Punctuation is a very important part of writing. Punctuation marks tell us when sentences end and when new ones begin. They break up the grammar of the sentence so that we can quickly understand the meaning. They give a context to the words we use.

The following punctuation marks are important to writing. Make sure that you understand how to use them properly and effectively.

An English professor wrote the words, “Woman without her man is nothing,” on the blackboard and told his students to add punctuation to the sentence.

The men wrote: “Woman, without her man, is nothing.”

The women wrote: “Woman! Without her, man is nothing.”

— Author Unknown

Serial Comma

Unless you're writing to magazine, newspaper, or Web page guidelines that suggest otherwise, whenever you have three or more nouns listed in a sentence, use a serial comma to avoid ambiguity. A serial comma simply means that the comma is repeated in between the nouns:

Tom, Dick, and Harry are my friends.

I bought a shirt, a tie, and a pair of socks.

Historically, the serial comma was used to separate all the nouns. A modern convention, though, is to omit the last comma from the series, leaving the conjunction to tie them together:

Tom, Dick and Harry are my friends.

I bought a shirt, a tie and a pair of socks.

In the United States, omitting the final comma was for a time considered the modern, preferred convention, but because the lack of that final comma can often inadvertently distort the meaning of a sentence, the preference is once again to use the serial comma. Outside the United States, some places prefer the old-fashioned way of including the final comma in the series. Depending on which market you're writing for, structure your serial commas accordingly. If you're writing an article for a magazine published in the United Kingdom, you can save your editors a headache by writing in their preferred style.

Serial commas can work with other conjunctions, too, so don't think that it's only sentences with and that you have to worry about. Consider the following:

I want to go to the store with either Tom, Dick, or Harry. (with serial comma)

I want to go to the store with either Tom, Dick or Harry. (without serial comma)

So far, you have seen examples that use three nouns to create the serial comma. If there were only two, no serial comma would be needed, because a simple conjunction like and would suffice. But a serial comma can be used with more than three, too:

There are a number of things you will need to bake bread. The necessary ingredients include yeast, eggs, flour, and water.

If you are using long compound phrases instead of simple nouns, or compound phrases in which an internal comma is present, then consider using a semicolon instead.

I only have four things left to do. I must go to the store and pick up some candy; stop at the dry cleaner's; go for an oil change; and buy roses for my wife.

Is a comma the only punctuation mark used in a series?

No. Sometimes, you may also come across serial semicolons. Semicolons are sometimes used to break up bits that are too complex to sustain using commas:

Exclamation Points

An exclamation point is a very powerful form of punctuation. It delivers a real impact! The overuse of exclamation points, however, clouds writing and makes it look amateurish. Use exclamation points very sparingly. If you constantly use exclamation points in dialogue, the results look absurd:

Bob picked up the newspaper. His picture was on the cover! He picked up the phone and quickly dialed his girlfriend. “Bess! You'll never believe it!”

“I know, I know! I saw it!” she said excitedly over the phone. “You must be so thrilled! Congratulations!”

There's a reason you never see this kind of exchange in books. You may come across it in comic books or on the Web or in e-mail — where you'll often even see multiple exclamation points strung together, but in most of the publishing world, this is considered overkill and amateurish. You don't want your writing to look like the transcript from an online chat room. Sometimes it's appropriate to use them, but you should never do it all the time. Here's a much cleaner version:

Bob picked up the newspaper and found that his picture was on the cover. He quickly picked up the phone and dialed his girlfriend. “Bess! You'll never believe it.”

“I know, I know! I saw it,” she said excitedly over the phone. “You must be so thrilled. Congratulations!”

Now, the emotion of the situation is still conveyed, and the characters sound far less maniacal, too.

As a rule of thumb, use exclamation points sparingly in dialogue. And never, ever use it in prose or narrative unless you're very sure it's necessary.

Chances are, however, that with some thought and careful editing, you could improve on that passage even further and eliminate most of the exclamation points (and the adverb “excitedly”) by letting the action conveyed by your verb choice serve as the intended emphasis.

En and Em Dashes

Dashes are also an effective punctuation tool. The names may sound funny, but there's a logical explanation for them. An en dash is shorter than an em dash. This harkens back to the days of printing presses; an en dash was simply a dash as long as the letter n, and an em dash was one as long as an m — or roughly double the length of an n.

You can use an em dash to break up parts of your sentence — like when you're including something aside from your main point — but don't do it very often. If used too often, like the exclamation point, it loses its emphasis and becomes distracting.

Many word-processing programs fill in the proper dash if you just use a hyphen, normally located right beside the zero on your keyboard. You can also use alt codes to insert the dashes. Simply hold down the alt button on your keyboard, and using the numeric keypad, key in the appropriate four-digit number. You then let go of the alt button, and voilà! Your dash appears.

En dash (–): alt + 0150

Em dash ( — ): alt + 0151

The plus symbol is merely there to show you that you key in the numbers while you're holding down the alt key — you don't actually type that symbol in. And remember that you must do it using the numeric keypad — this trick won't work using the regular top row numbers on your keyboard.

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