Apostrophes are hard-working little punctuation marks that can indicate a number of different things. They are mainly used to show possession, but can also be used in place of missing letters in contractions and abbreviations.
Used precisely, as it was designed to be used, an apostrophe gives clarity to a piece of writing. But used flamboyantly, here there and everywhere, it has advocates of correct usage tearing out their hair and some of us, not least myself, refusing to eat lunch in venues where the menu is overpopulated with apostrophes.
Apostrophes first entered the English language via French and Italian during the 16th century. The apostrophe was mostly used as a substitute for other letters. Take, for example, this quote from William Shakespeare's Henry V:
“In cases of defense, ’tis best to weigh the enemy more mighty than he seems.”
Here we see our apostrophe replacing the “i” in “it.” That rule still applies to apostrophes today, though it’s not used as often as it once was. For example, when telephone was first shortened it appeared as ’phone, but the usage is now so common that it appears as phone without the apostrophe.
It’s simple. A colon is two dots stacked upon each other, like this…
You’ve seen colons many times before, I’m sure. So the question is, how do they work?
How Do I Use a Colon?
Colons serve a number of functions. Most often, colons introduce lists.
- Here’s what I need you to buy from the grocery store: eggs, bacon, and cheese.
- The following people passed the test: Alonzo, Juliette, Maurice, and Gemma. Everyone else failed.
- ProWritingAid helps correct these mistakes: passive voice, overuse of adverbs, homonym confusion, and repeated sentence starts.
That may seem simple, but there’s a bit more to it. The sentence before the colon must always be an independent clause by itself. Therefore, the following example is incorrect.
- This Sunday I want to: sleep in, read a book, and have a picnic.
The words before the colon are a sentence fragment, not a full sentence. To rephrase properly, we would write…
- This Sunday I want to do the following: sleep in, read a book, and have a picnic.
Colons can also be used to expand upon concepts. In this context, think of the colon like a presenter.
- I’ve got a surprise for you: a brand new car!
- Tonight’s main course is this: tacos from Taco Bell.
- I've got news: cats are roaming the streets of downtown Manhattan.
Notice that the full sentence rule still applies. Make sure to follow it.
Colons may also be used to introduce quotations. Make sure the quote is an independent clause in itself. Also, make sure the quote furthers the clause before the colon.
- Luke remembered Obi-Wan’s words: “Use the force.”
- This is what my mom told me: “Look both ways before crossing the street.”
- I have some advice for you: “Make hay while the sun’s shining.”
Don’t Confuse Colons with Semicolons!
Colons and semicolons sound and look similar. Semicolons, of course, look like this...
Semicolons join two independent clauses. They are often used in place of "and", "but", "because" or other conjunctions. For example:
- I’m sorry I didn’t respond; I was very busy!
A colon wouldn’t be appropriate in this instance because it’s not performing any of the functions listed in this article. Instead, we use the semicolon.
Remember, if you could replace the punctuation with a conjunction then it should be a semicolon.
Do I Capitalize the Word After a Colon?
There’s no absolute rule here. Whether or not you capitalize the word after a colon depends on your personal judgement and the style guide you’re using. For example, according to AP style, one capitalizes after a colon only if the word is a proper noun or the word starts a complete sentence. Chicago Style agrees with the proper noun bit, but mandates twocomplete sentences after the colon instead of just one. Other style guides offer other recommendations.
As with many rules like this in English, it’s all a matter of consistency. Choose a rule and stick with it!
Commas are one of the most frustrating grammatical concepts, even for native English speakers. Nevertheless, there are specific rules for when you should and shouldn't use commas. Building our grammar checker we've identified 26 places where you might need a comma. In this article, I will explain all of these places along with examples of how to use commas in English sentences. Just bookmark this article in case you ever get confused by a comma again.
Do I need a comma when I omit a word for stylistic reasons?
Sometimes when writing we omit words for stylistic reasons. This comma of omission is often seen when parallel structures are used, such as two sentences taking the same form.
Example: I loved playing tennis; my brother [loved] volleyball.
Correct: I loved playing tennis; my brother, volleyball.
