Understanding Punctuation

Proper punctuation can influence the tone of your piece and illustrates, in writing form, the emphasis you use when speaking. Make punctuation a priority as you proofread any piece you are writing. Explanations follow for uses of some common forms of punctuation.

Periods, Question Marks, Exclamation Points
Writers may end a sentence with one of three punctuation marks: a period, a question mark, or an exclamation point. Periods are the most common mark used and indicate a statement we might speak in a normal tone. Question marks indicate that the writer has asked a question. Exclamation points illustrate something the writer wants to convey forcefully or with emotion.

Commas break sentences down into shorter parts. When you write, place commas between independent clauses when they are joined by the following coordinating conjunctions: and, or, for, nor, but, yet, so. Commas are also used after introductory clauses and phrases or words coming before a main clause. Additionally, commas set off clauses, words, or phrases in the middle of a sentence that are not essential to the meaning the sentence conveys. Don’t forget that commas are also used to separate three or more words, phrases, or clauses included in a series.

Colons and Semicolons
Semicolons are a means of joining two complete sentences that do not include a coordinating conjunction. When your sentence includes a semicolon, connecting words such as “however,” “therefore,” and “moreover” may be included. Semicolons are also useful when complex items in a series already include commas.

Colons, meanwhile, often precede a list. They also separate a rule, explanation, or example from an independent clause. For instance, “After looking at cars all day, they finally made a choice: they would purchase the red one.”

Hyphens are frequently found between words serving as a compound adjective modifying a noun. For instance, “a multiple-choice test” and a “high-speed chase” require hyphens. Note that hyphens are not required when the adjectives come after the noun. Numbers written out in long form should also be hyphenated: forty-five, sixty-three, etc.

Quotation Marks
Quotation marks are used to indicate dialogue or exact verbiage and are used in pairs. This punctuation is especially important to indicate when the words in your writing are not your own. Be diligent about checking to see that you have included quotation marks when necessary to guard against any appearance of plagiarism.


The apostrophe is used to show possession or that an item belongs to someone else. 

When should a word be possessive?
According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL), you can tell whether you need to make a word possessive by creating an “of the…” phrase.

the collar of the dog or the dog’s collar
the car of the boy or the boy’s car

The OWL noted that no apostrophe is required if the word after the “of” is an object, piece of furniture, or building.

handle of the door or door handle
window of the kitchen or kitchen window

Possessive Nouns
If you have determined that you need to make a word possessive, the rules for doing so can vary according to what type of word you want to make possessive.

Smiling girl sitting in front of an open book in between two stacks of booksFor the singular form of a word, add an ‘s.

the woman’s purse
Mark’s jacket

If the word is plural, but does not end in ‘s, make the word possessive by adding ‘s.

the children’s toys
the mice’s squeaking

If a plural noun ends in ‘s, you only need to add an apostrophe.

the boys’ restroom
the dogs’ water dish
the birds’ nest

For singular, proper nouns ending in -s, the OWL says either an -‘s, or -s’ is acceptable.

More About Pronouns
Indefinite pronouns (one, anyone, other, no one, and anybody) can be made possessive.

no one’s business
anybody’s game

The words “who” and “its” mean different things when written with apostrophes. “Who’s” is a contraction for “who is,” and “it’s” is a contraction for “it is.”

Possessive Pronouns
Remember that in the English language, there are also possessive pronouns, many of which require no apostrophe: his, her, hers, our, ours, your, yours, my, mine, its, their, and theirs.

Joint Possession
When an object belongs to more than one person, the apostrophe is written with the last person’s name.

John and Mary’s car

When proofreading to see whether you have included apostrophes correctly, review your work slowly and examine every word that ends in -s or -es.

Verb Tenses

Verbs indicate when an action took place (or will take place). In English, there are three basic verb tenses: past, present, and future. Each tense has a perfect form, illustrating that an action is complete, a progressive form, showing that an action is ongoing, and a perfect progressive form, showing that an ongoing action will be finished at a specific time.

