Punctuation marks are road signs that aid reading


>  Period.


>  Comma,


>  Semicolon;


>  Colon:


>  Question?


>  Exclamation!


>  Dash—


>  “Quotations”


>  Ellipsis . . . .


>  [Bracket]


Welcome to Punctuation Junction
The American business writers' source for making their mark.

NOTE: This website and support pages will be removed
after July 1. Make copies of all information of interest.

Punctuation enhances clarity and improves readability;
It can add impact—
or soften disappointment . . . .

Creative communication means knowing the rules, and when to break them.
The real fun begins when you can take your reader to a new level of understanding,
simply through your choice and placement of a punctuation mark.

If you are unsure that your reader knows the rules, follow them. Because those
who know the rules unfavorably judge those who don't as lazy, inconsiderate
—even incompetent.

Steve Toms has been teaching marketing communications for more than 2 decades.
Here are tips his students and clients use to produce results.

> More about Steve
> Question?



> What's the ending punctuation
   for a rhetorical question?

Ex: The question we must ask is, how can we make this company better?

If the question is stated by the writer, it's fine as is. You might also consider:

The question we must ask: "How can we make this company better?"

We're not big fans of punctuation after forms of "to be." If you wish to keep this more informal, replace the colon above with a comma.

Another way to avoid the dilemma is to rephrase.

 How we make this company better is a question we must ask.
 "How we make this company better": a question we must ask.

Though a fragment, it puts the key question up front.

> How do you punctuate
   bullet point lists?

Omit ending punctuation when the point is NOT a complete thought.

Complete thoughts don't have to end with a period. Just be consistent throughout your document.

> When should a period be used
   with abbreviations?

Usually, abbreviations are indicated
by periods after each letter:
> C.I.A. (Central Intelligence Agency)
> F.B.I. (Fed. Bur. of Investigation)

But "TV" is not a true abbreviation; it's an acronym for "Television." And it's spoken aloud by letter.

Thus, "NOAA" (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) would not need periods if spoken as  "Noah."

> What's the correct use
   of colons after prepositions?

As with linking verbs (is, are),
avoid colons with prepositions,
except one-word lists.


Did you know?

In 2010, Punctuation Junction had more than 5,000 hits,
more than 10 per day.

We're honored to be named
a recommended reference site by more than a dozen colleges and universities.

Have a question?


Keep it short—period.

For optimum readability, the average sentence should be 11-17 words.

To encourage readership, vary the length of sentences and paragraphs.
Break up long paragraphs containing more than 6 lines of type,
especially when there are 2 or more in a row.

Like this.

A period has a simple task. When your parents said: "That's the way it is—period,"
you knew that was the end of the discussion.


No longer necessary to put 2 spaces
after each period. Save the key stroke.


Steve's tips on periods:

  • Place periods after bullet points that express a complete thought. Fragments don't get one. If you choose to ignore this, at least
    be consistent throughout your document or PowerPoint slides.

  • Periods make horrible bullet points. 
    — Use an emdash (see below) or double hyphen (see Dash below).
    — Or try this: turn on the Number lock key (Num Lock);
        then type Alt +0183 > Enter. You'll get a dot.

  • No periods...
    ...after contractions |
    ...ordinal numbers | 1st | 2nd | 3rd | 4th
    ...nicknames | Barb
    ...shortened words | taxi, ad
    ...acronyms | KPRC, TV
    ...numeral after names | Henry VII

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Commatosis can be cured.

Commatosis is a condition created by writers who edit documents by inserting
a comma each time they take a breath.

Use commas to help readers figure out intended relationships and meanings:

On short notice statements will be issued.
(Is that "short notice" or "notice statements"?)

By inserting a comma after "notice," the reader
doesn't have to stop and think about the intended meaning.

On short notice, statements will be issued.

When your reader understands the meaning of your sentence you can omit the comma
(as in this sentence, where some might insert a comma between ". . .sentence, you...").

Omitting commas works best with short sentences.

Want to be sure? Have someone read it aloud. If there's a problem, they'll stumble
or stop reading to figure it out. Add a comma to correct the problem.


When in doubt, you might not
want to leave 'em out.