Incorrect: I loved playing tennis; my brother volleyball.
We also need to include a comma of omission when we have removed a coordinating conjunction (usually "and"). This construction is fairly rare.
Example: I opened the boot [and] saw the spare tyre.
Correct: I opened the boot, saw the spare tyre. Incorrect: I opened the boot saw the spare tyre.
Correct: Carrie mimicked his tilted head, [and] then laughed.
Incorrect: Carrie mimicked his tilted head [and] then laughed.
Do I need to use a comma with list items?
When we have a list of three or more items, we use a comma to split the items in the list. This comma is known as a listing comma, e.g. I like rice, beans, and plantains. Listing commas can usually be replaced by "and" or "or," e.g. I like rice and beans and plantains.
Listing commas can separate lists of nouns, verbs, adjectives, dependent clauses, or even complete sentences. This can mean that you can have a comma before an "and" that is followed by a dependent clause if it is the last item in a list of dependent clauses. Some authors like to join sentences with listing commas, e.g. I came in, I saw the package, and I opened it.
When using listing commas, the comma before the final "and" or "or" is optional depending on if you are using Oxford commas or not. How to use an Oxford (or serial) comma.
How do I use commas with parenthetical elements?
A parenthetical element is an element of a sentence that is added but is not essential to the meaning of the sentence. It adds color to the sentence, e.g. Of all the chilli sauces I’ve tried, and I’ve tried a lot, this is my favourite. or Some people,who I won’t name, wouldn’t like this.
Normally a parenthetical element has a comma before and after it. Instead, you might choose to use brackets or dashes to separate a parenthetical element from the rest of the sentence.
Here are some examples of parenthetical items used correctly with commas:
- Maria, although she comes from Spain, hates paella.
- This is, in my opinion, the most important issue.
- The biggest issue, as you will see, is where we will store all the extra components.
- The holidays in Spain, of which there are many, are mostly religious.
Interjections such as “yes” and “no” are generally treated as parenthetical elements. When they come at the start of a sentence, they should be followed by a comma. When they come at the end of a sentence, they should be preceded by a comma.
Dashes are small punctuation marks that appear in writing and indicate pauses, breaks, parenthetical thoughts, and more. There are actually several kinds of dashes in the English language, so today we’ll cover them.
The Em Dash
This is likely the most common dash seen in fiction writing. It’s called an em dash because it’s about the same width as a printed capital letter M. It looks like this:
The em dash is excellent at setting off parenthetical thoughts. Use one before and one after the additional information:
- Albert ran—well, more like stumbled—across the finish line.
- I couldn’t believe—or even comprehend—what I was seeing.
- Jenna slurped down the rest of her coffee—no cream, no sugar—then tossed the empty cup into the trash.
As you can see, the em dashes in these sentences perform a similar function to parentheses. They add greater context to a detail mentioned in the sentence, though they aren’t integral parts of the sentence by themselves. Therefore, they’re set apart with em dashes.
Em dashes can be used alone to indicate a moment of surprise in writing:
- The baby cried and cried and—she stopped. Was someone playing “Baby Shark”?
- The match touched the wick, the fuse ignited—bang! The explosion boomed through the night.
- I smiled, breathed in the fresh air, and—coughed. Where had the smoke come from?
And they can also be used in dialogue to signify an interruption:
- “And then I went to school but school was closed because it was a snow day, so I sledded all the way back home and made myself a hot chocolate, but then the power went out, so I—”
“Okay, okay. You had a rough day. I get it!”
Like any tool, it’s best not to overuse em dashes in our writing. If we do, our prose can become clunky and unsurprising. The old aphorism rings true here: less is more.
The En Dash
Not to be confused with the em dash, the en dash is a smaller dash so named because it’s about the length of a printed capital letter N. It looks like this:
Unlike the em dash, the en dash usually indicates time spans or connects compound thoughts:
- The unofficial Golden Age of rock and roll was roughly 1963–1981.
- From 1918–2004, the Boston Red Sox won zero World Series Championships.
