How to Abuse and Neglect Punctuation Marks

punctuation marks

Let’s try not to assault readers with punctuation marks

What is it about punctuation marks that cause so many bad sentence constructions?

You know the sentences I’m talking about. They’ve got random commas, missing quotation marks, and way too many exclamation points.

To make matters worse, some writers break the rules and get away with it while others are chastised for doing (what appears to be) the same thing.

E.E. Cummings ignored most of the rules and made up a few of of his own, and now his poetry is studied in universities. Cormac McCarthy didn’t use quotation marks with the dialogue in his novel, and he won a Pulitzer Prize.

And then there’s the Internet. Now everyone’s a writer with a blog and a bunch of social media profiles. Bad grammar and badly placed punctuation marks have become rampant.

Common Mistakes and Abuses of Punctuation Marks

Typos are one thing. Not knowing the correct way to write a sentence is another thing. But blatantly misplacing or misusing punctuation marks is just plain reckless.

Too many commas

I’m a big fan of the serial comma, but let’s not get carried away. Commas often indicate pauses but they should not be used to tell the reader where to pause.

You can get away with placing commas at pause points to some extent, but only because many of our natural pauses occur where clauses end or after each item in a list.

Here’s an example of telling readers where to pause, using commas:

Lots of writers use commas, to tell readers where to pause, and take a breath, as if the readers can’t figure it out, on their own.

We all pause in different places and your writing will feel forced and unnatural if you use punctuation marks as if they are musical notations.

Quotation marks for emphasis

I have to admit, this is becoming one of my pet peeves: putting words and phrases in quotation marks for emphasis. Here are some examples:

  • You know, they just “had” to go fishing last weekend.
  • Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to “rock your boat.”
  • If you sign up, they’ll send you a “free book!”

Quotation marks are for dialogue, quoted material, and sometimes for titles or headlines. But for some reason, people have gone crazy with quotation marks. In fact, there’s an entire website dedicated to “unnecessary quotes.”

Writers who abuse quotation marks in this manner need to have a little more faith in their readers. Trust that they will know where to place emphasis. If you really need to tell the reader which word(s) get stressed, then use italics. But try to avoid that, too.

This use probably stems from the (informal) practice of using quotation marks to indicate that something is “so-called.” Here’s an example:

That “writer” over there doesn’t seem to have a dictionary.

In this case, quotation marks are placed around “writer” to suggest that the person is a so-called writer, but actually isn’t much of a writer at all. These are called scare quotes, and their usage is almost always derogatory and sarcastic. Use scare quotes with caution; insulting other writers is not going to do anything positive for your reputation.

Too many punctuation marks!!!

Did you hear me??? I wrote a book!!! Let me tell you all about it…..

Some people are so passionate. It’s inspiring, really, except when I’m reading a novel or some other piece of writing that should be professional quality. It’s one thing when my friend on Facebook tell me that her kid just said Mama!!! It’s another thing entirely when a character in a novel is really, really, very excited!!!

When you use three question marks instead of one, does the question become deeper? More mysterious? Is an expression with three exclamation points more exciting or more imperative than an expression with just one exclamation point? And what’s up with using more than three dots in an ellipsis? Does a five-dot ellipsis mean it’s taking you longer to trail off than a three-dot ellipsis?

While this usage is acceptable in casual settings (and really, what usage isn’t acceptable in casual settings?), it’s a bit much when you’re writing at the professional level. Too many punctuation marks distract the reader and make the text look sloppy. They also render a pushy, in-your-face, or desperate tone. But like I said, on Facebook, they’re kinda cute.

There’s this thing called an ampersand

A few weeks ago, I started reading this novel (whose name shall be withheld), & before I finished page two, it occurred to me that something was wrong with the writing. I scanned the page & realized that the author was using ampersands in place of the word and.

& let me tell you, it was annoying.

Prose is not signage. It’s not a tweet. The ampersand is not a word; it’s a symbol, & we are not writing in hieroglyphics. We write in words & sentences. I don’t have anything personal against the ampersand. It looks nice on signage & it comes in handy on Twitter. It looks cute on trees where two lovers have carved their names:

Jack & Kate <3

Aw. How sweet.

But it really makes the reading rough when it’s used to replace the word and through an entire piece of writing.

Rough Writers

I know. I’m a mean old grammar snob. I’m sure folks who use these constructions are on the edge of their seats right now, scouring my blog for some little mistake, some place where I used an extra exclamation mark or an ampersand. I’m sure some are getting ready to drop comments letting me know that they “like” using quotation marks for emphasis, that it’s their “style.” !!!

That’s fine. I’m just pointing out what is correct usage and what is not. If writers want to break the rules and take a few creative liberties, that’s their business, and I hope it works out. Some of my favorite writers have forgone the rules (and I love them for it).

