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.
- Quotation marks
- Question marks
- Exclamation points
Rule #1: Series
Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before the conjunction in a simple series.
However, if the series is longer, the comma should be inserted before the conjunction to eliminate confusion.
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?)
Instead, use a dash between the word and its amplifiers.
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.
(Unless she prefers shades of orange and blue, too.)
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.
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.
The name of a state or nation, when it follows the name of a city, is parenthetic:
Use a parenthesis, however, if a state name is inserted within a proper name:
Use a comma also to set off a hometown, age, party affiliation, or academic degree when it follows an individual's name:
The words "yes" and "no" followed by a complete sentence are also parenthetic and should be set off by commas:
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.)
When the subject of the two clauses is the same and not repeated in the second clause, no comma is needed.
If you want to emphasize the contrast or contradiction when using "but," then you may want to insert the comma and repeat the subject.
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:
If the dependent clause is used to introduce the sentence, a comma is required:
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.
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).
("Flying" modifies "they" in this sentence.)
("Defeated" modifies "bill" in this sentence.)
("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."
Do not use commas to separate nouns or pronouns from their reflexives. Following are examples of how such sentences should be written:
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.
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.
Rule #7: Quotations
Use a comma to introduce a complete, one-sentence quotation within a paragraph:
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.
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).
Rule #1: Direct quotations
Use quotation marks to enclose direct quotations and dialogue.
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.
"Supply Side Economics: A Case for Restraint"
"For Whom the Bell Tolls"
Rule #3 Nicknames
Use quotation marks for nicknames:
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:
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:
(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 ( ' ):
Use three marks together if the two quoted elements end at the same time:
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.
Rule #1 Contractions
Use an apostrophe when omitting a letter or letters in contractions:
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:
Use an apostrophe and "s" to form the possessive of a plural noun, unless the noun ends in "s" already:
Use an apostrophe alone, if the plural noun ends in an "s":
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 Spirit of '76
Rule #4 Plural forms of single letters
Use an apostrophe to form the plural of a single letter:
Note that this rule cannot be used for plurals of numerals:
(NOT the roaring '20's or 20's)
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.
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:
Campbell: I was watching a football game on TV.
Rule #3 Time or citations
Use a colon when citing specific times or printed references:
2:54:27.3 (time elapsed)
2 Chronicles 2:13
Missouri Code 2:163-174
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:
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:
Rule #3 With internally punctuated independent clauses
Use a semicolon to separate internally punctuated independent clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction.
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:
Rule #1 Dramatic ending to sentence
Use a dash to end a sentence with a surprising or ironic element:
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:
Rule #3 Change in thought
Use dashes to denote an abrupt change in thought in a sentence or an emphatic pause:
Rule #4 Series of commas
Use a dash to set off a phrase that contains a series of commas:
Rule #5 Author's name
Use a dash before an author's or composer's name at the end of a stand-alone quotation:
Rule #6 Datelines
A dash is used in datelines:
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.
— 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.
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):
a part-time job
a well-dressed man
a good-for-nothing bum
a serio-comic episode
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:
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:
When using a numerical approximation to describe a noun, hyphenate both numbers:
first- or second-year students
Rule #1 Direct or indirect?
Use a question mark when asking a direct question:
Note that no question mark is used at the end of an indirect question.
This is a common mistake:
(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:
(NOT: "Where have you been?," she asked.)
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:
Rule #2 Quotations
The exclamation point replaces the usual comma or period when it is used in a quotation:
(NOT: "Stop where you are!," cried the security guard.)
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:
Rule #2 Other punctuation
If other punctuation marks are needed in the sentence, they come after the quoted material but before the ellipsis.
"I won't stand for it! ..."
Rule #3 Quotations
Do not use an ellipsis at both the beginning and end of a direct quote:
(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 —"
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:
Also, if the material inside the parenthesis is a complete sentence but depends on the sentence around it for context, put the period outside:
Rule #2 Complete sentence
If the parenthetical material is a complete sentence and can stand alone, put the period inside the parenthesis:
Rule #3 Insertion
Use parentheses if a state name or similar information is inserted within a proper name:
Rule #1 Declarative sentence
Use a period at the end of a declarative sentence:
The typewriter ribbon is broken.
Rule #2 Mildly imperative sentence
Use a period at the end of a mildly imperative sentence:
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:
Rule #4 Indirect question
Use a period at the end of an indirect question:
She wondered whether he was being honest.
Rule #5 Initials
Use a period after an initial in a proper name:
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:
2. Feed the cat.
B. Use proper punctuation.