General Punctuation Rules: Overview of Text Punctuation
Correct comma use can change the entire meaning of the sentence. Below is an example of how punctuation can affect the context:
- Lady, without her gentleman, is nothing.
- Lady! Without her, a gentleman is nothing.
Notice how both options are grammatically correct, but constitute a different meaning based on punctuation devices. To achieve well-constructed prose, make sure that your ideas are laid out with precision.
Commas join independent clauses and are generally used with conjunction:
- Reorganizing your desk may be tedious, but it is a good way to clear up space.
- The building has an underground parking lot, so the car owners will enjoy the design.
In the examples above, “but” and “so” are used as conjunctions and are inserted to avoid a comma splice. Commas can also be used to separate clauses when listing several items:
- The main course will definitely include kebabs, sandwiches, and beverages.
The list mentions “kebabs”, “sandwiches,” and “beverages,” so a comma is necessary to separate the items. You can use commas after the introductory and prepositional phrases:
- To receive a promotion, he has to be ready for complex assignments.
- After the game, the players attended the conference together with their coach.
- Since we weren’t leaving home until late, we watched the sun go down.
In the first sentence, the writer uses an introductory phrase, “to receive a promotion”. In the second sentence, a prepositional phrase “after the game” is used to emphasize the timing. In the third sentence, “since we wouldn’t be leaving home until late” is a dependent clause that comes before the subject.
Commas are known to separate nonessential elements. These are the elements that do not contain vital information or add anything extra to the context. If a sentence includes nonessential elements, it is better to set it apart by commas:
- Mary’s car, a shining Honda, gleamed in broad daylight of the hot summer day.
- My cousin, who decided to redecorate his living room, offered me to stay at his place.
Both sentences have nonessential elements. In the first sentence, “a shining Honda” can be removed without changing the overall meaning of the text. In the second sentence, the addition of “who decided to redecorate his living room” is also irrelevant.
Commas are used between coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are descriptive words that are grouped together to become modifiers for the same noun. For example:
- The restless, agitated mob yelled at the sight of their favorite performer.
- The small, compact present was wrapped in beautiful gift paper with gold ribbons.
Commas are also used to designate the introductory phrases that have been moved from the end of the sentence:
- In the moonlight washing the streets, the city looked ethereal and distant.
Commas also divide paired descriptive adjectives that precede a noun. In this case, you will need a comma between adjectives. However, a comma should not be used between adjectives that need to be listed in a specific way.
|They sell tacky overpriced clothing.||They sell tacky, overpriced clothing.|
|They often serve overdone, chicken burgers.||They often serve overdone chicken burgers.|
If there is a transitional element present in the sentence, a comma is used as well. Transitional elements include words like however, therefore, also, otherwise, as a result, thus, and so on:
- He had done well during the last semester, therefore he had been permitted to graduate successfully.
- However, these teams were not prepared for the final match of the week.
Commas are used to indicate dates:
- March 28, 2018
They are also put in numbers:
- 12, 000, 000
When mentioning a job position or a title, it is essential to insert a comma:
- Laura Den, Ph.D., said that she is going to accept their help.
- Kenneth Smith, Executive Officer of Bengal Municipality, issued a new reform.
A semicolon is used for two independent clauses that are connected. It can be placed in the sentence if the second clause has a similar meaning to the first one. Semicolons that join these clauses are complete sentences.
- Linda convinced everyone she had to go home; she had stayed up all night reading comments under her latest video.
In the sentence above, a semicolon informs the reader that the data in both clauses should be interpreted as one message. A semicolon is also used for independent clauses when the second clause starts with an adverb. In this case, the writer may either use a conjunctive adverb (therefore, moreover, meanwhile, nonetheless) or a transitional adverb (for example, for instance, in addition, in other words).
- We were determined to make this birthday celebration happen; therefore, we had invited our guests in advance.
- No one knew what to expect after the last meeting; thus, people approached the office with caution.
To underline the meaning of the second clause in a sentence, a colon is used in independent clauses. For example:
- The sound of construction was so loud that three night clubs had stopped working: Moonshine, Oracle, and Mist had to be closed until the end of the repairs.
A colon is also used in independent clauses when it is directly followed by a citation, a list, or an appositive phrase:
- We are running out of breakfast essentials: milk, sugar, and tea should be on our list.
- The creature, a long shadow with no discernible features, was watching the scene from his hiding place.
In the first example, a colon precedes a list of products that need to be purchased for the occasion. The second sentence represents an appositive phrase. It is placed next to the first noun, “creature,” to add another description to the subject. As in the case with appositives, the second definition is offset with commas.