Occasionally, these tenses become confusing, but they are nonetheless important to know when writing and proofreading. Ken Blake of Middle Tennessee State University wrote, “What if ‘A rattlesnake is under your chair’ meant the same thing as ‘A rattlesnake was under your chair a few minutes ago’ and ‘A rattlesnake will be under your chair in just a few minutes’? You wouldn’t know whether to run away, sit very still, or breathe a sigh of relief.” To ensure your readers can comprehend what you are trying to say, make sure you understand what verb tense you are using when writing, and verify that you have used the correct tense when proofreading.

Present Tense
Verbs in the present tense show an action or circumstance that is currently taking place, is an unchanging or recurring action, or is a widespread truth.

The flower is red.
The school celebrates Homecoming every September.

Past Tense
Verbs in the past tense show that an action or situation was started and completed in the past.

We went grocery shopping yesterday.

Most past tense verbs end in -ed. However, there are some irregular verbs that require memorization of their correct past tense forms.

Future Tense
Future tense verbs show that something will take place in the future. “Will” and “shall” are common words to use when indicating the future. The writer might also pair “am,” “is” or “are” with the words “going to.”

We are going to drive to the library tomorrow.

Present Progressive
Present progressive verbs show an action that is happening even as a sentence is written. Form a present progressive verb by using “am,” “is,” or “are” with a verb ending in -ing.

The biologist is studying pandas in the wild.

Past Progressive
Past progressive verbs show that one action was taking place in the past when another action took place. Create past progressive verbs by pairing “was” or “were” with a verb ending in -ing.

We were walking to the park when you called.

Future Progressive
Pair “will be” or “shall be” with a verb ending in ‘ing to create the future progressive tense. These verbs relate to an ongoing or continuous action that will happen in the future.

She will be discussing her ongoing charity efforts with the hospital board next month.

Present Perfect
Verbs in the present perfect tense illustrate that an action either happened at an indefinite time in the past or started in the past and is still ongoing in the present. Combine “has” or “have” with a past participle of the verb (usually ending in -ed).

My family has traveled to New York every year since 1950.

Past Perfect
The past perfect tense illustrates that one action took place before another and is formed by combining “had” with the past participle of the verb.

The children came home from school before the snow storm had ended.

Future Perfect
To form the future perfect tense, which shows that one action will take place before another action, combine “will have” with the past participle of the verb.

By the time she is ready to put the binding on my quilt, I will have spent 30 hours on the project.

Present Perfect Progressive 
Verbs written in present perfect progressive tense show that an action started at sometime in the past, is continuing in the present, and may continue into the future. Pair “has” or “have been” with the present participle of the verb.

We have been thinking about moving to Ohio.

Past Perfect Progressive
The past perfect progressive tense shows that some past, ongoing action was finished before another past action. Form this tense by combining “had been” with the present perfect form of a verb.

Before the hospital closed its doors, the board of directors had been planning an expansion of the facility.

Future Perfect Progressive
The future perfect progressive tense illustrates a future, ongoing action that will take place before a certain time. Use “will have been” with the present participle of the verb.

Ten years from now, the factory will have been producing textiles for more than 100 years.

Pronouns and Antecedents

Pronouns are an important part of writing, and you’ll want to be sure you have used them correctly when you proofread your work. Simply put, pronouns are words that refer back to, or take the place of, a noun. If you make mistakes with pronouns, your readers could have problems understanding what you have written.

There are seven categories of pronouns: personal, demonstrative, interrogative, relative, indefinite, reflexive, and intensive. Here, we will review more about personal pronouns and some rules about pronouns in general.

Some Basics
The personal pronouns fall into three categories: subject, object, and possessive. 
The subject pronouns are as follows: I, you, he, she, it, we, and they. They serve as the subject of a sentence.

We are going to the store tomorrow.

The object pronouns are as follows: me, you, him, her, it, us, you, and them. They serve as the object of a verb.

We asked him to come for a visit.

Possessive pronouns show that something belongs to someone. They are as follows: yours, ours, theirs, mine, his, hers and its.

