Common English Grammar and Punctuation Mistakes

Source

Table of Contents

Grammar

Punctuation

Mechanics

GRAMMAR

Adjectives

Adjectives are words that describe the qualities or states of being of nouns: enormous, doglike, silly, yellow, fun, fast. They can also describe the quantity of nouns: many, few, millions, eleven.

Often, when adjectives are used together, you should separate them with a comma or conjunction. 

Please use three, white flowers in the arrangement.
Please use three white flowers in the arrangement.
I’m looking for a small good-tempered dog to keep as a pet.
I’m looking for a small, good-tempered dog to keep as a pet.

Coordinate adjectives

Coordinate adjectives should be separated by a comma or the word and. Adjectives are said to be coordinate if they modify the same noun in a sentence.

No one could open the old, silver locket.
Wrong because silver locket forms a unit modified by old.
No one could open the old silver locket.

Adjectives vs. adverbs

I feel badly about what happened.
I feel bad about what happened.

Use adjectives only if they are necessary, e.g.

  • big house vs mansion
  • large crowd vs throng
  • mixed-breed dog vs mutt

Adverbs

An adverb is a word that modifies (describes) a verb (he sings loudly), an adjective (very tall), another adverb (ended too quickly), or even a whole sentence (Fortunately, I had brought an umbrella). Adverbs often end in -ly, but some (such as fast) look exactly the same as their adjective counterparts.

That is a hastily, written note.
That is a hastily-written note.
That is a hastily written note.

Placement of adverbs

Place adverbs as close as possible to the words they are supposed to modify. Incorrect placement can change the meaning of the sentence, especially when it comes to the adverb only.

  • Phillip only fed the cat.
    (The only thing that Phillip did was feed the cat)
  • Phillip fed only the cat.
    (The only thing that Phillip fed was the cat)

Articles

Articles are words that define a noun as specific or unspecific. 

The definite article is the word the. It limits the meaning of a noun to one particular thing, e.g. Please give me the hammer.

The indefinite article takes two forms. It’s the word a when

  • it precedes a word that begins with a consonant.
  • it precedes a word that sounds like it begins with a consonant
She is an United States senator.
She is a United States senator.

It’s the word an when

  • it precedes a word that begins with a vowel
  • if it precedes a word that sounds like it begins with a vowel.
My mother is a honest woman.
My mother is an honest woman.

The indefinite article indicates that a noun refers to a general idea rather than a particular thing, e.g. Please give me a hammer.

The rules above also apply to acronyms and initialisms, e.g. an LCD display, a UK-based company, an HR department, a URL.

Conjunctions

Conjunctions are words that link other words, phrases, or clauses together, e.g.

I like cooking and eating, but I don’t like washing dishes afterward. Sophie is clearly exhausted, yet she insists on dancing till dawn.

The most common coordinating conjunctions are for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so; you can remember them by using the mnemonic device FANBOYS. Commas are used when a coordinating conjunction is joining two independent clauses.

I’d like pizza or a salad for lunch. We needed a place to concentrate so we packed up our things and went to the library. Jesse didn’t have much money but she got by. (missing necessary commas)
I’d like pizza or a salad for lunch. We needed a place to concentrate, so we packed up our things and went to the library. Jesse didn’t have much money, but she got by.

Subordinating Conjunctions

Subordinating conjunctions join independent and dependent clauses. 

Common subordinating conjunctions are because, since, as, although, though, while, and whereas. Sometimes an adverb, such as until, after, or before can function as a conjunction. If the dependent clause comes first, use a comma before the independent clause.

Before he leaves, make sure his room is clean.
I drank a glass of water because I was thirsty. Because I was thirsty, I drank a glass of water.

Interjections

An interjection is a word that you throw in between sentences or thoughts to express a sudden feeling, e.g. Ouch! Oh my! Wow! Yikes!

Interjections in a Sentence

When used in a sentence, put the interjection inside parentheses or set it off with commas.

I forgot to do the homework assignment oops but my teacher gave me an extra day to finish it.
I forgot to do the homework assignment (oops), but my teacher gave me an extra day to finish it.
Gee I hadn’t thought of that.
Gee, I hadn’t thought of that.

Nouns

A noun is a word that names something, such as a person, place, thing, or idea. 

Proper nouns vs. common nouns

A proper noun is a specific name of a person, place, or thing, and is always capitalized.

Does tina have much homework to do this evening?
Does Tina have much homework to do this evening?
I would like to visit new york.
I would like to visit New York.

A common noun is the generic name of an item in a class or group and is not capitalized unless appearing at the beginning of a sentence or in a title.

Prepositions

Prepositions indicate relationships between other words in a sentence.

Ending a Sentence With a Preposition

You are allowed to end a sentence with a preposition. Not doing so can result in an unnatural sentence.

There’s no one else to hide behind. (Grammatically correct and natural)
There’s no one else behind whom to hide. (Grammatically correct, but unnatural)
Where did you come from? (Grammatically correct and natural)
From where did you come? (Grammatically correct, but unnatural)

It is sometimes more elegant to move a preposition to an earlier spot in a sentence, especially in very serious and formal writing. But if you do move the preposition, remember to delete it from the end.

This is something we must meditate on.
This is something on which we must meditate.
This is something on which we must meditate on.

Unnecessary Prepositions

Where is your brother at?
Where is your brother?
For many people, the reality of an entry into a new area of employment is cause for a host of anxieties.
Changing careers makes many people anxious.
Alex hit the baseball up over the fence.
Alex hit the baseball over the fence.

Pronouns

Personal pronouns

Personal pronouns are pronouns that refer to specific individuals and groups, e.g. I/me, She/her, He/him, They/them, We/us, You.

Antecedents

Antecedents are the things that pronouns refer to, e.g. My family tests my patience, but I love them

Relative pronouns

Relative pronouns connect relative clauses to independent clauses. Relative pronouns are that, what, which, who and whom.

  • who refers to people
  • which and that refer to animals or things

Examples

  • The woman who called earlier didn’t leave a message. 
  • All the dogs that got adopted today will be loved. 
  • My carwhich is nearly twenty years old, still runs well.

Who vs. whom—subject and object pronouns

  • who is for the subject of a sentence
  • whom is for the object of a verb or preposition

Examples

  • Who mailed this package?
  • To whom was this package sent?

