Punctuation rules to master: Question marks, semicolons and more

Some basics about oft-used and oft-misused marks and symbols.

Ragan Insider Content

In the course of editing, I come across punctuation applications that are as creative and diverse—and as maddening—as the vehicular maneuvers perpetrated in the parking lots of northwest Chicagoland.

So, buckle your seatbelts; we’re going on a punctuation tour.

The period (.) is basic and universal. When you complete a thought, it’s time for a period. Period.

Our friend the semicolon (;) most often bridges two short independent clauses that are related.

An example: My 21st birthday is Tuesday; my great-aunt is taking me out to celebrate on Saturday night. Here’s another: Awww, that’s sweet; get a life.

Another effective use of the semicolon is in breaking up a complex series, when at least one element within the series requires commas. I spent my morning vacuuming the bedrooms, living room, dining room, and walk-in humidor; shopping for okra, persimmons, cream of tartar, and aged Stilton; and picking up Laverne, Fiona, and Aloysius from preschool. Without the semicolons, your reader could become confused, possibly even — wait for it — comma-tose.

The poor abused question mark (?) finds itself in the most mysterious of places.

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