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punctuating precisely

Are you muddled about when to put the apostrophe in it's? Not sure about who's and whose? Perplexed by the difference between a colon and a semicolon (no, it's not really half a colon)? Inclined to mix commas and dashes recklessly, leaving your reader(s) reeling? Confused about the placement of quote marks relative to other punctuation?

We can help. Browse our many tips and examples to find your vulnerabilities and get on the right track.


Apostrophe (')

First, let's have a look at some common errors connected with apostrophe use; then we'll go to explain some rules to help you use apostrophes.

Some common errors with apostrophes:

It’s or its?

Does the it’s you’re using mean it is? Then it’s a contraction and it’s correct. Otherwise, use its. (NOTE: Sometimes it’s stands for it has. Example: It’s [it has] been a hectic day. Again, it’s is a contraction.)
Its is a possessive pronoun, like yours, theirs, ours, his, hers, whose. None of them uses the apostrophe. Examples: Every tool was in its proper place. Every dog has its day.
[See Contractions below.]

Who’s or whose?

A somewhat similar situation exists for who’s and whose.

Who’s is a contraction for who is or who has. Example: Who’s [who is] parked in the driveway? Who’s been eating my porridge?

Whose is a possessive pronoun. Example: Whose jacket is on the porch?

Sign seen on a front lawn (or mailbox): The Holden’s

What are the choices?

(a) The Holden’s (Correct only if the place belongs to one Holden, and only if that Holden is commonly referred to as The Holden; possible, but not likely.)

(b) The Holdens’ (This works. It means, “This is the Holdens’ house,” belonging to the Holden family or some group of Holdens. You start with the plural form, Holdens, and add the apostrophe.)

(c) The Holdens (This works, too. This means, “The Holdens live here.” A more extensive sign might have read John and Mary Holden, or John and Mary Holden and Family.)

THE PROBLEM: Carelessly forming plurals by inserting an apostophe with the s that forms the plural. Thus . . .

  • Turkey’s $1.69 lb. (sign in store window)
  • Power window’s (in car-for-sale ad)
  • Chimney’s repaired (sign on truck)

The apostrophe can be used to form the plural in the following very limited situations:

Lowercase letters and abbreviations: There are two c’s and two m’s in accommodation. Mind your p’s and q’s. Anwar easily grasped the abc’s of customer service. Do not, however, use an apostrophe to form the plural of expressions such as dos and don’ts, whys and wherefores. (Not all grammar books or stylebooks would agree on the latter point.)

Generally, the apostrophe is not used to form the plural of capital letters or numbers: Anita had clearly learned her Ps and Qs. She attended Smith College in the 1980s (or ‘80s).

Words being discussed as words: Don’t burden your writing with too many whereas’s.

Some rules governing apostrophes:

Use apostrophes to indicate possession:

  • The teacher’s exacting requirements. (The requirements of one teacher. Add -’s to form the possessive.)
  • The teachers’ exacting requirements. (The requirements of more than one teacher. First, form the plural, which ends in –s, then add the apostrophe to form the possessive.)
  • The gentleman’s hat. (The hat of one gentleman. Add -’s to form the possessive.)
  • The gentlemen’s hats. (The hats of more than one gentleman. The word gentlemen is already plural, and does not have an –s ending, so add -’s to form the possessive. Note: women and children are other examples of irregularly formed plurals not ending in -s.)
  • Charles’s stamp collection. (Charles is a singular noun that ends in –s. Add -’s to form the possessive.)
  • The Beatles’ albums. (Beatles is a plural noun ending in –s. Add an apostrophe to form the possessive.)
  • Ben and Jerry’s ice cream; Eric and Sten’s pickup basketball team. (For compound or joint ownership names, use the apostrophe with the last noun only.
  • Halvor’s and Willem’s contest entries. (Here the two people are being referred to separately, so -’s is added to each.)

Use apostrophes with verbs formed from capitals:

  • Has the committee OK’ed your proposal?
  • I FTP’ed the new layout to the printer.
  • Jacques had never MC’ed a show until now.

Use apostrophes to replace missing letters in contractions:

I am = I’m
I have = I’ve
I will = I’ll
I would = I’d
You are = you’re
You are = you’re (not your)
You have = you’ve
You will = you’ll
You would = you’d
He is or he has = he’s
He will = he’ll
He would = he’d
It is or it has = it’s (not its)
We are = we’re (not were)
We will = we’ll
We would = we’d
They are = they’re (not there or their)
They have = they’ve
They had = they’d
They will = they’ll

Are not = aren’t
Can not = can’t
Had not = hadn’t
Has not = hasn’t
Was not = wasn’t
Were not = weren’t
Will not = won’t (Strange one, isn’t it?)

