Punctuation Tips from a Book Editor
These tips are not meant to be a comprehensive guide to English
are merely an attempt to shed light on some of the most
problematic and confusing areas that most writers face.
A great deal of punctuation’s old hard-and-fast rules are
now relaxed, with a writer’s style often taking precedence.
This is indeed wonderful, but it can lead a writer into a
thicket of poor choices, so here is a navigational guide.
Abbreviations such as
Mrs. are followed by a period (although
Miss is not).
Abbreviations that have become acronyms, such as
NATO are not followed
When writing a date that refers to a decade, write the
1960s, rather than the
When adding a possessive to a name that ends in an
s, do not add an
instance, Kansas’ border
is correct usage, rather than
(This last is an example of an old punctuation rule that
has evolved over time.)
Regular nouns (names of people, places, and things) are not
capitalized, even when they designate an important position such
as the president.
However, if the title is attached to a person’s name,
it is capitalized, as in
Another instance is the use of the word
It is capitalized if it is connected to a specific name,
such as Harvard
University, but not capitalized if someone says,
“She is attending the
Place names such as the
West, the Southwest,
the West Coast, the
Big Apple, etc. are
they are not capitalized if they are used as directions,
“Go east a couple of
blocks and then turn north toward the highway.”
Names of races such as
Irish, Asian, Black, White, Hispanic, etc. are capitalized.
Government terms such as
Congress and the
Senate are capitalized, but only when they refer to the
actual bodies (and are therefore used as nouns); they are not
capitalized when used in this manner:
committee met late into the night.”
Historical events such as
World War II and the
Industrial Revolution are capitalized, as are named
structures such as the
Empire State Building.
Commas are an especially touchy area for writers, as they are
often viewed as a hindrance to a more casual style of
expression. It is
good to know the rules, however, so you can understand where and
when to break them!
One of the most common uses of commas is to punctuate words in a
series. Many people
drop the last comma, but the correct way to punctuate is:
“Mary bought apples,
pickles, and milk.”
The concept here is that each item is distinctly
different. If the
sentence had been, “Mary
bought apples, notepaper and pens,” there would be more
justification for dropping the second comma because the last two
items tend to be bundled together in the reader’s mind.
In the end, however, it is up to the writer.
Probably the next most-misused comma placement (or lack thereof)
is in a sentence that contains two sets of subjects and verbs
that are joined by and,
but, or, nor, yet, and
so (in other words,
two independent clauses joined by a conjunction).
Failure to use a comma here can make for what is called a
“run-on sentence,” but failure to use it can also be justified
if the sentence is exceedingly short, as in:
“He wanted to get married
but she didn’t.”
A comma is also appropriate when a sentence contains a reversal
or an explanation.
Here’s a for-instance: "I
celebrated with a beer, even though my team lost the game.”
Transitional phrases such as
after all, in fact,
nevertheless, etc. require commas to signal to the reader
that a pause is taking place.
Use a comma when two adjectives are coordinating for a
particular effect, as in
“The tired, hungry child…”
A comma is necessary as explanatory punctuation in a sentence
such as the following:
“Jack, Jill’s counterpart, fell down the hill.”
Use a comma to set off a person’s name in an instance such as
“Josie, I have a birthday
present for you.”
And similarly, use one in an event such as this:
“Whew, we almost
missed that one.”
Always set off i.e.
(that is) and e.g.
(for example) with commas.
Here’s how they should be punctuated:
data were inconclusive, e.g., we were unable to extrapolate…”
Use a comma before a direct quotation.
This is another tricky area, but generally speaking, it
is very important to get this right whenever you are writing
dialogue. It should
look something like this:
“Wait for me, please,” Dan said.
“Well then, hurry up,” replied Annabelle.
Hyphens are required for adjective compounds that describe
something (a noun) or they can be used in place of a noun, as in
the case of the last two on this list.
They can consist of two adjectives, or even more.
The following examples are representative of usage:
Frequently referred-to book
Well-educated job applicant
One-fourth (and other fractions)
Some words “feel” like they should be hyphenated, but are now
commonly used as singular words.
If you are in doubt, you can always Google your word, but
here are a few of these types of constructions:
nonviolent, cyberspace, lookout, bioengineering, and
Note, however, that a construction such as
necessitates a hyphen in order to avoid the use of the letter
I two times in a row.
This is a case of meaning trumping a punctuation rule.