The dog is his.

These differ from possessive adjectives in that a noun directly follows the adjectives.

A Few Important Rules
The Purdue Online Writing Lab has explained that pronouns and the nouns they take the place of (their antecedents) must agree in number. This means a singular pronoun must refer to a singular noun, and a plural pronoun must refer to a plural noun. Remember that the words “everybody,” “anybody,” “anyone,” “each,” “neither,” “someone,” and “nobody” are singular words and must have singular pronouns.

The pronouns you use must also be appropriate to whether you are writing in first, second, or third person. “I” is a first person pronoun. “You” applies to writing in the second person. If you are writing in third person, use “he,” “she,” “they,” or “it” to name a few. Keep your writing consistent and stay in first, second, or third person throughout your entire piece.

Additionally, be sure your pronouns clearly refer to a certain noun. The Purdue Online Writing Lab offers the following examples:

“NOT: Although the motorcycle hit the tree, it was not damaged. (Is ‘it’ the motorcycle or the tree?)
NOT: I don’t think they should show violence on TV. (Who are ‘they’?)”

More about Pronouns

Pronouns take the place of a noun, and help eliminate repetition and confusing wording in sentences. Because there are so many types of pronouns, however, it’s important to understand the differences so you can verify that you have used them correctly during your proofreading process.

Reflexive Pronouns
Reflexive pronouns show that the doer of an action is also the receiver of an action. These pronouns end in “self” or selves.”

Matt and Tim tricked themselves into thinking there were monsters in the woods.

In this sentence, the reflexive pronoun is “themselves.” A list of reflexive pronouns is as follows: myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, and themselves.

Indefinite Pronouns
According to Scribendi.com, “An indefinite pronoun conveys the idea of all, any, none, or some.” They refer to a person or thing that is identifiable, but not specified. Indefinite pronouns include the following: all, any, anybody, anything, everyone, everything, everybody, many, few, one, several, some,and someone.

Someone needs to take out the garbage.

Intensive Pronouns
Intensive pronouns aren’t necessary in a sentence, but they can help place extra emphasis on the subject of the sentence.

I myself will have to clean up that mess.

Relative Pronouns
When you want to connect one clause to another phrase or clause, consider using one of the relative pronouns: who, whom, which, or that. Compound words such as “whoever,” “whomever” and “whichever” are also included in this category.

The woman who we hired last year is a valuable employee.

Interrogative Pronouns
Sometimes, writers use an interrogative pronoun to ask questions. “Who,” “whom,” “which” and “that” are also in this category.

Which option have you decided to pursue?
Who is the girl standing in the corner?

When proofreading, check that you have used these pronouns correctly. “Who” and “whom” are used when referring to people. “Which” is used to refer to things and animals.

Demonstrative Pronouns
Demonstrative pronouns help identify a noun or pronoun. They are as follows: this, that, these, and those. “This” and “these” refer to things close in space or time, and “that” and “those” refer to things farther away in space or time.

This is the outfit I’m wearing to church tomorrow; that is the one I’m wearing next week.”
I want to buy those.


According to Scribendi.com, the English language has more prepositions than any other, which makes it especially difficult to know how to use them properly. By understanding more about their function, you can ensure that you have used prepositions correctly as you proofread your writing.

A Definition
Prepositions generally precede a noun or pronoun and show how that word relates to another part of a clause. The effect they have on your writing, Scribendi.com explains, should not be underestimated. “For instance, talking at someone is totally different from speaking to a person. The former has a negative connotation, to scold the listener or to just talk on and on, refusing to let the other person participate in the conversation.”

Prepositional phrases are groups of words containing a preposition. The noun or pronoun included in a prepositional phrase is not the direct object of the sentence; it is the object of the preposition.

to the bakery
in the house
around the corner

Think Carefully
Consider your prepositions carefully when you are writing, the “Ask Betty” column of the University of Washington Web site explains. “You can say, for example, ‘I go through the school,’ ‘I go past the school,’ ‘I go by the school,’ or ‘I go into the school,’ each expressing different meanings according to the meaning of the preposition. However, you cannot say ‘I go at the school’ or ‘I go on the school.'”

