The norms and conventions surrounding punctuation usage aren’t as arbitrary as they seem, and this is good news for workplace writers. We can use the logical systems behind what’s considered “correct” to incorporate punctuation rules into our own common sense. This way, we increase the options we have in our writing toolbox to express things the way we want to without worrying about errors.
This article addresses nine punctuation symbols, three at a time, by explaining the reasons behind the ways we use them. Skip around to find the symbols you need help with most, or read all the way through to get a refresher on how punctuation works and why.
Commas, Semicolons, and Colons
To understand commas, semicolons, and colons, we do need to discuss one grammatical concept. Don’t worry, though: it’s logical.
Sentences must have two parts, and that’s it. Otherwise, they aren’t complete sentences. If you already know about the required subject and verb (I refer to them here as S+V), skip ahead to where the punctuation marks start. If you need a quick refresher about the two parts of a sentence, check out the box below before moving on.
The semicolon joins two thematically-related and otherwise complete sentences into one sentence. Based on the two-parts-of-a-sentence rule, this means that a semicolon comes after a pair of subject and verb, and before another pair of subject and verb. I’ll label these as S+V.
The article (S) covers (V) nine useful punctuation symbols; the coy semicolon (S) comes (V) first.
Don’t use semicolons unless you have S+V pairs on both sides.
You cannot use a semicolon to interrupt between an S and a V. So, don’t write “The article covers; nine punctuation symbols.” This doesn’t work because although we have an S+V pair before the semicolon (article+covers), we don’t have one afterwards.
Commas, on the other hand, can come along with, or be found within, S+V pairs. Commas separate sections of sentences, not whole sentences like semicolons do. You can tell where to put a comma because you’d pause if you were reading aloud, even though you weren’t yet done with your whole sentence. Each of the following sentences have one S+V pair, and the commas just connect other sections of the same sentence.
Commas (S), which are really useful punctuation symbols, get used (V) often in emails.
In his workplace emails, he (S) uses (V) commas often.
We use colons to announce things, and while they most often come after S+V pairs, they’re not required to. Colons aren’t used to divide or join sentences or clauses per se, but are used when the writer wants to make an announcement: like this. And usually by the time you’re making an announcement, you’ve already finished your S+V pair.
His to-do list (S) expanded (V) to include action items from a variety of departments: sales, inventory, and accounts receivable.
At the all-hands meeting, she (S) announced (V) new policies for submitting proposals: submission requirements, timeline changes, and writing protocol.
Here comes (V) the good part (S): using colons.
“Look Who’s Talking: The Uber-Grammatical You,” she wrote.
Punctuation symbols like quotation marks, apostrophes, and hyphens have logic in their internal systems too. By understanding these systems, we can flexibly use them to articulate our thoughts more precisely.
“ ” Quotation Marks (for dialogue) & Quotation Marks vs Italics (for titles)
Quotation marks indicate when somebody’s talking or when you’re quoting someone else in writing. You’ll almost always use them along with other punctuation (the way I included a comma before the quotation mark in this section’s title), and if you’re writing for American readers you’ll usually put all the other punctuation inside the quote marks. (Some countries do this differently.) It makes sense to put the punctuation inside the quote marks because the questioning or exclaiming tone, in the cases below, are part of what was spoken.
“How can I learn about quotation marks?” they asked.
“Hopefully, by reading this article!” she answered.
We often use quotation marks for titles of things, though, and this can get a bit confusing since italics are also often used for titles. So we can say that while Aretha Franklin was known by the widest audience for her song “Respect,” in fact the entire I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You album is excellent.
Luckily we don’t have to guess when to choose quotes or italics because we have a system: quotation marks are used for parts of things and italics are used for the entire entity.
Apostophes should only be used to indicate possession (someone owning something) or in the case of a contraction (won’t, couldn’t, should’ve).
Do not use apostrophes in verbs that just happen to end with “s” (leaps, celebrates, exclaims), in plural nouns (my cats really like their cat treats), or just any time you see an “s” coming! As someone who recently drove by a sign proclaiming “Puppy’s for sale!” I am aware of a new trend towards overuse of apostrophes.
Don’t be fooled though: apostrophes should only be used with a clear reason and purpose.
Hyphens connect two words that are being joined together to create an adjective (word that describes a noun). If your colleague is more than just a little motivated, you might call them a “highly-motivated individual.” In this case, “highly-motivated” have been put together to function as an adjective describing “individual.” This is the right way to use hyphens.
The employee was well-spoken.
I preferred the less-burnt toast to the stuff I made earlier.
Slow-churned ice cream is a fave.
(Hyphens are different than the longer em dashes, which look – as you can see here – like elongated hyphens and are used to add background or parenthetical information, as I’ve just done.)
After Your S+V Pair: Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Marks
Concluding your sentences is easy if you think about the S+V pairs. Just make sure you have an entire S+V pair before you put your period, question mark, or exclamation mark. If you’re missing either an S or a V, you’ll have a fragment.
This sentence includes an S+V pair.
How can I avoid having fragments in my writing?
You can include an S+V pair before ending your sentence!
What Happens if You Don’t Have an S+V Pair?
On the other hand, sometimes when it’s been a long day and it’s easy to make errors.
This is not a complete sentence because although it does have plenty of nouns and verbs, it doesn’t have a S+V pair. Who actually did something after this long day, and what did they do?
Just as a sentence lacking an S+V pair is a fragment, sentences with multiple S+V pairs in a row aren’t right either. We call those run-ons.
And with that, after talking about nine different punctuation marks, I’ll end my article by explaining that when you have too many S+V verbs in a row, like I’m doing right at this moment, you’ll end up with a run-on, and nobody likes to read run-ons because they’re super long and if you try to say them aloud you’ll run out of breath.
Instead of running out of breath, use a period, question mark, or exclamation point to end that sentence before it’s too late.