Basic Rules of Punctuation

By guest contributor PJ Feinstein. Photography ByAmanda.

Commas and colons and dashes—oh my! The rules of punctuation may be confusing at times, but they are important to learn. Punctuation exists to help readers, and incorrectly using punctuation can make your blog post difficult to understand. Even a misplaced comma can change the meaning of what you have written: Let’s eat Grandma! vs. Let’s eat, Grandma!

As you write, keep in mind these basic rules of punctuation. (Don’t worry, you won’t be tested afterwards!)

A Comma

  • Before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so and yet) connecting two or more independent clauses that could stand alone as separate sentences: I prefer mint chocolate chip ice cream, but my husband loves cookies and cream. 
  • After an introductory clause or phrase: When the door opened, my dog was sitting there to greet me.
  • Between all items in a series: Don’t forget to pack your bathing suit, a towel, and sunscreen. 
  • Between coordinating adjectives (adjectives that can be joined with an and or can be rearranged): She is a trustworthy, generous, sincere friend.

A Semicolon

  • Between two independent clauses not combined with a coordinating conjunction: It was my first visiting the beach; I’ll never forget the feeling of sand between my toes.

A Colon

  • After an independent clause to direct attention to a list, an appositive, or a quotation: It shouldn’t take you too long to complete the following exercises: jumping jacks, lunges, bicep curls, and sit ups.

An Apostrophe

  • To indicate that a noun is possessive: The baby’s diaper is dirty. 
  • To take the place of missing letters in contractions: Where is my hat? It’s (it is) in the hall closet.

The Dash

  • To emphasize parenthetical material: Anything you can donate—food, clothing, or blankets—would be greatly appreciated. 
  • Before a list, a restatement, an amplification, or a shift in tone or thought: The coffee shop had been taken over by a large group of moms—strollers, diaper bags, and toys were everywhere.

Quotation Marks

  • Periods and commas go inside quotation marks: Coco Chanel famously said, “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.” 
  • Colons and semicolons go outside quotation marks: Coco Chanel famously said, “A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous”; however, I disagree.
  • Question marks and exclamation points go inside quotation marks unless they apply to the whole sentence: My son sat next to me and asked, “Do I really have to go to bed now?” What should I say when my son asks, “Do I really have to go to bed now”?