January 16, 2012

back to basics: punctuation pt. 1


Punctuation is my favorite literary device, especially commas and em-dashes. But it is perhaps our most powerful tool other than our words. First, we’ll go over basic punctuation, and then into the more creative punctuation. The punctuation I’ll cover is in the English language. I can’t speak for other languages because I only know one other language—Japanese—and they have very few punctuation marks. The posts on punctuation will continue until I cover everything, which may be several days. I’m not sure yet.

Periods, Question Marks, and Exclamation Marks

These are the most basic of the punctuation marks, designed to go at the end of sentences. Most sentences will end in a period (.), such as this one. Questions end in question marks (?). This is difficult, isn’t it? And exclamations end in exclamation marks (!). I recommend using exclamation marks sparingly! Using them several times in a short space can be exhausting! Like the author is trying to shout you to death, or they’re so excited that you have to be excited too! God forbid you use all caps and exclamation marks! Aren’t you tired of reading this paragraph now? Most of the time, you can find a way to express excitement without having to use an exclamation mark.


Commas are your friend, your best friend. They separate items in lists, separate clauses and certain adverbs from the rest of the sentence, enclose extra information, separate coordinate adjectives, and separate quoted material from the rest of the sentence. Commas do a lot of separating, but in reality, you can add so much to a sentence if you use commas.


When you have three or more things in quick succession in a sentence, you separate them using commas.

For example:

Mother sent me to the store to buy butter, eggs, and milk.
This semester, I’m taking Biology, Ancient Philosophy, Spanish, Bowling, and Graphic Design.
I blog on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.

And gosh darn it, you will use the Oxford comma (that comma after the penultimate object in the list). I don’t care what the latest manual of style says, you will love the Oxford comma. All hail the Oxford comma!


Commas are generally used to separate dependent clauses (part of a sentence that cannot stand on its own) from independent clauses (complete sentences in themselves) when the dependent clause comes first.

For example:

When I joined Computer Club, I made a lot of new friends.
Even though Marie gave me her Physical Science notes, I still flunked the test.

If the dependent clause comes second, there’s no need for a comma.

I burned the chicken because I left it in the oven too long.
Jonathan had to use his inhaler during the game when he had an asthma attack.

Commas also combine two independent clauses joined by a conjunction (and, but, so, etc.).

Madeline went to the carnival, and she met her friends by the Ferris wheel.
I made an A on my final exam, but I still made a B in the class.


Commas are used to separate certain adverbs from the rest of the sentence (however, therefore, furthermore, still, etc.).

For example:

I did, in fact, wrestle a bear down a hillside.
Nevertheless, Noreen and Donovan stayed together.

Some adverbs are optional (so, yet, instead, too).

So, we ended up seeing the late show.
So we ended up seeing the late show.
Margaret and Lily went to the mall, too.
Margaret and Lily went to the mall too.

Extra Information:

When adding nonessential information to a sentence, commas are used to enclose such phrases, separating them from the rest of the sentence.

My husband is from Ravenden, a tiny town famous for its giant concrete raven. (seriously)
Donna Noble, played by Catherine Tate, is my favorite companion in the reboot of Doctor Who.
Marcus, Thomas, and Kristina, friends of mine from college, help me read submissions for my online literary journal.


A comma is used to separate adjectives that directly modify the following noun, instead of putting and between them.

For example:

When I build a house, I want the basement to be in the style of a rundown, medieval tavern.
The man’s deep, melodious voice is captivating.
We sold our pickup and bought a brand-new, candy-apple-red Camaro with white racing stripes.


A comma is used to separate quoted material that is the object of an active verb of speaking or writing, but part of the sentence as a whole. Quotations supporting a preceding statement should be set off by a colon rather than a comma.

For example:

“If you spray me with that water hose, I’ll tell Mom,” shouted Hailey.
James Scott Bell, in his book Revision & Self-Editing, says, “writing fiction is a lot like playing good golf” (1).
My grandma always tells me, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.”

If you are quoting material in an academic paper, be sure to follow the guidelines of the appropriate style (MLA, The Chicago Manual of Style, APA in the U.S.).

So, there’s your introductory lesson on ending punctuation marks and commas. Next post will probably be over colons, semi-colons, dashes, and ellipses.


  1. I just wanted to let you know that I'm loving this post. Viva the Oxford comma, damn it!

  2. I think commas are one of the least understood punctuation marks. I see so much of this online: John, walked down the street. *shudder*