- The Lannister–Tyrell alliance was beneficial for both parties, though it was also tenuous.
- The Jordan–Pippen combo was instrumental in winning six NBA Championships.
En dashes can also be used for parenthetical thoughts:
- The thing I wanted – no, needed – more than anything was pepperoni on my pizza.
Whether to use em dashes or en dashes here is up to personal taste or style guidelines. However, if you do opt for en dashes surrounding parenthetical thoughts, you must always have a space before and after each dash.
The Swung Dash
This is the rarest of dashes used in English. It looks like this:
If you’ve never seen a swung dash before, no worries. They stand for words that have been previously referenced and are therefore clear from context. Swung dashes appear almost exclusively in dictionaries.
For example, let’s pretend we’re creating a usage example for the word “generally.” Here’s the New Oxford American Dictionary definition:
- Generally: [sentence adverb] in most cases
For our example, we’ll use the swung dash to stand in for the word “generally,” since it’s already been established as the word being defined.
- “Though it’s ⁓ warm in Los Angeles, sometimes it’s cold enough to snow.”
Unless you’re writing dictionaries, you might never use this dash. Still, it can’t hurt to be aware of it!
An ellipsis is three consecutive periods used as a punctuation mark in formal writing to denote missing or omitted text. For example, if you’re quoting someone but don’t need the entire text, put an ellipsis in place of the content you’re not including.
Let’s say you want to quote the principal of your local school who said:
- “We’ve determined positively, unequivocally, beyond a shadow of a doubt, using all facts and information available, understanding the importance of this decision, that we will need to build a new school within the next five years.”
But you don’t want it be so wordy. You would shorten it with an ellipsis like this:
- “We’ve determined positively . . . that we will need to build a new school within the next five years.”
The ellipsis is now widely used outside of its formal or traditional purpose for a variety of reasons. Authors use an ellipsis to show a pause in dialogue or narrative, or they use it to show a character or narrator’s thoughts trailing off.
- She wasn’t angry with him . . . she was simply exhausted.
- His eyes welling, he said, “I’m not sure what to do . . .”
- The boy turned the corner and saw the bully . . . was this too big to handle on his own or . . . maybe it was time to take a stand?
Technically, the ellipsis should have a space between each period as well as a space before and after, unless next to a punctuation mark, where there is no space.
Ellipsis Grammar Meaning
If you got the above text message, would you think the person has something else to say but is holding back?
Did you know those three dots are called an ellipsis, and the above instance isn’t correct usage? The ellipsis has been hijacked much like the figurative use of “literally.”
Exclamation points, also called exclamation marks, are punctuation marks that are meant to be used at the end of a sentence to display admiration or express excitement, astonishment, or some other strong emotion. The most common use, however, is after an interjection like "Hey!" or "Wow!" or "Oh!"
Some people go relatively mad with their exclamation marks. Have you ever received a text from someone ending with "?!?!?!?!" They’re obviously asking you a question and expressing their shock or dismay at the same time.
What the experts say about exclamation points.
Most formal writing frowns on exclamation points. Some marketing brands will use exclamation marks, but are typically those in the B2C arena. B2B brands rarely use exclamation points, and academia has little patience for it.
Exclamation point use will depend on your editor and publisher and even your genre. If you’re publishing comic books, there’s a big use of exclamation marks involved. If you’re publishing for one of the academic presses, though, you’ll want to rid your prose of any such marks.
Situations to avoid exclamation marks include:
- A college term paper that is 50% of your grade.
- A highly professional email to the hiring manager when you’re applying for a job.
- A blog post where you already used one exclamation point.
Using exclamation marks in quotes.
Put the exclamation mark inside the closing quotation marks if it applies to the words enclosed by the quotation marks.
- “There’s a spider on my arm!” yelped Jeremy.
If the exclamation mark applies to the sentence as a whole, then place it at the very end.
- And then the paramedics tried to tell Jeremy it was “only a spider”!
Using exclamation marks in parentheses.
Put the exclamation mark inside the parentheses when it applies to the words inside the parentheses.
- Jeremy didn’t find out until later what kind of spider it was (a black widow!).
