Punctuation rules can confuse the best of us. When do we use semicolons? What are the rules for commas? When do we use apostrophes and quotation marks? Use this guide to help you! But first ... why are punctuation rules so confusing? Watch the video to find out!
Commas show your reader that there is a pause in the sentence they are reading. It seems as if commas have more punctuation rules than any other form of punctuation. I've narrowed it down to eight rules for you.
1. Commas After Introductory Words and Clauses
2. Commas With Lists
When you list three or more things, use commas between the words.
- I would like grapes, apples, and cookies.
- Are we having fish, chicken, or beef for dinner?
3. Commas Between Multiple Modifiers (Adjectives & Adverbs)
- My new car ran quietly, quickly, and smoothly.
- I love this warm, fuzzy, pink sweater!
- It was a bright, sunny day.
Learn more about commas between adjectives here.
4. Commas With Numbers
When a number is over 999, use commas to separate the numbers.
- I paid $3,500 for my new boat.
- The house is $600,000.
5. Commas With Dates And Addresses
- November 1, 2015
- I live in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
- Send the package to 5154 Smith Street, Los Angeles, California 92674.
6. Commas With Quotations
When you are quoting someone's exact speech, you must use quotation marks and a comma.
- My sister exclaimed, "You came home!"
- "I missed you," I said.
7. Commas Joining Independent Clauses
When you join two independent clauses, use a comma and a coordinating conjunction. When you have two independent clauses joined only by a comma, it's called a comma splice. You should avoid comma splices.
- I love cats, but I also love dogs.
- Can you come, or should I go?
- My sister had a ballet performance, and my brother had an orchestra concert.
8. Commas Setting Off Nonrestrictive (Nonessential) Elements
Nonrestrictive elements add information to the sentence, but they're not essential to the meaning of the sentence. We could remove them, and the sentence would still make sense. I know this sounds a bit confusing, but I have a really good trick that will help you remember this, and you can learn about it on this page that covers commas with appositives.
- My sister, a French teacher, lived in France for two years.
- Mike and Bri graduated from UWEC, my alma mater.
1. Ending Sentences
Use these to end declarative sentences and imperative sentences.
- The sun is shining today.
- Open the door.
2. Abbreviations (shortened forms of words)
- I spoke with Sgt. Johnson about the troops.
The punctuation rules for question marks are very simple. In fact, there is really only one rule!
1. Ending Sentences
These end interrogative sentences. This kind of sentence asks a question. Any time you ask a question, end the sentence with a question mark.
- Should I use a question mark on this sentence? (Yes!)
When should you use exclamation marks?
1. Ending Sentences
Use these at the end of exclamatory sentences (sentences that show emotion).
You can use either an exclamation mark or a comma after an interjection.
- Yes! We won the game!
- Yes, we won the game.
Use these to separate two complete sentences that are closely related.
- I went to the play; my cousin was the main actor.
Watch me diagram a sentence with a semicolon here.
There are three ways to use colons.
1. Introducing Lists
- There are three ways that I love to relax: reading magazines, practicing yoga, and taking baths.
2. Introducing Single Items
You can use a colon to introduce a single thing when you want to emphasize it.
- After shopping for eight hours, I finally found them: the perfect pair of jeans.
3. Between Two Complete Sentences
This is only a legit move if the second sentence states a logical consequence of whatever is stated in the first sentence.
- Jim ate brownies constantly: he gained seven pounds.
The punctuation rules for apostrophes are some of the most commonly misused punctuation rules ever. The rules are pretty simple. There are only three times when you should use apostrophes.
1. To Show Possession
When you want to make something possessive (to show ownership), use an apostrophe.
- This is Mark's cat. (The cat belongs to Mark.)
- That is the television's remote control. (The remote control belongs to the television.)
- Don't ever go into the teachers' lounge. (The lounge belongs to the teachers.)
2. To Show Omission
Contractions use apostrophes to stand in the place of missing letters.
- I can't stand the smell of bananas! (can't = cannot)
- It's already five o'clock! (o'clock = of the clock)
- The students shouldn't use cell phones in class. (shouldn't = should not
3. To Form Strange Plurals
Use apostrophes to make lowercase letters plural.
- Dot the i's and cross the t's.
Here are two times you when should use quotation marks.
1. Quoting Exact Speech
Whenever you quote someone's exact speech, you must use quotation marks.
- The police officer said, "Where are you going?"
- "I'm going to work," I replied.
Use quotation marks to show the titles of magazine articles, chapters, short stories, essays, poems, and songs.
- "Columbus" is a great poem.
- Our homework tonight is to read Chapter 6, "The Lovely Rose Garden."
- Sydney sang "The Star Spangled Banner" at the football game.
Would you like to learn (or teach) the rules of punctuation?
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