But keep this in mind: when your text is peppered with extra, unnecessary punctuation marks, it’s a distraction to readers. Like I said, the book with all the ampersands had me thinking more about what was off about the text than what was happening in the story (and the story wasn’t very interesting either, which may explain why the author resorted to gimmicks). For the record, I didn’t make it past page thirty of that book, and I’ll never recommend it to anyone.

Taking Creative Liberties

I’m all for breaking the rules, but only if there’s a good reason for it. Cormac McCarthy broke the rules and got into Oprah’s book club. E.E. Cummings broke the rules became a celebrated American author.

Why do some writers reap rewards when they break the rules while others just look like amateurs?

I personally think this has to do with the logic behind breaking the rules. Cormac McCarthy’s book was written in a minimalist fashion. The characters didn’t even have names. And E.E. Cummings wasn’t writing prose at all; he was writing poetry, which naturally allows for more creative liberties.

There’s a difference between tinkering with the rules as an experiment in art or because the style of the narrative calls for it and breaking the rules as a way to differentiate yourself as a unique writer or simply because you’re some kind of literary rebel.

Some writers believe they are branding themselves as an author or making their work stand out because they don’t capitalize the first word of every sentence, but these are just gimmicks that distract readers from the content. You’re telling readers that your work doesn’t stand on its own and you need to resort to silly tricks to make it seem interesting.

What really sucks is when good writers use these constructions. More than once I’ve read prose and poetry that was great except for all the weird punctuation marks and bad grammar. What would have been a wonderful story or beautiful poem gets lost in the mess. And that’s a shame.

The rules of grammar aren’t there to keep you in line; they are there to help you write prose and verse that readers can navigate with ease. Always keep that in mind, and when you do break the rules or use unusual punctuation marks and formatting, do so with good reason.

Have you seen writers break the rules effectively? Have you seen writers break the rules in a way that interfered with your ability to enjoy the reading experience? What was the difference? When is it okay the break the rules?

Reign in those punctuation marks and keep writing!

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: The Comma

the comma

The comma is one of the most widely misused punctuation marks.

For such a little punctuation mark, the comma causes an awful lot of confusion.

Some writers are too liberal with commas, sprinkling them about like nuts on an ice cream sundae. Other writers hoard their commas and avoid using them whenever possible.

Why are these punctuation marks so widely misused? Why are we, collectively, so inconsistent about where we place them? One style guide says use them, another says don’t use them. Even the experts can’t agree!

But there are some rules about comma usage that we can all observe and agree on.

Punctuation Marks

A comma often indicates a pause, but some pauses occur without any assistance from commas. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes people make is to simply place a comma wherever they want the reader to pause. In natural speech we all pause at different places, so this is not a prudent way to decide where your commas go. Instead, let’s look to the rules.

Unfortunately, the rules surrounding commas aren’t always clear. Comma placement is often a matter of style and personal (or editorial) choice. One could write an entire book on how to use commas effectively and correctly. Today, we’re just going to look at the basic rules.

Commas are mostly used to separate, connect, and set off elements in a sentence:

  1. Use a comma to separate three or more elements in a series (including items in a list). The comma that comes before the conjunction in a list is called the serial comma, and it’s recommended but not required.
  2. A comma should be used to separate coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are a series of adjectives that modify a single noun (in “the big, black dog,” big and black are coordinate adjectives).
  3. Use a comma to separate contrasting elements and if-then statements. Here’s a contrasting statement: I am writing a book, not an essay. Here’s an if-then statement: If I write a book, then I will have to market it.
  4. Use a comma before a conjunction to connect independent clauses. An easy way to remember how to identify an independent clause is that it can stand alone as a sentence (a dependent clause cannot). Here’s more information on commas and clauses.
  5. Commas should be used to set off introductory elements, short phrases that introduce sentences. Here’s an example with the introductory element in italics: As I was writing, I gave careful consideration to comma placement.
  6. Use commas to set off parenthetical elements. A parenthetical element often gives extra but unnecessary information and could be deleted without changing the core meaning of a sentence. Here is an example with the parenthetical element shown in italics: The writer made a list of books she wanted to read, mostly books on grammar, and then proceeded to order them. Parenthetical elements includes names: The writer, Jane, wanted to read a lot of books.
  7. Commas are heavily used with quotation marks. They should be placed after a dialogue tag when the dialogue follows the tag and should be placed at the end of the dialogue when the tag comes after the dialogue.

The biggest mistake writers make is using a comma for a pause. Some people are actually taught to read their work aloud and then just place commas where all the pauses go (just thinking about it makes me shudder). That is surefire way to get your manuscript all marked up in red by your editor. And if you don’t have an editor, it’s a surefire way to drive readers crazy.

