get bartleby write

8:07 PM, You: Hey, what’s up? How’d the game go? Did you make any three-pointers, assists, or game-winning shots?
8:10 PM, Cameron: hey buddy the game went great we won i scored a ton of points and made a game winning three pointer at the end im happy with my performance !!!
8:11 PM, You: Uhh, okay! Well, glad to hear you’re happy with the performance.

We’ve all found ourselves in the above situation, having to parse through a friend’s text to understand their basic message, because they didn’t use punctuation. With the modern day reliance on digital forms of communication, proper punctuation in our writing has become more important than ever before.

Punctuation Overview

Punctuation is an essential part of writing, and it allows us to do all the following:

  • Organize our ideas effectively and clearly
  • Add complexity and detail to our writing, without compromising clarity
  • Write in a dynamic, engaging, fun-to-read way, with variety
  • Control the pace and flow of our writing
  • Develop coherent sentences, paragraphs, lists, poems, and stories

The basic elements of English punctuation include: period, comma, apostrophe, question mark, exclamation point, colon, semicolon, hyphen, en dash, em dash, parentheses, and quotation marks.

Buckle up for a comprehensive, and I mean comprehensive, guide that will cover all the basic punctuation tools in English grammar, providing guidelines, context, and conditions for the various rules of use.

1. Period

Use a period to end a complete sentence, which contains a subject and a verb. 


  • My friends and I went to the movies.
  • Our team won the game.
  • I got cold outside because it’s winter and we live in Canada.
  • People should help each other whenever they can.
  • After the track meet, her family took her out to dinner.

People often get confused about when they should use a period versus other sentence-concluding punctuation marks, like question marks or exclamation points. Unless the sentence is a direct question (Where is he?) or an excitatory remark (Look out!), it usually should conclude with a period.

Correct: Are you coming to dinner tonight?
Incorrect: Are you coming to dinner tonight. (A direct question requires a question mark.)

Correct: I wonder if she is coming to dinner tonight.
Incorrect: I wonder if she is coming to dinner tonight? (An indirect question is a statement, which requires a period.)

In nearly every case, a sentence ends with just one punctuation mark. If the sentence ends with an abbreviated word (such as etc.), the period following that word counts as the sentence’s period, even if the period falls within quotation marks or parentheses.

Correct: My mom got a job with Apple Inc.
Incorrect: My mom got a job at Apple Inc..

Correct: Please come to my house. (It’s located at 1534 Cedar St.)
Correct: Please come to my house (located at 1534 Cedar St).
Incorrect: Please come to my house. (It’s located at 1534 Cedar St.).

Correct: She said “I have piano lessons today.”
Incorrect: She said “I have piano lessons today.”.

Periods in parentheses and quotation marks

With parentheses and quotation marks, use only one period total to end the sentence. With quotation marks, put the period inside the quotation marks only if the quoted words end the sentence.

Correct: My mother said “Come give me a hug,” just as I left the house.
Incorrect: My mother said “Come give me a hug.” just as I left the house.

Correct: My friend taunted me, saying, “You’ll never defeat me in battle.”
Incorrect: My friend taunted me, saying, “You’ll never defeat me in battle.”.

With parentheses, the sentence’s single period typically goes outside the parentheses. Only place the period inside the parentheses when the entire sentence falls between the parentheses.

Correct: For lunch everyday, I bring a peanut butter and banana sandwich (much tastier than PB and J).
Incorrect: It tastes best with chunky peanut butter (and slightly overripe bananas.) (The period should be outside the parentheses since they are part of a larger sentence.)

Correct: Everybody at the lunch table gets jealous of my sandwiches. (I don’t blame them.)
Incorrect: My friends watch, mouths watering, as I savor each bite. (They have bland sandwiches) (The complete sentence in the parentheses should have a period, like this one.)

Miscellaneous rules and tips for periods:

  • Do not put any space between the sentence’s final word and the period.
  • Always use just one space after a period, before the next sentence’s first word.

2. Comma

Commas, like the ones surrounding this phrase, are probably the trickiest punctuation marks to use because they provide many different functions. However, the comma’s most all-encompassing function is to separate certain words or components within a sentence, providing a pause between sections or ideas, so that the sentence gets broken into coherent “chunks” and becomes more clear as a whole.


  • She is my best friend, and that will never change.
  • Before we go, I need to tell you something, and I don’t know how you’ll feel about it.
  • That puppy is cute, tiny, and fast.
  • Listen to this beautiful, calm music, as you relax with your head back on the pillow.

Commas distinguish sentence structure types

Commas distinguish compound, complex, compound-complex, and simple sentences. A compound sentence uses a conjunction (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) to link two independent clauses, meaning that each clause could stand on its own as a sentence. Compound sentences always feature a comma before the conjunction, to separate the independent clauses.