ALSO, contractions using proper nouns:
John's (John is) leaving soon.
Ella's (Ella has) been there many times.

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Period (.)

While the apostrophe is often used when it shouldn’t be, the period is not used often enough. Many people let their sentences wander, stringing together phrases and clauses that would be clearer if separated. Though a skillful writer can construct long sentences that are not only grammatically correct but hold the reader rapt throughout, it’s almost always better to keep your sentences short and to the point. Your goal, presumably, is to be understood by your reader or listener.

Rambling sentence: Consumers are becoming more picky about the origins of the food they buy however the cost of that food continues to rise according to food economists.

Much better: Consumers are becoming more picky about the origins of the food they buy. However, the cost of that food continues to rise, as most shoppers are only too well aware.

Some other uses for the period, besides ending declarative sentences (above):

  • End a request phrased as a question: Would you bring your laptop when you drop by this evening.
  • End a rhetorical question: What do I care.
  • With time of day: 6 p.m.
  • With dollar-and-cents amounts: $10.37
  • After many abbreviations: Mr., Mrs., Ms., Jr., 20 Queen St. W., f.o.b., lb., m.p.h., etc., abbr. NOTE: Most all-capital abbreviations (NATO, PSAT, UNICEF, RCMP, MLA, CBC) do not have periods. Look them up and be consistent in your treatment of them; if you are subject to a particular stylebook, keep it at hand.
    Abbreviations of provinces and states (Ont., Sask., B.C., Minn., N.Y., Mich.) require periods but the two-letter postal codes (ON, SK, BC, MN, NY, MI) do not.

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Semicolon (;) and colon (:)

They are not the same, nor even similar; they are definitely not interchangeable.

The semicolon, in its appearance, resembles a comma with a period above it; interestingly, these are the two marks it most resembles in function as well.

It is used, like a period, to separate independent clauses (clauses that each can stand alone). However, it differs from the period in that it connects as well as separates, since it is used only to separate clauses that are closely related:
William attended the sessions regularly; it was in his interest to do so, and he knew this.

It is used, like a comma, a super-comma actually, to separate items – some or all of which may contain commas – in a list:
Laticia promised to run three errands on her way home from school: pick up the dog, which would have been dropped at the vet for shot and a checkup; buy printer paper for Dylan, who desperately needed it for a school project; and shop for greens, pasta, milk and cheese for supper.

The colon is frequently used to introduce a list that occurs at the end of a sentence (see example in previous paragraph). It is also used in the following ways:

  • With the salutation in a formal letter:
    Dear Mr. Katchasketchkan:
  • In a book title, to separate the title and subtitle:
    John A.: The Man Who Made Us: The Life and Times of John A. Macdonald
    Becoming Justice Blackmun: Harry Blackmun’s Supreme Court Journey
  • To introduce longer quoted material:
    The Canadian A-Z of Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation differentiates silicon and silicone in the following way: “The element used in electronic components is silicon. The soft compound used in caulking, implants, etc. is silicone.”
  • To separate numbers in a ratio:
    Mix the oatmeal and water in a 1:2 ratio.
  • To separate hours and minutes:
    The meeting adjourned at 3:45. 

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Comma (,)

The comma seems to be the most challenging punctuation mark to use properly. Its use in many instances is discretionary; as well, knowledge of sentence structure is integral to appropriate comma placement.

A frequent comma-use error is to splice two independent clauses together without the use of a coordinating conjunction: The signs should have made clear that visiting hours were restricted, however, visitors seemed to come at all hours. This kind of awkward splice often occurs with the use of however; is it connected to the first clause or the second? It causes the reader to stumble. Fix it with a semicolon or a period: The signs should have made clear that visiting hours were restricted; however, visitors seemed to come at all hours. The signs should have made clear that visiting hours were restricted. However, visitors seemed to come at all hours.

Another error frequently committed is separating a subject from its verb with a single comma: All people planning to go on the overnight camp-out to Belvedere Park in August, will be asked to pay in advance. The subject is people; the verb is will be asked. A comma serves no purpose here.

However, a pair of commas should be used in the following sentence: The overnight camp-out in Belvedere Park, our first camping activity this season, should attract at least twenty people. The phrase our first camping activity this season modifies camp-out (actually activity is an appositive that means the same as camp-out, and the other words in the phrase modify activity), which is the subject of the sentence; the verb is should attract. The entire phrase needs to be set off; a single comma following Park will not do.