Too many punctuation marks in a piece of writing are like rocks in the readers’ shoes. They are distracting and uncomfortable. Too few punctuation marks are like wearing shoes without traction on a slippery floor. Readers will slide all over the place and have trouble following your ideas.

Use commas and all other punctuation marks wisely. And keep writing.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: The Serial Comma

serial comma

Should you use a serial comma?

When you use commas to separate items in a list or series, do you include a comma before the conjunction near the end of the list?

For example:

I write poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. (This sentence does not use a serial comma.)


I write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. (This sentence does use a serial comma.)

The Serial Comma

The comma used before the conjunction in a list of three or more items is called a serial comma. Sometimes it’s referred to as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma.

If you pay attention to little things like punctuation marks, you’ll notice that writers are split on this one. Some people use the serial comma diligently. Some use it on occasion. Others don’t use it at all.

So, which way is correct?

Style, Grammar, and Punctuation

The question of whether or not to use a serial comma is not a grammatical matter. Technically, there is no right or wrong answer, because grammarians haven’t set forth an absolute rule for serial comma usage.

So it’s left up to the writers, which means that usage of a serial comma is a style issue.

If you’re not sure whether you should use a serial comma, particularly for a professional piece of writing, you should consult the appropriate style guide. Most publications adhere to a style guide, as do academic institutions and many businesses.

Arguments Against the Serial Comma

Traditionally, the serial comma was standard fare in written English. However, once the printing press entered the equation, newspapers decided to forgo the serial comma to save space. That’s why journalism style guides such as The New York Times Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook do not include serial commas in their guidelines.

There are several arguments against use of the serial comma. These include:

  • Using the serial comma is not conventional.
  • Including the serial comma may cause ambiguity.
  • It’s redundant, since the conjunction in such a sentence marks the same pause or separation that the serial comma would mark.


This table is reserved for the writer, Jane Doe, and Mr. Blackwell.

In the sentence above, it’s unclear whether the table is reserved for two or three people. “The writer” could be referring to Jane Doe, or the writer and Jane Doe could be two separate individuals.

As for convention, the absence of the serial comma is only conventional in journalism. In almost all other forms of writing, it is more conventional to use it.

Arguments for the Serial Comma

Most authorities outside of journalism recommend using the serial comma consistently. For example, both The Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style recommend using a serial comma. The MLA Style Manual, which is the primary style resource in academics, also supports use of the serial comma.

Arguments for the use of the serial comma include:

  • Serial commas reduce ambiguity.
  • It promotes consistency, since sometimes a serial comma will be required for clarity.
  • Usage is in line with other practices for separating list items (i.e. semicolons).


I speak regularly to my best friends, Jane Doe and Mr. Blackwell.

The sentence above is unclear. Does the narrator speak to three entities (best friends, Jane Doe, and Mr. Blackwell) or are Jane Doe and Mr. Blackwell the narrator’s best friends? Adding the serial comma clarifies:

I speak regularly to my best friends, Jane Doe, and Mr. Blackwell.

Choose Your Commas Wisely

Unless you’re mandated by a style guide, you’ll have to decide whether to use a serial comma or not. This is a decision you may make only once for all time, or it could be a decision you make based on the syntax of individual sentences.

As a freelance writer, I decided a couple of years ago that it would be most professional to use the serial comma consistently in all my writing. That decision came about when I decided to choose a style guide so that all my work would be consistent, all the time. I went with The Chicago Manual of Style since it is the most widely used and most flexible style guide.

However, I was also in agreement with the folks who argue in favor of the serial comma. I think that the serial comma usually adds clarification and I also think that since one of the functions of a comma is to mark a pause, it sounds better (and provides readers with a guideline) when read aloud.

Get in on the Discussion

Do you use a serial comma? Sometimes? Never? Always? Do you even think about it? Have you ever been reading and stumbled across a sentence that was confusing because of the serial comma (or lack thereof)?

It’s unlikely that your choices regarding serial commas will make or break your writing career, especially if you are focused on creative writing. However, mastering punctuation marks is one of the essential steps on the ladder to becoming a professional writer, so you might as well get this one out of the way and take a stand.

Are you a fan of the serial comma or do you avoid using it whenever possible? Share your thoughts about this and other punctuation marks in the comments.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: Parentheses


Punctuation marks: parentheses.

Parentheses are among the most useful and versatile punctuation marks in the English language. They can be used effectively in both formal and casual writing, and the rules surrounding parentheses allow writers to use them for a variety of purposes.

They just might be my favorite punctuation marks, simply because they provide a clear way for writers to issue an aside.