Demonstrative pronouns

That, this, these, and those.

Indefinite pronouns

Indefinite pronouns are used when you need to refer to a person or thing that doesn’t need to be specifically identified. Some common indefinite pronouns are one, other, none, some, anybody, everybody, and no one

Reflexive pronouns

Reflexive pronouns end in -self or -selves, e.g. myself, themselves.

Example: I saw myself in the mirror.

Using myself when you mean me is a common mistake writers and speakers make. Reflexive pronouns are only correct when the subject and object of a sentence are the same. 

Intensive pronouns

Intensive pronouns look the same as reflexive pronouns, but their purpose is different. Intensive pronouns add emphasis.

Example: told them I could do it myself.

Possessive pronouns

E.g. my, your, our.

Example: I crashed my bike into a telephone pole.

Independent possessive pronouns

E.g. mine, yours, theirs.

Example: She forgot her jacket, so I gave her mine.

Interrogative pronouns

Who, what, which, and whose. 

Example: What is your name? 

Reciprocal pronouns

Each other, one another.

Distributive pronouns

Either, Each, Neither, Any, None

Pronouns and gender identity

The most common gender-neutral pronoun is the singular they. 


PUNCTUATION

Apostrophe

Apostrophes : Contractions and Omissions

A contraction is a shortened form of a word (or group of words) that omits certain letters or sounds, e.g. He would=He’d. I have=I’ve. They are=They’re. You cannot=You can’t.

Less common contractions

  • something -> somethin’
  • ever -> e’er
  • you all -> y’all
  • 1960s -> 60’s

Apostrophes and Possessive Nouns

For most singular nouns, add apostrophe+s:

  • The dog’s leash.
  • The writer’s desk.
  • The planet’s atmosphere

For most plural nouns, add only an apostrophe:

  • The dogs’ leashes (multiple dogs).
  • The writers’ desks (multiple writers).
  • The planets’ atmospheres (multiple planets).

For plural nouns that do not end in s, add apostrophe+s:

  • The children’s toys.
  • The geese’s migration route.

Style guides vary in their recommendations of what to do when you have a singular proper noun that ends in s.

  • Charles Dickens’ novels 
  • Kansas’ main airport
  • Charles Dickens’s novels 
  • Kansas’s main airport

No matter which style guide you use, add only the apostrophe to plural proper nouns that end in s:

  • The Harrises’ house
  • The Smiths’ vacation

How to Write Joint Possession

When one thing belongs to two or more people, make only the final name possessive:

  • Bob and Jim’s bait shop (Bob and Jim co-own the same bait shop)
  • Ryan, Jessica, and Elinor’s parents (All three share the same parents)

When you’re talking about separate things that belong to different people, make all the names possessive:

  • Bob’s and Jim’s bait shops (Bob owns one bait shop and Jim owns a different one) 
  • Ryan’sJessica’s, and Elinor’s parents (Each has a different set of parents)

Apostrophes and Plurals

With very few exceptions, apostrophes do not make nouns plural. The one notable exception to this rule is the plural form of lowercase letters, which are formed with an apostrophe to prevent misreading:

Don’t forget to dot all your is.
Don’t forget to dot all your i’s.

Colon

A colon introduces an element or series of elements that illustrates or amplifies the information that preceded the colon. While a semicolon normally joins two independent clauses to signal a close connection between them, a colon does the job of directing you to the information following it. When a colon appears in a sentence, it usually gives the silent impression of “as follows,” “which is/are,” or “thus.”

  • There are three types of muscle in the body: cardiac, smooth, and skeletal.
  • We have two options here: stay and fight, or run like the wind.
  • He ended with the immortal words of Neil Young: “Rock and Roll can never die.”

Misuse of Colons

The three types of muscle in the body are: cardiac, smooth, and skeletal.
The three types of muscle in the body: cardiac, smooth, and skeletal.
When I graduate, I want to go to: Rome, Israel, and Egypt.
When I graduate, I want to go to Rome, Israel, and Egypt.

Comma

While a period ends a sentence, a comma indicates a smaller break. Some writers think of a comma as a soft pause—a punctuation mark that separates words, clauses, or ideas within a sentence.

Comma with Subjects and Verbs

With few exceptions, a comma should not separate a subject from its verb.

My friend Cleo, is a wonderful singer.
My friend Cleo is a wonderful singer.
The things that cause me joy, may also cause me pain.
The things that cause me joy may also cause me pain.
Navigating through snow, sleet, wind, and darkness, is a miserable way to travel.
Navigating through snow, sleet, wind, and darkness is a miserable way to travel.

Comma Between Two Nouns in a Compound Subject or Object

Don’t separate two nouns that appear together as a compound subject or compound object.

Cleo, and her band will be playing at Dockside Diner next Friday.
Cleo and her band will be playing at Dockside Diner next Friday.
Cleo will wear a sparkly red blazer, and high heels.
Cleo will wear a sparkly red blazer and high heels.

When a subject or object is made up of two items and the second item is parenthetical, you can set off the second item with commas—one before it and one after it. But you don’t need a comma when you’re simply listing two items.

Comma Between Two Verbs in a Compound Predicate

You get a compound predicate when the subject of a sentence is doing more than one thing. In a compound predicate that contains two verbs, don’t separate them with a comma.

Cleo will sing, and play the banjo.
Cleo will sing and play the banjo.
I meant to buy tickets for Cleo’s show, but ran out of time.
I meant to buy tickets for Cleo’s show but ran out of time.

Don’t use a comma in compound predicates unless there is a chance of misreading:

  • Cleo spotted the man who entered the diner, and waved.

In the sentence above, you need the comma to make clear that it was Cleo who waved, not the man.

Comma Splices

When you want to join two independent clauses, you need a conjunction or a semicolon. A comma alone isn’t strong enough to join them. This kind of mistake is called a comma splice.

We were out of milk, I went to the store.
We were out of milk, so I went to the store.
We were out of milk; I went to the store.
We were out of milk. I went to the store.

Comma After Introductory Phrase

A comma normally follows participial phrases that introduce a sentence:

  • Grabbing her umbrella, Kate raced out of the house. Confused by her sister’s sudden change in mood, Jill stayed quiet.