Use italics for the titles of books, plays, short stories, very
long* poems, newspapers, and magazines; titles of movies and TV
series; names of operas and long* musical compositions; and
names of paintings and sculptures.
Also use italics for the names of famous speeches (the
of vehicles (such as
Apollo 11), and for foreign words not yet assimilated into
English (“semper fi”
is assimilated; au revoir
*NOTE: Shorter titles take quotation marks.
Italics are not used for the names of long sacred works such as
the Bible or the Koran (yes, this seems strange), chapters of
larger works, or episodes of a TV show.
For example, italicize the title of a book or TV series,
but use quotation marks for the names of chapters or episodes.
Finally, italics can be used for emphasis or to set off text and
make it easier to read, as we have done in this article.
Names of Countries
These are spelled out when used in text, as in,
“The United States is a
abbreviation U.S. is
utilized when it is inserted in lists, used in scientific texts,
necessary for brevity (as in a table insertion), or used as an
adjective such as U.S.
Numerals are used in most instances, but there are times when
substituting with words is correct.
The most common ones are as follows: numbers below ten;
any number that begins a sentence (except a year); fractions,
such as one-fifth; names that are universally recognized, such
as the Ten Commandments;
numbered streets, such as
Fifth Avenue; time when it is expressed in the format of
six o’clock; age such
as a five-year-old;
and quantities such as
Numbers of a million or more are expressed with a combination of
numerals and words, as in
Percentages are also expressed this way, as in
18 percent unless the
context is scientific, at which point
18% is the accepted
The use of these is pretty well understood by most writers with
the exception of a couple of things that are routinely
Quotation marks must contain the end punctuation; in
other words, a period, comma, or question mark at the end of
someone’s speech must be placed inside of the quotation marks,
Also, when someone is speaking and he or she quotes someone
else, that second quote is set off by a single (not double)
What is a single mark?
It is actually just an apostrophe.
Here is an example:
“Mark was boarding
the aircraft when he heard someone say, ‘Wait, you can’t get on
The word God is the most confusing for most people when
it comes to capitalization.
The general rule of thumb is to always capitalize words
such as God when it
refers to the actual entity.
It is not capitalized when it is used in this way:
“He was a godly
man” or “She is a
goddess” or “He is my
“Cleanliness is next to godliness.”
The names of religious books such as the Bible, Talmud, and
Koran are also capitalized, unless they are being used
generically or as adjectives. (And again, you’ll recall that
they are not italicized even though they are book titles—one of
the oddities of English punctuation.)
When referring to the Christian Bible, the word
bible is capitalized,
but if something is referred to as your
etiquette bible, then
the word is being used generically, and it should not be
Likewise, biblical is
not capitalized when it is used as an adjective, such as it is
in this sentence:
“It was a flood of
Semicolons are actually fairly simple to use; the rules are
pretty cut and dried.
They are often misunderstood, but they are actually among
the easiest types of punctuation to employ.
Something to keep in mind, however, is that their use
should be somewhat limited because they tend to make sentences
too long. Overly
long sentences are more tedious and difficult to read, so most
times, it’s better to use a period and then start a new
sentence. Here are
the rules for their use.
1) A semicolon is used to connect two independent clauses
(each with a subject and verb) when they are not connected with
a conjunction, such as “and, but, or,” etc.
2) A semicolon is used to separate items that are
internally punctuated by a comma—even if there is only one comma
Let’s look at some examples. The first rule applies to the more common use of the
semicolon. The main thing to keep in mind here is whether the
two parts of the sentence are sufficiently related to each other
to warrant keeping them in one sentence, rather than forming two
second thing is to ask yourself whether there is a complete
thought expressed on each side of the semicolon, whether you
indeed have two independent clauses with a subject and verb.
Here are a few examples of correct usage:
Two related independent clauses are juxtaposed
without a conjunction.
Some people prefer the Caribbean; others prefer Mexico.”
Two independent clauses are connected by a transitional word.
“I need to exercise more; however, it bores me to tears.”
Two complete ideas that are joined by a "not only/but also" type
This book is not only fascinating; it is also historically
The second semicolon rule addresses the use of a semicolon as a
separator between a series of items that are punctuated by
commas. Here is an example:
“The meeting was attended by Carolyn Hobart, president; Jay
Shapiro, vice-president; and Janice Perkins, secretary.”
Denver Book Editor | Boulder Book Editor