We speak English with sound level variations, tone of voice changes, rate changes, and various facial expressions. Body posture and hand activity may contribute to comprehension of the spoken word (or detract).

Punctuation is, in part, an attempt to capture in writing the emphasis we are able to deliver orally.

Additionally, punctuation is a tool we use to organize word arrangements to facilitate readability.


Mr. Radcliffe, the high school principal, will attend the regional school management conference.
The high school principal, Mr. Radcliffe, will attend the regional school management conference.
Master Sergeant Ramos, Delta Company First Sergeant, will be decorated for heroism, Monday.
Your TV program, the Moon Monkeys, is on.

The appositive further explains and is equivalent to the noun or noun phrase in apposition. The appositive is enclosed between commas. Note that the sentence can exist, satisfactorily, without the appositive. The appositive element is nonessential and is called a nonrestrictive element.

The citizen, no coward, challenged the councilman to account for the expenditures.
Dogs, unlike cats, form hunting bonds with humans.
Sunshine, never clouds, welcomes me each morning.

Note that the phrase that contrasts with the subject in each of these sentences is nonessential. The sentence would be grammatically correct if the contrast phrase were omitted. Nonessential sentence elements are often set off by commas.

parenthetical expressions

A parenthetical expression is a qualifying or explanatory remark. Parenthetical expressions are nonessential elements of information that can be enclosed in parentheses or set off with dashes or set off with commas.

I believe in democracy, always have, and I advocate participation in the political process.
Driving in Atlanta, a nightmare, is something I must do to make a living.
The Angel Fish, which sank during the hurricane, was built at this boat yard.

introductory word/phrase/clause

Gentlemen, start your engines.
Mr. Arthur, your plane has arrived.
Confidentially, I doubt the validity of that accusation.
If the responsibility were mine, I would stay until the crisis ended.
When you travel to Europe next summer, don't miss the opportunity to view the Parthenon.
To end the dispute, both parties made substantial concessions.
Flying erratically, the pilot triggered the national air defense response system.
Beneath the old red oak tree, you will find the buried treasure.

We tried reason, persuasion, and intimidation, but nothing worked.
Hudson, Nash, Packard, and DeSoto were once respected names in the automotive industry.
The Army, the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard are branches of the armed forces of the United States.
The US flag is red, white, and blue.
Fading light, rising mist, and ominous sounds chilled us to the bone.
"There was her father, her mother, her sister, her brother: Oh, I never see Maggie alone."

The final line is a lament from an old and nearly forgotten song.

compound/complex sentence

Cape Hatteras, NC, is frequently the destination of Atlantic hurricanes, and it is known as a ship's graveyard.
Although shipping is a possible terrorist entrée, commerce would grind to a halt if we searched every vessel.
Some 750 million people in 60 countries speak English, and it is the primary language in Australia, Canada (less Quebec), England, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, and the United States of America.

Observe that separation of the independent clauses in a compound sentence requires a comma and a conjunction. The first and third sentences are compound; each has two independent clauses. The second sentence starts with a subordiante clause which is separated from the independent clause by a comma.

broken quotation

"Precision guided, stand-off weapons do not distinguish between belligerent
and nonbelligerent," said Jones, "but the propaganda coming out of Washington

would have us believe otherwise."

In the sentence above a person named Jones has been quoted. The person quoting Jones put an explanatory note into the middle of the quotation. That remark tells the reader who is being quoted. Note carefully that the comma that marks the end of the first independent clause is contained within the quotation marks for that clause.


The basic use of the semicolon is to separate two independent clauses.

conjunctive adverb

In the sentences below a semicolon is used to separate two independent clauses, but note that a conjunctive adverb is part of the connecting mechanism.

"I think; therefore, I am."

This task must be accomplished by the 9th of January; furthermore, it must be done professionally.

Dr. Ravi is a brilliant engineer who comes to us with a limited knowledge of English; thus, I am assigning him to work with Dr. Robertson who speaks Dr. Ravi's language.

We know that crime rates are high on Thursday nights when there is a full moon; consequently, this being a full moon Thursday, every available officer will be on duty tonight.

The first example sentence above is from philosopher, René Descartes (1569-1650), and is an answer to the question: How do you know you exist?


A semicolon may be used to separate two independent clauses.

"Genetic science holds great potential for humanity; it should be funded generously."

In each of the two sentences below an explanatory attribute has been inserted into the sentence splitting the quotation into two parts. Note carefully the location of the semicolon in each sentence.

"Genetic science holds great potential for humanity;" said Dr. Jones, "it should be funded generously."

"Genetic science holds great potential for humanity"; said Dr. Jones, "it should be funded generously."

The semicolon in the first example is within the quotation marks. In the second example the semicolon is outside of the quotation marks. Contemporary grammars indicate that a semicolon or a colon should be placed outside of the quotation marks if this type of construction is utilized. However, there is no grammatical reason to place the semicolon or colon outside the quotation marks, and some older grammar books recommend placing those punctuation symbols inside the quotation marks. Why does this controversy exist? One theory is that typesetters once had difficulty fitting the semicolon or colon before the quotation mark.