Sometimes appositives are set off and sometimes they are not. Here are examples of each:
Ajay’s sister Mina now winters in Arizona. Ajay has more than one sister; the appositive Mina tells you which sister the statement refers to. It is restrictive, necessary to the sense of the sentence, so you do not set it off with commas. If Ajay has only one sister, then Mina is not necessary to identify which sister is being referred. It is non-restrictive, so you set it off with commas.

I immediately contacted my financial adviser, Adolfo Mendez. I have just one financial adviser, so the appositive Adolfo Mendez does not restrict adviser. Because Adolfo Mendez is non-restrictive, we set if off with commas (in this case, one comma, because the appositive ends the sentence).

Helga's mom, who will be fifty-eight this year, has run in marathons since she was was fifteen. (Who will be fifty-eight this year is non-restrictive, since it is not needed to tell you which mom I’m referring to.)

The chap who lives next door is chair of the community festival committee. (Who lives next door tells you which chap I’m referring to; without that clause, you wouldn’t know which chap I’m talking about. It’s restrictive; don’t set it off with commas.)

When the words a, an or some, or a number, come before the description or identification, set off with commas. For example:

  • A well-known author, Alex Haley, once came to speak at our city library.
  • An outspoken opponent of the proposed zoning, Millicent Macintosh, purchased an ad in the newspaper.
  • Two Central High School graduates, Jack Sims and April Donati, were remembered for their dramatic performances.

Use commas to separate geographical elements: She was born in Toronto, Ontario, but lived there only briefly before moving to Calgary, Alberta, where she remained for the rest of her life. NOTE: At least one major publication, the Economist, does not use the second comma (. . . moving to Calgary, Alberta where . . .), but this is a real rarity. Best to stay with pairs of commas as is common practice.

Use commas to separate some adjectives, but not all: The aging, ghostly brown brick house has been vacant for years. The Gibsons’ courtly, solicitous butler met us at the door. Dila’s new red Mustang convertible was parked in the driveway.
Test: If you could place the word and between two adjectives, use a comma to separate them. For example, aging and ghostly.
Another test: If the order of the adjectives could not be changed, omit commas. Example: new Mustang red convertible.

Use a comma to set off an introductory clause or long phrase that precedes the main clause:
Although Elliott had visited the Steigmanns’ home many times, he had never noticed the andirons by the fireplace.
Unlike her mother, Juliette found solace in reading poetry.

Use a comma before clauses that begin with and, but, for, or, nor or yet if the subject changes:
Thrift is a virtue and a comfort when times are difficult, but sometimes it’s fun to splurge.
Do not use a comma if clauses are short or the subject remains the same:
Gavin joined the group but Iain remained a holdout.
Phyllis slipped on the wet floor yet managed to remain upright.

There is no need to use a comma before and in a series (although it is grammatically correct to do so):
The greengrocer lowered the awning, rolled out the benches, brought out the produce and set up the signage.
The mechanic cited the brakes, air conditioner, tires and fan belt as needing attention.

Whether you use or do not use a comma before and in a series, be consistent in how you approach this in your writing.


Quotation mark (" ")

Enclose direct quotations in quote marks:

“It's very rare to be able to do not only a post-mortem, but also be able to have tested her two, three years before she died,” Dr. Doraiswamy said. “For a scientist, getting the opportunity to study someone like that is like winning the lottery.” Note that the comma and the period terminating the two parts of the quote are placed inside the quote marks. This is common practice in North America, but not necessarily elsewhere, including the U.K. See further notes below on placement of quote marks with question marks, exclamation points, semicolons and colons.

Enclose partial quotations in quote marks:
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the truncated review procedure provided by a previous law, the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, “falls short of being a constitutionally adequate substitute” because it failed to offer “the fundamental procedural protections of habeas corpus.” (New York Times, June 13, 2008) Here the partial quotes are part of a summarized or paraphrased version of the complete ruling.

Don’t fall into this partial-quote trap: Sylvia said she “doesn’t have faith in the company’s ability to make good on its promise.” If this is a direct quote, Sylvia must have said, “I doesn’t have faith . . ..” Be sure your direct quotes are absolutely accurate.

When direct quotations continue from one paragraph to the next, indicate this by inserting quote marks at the beginning of each paragraph in the quote and at the end of the quotation:
“The flood waters swept into the area so fast, we didn’t have time to pull together any of our belongings,” said Joseph Schmidt, a grain elevator worker. “We were, however, able to gather up our dog, Fritz, and two cats, Zorro and Whitey.

“When the boat picked us up, we had just about given up hope of survival.”

“The Schmidts were standing on their roof with the water just below the roof line,” said Tim Driscoll, a rescue worker. Note the change of speaker, requiring quote marks at the beginning and end of the quote.

