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When the referee is present to blow the whistle, it’s time to worry about the rules. In the meantime, just write, and do it quickly.

The punctuation officials can’t always agree on the right call. What one style book says is wrong is preferred in another. Different publishers follow their own rules. There are so many guidelines, rules, and exceptions, no one can remember all of them all the time, so what you see in print isn’t a perfect guide. Just know the marks, what they do, and why they are important, and you’ve earned the right to play.

Punctuation marks are important to readers only when they affect the clarity of the message, and that should be your topmost concern. As you listen to the words, hear the rise and fall of tone, the pauses and stops. If you learn to punctuate by the way you talk, considering natural pauses and stressed words, you won’t have to worry so much about rule violations.

  • . Period — A period is a stop sign, a place where readers complete the thought before driving on. Read More …
  • , Comma — A comma functions like a yield sign, a pause to keep readers from having a wreck, crashing into the words ahead. Read More …
  • ? Question Mark — A question ends with an even longer stop than a period, begging for time to consider an answer. Read More …
  • ’ Apostrophe — Apostrophes are used for contractions and possessive nouns, a simple task that is often misunderstood. Read More …
  • “ ” Quotation Marks — Quotation Marks identify titles that won’t stand alone, spoken dialogue, and words quoted from other speakers and writers. Read More …
  • ! Exclamation Mark — An exclamation is a shouting stop, used at the end of an emphatic command or interjection. The mark is often overused. Read More …
  • : Colon — Don’t be confused by the period that has door knob above it. The dot at mid-level indicates a need to stop before readers open a new area of related information. Read More …
  • ; Semicolon — The comma with a dot on top is a long pause or a short stop, which isn’t of much use anymore. Read More …
  • - Hyphen — Hyphens create compound words and break words into syllables. Unlike the dash, which pushes words and phrases apart, slowing a sentence, the hyphen speeds up the message by joining items into a single word. Read More …
  • — Dash — Dashes are like flashing yellow lights. You have to slow down, but you’re not always sure how much to slow down or why. Read More …
  • () Parentheses — Parentheses are like billboards, digressions that often steal focus from the important part of the text. Read More …
  • … Ellipsis — An ellipsis is used to indicate trailing speech or left-out words. Read More …
  • / Slash — A slash is used to create either/or words and Uniform Resource Locator (URL) Web addresses. Read More …