Understanding Punctuation

George Paul Macdonell, "Stops"; or, How to Punctuate: A Practical Handbook for Writers and Students (1886). (Alberto Ruggieri/Getty Images)

Punctuation is the set of marks used to regulate texts and clarify their meanings, principally by separating or linking words, phrases, and clauses.

Marks of punctuation include ampersands, apostrophes, asterisks, brackets, bullets, colons, commas, dashes, diacritic marks, ellipsis, exclamation points, hyphens, paragraph breaks, parentheses, periods, question marks, quotation marks, semicolons, slashes, spacing, and strike-throughs.

In his Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), Bishop Robert Lowth wrote that "the doctrine of punctuation needs be very imperfect: few precise rules can be given which will hold without exception in all cases; but much must be left to the judgment and taste of the writer." As contemporary linguist David Crystal has observed, "We are so used to reading the punctuational conventions of our own time that it's easy to forget that these are just that—conventions—and that they have to be learned" (Making a Point, 2015).

From Latin "making a point"


  • Periods, Question Marks, Exclamation Marks
    "I know the answer! The answer lies within the heart of all mankind! The answer is 12? I think I'm in the wrong building."
    (Charles Schulz, "Peanuts")
  • Commas
    - "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."
    (Albert Einstein)

    - "If all the cars in the United States were placed end to end, it would probably be Labor Day Weekend."
    (Doug Larson)

    - "Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them."
    (Joseph Heller)
  • Dashes and Parentheses
    "The why and wherefore of the scorpion--how it had got on board and came to select his room rather than the pantry (which was a dark place and more what a scorpion would be partial to), and how on earth it managed to drown itself in the inkwell of his writing desk--had exercised him infinitely."
    (Joseph Conrad, The Secret Sharer)
  • Brackets and Ellipsis
    "Mr. Bumble said 'a ass' not 'an ass' in Oliver Twist. . . . [In a quotation, one] option might have been 'The law is a[n] ass,' although this would have carried the condescending tone of a 'sic' flag, implying we're smarter than Dickens."
    (Blair Shewchuk, "Quibbling Over Quotes." CBC News Online, April 23, 2004)
  • Hyphens
    "New truth is always a go-between, a smoother-over of transitions."
    (William James)
  • Bullet Points
    "The idea is simply to end by design rather than default, and any of the following practices will help:
    • In your notes, keep track of potentially dramatic closing materials.
    • Hold one of your best examples or anecdotes for the closing.
    • Allow space for a developed ending.
    • Commit to a closing worthy of the piece.
    • Avoid the drift toward a clichéd ending."
    (Arthur Plotnik, Spunk & Bite. Random House, 2005)
  • Colons & Semicolons
    - "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

    - "Life is a foreign language; all men mispronounce it."
    (Christopher Morley)
  • Apostrophes and Quotation Marks
    - "It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens."
    (Woody Allen)

    - "I am reminded of the professor who, in his declining hours, was asked by his devoted pupils for his final counsel. He replied, 'Verify your quotations.'"
    (Winston Churchill)


    • The Problem With Punctuation
      "The problem with punctuation is threefold. Its rules are seemingly arbitrary; it's boring; and no one knows how to do it. But these three objections to punctuation combined pale in magnitude next to the single Great Truth about it: If you fail to master punctuation, your life will be littered with the shards of broken dreams. Or, less dramatically, your life will be littered with the shards of broken beer bottles, the contents of which you have drunk to avoid thinking about your dead-end job."
      (Richard Lederer and John Shore, Comma Sense: A FUNdamental Guide to Punctuation. St. Martin's Press, 2005)
    • Rules and Personal Taste
      "I should define punctuation as being governed two-thirds by rule and one-third by personal taste. . . .

      "Let it be granted that the punctuation, like the spelling, of the English language has been subject to change in the course of centuries--one has only to observe the punctuation of the Bible in order to become aware of this; yet there would seem to be no reason why the one should not become, at least to some extent, standardized by time and usage, as the other has been."
      (G.V. Carey, Mind the Stop. Pelican Books, 1971)
    • Components, Not Ornaments
      "Punctuation too often ranks as an adjunct. In the fact, it should rank as a component. It is not something that one applies as an ornament, for it is part of the structure; so much a part that, without it, the structure would be meaningless--except after an exhausting examination. . . .

