Punctuation marks tell the reader certain things about the sentence. They can ask a question, they can contain a list of items or they can separate thoughts. Punctuation marks that are commonly used in the English language are the period ., the comma ,, the question mark ?, the exclamation point !, the colon :, the semi-colon ;, the hyphen - , the dash –, the parenthesis, left ( and right ), the bracket, left [ and right ], the ellipsis . . ., the apostrophe ', the quotation mark " and the slash /.
The period is used at the end of a sentence and lets the reader know that the statement has come to an end. A period is also used in abbreviations. Examples of this usage are the abbreviation for British Columbia, B.C. or for ante meridian, a.m. A second period to end a sentence that ends with an abbreviation is not necessary.
Most of us were taught to insert a comma whenever a breath was meant to be taken. This is a good rule of thumb but please keep in mind that you don't want the reader to be gasping because you've created a run-on sentence. A comma is meant to separate statements or items in a sentence. An example of the proper use of the comma would be, I love to eat, drink and be merry.
A comma should also be used when a conjunction is used. Conjunctions are used to connect words, phrases and clauses and common conjunctions are and, but and or. An example of comma usage with a conjunction is, I wanted to talk to him, but he wasn't interested in listening to me.
The Question Mark
A question mark is used to indicate the end of a direct question. An example would be Are you going to the store? If you use a question mark with an abbreviation, the period does not take the place of the question mark, nor should it be omitted. Have you ever been to Washington, D.C.? is a good example of how a period and question mark work together.
Another possible problem is using a question mark in conjunction with quotation marks. Here is an example of one instance of correct usage of the two: Who was the man that said, "Give me liberty or give me death"? The reason the mark goes on the outside of the quotations in this instance is because Give me liberty or give me death is a quote, not a question.
If it was to be a question, it would be handled like this: What he said to me was, "Are you kidding?" In this case, the quotations enclose the words because it constitutes a question and it's also dialogue from another person.
The Exclamation Point
An exclamation point is used to show emotion and is used with interjections or commands. Some examples would be Fuck me now! Stop it! I've also seen where it has been used to give emphasis to a certain word but I haven't been able to find any documentation on whether it's accepted in 'literary' circles. An example of its usage would be I couldn't believe how expensive(!) the bracelet was.
A colon is used to separate a list of items from the main part of a sentence but the separated section of the sentence must be able to stand on its own. Colons are also used to separate a sentence from a quotation, a phrase that provides introduction or after the opening salutation in a letter.
A semi-colon is used to separate two related and complete sentences from each other. I have also seen it used to separate items in a list to give the list better readability. Here's an example of the correct usage of the semi-colon: My mother let me know what was needed at the store: cake flour, eggs and Juicy Fruit gum.
A hyphen is most commonly used to separate two words that can stand on their own. Hyphens are also used for numbers, such as thirty-seven and names such as Mary-Anne or Hyde-White.
The dash is used to separate items that might be enclosed in parentheses. When I need to use a dash, I enter two hyphens which Microsoft Word automatically translates into a dash.
The Parenthesis (plural, Parentheses)
Think of the parenthesis as something you whisper to someone at the beginning, middle or end of a statement. The left parenthesis begins the inclusion of the information and the right parenthesis signals the end of the included information. This is an example of the correct usage of parentheses: Michael was cute (his dragon breath curled my eyelids!) and his sister was my best friend.
I have to confess that I haven't seen common use of brackets but I thought that they deserve a mention. Most people use parentheses instead of brackets.
In most cartoons, the ellipsis is used when characters are deep in thought and do not respond. Another popular use is when the speaker begins a statement but then cannot either remember or is unable to finish due to mental or physical inability. An ellipsis can also be used when you want to use a long sentence but want to only use the most salient parts from the beginning and end. Let's look at an example of how the ellipsis is used: I was wondering ...what the hell was I going to do?
We all met the apostrophe when we learned about possessives and contractions. I won't get into the specifics of either one now but the apostrophe is a well-used item of punctuation. Possessives and contractions will be covered in future issues of how to submissions.
The Quotation Mark
Quotation marks have been much simplified by the advent of the word processor. On a regular typewriter, the quotation mark appeared as two apostrophes, scrunched closely together. Now, software programs interpret the quotation mark and give them opening and closing positions. Visually, the marks appear the same, but when printed, the opening marks mirror the closing set.
Imagine a comma. Two commas together form a closing set of quotation marks. Flip the set vertically and you have the opening set. Quotation marks are used to set out printed quotations, to emphasize the title of a specific work or to punctuate a character's dialogue.
Our last punctuation mark is the slash, otherwise known as the virgule. A slash is used when there are two or more words that can be substituted for each other. The one I've seen the most and use frequently is and/or. Using this as an example, let's view this use in a sentence: You may use the scissors and/or clippers to trim a client's hair. This tells the reader that there is a choice to use either the scissors or clippers, or to use both to trim the client's hair.