Punctuation Rules


Simple Sentence

Mary ate dinner.

Comma Used With "and" or "but" to Join Two Complete Sentences Together

Example1: Mary ate dinner, and she ate dessert.  
Example 2: Mary ate dinner, but she didn't eat dessert.

*No comma if second word group is not a complete sentence:

Mary ate dinner and also ate dessert.  (subject missing in second group).

Comma Used After Introductory Word Group Before the Main Sentence

Because she had no moneyMary ate dinner at home.

Comma Used Between All Items In a List of Three or More Items

Mary's dinner consisted of salad, soup, chicken, and toast.

Comma Used to Show Nonrestrictive Word Groups That Only Add Information

Nonrestrictive: Mary ate the dinner, which was prepared Cajun style.
Restrictive: Mary ate the dinner that Ivan made.

Note: The words "that Ivan made" are "restrictive" because they restrict the dinner to the specific one Mary ate.  The dinner is not the dinner made by Fred or Joyce but the dinner made by Ivan.

Nonrestrictive Example 2: Mary's dinner, which included several food groups, gave her heartburn.

In this case, the words "which included several food groups" do not restrict our knowledge to a specific dinner.  Therefore, the words are nonrestrictive and should be set off by commas.

Nonrestrictive Example 3: Mary's dinner, with its wide range of flavorwas digested slowly.

If removed, the words "with its wide range of flavor" would not significantly alter the sentence's meaning because they are just additional information and do not limit the word "dinner."

Comma Used with Words Like "however" and Phrases Like "for example"

Example 1: Mary ate dinner; however, she was hungry an hour later.
Example 2: Mary's dinner was made with several spices; for example, the chicken was sprinkled with Cayenne pepper.

*Note:  The semi-colon may be used to connect two complete sentences together, which is the case in both of these examples. See the first rule under semi-colon rules below.

Comma Used with Word Groups that Contradict

Example 1: Mary ate dinner, not breakfast, every day.
Example 2: Unlike Ivan, Mary ate dinner every day.

Comma Used for Additional Information

Example 1: Mary, as far as Ivan knows, ate dinner.
Example 2: Mary ate dinner at 9:00, give or take a few minutes.

Comma Used with Descriptive Word Groups

Example 1: 

Her dinner at last eaten, Mary belched.  Blue words modify Mary.
Mary belched, her dinner at last eaten.  Blue words modify belched
Mary, her dinner at last eaten, belched.  Blue words modify Mary.

Example 2: 

Mary startled Ivan, her belch having sounded like a gunshot.  Blue words modify Mary.
Her belch having sounded like a gunshot, Mary startled Ivan.  Blue words modify Mary.
Mary, her belch having sounded like a gunshot, startled Ivan.  Blue words modify Mary.

Comma Used to Set Off the Following: Names of People Directly Addressed by the Sentence; the Words "yes" and "no"; Interrogative (Question) Tags; and Mild Interjections

Person Directly Addressed by the Sentence:  Ivan, Please Pardon Mary for belching at dinner.

"Yes" or "No": Yes, Mary's belch disturbed Ivan's tranquility.

Interrogative (Question) Tags: Mary's dinner did exceed the 1,000 calorie limit, didn't it ?

Mild Interjection: Well, Mary ate dinner again.

Comma Used with Words Such as "she said" to Indicate Direct Quotations

Example 1: Ivan said, "Mary ate dinner at 9:12."
Example 2: "Ivan made my dinner,announced Mary.

Commas Used with Numbers, Dates, Titles, and Addresses

Numbers (Use Comma if Number is Longer than Four Digits. If Comma is Four Digits Exactly, Comma use is Optional): Mary ate 50,000 green peas last year.

Dates: On September 14, 1993, Mary ate dinner.

Titles (Such as Ph.D., D.D.S., etc.): Mary Chambers, M.D., ate dinner.

Addresses Example 1: Mary ate dinner at her house on 250 Bolus Way, Digest, Georgia 31072.

Addresses Example 2: Mary ate dinner in Digest, Georgia, in 1993.

*Note: Do not use zip code abbreviations for states. GA would be incorrect for Georgia in the sentence above.

Comma Used to Avoid Confusion

To eat is normal; to gorge oneself, gluttony.


Semicolons and Colons

Semicolon Used to Join Two Complete Sentences

Example 1: Mary ate dinner; the dinner tasted exquisite.
Example 2: By age 15, Ivan had cooked 300 meals; by age 20, he had cooked twice that amount.