Steve's tips on commas:

  • While consistency dictates that items in a series (ex: red, white, and blue) be preceded by commas, omit the final comma only when you know that the reader understands the relationship.

According to their father's will, drawn up by the family attorney, siblings "Harriet, Bill and Eric" were to receive equal shares of their father's $4 million estate. Harriet went to court, claiming that the absence of a comma between Bill and Eric indicated that her father wanted the two brothers to get only 50% of the estate, not 33% each. The judge ruled in her favor: Harriet got $2 million; Bill and Eric each got $1 million.

  • Titles after names: Raymond Hart, Jr.

  • Separate short complementary adjectives for emphasis:
    Terry is an efficient hard-working employee.

But, to show equal weight for efficient and hard-work:
Terry is an efficient, hard-working employee.
The comma creates a pause, thus emphasis on "efficient."

  • Death to the comma splice! It's now in vogue to separate 2 complete thoughts with a comma. Even so, 2 separate and short sentences are much easier to read.

Formal: He delivered a speech; then he returned to work.

New:     He delivered a speech, then he returned to work.

Better:  He delivered a speech. He then returned to work.
or...      He delivered a speech, then returned to work.

  • Dates: American English places a comma between the day and year: April 5, 1948. British, military, and aviation usage reorder the elements: day, month, and year. No punctuation is required: 5 April 1948.
    There's no comma between a month and year: April 2008.

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Semicolons divide; semicolons join.

There's no reason to fear this mark; let's make it simple.

The semicolon is the Cleopatra of Punctuation Marks. It joins 2 complete thoughts
that share something in common.

He reads Drucker; he speaks Toffler.
(for brevity: He reads Drucker; speaks Toffler. < "he" is understood)

The above example demonstrates the best application of semicolons
in business documents. Use them sparingly to separate short related thoughts
of less than 9-12 words. The shorter the better.

Proper use of semicolons signals a higher level of communication.
It raises your credibility in the mind of the reader.


Short; sweet.
(2 shared thoughts; same verb)


Steve's tips on semicolons:

  • Semicolons are stronger than commas; they signal a stronger break; suggest a longer pause; but even so, are weaker than a period. 


    — gives a feeling of expectancy;
    — hey, read on;
    — there's more to come to make it clear.

  • Semicolons bring order to strings of commas.

    Attending the morning session are Dan, Lanette, and Marianna; Andres and Shirley prefer the afternoon workshop.

    He toured Madrid, Spain; and Paris, France.

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Colons: they fulfill promises.

Colons signal what's to come and introduce long lists. 

It's a rather strong mark that tells the reader: pay attention.

Watch out:  (what follows is the "here's why")

That said:  (...and now I'll tell you what's really important)

Dear Sir Edgar:  (what's to follow is either serious, formal, or both)

The greatest misuse of colons is after prepositions or linking verbs:

NO >   Your trip is approved to: Paris, Madrid, and Milan.

YES > Your trip is approved to Paris, Madrid, and Milan.

YES > Your trip itinerary is approved: Paris, Madrid, and Milan.

NO >   The committee's choice of colors are: red, blue, and green.

YES > The committee's choice of colors are red, blue, and green.

YES > The committee chose these colors: red, blue, and green.

(See the first bullet point below for an exception.)


Ban colons after prepositions.


Steve's tips on colons:

  • Don't place colons after prepositions—with 1 exception:
    Use them to introduce a series of 1– or 2–word bullet lists:

    The supply cabinet is in need of:
    · pens
    · paperclips
    · tape
    · rubber bands

  • Use colons to set up long quotes (greater than 3-4 lines).

  • In letters, there's a significant difference between a colon
    and comma in the salutation:

Dear Steve: (respect; serious content to follow)

Dear Steve, (informal or friendly relationship)

  • It's okay to capitalize the first letter of the text following a colon,
    especially if it contains a quote or is a complete thought. It's also okay
    to use lower case. Just be consistent throughout your document.

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What's missing after question marks?

Effective business documents are concise and precise.

Thus, the only effective use of a question mark is to set up an answer
that immediately follows this mark. Or it can serve as a rhetorical question
to which the reader already knows the answer.

When used to request action, tell your reader who, when, where, and in what form
the action should be taken.

Imagine receiving the following memo from your boss:

Here's the topic for discussion at our Tuesday staff meeting:
"How to lower office overhead?"

