Punctuation Study Guide for the English Basics

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Colon (:)

Colons have a variety of uses: to introduce a quotation, an example, or a list. More specifically, colons are used:

  • To introduce a specific list of items.
    • The college offers four summer courses: Intro to Anthropology, Basic Keyboarding, Brushstrokes for Beginners, and Music for the Ages.
    • Matt is looking for an assistant who can do the following: answer phones, file reports, take dictation, set meetings, and make coffee.
      [Do not use a colon if doing so will interrupt the flow of the sentence, as in “The college offers Intro to Anthropology, Basic Keyboarding, Brushstrokes for Beginners, and Music for the Ages in the summer.]
  • To separate two independent clauses when the second one explains or gives more information about the first.
    • She got what she worked hard for: She earned an A on that test.
    • Richard was pleased with the results: He had won the election by a landslide.
  • To add emphasis to a single word or phrase at the end of a sentence.
    • He waited breathlessly for her response to his proposal: yes.
    • The jury came back from deliberations with a verdict: not guilty.
  • To separate hours and minutes in time. Use a colon between the hours and minutes, but no spaces before or after the colon. And if it is military time, there are no colons.
    • 1:35 p.m.
    • 12:18 p.m.
    • 4:03 a.m.
    • 0700
  • To indicate a ratio. Again, no spaces before or after the colon.
    • 2:1
    • 9:4
    • 1:500
  • In business correspondence.
    • Dear Sir:
    • To Whom It May Concern:
    • cc: Payroll
    • Attention: Customer Service

Semicolon (;)

A semicolon is not the same thing as a colon and the two are not interchangeable. A semicolon’s purpose is to give pause; a longer pause than a mere comma, but not as long as a period.

A semicolon may be used to join together two independent clauses without a conjunction.

  • Peggy’s baby is growing; she is getting bigger and bigger every day.

  • Sally wears pants; Jill prefers skirts.

  • Jonas is a vegetarian; Joanna eats meat.

Independent clauses linked by a transitional expression need a comma. (although, however, for example, etc.)

  • There is mounting evidence of climate change; however, some people will never admit it.

  • The team lost their last regular-season game; although they still had enough wins to make it to the finals.

  • The Princess Bride was my favorite movie growing up; in fact, it is my favorite movie still today.

In lists with internal commas so that it does not get too confusing with too many commas.

  • Our cruise ship stopped in San Diego, California; Cabo San Lucas, Mexico; Acapulco, Mexico; and Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala.

Ellipses (. . .)

Ellipses are a set of three periods (with a space before and after each) that are used to indicate an omission of a word, phrase, line, sentence, paragraph, or larger chunk of text from the original quoted source. Ellipses are most useful in formal writing when you are quoting sources and you don’t want to use all of the words of the original because it would take up too much space or because not all of the material is relevant to your argument or purpose. Ellipses allow you to show that you are leaving out some of the original text and focusing on the part(s) that will help you make your point.

If, for example, we had this excerpt from Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson and we wanted to use just part of it rather than the whole paragraph, we would use ellipses to indicate that we had omitted some of the original text.

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried. Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. This sculpture in the memory is not without preëstablished harmony. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.”

[Retrieved from: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16643/16643-h/16643-h.htm#SELF-RELIANCE]

Quote with Ellipses:
According to Emerson, we must be ourselves because “imitation is suicide…none but he knows what that is which he can do” and when one tries to imitate others instead of being oneself, it “shall give him no peace…no invention, no hope.”

Ellipses are not generally needed at the beginning of a quote, even if you are starting your reference mid-sentence. However, it depends on which writing style you are using (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.) so make sure that whichever style you use, you consistently follow those rules.

Ellipses can also be used in informal writing to indicate a thought that is intended to trail off or to show hesitation or build suspense.

  • Shhh … just … a … little … further.

  • I didn’t know what you wanted for your birthday, so …

Parentheses [ ( ) ]

Parentheses are a pair of rounded brackets used to insert additional information into a sentence. Parentheses can house a word, phrase, or even a complete sentence but must be used with this rule in mind: if the material inside the parentheses is critical to understanding the sentence or making it grammatically sound, it cannot remain in parentheses. Parentheses are reserved only for extraneous information and the sentence must be able to stand on its own if the parenthetical information is omitted. Here are some examples:

  • That song reminds her (how long ago was it now?) of her first kiss.

  • Which tea (teas) were you interested in purchasing?

  • I will get back to you with an answer tomorrow (Tuesday).

To punctuate sentences that include parentheses:

  • If the parentheses come at the end of the sentence, the end punctuation for the sentence should occur outside the parentheses.
    • Lamar received a nice bonus in his most recent paycheck ($800).
    • Chandra was the one who left the refrigerator door open (but don’t tell anyone).
  • If the parenthetical content occurs in the middle of a sentence, the surrounding punctuation should go where it would be if the parentheses were not there.
    • Samira liked the dress (the blue one with white polka dots), but she could not afford its hefty price tag.
  • If a parenthetical sentence is used on its own, the end punctuation mark for the sentence goes inside the parentheses.
    • You should try the fried frog legs. (You’ll be amazed!)

Parentheses can also be used to enclose the numbers or letters organizing a list.

