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The Basics of Punctuation

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

One of the most useful tools that writers have when writing are punctuation marks. Most writers have a basic understanding of the more commonly used markings, but there are a few that can be a bit confusing to use. This is largely due to the fact that they don’t often come up in writing, so on the rare instances when they do, a writer may be unsure of how to use them properly.

There are definitely a few out there that I struggle with use. Looking at you, colon and semicolon.

Punctuation marks are incredibly useful because they help clarify sentences by separating the different parts of the sentence. Just think how awful it would be to read a book without periods, commas, and apostrophes.

Anybody else feel that chill race down their spine?

So, let’s take a look at punctuation marks and how they are used. Some of them you will probably already know how to use. Some of them may confuse you as much as they confuse me. Don’t worry, we can learn together.

The End

No, I don’t mean the end of the article, but the end of the sentence. Maybe I shouldn’t use that section title… but I like it too much.

Let’s start with the easy one, the period (.). The period does one of two things. It either marks the end of a sentence, which is its most common use, or it shows an abbreviation, like in Mr. and Mrs. Fun fact because I had to look it up, if you end a sentence with an abbreviation like I just did, you don’t add a second period.

Next up is the question mark (?). This also marks the end of the sentence, but one that is asking a question. So, if someone asks: What’s for dinner? The sentence ends with a question mark.

Lastly in the ending sentence punctuation marks is the exclamation point (!). This is another easy-to-understand mark, though it is hardly ever used. This is due to the fact that everyone says that it should be used sparingly. The exclamation mark is used to show excitement, surprise, or alarm. An example would be: Oh my God!

These are supposed to be used sparingly because, if everything is exciting, then nothing is.

A common, but technically wrong, practice is when a question is exclaimed is for the writer to put both a question mark and exclamation point at the end of the sentence (!?). In these instances, the writer is supposed to use just the exclamation point to show the energy of the question, which I did not know. I’ve always just used the question mark. It could be argued that most readers understand what the marks mean when combined, meaning it could become correct in time. After all, language is fluid and always changing and evolving, but for now, it is technically wrong. Though, I won’t fault you if you use it.

Note that the ellipsis (…) isn’t here. That’s because even though it is made up of three periods, it doesn’t always end a sentence.

Time for a Pause

Next up, we have punctuation marks that come in the middle of a sentence.

Up first is the comma (,), which has a lot of different uses, making it a bit difficult to determine when it should and shouldn’t be used. Commas insert a short pause in a sentence and are used to separate a series of independent sentences, nouns, adjectives, verbs, or phrases. That’s the simplest way to put it, which doesn’t give you a lot of information, unfortunately. Basically, if you want to separate ideas within a sentence, you use a comma.

I, for one, tend to overuse commas because I like a lot of “dramatic” pauses when writing that wouldn’t usually be there when speaking. Grammarly tells me to take them out all the time. It’s usually right.

Next is the dash (-), of which there are two types: the en-dash (–) and the em-dash (—). The en-dash is longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em-dash. This mark is used to show a range of numbers, dates, or times. It is kind of like saying “from” or “to” without using the words. An example would be: from the years 1993–2020. The em-dash can be used in the place of commas, parenthesis, or colons to create pauses or to add additional info to the sentence. It’s recommended that, like the exclamation point, the em-dash’s use be limited.

I’ve always used em-dashes at the end of sentences to show someone has been cut off by someone else while speaking, which is apparently wrong since I’m not finding that use anywhere. Now I’m wondering where I even learned that from… probably fanfiction.

Then there is the ellipsis (…). In most instances, an ellipsis is used to show some words have been omitted from a quote. In storytelling, an ellipsis is used to either represent a thought that has trailed off, such as: “Well, Max was the one who …” or, the ellipsis can be used to show hesitation: “Well … you see … he said …” If the ellipsis is being used to show omitted words at the end of a quote, the closing period goes after the parenthetical reference. Like I did at the start of this paragraph.

The ellipsis is another mark that shouldn’t be overused.

