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4.0 Punctuation Guide

1.0 Curing Wordiness 4.1 Semicolon

4.2 Colon

4.3 Hyphen

4.4 Comma

4.5 Dash

2.0 Quick Grammar Review
3.0 Dissolving Writer's Block
5.0 Troubleshooting Sentences
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4.1 Semicolon [;]
When to use itWhen not to use it
  • when joining two related independent clauses without a conjunction (and, but, or, because, so, while, etc.):

    Life is like a browser window; you never know exactly what you're going to see.
    I'm not crazy; I just see things my own way.

  • to separate large items in a list:

    The following activities appeal to my dog: eating food off the sidewalk, especially greasy pastries; making gurgling noises as she bites herself; rolling in dead fish, cow manure, and garbage piles; and chasing squirrels.

  • to join a series of short sentences that belong together:

    The phone is ringing; my tub is overflowing; my doorbell is ringing; somebody give me a massage!

  • to connect sentences with fragments:

    [x] My dog likes pizza; which she finds on the street.

Type semicolons with one space after and none before.


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4.2 Colon [:]
When to use itWhen not to use it
  • when you're introducing a list or other detail(s) mentioned in a complete sentence:

    The following activities appeal to my dog: eating food off the sidewalk, especially greasy pastries; making gurgling noises as she bites herself; rolling in dead fish, cow manure, and garbage piles; and chasing squirrels.

    I wanted one thing only: glow-in-the-dark dentures.

  • after sentence fragments:

    [x] The reason I was late was: my car decided not to start today.

Type colons with two spaces after and no spaces before.


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4.3 Hyphen [-]
When to use itWhen not to use it
in general, whenever you're creating a new word from two other words, or using a word as a different part of speech than usual:
  • to create a compound adjective:

    I bought a ten-gallon hat; it holds ten gallons.

    It was a five-minute job, but they took an hour.

  • to create a noun from a verb phrase:

    Didn't I meet you at the sit-in?

  • to join prefixes to words, if they don't flow together smoothly

    ex-accountant; pro-active; semi-useful

  • to join regular verbs and their adverbs, or nouns and their adjectives, or prefixes to words they're part of

    [x] They wanted to clean-up the house.

    [x] The hat held ten-gallons.

    [x] That was an un-fortunate decision.

Type hyphens with no spaces on either side.


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4.4 Comma [,]
When to use itWhen not to use it
  • to mark the end of a long introductory clause

    After I walked the dog and read the dictionary, I fell asleep.

  • (with a conjunction)to join a sentence to a dependent clause

    It was a five-minute job, like I told you.

  • to set aside intrusive parenthetical comments, direct addresses, states, countries, and years, and exclamations:

    She stood, tired and joyful, on top of the mountain.

    I was born in Morgantown, West Virginia, in January, 1970, and I weighed about 7 pounds.

    Hello, Your Royal Highness, would you like to hear our specials for today?

    Heck, if I had known, I would have brought more salad dressing!

  • to separate items in a series of three or more:
    Quietly, calmly, and resolutely, the cat walked toward the birdcage.

  • to separate a large subject and its verb:

    [x] The reason I was late, was that my car decided not to start.

  • after conjunctions:

    [x] I went home because, I was really tired.

  • between two sentences with no conjunction (comma splice):

    [x] My plants are big, however they don't need much water.

  • between pairs joined by conjunctions, except pairs of sentences:

    [x] He liked the fuschia couch, and the tea-green pillows.

    [x] The cat sat on the windowsill, and occasionally glared at passers-by.

  • to surround all "unnecessary items" in a sentence

Type commas with one space following and none preceding.


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4.5 Dash [--]
When to use itCautionary Notes
  • for interruptions, when a colon or semicolon doesn't fit:

    She walked a long way--twenty miles, in fact.

  • to interrupt sentences with fragments:

    It was a five-minute job--maybe even a two-minute job--but they took an hour.

  • in very formal essays, dashes can give the impression that the author doesn't know how to use colons and semicolons.

  • because they're interruptions, you'll want to use them sparingly

  • type them correctly--two hyphens, with no spacing on either side.


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