Let’s face it, as writers, we have all been in a situation where we have written something really good (maybe even out-of-this-world amazing) and have asked a friend, colleague or a family member to read it only to find out that you’ve messed up in punctuations! It is not that you don’t know which punctuations are to be used where, it is simply an error that all writers make because of being engrossed in their story too much to not have enough time to pay attention to the other “non-essential” things.
I know you are probably remembering that one embarrassing moment (probably more) where you were in this kind of a fix. Well, in order to make sure that you or I don’t end up in this kind of mess again, I thought it was a good idea to prepare a list for the basic punctuations to just go over once you have completed your story – kind of a checklist.
Basic Punctuations For Writers
1. Full stop or Period
Full stop (in British English) or period (in American English) is used to mark the end of a sentence. It is the most basic punctuation is used to end a sentence. You can use it to determine the length of your sentence in narrative fiction.
Ending sentences: Full stops indicate the end of sentences that are not questions or exclamations.
Abbreviations: A full stop is used after some abbreviations. If the abbreviation ends a declaratory sentence there is no additional period immediately following the full stop that ends the abbreviation (e.g. “My name is Gabriel Gama, Jr.”). Though two full stops (one for the abbreviation, one for the sentence ending) might be expected, conventionally only one is written.
In British English, if the abbreviation includes both the first and last letter of the abbreviated word, as in ‘Mister’ [‘Mr’] and ‘Doctor’ [‘Dr’], a full stop is not used. In American English, the common convention is to include the period after all such abbreviations.
In conversation: In British English, the words “full stop” at the end of an utterance strengthen it, it admits of no discussion: “I’m not going with you, full stop.” In American English, the word “period” serves this function.
Clauses: A comma is used to separate a dependent clause from the independent clause if the dependent clause comes first: After I fed the cat, I brushed my clothes.
Adverbs: Commas are always used to set off certain adverbs at the beginning of a sentence, including however, in fact, therefore, nevertheless, moreover, furthermore, and still. Using commas to offset certain adverbs is optional, including then, so, yet, instead, and too.
Parenthetical phrases: Commas are often used to enclose parenthetical words and phrases within a sentence. Such phrases are both preceded and followed by a comma, unless that would result in a doubling of punctuation marks or the parenthetical is at the start or end of the sentence. The following are examples of types of parenthetical phrases:
- Introductory phrase: Once upon a time, my father ate a muffin.
- Interjection: My father ate the muffin, gosh darn it!
- Aside: My father, if you don’t mind me telling you this, ate the muffin.
- Appositive: My father, a jaded and bitter man, ate the muffin.
- Absolute phrase: My father, his eyes flashing with rage, ate the muffin.
- Free modifier: My father, chewing with unbridled fury, ate the muffin.
- Resumptive modifier: My father ate the muffin, a muffin which no man had yet chewed.
- Summative modifier: My father ate the muffin, a feat which no man had attempted.
Quotations: Mostly in fiction writing, writers precede quoted material that is the grammatical object of an active verb of speaking or writing with a comma, as in Mr. Kershner says, “You should know how to use a comma.”
The comma and the quotation mark can be paired in two ways: In British English, punctuation is usually placed within quotation marks only if it is part of what is being quoted or referred to – My mother gave me the nickname “Bobby Bobby Bob Bob Boy”, which really made me angry.
In American English, the comma is commonly included inside a quotation mark – My mother gave me the nickname “Bobby Bobby Bob Bob Boy,” which really made me angry.
3. Question mark
A question mark is a punctuation mark that indicates an interrogative clause or phrase.
4. Exclamation point
The exclamation mark, also referred to as the exclamation point in American English, is a punctuation mark usually used after an interjection or exclamation to indicate strong feelings or high volume (shouting), or to show emphasis. The exclamation mark often marks the end of a sentence, for example: “Watch out!” Similarly, a bare exclamation mark (with nothing before or after) is often established in warning signs.
