellipsis to show a pause or hint at the future in informal writing. Ellipses appear this way frequently in Facebook messages and emails. Interestingly, although this use of an ellipsis was technically incorrect at one time, it’s becoming “more” correct over time with some style manuals suggesting you can use an ellipsis in this manner if you use it sparingly.
Still, in formal writing, it’s probably not a good idea to use an ellipsis to show a pause or to create anticipation of some kind. Generally, academic style guides recommend using an ellipsis to show that you have omitted words in quotes. Here is an example of how to use ellipses in a formal, academic writing situation.
The key is that you shouldn’t change the meaning of the quote. The second quote here isn’t nearly so witty, but the basic idea hasn’t been changed. When you have long quotes and you need to eliminate some unnecessary information from those quotes, an ellipsis can be very helpful.
Making the Ellipsis
Of course, now that you know when to use an ellipsis you may be wondering how to make one. An ellipsis is three periods or dots, and most style guides call for a space between each dot. So, you would type period, space, period, space, and period. You also need a space before and after the ellipsis. One tip is to make sure your ellipsis does not stretch to the next line. It must be all on one line. If you are ending a sentence with an ellipsis, it may look like you have a four-dot ellipsis, but there is really no such thing. The first dot is your period. Then, you have your ellipsis. In this situation, you will also put a space between each period.
Example:According to Jones (2012), “The Walking Dead series has added to the new popularity of zombies. . . . However, several movies are responsible for the initial interest” (p. 31).
When should you use an exclamation mark?
Honestly, you won’t use a lot of exclamation marks in academic writing. The exclamation mark is kind of the equivalent of yelling, and most academic writing situations don’t call for much yelling, though you may feel like yelling about some of your assignments.
However, exclamation marks do serve an important function by adding emphasis to commands or other phrases, and you may find yourself needing the exclamation mark when you write dialog for certain narrative assignments.
You can certainly see the difference between a sentence punctuated with a period and one punctuated with an exclamation mark.
Watch out!Zombies are coming.
Zombies are coming!
In most cases, you should be careful with exclamation marks and make sure the situation calls for them. They are generally considered pretty informal, and a particularly famous writer had this to say about them:
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of The Great Gatsby
“The basic rule of hyphens . . . is that they’re used to form compound modifiers, that is, to link two or more words that are acting as adjectives or sometimes adverbs.” (Casagrande, 2006, p. 62)
Okay, what? What are compound modifiers?
The rule is actually simpler than it seems. Essentially, when you have two or more words that modify or describe a noun that follows, you should hyphenate those words. But a word of caution: you shouldn’t hyphenate the same words if they come after the noun.
Everyone knew that relationship was not long term.I really need a fuel-efficient car to save money for more video games.
To save money for video games, I bought a car with better fuel efficiency.I have a three-year-old son who mimics every word you say.
I have a son who mimics every word you say; he is three years old.
Hyphens also have other uses including acting with prefixes, suffixes, nouns, letters, and numbers, and clarifying the meaning of words. Generally, you will hyphenate words that begin with self, all, ex, and words that begin with a capital letter or number. Here are some examples:
Of course, we should also hyphenate compound numbers like twenty-five or thirty-seven.
Finally, it’s important to note that hyphen “rules” are more like the Pirate Code in that they are really more like guidelines. Even the “experts” will disagree about whether or not some words or groups of words should be hyphenated. It’s definitely a good idea to double check with the style manual you are using, such as the APA or MLA manuals, and for tricky words, you can consult a good dictionary.
Parentheses: More Than Helpful Emoticon Tools
Interestingly, parentheses can do more than make smiley faces 🙂 and sad faces 🙁 like these. Although they are quite handy for these important emoticons, they serve an important function in formal writing, as well.
Parentheses are used to set off information in a sentence that is important but not really a part of the main message. It’s important to remember that your sentence should make sense if you eliminate the parentheses and all that is contained between them.
You’ll probably use parentheses most often in your research papers because both APA and MLA formatting require in-text citations using parentheses. So right after a quote or any other borrowed information, you should include an in-text citation in parentheses, as illustrated in these examples:
MLA (Jones 131).
Periods: We Go Way Back!
The period seems pretty straightforward. After all, for most of us, this was the first punctuation we learned when we were learning to read. See Jane run. To our first-grader selves, that meant, See Jane run, stop, take a break, keep going. You can do this thing.
Periods are certainly important punctuation because they are what we most often use to separate complete thoughts or independent clauses. Periods are how we end our sentences most of the time.
However, periods do serve another important function in the world of punctuation: You should use a period with abbreviations.
Then, of course, there is the question about how many spaces should come after a period. If you learned to type on those things called typewriters, you learned to double space after all periods at the ends of sentences. However, this isn’t always the case anymore. Generally, we just single space after all periods, though you should consult the style guide you are using. APA style now requires a double space after a period at the end of a sentence, after requiring a single space for awhile.