But parentheses should be used conservatively and with discretion. Today we’ll look at the many ways in which these punctuation marks come in handy and explore the rules for usage and formatting.

Punctuation Marks

Punctuation marks are useful symbols that help us structure and organize written language. Without punctuation marks, we wouldn’t know where to pause or stop. We wouldn’t know where one idea ends and another begins. We would struggle to differentiate dialogue from narrative.

In some cases, we wouldn’t understand the meaning of a sentence.

Wikipedia gives an excellent example that demonstrates just how essential punctuation marks can be:

Woman, without her man, is nothing.
Woman: without her, man is nothing.

There are definitive rules that affect how we should use punctuation marks (like parentheses), but there are also stylistic choices that writers can make (and such choices are best made with the assistance of a reputable style guide).


One of my favorite ways that writers use parentheses is to designate text that represents an aside. This gives readers the sense that the writer is leaning in and whispering something special in their ears, an extra tidbit that pertains to the subject matter, often a personal reflection. It’s a technique that works well when the author wants to insert jokes regarding the material he or she is writing about. But this is a fairly informal way to use parentheses, one that renders a casual, funny, or friendly voice (and as we know, writers need to establish voice).


The formal usage for parentheses involves adding information that is relevant but not essential. Parentheses should enclose words, phrases, and passages that contain details or remarks that are only loosely related to the subject matter that the surrounding text deals with.

As with all punctuation marks, parentheses should not be overused. If you scan through a piece of writing and parentheses are liberally sprinkled about, they are not being used effectively or properly. A good rule of thumb is that making nonessential statements from time to time can be a good thing, but you shouldn’t overdo it because that means you’re not sticking with your main message.

Parentheses are also used to add supporting or supplemental information. For example, during election season, you’ll notice that Senators’ political parties and state of origin are often presented in parentheses:

Name of Senator (I – CA)

We also sometimes see parentheses holding the letter s to indicate either the singular or the plural form of some word(s).

In formal and especially academic writing, parentheses are heavily used for citing sources.

Formatting According to The Chicago Manual of Style

The style and formatting rules listed below are derived from The Chicago Manual of Style. These are some of the most general and common issues that arise regarding the use of parentheses. If you’re using parentheses in a piece of writing and are not sure how to use them or format them, make sure you check a reputable and appropriate style guide.

  • Parentheses should be formatted in the same font as the surrounding text rather than the text within the parentheses (if the text outside of the parentheses is styled regular but the text inside the parentheses is in italics, then the parentheses themselves should be regular).
  • If a parenthetical statement is included at the end of a sentence, the terminal punctuation marks go after the closing parenthesis (like this). On the other hand, if the material within the parentheses is a self-contained, complete sentence, that material (parentheses and all) can be placed after the terminal punctuation mark. (Here is an example of how that would look.)
  • Also, if the parenthetical enclosure includes more than one sentence, it should be self-contained. (This is an example. It shows how two or more sentences are self-contained after the surrounding text but nestled inside parentheses.)
  • As with most other punctuation marks, parentheses should not appear back to back. (Here is an example of back to back parenthetical statements.) (Do not do this.)
  • If you need to embed parenthetical material, use regular parentheses on the outside and use square brackets inside. (In this manner you can place [bracketed] parenthetical statements inside of other parenthetical statements.)

Keep in mind that the text within parentheses is independent from the surrounding text. Any other punctuation marks should be placed accordingly. In other words, if the punctuation belongs to the material within the parentheses, then it goes inside the parentheses.

Parentheses formatting for references and citations varies widely. For academic or journalistic references and citations, be sure to check the appropriate style guide to ensure you format your parentheses properly, especially in bibliographies and works cited as well as within the text of your project.

Synonyms and Forms

The word parentheses refers to a pair of punctuation marks that are used as containers (like this). Therefore, the word itself is plural. The singular term for one of the pair is parenthesis. Here’s one now: )

Parentheses and Other Punctuation Marks

Many writers struggle with punctuation marks. Commas and semicolons have been causing headaches among writers for centuries. Luckily, parentheses aren’t as complicated and are fairly easy to use properly with just a little learning. They often come in handy and can be used in fun or interesting ways with some types of writing. William Faulkner and E. E. Cummings were two celebrated writers who handily used parentheses in their creative writing.

Professional writers should always make an effort to learn the proper way to use punctuation marks in their work. This makes their work more readable and establishes credibility and professionalism.

Do you set aside time to study grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Have you ever struggled with how to properly use or format punctuation marks in a piece of writing? How do you use parentheses? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: How to Use a Semicolon

how to use a semicolon

How to use a semicolon.

Lots of people aren’t sure how to use a semicolon.

The semicolon might be the most misunderstood punctuation mark in the English language. This dot-comma combination is often used where a period, colon, or even a plain old comma belongs.

