University of IllinoisCollege of Media

The journalist’s guide to punctuation

In the beginning was the Word, often followed by something that looks like , . ; : " ' - -- ! ?

Foremost among them is the comma. It's probably the one punctuation mark most often misused. Here are some rules for the comma and the others.

 

Commas

Rule #1: Series

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series.

Examples:

The forecast calls for morning showers, some clearing and light fog.
The new vice president enjoys sailing, tennis and golf.

However, if the series is longer, the comma should be inserted before the conjunction to eliminate confusion.

The official negotiator announced today that teachers would strike for a yearly salary increase, better vacation schedules and paid benefits, and the right to determine the number of instruction days in the current school year.

NOTE: Do not use a comma between a word and a phrase that amplifies it if it will create a "false series." Following is an example of this common mistake. (How many bodies were discovered? 14?)

Rescuers discovered seven bodies, six laborers and one firefighter.

Instead, use a dash between the word and its amplifiers.

Rescuers discovered seven bodies -- six laborers and one firefighter.

Sometimes a comma is used to clarify the relationship between two ideas. But sometimes clarification requires more effort changing the order or repeating the preposition.

Examples:

She prefers shades of gray, and orange and blue.
She prefers orange and blue, and shades of gray.

(Unless she prefers shades of orange and blue, too.)

He talked about Moses, and Adam and Eve.
He talked about Moses and about Adam and Eve.
Rule #2A: Parenthetical expressions

Commas set off parenthetical expressions. A parenthetical expression is similar to a theatrical aside. It is not part of the main (onstage) conversation but is intended to give extra information in a quieter tone.

These statements could be put in a parenthesis ( ), but that could be too formal and stilted. Use commas to create shorter pauses without disrupting the flow of the sentence.

Examples:

The best way to see England, unless there is a railway strike, is to travel by train.
These same congressmen, you may recall, voted themselves a 35 percent pay increase last year.

If the interruption to the flow of the sentence is only slight, the writer may safely omit the commas. But whether the interruption is slight or considerable, the writer must never omit one comma and leave the other.

Rule #2B: Parenthetic words

Name or a title in direct address is parenthetic.

Examples:

No, sir, I did not take your hat.
Mr. President, are you recording this conversation?

The name of a state or nation, when it follows the name of a city, is parenthetic:

She will sail from Dover, England, to Calais, France, and back.

Use a parenthesis, however, if a state name is inserted within a proper name:

The Huntsville (Ala.) Times.

Use a comma also to set off a hometown, age, party affiliation, or academic degree when it follows an individual's name:

Charles F. Brinkman, Democrat, seeks re-election to the office of governor.

The words "yes" and "no" followed by a complete sentence are also parenthetic and should be set off by commas:

Yes, I remember that punctuation rule.
Rule #3A: Independent clauses

When a coordinating conjunction such as "and" or "but" links two clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences (also known as independent clauses), use a comma before the conjunction. (This comma may be omitted if both clauses are very short.)

Examples:

The early records of Atlantis have disappeared, and the story of its first years can no longer be reconstructed.
Your position is precarious, but there is still hope of escape.

When the subject of the two clauses is the same and not repeated in the second clause, no comma is needed.

Examples:

He has had several years of teaching experience and is a competent instructor.
He is sick but willing to continue the job.

If you want to emphasize the contrast or contradiction when using "but," then you may want to insert the comma and repeat the subject.

Examples:

I have listened to her arguments but am still skeptical.
I have listened to her arguments, but I am still skeptical.
Rule #3B: "Because" depends

Do not use a comma before the subordinating conjunction "because." Note that "and" and "but" are called coordinating conjunctions because they join clauses of equal rank. "Because" introduces a dependent (or subordinate) clause that helps explain the main, or independent, clause:

We visited the crash site because they asked us to determine the extent of the damage.

If the dependent clause is used to introduce the sentence, a comma is required:

Because they asked us to determine the extent of the damage, we visited the crash site.
Rule #3C: More independence required

Do not use a comma to separate two independent clauses that are not joined by a coordinating conjunction. Instead, use a semicolon to link the clauses, or use a period to make two separate sentences.

Examples:

The inflation rate dipped last month to 2 percent; the unemployment rate stayed constant.
Lightning ripped across the sky. Rain poured down in torrents.
Rule #4: Participial phrases

Use a comma to set off a participial phrase. A participle is a verb that has been turned into an adjective by adding "ing" or "ed." It acts like an adjective (it modifies nouns), but it also acts like a verb (it may have a direct object).

They met on holiday last year, flying from London to Brussels.

("Flying" modifies "they" in this sentence.)

Defeated in the House, the bill now goes to the Senate.

("Defeated" modifies "bill" in this sentence.)