  • We will need the following five ingredients to make this cake: (1) eggs, (2) sugar, (3) flour, (4) cocoa powder, and (5) milk.

Parentheses are used to enclose time zones and area codes.

  • Customer service is available Monday–Friday, 8–5 (PST).

  • Her number is (818) 555-3749.

Short translations can be put in parentheses instead of quotation marks.

  • Her knowledge of Spanish is limited to hola (hello) and adios (good-bye).

Parentheses can also be used to provide abbreviations or acronyms or to spell out those abbreviations and acronyms.

  • The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) monitors and regulates all television and radio broadcasts in the United States.

  • Because she was new to the country and only knew a few words of English, Maria was placed in a class for English Language Learners (ELL).

Hyphens (-) and Dashes (—)

Hyphens and dashes, while very close in appearance, are not, in fact, interchangeable and each serves its own unique purpose. Hyphens are shorter line versions of dashes and are generally used to join words together to create compound words. When you use a hyphen, there are no spaces before or after it.

  • Once the piñata was broken, the party devolved into a free-for-all with children scrambling to snatch as much candy as they could.

  • Our high school recently unveiled plans to build a state-of-the-art science building.

The adverb very and adverbs ending in -ly are not hyphenated. If an -ly word is not acting as an adverb, it may be hyphenated.

  • The friendly-looking dog was tugging at his leash because he wanted to come and play.

  • Many people underestimated the motley-looking crew of teenagers, but those teens spent every Saturday morning volunteering their time with the elderly.

Use hyphens for ages of people and things. When you use hyphens for ages, remember to use two hyphens, otherwise the meaning of your sentence changes (Marly has a one-year-old child is very different from Marly has a one-year old child. In the second example, Marly has an old child, which is an oxymoron.)

  • The eighty-five-year-old woman survived three days in her car stuck in the middle of nowhere.

  • A one-hundred-year-old tree came crashing down in the windstorm.

We hyphenate the word “great” in familial relationships, but not grand. Also, do not hyphenate steps or halfs (“My stepmother has been a very supportive woman.” “Blake’s half brother went to law school.”).

  • My great-grandmother lived to be 104 years old.

  • Arshan’s great-great-uncle met Gandhi.

Hyphenate all words that begin with the prefix self-, ex-, and all- and hyphenate prefixes if they start with the same letter as the root word to avoid confusion.

  • Self-help books are popular with people looking to be better themselves.

  • His ex-wife got the house and dog; he got the car and boat.

  • Dad claimed to be all-knowing so we never tried to get away with anything behind his back.

  • Will you vote to re-elect Mayor Wilson?

  • Dr. Lee recommended ultra-advanced toothpaste to help with his patient’s sensitive teeth.

However, when preceding the time span with from or between, the word to or and should be used instead of any sort of dash between the two time designations. See these examples:

  • Sarah said she’d be here between 3:45 and 4:00 p.m.

  • Luke went to college from 1967 to 1971.

Hyphens should be used in all compound numbers from twenty-one to ninety-nine.

  • Please write the check out for three hundred eighty-one dollars and thirty-three cents.

Hyphens should be used when writing out fractions.

  • Paul ordered a bench that is three and one-half feet long.

  • Give three-quarters of that pitcher of water to the plant in the corner.

There are actually two different types of dashes and each has its own purpose. One kind is the en dash. Slightly longer than a hyphen but shorter than an em dash, an “en dash” is used to:

  • show conflict, connection, or direction between two things.
    • The Los Angeles–New York leg of our trip was postponed.
    • We studied the north–south conflict in Social Studies.
    • Did you know that north–south interstate freeways have odd numbers while east-west interstate freeways have even numbers?
  • show a span or range of numbers or a score.
    • Dan bought season tickets for the 2018–2019 home games.
    • The coffee shop is open 5:00 a.m.–11:30 a.m., seven days a week.
    • The Yellowjackets beat the Swordfish 83–82 in overtime.
    • We expect 300–400 people to attend the planning meeting tonight.
  • Do not use the dash if introducing the span of time with from or between.
    • Doctor Gomez was on-call between midnight and three a.m.
    • Abraham Lincoln served as President of the United States from 1861 to 1865.

Em dashes are the longest dash (think the length of two hyphens!) and the most versatile. Em dashes can replace commas, parentheses, or colons. They add emphasis and make a stronger statement than other, more subtle, forms of punctuation (like commas or parentheses).

They are particularly appropriate if the clause between them is a sudden shift in topic but must be included. However, like all good things, em dashes need to be used in moderation. Too many can cause writing to seem disjointed and choppy. Here’s how they would stand in for some of the other punctuation options:

For commas:

  • The visitor from Brisbane, Australia, could not wait to see New York City.

  • The visitor—he was from Brisbane, Australia—could not wait to see New York City.

For parentheses:

  • Samira liked the dress (the blue one with white polka dots), but she could not afford its hefty price tag.

  • Samira liked the dress—the blue one with white polka dots—but she could not afford its hefty price tag.

For colons:

  • She got what she worked hard for: she earned an A on that test.

  • She got what she worked hard for—she earned an A on that test!

Note how the use of dashes subtly changes the tone of the sentences. They are stronger and more forceful than the other punctuation choices—which is great when you are trying to make a statement but watch that they don’t take over control of your tone and writing.

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