When an adverbial phrase begins a sentence, it’s often followed by a comma but it doesn’t have to be, especially if it’s short. As a rule of thumb, if the phrase is longer than about four words, use the comma. You can also use a comma with a shorter phrase when you want to emphasize it or add a pause for literary effect.

  • After the show, Cleo will be signing autographs.
  • Behind the building there is enough space to park two limousines.
  • Without knowing why, I crossed the room and looked out the window.
  • In 1816 life was very different.
  • Suddenly, an angry black cat sprang from the shadows.

But, if there is a chance of misreading the sentence, use the comma:

Before eating the family said grace.
Before eating, the family said grace.

Comma Within a Comparison

Don’t use a comma before “than” when you’re making a comparison.

This box is lighter, than that box.
This box is lighter than that box.
Hardcover books are more expensive, than paperback books.
Hardcover books are more expensive than paperback books.

Commas with Interrupters or Parenthetical Elements

Interrupters are little thoughts that pop up in the middle of a sentence to show emotion, tone, or emphasis. A parenthetical element is a phrase that adds extra information to the sentence but could be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence. Both interrupters and parenthetical elements should be set off with commas.

The weather I was happy to see was beginning to clear.
The weather, I was happy to see, was beginning to clear.
Geoff’s cooking skills if you can call them skills left something to be desired.
Geoff’s cooking skills, if you can call them skills, left something to be desired.
It was sadly the last day of camp.
It was, sadly, the last day of camp.
Mary unlike Anne is very organized.
Mary, unlike Anne, is very organized.

Comma with a Question Tag

A question tag should be preceded by a comma.

  • These willow trees are beautiful, aren’t they?
  • You didn’t actually write a 600-page vampire romance novel, did you?
  • I know, right?

Comma with Direct Address

When addressing another person by name, set off the name with commas.

  • Mom, I can’t find my shoes!
  • Cleo, there’s someone on the phone for you.
  • Hello, Chester.

Comma with an Appositive

An appositive is a word or phrase that refers to the same thing as another noun in the same sentence. Often, the appositive provides additional information about the noun or helps to distinguish it in some way. If you could remove the appositive without changing the meaning of the sentence, it is said to be nonessential and should be set off with commas. If the appositive is necessary, it’s said to be essential and it should not be set off with commas.

Nonessential appositives:

  • My sister, Angela, is a wonderful cook.
  • The painter, one of the city’s most promising young artists, began showing his work in galleries before he was sixteen.
  • Chocolate, my favorite treat, always makes me feel better after a bad day.

Essential appositives:

  • Edgar Allan Poe’s poem The Raven is a classic.
  • Alec Baldwin’s brother Stephen is the most underrated Baldwin.
  • The detective Sherlock Holmes is one of literature’s greatest sleuths.

Commas in Dates

When writing a date in month-day-year format, set off the year with commas.

  • July 4, 1776, was an important day in American history. I was born on Sunday, May 12, 1968.

If you are using the day-month-year format, however, commas are unnecessary.

  • Applications are due by 31 December 2016.

If you are referencing a day of the week and a date, use a comma:

  • On Tuesday, April 13, at three o’clock, there will be a meeting for all staff.
  • Please join us on Saturday, June 14, 2010, for the marriage of Annie and Michael.

When you are referencing only a month and year, you don’t need a comma.

  • The region experienced record rainfall in March 1999.

Comma Between Coordinate Adjectives

When multiple adjectives modify a noun to an equal degree, they are said to be coordinate and should be separated by commas. One way to tell whether the adjectives are coordinate is to try switching the order of them. If the sentence still sounds natural, the adjectives are coordinate.

  • That man is a pompous, self-righteous, annoying idiot.
  • That man is a self-righteous, annoying, pompous idiot.
  • The sweet, scintillating aroma of cinnamon buns filled the kitchen.
  • The scintillating, sweet aroma of cinnamon buns filled the kitchen.

If the adjectives are not coordinate, don’t separate them with a comma.

The adorable, little boy was eating ice cream.
The adorable little boy was eating ice cream.

Comma Before But

Use a comma before the word but if it is joining two independent clauses:

Cleo is a good singer but she’s an even better dancer.
Cleo is a good singer, but she’s an even better dancer.

If but is not joining two independent clauses, leave the comma out.

My teacher is tough, but fair.
My teacher is tough but fair.
Life is, but a dream.
Life is but a dream.

Comma Before And

When you have a list that contains only two items, don’t use a comma before the and.

My dog Charlie is cute, and smart.
My dog Charlie is cute and smart.
Cleo’s favorite activities are singing on stage, and relaxing in the sunshine.
Cleo’s favorite activities are singing on stage and relaxing in the sunshine.

When correcting a comma splice, that is when joining two independent clauses with a coordinating conjunction, put the comma before and.

Commas with Lists

When you have a list that contains more than two elements, use commas to separate them.

Julie loves ice cream books and kittens.
Julie loves ice cream, books, and kittens.
Julie loves ice cream, books and kittens.
I cleaned the house and garage, raked the lawn, and took out the garbage.
I cleaned the house and garage, raked the lawn and took out the garbage.

The comma before the and in a list of three or more items is optional. 

Serial Comma (Oxford Comma)

When you are listing three or more items, commas should separate each element of the list. However, the final comma—the one that comes before the and—is optional. This comma is called the serial comma or the Oxford comma.

Mary needs bread, milk, and butter at the grocery store. (With serial comma)
Mary needs bread, milk and butter at the grocery store. (Without serial comma)
I still have to buy a gift, pack the suitcases, and arrange for someone to water the plants while we’re at the wedding. (With serial comma)
I still have to buy a gift, pack the suitcases and arrange for someone to water the plants while we’re at the wedding. (Without serial comma)

Though the serial comma is optional, it is occasionally necessary for clarity.

  • I dedicate this award to my parents, Jane Austen and Albert Einstein.
    (Is the award dedicated to the parents and to Jane and Albert or are Jane and Albert the names of the parents?)
  • I dedicate this award to my parents, Jane Austen, and Albert Einstein.
    (The award is dedicated to the parents and to Jane and Albert)

Comma Separating a Verb and Its Object

Don’t separate a transitive verb from its direct object with a comma.