Does this mean:

  1. Think up some answers in your spare time?

  2. Write them down and bring them to the meeting?

  3. Submit 3 recommendations to me before the meeting?

Time and energy are wasted when requests fail to specify format and timelines.
Replace the question mark with the specific request?

Send me an office email before Monday with 3 cost-saving procedures
that we can implement immediately to lower office overhead.

To ensure efficacy, give an example of the type of response you seek.

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Exclamations in business documents are horrific!

When you use this mark in a business document, you're either laughing at your own joke,
or telling the reader you didn't take time to find the precise words to express your thought.

Punctuation Junctions likens the use of this mark to a long string of "very"s (a word that loses its meaning when used more than once). Both signal the reader: you're lazy.

Remember our former president's memos!
(Better to list the specifics in those memos.)

I'll make sure this never happens again!!!
(Here's the ultimate cosmic joke: what's the difference between 1 and 3 exclamation
or question marks??? Really! Really!! Really!!!))

(Mere groveling. Replace this word with a good reason or benefit.)

This mark serves no purpose in business communications. For emphasis,
try using a bold font or different color. 

Better yet, find the precise word or phrase that makes this mark unnecessary.
In Microsoft Word software, access the Thesaurus (Shift+F7).

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Dash—the thought.

It's a sudden interruptiona sharp break—a shift in thought.
When overused, it loses impact and conveys a gushy emotional style. 

You're bound to see all kinds of dashes in business documents.
Most are incorrectly structured.

-    This is a hyphen (the key to the right of "0"). It's not a dash.
It's used to indicate a syllable break within a word. Hyphens
always appear at the end of a line.

Hyphens are also used to link 2 words that convey a new or different meaning:
set up" is an active verb meaning to arrange in an orderly fashion
set-up" is a noun, meaning the layout of the new arrangement
(just as "
lay out" < (an action: to set something in front of you) is not the same as "layout"< a schematic floor plan or advertising print advertisement)

–  This is an endash, slightly longer than a hyphen.
It's used to signal a continuing relationship, as in marking dates:

To insert an endash in a Word document, place your cursor where you wish the mark
to appear. Turn on the number lock key, hold ALT key; input 0150 on the number pad.
The mark (
) should appear.

—  This is an emdash, the longest dash.
It's used in place of 2 hyphens to indicate a pause, or to separate
phrases—like this—in a sentence.

To insert an emdash in a Word document, place your cursor where you wish the mark
to appear. Turn on the number lock key, hold ALT key; input 0151 on the number pad.
The mark (
) should appear.

A parenthesis is like a dash, only softer (much softer).
It's a digression or amplification in the middle of another thought.
It signals that what's inside it can be eliminated without changing the intent
or meaning of the sentence.

Use them sparingly. Try not to disrupt the flow/meaning of the sentence
by placing them between the subject and the verb.

In business documents, parentheses encourage readers to stop reading.

  • If the information is important, either make it an introductory phrase
    or its own sentence.

  • If it merely supports the information, move it to the end of the sentence
    or make it a short follow-up sentence. (See Bracket for more.)


A hyphen is NOT a dash.


Steve's tips on dashes:

  • If you can't create en- or emdashes, use a double hyphen (--).

  • Turn off the auto-hyphen feature in your Word software program.
    Try to keep words intact and on the same line. It improves readability.

  • Some technical writers abhor the use of 2 hyphens as emdashes,
    branding the writer as "lazy." Using the proper en- and emdash
    signals your reader that you know the rules and how to apply them.

  • Never use a dash and comma together—-the dash is stronger.

  • Leave no spaces before, between, or after a dash (as above).

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Quotations say “who.”

Improper placement of quotation marks diminishes your credibility.

Abandon logic on how these marks should be displayed. Learn and follow these simple rules.

There are 2 sets of rules. American placement is different from British-influenced
countries such as the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Canada tends to follow
U.S. placement rules.

TV's Jeopardy is a strange contradiction. Though a U.S.-inspired game show,
it uses British rules when displaying quotation marks, because the first writer
was a Brit. It's just tradition. (As told to Steve by one of the show staffers)

Try setting quotes in italics, a different color, or in a different typestyle.

