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Punctuation Primer

As noted by the Associated Press, incorrect punctuation can change the meaning of a sentence, the results of which could be far-reaching. Even if the meaning is not changed, bad punctuation can cause the reader to lose track of what is being said and give up reading a sentence. Consistency in style is important to present a professional, unified brand.

This guide is based upon the Associated Press 2022 Stylebook. Please refer to it for any questions not answered here. The dictionary of choice is the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fifth Edition. University-preferred style also is included in this guide.

apostrophes — the apostrophe has extensive guidelines for correct usage, and the guidance below only reflects the most common formats. Please refer to the Associated Press Stylebook for guidance on more complex usage.

Plural nouns not ending in s: Add 's: the alumni's contributions, women's rights.

Plural nouns ending in s: Add only an apostrophe: the churches' needs, the girls' toys, the ships' wake, states' rights, the VIPS' entrance.

Singular common nouns ending in s: Add 's: the hostess's invitation, the witness's story. (A change from previous guidance calling for just an apostrophe if the next word begins with s.)

Singular proper names ending in s: Use only an apostrophe: Achilles' heel, Agnes' book

Special expressions: The following exceptions to the general rule for words not ending in s apply to words that end in an s sound and are followed by a word that begins with s: for appearance' sake, for conscience' sake, for goodness' sake. Use 's otherwise: the appearance's cost, my conscience's voice. Consider if it would better be phrased: the rules of mathematics, the effects of measles.

Omitted letters: I've, it's, don't, rock 'n' roll, 'tis the season to be jolly. He is a ne'er-do-well.

Omitted figures: The class of '62. The Spirit of '76. The '20s. Be mindful of the direction of the apostrophe. It should face the direction of the missing numbers.

Plurals of a single letter: Mind your p's and q's. He learned the three R's and brought home a report card with four A's and two b's. The Oakland A's won the pennant.

bulleted lists — Put a space between the dash or bullet and the first word of each item in the list. Capitalize the first word following the dash or bullet. Use periods, not semicolons, at the end of each section, whether it is a full sentence or a phrase.Use parallel construction for each item in a list.

colons — Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it is a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence. Use a colon to introduce a list, but do not use it between a verb and its compliment or object.

Yes: The president named three possible candidates for the deanship: Potter, Eun and Zambrano. 
No: The three candidates are: Potter, Eun and Zambrano

Use a colon to introduce a long quotation:

President Renu Khator closed the 2021 Fall Address with these words:
“No matter what your role is, you are a member of the team, and we need you. Your resilience and your tenacity are our strengths. If you want to eliminate social injustice … if you want to help fulfill a student’s dream … if you want to make a generational impact … if you want to uplift your community … if you want to be part of the solution, then this is your chance … this is our chance. Let’s rise together. Let’s soar together to new heights.”

A colon may be used when the second independent clause amplifies the first independent clause. Capitalize the first letter of the first word when a complete sentence follows a colon or if it is a proper noun. 

Her achievement remains etched in memory: It has not been surpassed in 50 years. 
The child only wanted to see one person: his mother.

comma — If a comma does not help make clear what is being said, it should not be used. If omitting a comma could lead to confusion or misinterpretation, then use the comma. Do not use a comma to separate the last element in a series that is preceded by and. The exception would be if the list is a complex phrase.

They took exams in algebra, trigonometry and calculus.
They took exams in algebra, biology, business writing, music theory and application, and psychology.

Use a comma to separate independent clauses that are joined by and, but or for

You should congratulate her, for she has performed splendidly.

If the clause contains commas, use a semicolon instead. 

The dean, Nancy Olson, gave a persuasive presentation; but the faculty, weary of the issue, remained unpersuaded.

Use a comma after an introductory word group. The comma may be omitted after short introductory phrases if no ambiguity would result. But use the comma if its omission would slow comprehension.

After completing his most difficult examination, he went to a movie.

Use a comma to set off a word group that isn’t essential to the sentence. 

Biochemistry, which has always fascinated me, differs greatly from physics.

Use a comma to set off transitional words like however and moreover

Ceiling fans are, moreover, less expensive than air conditioners.

Don’t use commas if the word group is essential to the meaning of the sentence.

The classes I enjoy the most are in the English department.

Use a comma to introduce a complete quotation. 

Henry said, “I know the new director’s name!”

Do not use a comma at the start of an indirect or partial quotation. 

He said his victory put him “firmly on the road to first-ballot nomination.”

Use a comma in direct address. 

Nancy, please hand me the UH Magazine.
Go, Coogs!

Use a comma between proper names and titles. 

Eun-Ae Jong, president of Flower Shops Inc., chaired the meeting.

Use a comma to separate elements of an address. 

UH alumnus Joe Barker comes from Jacksonville, Florida, and now lives in Hartford, Connecticut.

Use commas inside quotation marks, both single and double. 

“Don't compromise yourself,” said Janis Joplin. “You are all you've got.”

Use commas to set off the year in a date. 

Their term paper is due May 22, 2022, to the professor.

Dash (or em-dash) — Use a dash (—) to denote a sudden break in thought that causes an abrupt change in sentence structure. Place a space in front of and behind the dash.

The student gave the speech — his stomach tied in knots — to the packed auditorium.

A dash also may be used to introduce an element added to give emphasis or explanation by expanding a phrase occurring in the main clause.

He spent several hours carefully explaining the operation — an operation he hoped would end the resistance.

