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English Punctuation: Italics, Capitalization, and Other Odds and Ends September 24, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Series index: English Punctuation Overview.


These miscellaneous aspects of writing aren’t technically considered punctuation, but most websites include them with punctuation marks (probably because they don’t know where else to put them). This post covers the following: italics, underlining, boldface, capitalization, accent marks, numbers, and other symbols (like the ampersand and the interrobang).

Italics, Underlining, and Boldface

Both italics and underlining are used to emphasize titles and other words, but italics are used much more often (underlining is used when italics aren’t possible). Boldface is also sometimes used for emphasis, especially for headings and new terms.

  • Boldface – covers the main uses of boldface.


Capital letters are used to distinguish proper nouns, to emphasize the beginning of a new sentence, and in some other situations.

Accents (Diacritics)

Also called accent marks or diacritical marks, accents are mainly used to clarify the pronunciation of certain letters in words borrowed from other languages.

  • Diacritics – explains when to use them and includes a short list of them at the bottom.
  • Diacritic – Wikipedia – includes a list of accent marks (with links to separate entries on each one) and information about their usage in many languages.


English has a number of conventions governing how numbers should be used in writing.


For more about other miscellaneous symbols, look them up on Wikipedia (also see the list of symbols in the box on the right side of the Punctuation page).

English Punctuation: Dashes, Parentheses, Quotation Marks, and Ellipses September 22, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Series index: English Punctuation Overview.



The dash is famous (or infamous) for its informal and flexible use; you can place one just about anywhere.

  • The Dash – overview of the dash’s main uses, including the difference between the en dash and the em dash.
  • Armchair Punctuator – a longer overview covering several uses
  • The King’s English – a lengthy discussion of the use and misuse of dashes (published in 1908).

Parentheses (Brackets)

A type of bracket, the parenthesis is sometimes called a bracket or round bracket. Parentheses surround parenthetical elements just as commas(link) and dashes sometimes do.

Brackets or Square Brackets

Square brackets have more specialized uses, like inserting information into quotes and surrounding parenthetical information inside parentheses.

Quotation Marks

Quotation marks (or speech marks) are used mainly to indicate dialogue. The quotation mark has only a couple simple rules, but many still manage to misuse it (see The Gallery of “Misused” Quotation Marks for proof).


The ellipsis (lovingly called “dot-dot-dot”) usually represents words omitted from a quote, but it can also indicate trailing off in speech.

English Punctuation: Commas, Semicolons, and Colons September 20, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.

Series index: English Punctuation Overview.



Commas separate words, phrases and clauses to clarify meaning. They often indicate pauses in speech, but not always. This Guide to Using Commas covers the basics, and this guide to The Comma refers to AP style guidelines. Here’s a more detailed look at comma usage:

To join two independent clauses – “I spent all day cooking this dinner, and the family ate it in three seconds.” Always use the comma before the coordinating conjunction (like and), but only use a comma if both clauses are independent. If the second clause doesn’t have its own subject, don’t use a comma (as in “I made dinner and set the table”). See The Joining Comma for more. Note: many find it acceptable to leave out the comma if both independent clauses are short (“I made dinner and they ate it”).

To show omitted words – “I like white chocolate; Bob, dark chocolate.” See The Gapping Comma. This applies to more specific uses as well (see also The Listing Comma), where the comma could be replaced with a word like and or or:

  • In a series of three or more – “I like white chocolate, milk chocolate, and dark chocolate.” The comma stands for an omitted and or or. Many writers prefer not to use a comma before the conjunction: “I like white chocolate, milk chocolate and dark chocolate.” This optional comma, often called the serial comma or Oxford comma, has inspired lots of debate. See Wikipedia’s entry on the Serial Comma for more.
  • With two coordinate adjectives – “She loves the cute, fuzzy kittens.” When you can’t insert the word and between the adjectives, don’t use a comma (“She is a nice old lady”, not “She is a nice and old lady”). See Commas with Paired Adjectives for more on the difference between coordinate and cumulative adjectives.
  • With contrasting statements – “I like apples, not oranges.” I remember this rule by thinking of the comma as a replacement for and, as in “I like apples and not oranges.”