Put the exclamation mark outside the parentheses if it applies to the whole sentence.
- They settled out of court and Jeremy got a million dollars (cash)!
Depending on which grammar system you subscribe to, you may hear some very different ideas concerning when and how to hyphenate. Different style manuals conform to different rules. With hyphens, it's better to look up any case where you might be confused.
While it's hard to create hard and fast rules for hyphens, here are a few instances where you will normally use them.
When you use two or more words together as a single thought describing or modifying a noun and you put them before the noun, you should hyphenate them.
- off-street parking
- chocolate-covered peanuts
When compound modifiers come after the noun, you don’t need to hyphenate.
- parking is off street
- peanuts are chocolate covered
Hyphens with Ages
If the ages are being used as adjectives or nouns, you should hyphenate them.
- The five-year-old boy is ready for school.
But if the age comes after a noun and a verb, you don’t hyphenate it.
- The boy is five years old.
You also use hyphens when:
- Writing out numbers 21 through 99, like twenty-one and ninety-nine (and everything in between).
- Prefixes that come before a proper noun, like anti-American.
- Avoiding confusing or awkward combinations, like shell-like or de-ice.
Compound adjectives are made up of a combination of noun plus adjective, noun plus participle, or adjective plus participle. More often than not, these are hyphenated.
When should you hyphenate?
Let’s look at a few.
Nouns + Adjectives
If you know a boy who is prone to accidents, he’s an:
You admire a girl’s dress that is the blue of a cornflower:
You’ve given your child too many lollies; she’s a:
Nouns + Participle
If you use a computer to create your logo, you have a:
If you have a carpenter build cabinets to your specifications, you have:
You have a beautiful piece of pottery that was fired in a kiln:
Adjective + Participle
If you quickly thought of an answer to a dilemma, you are a:
If you meet a tall, dark, handsome stranger on the train, he’s a:
If you were flummoxed by the good-looking man, you were:
Weird Verbs that Become Nouns
Phrasal verbs are made up of a main verb and a preposition or an adverb:
Build up: You should build up the front of this flower bed.
Break in: She wants to break in her new shoes before the dance.
Drop off: He will drop off the check tomorrow afternoon.
When these phrasal verbs are used as a noun, however, you hyphenate them.
Build-up: The soap scum build-up is hard to remove from the shower.
Break-in: The neighbors next door suffered a break-in last night.
Drop-off: The drop-off at the edge of the road was terrifying.
What is an Oxford comma anyway?
Everyone remembers being taught the rule to add commas when you have three or more words, phrases, or clauses listed as a series in a sentence.
- I like red, white, and yellow roses.
- She bathed the baby, fixed dinner, and folded the laundry.
There is a faction of English grammarians who are advocating for dropping the last comma before the “and” in a series because it’s not needed.
- I like red, white and yellow roses.
- She bathed the baby, fixed dinner and folded the laundry.
Those who believe the comma still belongs after “and” refer to it as the “Oxford Comma” because it’s part of the publishing style of Oxford University Press.
Depending on who you talk to, either way is the correct way. Certain style guides require you to use the Oxford Comma, like the Oxford Style Manual, Chicago Manual of Style, and the MLA Style Manual. So if you’re writing for editors who conform to one of these styles guides, you’ll want to include the Oxford Comma.
If you have control over what you write and publish, you more than likely can choose whether or not to use the Oxford Comma.
Examples of oxford comma use
We advocate a nuanced approach to the Oxford Comma. If the Oxford Comma helps clear up ambiguity, then by all means use it. If not, then it’s your call.
Consider some of the following examples:
- I’d like to thank my children, The Beatles and Oprah Winfrey.
Wait! Are your children really The Beatles and Oprah Winfrey? Clear up confusion and add the Oxford Comma.
The pet magazine Tails published the following headline on its front cover:
- Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog
Remind me never to eat with Rachel Ray.
Here’s a wonderful example from Wikipedia that I couldn’t resist. The Times once published a story about a documentary, stating:
- highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.
Oh my, Nelson! I never would have guessed.
