Punctuation serves two important purposes in written communication. First, it helps present ideas clearly and accurately. It indicates where one thought ends and another begins, shows relationships among ideas, and separates items in a series. Second, punctuation is used in abbreviations and in figures expressing time, quantities, and measures.
This chapter covers proper usage of end marks, commas, semicolons, colons, quotation marks, apostrophes, hyphens, dashes, parentheses, brackets, and ellipses.
End marks usually come at the end of a sentence. However, they also can be used after single words or within a sentence.
The period is used at the end of a complete sentence, which can be a statement, command, or request. It is a visual marker to the reader that one complete thought has ended and that another may follow. In informal writing, periods can be used with single words.
- Statement: You shouldn’t drive and talk on the cell phone.
- Request: Please hang up and drive.
- Command: Get off the cell phone and drive.
- Single words: Thanks. I feel much safer.
Periods are also used in many abbreviations.
- Saint – St.
- Avenue – Ave.
- American Bar Association – A.B.A.
A question mark is used at the end of a sentence that asks a direct question. It is not used at the end of a statement that contains an indirect question. In informal writing, question marks also can be used with single words.
- Direct question: Are you going to the preview tonight?
- Indirect question: I asked them if they were going to the preview tonight.
- Single words
- What? I couldn’t hear you over the TV.
- So? It’s no trouble to feed one more person.
Polite Requests. Many business letters contain requests for information, compliance, reply, or permission. These requests can be punctuated using either a period or a question mark.
- Period: Would you please send me your company’s website address.
- Question mark: Would you please send me your company’s website address?
Series of Questions. Question marks are used after each question in a sentence containing a series of questions.
How much are you willing to gamble on your future? your family’s health? your career?
Quotation Marks. Question marks are placed inside quotation marks when the quoted material is a question. Otherwise, they are placed outside quotation marks.
- “Are the sets ready?” the director asked.
- I just finished the short story “Where Is Paradise?”
- Have you read “The Scarlet Ibis”? (The quoted material is not a question. The entire sentence is the question.)
- Did he say “no vacation” or “no early vacation”?
Exclamation points add emphasis to sentences, phrases, or single words. They are like a red flag waved at the reader and as such should be used sparingly. Exclamation points are a familiar sight in advertising and promotional material.
- Wait! Don’t touch that wire!
- I can’t believe she said that!
- Don’t delay! Order your DVDs now!