I’m glad I trained, Charlie not to beg for scraps.
I’m glad I trained Charlie not to beg for scraps.
Mary said, she likes chocolate.
Mary said she likes chocolate.

Comma with Nonrestrictive Clause

A nonrestrictive clause offers extra information about something you have mentioned in a sentence, but the information isn’t essential to identify the thing you’re talking about. Nonrestrictive clauses are usually introduced by which or who and should be set off by commas.

  • Posey’s Cafe, which Chester recommended, is a fantastic restaurant.
  • My wife, whom I love dearly, is a brilliant physicist.

Comma with Restrictive Clauses

A restrictive clause adds necessary information about something you have mentioned in a sentence. Restrictive clauses are often introduced by that or who and should never be set off by commas.

The cafe, that Chester recommended, is a fantastic restaurant.
The cafe that Chester recommended is a fantastic restaurant.

Comma Between Correlative Conjunctions

Correlative conjunctions are conjunctions that come in pairs (such as either/or, neither/nor, and not only/but also) and connect words or phrases in a sentence to form a complete thought. Typically, commas are unnecessary with correlative conjunctions.

Either the blue shirt, or the red sweater will look good with your jeans.
Either the blue shirt or the red sweater will look good with your jeans.
You can wear a pashmina not only for warmth, but also for fashion.
You can wear a pashmina not only for warmth but also for fashion.

Comma Between Direct Quote and Attributive Tag

An attributive tag is a phrase like “he said” or “she claimed” that identifies the speaker of a quote or piece of dialogue. Attributive tags can come before, after, or even in the middle of a quote. Use commas to separate attributive tags from quotations.

  • The professor remarked, “How attentive you have been today!”
  • “Once you know the solution,” Tiffany said, “the whole problem seems very simple.”
  • “You have ice cream on your nose,” my friend snickered.
  • “When you leave the house,” my mother yelled, “don’t slam the door!”

If a quotation before an attributive tag ends in a question mark or exclamation point, however, there’s no need for a comma.

“You have a spider on your nose!”, my friend yelled.
“You have a spider on your nose!” my friend yelled.
“Where did that spider come from?”, I asked.
“Where did that spider come from?” I asked.

Comma Inside Quotation Marks

In American English, commas always go before closing quotation marks.

  • “Pass me that thesaurus,” said Matthew.
  • “If you knew what was good for you, you’d sit down and finish that essay right now,” my roommate said.
  • “We’re going down to the soup kitchen to help serve dinner,” her mother called.

In British English, however, unquoted punctuation typically follows the quotation marks. If you are writing for a British audience, put the comma after the closing quotation mark. Furthermore, British English tends to use single quotes rather than double quotation marks.

Comma Before Parenthesis

After opening the new cookie tin, (and eating several of the cookies), Chester had a hard time replacing the lid. 
After opening the new cookie tin (and eating several of the cookies,) Chester had a hard time replacing the lid.
After opening the new cookie tin, Chester had a hard time replacing the lid.
After opening the new cookie tin (and eating several of the cookies), Chester had a hard time replacing the lid.

Comma with As Well As

The phrase “as well as” usually doesn’t require commas unless it’s part of a nonrestrictive clause.

  • Please proofread for grammatical mistakes as well as spelling.
  • Spelling mistakes, as well as grammatical errors, are distracting to readers.

Comma with Such As

The phrase “such as” requires commas if it introduces a nonrestrictive clause.

  • Coniferous trees, such as pine and spruce, do not drop their needles in the winter.

If “such as” introduces a restrictive clause, omit the commas.

  • Trees such as pine and spruce do not drop their needles in the winter.

Comma Before Too

Using a comma before “too” is optional. A comma simply adds emphasis.

  • I like bananas too.
  • I too like bananas.
  • I like bananas, too.
  • I, too, like bananas.

Dashes

There are three forms of dashes: em, en, and the double hyphen. The most common types of dashes are the en dash (–) and the em dash (—).

Em Dashes

Em dashes can replace parentheses at the end of a sentence or when multiple commas appear in a parenthetical phrase.

Example

  • After a split second of hesitation, the second baseman leaped for the ball (or, rather, limped for it).
  • After a split second of hesitation, the second baseman leaped for the ball—or, rather, limped for it.

Em dashes can also replace colons.

Example

  • He is afraid of two things: spiders and senior prom.
  • He is afraid of two things—spiders and senior prom.

Writers and transcriptionists replace unknown, censored, or intentionally omitted letters with em dashes. In these cases, em dashes appear in pairs or threesomes.

Example

  • A former employee of the accused company, ———, offered a statement off the record.
  • “H—— are all the same. They cause trouble wherever they go.”
  • Carved into the dresser drawer was a faded inscription: “Made for Kristina, by your de——ted sailor.”

En Dashes

The en dash is often used to indicate spans of time or ranges of numbers. In this context, the dash should be interpreted as meaning either “to” or “through.” 

Example

  • The teacher assigned pages 101–181 for tonight’s reading material.
  • The scheduled window for the cable installation is 1:00–3:00pm.
  • The 2015–2016 fiscal year was the most profitable year for the new business.

The en dash may also be used to indicate a connection between two words.

Example

  • The pro-choice–pro-life argument is always a heated one.
  • The Nobel Prize–winning author will be reading from her book at the library tonight.

Ellipsis

Those three little dots are called an ellipsis (plural: ellipses). You can use an ellipsis to show that you’ve omitted some words, e.g.

  • Hamlet asked whether it was “nobler . . . to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles.”

You can also use an ellipsis to show a pause in speech or that a sentence trails off. This technique doesn’t belong in formal or academic writing, though. You should only use the ellipsis this way in fiction and informal writing.

  • Andrew, can you, um . . . never mind, I forgot what I was saying. So, do you think we should . . . ?

How Many Dots?

There are 3 dots in an ellipsis. But, if the ellipsis comes immediately after a grammatically complete sentence, that sentence still needs its own period. So you would end up with a period followed by 3 dots. For example:

“Call me Jonah. My parents did, or nearly did. They called me John.”

could be shortened to

“Call me Jonah. . . . They called me John.”

