I’ve done a lot of editing work over the years, both professionally and academically, on myself and on others, and punctuation is one of the biggest things to trip people up. I’m giving you a brief punctuation guide below, looking at five of the most important types of punctuation. You may notice that quotation marks are missing. That’s because I plan to create an ENTIRELY different post about them and dialogue in the future. For now, enjoy these tips.
Number One: Semicolons ;
Semicolons can ONLY be used to connect two complete sentences. Not one complete sentence and then an add-on because that’s what commas are for. Two complete sentences, meaning that they at least have a subject (someone or something that performs an action) and a verb (the action that the subject performs). The sentences should be related to one another, as well. Also, the sentences should not already be linked by a conjunction word (i.e. and, but, or, etc.). Here are some examples:
INCORRECT: Cumulus clouds are fluffier than cirrus clouds; which appear as white streaks in the sky.
INCORRECT: Cumulus clouds are fluffier than cirrus clouds; I like llamas.
INCORRECT: Cumulus clouds are fluffier than cirrus clouds; and they are closer to the ground than cirrus clouds.
CORRECT: Cumulus clouds are fluffier than cirrus clouds; cirrus clouds look like white streaks in the sky.
ALSO CORRECT (using a comma): Cumulus clouds are fluffier than cirrus clouds, which appear as white streaks in the sky.
Number Two: Colon :
One common misconception about colons is that they can be used at the start of any list. But this isn’t true. They can only be used at the start of a list if they come immediately after a full sentence. This goes for all uses of colons in prose.
INCORRECT: I have a lot of groceries to buy today, including: milk, carrots, a baguette, eggs, and apples.
This is incorrect because you would never have a sentence that goes “I have a lot of groceries to buy today, including.”
CORRECT: I have a lot of groceries to buy today: milk, carrots, a baguette, eggs, and apples.
ALSO CORRECT (without colon): I have a lot of groceries to buy today, including milk, carrots, a baguette, eggs, and apples.
Colons can also be used at the beginnings of headings, as in my INCORRECT/CORRECT examples above.
Number Three: Different dashes
First, we have the hyphen. –
The hyphen is used to join words together. There should be no spaces on either side of the hyphen. It should be packed tightly between those words. Also, it should not be used in place of an en dash or an em dash.
INCORRECT: I’m sorry – I didn’t see you there.
CORRECT: Your story has a well-developed plot.
Second, we have the en dash. –
The en dash is not very commonly used in prose. That’s because it’s main use is to connect numbers, such as a date range or a set of scores. It should not be used to replace an em dash, which is a common mistake.
INCORRECT: I’m sorry – I didn’t see you there.
It looks correct, but it isn’t. I’ll show you why when I discuss the em dash.
CORRECT: I worked at McDonald’s from 1999–2001.
ALSO CORRECT: My hockey team won the game 7–2.
Third, we have the em dash. —
The em dash is the longest dash, and it is used to set off elements that are related but not essential to the main sentence. Like a semicolon, it can also be used between two related full sentences. It has one more use: indicating speech or a train of thought being suddenly cut off.
CORRECT: I’m sorry — I didn’t see you there.
ALSO CORRECT: I know McDonald’s treats their employees well — having worked there for two years — so I don’t feel bad purchasing food there.
“If you would just listen to me for two seconds, I could —”
“Why should I listen to you when you never listen to me?”
Don’t use ellipses (…) to indicate a sudden cut-off. Ellipses are only for thoughts and speech that gradually trail off. Example: If only I could get him to listen to me…
Number Four: Comma ,
The comma is the hellraiser of the punctuation world. I think this one gives people more grief than any other punctuation mark because most people aren’t entirely certain about how to use it (or how not to use it). There are a zillion wrong ways to use a comma, so I’ll just give a brief run down of the right ways to use one.
- Before a conjunction (and, or, but, etc.) that precedes a full sentence.
Example: I’m excited you’re coming home, and I can’t wait to see you tomorrow.
- Around someone’s name when someone else is talking directly to them. This also applies to informal addresses.
Example: Hey, Kevin!
Example: Hey, buddy!
- Around someone’s name when you’re introducing them into the sentence in some way. This usually happens when you’re talking about them for the first time.
Example: My girlfriend, Karen, is a nurse.
Example: I’d like you to meet my girlfriend, Karen.
- To offset phrases that are not essential for the sentence to make sense but also cannot stand on their own as full sentences. I put the full sentences in italics.
Example: He hit a grand slam, which is a big deal around here.
Example: My sister, who lives on the other side of the country, almost got blown away by a tornado last night.
Example: If you drive out to the countryside, you can see the stars on a clear night.
- Right after transitional words or phrases.
Example: First, we have to mix the butter, sugar, and eggs in one bowl. Then, we have to mix the flour and baking powder in another.
Example: Once upon a time, there was a princess who lived in a castle.
—> Around the word “too.”
Example: I saw him last night, too.
Example: I feel that way, too, though I don’t know why.
—> To separate items in a list.
Example: My favorite animals are cats, dogs, horses, and rabbits.
Number Five: Different types of end punctuation
Question mark ?
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen anyone use this incorrectly. It goes at the end of a question, which is pretty straightforward. However, in creative writing, it can be used to indicate that something is being said in an uncertain or confused tone, even if it isn’t exactly a question.
Exclamation mark !
This should only be used for real exclamations, like when someone is shouting or top-notch excited. Otherwise, it gets really annoying. The exclamation mark should almost never be used in professional writing (i.e. reports, resumes). Keep them within your creative writing.
This ends every type of sentence, except for a question. I will get more into its proper use with dialogue tags in a later post, along with those quotation marks.
Hope this was helpful! Is there any other type of punctuation mark you would like to know more about?