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Below is a description of the most common punctuation marks and their proper usage.
They are listed in functional order, starting with those that end sentences, followed by
those that fall in the middle of sentences, and finally those that fall in the middle of
period | exclamation point | question mark | comma | colon | semicolon | apostrophe

The Period

A period looks like this: . It is used to end a sentence. You should not use a period
for anything other than ending a sentence. (A period also makes up part of an ellipsis,
but that's another story.)

The Exclamation Point

An exclamation point looks like this: ! Like the period, the exclamation point is used
to end a sentence, but it also adds emphasis. When you're writing dialogue and a
character is shouting, you might want to end the sentence with an exclamation point.
"Gabrielle, look out!" yelled Xena.

The Question Mark

A question mark looks like this: ? Like the period and exclamation point, the
question mark is used to end a sentence, but only when the sentence is a question.
"Xena, where are we going?" asked Gabrielle.

The Comma
Ahhh, now things are getting a little more complicated.

A comma looks like this: , Commas have several uses:

 Commas serve to separate two ideas in a sentence. The two ideas are so closely
related that they can't each stand alone; if they could stand alone (that is, if each
idea could be its own sentence) you should either use a semicolon or a period.
(The preceding sentence is a good example of this.) Especially look for words
like "and," "but," "or," etc.
Gabrielle was tired, but she kept walking.

 Commas separate multiple adjectives that are describing the same thing.
Gabrielle ran her fingers through Xena's long, soft hair.

 Commas separate lists of three or more.

 Gabrielle ate chicken, fish, and berries for lunch.
Xena jumped up, spun around, and drew her sword.

Note that if any of the items in the list use commas, the list separator becomes
a semicolon:
Xena jumped up; spun around; and drew her sharp, shiny sword.

 Commas set off subordinate clauses that qualify the main clauses.
 Seeing Gabrielle fall, Xena hurried forward.
 Since she was hungry, Gabrielle ate some berries.
If you love chocolate, you should try Oreos.

 Commas come after exclamations or other one-word interjections.

 Dammit, Xena abandoned Gabby again.
 No, I'm not hungry.
Oops, I broke the frying pan.

 Commas set off non-essential clauses in the middles of sentences.

Xena, who is from Amphipolis, is sitting next to you.
The woman sitting next to you is from Amphipolis.

Note the difference between the two sentences above. In the first, the main
point is that Xena is sitting next to you. The fact that she's from Amphipolis is
not important. If you have constructed the sentence properly, you should be
able to remove everything between the commas and still have a coherent
sentence. In this case, it would be "Xena is sitting next to you." In the second
sentence, the fact that she's from Amphipolis is the main point of the sentence,
hence no comma is used.

There are three general types of word/phrase that should go between these

o Descriptive phrases that are not strictly necessary, such as "who is from
Amphipolis" in the above example.
o Names. "It's your fault, Xena, that I'm all wet."
o Non-essential comments or qualifiers such as "however," "nevertheless,"
"so to speak," etc.
 Commas come after "he said," "she said," and other speaking verbs when they
are in the middle of the spoken quotation.
 "Xena," said Gabrielle, "what are you doing?"
"I don't know why," said Xena, "but I feel like cuddling."

"I'm tired, Gabrielle," said Xena. "Let's get some sleep."

Note that in the third example, a period follows the speaking verb rather than a
comma. This is because two sentences are spoken: if you had moved the
speaking verb to the end, you would have "I'm tired, Gabrielle. Let's get some
sleep," said Xena.

Also note that after a spoken quotation, the next word should ALWAYS be
uncapitalized, unless of course it is a name.

The following examples are ALL incorrect:

"Gabrielle, stop it." cried Xena.
"Gabrielle, stop it!" Cried Xena.
"Gabrielle, stop it," Cried Xena.
The correct forms would be:
"Gabrielle, stop it," cried Xena.
"Gabrielle, stop it!" cried Xena.

