Jun 17, 2014

Grammar Hammer: Punctuation Saves Lives, Part I


This blog post was updated on October 27, 2015.

In English grammar, there are 14 different punctuation marks I think of as “primary” punctuation: the period, comma, question mark, exclamation point, colon, semicolon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, ellipses, quotation marks, and apostrophes.

These are the marks that help us with sentence structure, help us clarify meaning, and distinguish between different sets of ideas.

Putting all of these into smaller groups, we can look at them like this:

The Full Stop: Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Marks

All three of these punctuation marks indicate the end of a sentence. Periods end declarative sentences. Do I really need to explain when to use a question mark? Exclamation points should be self-explanatory!

The Pause: Commas, Semicolons, and Colons

The comma was rated as the punctuation mark you were most grateful for according to Grammarly back in 2012. I cover it in more detail in “Mastering the Most Difficult Punctuation Mark.”

My favorite examples:

  • Let’s eat Grandma!
  • Cathy finds inspiration in cooking her family and her cats.

The semicolon continues to be the punctuation mark that befuddles people the most. To put it simply, semicolons separate independent clauses that are related to each other, but could stand on their own if you wanted them to.

communications objectives mix of tactics

You use colons before a list or an explanation. Look forward to a more in-depth explanation on colons in a future post.

Connections and Breaks: Dashes and Hyphens

Dashes come in two forms: the endash (-) and the emdash (–).

Endashes are used to connect numbers or connect elements of a compound adjective (Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States from 1861-1865).

An emdash (so-called because the size of the dash is about the size of the letter M) can be used to separate clauses, introduce a phrase for added emphasis, or what I’m most guilty of – indicate a break in thought or sentence structure.

Hyphens create compound words, particularly modifiers (“She was a well-known cook.”). Hyphens are also used in prefixes (“I wonder if they had any kind of pre-nuptial agreement?”).

Learn more about brackets, parentheses, braces, ellipses, quotation marks, and apostrophes in Punctuation Saves Lives, Part 2.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services with more than 20 years’ experience counseling brands on their content. Follow Cathy on Twitter @cathyspicer and tweet her your #grammargripes or email catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

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