Grammar for the People: punctuation II

Grammar for the People2

Last week Grammar for the People: punctuation I was all about end-of-sentence punctuation. Part II is about punctuation that is used in different places throughout writing and will boost your language in a variety of ways.


Commas are busy little punctuation marks, dipping their toes below the base line to tell you to take a breath or to make note of the extra information given in a parenthetical or modifying clause. Modifiers are classified as either restrictive or non-restrictive. Restrictive modifiers mean they are essential to understand one’s sentence. Non-restrictive are not essential. This means you can understand the sentence just fine without the information that is included between a set of commas.


Apostrophes are so effective but dreadfully misused! Let’s talk about the most common misuse: plurals. Apostrophes aren’t—in any way ever—used to make words plural. Apostrophes are used to show possession or to make a contraction. Possession tells you that something belongs to someone. A contraction happens when two words are joined together and letters are omitted. Apostrophes take the place of the omitted letters.

Colons and semicolons

Colons and semicolons are not interchangeable or seasonal. They have their own duties in language and don’t depend on which you feel like using.

Colons are used to introduce lists or other exciting information. For example: I love tacos, burritos, and chimichangas! That is an exciting list.

Semicolons are used to join related sentences. If you want to get fancy in your text messages, use these. However, you have to be very careful that the sentences you join actually relate to each other.

Hyphens and dashes

I love all types of dashes. All types, you say? Yes, there are many. But I’ll keep this brief for you.

Hyphens are not dashes but you use the same keyboard key for these and dashes so I’ll include them. They are used to join two or more words in compound modifiers (that is, two words joined by a hyphen to modify a noun). Don’t put spaces on either side of hyphens; they need to touch letters.

When it comes to dashes, there are en dashes and em dashes. Never knew that, did you? Em dashes are longer dashes (—), and are used to set off very important or special parenthetical clauses. Do not use them as run-of-the-mill parentheses. You make em dashes by putting two hyphens together with letters touching them on either side. Auto-formatting takes care of the rest!

En dashes (–) are longer than hyphens but shorter than em dashes. They are used to show a span of numbers. You make them by typing two hyphens with spaces on either side.

Quotation marks

Quotation marks can save you a lot of trouble, particularly when you’re copying someone else’s words. Put whatever someone else said in quotes so people don’t think you’re a thief. Don’t use quotation marks in writing the same way you use air quotes when speaking. If you’re using air quotes in your speech, you’re likely being snobby. Don’t be a snob. Put quotation marks and give attribution where they rightly belong. They could keep you out of jail.

So there you have it! If you have a question, leave a comment. If you’d like any examples of some of these uses, leave a comment. I’ll get back to you with all sorts of information!

Get ready for Grammar for the People: parts of speech next week.

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