Spacing

Whether you put spaces between the dots or not is a matter of style. The Chicago Manual of Style calls for spaces between every ellipsis point. The AP Stylebook says to treat the ellipsis as a three-letter word, with spaces on either side of the ellipsis but no spaces between the dots. For example,

  • Chicago Style: um . . . never mind
  • AP Style: um … never mind

Exclamation Point (or Exclamation Mark)

Exclamation points go at the end of exclamatory sentences. An exclamatory sentence is one that expresses a strong or forceful emotion, such as anger, surprise, or joy.

  • I got a perfect score on the SAT! Get out of my sight!

Occasionally, you might see one at the end of a sentence that is phrased as a question.

  • Careful! That spider is poisonous. Holy cow! How could I have forgotten to pack underwear!

Exclamatory Quotations

Put the exclamation point inside the closing quotation marks if it applies to the words enclosed by the quotation marks.

  • “There’s a spider on my arm!” yelped Jeremy.

If the exclamation point applies to the sentence as a whole, then place it at the very end.

  • And then the paramedics tried to tell Jeremy it was “only a spider”!

Exclamation Points and Parentheses

Put the exclamation point inside the parentheses when it applies to the words inside the parentheses.

  • Jeremy didn’t find out until later what kind of spider it was (a black widow!).

Put the exclamation point outside the parentheses if it applies to the whole sentence.

  • They settled out of court and Jeremy got a million dollars (cash)!

Exclamation marks are considered to be relatively casual, so using them in business or formal academic writing is a no-no. Instead of relying on exclamation points to convey your urgency or excitement, use more vivid vocabulary. Instead of “Make sure you finish this by tomorrow morning!” try “It’s crucial that you finish this before tomorrow morning’s deadline.”

Hyphen

A hyphen (-) is a punctuation mark that’s used to join words or parts of words. It’s not interchangeable with other types of dashes. Use a hyphen in a compound modifier when the modifier comes before the word it’s modifying.

Hyphen with Compound Modifiers: Two-Word Adjectives Before Nouns

A compound modifier is made up of two words that work together to function like one adjective. When you connect words with the hyphen, you make it clear to readers that the words work together as a unit of meaning.

Use a Hyphen in an Noun and an Adjective (Before the Noun They Describe)

NOUN-ADJECTIVE NOUN
This rock-hard cake is absolutely impossible to eat.
We’re looking for a dog-friendly hotel.

Don’t Use a Hyphen in Compound Modifiers That Come After the Noun They Describe

Generally, you need the hyphen only if the two words are functioning together as an adjective before the noun they’re describing. If the noun comes first, leave the hyphen out.

  • This wall is load bearing.
  • It’s impossible to eat this cake because it is rock hard.
  • Is this hotel dog friendly?

Don’t Use a Hyphen in an Adverb and an Adjective (Before the Noun They Describe)

You also don’t need a hyphen when your modifier is made up of an adverb and an adjective.

ADVERB ADJECTIVE NOUN
Do you expect me to believe this clearly-impossible story?
Do you expect me to believe this clearly impossible story?

Use a Hyphen in a Noun or Adjective and a Present Participle (Before the Noun They Describe)

When we combine a noun or adjective and a present participle (a word ending in ‑ing) to form a unit of meaning that describes another word, use a hyphen to make that unit of meaning clear.

NOUN-PRESENT PARTICIPLE NOUN
It’s recommended you don’t take down any load bearing walls when renovating.

In this sentence, it sounds like you shouldn’t take down any load that is holding up a wall. A hyphen should be inserted between load and bearing to make it clear that we’re talking about walls that are bearing a load.
It’s recommended you don’t take down any load-bearing walls when renovating.
ADJECTIVE-PRESENT PARTICIPLE NOUN
There are some beautiful looking flowers in the garden.

Without the hyphen between beautiful and looking, your reader may stumble over the sentence. Perhaps there’s a new type of daisy called the “looking flower”?
There are some beautiful-looking flowers in the garden.

Don’t Use a Hyphen With a Noun or Adjective and a Present Participle (After the Noun They Describe)

Don’t use a hyphen when the modifier comes after the noun it’s describing. Compare the following:

  • Fast-acting medication can be useful when one has a headache.
  • This medication is fast acting.

Don’t Use a Hyphen in an Adverb and a Participle (Before the Noun They Describe)

ADVERB PARTICIPLE NOUN
The room was like a heavily-decorated chocolate box.
The room was like a heavily decorated chocolate box.

Use a Hyphen in a Noun and Past Participle (Before the Noun They Describe)

Compound modifiers that contain a past participle also follow the same rules as any other compound modifier. Use a hyphen when the compound goes before the noun it modifies:

NOUN-PAST PARTICIPLE NOUN
The municipal government is funding a community-based education system.
Wind-powered generators can be excellent sources of electricity.
Many veterinarians find meat-fed cats to be quite healthy.

Don’t Use a Hyphen in a Noun and Past Participle (After the Noun They Describe)

Don’t use a hyphen when the compound comes after the noun it describes. Compare the following:

  • A well-known local singer will perform tonight.
  • The singer performing tonight is well known.

Hyphenated Compound Words

Hyphenated compound words are the ones (obviously) with a hyphen between the words. Over time, many hyphenated compounds become closed compounds—teen-ager became teenager for instance. Check a dictionary if you’re not sure whether to use a hyphen or not. Here are a few examples of common hyphenated compound words:

  • Mother-in-law
  • Master-at-arms
  • Editor-in-chief
  • Ten-year-old
  • Factory-made
  • Twelve-pack

Closed Compound Words

Hyphenated words tend to become closed compounds (single words with no hyphens) over time. Email instead of e-mail, for example, is increasingly common. If you aren’t sure whether a words is a closed compound or a hyphenated one, check your preferred dictionary.

  • Notebook
  • Superman
  • Waistcoat
  • Bookstore
  • Fireman

Open Compound Words

Open compounds are typically made up of two nouns that are used together to represent a single idea. “Open” means that there is a space between the two words and no hyphen. A good dictionary is the best place to check whether a compound is open or not.

  • Living room
  • Real estate
  • Dinner table
  • Coffee mug

Hyphens and Numbers

Numbers between twenty-one and ninety-nine should be hyphenated when they’re spelled out.

  • Fifty-six bottles of pop on the wall, fifty-six bottles of pop…
  • No, I won’t party “like it’s nineteen ninety-nine.”
  • I’ve got a hundred twenty-two of these gizmos to sell.

