Next Generation Writing Study Guide for the ACCUPLACER Test

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Punctuation is the marks used in writing to separate sentences or their elements in writing. Punctuation includes marks like periods, commas, colons, semicolons, exclamation points, question marks, parentheses, dashes, hyphens, and the like.

End of Sentence

Appropriate end of sentence punctuation includes a period (the most common), an exclamation point (if the writer is emphasizing something important or is showing excitement), or a question mark (if the writer is asking a question).

Within Sentence

Punctuation within a sentence includes commas, colons, semicolons, dashes, and ellipses. Here is quick reminder:

A comma (,) is used to:

  • separate items in a list: “I need to buy milk, butter, and eggs.”
  • create a pause between parts of a sentence: “Oh, are you okay?* or *Mary, the server at our favorite restaurant, finally retired after 40 years of service.”
  • to distinguish placeholders in numbers: “10,384,529”

A colon (:):

  • precedes a list of items: “We planned to see three European cities on our tour: London, Barcelona, and Rome.”
  • comes before a quotation or explanation: “Carlo kept repeating: ‘I can’t believe this!’”
  • is used for emphasis: “The jury returned with the verdict: guilty!”

A semicolon (;):

  • is stronger than a comma but not quite as strong as a period
  • is used to indicate a pause, usually between two independent clauses: “Carin’s family is Jewish; they celebrate Hanukkah but not Christmas.” and “I have three dogs; one of them is a Great Dane.”

A dash (—):

adds emphasis or indicates a sharp break or interruption within the sentence
sets off a word or phrase after an independent clause

Ellipses (…):

  • indicate an omission or that something has been deliberately cut out of a text
  • can suggest a pause or, if at the end of a sentence, an idea that just kind of trails off


Possessives indicate that something belongs to someone or something. To form a possessive, you generally add an apostrophe and an s but make sure that you have the appropriate forms and can differentiate between possessive and plural forms of words. Here are some examples of the various possessive forms:

“The lawyer’s fee was reasonable for the work she did.” (singular noun)
“Our dog’s ball is his favorite toy.” (singular noun)

“The boys’ golf team won their match.” (plural noun)
Children’s apparel can be found on level 2.” (plural noun)

“The girl couldn’t find her glasses.” (possessive pronoun)
Their singing inspired us.” (possessive pronoun)

Items in a Series

When you list items in a series of three or more, you need to use commas or semicolons to separate those items. Commas are more common, but if the items you are listing are long, or already contain commas, then semicolons are more appropriate.

Using commas to separate: “I had to buy gifts for my mother, father, brother, and friend.”

Using semicolons to separate: “I like reading books: they help me build my vocabulary, which helps me in school; they engage my imagination, which helps me be creative; and they challenge my mind, which helps me with problem-solving.”

Non-Restrictive and Parenthetical Elements

Writers may include restrictive or nonrestrictive elements in their writing.

A restrictive clause provides essential information about the noun to which it refers and should not be separated from that noun by commas or parentheses.

Example: “I went on a walk with the woman who lives next door.”

The clause “who lives next door” identifies the woman; it provides essential information about who this person is and should not be separated by commas.

A nonrestrictive clause is a group of words that can be left out of the sentence without affecting its meaning. These clauses should be set aside by commas or separated by parentheses. Please note that parentheses are used to insert commentary that is a bigger diversion from the topic of the sentence and should be used sparingly because they are interrupters.


“Sandy, who had been sitting in her car, exited the vehicle to meet her friend for lunch.”

If we took out all of the words in between the commas (who had been sitting in her car), the sentence would still make sense. This is why that nonrestrictive clause is set apart by commas.

Here is an example of setting a nonrestrictive clause apart with parentheses:

“Rock and roll is my favorite genre of music (and Aerosmith is the best band).”


Hyphens are used to join words to create compound terms. They are not the same as dashes and cannot be used interchangeably with dashes.


“Since dad works for a technology company, we always have access to state-of-the-art technology in our house.”

“Though she was a friendly-looking dog, she would protect her house and her family if she felt threatened.”

Unnecessary Punctuation

It’s easy to go overboard with punctuation. Try to avoid some of these common punctuation pitfalls that will detract from the meaning of your writing:

Commas—using too many or too few. To check comma usage, read the sentence aloud; if you pause naturally or notice a shift, you probably need a comma. If you think you might have too many commas, try replacing some of them with periods and see if that helps your sentence variety. (Just be sure the resulting sentences are complete and you have not created fragments).

Apostrophes—should only be used to show possession or to create a contraction (which some scholars suggest you should not use in formal writing, anyway). Remember, it’s just an “s” if you want to make something plural.

Question marks and exclamation points—use sparingly. Asking too many questions is actually a sign of a weak writer, as often answers are not provided or thoroughly developed, so use questions only when appropriate to your purpose and audience. Save exclamation points for big ideas or important points; if too many sentences end with exclamation points, the marks lose their impact.

It’s vs. Its (and other easily confused words)—Take your time and double-check your usage. If you can substitute it is for your it’s, then it’s correct. If not, it should probably be its.

Colon vs. Semicolon—Colons set off a list, but semicolons separate related ideas.

Hyphens (-) vs. Dashes (—)—They are not interchangeable. Hyphens consist of a short line and bring words together to act as one; dashes (a longer line) draw the reader into a separate idea or train of thought that may not be on-topic to the subject of the sentence at hand.

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