Correct: We ate chili cheese dogs, and Peter got a stomach ache after.
Incorrect: We ate chili cheese dogs and Peter got a stomach ache after. (Needs a comma)

Correct: My mom’s car broke down, so we had to walk to the movies.
Incorrect: My mom’s car broke down so we had to walk to the movies. (Needs a comma)

Complex sentences contain one independent clause and one dependent clause, a clause that cannot stand as its own sentence. Dependent clauses usually begin with a linking word like because, while, although, if, since, unless, or despite.

If the complex sentence begins with a dependent clause, use a comma. Don’t use a comma if the complex sentence begins with the independent clause. (See what I did there?)

Correct: If you want to hang out with us, you need to wear a matching outfit.
Incorrect: If you want to be my boyfriend first you need to be my friend. (Needs a comma)

Correct: My dog will always listen because I trained her well.
Still works, but comma unnecessary: My pet hamster dances, because I trained him well.

Compound-complex sentences contain at least two independent clauses and at least one dependent clause. If the compound-complex sentence begins with a dependent clause, use a comma after. If the beginning dependent clause applies to both following independent clauses, do not separate the independent clauses with a comma. If the dependent clause falls between two independent clauses and only applies to the second, use a comma on both sides of the dependent clause.

Correct: The movie Toy Story makes me emotional, and because it makes me cry, I choose to watch it alone.
Correct: Disney movies are the best because they teach real-life lessons, so they appeal to kids and adults.
Incorrect: Since I ran four miles I got very tired and I spent the whole day drowsy. (A comma should go after the dependent clause.)

Correct: If I win this bet, you have to jump in the cold water and she does too.
Incorrect: If you win this bet, I have to jump in the water, and you get to stay dry. (When the dependent clause applies to both independent clauses that follow, do not separate the independent clauses with a comma.)

No commas necessary for simple sentences.

Commas to separate nonessential explanations or descriptions

Use a comma to separate nonessential descriptions from a sentence’s main subject and verb, to maintain clarity. Nonessential descriptions often include participial phrases, appositive phrases, and prepositional phrases that are not a critical part of the noun’s identity.

Participial phrases are verbal phrases that act as adjectives, modifying a noun. Sometimes, they form an essential part of the noun, but most of the time, these phrases are nonessential and should be separated from their noun by a comma.

Essential participial (no comma needed): Everyone listening right now should feel proud.
Essential participial (unnecessary comma): All my fans, supporting me, make me feel confident.

Nonessential participial (commas needed): My mom, listening intently, never broke eye contact.
Nonessential participial (commas needed): My teammate running wildly went out of bounds.

Appositive phrases are nouns or noun phrases that rename the noun next to them. Appositive phrases are always non-essential and therefore always require a comma. If the appositive phrase begins the sentence, the comma goes after it; if the appositive phrase comes in the middle of the sentence, commas go on both sides; and if it ends the sentence, a comma goes before it.

Correct: Taylor Swift, my favorite singer, pulls off the 1950s style quite well.
Incorrect: Aretha Franklin the best singer of all time always brought lots of energy onstage. 

Correct: I always enjoy the taste of coffee, the life-giving elixir. 
Incorrect: You should try a sip of this water a plain but refreshing beverage.

Prepositional phrases modify nouns using prepositions, such as in, with, from, to, when, above, between, within, and after. Similar to the comma rule for participial or appositive phrases, use a comma for a prepositional phrase when the phrase is nonessential to the core sentence. Prepositional phrases essential to their noun should not have a comma.

Correct: On the trip back from Kentucky we stopped for gas.
Incorrect: Coach told us to listen carefully during his speech, before the game. (The essential prepositional phrase should not have a comma, because it critically identifies the speech.)

Correct: My brother, since the day he was born, does not like crowds. 
Incorrect: My grandma with all her old school beliefs thinks I should already have gotten married. (Commas should surround the nonessential prepositional phrase.)

Commas in lists

When your writing includes a written list, use commas to separate the items in that list. This is true even if your list includes phrases as items.

Correct: We went to Italy and went swimming, rode bikes, ate delicious food, drank espresso, and appreciated the architecture.
Incorrect: As a basketball player, you should work on passing the ball dribbling to the hoop and staying focused all game. (Each action phrase in the list should have a comma before or after it.)

Correct: Last summer, my family did a road trip through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado.
Incorrect: Her favorite foods include tacos pizza strawberries ice cream and pasta. (The list requires commas.)

However, if your list just includes two items separated by the word and, do not use a comma in that case.

Correct: To find the toy Jason wanted, we had to visit Toys R Us and Target.
Incorrect: On our safari, we saw mostly Kangaroos, and Zebras.