The veterans marched through town, holding their flags high.

("Holding" modifies "veterans." Notice the direct object of "holding" is "flags.")

Rule #5A: Essential clauses

Essential clauses, phrases or words do not need to be set off from the rest of the sentence. "Restrictive" is another word for "essential."

Two children who were playing in a barn died when a tornado slammed into the building.
Reporters sitting in the rear of the courtroom couldn't hear the counselor's address.

Do not use commas to separate nouns or pronouns from their reflexives. Following are examples of how such sentences should be written:

The senator himself will chair our committee.
Are the examples themselves confusing?

Likewise, do not use a comma to separate an individual's name from the designation "Jr." or "Sr."

Rule #5B: Non-essential clauses

Non-essential clauses, phrases and words do need commas because they are non-essential in the sentence.

Examples:

Mouton-Rothschild, one of the more expensive French wines, won a gold medal this year.
Truman Capote, the famous author and Hollywood personality, died last month at 59.
Rule #6: Coordinate adjectives

Commas separate coordinate adjectives. When a noun is preceded by a string of adjectives, apply this simple test to determine whether those adjectives need to be separated by commas: if you can use the adjectives interchangeably and can successfully insert the conjunction "and" between them, they are coordinate and require a comma.

Examples:

Scientists cannot predict the next hurricane in such fickle, changeable weather.
The vacant, glazed eyes of the refugees told of disaster.
Rule #7: Quotations

Use a comma to introduce a complete, one-sentence quotation within a paragraph:

Mondale said, "I spent three months campaigning with Ferraro, and you see where it got me!"
"I wonder if you realize what you have done," the judge said.

Note that the comma always goes before the quotation mark.

Rule #8: Clarification of meaning

Use a comma when the absence of a pause would cause confusion in the mind of the reader.

For some men, going fishing is enough of a vacation.
Surrounding the factory, strikers took up their signs and placards in protest of unsafe working conditions.
What the problem is, is not clear.
Rule #9: Numbers

Use a comma for most figures higher than 999. The major exceptions are street addresses (4636 N. 78th St.); broadcast frequencies (1460 kilohertz); room numbers; serial numbers, telephone numbers and years (1984).

 

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Quotation marks

Rule #1: Direct quotations

Use quotation marks to enclose direct quotations and dialogue.

"There is a foot hanging out that window," she said in amazement.
"Where? I don't see it," he replied.
Rule #2 Composition titles

Use quotation marks for titles of books, lectures, movies, operas, plays, poems, songs, speeches, television shows and works of art. Do not use them for names of magazines, newspapers, reference books or the Bible.

Examples:

"The Powers That Be"
"Supply Side Economics: A Case for Restraint"
"For Whom the Bell Tolls"

Rule #3 Nicknames

Use quotation marks for nicknames:

Thomas "Tip" O'Neill
John "The Duke" Wayne

Rule #4 New terms

A word or words being introduced to readers may be placed in quotation marks on first reference:

The length of a printed line is measured in "picas."

Do not put subsequent references to the word in quotation marks.

Rule #5 Partial quotation

Do not use quotation marks to report a few ordinary words that a speaker or writer has used:

The senator said he would go home to Michigan if he lost the election.

(NOT: The senator said he would "go home to Michigan" if he lost the election.)

You should use a partial quote only when the words quoted are unusual and the statement would lose its impact without a direct quote.

Rule #6 Quotation within a quotation

For writing a quote within a quote (within a quote), alternate between double quotation marks ( " ) and single marks ( ' ):

She said, "I quote from his letter, 'I agree with Hamlet that the most important question in life is "to be or not to be," but even more important is how we answer it,' a statement upon which he did not elaborate."

Use three marks together if the two quoted elements end at the same time:

He said, "She told me, 'I have not gained weight!' "

Note that the period and the comma always come before the quotation mark.

The dash, semicolon, question mark and exclamation point come before the quotation mark when they apply to the quoted matter only. If they apply to the whole sentence, they come after the quotation mark.

 

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Apostrophes

Rule #1 Contractions

Use an apostrophe when omitting a letter or letters in contractions:

He can't remember the date of his birth.

(cannot)

It's impossible to guess who will win the election.

(It is)

Who's cooking dinner tonight?

(Who is)

They're whipping up an omelet.

(They are)

Note that the apostrophe goes exactly where the omitted letter would be if it appeared in the word. Thus, we have "wouldn't," not "would'nt."

Rule #2 Possessives

Use an apostrophe and "s" to form the possessive of a singular noun, unless the noun is a personal pronoun:

Here is his sister's notebook.

BUT

This notebook is hers.
 
She tore off the telephone book's cover.

BUT

She tore off its cover.