Rather than set yourself up for a potential libel lawsuit, best to use the Oxford Comma, don’t you think? And now I'll leave you with one last Oxford comma joke. Enjoy!
Parentheses are one of those tools in the toolbox which we often see but might not always fully appreciate. In this article, we’re going to change that. Let’s inspect the best ways to use parentheses, what makes them so powerful in our writing, and how they might impact our work.
What Are the Basics of Parentheses?
For starters, parentheses are those curved lines or curved brackets that surround part or all of a sentence. They express a minor (some might say parenthetical) thought on a subject. Unlike a regular statement, one marked by parentheses is usually an additional thought, aside, or statement that isn’t essential to the topic at hand.
For example, consider the following:
- When I saw the pink-frosted donut, my mouth began to water (sort of like Homer Simpson).
The Homer Simpson reference isn’t essential to the meaning of the sentence, but it’s a humorous aside to the reader. Therefore, I put it in parentheses. They’re a great way to insert quick jokes in your writing.
You can also use parentheses to list descriptive information, such as in this example:
- I ordered myself some coffee (large with two creams and two sugars) to go with my donut.
Finally, here’s an example of how parentheses are used to add additional context to a statement:
- When I arrived in New York City, I had the overwhelming urge to shout, “Go Yankees!” (“Go Mets!” never crossed my mind.)
Can You Put a Full Sentence in Parentheses?
Absolutely! As in the previous example, you’ll find many occasions to do so. Just remember that if an entire sentence ends up in parentheses, all punctuation should stay inside the closing bracket.
- The library is the perfect place for cheapskate readers like me. ($40 for a hardcover? No thanks!)
However, if a parenthetical thought appears within another sentence, punctuation should go outside the parentheses.
- The Who first released one of their most famous songs, “The Kids Are Alright,” in 1965 (they subsequently re-released it numerous times on “Best Of” albums).
This is the English language, so we should expect some complicating factors. We know that punctuation goes outside parentheses if the parenthetical thought is not an independent sentence. However, if a thought within parentheses requires its own punctuation, that punctuation should remain inside the parentheses. Here’s an example:
- The cheapest plane ticket was over $2,000 (what a bargain!), so I was forced to dip into my savings.
I felt an exclamation point was necessary to underscore my sarcasm, so I included it within the parentheses. The sentence still requires a period at the end. Notice that I placed the comma outside the parentheses, since it doesn’t belong to the parenthetical thought.
I find it helps to imagine parentheses as a capsule. Everything belonging to the thought inside the parentheses stays within; everything belonging to the thought outside the parentheses stays out.
What’s the Difference Between Square Brackets and Parentheses?
Though they look similar, square brackets and parentheses are not interchangeable. You now know the purposes of the latter, which will always be used with curved brackets. Square brackets, on the other hand, are only used to express additional information inside a quotation.
- “Today’s game was a mess. We [the home team] didn’t execute on either end of the floor.”
Whoever said this (presumably a basketball coach) didn’t actually say the part in brackets. That was inserted by the writer to add context for readers. This is really the only reason writers need to use square brackets. Otherwise, use parentheses.
Periods are used to end declarative sentences.
- I like dogs.
- Cats are funny.
- Dogs are better than cats.
Compared to many other punctuation marks, periods are simple! Put them at the end of your declarative sentence.
A question mark replaces a period at the end of a sentence when the sentence is a question. Sometimes, question marks are known as interrogation points.
Question words like who, when, where, why, what, which, and how indicate that a sentence is a question. If your sentence begins with one of those words, then it is most likely a question and should be ended with a question mark.
A question mark indicates to your readers that your sentence should be read as a question.
Rules for Correctly Using Question Marks
Rule #1: You don't need to use a question mark in conjunction with other ending punctuation, like a period or an exclamation point.
- Incorrect example: How are you feeling?.
- Correct example: How are you feeling?
Rule #2: You should always capitalize the first letter the word directly after a question mark.
- Incorrect example: When are we leaving? my mom wants to go soon.
- Correct example: When are we leaving? My mom wants to go soon.