Dashes may set off a defining or enumerating complementary element that is added to or inserted in a sentence.

He could forgive every insult but the last — the snub to his fiancée.
The influence of three impressionists — Monet, Sisley and Degas — can be seen in his early development as a painter.

In sentences having several elements as referents of a collective pronoun that is the subject of a main summarizing clause, the summarizing clause is preceded by a dash.

Ives, Stravinsky and Bartók — these were the composers he most admired.

ellipses Ellipses are three periods that indicate an omission within a quoted sentence or fragment of a sentence. There is a space before the first period and after the last period. An ellipsis may be preceded or followed by other punctuation.

em-dash — Long hyphen (—) named em-dash because the dash historically is the length of a lowercase m.

en-dash — Midsized hyphen (–) named en-dash because the dash historically is the length of a lowercase m. Use to indicate duration or continuing or inclusive numbers such as dates, times or reference numbers, use an en-dash (a slightly longer hyphen). Put a space on either side of the dash. When using an en-dash, always use numbers. Alternatively, when putting times in copy, the word “to” can be substituted for the dash.

Hyphens — Use of the hyphen is far from standardized. It can be a matter of taste, judgment and style sense. A few guiding principles will help ensure their effective use. Use a hyphen whenever ambiguity would result if it were omitted.

Visual structure of hyphen use:

  • Don’t break a hyphenated compound in the middle of either of its component words. If the compound must be broken, break it after the hyphen. If in doubt, consult the dictionary.
  • Avoid line breaks that leave only one or two letters at the end of a line or at the beginning of the next line.
  • Avoid having more than two lines in a row that end in hyphens.
  • Avoid breaking personal names, proper nouns, phone or fax numbers and email, web addresses, street and mailing addresses. If you must break a web or email address, break it before a punctuation mark.

When using hyphens in text:

  • Don’t use a hyphen with words ending in “-ly.”
  • Do not use a hyphen to designate dual heritage: African American, Italian American, Mexican American.
  • Hyphenate well- combinations before a noun, but not after: a well-known judge, but the judge is well known.
  • Compounds with the word century are hyphenated when they work as modifiers: ninth-century art, 11th-century religion.
  • Avoid duplicated vowels, tripled consonants, for example, anti-intellectual, shell-like. But double-e combinations usually don’t get a hyphen: preempted, reelected.
  • Use hyphens with temporary compounds, such as those invented by the writer: quasi-realistic, post-Homecoming. A compound is permanent when it can be found in a current dictionary or style manual.
  • Use a hyphen for extra clarity when the last letter of the prefix and the first letter of the word are the same (as in non-native) or when confusion might arise if the term is written as one word:

    Yes:The letter was re-sent.
    No: The letter was resent.

For a detailed list of hyphenated words, consult the Associated Press 2022 Stylebook and Webster’s New World College Dictionary.

exclamation point — Use the mark to express a high degree of surprise, incredulity or other strong emotion. Avoid overuse. Use a comma after mild interjections. End mildly exclamatory sentences with a period. Place the mark inside quotation marks when it is part of the quoted material: “How wonderful!” he exclaimed. “Never!” she shouted. Do not use a comma or a period after the exclamation mark.

parentheses — Be sparing with parenthese. The temptation to use parentheses is a clue that a sentence is becoming contorted. Try to write it another way.

There are occasions, however, when parentheses are the only effective means of inserting necessary background or reference information. When they are necessary, follow these guidelines:

Punctuation: Place a period outside a closing parenthesis if the material inside is not a sentence (such as this fragment). (An independent parenthetical sentence such as this one takes a period before the closing parenthesis.)  When a phrase placed in parentheses (this one is an example) might normally qualify as a complete sentence but is dependent on the surrounding material, do not capitalize the first word or end with a period.

Insertions in a proper name: Use parentheses if a state name or similar information is inserted within a proper name: The Huntsville (Alabama) Times. But use commas if no proper name is involved: The Selma, Alabama, group saw the governor.

Never used: Do not use parentheses to denote a political figure's party affiliation and jurisdiction. Instead, set them off with commas.

periods — Periods always go inside quotation marks. Use a single space after a period at the end of a sentence.

question marks — They are placed inside or outside quotation marks, depending on the meaning:

Who wrote “Gone With the Wind”?
He asked, “How long will it take?”

The question mark supersedes the comma that normally is used when supplying attribution for a quotation.

“Who is there?” she asked.

quotation marks — Periods and commas go inside closing quotation marks.

“Don’t wander away from camp,” said troop leader Michael Frost. “We’ll be heading home soon.”

The period and the comma always go within the quotation marks. The dash, the semicolon, the colon, the question mark and the exclamation point go within the quotation marks when they apply to the quoted matter only. They go outside when they apply to the whole sentence.

Use single quote marks in headlines.

semicolon — A semicolon is used to link related independent clauses (each with a subject and a verb). Do not use a semicolon to link an independent clause with a dependent clause, which does not have a subject and a verb.

Yes: They have played badly every year since 1980; this year may be different.
No: Last year, we spent our vacation in Oregon; the year before in Colorado. (There is no verb in the second clause.)

Semicolons also may be used to separate complex items in a series, especially if those items contain commas.

The committee members included Jack Jones, president of Jones Industries; Amber Henderson, local philanthropist; Rashda Rai, local restauranter; and Philo Sander, journalist with the Independence Messenger.