Use an apostrophe and "s" to form the possessive of a plural noun, unless the noun ends in "s" already:

children's books
women's clothing
men's watches
alumni's contributions
media's popularity

Use an apostrophe alone, if the plural noun ends in an "s":

boys' clothing
bosses' orders
witches' brew
witnesses' rights
poems' meter

There are many exceptions to these general rules. Check your AP Stylebook for details (look under "possessives").

Rule #3 Dates

Use an apostrophe when omitting figures in dates:

the class of '42
the '80s
the Spirit of '76

Rule #4 Plural forms of single letters

Use an apostrophe to form the plural of a single letter:

Mind your p's and q's.
Children should master the three R's.

Note that this rule cannot be used for plurals of numerals:

the roaring '20s

(NOT the roaring '20's or 20's)

 

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Colons

In general, use of a colon where you want to show a close relationship between the preceding clause and what follows. The colon usually follows an independent clause and should not separate a verb from its complement or a preposition from its object.

Rule #1 Long quotations

Use a colon to introduce a quotation that is longer than one sentence and to end a paragraph that introduces a quotation in the next paragraph.

Examples:

The judge frowned at the defense attorney and growled: "Your conduct in my courtroom is appalling. I hereby sentence you to 45 days in jail for contempt."
The president's speech began: "My fellow Americans ..."

Note that the first word following a colon is capitalized only if it is a proper noun or the first word in a complete sentence.

Rule #2 Question-and-answer interviews

Use a colon in question-and-answer interviews or in covering a trial:

Q: Did he tell you he was recording your conversation?
A: No, he did not.
 
Mason: Where were you on the night of the 13th?
Campbell: I was watching a football game on TV.

Rule #3 Time or citations

Use a colon when citing specific times or printed references:

5:48 p.m.
2:54:27.3 (time elapsed)
2 Chronicles 2:13
Missouri Code 2:163-174

 

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Semicolons

In general, use a semicolon to indicate a greater separation of thought and information than a comma conveys but less than the separation that a period implies.

Rule #1 Independent clauses

Use a semicolon to link independent clauses not connected by a coordinating conjunction:

The athlete spun around, launching the discus into the air; it soared up in a gentle arc and slowly descended to earth.
The bill was due last week; it arrived today.
Rule #2 With commas in a series

Use semicolons to separate elements of a series when individual segments contain material that also must be set off by commas:

John Smith is survived by his wife, Mary; a son, Michael Smith of Chicago; two daughters, Jane Johnson of Peoria and Louise Jefferson of Chicago, and a brother, George Smith of Pittsburgh, Pa.
Rule #3 With internally punctuated independent clauses

Use a semicolon to separate internally punctuated independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction.

Wilkinson's Klansmen, who number more than 50,000, threatened to march through the tense city; but their application for a parade permit was immediately denied.

As you can see, this kind of sentence construction gets rather complex. For the sake of clarity and a crisp, readable news style, it is probably better to write two sentences.

Rule #4 After a quotation mark

When used with quotes, the semicolon should come after the quotation mark:

The nominees for best actress are: Jane Fonda, "The China Syndrom"; Meryl Streep, "Kramer vs. Kramer"; Jessica Lange, "Tootsie," and Vanessa Redgrave, "Playing For Time."
 

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Dashes

Rule #1 Dramatic ending to sentence

Use a dash to end a sentence with a surprising or ironic element:

The tall, willowy blonde entered the room and swept up the ramp, turning in a full circle to display her elegant Dior gown, von Furstenberg jewelry, sable cape — and cowboy boots.
Rule #2 Long clause

Use a dash to set off a long clause or phrase that is in apposition to the main clause when it makes the information clearer and more distinctive:

That home run — his first ever playing against the Cubs — would go down in history.
Rule #3 Change in thought

Use dashes to denote an abrupt change in thought in a sentence or an emphatic pause:

When he gets out of prison — if he does get out — we'll be waiting for him.
Rule #4 Series of commas

Use a dash to set off a phrase that contains a series of commas:

She bought everything — paints, brushes, gesso, canvas — but what we need to finish the painting.
Rule #5 Author's name

Use a dash before an author's or composer's name at the end of a stand-alone quotation:

"Who steals my purse steals trash."
— Shakespeare

Rule #6 Datelines

A dash is used in datelines:

NEW YORK (AP) — The city is broke.
Rule #7 Lists

Use dashes to introduce individual sections of a list. Capitalize the first word following the dash. Use periods, not semicolons, at the end of each section.

President Reagan gave the following excuses:
— He never made the statement.
— If he did, it was misquoted and the meaning distorted.
— If it wasn't misquoted, then his information was incorrect.