When using just two adjectives to describe a noun, use a comma without any conjunction to separate the two adjectives.

Correct: The piano is a difficult, rewarding instrument to learn.
Correct: When we hiked into nature, we smelled the fresh, fragrant, green aroma.
Incorrect: My charming, and cute turtle climbed up the stairs. (Either remove the comma or the word and.)

3. Apostrophe

Let’s talk about the apostrophe, a writer’s tool that shows ownership and makes contractions possible. 

Apostrophes for contractions

When you combine two words together into one word, called a contraction, such as they have→they’ve, let us→let’s, or I will→I’ll, use an apostrophe to stand in for the missing letters. Especially popular in informal writing genres like storytelling or conversation, contractions shorten writing length and add a personal tone to sentences. For example, they have brought dinner over sounds more robotic than they’ve brought dinner over.

  • They’ve told us it’s going to happen after midnight.
  • She’ll arrive after midnight.
  • We’re on our way over right now!
  • I didn’t know she said that.
  • Haven’t they said when they’re arriving?

However, since contractions tend to make writing seem more personal, writers should be mindful of using contractions in formal texts, such as research papers or academic essays. In these cases, contractions will sometimes help to avoid stiff and robotic writing, but too many contractions in formal writing will create an unwanted casual tone.

Common misconceptions: it’s vs its, lets vs let’s, and who’s vs whose. Remember that apostrophes fill in for missing letters, so if you squish words together and omit letters, use an apostrophe. In these cases, contraction apostrophes take precedence over possessive apostrophes.

Correct: It’s a shame that you never told me. (It is)
Correct: I wonder what its name is. (Its possessive)
Incorrect: Its never too late to change your mind (The contracted it is should have an apostrophe.)

Correct: Who’s that? (who is)
Correct: Whose is that? (possessive whose, no words combined)
Incorrect: I don’t know who’s jacket this is. (No words combined here, so it should not have an apostrophe.)

Correct: Let’s go to the mall. (let us)
Correct: He never lets us do anything fun. (lets)
Incorrect: Lets get out of here. (Let us contracted should have an apostrophe.)

Apostrophes to show ownership

To show someone or something’s ownership, use an apostrophe before the s (Sandra’s bicycle) to demonstrate the possessive relationship. 


  • Let’s go over to David’s house.
  • Do not drink from my dog’s bowl.
  • Stephen Curry’s shot is beautiful to watch.
  • Check out my family’s new fridge.

For plural nouns or nouns that end in -s, use an apostrophe after the -s at the end of the word.


  • The Beatles’ first album was Please Please Me.
  • Sharks’ favorite food is smaller fish.
  • Look honey, we got the Lowrys’ Christmas card.
  • Oranges’ nutritional benefits beat grapes’ nutritional value.

When you have multiple possessive nouns listed consecutively, if they share the possession, only use one apostrophe after the latter noun. If each noun possesses the item individually, use an apostrophe after each noun.


  • There are parties at Peter’s, Jackie’s, and Cameron’s houses. (Individual possession)
  • I’m a fan of Van Gogh’s, Dali’s, and Picasso’s artwork. (Individual possession)
  • I love John, Paul, George, and Ringo’s music. (Shared possession)
  • Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez’s chemistry is wonderful. (Shared possession)

In general, do not use an apostrophe when pluralizing something (Merry Christmas from the Wilsons), even numbers and years (the 1800s). The only exception is when pluralizing a noun-form of a letter (my name has two T’s), in which case use an apostrophe for clarity.

Correct: In the late 1700s, France went through major changes.
Incorrect: The 1980s gave way to a whole new electronic sound in music. (The year should not have an apostrophe.)

Correct: The Darwins devoted their life to scientific discovery.
Incorrect: The Petersons sent their well wishes this holiday season. (Plural non-possessive nouns should not have an apostrophe.)

Correct: Always mind your P’s and Q’s. (Plural letters get apostrophes.)
Incorrect: Don’t forget to dot the Ts and cross the Is. (Plural letters get apostrophes.)

4. Question Mark

Would you like to learn about the question mark? Well, you’ve come to the right place. The question mark signifies direct questions and belongs at the end of the asked question.

  • Can you please pass the salt?
  • Does Sandra have many friends?
  • How long did it take you to finish the homework last night?
  • Before we leave, what should we take with us?
  • Did she notice that I changed my hair?

Question marks for direct questions, not indirect questions

Only use question marks for direct questions, not indirect questions.

Correct: Will you go to Winter Formal with me, Linda?
Incorrect: Can you help me with this. (A direct question should end with a question mark.)

Indirect questions, wonderings, or requests do not use a question mark.

Correct: I wonder if Lauren will go to the dance with me.
Correct: She wants to know if you will do the job or not.
Correct: Please tell me why you never come over anymore.
Correct: They asked me how I design my robots.