The Ask Betty column explained that prepositions help show a relationship between an adjective or verb and noun. To use a preposition, writers must keep two considerations in mind: the relationship between the verb or adjective and noun, and the meaning behind each preposition. For instance, Scribendi.com explained that the preposition “since” implies an event started at a particular point in time (“since last week”) while the preposition “for” implies a duration of time (“for one year”).

There aren’t always hard and fast rules regarding when a particular preposition should be used. In many cases, as with other aspects of writing, you’ll simply have to memorize the exceptions to the rules.

Making Family Names Plural

There are a few rules writers must follow when writing a family’s last name in the plural form.

Leave the Base Spelling Alone

If you want to make a family name plural and the name ends in “y,” leave the base spelling of the name the same when you change it to the plural form. This is not necessarily the same method for pluralizing other words ending in “y.” For instance, “bunny” changes to “bunnies,” with the “ies” ending, when made plural. If you were writing about the Barry family, however, the name would change to “Barrys.”

Names Requiring an “es”
When a family name ends in “s,” “x,” “z,” “ch,” or “sh,” add an “es” to make the name plural.

The Foxes are planning a family vacation.
The Barnses want to move to London.
The Marshes will be visiting in October.
We want to spend Christmas with the Rodriguezes.

Most other last names will require the writer to add only an “s” to create the plural form.

A Word of Caution
Don’t use an apostrophe to make a family name plural.

Incorrect: The Smith’s went to the grocery store together.

Apostrophes are correctly used for showing possession.

Correct: The Smiths’ car broke down yesterday.

If you or someone you are writing about has married into a large family, knowing how to write about them in the plural form can be a little tricky. Generally speaking, they are “the in-laws,” Mignon Fogarty, “Grammar Girl” for the Quick and Dirty Tips Web site has explained. When you are referring to specific members of that group, however, you’ll need to be careful.

A person with more than one sister-in-law or brother-in-law will be referring to their “sisters-in-law” or “brothers-in-law.” To look at the matter more simply, make the noun portion of this phrase plural(e.g., fathers-in-law and mothers-in-law).

Capitalization Rules

Check for proper capitalization when you proofread. You’ll improve the readability of your piece by doing so. If you’re in doubt about what words you should capitalize, rely on some of these general rules to get started. Then, go over your piece carefully to ensure you have capitalized everything correctly.

The First Word of a Sentence
The first word of every sentence should be capitalized.

We are going shopping on Thursday.
Don’t go near the fireplace.

Capitalize Proper Nouns
Proper nouns include people, places, organizations, and sometimes certain things.

They are playing basketball with James.
I live in Montana.
I am a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Items on the Calendar
Capitalize the days of the weeks and months of the year: Sunday, Monday, January, February, etc.

Capitalize holidays as well: Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, etc.

The Purdue Online Writing Lab notes, however, that the seasons should not be capitalized when “used generally.” If a season is part of a title, it should be capitalized.

Countries, Nationalities and Specific Languages


Classes and Academic Majors
Except for languages, class titles and academic majors should not be capitalized.


If you are writing the full course title, however, capitalize accordingly.

I am enrolled in Biology 350.

Commonly Transposed Words

When you proofread, you’ll need to check that you have used words correctly. In the English language, there are a few troublesome verbs and other words that can sometimes give writers fairly consistent problems. A quick rundown of some commonly transposed words follows.

Lie and Lay
In the present tense, “lie” and “lay” are fairly easy to remember. “Lay” requires a direct object, while “lie” does not. For instance, you might lay your keys on the table, but if you’re ready to take a nap, you are going to lie down. Mignon Fogarty, “Grammar Girl” for the Quick and Dirty Tips Web site made this statement. “The way I remember is to think of the phrase lay it on me. You’re laying something (it, the direct object) on me.”

The past tense of these verbs can become a little tricky. The past tense of “lie” is “lay,” and its past participle is “lain.” The past tense and past participle of “lay” are both “laid.”