Colons may often come at the end of the independent clause. In this case, they are put before the word or a phrase that they are introducing.
- I know just the sort of occupation for this young lady: an explorer.
- Despite his friend’s best efforts to distract him, George had only one thing on his mind: movies.
In both sentences, the first independent clause represents an introduction for the second one. Colons are used for this kind of introduction. However, a colon can never be placed after a verb that provides a direct introduction to the list of items:
- ❌ My favorite places in the world are: Wellington, Melbourne, and Auckland.
- ✔️ My favorite places in the world are the following: Wellington, Melbourne, and Auckland.
- ✔️ My favorite places in the world are Wellington, Melbourne, and Auckland.
Parentheses are often put in a sentence to accentuate the context. With the parentheses, attention goes to the enclosed content rather than the commas. You can place it in the middle of the sentence to offset nonessential information. This includes dates and sources.
- Taika Waititi (born 16 August 1975) is one of New Zealand’s most promising directors of our time.
In the sentence above, the birthdate of a movie director is provided as a clarifying source and therefore enclosed in parentheses. If the group of words in the parentheses creates a complete sentence, there is no need for a comma. However, if the context calls for a quotation mark or an exclamation point, it should be inserted.
- My nanny (do you remember my sweet old nanny?) used to sing me lullabies as I went to sleep.
If parentheses enclose an independent clause, the punctuation marks should be put inside the parentheses.
- I am waiting for my performance on Friday with a beating heart. (My childhood memories are still following me wherever I go.) I hope I can overcome my stage fright.
Dashes are put in a sentence to set off the tone of the text or add extra emphasis to the phrase inside the dashes. In this case, dashes play a more essential role than parentheses.
- One of the reasons I cannot fully agree with you – though I have tried to do so countless times – is that your theories are too anarchic and unpredictable.
If it is found in the middle of the sentence, a dash is used to emphasize specific words or phrases. In the example below, a list of activities seems jumbled and disorganized:
- ❌ Our plans for the upcoming days, going to see a friend, coming over to Lidia’s house, doing our chores, and attending the local picnic spot, seem too much to take on.
Putting dashes, on the other hand, clears the meaning of the sentence and makes the essential word group stand out:
- Our plans for the upcoming days – going to see a friend, coming over to Lidia’s house, doing our chores, and attending the local picnic spot – seem too much to take on.
A dash can also be used for appositive phrases. Appositive phrases in a sentence already have commas:
- Our friends – Melinda, Clarissa, and Greta – arrived late in the night.
Quotation marks are used for direct quotations. Commas need to be put inside the quotation mark, while colons have to be put outside.
- Ken asked, "When will you be joining us? " I answered, "I am not sure about the time."
Quotation marks are often used in an ironic, sarcastic way to emphasize the ridiculousness of the context:
- He served us a plate of half-cooked veggies and proudly called it his “masterpiece.”
Quotation marks are also used for book titles, song titles, episodes of television shows, and episodes of radio shows.
- I have watched the first episode, “A Hero to Save Us All,” and was blown away by the setting of the story.
In the text, the titles of books, newspapers, magazines, scientific abstracts, journalistic articles, musical albums, and websites are usually italicized. Though the method of underlining is also present in grammar manuals, there has to be a consistent pattern throughout academic writing:
- Among the liberal newspapers that added their comments to the story, The Guardian could be found.
- They decided to surprise us with the screen adaptation of one of my favorite Agatha Christie’s novels, Evil Under the Sun.
Apostrophes are generally used to indicate possession. To show possession in a sentence, an apostrophe and an “s” should be added to singular nouns.
- I saw somebody’s laptop sitting on a desk in an office.
If the noun is plural, only an apostrophe is added. Also, putting an apostrophe in the sentence depends on the number of nouns. In the example below, you can see that “my friends’ car” means that the car belongs to more than one of the writer’s friends:
- I asked for my friends’ car on Monday, because I needed to get to work as fast as I could.
Hyphens are reserved for compound words and word combinations in a sentence. Hyphens need to be placed in a compound adjective before the word it defines. There are exceptions to the rules of hyphenation that need to be checked with a grammar manual.
- He is a well-read person and a specialist in collecting books for his personal library.
- They are a world-famous band that has been touring together for over twenty years.
A hyphen is also used with the prefixes such as ex-, self-, and all-, and with the prefixes that come before a proper noun or an adjective.
- She is a self-proclaimed explorer of the Amazon, but she mostly spends days in her office.
- Celia Wade-Brown is an ex-mayor of the city of Wellington, who won a second term in 2013.