English Language Grammar Lessons

Introduction to English Punctuation

Apostrophes

We use an apostrophe [ ' ] to create possessive forms, contractions, and some plurals. Generally, if the noun is singular, the apostrophe goes before the "s". If the noun is plural, the apostrophe goes after the "s". If the word is plural without an "s", the apostrophe comes before the "s". The apostrophe shows where a letter or letters have been left out of a contracted verb.

Periods

Use a period [ . ] at the end of a sentence that makes a statement. There is no space between the last letter and the period. Use a period at the end of an indirect question. Use a period with abbreviations. The period comes after the parenthetical citation which comes after the quotation mark".

Commas

Use a comma to separate the elements in a series. Use a comma + a little conjunction (and, but, for, nor, yet, or, so) to connect two independent clauses. Use a comma to set off introductory elements. Use a comma to set off parenthetical elements. Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives. Use a comma to set off quoted elements. Use commas to set off phrases that express contrast. Use a comma or a set of commas to make the year parenthetical when the date of the month is included. Use a comma to separate a city and a state, a name and a title, and to separate long numbers.

Semicolons

Use a semicolon [ ; ] to help sort out a monster list. Use a semicolon to separate closely related independent clauses. Use a semicolon to separate two independent clauses even when those two independent clauses are connected by a coordinating conjunction.

Colons

Use a colon [ : ] before a list or an explanation that is preceded by a clause that can stand by itself. You can use a colon to separate an independent clause from a quotation.

Question marks

Use a question mark [ ? ] at the end of a direct question. When a question constitutes a polite request, it is usually not followed by a question mark. When brief questions are more or less follow-up questions to the main question, each of the little questions can begin with a lowercase letter and end with a question mark.

Exclamation points

Use an exclamation point [ ! ] at the end of an emphatic declaration, interjection, or command.

Hyphen

Hyphens are used to create compound words; modifiers before nouns (the well-known actor, my six-year-old daughter, the out-of-date curriculum, writing numbers twenty-one to ninety-nine and fractions, five-eighths, one-fourth), creating compounds; on-the-fly for fly-by-night organizations. Hyphens are used to add some prefixes to words such as when a prefix comes before a capitalized word or the prefix is capitalized, use a hyphen (non-English, A-frame, I-formation). The prefixes self-, all-, and ex- nearly always require a hyphen (ex-husband, all-inclusive, self-control), and when the prefix ends with the same letter that begins the word, you will often use a hyphen (anti-intellectual, de-emphasize).

Dashes

Use a dash [ - ] as a super-comma or set of super-commas to set off parenthetical elements. The dash is used to show breaks in thought and shifts in tone when writing dialogue. A dash is sometimes used to set off concluding lists and explanations in a more informal and abrupt manner than the colon. Do not use dashes to set apart material when commas would do the work for you.

Quotation marks

Use quotation marks [ " " ] to set off material that represents quoted or spoken language; titles of things that do not normally stand by themselves: short stories, poems, and articles. Some writers will set such unspoken language in italics or indent it in order to set it off from other "regular" language. In the United States, writers use single quotation marks [ ' ' ] to enclose quoted material (or the titles of poems, stories, articles) within other quoted material.

Parentheses

Use parentheses [ ( ) ] to include material that you want to de-emphasize or does not fit into the flow of your text but you want to include it. Parentheses tend to de-emphasize text whereas dashes tend to make material seem even more important.

Slashes

Many writers use the slash to indicate "or" and "and" to avoid gender he/she/plurals problems. These formats are not acceptable in formal business or academic writing. Use the forward slash [ / ] for www addresses and the backward slash [ \ ] to indicate file locations on computer drives.

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