Establish a set of rules for your document and apply them consistently.


No logic here. Follow the rules.
And be consistent.


Tips for American business writers:
Steve's tips on quotation marks:

  • Place quotation marks outside commas and periods,
    except for numbers and letters.

He could not spell the word "precedence."
Her flight arrives at gate

Avoid the dilemma. Reformat:
He could not spell the word precedence.
Her flight arrives at
Gate A. (different color or bold text)

  • Place them inside dashes, parentheses, semicolons, and colons
    (unless part of the quoted material).

"Happiness is the ideal"—follow your passion.
("Happiness is the ideal"); follow your passion.
"Happiness is the ideal"; follow your passion.
"Happiness is the ideal": Follow your passion.

  • For question and exclamation marks:

Place outside when the question applies only to the quoted material.

Sid asked, "When will the project be completed?"

Place them inside when the question applies to the whole
sentence in which the quote appears.

Did Sid ask, "When will the project be done"?

  • For quotes extending beyond a single paragraph,
    place them at the beginning of each new paragraph,
    and at the end of the final paragraph.

  • Same rules apply to quotes within other quotes:

Nathalie said, "I read the article 'Beyond Excellence.'"

  • Some fonts don't display true quotation marks (with curls):

>>> "Arial font double quotation marks on keyboard." <<<

To insert quotation marks: turn on the number lock key,
place your cursor before or after the text, and type:

Alt+0147, Enter >
.....Beginning set of quotation marks
Alt+0148, Enter > .... Ending set of quotation marks

Alt+0145, Enter >
....Single beginning quotation mark
Alt+0146, Enter >
....Single ending quotation mark

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An ellipsis signals that something's missing. . .

Be leery when you see this mark.

Something is missing. Someone has altered the original content, or stopped
before telling you how it's going to end. Sometimes, it changes the meaning
of the message.

In business, ellipses work best when the reader knows what's missing.
But overuse may lead the reader to question the validity of the content.

This mark also makes your text more difficult to read. Think of it as someone
who doesn't finish his thoughts...or mumbles.

Ellipses are formed by placing a space before and after 3-4 periods:

NO >   During the semester...students improved.

YES > During the semester . . . students improved.

(Note: Few follow this rule; just be consistent)

Want to avoid doubt? Avoid this mark. Don't leave anything out.


Don't use 'em unless your reader
knows what's missing.


Steve's tips on ellipses:

  • If something is missing, use 3 dots (periods):

Al was in the plant. Out of nowhere, we heard a crash.
After running there . . . nothing seemed different.

  • To show that words have been left out at the end of a sentence
    or complete thought, use 4 periods (the period + 3 dots):

The deficit ran out of control . . . . We couldn't believe it!

  • Though a full thought should include a fourth period, use 3 to indicate
    a soft ending or trailing off
    . . .  < like this.

  • . . . if you begin a quote in the middle of a sentence, use 3 at the beginning.

  • Several credible references say to use a full line of periods when omitting portions of quotes that are longer than a paragraph. Others recommend
    the use of 4 periods.

Punctuation Junction says:

  • Unless you’re drafting a technical report or proposal,
    you’re unlikely to refer to multi-paragraph quotes.
    Use 4 periods.

  • A full line of periods is an old rule that few know about . . .
    or follow. Use 4 periods.

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He [Steve] says brackets impare [sic]* readability.

Brackets enclose comments, criticisms, or corrections inserted by someone
other than the original writer or speaker.

Anyone who met him [the author] respected his authority.

I think the day was the 3rd [4th] when you were last here.

* A bracketed sic [meaning "thus in the original"] indicates an error
  in the original quoted material ("impare is misspelled: "impair").

"i [sic] felt very bad."   < "I" should be capitalized.

"He was a nown [sic] criminal."  < misspelling of "known"

Brackets are a literary device for editing manuscripts.

From time to time you may see them in business documents, often misused
in place of parentheses or dashes. (See Dash for the proper use of parentheses.)

Avoid them by using a different font or color.

For those who wish to be creative, use brackets for all kinds of purposes.
Just be consistent to avoid confusing your reader.

Remember, the goal of punctuation is to aid readability and comprehension. [Got it?]

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© Steve Toms | All material on the webpage is for educational purposes