Bring and Take
The correct use of “bring” and “take” depends on the location of the speaker of the sentence. If the speaker is talking about something at his current location, he uses “bring.”

Bring me that book.

If an item is going to another location, use “take.”

Take your dirty dishes to the kitchen when you leave the table.

Rise and Raise
According to Sinclair Community College, “rise” means “to go to a higher position,” while “raise” means “to lift to a higher position.” Objects rise under their own power, but something or someone else must raise them.

The BBC World Service notes that “raise” is a regular verb, while “rise” is irregular. “Raise” must have a direct object. “You always raise something.” “Rise” only relates to the subject of the sentence.

Affect and Effect
“Affect” is most often used as a verb, and means to “have an influence on.”

The threat of rain did not affect my decision to go camping.

“Effect” is most often used as a noun.

One effect of strenuous exercise is sore muscles.

Accept and Except
“Accept” is a verb meaning “to receive willingly.” “Except” means “but” or “with the exception of,” according to J. Cheney of Santa Monica College. Washington State University offers an easy reminder: “Just remember that the ‘X’ in ‘except’ excludes things-they tend to stand out, be different. In contrast, just look at those two cozy ‘C’s’ snuggling up together. Very accepting.”

Sentence Fragments

Simply put, a sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence. Even though they happen quite frequently when we speak to each other, they are not acceptable in written language. Fragments in writing are hard to understand.

As you proofread your own writing or someone else’s, you will need to watch carefully for sentence fragments. To understand how to spot incomplete sentences in your writing, it’s helpful to review what constitutes a complete sentence. Then, you can work on fixing any fragments you find.

Complete Sentences
As the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has explained, complete sentences have more than a capital letter in the first word and a punctuation mark of some sort at the end. They must have three components. Sentences must have a subject (the person or thing performing the action) and a predicate (the verb, or action of the sentence), and the sentence must express a complete thought.

Don’t assume that a sentence is an incomplete thought because it is short. In fact some complete sentences can be just two words, such as: I slept. The sentence has a subject (I) and a verb (slept) and expresses a full thought. The sentence could be lengthened to contain more information: I slept while you went shopping. However, the original subject, verb, and complete thought are still present.

Finding and Fixing Sentence Fragments
Sometimes, sentence fragments can be hard to find because they are dependent clauses, which have a subject and verb but do not express a complete thought:

After they go outside (Then what will happen?)

You need to take a dependent clause and add any other information necessary to make the sentence complete:

After they go outside, we will start watching the movie.

Words like “after” are known as “subordinators” or “subordinating conjunctions,” the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill notes. Other examples of subordinators include “if,” “whether,” “unless,” “whereas,” and “while.” Being able to spot a subordinating conjunction will help you eliminate a large number of sentence fragments. This can be done by joining two sentences together, making one sentence depend on the other to form complete a thought, or indicating some kind of sensible relationship:

We will be at the party. Unless one of the children becomes sick.

The sentence fragment can be eliminated as follows:

We will be at the party, unless one of the children becomes sick.

As always, remember one of the chief rules of proofreading: read slowly. Study the words and sentences you’ve written individually. Ask yourself whether each sentence you’ve written has a subject, a verb, and a complete thought, and your efforts at eliminating sentence fragments should go quite well.

He is taking Elementary Spanish, algebra and chemistry.

Religious Figures
Capitalize the names of specific gods and other religious figures: God, Allah, the Virgin Mary, etc. When referring to gods generally, however, no capitalization is required.

Capitalize titles before a name, but not after.

Donald Smith is the mayor.
Captain Jones will address the police department shortly.


Capitalize directions that are also names, but not compass directions.

Drive five miles west and you will see the Johnson’s new home.
We are visiting the South this summer.

Events and Historical Periods

We are attending the Potato Festival.
I am planning to see the Georgia Apple Festival.
I love reading about the Victorian Era.
He is studying the Dark Ages in history class.