A sentence ending in an exclamation mark may represent an exclamation or an interjection (such as “Wow!”, “Boo!”), or an imperative (“Stop!”), or may indicate astonishment or surprise: “They were the footprints of a gigantic hound!” Exclamation marks are occasionally placed mid-sentence with a function similar to a comma, for dramatic effect, although this usage is obsolete: “On the walk, oh! there was a frightful noise.”
Informally, exclamation marks may be repeated for additional emphasis (“That’s great!!!”), but this practice is generally considered unacceptable in formal prose.
The exclamation mark is sometimes used in conjunction with the question mark. This can be in protest or astonishment (“Out of all places, the squatter-camp?!”); a few writers replace this with a single, nonstandard punctuation mark, the interrobang, which is the combination of a question mark and an exclamation mark.
Overly frequent use of the exclamation mark is generally considered poor writing, for it distracts the reader and devalues the mark’s significance.
The apostrophe (‘ or ’) is a punctuation mark that it is used for three purposes in English llanguage:
- The marking of the omission of one or more letters (as in the contraction of “do not” to “don’t”).
- The marking of possessive case of nouns (as in “the eagle’s feathers”, “in one month’s time”, “at your parents’ home”).
- The marking of plurals of individual characters (e.g. “p’s and q’s”).
Rules for most situations
- Possessive personal pronouns, serving as either noun-equivalents or adjective-equivalents, do not use an apostrophe, even when they end in “s”. The complete list of those ending in the letter “s” or the corresponding sound /s/ or /z/ but not taking an apostrophe is ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, and whose.
- Other pronouns, singular nouns not ending in “s”, and plural nouns not ending in “s” all take “‘s” in the possessive: e.g., someone’s, a cat’s toys, women’s.
- Plural nouns already ending in “s” take only an apostrophe after the pre-existing “s” to form the possessive: e.g., three cats’ toys.
The colon (:) is a punctuation mark consisting of two equally sized dots placed one above the other on the same vertical line. A colon often precedes an explanation, a list, a quotation, or a block quotation. It is also used between hours and minutes in time, titles and subtitles of books, city and publisher in citations, chapter and verse in biblical citations, and for salutations in business letters and other formal letter writing.
Colon used before list: Daequan was so hungry that he ate everything in the house: chips, cold pizza, pretzels and dip, hot dogs, peanut butter, and candy.
Colon used before a description: Bertha is so desperate that she’ll date anyone, even William: he’s uglier than a squashed toad on the highway, and that’s on his good days.
Colon before definition: For years while I was reading Shakespeare’s Othello and criticism on it, I had to constantly look up the word “egregious” since the villain uses that word: outstandingly bad or shocking.
Colon before explanation: I guess I can say I had a rough weekend: I had chest pain and spent all Saturday and Sunday in the emergency room.
Some writers use fragments (incomplete sentences) before a colon for emphasis or stylistic preferences (to show a character’s voice in literature), as in this example: Dinner: chips and juice. What a well-rounded diet I have.
In the English language, a semicolon, or semi-colon, is most commonly used to link (in a single sentence) two independent clauses that are closely related in thought. When a semicolon joins two or more ideas in one sentence, those ideas are then given equal rank. Semicolons can also be used in place of commas to separate the items in a list, particularly when the elements of that list contain commas.
The semicolon is likely the least understood of the standard marks, and so it is not used by many English speakers.
Although terminal marks (i.e. full stops, exclamation marks, and question marks) indicate the end of a sentence, the comma, semicolon, and colon are normally sentence-internal, making them secondary boundary marks. The semicolon falls between terminal marks and the comma; its strength is equal to that of the colon.
Applications of the semicolon in English include:
- Between items in a series or listing containing internal punctuation, especially parenthetic commas, where the semicolons function as serial commas. The semicolon divides the items on the list to more discrete parts, without which the remaining jumble of commas could cause confusion for the reader. This is sometimes called the “super comma” function of the semicolon:
- The people present were Jamie, a man from New Zealand; John, the milkman’s son; and George, a gaunt kind of man with no friends.