Hyphen in Compound Adjective With Numbers

When numbers are used as the first part of a compound adjective, use a hyphen to connect them to the noun that follows them. This applies whether the number is written in words or in digits.

  • The president of the company gave a 10-minute speech to the Board of Directors.
  • He is knowledgeable in thirteenth-century politics.
  • The boy threw a rock at the second-story window.

However, a hyphen is not required if the number is the second word in the compound adjective.

  • He is a victim of Type 2 diabetes.
  • This elevator doesn’t go down to Basement 3.

Hyphen In Compound Adjective With Fractions

When using a fraction (e.g. half or quarter) as part of a compound adjective, it should be hyphenated so the reader understands which fraction is modifying which noun.

  • I half-wanted to commit a felony.
  • A quarter-million dollars is still a large amount of money.
  • You’ll need one-third of a pound of flour and one egg.
  • That’s a half-baked idea if I ever heard one!

Hyphen With Prefixes: Ex-, Self-, All-

Use a hyphen with the prefix ex- (meaning former).

  • Don’t sit Adam next to Martha! She’s his ex-wife!
  • Though he no longer held an official position, the ex-mayor still attended all the town’s functions.

Use a hyphen with the reflexive prefix self-.

  • Lying on the floor beside the plant he had knocked over and chewed on, the cat looked extremely self-satisfied.
  • Do you want a self-serve or a full-serve gas station?

Make sure you don’t confuse the prefix self- with the noun self.

  • The self serves no other.

When using all as a prefix, add a hyphen.

  • It’s a bad leader who thinks of himself as all-powerful.

Hyphens with High or Low

When using high or low as part of a compound adjective, use a hyphen when the compound comes before the noun it’s modifying. Some examples of compound adjectives using high and low include high-level/low-level and high-impact/low-impact.

  • Low-flying airplanes contribute to the noise pollution in the area.
  • This car runs best on high-octane gasoline.
  • Low-income families often face more stress than their higher-income counterparts.
  • A high-interest savings account is one of the best ways to save money.

Parentheses and Brackets

Parentheses are punctuation marks that are used to set off information within a text or paragraph. They can enclose a single word, a phrase, or even an entire sentence. Typically, the words inside the parentheses provide extra information about something else in the sentence.

  • Curators from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) have announced a new dinosaur exhibit. While walking down the street (paying more attention to her phone than to her feet), Catherine tripped over the curb and sprained her ankle.

Brackets, sometimes called square brackets, are most often used to show that words have been added to a direct quotation. Sometimes, when quoting a person or document, adding a word or two is necessary to provide enough context for the quote to make sense. For example, the original sentence you want to quote might read “We went and had a great time.” Out of context, this sentence doesn’t mean much. But you can add bracketed information to make the context clear.

  • “We went [to the new dinosaur exhibit] and had a great time.”

It’s extremely important to use brackets when you change a direct quote—forgetting to add them results in a misquote.

Parentheses or Brackets With Surrounding Punctuation

Treat parentheses or brackets and the words inside them as separate from the rest of the sentence. Any sentence that contains a parenthetical element should still make sense if the element is removed.

Meena (studied all night for) the grammar test.
Meena studied (all night) for the grammar test.
Meena studied for the grammar test.

Periodsquestion marks, and exclamation points should go before the closing parenthesis or bracket only if they belong to the words inside the parentheses or brackets. If the punctuation belongs to the surrounding sentence, put them outside the parentheses or brackets. Never put a comma immediately before a closing parenthesis.

After dinner (an enormous, healthy salad,) Posey treated herself to ice cream.
After dinner, (an enormous, healthy salad) Posey treated herself to ice cream.
After dinner (an enormous, healthy salad), Posey treated herself to ice cream.

Period

Periods and Quotation Marks 

In American English, the period goes inside the closing quotation mark at the end of a sentence.

  • My mother loved to remind me of the old saying “waste not, want not.” Phillip said, “I can’t remember where I heard about the banjo concert, but I sure want to go.”

Periods and Parentheses

When a complete, independent sentence is entirely enclosed by parentheses, the period goes inside the closing parenthesis.

  • Charlie scarfed up every Cheeto that fell out of the bag. (I wasn’t fast enough to stop him.) At least we won’t have to sweep the floor.

But, if the parenthetical material is nested inside another sentence, the period should go on the outside.

  • Charlie barked wildly when he caught the scent of fresh bacon (his favorite).

Ellipses

An ellipsis (plural: ellipses) looks like three periods in a row with spaces in between them. There are two main uses for ellipses. One is to show that part of a quote has been omitted.

  • Hamlet asked whether it was “nobler . . . to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles.”

You can also use an ellipsis for literary effect, to represent a dramatic pause or a thought that trails off.

  • The bus was supposed to come at 3:00 so we waited and waited . . . and waited. Wait a minute . . . If you’re not watching Charlie, who is? I guess we could meet you there later. If there’s time . . .

Question Mark

Question Marks and Quotation Marks

Keep the question mark inside the quotation marks if it logically applies to what is enclosed by the quotation marks. You’ll often see this in written dialogue:

  • The chicken asked, “Why is everyone so concerned about where I’m walking?” “What do you have to hide?” asked the nosy reporter.

If the question mark applies to the sentence as a whole instead of to the phrase inside the quotation marks, put it at the very end:

  • Haven’t you ever heard the expression “It’s a free country”?

This holds true even when you have a quotation containing a question:

  • “When I spoke to the chicken, she said ‘Why won’t you leave me alone?’” recalled the reporter.

And for a quoted question containing a quoted statement:

  • “What did the chicken mean,” the reporter wondered, “when she said ‘It’s a free country’?”

When you have a question mark that applies to both the quoted phrase and the rest of the sentence, just use one question mark:

  • Who said “Why did the chicken cross the road?”

Question Marks and Parentheses

If a question mark applies to the parenthetical information, place the question mark inside the parentheses:

  • I saw the chicken (or was it the rooster?) crossing the road.
  • The chicken wrote a bestselling memoir called My Road (published abroad as Who Needs a Crosswalk?).

When the question applies to the whole sentence, put it outside the parentheses:

  • Will the chicken cross the road again tomorrow (April 1)?

