Learn these in order. Semi-colons are of limited use, commas are all over the place.



SEMI-COLONS have three straight-forward, and even logical, purposes.
1) SEMI-COLONS join two major word groups that can stand alone as sentences, yet are joined by a train of thought.

2) SEMI-COLONS join two word groups connected by AND, FOR, BUT, OR, or NOR but which have internal commas within one or both of the word groups.

3) SEMI-COLONS split up a string of paired words or phrases when the members of each pair are separated by a comma.

Space once after a semi-colon.
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COMMAS are omnipresent. They are found scattered throughout nearly every form and style of writing. Here we outline five uses, all eminently rational.
1) COMMAS join clauses (often signaled by AND, SO, FOR, OR, NOR, or BUT).

2) COMMAS demarcate the conclusion of an introductory statement and precede a key assertion.

3) COMMAS set off clauses that could be omitted from a sentence.

4) While there is some debate about this, COMMAS are often used to set apart items in a series.

An issue here is whether or not the comma before the "and" is absolutely necessary. When in doubt, use it.

5) COMMAS are used to set apart numbers, and to mark off dates or proper nouns.

Space once after a COMMA.
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Use a PERIOD to close a complete sentence, that doesn't require another form of punctuation like a question mark or an exclamation point.

Most common abbreviations require a PERIOD.

State abbreviations, because of postal rules, no longer require a PERIOD in addresses.

The PERIOD is not used after letters standing for certain organizations.

Other, usually older, organizations still insist on the period in the name.

When in doubt, go to the dictionary.

A series of PERIODS (these are called ellipsis marks--there are usually three within a sentence, four at the end of a declarative sentence) are used to indicate the omission of words from a quote or the hesitation in dialogue.

Double space after a PERIOD at the end of a sentence.

Space once after an ellipsis.

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DASHES (two strokes--on the hyphen) are subversive elements in the grammatical universe. Undisciplined usage causes dashes to rival commas for space--and to subvert the use of parentheses and colons.

DASHES are more powerful forms of separation than commas--although less powerful than colons. Dashes represent an abrupt break in the flow of a sentence.

Parentheses should be used when the thought is only marginally related to the meaning of the rest of the sentence.

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Use a COLON to separate word groups when the second group explains the first.


Colons can also be used for effect when setting up quotes:

Double space after a COLON.

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PARENTHESES are meant to enclose material that is a greater distance from the material than that enclosed by a dash or comma. Use it for material that is interpretive, supplementary, or explanatory.

The call for clarity in writing rises out of the belief that there is clarity to be found in reality (a condition rejected rhetorically and philosophically by most post-modernists).

Note that the punctuation goes outside the parenthesis, unless it belongs to the parenthetical element.

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The APOSTROPHE signals possession as in John Dewey's philosophy, Lisa Miller's presidency, Boy George's preferences, Davey Jones's (according to MLA; however, some prefer Jones') comeback. The apostrophe is more and more being omitted, as in plurals of numbers like 1960s. But it's as a substitute for it is remains distinguished from the possessive its.

APOSTROPHES indicate word contractions like won't, can't, don't, they're. Apostrophes also signal syllables left out in speech: Cuff 'em!

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The most peculiar thing about quotation marks is that the concluding comma or period goes inside the mark. This is probably due to the arrangement of the typesetting board, thus making life easier for typesetters who became obsolete with the advent of laser printers. But that's the rule--for now.

Here are more rules for quotations:

Note, however, that current usage frowns on the cute use of quotes, as in "cute" use. If you see tension with this warning and the example above, you are quite right.

As in much of your encounter with language, you will need to use reasonable judgement to balance the occasionally dubious logic of formal usage. Do you bow to the typesetters? For now, you bet.

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