Run-on Sentences

Run-on sentences are troublesome because they contain two or more independent clauses but do not have necessary punctuation to help the sentence make sense. Most often, they can be repaired with the same marks that fix comma splices: periods, commas with a coordinating conjunction, or a semicolon.

Some Examples
First, let’s take a look at some examples of run-on sentences. Don’t assume that only a long sentence is a run-on; even a short sentence can have this problem. As you proofread for run-ons, remember to check each sentence you’ve written to see how many subjects and predicates are included and that necessary punctuation is there:

He enjoys photography he always has his camera with him.

Jane is an English teacher she is also interested in learning Spanish.

The Solution
How you fix a run-on sentence depends on a few factors, such as the tone and rhythm of your piece and how you want to show that two ideas are related. A period is one way to completely separate two sentences:

He enjoys photography. He always has his camera with him.
Jane is a biologist. She is also interested in learning Spanish.

Semicolons show a little more connection between sentences:

He enjoys photography; he always has his camera with him.
Jane is an English teacher; she is also interested in learning Spanish.

Coordinating conjunctions (and, or, for, nor, but, yet, so), with a comma before them, can also remedy a run-on:

He enjoys photography, and he always has his camera with him.
Jane is an English teacher, but she is also interested in learning Spanish.

A Test
If run-on sentences are still tricky for you, Rei R. Noguchi suggests two ways to test your sentences in the book Grammar and the Teaching of Writing: turn your sentences into yes/no questions or turn them into tag questions, which have a questioning phrase at the very end. Consider the earlier example:

He enjoys photography.

Using the yes/no test, the example would look like this:

Does he enjoy photography?

The sentence could also be turned into a tag question:

He enjoys photography, doesn’t he?

Because both tests worked (the questions made sense), this sentence is not a run-on. Apply the tests with the original run-on sentence:

He enjoys photography he always has his camera with him.

To use either test, the phrases would have to be turned into two separate questions:

Does he enjoy photography? Does he always have his camera with him?
He enjoys photography, doesn’t he? He always has his camera with him, doesn’t he?


Does he enjoy photography does he always have his camera with him?
He enjoys photography he always has his camera with him doesn’t he?

More than one idea is expressed in the run-on sentence, meaning the tests do not work. Be sure to try both tests when you check for run-ons to be certain you haven’t gone too quickly and thought that one test worked when it actually did not.

Comma Splices

Commas splices occur when a writer incorrectly combines two independent clauses with a comma instead of other proper punctuation. Comma splices are problematic in writing “because the comma is used to splice together two complete sentences when that isn’t the function of a comma,” writes Mignon Fogarty, “Grammar Girl” for the Quick and Dirty Tips Web site.

Following are some examples of comma splices:

The baby is tired, put him down for a nap.
We need to go shopping, the milk is gone.
He loves camping, he is an avid outdoorsman.

Some Common Fixes
To repair comma splices, writers can utilize the same tools that can fix other run-on sentences: a period, a semicolon, or a coordinating conjunction (and, or, for, nor, but, yet, so) proceeded by a comma. The examples listed earlier could be repaired in the following ways:

The baby is tired. Put him down for a nap.
We need to go shopping; the milk is gone.
He loves camping, for he is an avid outdoorsman.

Naturally, not every tool will be appropriate for repairing a comma splice. The solution you choose will depend on how you feel the sentences are related and the tone and rhythm of your piece. Sometimes, a writer can simply add a connecting word to fix the problem:

We need to go shopping because the milk is gone.

Using the Comma Correctly
A writer could also fix a comma splice by making one clause dependant on another clause in the sentence:

If the baby is tired, you should put him down for a nap.

The order you choose for the dependant and independent clauses will dictate whether a comma is necessary in your writing.

You should put the baby down for a nap if he is tired.

The subordinate clause leads in the first example, and a comma must be included to punctuate the sentence properly. In the second example, the subordinating clause follows the main clause and no comma is required.

Remember, you can’t fix a comma splice by just removing the comma. Doing so would still leave a run-on sentence.