Incorrect: I have always wondered why Wendy’s has square burgers? (Indirect questions should end with a period.)
Incorrect: He asked me how I planned to finish the project? (Indirect question should end with a period.)

For movie titles that end with question marks, and direct questions embedded within larger sentences, put a question mark after the title or question, then finish the sentence and cap it with a period. If the title is the last word of the sentence, end the sentence with the title’s question mark or exclamation point.

Correct: My family went to see Are We There Yet? in theaters.
Correct: Before we left, she asked me “Do You Love Me?” and I told her “no.”
Correct: The question of Who is the greatest basketball player in the world? has not been answered yet.

Incorrect: I have not seen Dude Where’s My Car yet. (Movie titles containing a question mark should include it.)
Incorrect: Famous authors answer the question what does it mean to be human in their books. (Since the sentence contains a direct question, the first word of that direct question should be capitalized and the direct question should have a question mark, before continuing the larger sentence.)

5. Exclamation Point

When using exclamation points, be careful! A punctuation tool that adds intensity, excitement, and urgency to a sentence, exclamation points can easily go overboard and overwhelm or annoy the reader. Use exclamation points sparingly, only when something in your writing truly warrants emphasized excitement or intensity.

  • Watch out, there’s someone behind you!
  • Honey, there’s a bear!
  • You did such a great job in the play!
  • We can’t wait until Saturday!

In intense situations that call for both a question mark and exclamation point, do not use both; the exclamation point takes precedence.

Correct: Do you mean to say I’ve been wrong this whole time!
Correct: Why would he say something like that!
Correct: You’ve been up there the whole time!
Unnecessary: Wait, she said that about me?!
Unnecessary: You made this whole mess?!

If a movie title or quotation uses an exclamation point, use the exclamation point after the title or quotation, then complete the sentence as usual.

Correct: The movie Burn! with Marlon Brando flopped.
Correct: Have you ever heard the song “Help!” by the Beatles?
Incorrect: “Hey Ya” by Outkast always puts me in a good mood.
Incorrect: Dr. Seuss’ book Horton Hears a Who gave my kids a good laugh. (Titles containing an exclamation point should include it within the quotation marks.)

Correct: She screamed “Look out behind you!” as a zombie walked toward him.
Incorrect: The old lady exclaimed “Oh my” as the burglar startled her! (In this case, since the lady’s speech demonstrates the excitement, the exclamation point would serve better after her speech.)

6. Colon

The colon, much more than the eyes of a smiley face :), has a variety of grammatical functions: it signifies a list, it allows an independent clause to elaborate on another, and it places emphasis on select words or phrases within a sentence. You can think of the colon as filling in for the words “therefore” or “which is/are.

A colon must be preceded by an independent clause, and the first word after a colon should not be capitalized.

Colon to signify a list

One of the colon’s functions is to signify a list, acting as the words “which is/are.” While an independent clause must precede the colon, after the colon you can simply list the corresponding items.

Correct: You should vote for me for several reasons: I’m reliable, I’m honest, and I listen.
Correct: A few things caused me to show up late: my alarm didn’t work, my car broke down, and there was traffic.
Correct: The value meal provides three things: a large soda, fries, and a double cheeseburger.

Incorrect: I voted for painting number three because: it uses color well, it shows good technique, and it has stimulating subject matter. (A colon must be preceded by an independent clause.)

If the listed items flow as part of the coherent sentence, do not use a comma. You can simply embed the list directly into the sentence. 

Correct: She did well on the test because she studied, she paid attention in class, and she went to the afterschool review session. (List embedded in sentence, no colon necessary.)

Incorrect: I have a dynamic role in my friend group I plan our events, I host the most parties, and I help my friends find romantic relationships. (Since an independent clause precedes the list, a colon, acting as “which is,” should come before the list.)

Colon between independent clauses when the second one elaborates on the first

The colon can signify the relationship between two independent clauses, showing that the second clause builds on the first: the colon fills in for the word “therefore.”

Correct: Our team has excellent players and a great coach: We win games.

Correct: The Little Mermaid has great songs, good character development, and a nice setting: It’s the best Disney movie of all time.

Incorrect: I went to see the new movie: The next day, my friends picked me up on the way to school. (The second clause does not directly relate to the first, so this case should not use a colon.)

Colon for emphasis

The colon also allows a pause before an emphasized word or phrase, to express its significance. In this case, the colon fills in for “which is/are,” but you can follow it with a phrase or singular word instead of an independent clause.

Correct: Nervous, I clicked on the email about my college acceptance, to see what it said: accepted!

Correct: At this point in my life, I finally feel how I’ve always wanted to feel: happy.

Incorrect: I finally felt: happy. (A colon must always be preceded by an independent clause.)

