Let’s face it, the English language can be tough to learn to speak, as well as read. For instance, the word tough. If you were trying to learn to speak, read or write English, how could anyone know that the “gh” in that word is pronounced as an “f”? Or, the word wrong. How could anyone know that the “w” is silent. Or, the word colonel. What?! That one baffles me every time I see it. It is pronounced “ker-nul.” Where’s the “r” in that word?
But, adding punctuation makes it even harder. Knowing when to add a period, comma, apostrophe, question mark or exclamation point is usually the easiest part of punctuation. The difficult part comes from knowing when it’s appropriate to add quotation marks, colons, semicolons, en/em dashes, ellipses and parentheses. I’ll admit, I have difficulties at times, so I’ll refer to the AP Stylebook I keep handy in my office, or I’ll check the punctuation guide online.
Most people know that when you’re asking a question, you should add a question mark to your sentence. Or, if you’re making a statement, you should add an exclamation point. But is there really a need for five question marks or exclamation points? One is sufficient; two maximum. The overuse of those two punctuation marks can be frustrating, especially on social media. We get it, you’re really excited or you really need an answer. And for the love of all that is good in the world, please use periods. Run-on sentences are extremely difficult to understand. Halfway through reading a run-on sentence, I’ve already forgotten the point.
I follow Grammarly on Facebook for tips, insights and funny but helpful memes about grammar and punctuation. Sometimes it makes my day, and other days it reminds me there’s still work to be done when teaching the rights and wrongs of punctuation. We should all aspire to be better writers even if it is on social media or by text. Think of it as practice.
Here is a guide for appropriately using common punctuation:
Period: Use a period at the end of a complete sentence that is a statement.
Comma: Use a comma before any coordinating conjunction (but, for, or, nor, so, yet) that links two independent clauses. Use a comma after a dependent clause that starts a sentence.
Apostrophe: Use an apostrophe + S (’s) to show that one person/thing owns or is a member of something. Use an apostrophe after the “s” at the end of a plural noun to show possession. If a plural noun doesn’t end in “s,” add an apostrophe + “s” to create the possessive form.
Question Mark: Use a question mark only after a direct question.
Exclamation Point: Use an exclamation point to express excitement, surprise, astonishment or any other strong emotion.
Quotation Mark: Use quotation marks to set off a direct (word-for-word) quotation (quote).
Colon: A colon instead of a semicolon may be used between independent clauses when the second sentence explains, illustrates, paraphrases, or expands on the first sentence.
Semicolon: Use a semicolon between two independent clauses that are connected by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases.
En Dash: An en-dash is used to connect values in a range or that are related.
Em Dash: An em-dash is typically used as a stand-in for a comma or parenthesis to separate out phrases—or even just a word—in a sentence for various reasons.
Ellipses: An ellipsis (plural: ellipses) is a punctuation mark consisting of three dots. Use an ellipsis when omitting a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage. Ellipses save space or remove material that is less relevant.
Parentheses: Use parentheses to enclose information that clarifies or is used as an aside. Example: He finally answered (after taking five minutes to think) that he did not understand the question. If material in parentheses ends a sentence, the period goes after the parentheses.