7 punctuation staples for polished writing

Proper grammar and word usage are essential, of course, but sloppy punctuation can confuse readers and even distort your meaning.

Punctuation can be intimidating. Some people don’t know the correct instance to employ semicolons; others use commas as if they’re going out of style. There are many who abuse the rules without knowing it.

The City of Birmingham, England, banned apostrophes on public signs, saying that removing the punctuation mark would create consistency across local signage. City officials received a slew of complaints as residents called the decision a “dumbing down,” especially as they’re teaching children proper writing skills. City councilors said apostrophes were confusing and old fashioned, designating possessions that are no longer needed or no longer accurate.

Punctuation debates have also been in the U.S. spotlight. Some have argued that the title of the Hugh Grant-Sandra Bullock romantic comedy “Two Weeks Notice” should have read “Two Weeks’ Notice,” because it’s referring to a notice of two weeks.

Follow these simple guidelines from the Associated Press Stylebook for proper use of these punctuation staples that’ll keep your writing crisp.

1. Apostrophe (‘): There are multiple rules, including the following scenarios: Plural nouns not ending in s, add ‘ s (women’s rights); plural nouns ending in s, add only an apostrophe (the boys’ toys); nouns plural in form, singular in meaning, add only an apostrophe (mathematics’ rules); nouns the same in singular and plural should be treated the same as plurals, even if the meaning is singular (the moose’s prints); singular nouns not ending in s, add ‘s (the church’s offerings); singular proper names ending in s, use only an apostrophe (Socrates’ philosophy); singular common nouns ending in s, add ‘ s unless the next word begins with s ( the witness’s answer; the witnesses’ stories); descriptive phrases, do not add an apostrophe to a word ending in s when it is used primarily in a descriptive sense (a writers guide, the teachers union).

2. Comma (,): Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put commas before the conjunction in a simple series.My favorite foods are pizza, turkey and chocolate. For the record, AP votes no in the great Oxford comma debate.

3. Colon (:): The most frequent use of a colon is at the end of a sentence to introduce lists, tabulations, texts, etc. Capitalize the first word after a colon only if it’s a proper noun or the start of a complete sentence. He was promised this: His parents would buy him a new toy for his birthday. Her favorite rock group: The Beatles. There were three exceptions for his consideration: time, space and flexibility.

4. Semicolon (;): Use to separate elements of a series when the items in the series are long and at least one item contains internal commas. He is survived by a brother, Seymour, in Boston; three nephews in Chicago; and seven cousins in Los Angeles. Place semicolons outside quotation marks.

5. Quotation marks (“, ‘; ‘,”): When a full paragraph of quoted material is followed by a paragraph that continues the quotation, do not put close-quote marks at the end of the first paragraph. Put open-quote marks at the start of the second paragraph. Use single quotation marks when including a quote within a quote. The period and the comma always go within the quotation marks.

6. Ellipsis (…): Use to indicate deletion of one or more words in condensing quotes, texts, and documents. Use one space on both sides of the ellipsis.” My name is Steve … and I enjoy sports and grammar.”

7. Hyphen (-): Known for joining words, hyphens are used to avoid ambiguity or to form a single idea from two or more words. Hyphens are most often used in compound modifiers—two or more words expressed as a single concept—that precede a noun. Hyphens are not used with the adverb very nor with adverbs ending in -ly. The classroom-driven curriculum. The very large elephant is hungry. An eternally grateful grandmother.

What are some of your favorite punctuation marks, and what rules do you find intimidating or perhaps convoluted? To make sure your prose is shoe-spit shiny, follow AP style and tips for news writing. And, of course, always proofread.

Steve Vittorioso is an account executive at Inkhouse Media + Marketing, where this story first appeared. Follow Steve on Twitter @savittorioso.

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