 

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Hyphens

Rule #1 Compound adjectives

When two or more words expressing a single concept precede a noun, use hyphens to link all the words (except the adverb "very" and adverbs that end in -ly):

Examples:

the blue-green sea
a part-time job
a well-dressed man
a good-for-nothing bum
a serio-comic episode
socio-economic status

Italian-American cuisine
a five-year plan
a very dark night
a shabbily dressed woman
an easily remembered rule

Rule #2 Prefixes and suffixes

Use a hyphen for certain prefix and suffix words:

All-American
pro-Israel policies
trans-Siberian railroad
ex-wife
anti-establishment

You'll want to check a dictionary and stylebook to make sure, before using this rule.

Rule #3 Numbers

When large numbers must be spelled out, use a hyphen to connect a word ending in "y" to another word:

twenty-one
fifty-four

When using a numerical approximation to describe a noun, hyphenate both numbers:

a 25- to 30-year sentence in prison
first- or second-year students

 

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Question marks

Rule #1 Direct or indirect?

Use a question mark when asking a direct question:

What plans do you have for Trans World Airlines?

Note that no question mark is used at the end of an indirect question.

This is a common mistake:

I would like to know what caused the blast.

(NOT: I would like to know what caused the blast?)

Rule #2 Quotations

The question mark replaces the usual comma or period when it is used in a quotation:

"Where have you been?" she asked.

(NOT: "Where have you been?," she asked.)

 

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Exclamation points

The most important point to remember about using exclamation points is to avoid using them unless they are essential.

Rule #1 True exclamation or command

Use an exclamation point after a true exclamation or a command:

What a beautiful painting!
Stop!

Rule #2 Quotations

The exclamation point replaces the usual comma or period when it is used in a quotation:

"Stop where you are!" cried the security guard.

(NOT: "Stop where you are!," cried the security guard.)

 

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Ellipses

Use the ellipsis mark (three dots treated as a word, with a space before and a space after) to alert the reader that something has been removed from quoted material, that the speaker has hesitated or faltered, or that there is more material than is cited.

Rule #1 End of sentence

If you use an ellipsis at the end of a statement, a period should precede it:

"I don't know what I'm going to do. ..."
Rule #2 Other punctuation

If other punctuation marks are needed in the sentence, they come after the quoted material but before the ellipsis.

"How was he? ..."
"I won't stand for it! ..."

Rule #3 Quotations

Do not use an ellipsis at both the beginning and end of a direct quote:

"It has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base," said the prime minister.

(NOT: " ... it has become evident to me that I no longer have a strong enough political base ...," said the prime minister.)

Rule #4 Incomplete thought

An ellipsis also may be used to indicate a thought that the speaker or writer does not complete. However, if the context uses ellipses elsewhere to indicate deletion of words actually spoken or written, use a dash instead.

"What on earth did he ..."
"What on earth did he —"

 

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Parentheses

Use parentheses to signify (1) the addition of needed information and (2) a thought which is incidental to the main thought in the sentence. Parentheses are used very rarely in newswriting.

Rule #1 Incomplete sentence

If the material inside the parenthesis is not a complete sentence, put the period outside the parenthesis:

She loves German chocolates (the bittersweet cream type).

Also, if the material inside the parenthesis is a complete sentence but depends on the sentence around it for context, put the period outside:

He wrote "Caveat emptor" ("let the buyer beware").
Rule #2 Complete sentence

If the parenthetical material is a complete sentence and can stand alone, put the period inside the parenthesis:

Last night's heavy snowstorm continues this morning, slowing traffic throughout much of the tri-state region. (The Weather Bureau has advised north-bound travelers to stay put and wait until the weather clears.)
Rule #3 Insertion

Use parentheses if a state name or similar information is inserted within a proper name:

The Huntsville (Ala.) Times
 

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Periods

Rule #1 Declarative sentence

Use a period at the end of a declarative sentence:

Our work is finished.
The typewriter ribbon is broken.

Rule #2 Mildly imperative sentence

Use a period at the end of a mildly imperative sentence:

Please close the window.
Put the cat out before we leave.

Rule #3 Rhetorical question

Use a period at the end of a rhetorical question when it implies a suggestion:

Why don't you leave now.
Rule #4 Indirect question

Use a period at the end of an indirect question:

He asked how old she is.
She wondered whether he was being honest.

Rule #5 Initials

Use a period after an initial in a proper name:

George P. Schultz
T.S. Eliot

Note that there is no space between two initials together.

Note also that abbreviations using only the initials of a name are not punctuated with periods: FCC, CBS, FBI, GOP. U.S. is an exception to the rule.

Rule #6 Numbers or letters in a list

Use periods after numbers or letters when enumerating items in a list or outline:

1. Walk the dog.
2. Feed the cat.

A. Write simply.
B. Use proper punctuation.

 

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