Quotation Marks and Dialogue

Quotation marks are used to identify words that someone has said or a direct quote from a person in an article or quoting material that was written by someone else.

American vs. British Quotation Marks

American English uses double quotation marks (“ ”) for quotes and reserves single quotation marks (‘ ’) for quotes within quotes. In British English, the convention is the opposite. Another difference is that in American English, periods and commas go before closing quotation marks. In British English, they go after the closing quotation mark. The guidelines below apply to American English.

Dialogue

When writers become confused about quotation marks, it usually has to do with where to put other nearby punctuation. Below is an example of a conversation between two characters, with their dialogue correctly punctuated.

  • Martin said, “I’m going over to Jennifer’s house for a few hours.”
  • “You can’t be serious!” cried Fauntleroy.
  • “Oh, but I am,” Martin replied.
  • “How will you get there?” Fauntleroy asked.
  • “I thought I’d take the bus.”
  • “And,” Fauntleroy continued, “exactly how long is ‘a few hours’?”
  • “Probably two or three.”
  • “Well . . . fine. Tell Jennifer I said hello.”

Non-Dialogue Quotations

The mayor said his two golden retrievers were “the best dogs in the world. I’m not a cat person.”
The mayor said his two golden retrievers were “the best dogs in the world” and added that he was not a cat person.

Scare Quotes

Occasionally, writers enclose certain terms they wish to distance themselves from in quotation marks. 

  • Silicon Valley has fully embraced the “sharing economy.”

Sometimes, scare quotes are needed to indicate that the writer is not talking about something in general, but rather a specific term itself.

  • For too many people, “computer security” is an oxymoron.

Semicolon

Semicolons (;) are as basic as a period stacked on top of a comma.

The most common use of the semicolon is to join two independent clauses without using a conjunction like and. Don’t use a capital letter after a semicolon. A semicolon should be followed by a capital letter only if the word is a proper noun or an acronym.

  • We can go to the museum to do some research; Mondays are pretty quiet there.

You can use a semicolon to join two closely related independent clauses. Let’s put that another way. The group of words that comes before the semicolon should form a complete sentence, the group of words that comes after the semicolon should form a complete sentence, and the two sentences should share a close, logical connection:

  • I ordered a cheeseburger for lunch; life’s too short for counting calories.
  • Money is the root of all evil; I don’t believe the reverse is necessarily true.
  • Martha has gone to the library; Andrew has gone to play soccer.

Notice that the letter following the semicolon is not capitalized. 

Delete the Conjunction When You Use a Semicolon

  • I saw a magnificent albatross, and it was eating a mouse.
  • I saw a magnificent albatross; it was eating a mouse.

Use Semicolons in a Serial List

You can use semicolons to divide the items of a list if the items are long or contain internal punctuation. In these cases, the semicolon helps readers keep track of the divisions between the items.

  • I need the weather statistics for the following cities: London, England; London, Ontario; Paris, France; Paris, Ontario; Perth, Scotland; Perth, Ontario.
  • My plan included taking him to a nice—though not necessarily expensive—dinner; going to the park to look at the stars, which, by the way, are amazing this time of year; and serenading him with my accordion.

Use Semicolons With Conjunctive Adverbs

When you have a conjunctive adverb linking two independent clauses, you should use a semicolon. Some common conjunctive adverbs include moreover, nevertheless, however, otherwise, therefore, then, finally, likewise, and consequently. 

  • I needed to go for a walk and get some fresh air; also, I needed to buy milk.
  • Reports of the damage caused by the hurricane were greatly exaggerated; indeed, the storm was not a “hurricane” at all.
  • The students had been advised against walking alone at night; however, Cathy decided walking wasn’t dangerous if it was early in the evening.
  • I’m not all that fond of the colors of tiger lilies; moreover, they don’t smell very good.

Slashes

There are two types of slashes: a backslash (\) and a forward slash (/). The backslash is used only for computer coding. The forward slash, often simply referred to as a slash, is a punctuation mark used in English.

A Slash to Indicate Or

  • When leaving the classroom, the teacher noticed that a student had left his/her backpack.
  • College freshmen should bring a mattress and/or cot to sleep on during orientation.
  • If/when Mary ever shows up, we can all head out to the party together.
  • Burgers or pizza for dinner? Yeah, either/or is fine with me.

A Slash to Form Abbreviations

Slashes can also be used to form some abbreviations or shortened forms of words or phrases, although these shouldn’t be used in formal writing.

  • w/o = without
  • w/ = with
  • c/o =
  • care of (used when posting a letter or parcel)
  • a/c = air conditioning

A Slash to Indicate Connecting and Conflicting Relationships

Slashes can also be used to note that there is a connection or conflict between two words or phrases in a sentence.

  • The pro-life/pro-choice debate is a hot-button issue for many voters this election.
  • The designer often works in his bonus room/home office.

Space Before and After Slash

When a slash signifies alternatives between only two words, don’t use spaces before or after. 

  • Add chili flakes and/or black pepper to the recipe.

When using slashes to signify alternatives between phrases or multi-word terms or compounds, a space before and after the slash makes text easier to read.

  • World War I / First World War

Abbreviation

An abbreviation, simply put, is a shortened form of a word. Some readers may not know what an abbreviation means. If the abbreviation is obscure or unfamiliar, make sure to explain what it means the first time you use it.

Acronyms and Initialisms

Typically, acronyms and initialisms are written in all capital letters to distinguish them from ordinary words. (When fully spelled out, the words in acronyms and initialisms do not need to be capitalized unless they entail a proper noun.)

An acronym is pronounced as a single word, rather than as a series of letters. 

  • National Aeronautics and Space Administration = NASA
  • self contained underwater breathing apparatus = scuba
  • light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation = lase

Initialisms are pronounced as a series of letters.

  • National Football League = NFL (en eff ell)

If you need to use an indefinite article before an acronym or initialism, use the initial sound of the word (not necessarily the initial letter) guide your choice.

Abbreviations for Courtesy Titles and Academic Degrees

Titles such as mister, miss, and doctor, as well as the names of academic degrees such as bachelor of arts and doctor of philosophy are almost always abbreviated. In American English, title abbreviations are followed by a period; in British English, the period is omitted.