- Several fast food restaurants can be found within the following cities: London, England; Paris, France; Dublin, Ireland; and Madrid, Spain.
- Here are three examples of familiar sequences: one, two, and three; a, b, and c; first, second, and third.
- Between closely related independent clauses not conjoined with a coordinating conjunction, when the two clauses are balanced, opposed or contradictory:
- My wife would like tea; I would prefer coffee.
- I went to the basketball court; I was told it was closed for cleaning.
- I told Kate she’s running for the hills; I wonder if she knew I was joking.
- In rare instances, when a comma replaces a period (full stop) in a quotation, or when a quotation otherwise links two independent sentences:
- “I have no use for this,” he said; “you are welcome to it.”
- “Is this your book?” she asked; “I found it on the floor.”
8. Quotation marks
Quotation marks, also known as quotes, quote marks, speech marks, inverted commas, or talking marks,are punctuation marks used in pairs in various writing systems to set off direct speech, a quotation, or a phrase. The pair consists of an opening quotation mark and a closing quotation mark, which may or may not be the same character.
In English writing, quotation marks are placed in pairs around a word or phrase to indicate:
- Quotation or direct speech: Carol said “Go ahead” when I asked her if the launcher was ready.
- Mention in another work of the title of a short or subsidiary work, such as a chapter or an episode: “Encounter at Farpoint” was the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
- Scare quotes, used to mean “so-called” or to express irony: The “fresh” bread was all dried up.
In American writing, quotation marks are normally the double kind (the primary style). If quotation marks are used inside another pair of quotation marks, then single quotation marks are used. For example: “Didn’t she say ‘I like red best’ when I asked her wine preferences?” he asked his guests. If another set of quotation marks is nested inside single quotation marks, double quotation marks are used again, and they continue to alternate as necessary (though this is rarely done).
British publishing is regarded as more flexible about whether double or single quotation marks should be used. A tendency to use single quotation marks in British writing is thought to have arisen after the mid-19th century invention of steam-powered presses and the consequent rise of London and New York as distinct, industrialized publishing centers whose publishing houses adhered to separate norms. However, The King’s English in 1908 noted that the prevailing British practice was to use double marks for most purposes, and single ones for quotations within quotations. Different media now follow different conventions in the United Kingdom.
Parentheses (also called simply brackets) contain adjunctive material that serves to clarify (in the manner of a gloss) or is aside from the main point. A milder effect may be obtained by using a pair of commas as the delimiter, though if the sentence contains commas for other purposes, visual confusion may result. That issue is fixed by using a pair of dashes instead, to bracket the parenthetical.
In American usage, parentheses are usually considered separate from other brackets, and calling them “brackets” is unusual.
Parentheses may be used in formal writing to add supplementary information, such as “Sen. John McCain (R – Arizona) spoke at length”. They can also indicate shorthand for “either singular or plural” for nouns, e.g. “the claim(s)”. It can also be used for gender neutral language, especially in languages with grammatical gender, e.g. “(s)he agreed with his/her physician” (the slash in the second instance, as one alternative is replacing the other, not adding to it).
Parenthetical phrases have been used extensively in informal writing and stream of consciousness literature. Examples include the southern American author William Faulkner (see Absalom, Absalom! and the Quentin section of The Sound and the Fury) as well as poet E. E. Cummings.
Note: Parentheses have historically been used where the dash is currently used in alternatives.
The hyphen is a punctuation mark used to join words and to separate syllables of a single word. The use of hyphens is called hyphenation. Son-in-law is an example of a hyphenated word. The hyphen is sometimes confused with dashes (figure dash ‒, en dash –, em dash —, horizontal bar―), which are longer and have different uses.
Although hyphens are not to be confused with en dashes, there are some overlaps in usage (in which either a hyphen or an en dash may be acceptable, depending on user preference.
So next time you write a story, all you have to do it just go through this list and make sure that your punctuations are in the right place.