An Introduction to PunctuationByRichard NordquistUpdated February 25, 2020Punctuationis the set of marks used to regulatetextsand clarify their meanings,mainly by separating or linkingwords,phrases, andclauses. The word comes from theLatin wordpunctuaremeaning "making a point."Marks of punctuationincludeampersands,apostrophes,asterisks,brackets,bullets,colons,commas,dashes,diacritic marks,ellipsis,exclamation points,hyphens,paragraphbreaks,parentheses,periods,question marks,quotationmarks,semicolons,slashes,spacing, andstrike-throughs.The use (and misuse) of punctuation affects meaning—sometimes dramatically—, asseen in this "Dear John" letter, where the change in punctuation from one to the nextdrastically alters the meaning.Dear John:I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful.People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me forother men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we're apart. I can beforever happy—will you let me be yours?JaneDear John:I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtfulpeople, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me.For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we're apart, I canbe forever happy. Will you let me be?Yours,JaneThe Basic Rules of PunctuationLike many of the so-called "laws" ofgrammar, the rules for using punctuation wouldnever hold up in court. These rules, in fact, are conventions that have changed over thecenturies. They vary across national boundaries (Americanpunctuation, followed here,differs fromBritishpractice) and even from one writer to the next.Understanding the principles behind the common marks of punctuation shouldstrengthen your understanding of grammar and help you to use the marks consistently inyour own writing. As Paul Robinson observes in his essay "The Philosophy ofPunctuation" (inOpera, Sex, and Other Vital Matters, 2002), "Punctuation has theprimary responsibility of contributing to the plainness of one's meaning. It has the
secondary responsibility of being as invisible as possible, of not calling attention toitself."With these goals in mind, we'll direct you to guidelines for correctly using the mostcommon marks of punctuation: periods, question marks, exclamation points, commas,semicolons, colons, dashes, apostrophes, and quotation marks.