7. Semicolon

Both the colon and the semicolon can connect independent clauses, but while the colon shows that the second independent clause elaborates on the first, a semicolon indicates that the two independent clauses connect in another way: they might oppose, parallel, or affirm each other. In other words, the semicolon acts more like a coordinating conjunction (and, but, yet).

Correct: The varsity squad gets to practice in the gym; junior varsity has got to go outside. (the semicolon fills in for , but…)

Correct: The red shoes work best for parties and formal gatherings; the blue shoes seem perfect for coffee dates, picnics, and the like. (the semicolon fills in for , and…)

Incorrect: My brother finished the race first; he deserves a trophy. (This example should use a colon because the second clause elaborates on the first, acting as the word “therefore.”)

While you could use a period instead of a semicolon in these cases, the semicolon emphasizes a relationship between the two clauses.

Semicolon between two independent clauses linked with a transitional phrase

Two independent clauses linked with a transitional phrase (additionally, as a result, therefore, so, moreover, etc.) use a semicolon in place of a conjunction or period, to demonstrate the connectedness of the independent clauses.

Correct: She and I always butted heads during class discussion; as a result, we helped each other learn.

Correct: My mother made us listen to the Beatles in the car when we were little; since then, I’ve become a major fan.

Incorrect: My friends; however, always give me a boost when I need it. (Since an independent clause does not precede the semicolon, use a comma instead.)

Semicolon to separate list phrases that contain commas

As explained in the “Colon” section above, colons introduce mid-sentence lists and typically, commas separate list items. However, if the list items themselves contain commas, distinguishing each list item becomes difficult. 

If the list items contain commas within them, use a semicolon to separate the list items.

Correct: Caffeine possesses several benefits: it helps eliminate free radical production, which is important; it prevents cognitive decline, a common modern issue; finally, it improves mood, something everyone wants.

Correct: Taylor Swift’s music hits home on a variety of levels: her subject matter, often about break ups, is relatable; her voice, which hasn’t changed over the years, is beautiful; and her performances, intended to energize her fans, always have wonderful theatrics.

Incorrect: My dad did a lot for me when I was a kid: one Christmas, he went up on the roof to sound like Santa, and every Saturday, he would go with my siblings and I to get slurpees and enjoy the park, and in the mornings after sleepovers, he would make everybody his famous pancakes. (While grammatically correct, this list gets confusing with all the commas and dependent clauses. The writer should replace the comma-conjunction combos with semicolons.)

8. Hyphen

Although they look like the dash’s little brother, hyphens serve a very different purpose than the dash. Mainly, hyphens connect somewhat-confusing compound adjectives, leading to more-coherent descriptions for your nouns.

Hyphens in compound terms

Compound terms are those that consist of multiple words but express a singular concept, idea, or item. Sometimes, compound terms are written as open compounds with a space (each other), sometimes closed words (applesauce), and sometimes they use a hyphen (able-bodied). This section will briefly discuss when to use hyphens in compound words, but for more information about compound terms in general, check out the Split and Merge Guide.

A few basic guidelines help to determine when compound terms use a hyphen:

i. If a non-closed compound acts as an adjective (not starting with -ly), it typically requires a hyphen.

When an open compound acts as an adjective, readers can get confused about if the compound’s second word coheres with the compound, or with the noun. To prioritize clarity, when writing a non-closed compound adjective, hyphenate it.

Correct: Check out the funny-looking spectator. (Could be a funny spectator who is looking, so use a hyphen.)

Correct: Those are some delicious fire-roasted almonds. (They could be some really good roasted almonds. Kids these days use fire as a synonym for good, so use a hyphen.)

Incorrect: At work, I enjoy all the fat free snacks. (Are they fat free? Or are they free snacks? Hyphenate the compound.)

ii. When an open compound acts as a noun instead of an adjective, it usually does not require a hyphen.

This includes when compound modifiers come after the noun they modify, because often when the compound comes after the modified noun, it either becomes a noun itself or becomes more clearly separate from the modified noun.

Correct: She’s going to a science-fiction convention
Correct: She’s going to a convention for science fiction. (Compounds acting as nouns become clearer and usually do not require a hyphen.)

Correct: Let’s watch this made-for-TV movie.
Correct: This movie is made for TV. (The compound’s cohesion is clearer since it precedes the modified noun TV, so it does not require a hyphen.)

iii. When a compound uses an -ly adverb, it usually does not require a hyphen.

Since -ly adverbs typically imply a follow-up word, they form cohesive-enough bonds that they do not confuse the reader and therefore do not require a hyphen.

Correct: My grandparents are still happily married. (Saying happily-married is okay, but unnecessary.)

Correct: During the meeting, you made some highly inappropriate comments. 