Oof, okay. We’ve made it to the two that I still struggle with using. Let’s start with the colon (:) first. This mark has three main uses when it comes to grammar, and several uses for non-grammar-related things, such as displaying time: 12:00. The first use is to introduce a list. The shopping list contained: bread, cheese, waffles, and milk. The next use is when you want to combine two closely related clauses, ideas that could be their own sentences, into one sentence. Max doesn’t like pitahayas: he thinks they’re too mushy. Lastly, the colon can be used to emphasize the last word or phrase of a sentence. “Only the most sophisticated gaming experience ever created by humans, and it’s spherical: spherical!”

Oh, I hope you know what that quote is from.

The semicolon (;) is often described as being a stronger pause than a comma, but weaker than a period. It is used to combine two clauses that could be their own sentences into one sentence; only when a conjunction, such as and, but, or, would be used between the two thoughts. This is annoyingly similar to the colon’s uses. Mitten wants attention; Mitten doesn’t want to be touched.

Basically, this is why using this mark and the colon is confusing and I just avoid using them.

If you have trouble differentiating the two, here’s how I remember them. The colon is one thing made of two similar dots. The semicolon is made up of two different halves, making it only somewhat a colon.

This Section Contains Things

Quotation marks (“”) are used either in formal writing to show material that is being quoted from another source, or in storytelling to show that a character is speaking. “You are dumb.” If a character is quoting someone while speaking, then the quote part of their speech should use apostrophes instead of quotation marks. “Andy says: ‘You are dumb.’” Quotes can also be used to reference a specific letter when writing, such as the letter “t”.

I also use these to emphasize words that, if speaking aloud, I’d put air quotes around. These are referred to as scare or sneer quotes depending on how they are used. I was honestly surprised to find out that this was an actual, legitimate use of quotes.

Parenthesis (()), that’s not confusing at all, are used to add additional information to a sentence that doesn’t need to be there, but could be. All the cars (and one truck) parked on the lot. When it comes to punctuation in parenthesis, if the punctuation belongs to the words inside the parenthesis, then the punctuation goes inside. If the punctuation belongs to the exterior sentence, then the marks go outside the parenthesis. An example of both instances would be: The cat was not happy after days of not being fed (so she claimed). (Of course, she gets fed twice daily, but she can see the bottom of her bowl sometimes, which clearly means she’s starving.)

Brackets ([]) are primarily used in editorial writing to add information, mostly within quotations. A good example would be when quoted material uses a pronoun that references something that has yet to be mentioned. “Only the most sophisticated gaming experience ever created by humans, and it’s [The GameSphere] spherical: spherical!”

Braces ({}) are only used in coding, mathematical equations, and sometimes in musical notation. They should not be used to replace parenthesis or brackets. No sane person uses these so keep on ignoring them on your keyboard!

In the Middle of Something

The apostrophe (‘) is used primarily to create contractions and show possession while sometimes show plurals. When two words, such as can and not, are smushed together to form a new word, can’t, the new word is called a contraction. The apostrophe helps show that the contraction is a combination of two words. When someone possesses something, we use an apostrophe to show that possession: Tyler’s blog. If something is plural and possessive, such as a writers’ group, then the apostrophe goes after the “s”.

When it comes to making things plural, the apostrophe is only really used for things that aren’t words, such as: how many A’s do you have on your report card? However, this doesn’t apply to years, like the 1990s. I’ve always put an apostrophe there, but I guess that’s wrong. To me, 1990’s looks better, but oh well.

Hyphens (-) are smaller than both dashes and have two uses, one of which is only really used in formal printing for magazines, newspapers, and things of that nature. In everyday writing, hyphens are used to create compound words, two full words combined into one. Some examples include check-up, self-restraint, and well-being. These words are words on their own and aren’t being mashed together like contractions.

The other use for hyphens occurs in writings where the authors are trying to keep the right-side margin justified. They want all the lines to end around the same point, which can sometimes mean that words need to be split apart, so they use a hyphen to show that the word continues onto the next line.

What Did We Learn?

This has all been a very basic description of how to use all of these different punctuation marks and I hope it helps. Some of these marks were pretty straight forward while others needed a little more explanation. A few, I could do an entire article on just the one subject. I’m looking at you, commas.

This was fun to write. As I mentioned at a couple of points, I didn’t know every aspect and use of every punctuation mark. Most I was using properly, thankfully. A few I wasn’t. Darn. So, writing this article was pretty helpful for me. I hope the same can be said for you. Did you know how to use all of these, or have you been using some of them wrong like me? Let me know in the comments.

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