To set off elements that aren’t part of the main clause – “Of course, I agree.” If you can remove the extra element and still have a complete sentence with a complete meaning, then you should surround the extra words with commas. See Bracketing Commas for an overview. These extra elements include:

  • Nonrestrictive Elements – “My best friend, who I met at college, moved to England.” Nonrestrictive clauses and nonrestrictive appositives (Bob, my best friend, moved to England) are always set off with commas, just like all parenthetical elements.
  • Introductory Phrases – “Somewhere in my messy closet, my old clothes are gathering dust.” With adverbial phrases (like prepositional and infinitive phrases), only use a comma if the phrase begins the sentence; if it follows the independent clause, don’t use a comma: “My old clothes are gathering dust somewhere in my messy closet.” See Commas After Introductory Phrases for more. Short prepositional phrases (and some other adverbial phrases) don’t require a comma — unless, of course, the meaning would be unclear (see Adding Commas for Clarity).
  • Participial and Absolute Phrases – “Happily munching on popcorn, I watched my favorite movie.” When acting as adjectives, adverbs, or disjuncts, these types of phrases always require a comma, even if they follow the independent clause: “I watched my favorite movie, happily munching on popcorn.”
  • Dependent Clauses – “If you help me, I’ll help you.” As with introductory phrases, if the dependent clause follows the independent clause, don’t use a comma: “I’ll help you if you help me.”

Other Conventional Uses – Used for clarity and convenience, commas also appear in names, addresses, numbers, and more:


The semicolon is sort of like a cross between a comma and a period. Its main function is to connect two independent clauses that are closely related. It also prevents confusion in sentences (especially lists) with lots of commas. These websites explain everything you need to know:

  • The Semicolon – an excellent overview, complete with lots of examples.


The colon introduces or restates something. Unlike the semicolon, the colon can connect an independent clause to a word or phrase.

  • The Colon – includes some usage guidelines, a discussion on when to capitalize the independent clause after a colon, and even a powerpoint presentation and a quiz at the bottom.

English Punctuation: Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Marks September 18, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.

Series index: English Punctuation Overview.


End marks are the punctuation marks used to end sentences, keeping thoughts separate and easy to read. More on using end marks with quotation marks later.


The period, also known as the full stop, ends declarative and imperative sentences. It’s also used in abbreviations and ellipses.

Question Marks

The question mark ends interrogative sentences, as well as any other sentences or sentence fragments posed as questions.

Exclamation Marks

The exclamation mark or exclamation point ends exclamatory sentences and strong interjections.

English Punctuation: Hyphens, Apostrophes, and Slashes September 16, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Series index: English Punctuation Overview.


Word-level punctuation marks clarify the meaning of words themselves. You’d think they’d be simpler than sentence-level punctuation, but even these small details cause controversy and confusion.


Hyphens connect words to avoid confusion, but since their usage varies so much, they can create more confusion than they prevent. Luckily, a number of sites have some guidelines:

  • The King’s English – includes a few basic rules and some example errors. I especially like the first rule: “Hyphens are regrettable necessities, and to be done without when they reasonably may.” Note: keep in mind that this book is from 1908.


Despite being one of the most simple punctuation marks, apostrophes are often misused (like the infamous Greengrocer’s Apostrophes). Do your part: know your apostrophe rules and support The Apostrophe Protection Society!

  • Contractions – includes notes on distinguishing contractions from clipped forms and abbreviations.

Note: single quotation marks look just like apostrophes, but they shouldn’t be called apostrophes. More on single quotation marks later.


The slash isn’t used nearly as often as other punctuation marks, but it can certainly come in handy.

  • The Slash – another look at its common uses, including examples.

English Punctuation Overview September 14, 2006

Posted by LearningNerd in English, Language, Punctuation.
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Got grammar? See Everything You Need to Improve Your English Grammar.


Punctuation marks may be nothing but little dots and lines, but those little dots and lines can make a huge difference! We need punctuation to separate our ideas and clarify our meaning. Trivial as they can be, the rules of punctuation are worth knowing.

So, for my own personal reference (and for anyone else who might find it useful), I’m going to review the rules and conventions for every punctuation mark. Later (read “eventually”), I’ll address the nuances of punctuation’s effects on writing style.

By the way, remember to celebrate National Punctuation Day! (Their website has some useful punctuation tips, too.)

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