Semicolon Used with Words Like 'however" and Phrases Like "for example"

Example 1: Mary ate dinner; however, she was hungry an hour later.
Example 2: Mary's dinner was made with several spices; for example, the chicken was sprinkled with Cayenne pepper.

Semicolon Used to Clarify a List of Items When Each Item has Punctuation Within Itself

Mary's favorite dinner foods are chicken, with Cayenne pepper; salad, with Italian dressing; toast, with garlic and butter; and soup, with scallions, cheese, and mushrooms.

Colon Used to Further Explain or Introduce a List

Further Explanation with Two Sentences: Mary's dinner reminded her of the back yard: both contained many wonderful colors and smells.

Further Explanation with a List: Mary's dinner consisted of the following: salad, soup, chicken, and toast.

Further Explanation with a Quotation: The words Ivan spoke were very kind: "Mary, I made this dinner especially for you, dear."

Colon Used with Ratios, Titles and Subtitles of Books, City and Publisher in Bibliographies, Hours and Minutes, and Formal Letters

Ratio: Mary's ratio of carbohydrate intake to protein was 3:1.

Titles and Subtitles: Mary enjoys reading the book Tastebud Heaven: Homemade Meals for the Distinguished Palette.

City and Publisher in Bibliography: New York: Norton, 1999

Hours and Minutes: Mary ate dinner at 9:12.

Formal Letters: Dear Editor:  


Quotation Marks

Quotation Marks Used to Show Direct (Exact) Quotations

Ivan said, "Mary ate dinner at 9:12."

Quotation Marks Used to Call Attention to Words

Example 1: The words "spatula" and "mixer" are two of Ivan's favorite words.
Example 2: Mary enjoys the way in which the word "spaghetti" rolls off the tongue.

Quotation Marks Used with Titles of the Following: Poetry, Newspaper or Magazine Articles, Songs, Short Stories, Chapters in Books, and Episodes of Radio or Television Programs

Poem: Mary's favorite poem is "Full Stomachs, Formal Decisions" by Chef Pauline Grater.

Songs: "I Hear that Kettle A Whistlin" is one of Ivan's ten favorite songs. 


What Not to Do


(Punctuating used to be called pointing. The word survives in "exclamation point.")



I didn't like Mary's dinner, but, I ate it.
Don't put commas after "but" "or" "and"!

Mistake #2:   

Ivan loved Mary's dinner, I hated it.
Don't join two complete (a subject and verb on both sides of the punctuation mark)sentences  together with only a comma.  Use ,and or a ; or make two separate sentences: Ivan loved Mary's dinner.  I hated it.

Mistake # 3:

Mary ate dinner, and also ate dessert.
Don't put commas with words like "and" or "but" if the second sentence lacks a subject.

Mistake # 4:

Mary eats foods such as, chicken, salad, and toast.
Don't put commas after the word "like" or phrases like "such as."

Mistake # 5:

Ivan used to say, that he learned to cook before he learned to walk.
Don't use commas to indicate indirect quotations, often beginning with "that" or "which."

Mistake # 6:

"Do you like your dinner?," Ivan asked.
Don't use commas after quotation marks or exclamation points in direct quotations.  In any event, never use more than two punctuation marks in one spot!


Mistake # 1:

Mary's dinner consisted of the following; salad, soup, chicken, and toast.
Don't use semicolons before a list of three or more items; the appropriate mark is a colon.

Mistake # 2:

Mary ate dinner; but she didn't eat dessert.
Don't use semicolons with words like "and" and "but" that join two complete sentences together; the appropriate mark is a comma.


Mistake # 1:

Ivan's kitchen utensil set is made up of: thirty knives, four large spoons, eight spatulas, and three pairs of tongs.
Don't use colons after words like "of," which is a preposition that begins a prepositional phrase with multiple objects.  The colon would separate the preposition from its objects.

Mistake # 2:

Mary's ideal dinner contains: chicken, salad, soup, and toast.
Don't use colons after verbs that come before a list of items.  If you use a phrase like "the following" then the colon is appropriate, as in "contains the following:"


Mistake #1

Ivan used to say that "he learned to cook before he learned to walk."
Don't use quotation marks to indicate indirect quotations, in this case a description of what Ivan said rather than his actual words.  Quotation marks are reserved for actual words said or written.