  • Mr. = Mister
  • Mrs. = Mistress (pronounced “missus”)
  • Ms. = (pronounced “miss” or “miz”)
  • Sr. = Senior
  • Jr. = Junior
  • Dr. = Doctor
  • Mr. Green asked Ms. Grey if she had met Dr. Jekyl. (American style)
  • Mr Green asked Ms Grey if she had met Dr Jekyl. (British style)

B.S. = Bachelor of science

  • B.A. = Bachelor of Arts
  • M.A. = Master of Arts
  • M.B.A. = Master of Business Administration
  • Ph.D. = Doctor of Philosophy

The periods are optional with abbreviations of academic degrees. Follow whichever style your style guide recommends, or just choose one and use it consistently. When an academic degree is used like a title, it follows a person’s name and is set off by commas:

  • Molly Beagle, Ph.D., runs the canine cognition lab at Stanford University.

Latin Abbreviations

e.g.: exempli gratia It means “for example.” Use e.g. when you want to provide specific examples of a generalization.

  • We expect volunteers from many surrounding cities, (e.g., Springfield, Oakdale, Hogsmeade.)

i.e.: id est It means “that is.” Use i.e. when you want to provide more specific information about something you mentioned.

  • After a reasonable amount of time has passed—i.e. two business days—please report the missing shipment to our customer service department.

etc.: et cetera It means “and so forth.” Use it when you’re providing a partial list of details.

  • You should see the doctor when you have flu-like symptoms (fever, chills, etc.)

Other Common Abbreviations

Below are a few other abbreviations that are common in English. Remember that abbreviations are not always completely standardized. One style guide may advise you to abbreviate Thursday as Thurs. while another may argue for Thu. Likewise, some style guides allow you to omit the periods with these abbreviations, but it’s never wrong to include periods. So if you aren’t sure whether to use the periods, err on the side of leaving them in.

Times and dates

a.m. (ante meridiem) = before noon p.m. (post meridiem) = after noon

  • The mall opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m.

Jan., Feb., Mar., Apr., May, Jun., Jul., Aug., Sep., Oct., Nov., Dec.

  • I was born on Nov. 6, 1980.

Mon., Tues., Wed., Thurs., Fri., Sat,. Sun.

  • The class will run Mon.-Fri. next week.

Places

U.S. (United States) U.K. (United Kingdom) E.U. (European Union) U.A.E. (United Arab Emirates)

  • The U.S. highway system seems enormous to visitors from the U.K.

Units of Measurement

in. (inches) ft. (feet) lbs. (pounds)

mm. (millimeters) cm. (centimeters) m. (meters)

mg. (milligram) g. (gram) kg. (kilogram)

My cat weighs 10 lbs., which is about 4.5 kg.

Spelling Rules

English spelling of some words is wildly different from the way we pronounce them (It’s fuchsia, right? Or is it fuschiaFushia?)

Around Shakespeare’s time, when spelling was first becoming standardized, the spelling of most English words was mostly phonetic—or at least more phonetic than it is today. For example, English speakers did once pronounce the k at the beginning of words like knife and knee. But even though no one has pronounced knee as “kuh-nee” in centuries, we still hang on to the old spelling.

Capitalization

Capitalize the First Word of a Sentence

  • The cat is sleeping.
  • Where did I put that book?

Capitalize Names and Other Proper Nouns

  • My favorite author is Jane Austen.
  • Have you met my dog, Boomer?

Names are proper nouns. The names of cities, countries, companies, religions, and political parties are also proper nouns, so you should capitalize them, too.

  • We experienced some beautiful Southern California weather last fall when we attended a Catholic wedding in San Diego.

You should also capitalize words like mom and grandpa when they are used as a form of address.

  • Just wait until Mom sees this!
  • My mom is not going to like this.

Don’t Capitalize After a Colon (Usually)

  • I have one true passion: wombat racing.

One exception is when the word following the colon is a proper noun.

  • There is only one place I want to visit: New York City.

The other exception is when the words following the colon form one or more complete sentences.

Maggie wears a brimmed cap at all times for these two reasons: Strong light often gives her a headache. She also likes the way it looks.

Capitalize the First Word of a Quote (Sometimes)

Capitalize the first word of a quote when the quote is a complete sentence.

  • Mario asked, “What is everyone doing this weekend?”
  • Stacy answered, “My sister and I are going to the water park.”

Don’t capitalize the first word of partial quotes.

  • Gretchen said she was “way too busy” to join the gym.
  • Mr. Thompson described the rules as “extremely difficult to understand if you don’t have a law degree.”

Capitalize Days, Months, and Holidays, But Not Seasons

The names of days, months, and holidays are proper nouns, so you should capitalize them.

  • I hate Mondays!
  • Tom’s birthday is in June.
  • Oh no! I forgot about Valentine’s Day!

The names of seasons, however, are not proper nouns, so there’s no need to capitalize them.

  • I hate winter!
  • Having a summer birthday is the best.

Capitalize Most Words in Titles

Just use titlecaseconverter.com.

  • Sense and Sensibility is better than Pride and Prejudice.
  • The first movie of the series is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Capitalize Cities, Countries, Nationalities, and Languages

  • English is made up of many languages, including Latin, German, and French.
  • My mother is British, and my father is Dutch.
  • The capital of Botswana is Gaborone.

Capitalize Time Periods and Events (Sometimes)

Specific periods, eras, and historical events that have proper names should be capitalized.

  • Most of the World War I veterans are now deceased.
  • In the Middle Ages, poor hygiene was partly responsible for the spreading of bubonic plague.
  • Middle school students often enjoy studying the social changes that took place during the Roaring Twenties.

However, centuries—and the numbers before them—are not capitalized.

  • In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, England blossomed into an empire.

Compound Words

When adverbs ending in -ly combine with another word, the resulting compound is always spelled as two separate words.

  • largely irrelevant
  • newly formed

There are a great many grammar rules regarding hyphens in compound words. One important rule of thumb to remember is that in most cases, a compound adjective is hyphenated if placed before the noun it modifies, but not if placed after the noun.

  • a long-term solution
  • an up-to-date user guide
  • This is not a good solution for the long term.
  • This user guide is not up to date.

It’s often necessary to consult the dictionary to determine whether these terms should be hyphenated or not.