Underused and often abused, the semicolon is useful in a number of writing situations. Although proper semicolon use requires a little finesse, this particular punctuation mark is surprisingly easy to understand.

Here’s the lowdown on semicolon use:

    • The semicolon establishes a close connection between two sentences or independent clauses.
    • A semicolon can replace conjunctions and or but.
    • Semicolons indicate a stronger separation than a comma but weaker than a period.

  • A semicolon is often used in lists to separate items when some of the items in listed subsets require commas.
  • The semicolon is always followed by a lowercase letter with proper nouns being the only exception (proper nouns are always capitalized).
  • Semicolons can be used to separate two clauses or sentences that are saying the same thing in different ways.
  • As with other punctuation marks that denote the end of a clause or sentence, there is no space between the semicolon and the word preceding it; there should be a single space after the semicolon.

Want real examples that show how to use a semicolon? You got ’em!

  • I watched the Grammy Awards last night; I was pleased that Amy Winehouse won and thought it was a great show this year.
  • I love music; however, I haven’t played my own guitar in several years.
  • I have lived in several different cities: San Francisco, California; Haiku, Hawaii; and Santa Barbara, California.
  • When I was in fourth grade, I won the spelling bee for my entire school and went to the district championships. I practiced every night, memorized all the words on the list, and felt confident that I had a shot at winning; I got nervous on stage and misspelled one of the words even though I knew the correct spelling.
  • I’m fascinated by names and their meanings; Melissa means “honey bee.”
  • There’s nothing like the gentle drum of water hitting the window pane; I love the rain.
  • This is not only a grammar post, it’s also a tag from Rudy Amid in which I’m asked to write seven weird facts about myself; the seventh is that I’m using my blog to multitask and be a good sport about memes.

In many cases, semicolon use is appropriate or grammatically correct, but when a period will do the trick, go with two separate sentences. In other words, if you can choose between separating clauses with a semicolon or writing two separate sentences (using a period), write two separate sentences. This makes text easier to read.

How often do you use semicolons? Ever? Do you think it’s best that this punctuation mark is used sparingly, or should we all aim for increased semicolon use — start a new fad, maybe? Share your thoughts on how to use a semicolon in the comments.

Oh, and I tag anyone who feels like sharing seven weird facts about themselves. Post them on your blog, and then come back and leave a comment here! And don’t forget to keep practicing proper semicolon use.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: Quotation Marks

quotation marks

How to use quotation marks.

The placement of quotation marks perplexes people. Do they go inside or outside of other punctuation marks, like periods and commas? Should they be used to set off titles or to emphasize certain words?

Quotation marks are used for a variety of purposes, including dialogue, quotes, and titles. Many people also use quotation marks to emphasize words and phrases.

One of the most common questions about quotation marks deals with their usage with titles. Are quotation marks appropriate for setting off the title of a book, or is it better to use italics, underlining, or some other punctuation mark or formatting?

Quotation Marks and Dialogue

She said, “I’m writing a book.”

“I’m working on it,” she whispered, “but it’s going to take a while.”

Then she asked, “Are you going to write one too?”

When using quotation marks to portray dialogue, the quotes go outside of the dialogue’s punctuation. Also, dialogue is almost always preceded by a comma (i.e. she said, “something”). In formal documents, the comma may be replaced by a colon (i.e. she said: this is what she said). The dialogue itself should follow the rules of grammar, with the first letter of sentences capitalized, and the appropriate terminal punctuation marks (period, question mark, etc.) should be used as well.

Using Quotes for Emphasis

I was wondering if her “book” was going to be any good.

Should you use quotation marks for emphasis? No. Absolutely not. It’s an amateur maneuver, and you can only get away with it successfully if you’re a master of punctuation marks. Don’t use quotation marks in this manner. If you must emphasize a word, use italics or bold. Better yet, let the way you structure your sentence provide natural emphasis where needed. Never use quotes to emphasize words and phrases. Repeat that three times, then rinse.

Setting Off Titles with Quotation Marks

Most titles should be italicized. But in some cases quotation marks are more appropriate, particularly when using a combination of titles from a single publication, e.g., a magazine title plus article titles or a book title plus chapter titles.

For example, you might be referring to an article in a magazine. You don’t want to use italics to set off the name of the magazine and the title of the article. In this case, you’ll probably use italics for the name of the magazine and put the article title in quotes. In fact, quotation marks are often used for the titles of shorter works: articles, chapter titles, short stories, and essays. I would italicize the name of my blog, Writing Forward but use quotations marks for the title of a post, such as “Punctuation Marks: Quotation Marks.”

Using quotation marks for titles is not grammatically incorrect, however. It’s actually a style issue, so if you’re not sure how to format your titles, check your style guide.

