Below is a description of the most common punctuation marks and their proper usage. They are listed in functional order, starting with those that end sentences, followed by those that fall in the middle of sentences, and finally those that fall in the middle of words.

period | exclamation point | question mark | comma | colon | semicolon | apostrophe

The Period

A period looks like this:  .  It is used to end a sentence. You should not use a period for anything other than ending a sentence. (A period also makes up part of an ellipsis, but that's another story.)


The Exclamation Point

An exclamation point looks like this:  !  Like the period, the exclamation point is used to end a sentence, but it also adds emphasis. When you're writing dialogue and a character is shouting, you might want to end the sentence with an exclamation point. Example::
"Gabrielle, look out!" yelled Xena.


The Question Mark

A question mark looks like this:  ?  Like the period and exclamation point, the question mark is used to end a sentence, but only when the sentence is a question. Example:
"Xena, where are we going?" asked Gabrielle.


The Comma

Ahhh, now things are getting a little more complicated.

A comma looks like this:  ,  Commas have several uses:

For more explanation of the proper uses of commas, with rather a lot of technical language (what the heck is a "terminal-position adjective cluster"?!), see http://www.niu.edu/acad/english/wac/commas.html.


The Colon

A colon looks like this:  :   It appears at the end of a clause and can do one of three things. Note that the distinction between restatement and elaboration can sometimes be subtle.

Also note that some people like to capitalize the first letter of the first word after the colon: They believe it is more stylistically appropriate. The previous sentence is an example. Whether or not to capitalize is up to you; just be careful to be consistent. (Read my note on consistency.)


The Semicolon

A semicolon looks like this:  ;   Semicolons have essentially two uses.


The Apostrophe

An apostrophe looks like this:  '   In general, apostrophes have two uses: replacing removed letters in contractions, and indicating possession.


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Joan the English Chick
Last updated 22 April 1998