Punctuation Guide evolved from two projects of the Writing
Center at Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach Campus.
First, because our students wanted handouts to clarify the
use of various punctuation marks, in particular the comma
and the apostrophe, we developed explanations for students
to read and understand without instructor assistance. Second,
because members of the community requested straightforward
explanations to guide their personal and professional writing,
we offered punctuation workshops with a business emphasis
and designed handouts for the workshops. Based on these handouts,
Practical Punctuation Guide contains simple, direct explanations
and illustrations that reflect current business and academic
sentence elements to provide clarity, and commas follow certain
conventions of usage. The following rules are not comprehensive
but include the most common areas of concern for business
and student writers.
1. Use a comma to separate independent (main) clauses
that are connected by a coordinating conjunction
(FANBOYS-for, and, nor,but, or, yet, so). Two independent
clauses can each stand alone as a sentence, but they can be
joined using a coordinating conjunction which depicts their
Harold Stith submitted the proposal last week, but
his supervisor did not approve it. (Contrast)
His supervisor disliked the proposal, so Harold
Stith became discouraged. (As a result)
Harold Stith promised to write more concise reports in the
future, for his boss complained about reading wordy
NOTE: Do not use a comma before a coordinating conjunction
when connecting two words, phrases, or dependent (subordinate)
clauses: The personnel director and the payroll officer [2
phrases] arrive before 8 a.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays
[2 words] whenever new shipments arrive or when the boss holds
early meetings [2 dependent clauses], but they come to work
at 9 a.m. on normal business days [2 independent clauses].
2. Use commas to separate items in a series of three
or more. Place a comma after each item except the
last. For clarity, follow the traditional practice of using
a comma before the connecting word unless the style preference
for your office or the convention of your field omits the
serial comma in front of the connector.
Clear: We ordered paper, pencils, correction fluid, and erasers.
Dr. Jones considered hiring a bookkeeper, renting a computer,
or purchasing an accounting system.
He feared a strike, he feared bankruptcy, but most of all
he feared embezzlement.
Acceptable: We ordered paper, pencils, correction fluid and
Dr. Jones considered hiring a bookkeeper, renting a computer
or purchasing an accounting system.
Confusing: After winning the sales associates' competition
for the department, Pat ordered a cashmere coat, a case of
champagne, a car with leather upholstery and a compact disc
He had small shoulders, a thick chest holding a strong heart
and heavy thighs.
3. Use a comma after a long introductory element
(more than three words) and after any introductory element
containing a verb form.
After the fire in the stockroom, our insurance premiums increased.
[long introductory element]
Because our inventory workers are efficient, they finish
their work early. [introductory dependent clause containing
a verb form]
Walking through the typing pool, I noticed several new secretaries.
[introductory participial phrase containing a verb form]
To earn a promotion, Tony worked overtime. [introductory
infinitive phrase containing a verb form]
Running, he tripped over the computer cable. [introductory
participle--a verb form]
NOTE: Be careful not to treat verbal subjects as introductory
elements: Running [gerund subject] is dangerous in the computer
room. To earn a promotion[infinitive phrase subject] is Tony's
4. Use a comma to separate coordinate adjectives,
which are of equal importance and which modify the
same noun. They can usually be expressed in reverse
order; in addition, the word "and" could replace
We met in a hot, stuffy, smoke-filled room. Robin was an
honest, ambitious supervisor. We met in a hot and stuffy room.
5. Use a comma (or pair of commas) to distinguish
parenthetical expressions (transitional words or phrases and
interrupters), names in direct address, and interjections.
Parenthetical expressions: On the other hand, the board defeated
our proposal. The new copying machine, according to the sales
clerk, will make twice as many copies per hour as the old
Direct address: I can assure you, Ms. Green, that I have
finished the report. We hope to have the items in stock next
week, Mr. Gravas.
Interjection: Well, Ms. Green always has too much to do.
Oh, no, Mr. Gravas cannot come to the phone now.
6. Use a comma to signal the introduction of a direct
quotation and to separate the speaker's identity from the
direct quotation. Use a pair of commas when the identification
interrupts a sentence. Use a period as shown when the quotation
forms two sentences. Commas and periods always go within the
close quotation mark.
"Finish the report by Thursday," said Ms. Green.
Ms. Green said, "Finish the report by Thursday."
"Finish the report by Thursday," Ms. Green said, "and you
can take Friday off."
"Finish the report by Thursday," said Ms Green. "If you finish
early, you can take Friday off."