The author of this English grammar makes two recommendations.

1. If you are associated with an organization that has a style manual, adhere to the guidance in the style manual—or the policies of the organization.

2. The best solution is to avoid splitting a quotation. Write an extra sentence attributing the quotation to the author or speaker.



The colon is used in a sentence to separate an independent clause from a list. There are some additional uses for the colon as shown below.

The following people are to report to the school library at 10 am: Rebecca, Samuel, Hector, and George.

Send the following items immediately: tents, cots, water purification equipment, mosquito netting, and charcoal.

The colon is often used as shown in the example below.

Seminar Schedule

Monday:The Status of Public Health in the United States

Tuesday:The Role of the US Government in Public Health

Wednesday:The Race to Avert Catastrophe


The colon is used to separate a salutation from the remainder of a letter as shown below.

Dear Dr. Parker:

The annual diabetes conference will be held November 15th at the. . . .


The colon is used to separate hours from minutes in a time of day statement.

The time is 10:59 am.

The time is 2:30 pm.



Parentheses are used to enclose dates or numbers and can be used to set off explanatory material.

The term parse is currently (circa 2003) enjoying popularity among computer programmers.

If a speaker utters the above sentence, the listener understands the date represented by the word currently. Print text requires insertion of the date, because someone may read the text at an unknown future time.

". . . from philosopher, René Descartes (1569-1650), and. . . ."

Parentheses are used in the excerpt above to enclose the dates representing the life span of René Descartes.


A parenthesis (singular) may be used to set off a number.

Select one of the following classes and enter your choice: 1) History of Modern Europe, 2) History of England, or 3) History of Medieval Europe.

Parentheses may be used to enclose numbers.

Summer Travel Choices

(1) Athens
(2) Cairo
(3) Bombay


Brackets can be used to indicate that an error is attributable to the original author.

"The ice core samples from the Edwards arktic [sic] expedition will be very useful."

The squared brackets containing sic indicate that the misspelling of arctic is attributable to the original author. The example shown below informs the reader that the words in brackets are not attributable to the author who is quoted. The words in brackets constitute an explanatory note.

"Bill Gregory was the best baseman we had that year [1929]."

Parentheses, brackets, and braces{ } are used to group terms in mathematics. Braces are used to hold statements in some computer program languages.


Ellipses are periods. A series of three spaced periods in a sentence indicates an omission from a quoted sentence. The following example indicates that there is an omission at the beginning of the sentence and another omission at the end of the sentence.

". . . but during the second semester
we expect substantial improvement in test scores. . . ."

Note that there are four periods at the end of the sentence. The fourth period represents the normal punctuation mark. The final period at the end of the sentence should be replaced with a question mark or exclamation mark if the original author used a question mark or exclamation mark.


The slash mark is used as a separator. One common use of the slash is shown below.

You may enroll in Botany 102 and/or Biology 108.

The slash mark in the sentence above provides a shortened method of saying: You may enroll in Botany 102 and Biology 108, or you may enroll in Biology 108. Another example appears in the sentence below.

The Sycamore Apartment Community amenities include washer/dryer connections.

exclamation mark

The exclamation mark at the end of a sentence signals surprise or astonishment. It is also used after a single word or expression called an interjection.

My taxes are lower than last year!

WOW! Great shot!

question mark

A question mark indicates that the sentence is a question.

Do you know where the public library is located?

Who wrote Origin of the Species?

If you were to spend a thousand dollars a day, every day, how long would it take to spend a billion dollars?


The apostrophe is used to indicate possession. The apostrophe is also used to indicate that a word is a contraction. A letter or letters have been omitted from a contracted word.


This is Veronica's bracelet.

This is not James' handwriting.

In the first sentence above the ('s) is added to the name Veronica to indicate possession. In the second sentence the name James ends with the letter (s). Therefore, an (') is added after the (s) to indicate that possession is being addressed.

Fowler and Franklin's brief impressed the court.

The sentence above has a compound subject, the names of two people. Possession is indicated; the brief belongs to Fowler and Franklin. Note that only the proper noun nearer or nearest the verb acquires the (').

Richard's and Spike's automobiles were stolen last night.

The sentence above could be rewritten as follows. Richard's automobile was stolen last night, and Spike's automobile was stolen last night. In the sentence above Fowler and Franklin jointly own the brief that impressed the court. In the sentence about Richard and Spike separate ownership is indicated. Consequently, an apostrophe is used with each name.

The Attorney General's report is devastating.

The Attorneys' General report is devastating.

Attorney General is the title of an office holder. Each state has an attorney general. In the first example one attorney general has written a report. In the second example several attorneys general have collaborated to write a report.


can't (cannot)
you're (you are)
it's (it is)

Some American English speakers often drop the final (g) on words ending with ing. A written replication of the failure to enunciate the final (g) is accomplished with an apostrophe.

Just a Singin' in the Rain (1950s musical)
I'm goin' swimmin'.
I've been drivin' all night.


The correct spelling of some names incorporates an apostrophe.

O'Malley (person's name)
O'Brien (person's name)
O'Connor (person's name)

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