Welcome to Writing Tip Tuesday, the Basic Punctuation edition. This is the fourth in a series of posts pulled from my free guide “On Not Writing Badly.” You can download the whole thing by filling out this form, or, if you’d rather not subscribe to my email list, you can simply check back here over the next several Tuesdays for a regular dose of word nerdery.
Periods go at the end of sentences.
Commas are complicated. I’ve chosen a few of the most common usages to explore here, but this list is not exhaustive.
Rule 1: Commas separate clauses in a sentence.
Example: She loved Hawaii, but rarely took the time to vacation.
Rule 2: Commas set off the names of states.
Example: San Francisco, California, is often foggy.
Rule 3: Commas separate items in a series.
Example: His favorite colors are blue, green, and brown.
Rule 4: Commas are used with quotes.
Example: “I’m planning to take some time off,” she said, “once I finish this project.”
Whether or not to use an Oxford comma (also called a serial comma) depends on who you ask. As it usually helps increase clarity, I advise using it.
Example: I had eggs, toast and orange juice for breakfast. (No Oxford Comma)
Example: I had eggs, toast, and orange juice for breakfast. (With Oxford Comma)
Rule 1: Apostrophes can be used to show possession.
Singular possessive: Bob’s hat fell to the floor.
Singular possessive: Davis’s hat (use the ’s even for names that end in s)
Singular possessive: The boss’ wife was nice to have around.
(Note: When the noun ends in an “s,” it is acceptable to use just the apostrophe to create a singular possessive, but take care that the noun isn’t confused for a plural possessive.)
Plural possessive: The soldiers’ rifles were lined up in a row.
Plural possessive: The Lincolns’ marriage was a good one.
EXCEPTION: It’s = it is (the possessive form of it is “its”)
Rule 2: Apostrophes generally come at the end of a series.
Example: We went to Jack and Donna’s house.
Rule 3: Apostrophes are used to shorten decades.
Example: We have been there since the ‘70s.
Rule 4: Apostrophes are used to create contractions.
Example: She is = she’s
Used for questions.
Example: Has Alex arrived?
Used for exclamations and commands.
Note: Exclamation marks are rarely called for in professional writing.