Grammar Hammer: Punctuation Saves Lives, Part I


In English grammar, there are considered to be 14 “primary” punctuation marks – the period, comma, question mark, exclamation point, colon, semicolon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, ellipses, quotation marks, and apostrophes.

These are the marks that help us with sentence structure, help us clarify meaning, and distinguish between different sets of ideas.


Putting all of these into smaller groups, we can look at them like this:

The Full Stop – the period, question mark, and exclamation mark

All three of these punctuation marks indicate the end of the sentence. Periods end declarative sentences. Do I really need to explain when to use a question mark? Exclamation points should be self-explanatory!

The Pause – the comma, semicolon, and colon

The comma was rated as the punctuation mark you were most grateful for according to Grammarly back in 2012.

My favorite examples:

  • Let’s eat Grandma! vs. Let’s eat, Grandma!
  • Cathy finds inspiration in cooking her family and her cats vs. Cathy finds inspiration in cooking, her family and her cats.

The semicolon continues to be the punctuation mark that befuddles people the most. To put it simply, semicolons separate independent clauses that are related to each other but could stand on their own if you wanted them to. Would each clause read correctly as a standalone sentence? If yes, then a semicolon would be an appropriate way to combine them.

You use colons before a list or an explanation. Look forward to a more in-depth explanation of colons in a future post.

Connections and Breaks – the dash and hyphen

Dashes come in two forms: the en dash (-) and the em dash (–). En dashes are used to connect numbers or connect elements of a compound adjective (Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States from 1861-1865).

An em dash (so-called because the size of the dash is about the size of the letter M) can be used to separate clauses, introduce a phrase for added emphasis, or what I’m most guilty of – indicate a break in thought or sentence structure. It can be a divisive bit of punctuation for journalists.

Hyphens create compound words, particularly modifiers (“She was a well-known cook.”). Hyphens are also used in prefixes (“I wonder if they had any kind of pre-nuptial agreement?”).

Next week, we’ll conclude with a quick overview of brackets, parentheses, braces, ellipses, quotation marks, and apostrophes. Read Part II.

Have a grammar rule you’d like us to explore? Drop the team a line at

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Author Catherine Spicer is the former manager of customer content services at PR Newswire and has never been inspired to cook her family or her cats.

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