When a direct quotation (whether one word or more) appears within another direct quotation, enclose it in single quote marks to distinguish it:
Mr. McCain was as enraged as any of the tough resisters by what they considered the treason of the two officers and enlisted men, his friends said. “He thought this was ‘terrible, terrible, terrible,’ they should all be shot,” said John Dramesi, a fellow prisoner. (New York Times, June 15, 2008)
“Michael came back from the meeting,” Mr. Zucker recalled, “and said he had also decided to name him the new moderator of ‘Meet the Press.’ ” (NY Times, June 14, 2008)

As noted earlier, commas and periods are placed inside the ending quotation marks. Semicolons and colons are placed outside:
He couldn’t abide people who complained that the city government “isn’t looking after us as it should”; he felt they should take responsibility for their own state of affairs.
He always had time for his “pleasurable sins”: chewing tobacco, playing poker and sipping scotch whiskey.

Question marks and exclamation points are placed either inside or outside, depending upon whether the question or exclamation is inside or outside the words in quotes:
Alfred said, “What time did you expect to be home?”
Whom was he referring to when he said “that nasty man”?
Jed could not have been more emphatic: “I need that CD now!”
It’s really irritating when you say, “I’ll get to that when I have time”!

Quote marks may be used with the titles of short works and portions of larger works, such as magazine articles, newspaper stories, essays, short stories, songs, poems, chapters of books, short films, sculptures and paintings:
Rodin’s “The Thinker” was a “must-see” for us when we visited Paris.
One of the hits was k.d. lang’s rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Sometimes headlines take on unintended interpretation: “Escaped Leopard Believed Spotted.”

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Dash ( – )

It’s one of the most carelessly used marks of punctuation, often wrongly substituted for the comma. It makes its own distinctive contribution and should be used sparingly.

The dash often signals a break in the continuity of a sentence: I loaned my mower to Carlo – he always returns it with dispatch – and my gas-powered generator to my father-in-law.
From the New York Times, Sunday, August 17, 2008: Jon Stewart Says His Job Is Just Throwing Spitballs. But in Satirizing a World That Often Defies Satire, ‘The Daily Show’ Has Become – Are You Insane? – an Important News Source.

The dash can set off a list occurring in mid-sentence: He quickly ticked off the supplies – paper, crayons, pencils, markers – he would need to get the drawing session started.

The list could also occur at the beginning of the sentence: Paper, crayons, pencils, markers – these were the things he would need to get the drawing session started.

The dash can set off an additional thought at the end of a sentence: He wore plaid pants, green-and-purple-striped shirt, chartreuse socks – you see what I mean.

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Hyphen (-)

The hyphen connects words that form compound adjectives:

  • Anupa ran the second-best time of the day in the 100-metre dash.
  • Cato showed us the eighteenth-century-style roll-top desk he had built.
  • Here’s a wealth of examples from auto specifications published in The Illustrated Directory of Sports Cars, Graham Robson, Prospero Books: Single-dry-plate clutch and five-speed all-synchromesh manual gearbox, in unit with front-mounted engine. Also: rack-and-pinion steering, two-seater coupe, six-speed transmission
  • Ellen was relieved to find a first-floor apartment. But: Ellen was relieved to find an apartment on the first floor. (no hyphen)
    As well, a hyphen is often needed to avoid confusion, as in this headline: Squad Helps Dog-Bite Victim. The original headline had no hyphen.

The hyphen is used with prefixes when confusion might otherwise result, especially from repeating letters: De-emphasize or de-energize, but deride, deregulate, rediscover, redo and so on. Also re-sign rather than resign when the intended meaning is sign again, or re-form rather than reform when the intended meaning is to return to a previous form.

Use hyphens for:

In-laws: son-in-law (and sons-in-law), father-in-law, and so on; also great-type relatives: great-grandmother, great-aunt, and so on

Vice-type titles: vice-president, vice-chairperson, and so on; also elect- and designate-type titles; president-elec, councillor-designate and so on

Self-connected descriptors: self-absorbed, self-assured, self-esteem, self-confidence and so on
Compound numbers: twenty-first, sixty-two
Fractions: three-fifths, two-thirds
Compound nouns: trade-in, runner-up, free-for-all
Prefixes before proper nouns: pre-Columbian, all-Canadian, un-American
Ranges of numbers or dates: pages 16-30, August 15-21

Do not use a hyphen to connect an adverb* ending in –ly with an adjective:

  • Mark’s perfectly coiffed hair contrasted with his lumberjack-style apparel.
  • Salman’s coolly delivered ultimatum startled his family.
    *Remember that adverbs modify adjectives and other adverbs.