In its sixth edition, the APA decided to go back to double-spacing after periods, just when we learned not to do this. Although the APA says this decision was to “aid readability,” it seems odd since the reason everyone moved away from the double space after the period was because it wasn’t necessary for readability in word-processed text.
It may seem like APA made this change just to be difficult, but the lesson here is clear. The “rules” change all the time and are dependent upon your style guide. It’s important to stay up to date.
The Question Mark: It Raises Some Good Questions
Question marks are pretty simple. You should use a question mark at the end of a question like this:
However, there is one situation involving question marks that seems to give people a lot of trouble. What about when you have a sentence that is part statement and part question? What do you do then? You have a couple of options, depending upon the situation. You might have a sentence like this:
In this case, the statement before the question isn’t complete, so you can simply use a comma to separate the statement from the question.
Of course, the sample sentence is a bit awkward, so it might be preferable to rewrite the sentence. You could change the sentence so the first part, the statement part, is a complete sentence. In this situation, you might have a sentence like the following:
Don’t Forget the Quotation Marks
Quotation marks are how we tell our readers we are including words that aren’t our own. Whether we’re using dialog or quote material from our research, quotation marks are important punctuation. The reality is that punctuation marks can really make a difference in whether or not you are breaking the law. After all, if you use someone’s words and don’t let your readers know you are using someone else’s words, that constitutes plagiarism, which is most certainly illegal.
So, if you have doubts about this whole quotation thing, the following pages will be extremely helpful. This super-cool video can help as well.
Grammarheads. (2012, Sep. 12). Quotation marks song. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OLB1IUNdoSE
Quotation Marks with Dialog
You may not find yourself needing to use dialog very often in academic writing, but you may be asked to write narrative essays in some classes, which often contain dialog.
When you use dialog, it’s important to use quotation marks to set apart the speech from the rest of your text. Otherwise, separating the dialog from the rest of the writing can be very confusing for readers.
Quotation Marks with Quoted Material
You should use quotation marks any time you use words directly from another source. Sometimes, students think putting a citation or reference at the end “covers it,” but you must use quotation marks to indicate borrowed words.
If you paraphrase a source, this means you have put the information in your own words, and you don’t need to use quotation marks. You should still cite with an in-text citation, but you shouldn’t use quotation marks.
The key to borrowing information from sources is to remember that any words appearing inside quotation marks belong to someone else. Words that do not appear inside quotation marks are assumed to be yours.
What are those single quotes for?
Now that you know what quotation marks are used for, you may wonder about the single quotation marks—the one that look like ‘this.’
Single quotation marks are used for quotes within quotes, as illustrated in the following example:
You may even encounter situations where you’ll close single quotation marks and double quotation marks at the same time, leaving you with “something like ‘this.’” Don’t worry if this happens. It is correct. It just means the quote within the quote ended at the same time the main quote ended.
The Semicolon: It’s Not a Strong Comma
It’s true. The semicolon is used for more things than just winking in text. 😉
One of the main uses of a semicolon is to separate two independent clauses.
First, let’s take a step back and explain the difference between an independent clause and a dependent clause. An independent clause expresses a complete thought. An independent clause is usually called a sentence. Conversely, a dependent clause is a group of words that may contain a subject and verb but does not express a complete thought.
I ran quickly to escape the zombie I encountered on Main Street.Dependent clause:
Although I ran quickly to escape the zombie I encountered on Main Street,
Can you see the difference?
The first example is a complete sentence, and the second example isn’t. Of course, we also know the first one has a happy ending, and we aren’t so sure about the second one.
So now that you understand what an independent clause is and that a semicolon connects two independent clauses, we can begin to look at how the semicolon can be used.
Semicolons to Join Clauses
You should use a semicolon when you’re joining two independent clauses without a connecting word. The semicolon functions, structurally, just like a period. The difference is that the semicolon between the two independent clauses shows they are connected, as illustrated in the following examples:
If you want me to vote for you, you are going to need to tell me what I want to hear; if you are lying, I guess I will worry about that later.I am so tired of spending so much money on canned food for my zombie apocalypse hoard; I am pretty sure the grocery store clerks are laughing at me behind my back.
Using Semicolons in Lists
So right after telling you that semicolons shouldn’t be used like commas, we should discuss one situation where the semicolon does function more like a comma. However, this is a very particular situation, so you’ll want to pay close attention.
You should use semicolons when you are separating items in a list that contain commas. Here is an example:
Because the items in the series contain commas themselves, it would be confusing to add more commas to the situation. In this particular instance, the semicolon separates the items in a series.
Tips from the Professor
Semicolons can feel a little confusing because sometimes they’re used to separate items in a series, as mentioned on the previous page, but they are really nothing like a comma. In terms of sentence structure, they can separate independent clauses, just like a period.
If you have the habit of using a semicolon like a comma, it’s important to work to break that habit. When you edit your writing, it’s a good idea to circle all of the semicolons you have used. Then, ask yourself why each semicolon is there. If you’re using it like a strong comma, you’ll need to revise.
The following video from the Grammar Professor can help you if you continue to struggle with semicolons.