British vs. American English

It’s interesting to note that British writing differs greatly when it comes to placing other punctuation marks inside or outside quotation marks. In fact, a British quote looks like this:

She said, “I’m writing a book”.

This looks incredibly strange to me, and I’m quite surprised that I never knew about this difference until just a couple of years ago. It’s worth noting, however, and it’s also worth keeping in mind that different English speaking regions have different rules about grammar and punctuation, which is good to know in this age of globalization.


A few final tips for using quotation marks:

  • For American English, place terminal punctuation marks inside the quotes.
  • Do not use quotation marks to emphasize words or phrases.
  • Use italics for the names of books and magazines, and use quotation marks for titles of shorter pieces, such as articles and chapters.

Do you have any questions about quotation marks or any other punctuation marks? Leave a comment, and if I don’t know the answer, I’ll dig it up for you!

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Is It Plural or Possessed? When to Use Apostrophe -S

punctuation marks apostrophe s

Punctuation marks: how to use apostrophe-s.

It’s one of those grammar glitches that makes English teachers twitch, and it’s a perplexing punctuation problem.

Knowing when to use an apostrophe and when to use apostrophe -s can be tricky, but this grammar quickie provides all you need to know about plural versus possession when it comes to apostrophe -s.


You can have one or you can have many. Do you have a dog or do you have dogs? Generally speaking when you’re indicating more than one, you simply add an “s” to the word. That’s it, you’re done.


Is it plural or is it owned? If you’re showing ownership, then you’ll usually add apostrophe -s to the word. You have a dog. Your dog has a collar. That is the dog’s collar. If something (collar) belongs to something else (dog), the thing that belongs is given the apostrophe -s to show possession.


But what if you have more than one dog and they each have their own collar? You have dogs. They have collars. Those are the dogs’ collars. When you’re dealing with more than one owner, the plural “s” is added and the apostrophe follows.

Apostrophe -S and the Word It

One of the most common spelling mistake happens with the word “it,” especially when people try to indicate possession. Should you add the apostrophe -s or not? When does it take apostrophe -s and when does it just take an s?

The Exception to the Rule

One word in the English language stands out as an exception to the rule when it comes to plural versus possession. The word it is treated a bit differently. In fact, there is no plural possession at all because it is inherently singular (the plural form is another word altogether: they). That’s a relief. But what about when “it” owns something?

When you’re showing possession with the word it, you simply reverse the rules and lose the apostrophe. The car has wheels. Its wheels are round. See? No apostrophe when something belongs to “it.”

What About It’s?

It’s is neither possessive nor plural. When the apostrophe -s is added to it, what you’re seeing is a contraction, or a shortening of two words. The phrase it is is being shortened. If you have a hard time remembering this, try saying your sentence or phrase by replacing “its” or “it’s” with “it is.” If “it is” works, then you have a contraction and the apostrophe is required. If not, then just an “s” will do.

Remembering the Punctuation Rules for Apostrophe -S

Remembering the rules is easy. All you have to do is remember that if there’s ownership or possession, then the word should take apostrophe -s. If there are many or the word is plural, then just an “s” will do. And for the word “it,” the rules are reversed.

Grammar and Exceptions

Like most grammar rules, there are exceptions to the rules that dictate how we use apostrophes, and they are many. For example, when there is more than one goose, you don’t say “gooses,” you say “geese.”

The English language is fraught with such exceptions, and plural forms of many words require more than adding an “s” to the end. Learning all the exceptions takes patience and time, and requires that you constantly pay attention to words with special rules. Always keep an eye out for them.

Do you have any tips to add for remembering the punctuation marks and grammar rules for plurals and possessions? Do the rules for using apostrophe -s ever confuse you? Share your thoughts in the comments!

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: The Exclamation Mark

exclamation mark

All about the exclamation mark.

It’s a relatively simple punctuation mark — a bold one without a lot of confusing rules — yet it’s still grossly overused.

It gives our sentences pizzazz. It gives dialogue extra emphasis when one character shouts or snaps at another. And it gives copy editors headaches.

The exclamation mark sure packs a punch.

The Exclamation Mark!

This punctuation mark has two legitimate names: exclamation mark or exclamation point. It adds emphasis to a sentence, indicating emotional stress that could be caused by fear, anger, joy, or some other form of excitement.

The exclamation mark is often found after an interjection (a word or short phrase that is emotion-based and grammatically isolated). The following are examples of the exclamation mark used with interjections:

  • Cheers!
  • Wow!
  • Goodbye!
  • Dammit!
  • Stop it!

This punctuation mark is also often used at the end of an exclamation, or emphatic sentence. Here are some examples of an exclamation mark used with emphatic sentences:

  • I can’t wait!
  • You’re so lucky!
  • I’ve had enough!
  • I read it twice!
  • Yes, I understand!

