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Bob Nailor


We all seem to know what a period is used for, to end a sentence. In addition, a period can be used with abbreviations like Dr. Mitchel or Mrs. Hornish or Washington, D.C. but not when we use acronyms like NATO. Be sure to verify with a dictionary when unsure about an acronym since U.N.I.C.E.F. uses periods but state codes like OH (Ohio) does not.

We also seem to understand when to use a comma, for the most part. A comma is used to separate items in a series. An example: He likes apples, oranges, and bananas. (Oxford comma format) OR He likes apples, oranges and bananas. (Non-Oxford format) The Oxford format is another argument not being included in this tip. Another use of the comma is to join two independent clauses. Example: He loves listening to classical music, but enjoys dancing to rock and roll. Setting off clauses is another way to use a comma. Example: Dashing into the house, he realized he'd left the car running. OR After ten years of silence, with no outside stimulus, he greeted the nurses. There are times when commas are used to clarify a sentence's meaning, to wit: I knew William would enter the race, because my brother works there and told me. If the comma is removed, the sentence reads ... William would enter the race because my brother works there ... and that is not what the sentence was meant to mean. William didn't enter the race because my brother worked there.

This is often an over-used punctuation in many sentences. Yes, a semi-colon looks cool and seems to be impressive in the sentence structure, but it is just wrong. Like a comma, a major use for semi-colons is to separate items within a list, but these lists already have commas in them. Example: On my last vacation I visited Fayette, OH; Hillsdate, MI; Shipshewana, IN; and Angola, IN. OR Today's speakers will be Elyse Salpeter, a young adult author; Denise Vitola, our resident science fiction author; and Bob Nailor, a paranormal author. Supposedly, one can use a semi-colon to join two similar independent clauses. For writing purposes, if they are independent sentences, make them such. Why combine them?

I used ellipses (the plural of ellipsis) above in the "comma" section. An ellipsis can be used to designate omitted words, especially when quoting a long section and you only need a subset. The proper way to use them is "a space, a dot, a space, a dot, a space, a dot, a space" which appears as "text … text." It can also be used to indicate a pause or fading away in dialog. Example: "What? If you're insinuating that I was involved …" As any good writer knows, use of the ellipsis should be limited.

In the olden days of manual and electric typewriters, a double hyphen (--) was used to indicate a dash. Today, in the digital world, word processors use special keystrokes to enter a dash into the text. In Word, it is the combination of CTRL, ALT and the minus key on the numeric pad which will enter "—" or one can use the menu to "insert" a "symbol" which is the dash. Speed typists still use the double hyphen. Where does one use a dash and why? In dialog, a dash can be used to indicate an interrupt, i.e. "I told you not to—" Jack bit his lip. OR Bill stood. "The way I see—" "Sit down, Bill," Sue yelled. Also, a dash can be used to set off a group, similar to a comma. Example: The candidates — Jane, Mary and Elaine — will each answer a random question.

Exclamation Mark.
Editors despise these because new authors use them everywhere for dramatics. Exclamation marks are used to denote an emphatic comment. Example: "Yes!" she screamed. "I'll marry you!" Many exclamation marks can be omitted with proper writing of the scene, for example, a verbal fighting match. In reality, every sentence would end with one but if the argument is defined, then there is little use for every sentence to be dramatic with an exclamation mark. Like semi-colons, use them sparingly.

This is a little used punctuation symbol but a useful one. I've used it above. A colon can be used to provide a list but it can only be used when the sentence preceding its usage can be a stand-alone. Example: There was only one thing left to do: get the house painted. Notice that I used a colon twice. Once, to follow the word "Example" which is a stand-alone word. Secondly, in the example. Of course, there are times when the colon isn't used. Example: The ingredients included sugar, salt, flour and oatmeal. To add a colon after "included" — the sentence "The ingredients included" is not a stand-alone sentence.

There is more punctuation that could be define here, but most authors don't use parentheses, brackets, and slashes in writing a story or novel. Question marks, apostrophes, hyphens and quotation marks should be self-explanatory. Of course, all punctuation should be self-explanatory but …

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great information as always.
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Scott Bury
Thanks for this very clear description of how to use some poorly used punctuation marks.
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Onisha Ellis
I'm guessing the grammar checker in MS Word won't catch these errors. Darn!
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Elyse Salpeter
Really great tip this week Bob and a real keeper... super helpful!
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Lisa Jey Davis
Thanks Bob! Always good to refresh the memory on punctuation! I've used semi colons differently. In your example, I would merely use commas, but you see? This is why English can be as simple as the slang we can regurgitate and at the same time full of complexities.
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