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Punctuation Tips from a Book Editor


These tips are not meant to be a comprehensive guide to English punctuation.  They 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 GI or NATO are not followed by periods. 


When writing a date that refers to a decade, write the 1960s, rather than the 1960’s.  When adding a possessive to a name that ends in an s, do not add an apostrophe.  For instance, Kansas’ border is correct usage, rather than Kansas’s border.  (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 President Lincoln.  Another instance is the use of the word university.  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 university.”


Place names such as the West, the Southwest, the West Coast, the Big Apple, etc. are capitalized.  But 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: “The congressional 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.  Sound garbled?  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 this:  “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:  “The scientific 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:  


               Half-hour session
               Middle-class family
               Three-year-old child

               Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

               250-pound man

               Frequently referred-to book

               Best-selling author

               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:  halfway house, pickup truck, nonviolent, cyberspace, lookout, bioengineering, and counterclockwise.  Note, however, that a construction such as anti-inflammatory 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 Gettysburg Address), of vehicles (such as Apollo 11), and for foreign words not yet assimilated into English (“semper fi” is assimilated; au revoir is not). 
*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 democracy.”  The 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. currency.



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 forty-nine. 


Numbers of a million or more are expressed with a combination of numerals and words, as in 3.6 million.  Percentages are also expressed this way, as in 18 percent unless the context is scientific, at which point 18% is the accepted norm.


Quotation Marks

The use of these is pretty well understood by most writers with the exception of a couple of things that are routinely mishandled.  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, not outside. 


Also, when someone is speaking and he or she quotes someone else, that second quote is set off by a single (not double) quotation mark.  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 yet.’”


Religious References

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 godfather” or “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 capitalized.  Likewise, biblical is not capitalized when it is used as an adjective, such as it is in this sentence: “It was a flood of biblical proportions.”


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 use involved.

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 sentences.  The 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 accurate.*

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.”





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