Seems pretty straightforward, right?

How (Not) to Use an Exclamation Mark

People love to use exclamation marks liberally. We’ve all received an email from an emphatic friend whose every sentence is buried between slick columns of exclamation marks:

OMG!!! You’ll never guess what happened!!! I got accepted to my first choice college!!! Wow!!! And it’s a good thing too!!! Because I really need to learn how to punctuate my sentences!!!

While this type of usage is acceptable in casual correspondence and other informal written material, it is absolutely forbidden in serious prose and formal compositions. That includes articles, essays, and short stories. Poets may take creative liberties but should use the exclamation mark with care.

Too many exclamation marks — either bunched together or peppered throughout a single piece — make reading difficult. That’s right, too much unnecessary punctuation, like other grammatical infractions, create speed bumps that distract the reader. And we never want to distract our readers.

Additionally, overuse of this punctuation mark actually reduces its impact. The first exclamation mark on a page will be read with emphasis and each one thereafter will lose impact. Keep them scarce and they will retain their power.

Remember, overly frequent use of the exclamation mark is generally considered poor writing, for it distracts the reader and reduces the exclamation mark’s meaning.

Are there exceptions?

Yes. Comic books.

Punctuation Trivia

Though the exclamation mark is not complex, there are some interesting tidbits of trivia that follow this punctuation mark around:

  • Typewriters didn’t have exclamation marks until the 1970s. Prior to their addition to the keyboard, an exclamation mark was generated by typing a full stop (period). The typist would then backspace and add an apostrophe over the period.
  • This punctuation mark appears frequently in proper names, such as Yahoo!, Jeopardy!, Oklahoma!, and Moulin Rouge! One writer, Elliot S! Maggin, added it to the spelling of his name in the 1970s.
  • The exclamation mark by itself, on a sign or label, acts as a warning and may indicate a hazard.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.”

How frequently do you use the exclamation mark in your own writing? Do you use it differently in casual versus formal writing? Is it your favorite (or least favorite) punctuation mark? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: Ellipsis

punctuation marks ellipses

Punctuation marks: the ellipses…

You see it everywhere, but most people don’t know what it’s called or how to use it properly.

In fact, it’s often referred to as “dot, dot, dot” even though it does have a name. This punctuation mark is the ellipsis.

It is a series or row of three periods, which is usually used to indicate an omission. It may also be used to indicate faltering or interrupted speech or a pause.

Punctuation Marks

Some punctuation marks are clear-cut while others cause a lot of confusion. Most of us mastered periods and question marks back in elementary school. Commas, semicolons, and ellipses aren’t as easy to master. As a result, many punctuation marks are frequently misused.

The ellipsis is one such punctuation mark. Most people don’t know the name of this punctuation mark and those who do often confuse the singular and plural (just as many people confuse singular datum and plural data).

Luckily, the ellipsis isn’t nearly as confusing as the comma. It’s relatively easy to learn how to use it correctly and how to refer to it properly.


According to The Chicago Manual of Style:

An ellipsis — the omission of a word, phrase, line, paragraph, or more from a quoted passage — is indicated by ellipsis points (or dots)… Ellipsis points are three spaced periods ( . . . ), sometimes preceded or followed by other punctuation.

Singular and Plural

The word ellipsis is not plural. In other words, it refers to the three points, together, as a single unit, which is often colloquially referred to as dots or periods. Here is an ellipsis:

( . . . )

The plural of ellipsis is ellipses. This would indicate more than one set of three dots:

( . . . ) ( . . . ) ( . . . )

This punctuation mark may also be called a suspension point, points of ellipsis, or periods of ellipsis. But to keep things simple, let’s just stick with the word ellipsis.


The ellipsis is primarily used to indicate an omission. It can be an intentional omission, such as when you’re using a quotation but want to skip over a portion of it. Consider the following quote from Stephen King:

Fiction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do — not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.

If space is tight, you might want to omit part of the quotation, but you still need to indicate a missing piece of text. You would use an ellipsis:

Fiction writers . . . don’t understand very much about what they do — not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.

Faltering or Interrupted Speech

The ellipsis may also be used to represent faltering or interrupted speech:

“Well, I . . . uh . . . don’t know,” she said.


We can also use an ellipsis to indicate a pause or unfinished thought. At the end of a sentence, an ellipsis represents trailing off into silence.

Using an ellipsis to represent a pause can get a writer into trouble. We tend to pause a lot in speech. Pauses give us a moment to collect our thoughts or add emphasis to what we’re saying. But in writing, a page peppered with ellipses wreaks havoc on the eyes.