Rule #3: If you're writing a quoted question, you should put the question mark within the quotation marks.
- Incorrect example: "What's for dinner"? he asked.
- Correct example: "What's for dinner?" he asked.
Quotation marks are used to bring writing to life: to show who said what. That being said, quotation marks are also quite tricky to use correctly. Where do you put them? What happens to the other punctuation marks inside a quotation?
Let's take a look at some common rules for using quotation marks:
Use quotation marks to attribute a direct, word-for-word quotation.
- "I can't wait for your birthday party," he said.
You should always capitalize the first word in a complete, word-for-word quotation.
- My brother said, "The laundry detergent was my gift to you."
Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks.
- My mom said, "Come to the kitchen and eat your cake."
- "Come to the kitchen and eat your cake," my mom said.
If a quotation ends in a question mark, the question mark replaces the comma.
- "Do you want cake or ice cream for your party?" my friend asked.
Use single quotation marks for quotations with quotations.
- My brother said, "When I went to the store, the cashier said, 'You picked a good present!'"
You can use quotation marks in a sentence with technical terms, sarcasm, or words/phrases used in an unusual way.
- I got a special birthday surprise from my "friend" the tax man.
Semicolons are used to join two independent clauses without using a conjunction. Semicolons aren't interchangeable with commas or periods – they indicate something else entirely.
Let's take a look at some rules for using semicolons correctly.
You Can Use a Semicolon to Connect Related Independent Clauses
Semicolons are used to join related independent clauses where each clause shares a close, logical connection.
Let's break down what that means.
Independent clauses are complete sentences. They could stand by themselves, but the ideas in them are related, so joining them makes sense.
Here's an example:
- I decided to get dessert after dinner; I don't care about watching my weight.
In this example, the two clauses are related. The second clause provides clarification for the first and expands on its ideas.
You Should Delete Your Conjunction When You Use a Semicolon
Semicolons often act like conjunctions. Both join together independent clauses.
That means that using both a semicolon and a conjunction together would be redundant. Whenever you use a semicolon, you should delete the conjunction in the sentence (unless it's a list).
- Incorrect: I went to the dog park; and my friend met me there.
- Correct: I went to the dog park; my friend met me there.
You Can Use Semicolons to Divide Items in a List
Semicolons can be used to separate the items in a list if the items are long or contain internal punctuation.
- On my trip around the world, I went to London, England; Edinburgh, Scotland; Lisbon, Portugal; Casablanca, Morocco;and Nairobi, Kenya.
You Can Use Adverbs With Conjunctive Adverbs
Common conjunctive adverbs include moreover, nevertheless, however, otherwise, therefore, then, finally, likewise, and consequently. It's proper to use a semicolon before a conjunctive adverb.
- I wanted to go out with my friends; however, I had a lot of homework to do.
- She was very tired; nevertheless, she went to work.
There are two types of slashes that you might find on your computer keyboard. What do they mean? When should we use them?
This article will illuminate all.
The two types of slashes are backslashes \ and forward slashes /.
Backslashes are used primarily in computer coding, so you don't need to worry about them for grammar. Forward slashes, on the other hand, are punctuation marks used in grammar.
Here's how they are used:
To Separate Lines in Poems, Songs, Or Plays
Forward slashes can be used to show line breaks in poems, songs, or plays.
Here's an example:
- But soft / What light through yonder window breaks
These types of slashes are typically used if several short lines are written together on one long line.
To Indicate "Or"
The forward slash can also be used to show "or" in a sentence. For example:
- The waiter noticed that a patron had left his/her phone on the table.
The "/" in this case indicates that the phone belongs to either a man or a woman.
Forward slashes can used in abbreviations such as "w/o" to shorten words like "without".
Here are some other examples of using forward slashes in abbreviations:
- care of = c/o
- air conditioning = a/c
To Indicate a Debate
Forward slashes can also be used to show a correlation between both sides in a debate:
- There are many strong opinions on both sides of the pro-choice/pro-life debate.
In a Date
You'll commonly see forward slashes used in dates:
- My birthday is 07/20/1990.