 This is possibly the hardest one. A comma is also used to prevent confusion
when there is more than one possible interpretation of a sentence.
Example A:
Above the mountains rose like purple shadows.

Try putting a comma in different parts of the above sentence and see how
different the meanings are.

Example B:
My sister Sarah has a cat.
My sister, Sarah, has a cat.

The first sentence implies that I have more than one sister. The name Sarah
indicates which sister I am speaking of at the moment. The second sentence
implies that I have only one sister. The commas setting off her name indicate
that the name is a nonessential qualifier. (Remember, try removing everything
between the commas.)

Example C:
Sarah, my sister, has a cat.
Sarah, my sister has a cat.

The first sentence is, again, an example of nonessential qualifier. I could say
"Sarah has a cat" and presumably you know that Sarah is my sister. The second
sentence is addressed to Sarah. I am telling Sarah that my sister, whose name is
not specified, has a cat.

For more explanation of the proper uses of commas, with rather a lot of technical
language (what the heck is a "terminal-position adjective cluster"?!),
see http://www.niu.edu/acad/english/wac/commas.html.

The Colon
A colon looks like this: : It appears at the end of a clause and can do one of three

 A colon can introduce a list. Be sure that what comes before the colon could
stand as a complete sentence on its own.
Xena has many skills: running, jumping, fighting, and sewing.

Xena's skills include: running, jumping, fighting, and sewing.

 A colon can introduce a restatement of the previous clause.

 Xena is a warrior: she spends a lot of her time fighting

 A colon can introduce an elaboration on the previous clause.

Gabrielle was in pain: she had just sprained her ankle.
Note that the distinction between restatement and elaboration can sometimes be

Also note that some people like to capitalize the first letter of the first word after the
colon: They believe it is more stylistically appropriate. The previous sentence is an
example. Whether or not to capitalize is up to you; just be careful to be consistent.
(Read my note on consistency.)

The Semicolon

A semicolon looks like this: ; Semicolons have essentially two uses.

 A semicolon separates items in a list when the items themselves have internal
 Gabrielle likes oranges; cherries; and red, yellow, and green

 A semicolon separates two closely related clauses. In this function, it is slightly

stronger than a comma, but weaker than a period. The clause before the
semicolon and the clause after the semicolon should be complete sentences on
their own; you should be able to replace the semicolon with a period and have
two grammatically correct sentences. The previous sentence is an example.

The Apostrophe

An apostrophe looks like this: ' In general, apostrophes have two uses: replacing
removed letters in contractions, and indicating possession.

 Removed letters: Consider the word "isn't." We all know this is a contraction of
two words, "is not." The apostrophe in "isn't" replaces the letter O in "not."
Similarly, the apostrophe in "can't" replaces the letters NO in "can not," the
apostrophe in "we're" replaces the letter A in "we are," and so forth.
 Possession: "This is Xena's whip." In this case the apostrophe does not replace
a letter; it indicates possession, i.e. "This whip belongs to Xena." Possessives
get really tricky when you apply them to multiple people. For example:

This is Xena's and Translation: This whip belongs to Xena

Gabby's whip.
and Gabby.
This is Xena and Translation: This is Xena, and this is a
Gabby's whip.
whip belonging to Gabby.

 The exception to the possessive rule - and the one which gives most people a
lot of trouble - is the word "its" meaning "belonging to it." Unlike most
possessives, "its" does not contain an apostrophe. It is just one of the many
cases where the English language is unnecessarily complex. The trouble with
English is not that it has too many rules - it's that there are too many exceptions
to the rules. But "its/it's" is a case wherein it's good to remember Case 1 from
above. If the word is "it's," ask yourself, "What letter has been removed?" The
answer clearly is "i." The letter i from "it is" has been replaced by the
 So, to clarify:
Its = belonging to it. "The frying pan has a dent in its handle."
It's = it is. "It's not my fault the frying pan is dented!"
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Joan the English Chick

Last updated 22 April 1998