The same applies to unfinished thoughts. A lazy writer might use ellipses to indicate, “and so on” or “et cetera.” In text messaging and social media, many people use ellipses where they believe the reader will implicitly understand what would be stated next. In professional-grade writing, we finish our thoughts, so ellipses used for this purpose should be rare.

However, when we are writing dialogue, an ellipsis can come in handy, especially if we want to show a character’s speech trailing off. Keep in mind, though, that ellipses, like exclamation points, should be used with caution and only when truly needed for emphasis. As a general rule, don’t use it unless you must.

Notation and Formatting

You’ll see ellipses formatted in two ways, either three points without spacing (…) or three points with spacing ( . . . ). In some cases, four points are used, but this is rare and not covered in this article.

In the U.S., an ellipsis is generally formatted with spacing between each ellipsis point: ( . . . ) per the most common style standards.

The Chicago Manual of Style warns against using ellipsis at the beginning or ending of any quotations. However, some writers will place ellipses at the beginning or endings of quotations to indicate preceding or following text that has been omitted. This ensures that readers are aware of omissions and prevents using quotations out of context.

Using Punctuation Marks Like the Ellipsis

If you want to ensure you’re using grammar and punctuation marks correctly and consistently in your writing, pick up a grammar manual or style guide. You’ll find that the more you write, the more frequently you come across grammar and formatting situations that are unclear. Grammar and style resources will be a great help.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: The Colon

the colon

Punctuation marks: the colon.

The colon is one of the most clearly-defined punctuation marks. It occasionally acts as a stand-in for a comma or period (though when one of these other punctuation marks will do, the colon is unnecessary).

Most commonly, the colon functions as an introductory punctuation mark, notifying the reader that the forthcoming information supports, explains, or elaborates upon what has been said prior to the colon.

These punctuation marks are common in math and science as well as technical documentation. In creative writing, we don’t see a lot of colons unless we’re working on a script. Colons are most often seen in text where a list is being introduced.

The Chicago Manual of Style provides a succinct definition for the colon: (see what I did there?)

“A colon introduces an element or series of elements illustrating or amplifying what has preceded the colon. Between independent clauses it functions much like a semicolon, though more strongly emphasizing sequence. The colon may be used instead of a period to introduce a series of related sentences.” (Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition p. 257)

In this article, we’ll explore the most common colon applications for writers. The information here is not definitive as full coverage of colons would constitute a short book rather than a single blog post, but I will attempt to answer the most basic questions about using the colon in your writing.

Punctuation Marks: The Colon


One of the most challenging issues regarding colon usage is whether or not the word following a colon should be capitalized. Normally, it is not capitalized unless that word is a proper noun. However, there are exceptions: (again, see what I did there?)

  • When a colon introduces more than one sentence, the first word following the colon should be capitalized.
  • When a colon introduces dialogue, the first word following the colon should be capitalized.
  • When a colon introduces a quote, the first word following the colon should be capitalized.

Complete Sentences

We most frequently see the colon used to introduce a list. In cases like this, the text preceding the comma is best formatted as a complete sentence. This, however, should be checked against the applicable style guide.

We are going to: talk about colons. (not the preferred format)

We are going to do the following: talk about colons. (Note that the text before the colon forms a complete sentence)

Colon Classifications and Examples

Below are a list of colon classes along with examples to demonstrate each type of colon in action.

Appositive colons introduce sentences that are in apposition to the sentence preceding the colon: The colon was not necessary: I deleted it.

Segmental colons introduce dialogue and are used with other punctuation marks, including quotation marks: My creative writing teacher was specific in her lecture on colons: “Only use them when necessary.”

Syntactical-deductive colons introduce a logical consequence: The sentence ended with a colon: more text was sure to follow.

Syntactical-descriptive colons introduce a description (usually a description set): The colon is similar in appearance to two other punctuation marks: the semicolon and the period.

Colons with Dialogue

The colon is commonly used to introduce speech in a dialogue (such as a script). Here is an example:

Teacher: Why did you use a colon here?

Student: I thought it looked good.

Note that in the script construct, the quotation marks are absent. If you are writing a play, screenplay, teleplay, or any other kind of script, you should check with an industry-specific style guide to ensure that you are applying proper formatting. That includes colon usage as well as quotation marks!

Using Punctuation Marks in Submissions

In an article titled “Formatting Your Manuscript – The Silent Scream,” Lynn Price, the editorial director for Behler Publications provides a clear tip for writers who are considering punctuating with a colon. I will leave you with her advice:

Be careful with your use of colons. They have a clinic-y feel to them, and they can easily take the softness and poetic flavor out of your writing. Think about using a comma or semi-colon instead. If you don’t, chances are your editor will.


10 Core Practices for Better Writing

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