7. Use commas to separate the major portions of dates
and geographical areas and in figures according to convention.
Note that some business styles permit omission of the final
comma with dates and states.
Our main offices are being remodeled on Thursday, October
25, 1988, along with our branches in Austin, Texas, and Norfolk,
Virginia. However, our Houston office will not be renovated
until March 1990.
8. Use commas to help signal contrasted items.
This memo should be reproduced by the printer, not by the
9. Use commas to help prevent confusion, misunderstanding,
When I turned forty, three people congratulated me.
A few days before, I saw him at the store.
10. Use a comma (or a pair of commas) to separate
nonrestrictive modifers and appositives. Note that
restrictive elements (not set off by commas) are essential
elements that restrict, limit, or define the terms they relate
to. Nonrestrictive elements are not essential to restrict,
limit, or define the terms they relate to.
Restrictive modifiers: The proposal that urged arbitration
did not satisfy the union. The proposal which the union wanted
to adopt included a seven percent pay increase. Furthermore,
the negotiator who moderated the discussion seemed biased.
Nonrestrictive modifiers: Management's final proposal, which
urged arbitration, did not satisfy the union. The negotiating
committee's proposal, which the union wanted to adopt, included
a seven percent pay increase. Furthermore, the union's negotiator,
who moderated the discussion, seemed biased.
Restrictive appositive: My employee Robin White is efficient.
Nonrestrictive appositive: My boss, Pat Hawthorne, is efficient.
a semicolon to connect independent clauses that are closely
related but that lack a coordinating conjunction.
Use the semicolon alone or, for increased clarity, use with
a conjunctive adverb or transitional expression.
The new employee quit after a week; the pressure was too
great for him.
The new employee quit after a week; apparently, the pressure
was too great for him.
The new employee quit after a week; nonetheless, our department
increased its productivity.
The new employee quit after a week; our department, however,
continued to increase its productivity.
2. Use a semicolon to separate independent clauses
if the clauses are long or complex or if either or both contain
Our department increased productivity by 75 percent last
month; and when we asked for raises to demonstrate management's
appreciation, we were told that we would receive increases
in two months, in six months, and again in one year. Naturally,
we were pleased, having clearly demonstrated our allegiance
to the corporate goals; so our department celebrated by taking
our supervisor, Leslie Hope, to dinner at The Golden Palate,
one of the finest restaurants in town.
3. Use semicolons to separate items in a series if
the items contain internal commas or if the items are long
We planned for several months to purchase new computers for
the payroll office, the personnel office, and the marketing
department; a copying machine for each department that needed
one; and facsimile machines for the information director,
the bookkeeper, and the public relations director.
colon signals a list, a summary, a specific example, or a
long or formal quotation.
The new plan has three merits: clarity, efficiency, and economy.
2. The colon follows formal introductions such as
the following or as follows; however, the colon does not follow
terms such as includes, contains, is, are, consists of, or
The merits of the new plan are as follows: clarity, efficiency,
The merits of the new plan are clarity, efficiency, and economy.
When an independent clause follows a colon, capitalization
The facts lead to one conclusion: Students hope to earn more
than $20,000 a year within five years of graduation from college.
The facts lead to one conclusion: students hope to earn more
than $20,000 a year within five years of graduation from college.
as a double hyphen without space before or after, a dash sets
off and draws attention to words or word groups that interrupt
the main sentence structure or that show emphasis or climax
at the end. To maintain the emphasis of dashes, writers
should use them sparingly.
Hoping to win the company prize for the most new accounts
in a single month and having worked twelve-hour days throughout
March in order to achieve their goal, Pat and Robin opened
the envelope from corporate headquarters and read the announcement
that they were--fired.
We do not agree--our position is firm--with your recommendation.
Additionally, a dash may be used to signal a broken thought
(sharp turn in thought or interrupted speech).
Such accidents cannot possibly occur--but, of course, that
one did happen.
Parentheses signal a separation
from the continuous thought of the sentence or paragraph.
The Little, Brown Handbook describes parenthetical elements
as "minor digressions that may aid understanding but are not
essential to meaning." Parentheses de-emphasize while dashes
emphasize. Parenthetical elements may define, identify, clarify,
Jane's recent report (and all her reports, as a matter of
fact) demonstrated her expertise. (All of Jane's reports are
thorough--even when she is rushed.)
For parentheses within parentheses, use brackets
The report was thorough. (All of Jane's reports are thorough
[even when she is rushed].)
(All of Jane's reports are thorough (even when she is rushed).)