9. En Dash (Medium-Sized Dash)

The en dash, wider than a hyphen but not as wide as an em dash, does not have a designated key on most keyboards. On most word processors, you must click “Insert: Special Characters” to insert an en dash, while on smartphones you can simply hold the hyphen key to select the en dash from the options.

The en dash functions as a super hyphen, used to connect two units, but only in select circumstances: to connect numerical ranges (1–100), scores (21–14), or entities (San Francisco–Las Vegas). When using the en dash, do not leave any spaces between either side of the en dash and the adjacent units.

En dash for numerical ranges

When using the en dash to demonstrate numerical ranges, it fills in for the words to and through.

Correct: Practice will be held 1–3 pm every wednesday. (One to three pm)
Correct: Before next class, read chapter 4–7. (Four through seven)

Do not use an en dash for ranges beginning with the words from or between. For numerical ranges beginning with these words, connect the units using the words to or and, respectively.

Correct: The US Great Depression spanned from 1929 to 1933
Incorrect: The US Great Depression spanned from 1929–1933. (With from, connect the units with the word to instead of an en dash.)

Correct: Pick a number between 1 and 100
Incorrect: Pick a number between 1–100. (With between, do not use an en dash.)

En dash for scores

To report a game’s score, use the en dash.

Correct: The Miami Dolphins beat the Green Bay Packers 17–14.
Correct: Yesterday, Barcelona beat Real Madrid 4–3.

En dash for conflict, connection, or direction

The en dash also expresses connection, conflict, or direction between two units.

Correct: I read the news to stay up to date on the Israel–Palestine conflict.
Correct: In a song, the bass–drum connection provides an important foundation.
Correct: I’ll be on the New York–Chicago flight.

10. Em Dash (Long Dash)

The em dash—the longest dash of all—has a wide variety of functions, taking the place of commas, parentheses, or colons, depending on the situation, formality, and the emphasis you want to place on the word, phrase, or clause. 

It’s helpful to consider the formality and intrusiveness that characterizes these three punctuation marks with some interchangeable functions.

Comma: Most formal, least intrusive

  • My friend, a professional gamer, plays Call of Duty.

Parentheses: Less formal, more intrusive

  • My friend (a professional gamer) plays Call of Duty.

Em dash: Least formal, most intrusive

  • My friend—a professional gamer—plays Call of Duty.

Keep in mind that the em dash (—) is longer than the en dash (), which is longer yet than the hyphen (-). In general, use no spaces on either side of the em dash. Just connect it directly to the words on either side.

The em dash instead of a comma

The em dash can fill in for a comma to enhance visual readability, and when you want to pack a greater punch, with more emphasis on the word or clause behind the dash. Typically, writers use the em dash as a boosted comma in sentences that contain other commas, to distinguish certain emphasized clauses from each other.

Correct: My friend and I went to New York together—our first trip without adults to a big city—and when we arrived, we walked everywhere, including Central Park and downtown.
Correct: The crowd went wild as she—the underdog, who nobody expected to win—beat her opponent in the tennis match, in the first round of the Australian Open.
Correct, but em dash unnecessary: My mom—the tennis pro—gave me lessons when I was young. 

The em dash instead of parentheses

If you want to draw attention to the clause or phrase in parentheses, use an em dash. If you want to keep it more subtle or more formal, use parentheses. 

Em dash (more emphasis): After baseball practice, I was starving, so I went to Trader Joe’s—the best grocery store in the world—for pineapple juice.

Parentheses (less emphasis): I went to Trader Joe’s (my favorite grocery store) for some pineapple juice.

When the em-dashed content concludes the sentence, omit the second dash.

Correct: My family always watches baseball together—especially the playoffs.

Correct: My family always watches baseball together (especially the playoffs).

The em dash instead of a colon

The em dash can fill in for a colon, with greater emphasis. When you want to emphasize a concluding independent clause, list, or item in your sentence, use an em dash instead of a colon.

Correct: Away from the stresses of work, Diane’s vacation offered her all that she wanted—family time, good food, restorative sleep, and peace of mind.

Correct: Rick always struck me as a bit unusual in his habits—he wears a jacket even in the sweltering summer heat.

Correct: My tutor helped me get the one thing I’ve always wanted—good grades.

11. Parentheses

Parentheses (which always come in pairs) allow writers to provide non-essential background information, ranging from a single word, to a sentence fragment, to multiple complete sentences. When using parentheses, you should be able to remove the words contained between the parentheses and still be left with a complete sentence. This is one way to make sure your parentheses contain nonessential information.

Correct: My friend and I went down to the (beautiful) park the other day.
Incorrect: My friend and I (went down) to the beautiful park yesterday. (Parentheses cannot contain information essential to the sentence.)