      "Punctuation is not something that, like a best suit of clothes, you put on for special occasions. Punctuation is not something you add to writing, even the humblest: it forms an inescapable part of writing. To change the metaphor, punctuation might be compared to the railway line along which the train (composition, style, writing) must travel if it isn't to run away with its driver (the writer of even a note to the butcher)."
      (Eric Partridge, You Have a Point There: A Guide to Punctuation and Its Allies, rev. ed. Routledge, 1978)
    • Parenthetically at Play
      "There are no precise rules about punctuation (Fowler lays out some general advice (as best he can under the complex circumstances of English prose (he points out, for example, that we possess only four stops (the comma, the semicolon, the colon and the period (the question mark and exclamation point are not, strictly speaking, stops; they are indicators of tone (oddly enough, the Greeks employed the semicolon for their question mark (it produces a strange sensation to read a Greek sentence which is a straightforward question: Why weepest thou; (instead of Why weepest thou? (and, of course, there are parentheses (which are surely a kind of punctuation making this whole matter much more complicated by having to count up the left-handed parentheses in order to be sure of closing with the right number (but if the parentheses were left out, with nothing to work with but the stops we would have considerably more flexibility in the deploying of layers of meaning than if we tried to separate all the clauses by physical barriers (and in the latter case, while we might have more precision and exactitude for our meaning, we would lose the essential flavor of language, which is its wonderful ambiguity ))))))))))))."
      (Lewis Thomas, "Notes on Punctuation." The Medusa and the Snail (Viking, 1979)

    • The Dark and Deficient Rules of Punctuation (1728)
      "Punctuation is a modern art; the ancients were entirely unacquainted with the use of our commas, colons, etc. and wrote not only without any distinction of members and periods, but also without distinction of words, . . . during which time the sense alone divided the discourse. . . .

      "There is much more difficulty in pointing, than people are generally aware of. In effect, there is scarce any thing in the province of the grammarians so little fixed and ascertained as this. The rules usually laid down are impertinent, dark, and deficient; and the practice, at present, perfectly capricious, authors varying not only from one another, but from themselves, too. . . .

      "In the general, we shall only here observe, that the comma is to distinguish nouns from nouns, verbs from verbs, and such other parts of a period as are not necessarily joined together. The semicolon serves to suspend and sustain the period when too long; the colon, to add some new, supernumerary reason, or consequence, to what is already said; and the period, to close the sense and construction, and to release the voice. For the proportional quantity, or time of the points, with respect to one another, see COMMA.
      (Ephraim Chambers, Cyclopaedia, or a Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences, 1728)

    The Lighter Side of Punctuation

    • Dot Com: Hey Trey, we just picked up your birthday party invitations from the printer.

      Tracy Jordan: Wait, what is this? "Give to charity, please. No presents."

      Dot Com: Yeah, that's what you told me to put on the card.

      Tracy Jordan: No, Dot Com. I said, "Give to charity? Please no. Presents!"
      (Kevin Brown and Tracy Morgan in 30 Rock, Jan. 26, 2012)
    • "Ever tried 'punctuation sex,' Henrietta? Hyphens are kisses, commas are maybes, and a period is a definite no. And then of course, there are the . . . limitless realms of semicolons and apostrophes. I shudder to think what an exclamation point might mean."
      (Patrick Bedford as Paul Barringer in Up the Down Staircase, 1967)
    • Bennett Cerf: [addressing a guest--a judge at a pig show] Are you a pig lady?

      John Daly: How did you punctuate that sentence?
      (What's My Line, 1958)

    Pronunciation: punk-chew-A-shun

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    Your Citation
    Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Punctuation." ThoughtCo, Dec. 9, 2017, thoughtco.com/punctuation-definition-1691702. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, December 9). Understanding Punctuation. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/punctuation-definition-1691702 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Punctuation." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/punctuation-definition-1691702 (accessed April 23, 2018).