Brackets are used primarily for interpolations within quotations.
Wallace Stevens wrote that "after the final no there comes
a yes [demonstrating his optimism about the human condition]"
in one of my favorite poems.
A three-dot (point) ellipsis signals omission of
words in a quoted sentence. A fourth period (or question
mark or exclamation point) indicates the end of a sentence.
Academic work spaces the ellipsis points and precedes them
with a period to signal the end of a sentence.
The contract specifically stated: "We will refrain from all
punitive actions. . . ."
Place the exact words of a speaker or author in quotation
marks. For citing fragments, include only the speaker's
precise words without altering or rearranging. Capitalize
the first word of a quotation only when it is a proper noun
or the beginning of a sentence.
The chief executive officer left the meeting and said, "I
have no comment."
After the meeting, the stockholders claimed they had "no
WITH COMMAS AND PERIODS
There are two styles for periods and commas with quotation
marks. Most widespread in the United States is the inside
method, which always places those marks within the quotation
Each country has "rights," and each seeks "justice."
"Tomorrow," the new supervisor promised, "you shall receive
WITH SEMICOLONS AND COLONS
Semicolons and colons go outside the quotation marks.
The typewriter is a "collector's item"; in fact, it is a
The typewriter is a "collector's item": a rare Remington
WITH OTHER MARKS
Question marks, exclamation points, dashes, and parentheses
are placed outside when they punctuate an entire sentence,
inside when they punctuate only the quoted matter. Did I hear
you say "No"? Did I hear you ask "Why?" He asked, "Why?" The
lawyer shouted, "Immaterial!--" but the judge called for silence.
They screamed, "Run!" Immediate suspension will be given anyone
who dares even to whisper "No"! Scouts live by their motto
("be prepared"). According to their leader, Pat Stith, "Scouts
should always be true to their motto [and thus be prepared]."
WITH INTERNAL QUOTATIONS
Alternate double and single quotation marks, avoiding more
than two inner quotations.
Tony Tyler asked, "What did they mean when they said, `We
Pat Hawthorne remarked, "I wonder what they meant when they
wrote,`We deliver only "collector's items.'"
Tyler repeated: "Their excuses were as follows: `We don't
have enough courage.'"
These were adapted from Lois Hutchinson's Standard Handbook
for Secretaries (8th edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1975,
Three dashes inside quotation marks indicate broken-off speech:
"I can't quite remember the details---"
Three dashes outside quotation marks indicate a sentence
broken off after speech:
"The details weren't memorable; I can hardly recall a one"---
Three asterisks indicate an omission or unprintable words:
"You ***!" she yelled.
apostrophe has two main functions: forming contractions and
forming possessives. In addition, some symbols and
lower case letters form their plurals with the addition of
's: two t's, two 2's.
The apostrophe signals omission of one or more letters:
it's = it is
couldn't = could not
I'll = I will.
Use the possesive form for the owner or possessor, not for
the thing possessed. Note that a possessive noun functions
as an adjective.
the desk of George = George's desk
a vacation of two weeks = two weeks' vacation
payment for one day = one day's payment
Add apostrophe plus s ('s) to form the possessive of all
singular words except when pronunciation would be difficult.
the car of Ms. Jones = Ms. Jones's car
the dial on a phone = a phone's dial
a vacation of one week = a week's vacation
Jesus' teachings, Charles' xylophones
Since most nouns form their plurals with the addition
of s, most plural possessives add the apostrophe alone. Add
apostrophe s ('s) to form the possessive of plural words only
when the plural word does not end in s.
cars of the Joneses = the Joneses' cars
desks of the secretaries = secretaries' desks
books by the women = women's books
Do not use apostrophes to form the possessive of
possessive pronouns; they are already possessive in form:
their, theirs, ours, its, her, hers
Be careful to distinguish between simple plurals,
verbs ending in s, and possessive forms:
Neither the horses nor the cow eats oats; in fact, the cow's
favorite food is carrot cake, and the horses' favorite is
To ensure correct formation of possessives, use a two-stage
technique. First, establish the singular or plural nature
of the base word. Second, form the possessive of the base
word. For clarity when handwriting with apostrophes, leave
a space rather than join letters separated by apostrophes.
Prepared by Donna Reiss for the Writing Center/Grammar Hotline.
Updated Julie Gehl and Bonnie Startt
Tidewater Community College
Virginia Beach Campus
1700 College Crescent
Virginia Beach, Virginia 23453
c 1990 by Tidewater Community College, Virginia Beach Campus,
Virginia Community College System