Do not insert a space before or after a hyphen; this moves the hyphen into the dash realm, where it doesn’t belong. Do not use a hyphen in place of a dash.

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Exclamation point (!)

Use an exclamation point after a word, phrase or sentence expressing sudden or strong feeling:

  • Aha! Dear me! D’oh! Gadzooks! Holy cow! Ouch! Pshaw! Yikes!
  • What a kind thing to do!
  • This pudding tastes terrible!

Use an exclamation point after a command:

  • Tote that barge! Lift that bale!
  • Get out of the way!

Use an exclamation point at the end of sentences that seem to pose a question but are exclamatory in intent:

  • Wouldn’t you think she could take a hint!
  • Do you realize what this will do to the club’s reputation!

CAUTION: Use the exclamation point sparingly. The more often you use it, the less the effect. Use vivid, descriptive language to get your point across.

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Parenthesis (  )

Use parentheses to set off content that is not part of the grammatical flow of your sentence but is important to include:

  • The store’s produce section (it’s my favorite) has some of the most exotic varieties you’ll ever see.
  • Jamal, Israel and Joseph volunteered for overseas postings (Jamal and Israel had previous postings in India) and began to get their affairs in order.

NOTE: In many cases, including those above, dashes could be substituted for parentheses. Be careful, however. (See guidelines for dash, above.)

Use parentheses to enclose explanations inserted in the text:

  • Certain medications cannot be taken with grapefruit juice (see list below).
  • Set your thermostat at 75 degrees Fahrenheit (24 degrees Celsius) and you will still be comfortably cool.
  • This excerpt from a newspaper story about how young newcomers adapt to New York illustrates this kind of parenthetical use as well:
    Through Lisa and Alex, Freda has learned valuable insider city tips, like what kind of subway pass to buy (30-day unlimited), and whether he should tip deliverymen (yes) or doormen (maybe).

Use parentheses to enclose figures or letters in a list:

Design styles of the Victorian and Edwardian periods include:

(1) Classical

(2) Georgian

(3) Italianate

(4) Gothic

(5) Aesthetic

(6) Arts and Crafts

(7) Eclectic

(8) Queen Anne

(9) Art Nouveau

(10) Edwardian

Steps in re-gluing a chair joint include (a) pulling the joint apart, if possible; (b) cleaning and sanding both members of the joint; (c) applying the glue; (d) pressing the members together; (e) wiping off excess glue with a damp cloth; and (f) clamping the joint as needed.

CAUTION: Do not use any additional punctuation to separate the parenthetical material from the rest of the sentence. Punctuate the sentence as though the parenthetical expression were not there.

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Question mark (?)

Use a question mark at the end of a direct question:

  • May I borrow the car tonight?
  • How much is that doggie in the window?

Use a question mark to express more than one question within the same sentence:

  • Did you pack your toothbrush? toothpaste? shaving kit? mouthwash?
  • Do you think you may have left your math book at school? in the car? at Torsten’s house?

Use a question mark to indicate doubt or uncertainty:

  • We’ve been visiting Arizona for 28(?) years.

Use a question mark or a period to close a request or command that is phrased as a question:

  • Will you please bring a gallon of milk when you come home.
  • Will you please bring a gallon of milk when you come home?

Question mark with quote marks

Place the question mark inside the quotes when only the quoted matter is a question:

  • “I hope you don’t mind my asking,” she said, “but how old are you?”

Place the question mark outside the quotes when the question is not part of the quoted matter:

  • Didn’t you hear him say, “Please leave me alone”?

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Ellipsis dots ( . . . )

An ellipsis signals the omission of part of a quotation:

  • He described the village as “an unwelcome interruption . . . in an otherwise pleasant ride through the countryside.”
  • Abraham Lincoln said, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; . . . let us strive on to finish the work we are in . . . .”

NOTE: Insert spaces before, between and after the period dots that make up the ellipsis. If the ellipsis begins immediately after a punctuation mark (as in the Lincoln quote: with charity for all; . . .), be sure to include that punctuation mark before beginning the ellipsis. If the ellipsis ends the quote (as in the Lincoln quote), include a period or other terminal punctuation after the third ellipsis dot.

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Bracket [   ]

Use brackets to enclose explanatory notes, omissions or comments not written by the author of the text:

  • He [John A. Macdonald] was a doer, not a thinker, although highly intelligent and omnivorously well read. From John A.: The Man Who Made Us, by Richard Gwynn, Random House Canada, 2007.


Use brackets as parentheses inside parentheses, such as in a footnote or bibliographical entry.

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