Correct: Our child (four years old) has developed such an appetite recently!
Incorrect: Our (four-year-old) has developed such an appetite recently! (Parentheses cannot contain information essential to the sentence.)

Correct: This whole year, my family has been preparing to move across the country. (We have a four-year-old and a nine-year-old, plus a dog. That’s a lot to move!) Currently in Florida, we plan on moving to Montana.

Punctuation around parentheses

When parentheses contain a complete sentence that stands on its own, include the concluding punctuation within the parentheses. 

Correct: My family goes to visit my grandparents for Thanksgiving. (They have a house in the country.)

When parentheses get placed within a larger sentence, the surrounding punctuation goes outside the parentheses, functioning as if the parentheses are not there. When part of a larger sentence, even if the mid-sentence parentheses contain a complete sentence, omit the closing punctuation within the parentheses and do not capitalize the sentence inside the parentheses.

Correct: Legs wobbly at the end of the game, I still managed to break tackles and score the winning touchdown (in the closing seconds).

Incorrect: I walked into class and, to my painful surprise, saw the words TEST TODAY (Which were written on the whiteboard.) (When the parentheses are part of a bigger sentence, even if they contain a complete sentence, leave the first word uncapitalized and place the period outside the parentheses.) 

Correct: The morning lake’s surface lay still (a few ducks paddled by, causing calm ripples to reverberate out from them) as I sat on the dock, premeditating my day.

If the parentheses contain commas, question marks, or exclamation points, those remain inside the parentheses. 

Correct: Gasping for air down the race’s home stretch, after turning around one last time (I’m still winning, right?) I put one foot in front of the other to cross the finish line.

Incorrect: When my friend fell asleep in class (is she crazy) the teacher immediately noticed. (If mid-sentence parentheses contain direct questions, include the question mark.)

12. Quotation Marks

Quotation marks express language that is reproduced word for word, such as speech or quotations taken from outside sources.

  • My father used to tell me, “Kid, you’re gonna be something special when you grow up.”
  • “To be or not to be,” Hamlet said, “That is the question.”

Punctuating quotation marks

Following American grammar rules, periods and commas go inside the quotation marks, even if the period or comma belongs to the outside sentence. Capitalize the first letter of a quotation if the quotation is a complete sentence, even when it exists within a larger sentence. 

Correct: The famous Cardi B said “You just learn as time passes,” one of my favorite quotations.
Incorrect: Amy Tan, the great writer, said “If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude”. (Periods go inside the quotation marks to end a sentence, even when the period is part of the outside sentence.)

All punctuation marks besides periods and commas go outside the quotation marks, unless they’re part of the original quotation.

Correct: Peter asked “Can you hold this bag for a sec?” while he sprinted off to catch the frisbee.
Correct: Can you please stop calling me “crybaby”?
Incorrect: Sandra overheard him say “Do you think she’ll go out with me”? (When part of the quotation, a question mark goes inside quotation marks.)

Correct: Plato famously asked, “Have you ever sensed that our soul is immortal and never dies?”
Incorrect: Spotting the chainsaw-carrying murderer creeping up behind her boyfriend, she screamed “Look out behind you”! (All punctuation marks that are part of the quotation, besides periods and commas, should be placed within the quotation marks. Keep in mind that periods go inside quotation marks only when the quotation ends the sentence.)

Correct: Here are what my dad calls the “life essentials”: consistent sleep, a supportive family, and good health.

How to embed quotations in your writing: run-in vs. block quotations

Short quotations, meaning the text is less than 40 words or four lines long, get embedded directly into your writing, called a run-in quotation. If the quotation falls in the middle of your sentence, with your sentence continuing after the quotation, end the quotation with a comma (instead of period), a question mark, or an exclamation point and continue your sentence.

Correct: My favorite author Anne Frank said, “Whoever is happy will make others happy too,” showing her inner resilience.

Correct: Similarly brave, Hellen Keller told the world that “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

Incorrect: Babe Ruth, one of baseball’s all-time homerun leaders, said. “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.” (When you have a quotation of less than 40 words, you can embed it into your sentence most seamlessly with a comma. If you do use a period, make sure a complete sentence precedes the period.)

Most of the time, quotations embedded within a sentence use a tag word, such as said, asked, or whispered, that indicates who said the words and classifies the manner in which the words were spoken. Tags, just like all verbs, change form depending on their tense and can be placed on either side of the quoted text.

Common tags include: said, asked, whispered, yelled, called, replied, stated, explained.

Correct: “Why can’t we have McDonald’s for dinner?” asked my daughter, a disappointed look in her eyes.

Incorrect: My mom, “Jonathan, get up now or you will miss your bus!” (A quotation should usually be introduced by some sort of tag word, such as “My mom said…”)

If your quotation content spans more than 40 words or four lines, use a block quotation. A block-style quotation does not use quotation marks, instead setting the quotation apart from the main text by moving the quoted content to a new line, indenting the left-hand margin more than the main text, and sometimes indenting the right hand margin and using a smaller font size. 

Example of a block-style quotation:

In The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo writes about the value of honoring your heart and dreams, exemplified in this quotation:

“The boy continued to listen to his heart as they crossed the desert. He came to understand its dodges and tricks, and to accept it as it was. He lost his fear, and forgot about his need to go back to the oasis, because, one afternoon, his heart told him that it was happy. ‘Even though I complain sometimes,’ it said, ‘it’s because I’m the heart of a person and people’s hearts are that way. People are afraid to pursue their most important dreams, because they feel that they don’t deserve them, or that they’ll be unable to achieve them. We, their hearts, become fearful just thinking of loved ones who go away forever, or of the moments that could have been good but weren’t, or of treasures that might have been found but were forever hidden in the sands. Because, when these things happen, we suffer terribly.’”

Introducing quotations: when to use a comma, colon, period, or no punctuation

A comma is the most common punctuation used to introduce a run-in quotation, in order to set the quotation content apart from the main text. When the words of your main text lead into a quotation, or when using a tag word, put a comma after the final word of main text before the quotation marks.

Correct: Mahatma Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Incorrect: Always a fountain of wisdom, Dr. Seuss said “You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.” (Use a comma to introduce a quotation most of the time, unless the quotation flows seamlessly in sentence. In this case, it does not.)

If the main text’s sentence continues after a quotation, put a comma after the last word inside the quotation, or a question mark or exclamation point if the quoted material requires it. This means that if the quotation rests in the middle of a larger sentence, it will often have a comma on both sides.

Correct: The girl said, “It’s time for bed,” when the clock struck 11 o’clock.
Correct: An emotional moment, the boy asks, “Are you carrying the fire?” in the closing scene of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Incorrect: “You always get the food you want to eat, never what I want” David accused his friend. (This quotation should conclude with a comma before transitioning to the main text.)


Use a colon to introduce a quotation when the main text preceding the quotation is an independent clause. In this way, the colon functions the same as it does in normal grammatical situations: after a main clause. 

Correct: The poet/rapper Lil Wayne uttered a quotation short, but wise: “I don’t need it to be easy, I need it to be worth it.”

Incorrect: Although companies don’t often have quotes of their own, Nike said: “Yesterday you said tomorrow. Just do it.” (When the main text is not an independent clause, introduce the quotation with a comma instead of a colon.)

Correct: My mother has a famous saying: “WWMD, What would Mom do?”

Incorrect: Lebron James started a famous phrase and hashtag, “Strive for greatness.” (When the main text is an independent clause, it should introduce the quotation with a colon.)


Use a period to introduce a quotation when the main text and the quotation itself are independent clauses. Keep in mind that in this case, a colon can still work and is preferable in most cases.

Correct: John Green, in his writings about teen romance, has a certain knack for conveying the reality of young love. “It hurt because it mattered.”

Incorrect: Eminem, never one to shy away from a chance to progress, said. “I have nothing to lose but something to gain.” (When the preceding main text is not an independent clause, use a comma instead of a period to introduce the quotation.)

No punctuation

When the quotation flows seamlessly into the main sentence, when it “fits the bill” as they say, it requires no introductory punctuation at all. This is especially true for shorter quotations, such as individual words and phrases, which can more easily “tuck” into larger sentences. 

As a general rule of thumb, if the quotation is introduced by a conjunction, such as when, whether, for, or that, you can usually omit any punctuation to introduce the quotation. In other cases, you can make a judgment call: when the quotation fits seamlessly into the larger sentence without any pause, you can omit quotation-introducing punctuation.

Correct: I’ve always wanted to “rep the bay,” as they say in the San Francisco Area.
Correct: We looked down to the dock as “Fish on!” echoed off the pine trees. My uncle stood on the dock, holding a sunfish in his hands.

Incorrect: Sneaking up behind us, my uncle yelled “Boo!” to startle my cousin and me. (With a tag word such as said, use a comma before the quotation.)

Wrapping up

First of all, take a step back and give yourself a pat on the back for reading and learning about punctuation. Yes, punctuation contains a lot of rules, many of which change depending on the condition, but the good news is this: the more you read, and the more you write, the more intuitively these rules and conditions will enter your repertoire. Writing is not an easy task for anyone, and even professional writers make punctuation errors, requiring proofreaders. So remain optimistic, remain confident, and write on.

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Employing the fundamental rules of punctuation marks while writing can make any piece easy to follow for the reader.
Employing the fundamental rules of punctuation marks while writing can make any piece easy to follow for the reader.