Punctuation - Step 7 – Proof

7 Steps to Better Writing - Charles Maxwell 2020

Step 7 – Proof

This section summarizes the best practice for punctuation.

A period (.) indicates the end of a sentence or the end of many (but not all) abbreviations. In all English speaking countries, except the US and Canada, the period is called a full stop.

During the approximately 100 years when much written material was prepared on typewriters with uniform type width, the best practice to end a sentence was to place two character spaces after the period, question mark, or exclamation mark that ended a sentence. This helped readers spot the end of sentences. When typewriters gave way to word processors and variable-width fonts, the practice of using two spaces at the end of sentences declined.

Then, during the 1990s, the developers of Hypertext Markup Language (html), which is the code use by the World Wide Web, configured the code to ignore extra spaces. To show more than a single character space on a webpage, a person needs to add special characters (such as the non-break space) or use other html code. This was extra work, and consequently, most web content stopped using double character spaces at the end of sentences.

This is how html continues to behave. So now, most people use only one space at the end of a sentence.

In spite of this shift to a single space, evidence shows that using two spaces at the end of each sentence is better. Clinical tests reveal that the added space improves reading ease for nearly all readers and increases reading speed for some people.[18] This is why this book is typeset with two spaces after each period. Every little thing you can do to improve your readers’ experience is worth the effort.

With email, Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and other word processors, it is still possible to display multiple character spaces just by typing the space key multiple times.

Periods often appear at the end of abbreviations, such as Mr., Mrs., Ms., etc. and the use of initial letters for proper names, such as J. K. Rowling. Some style guides use periods for abbreviations, such as U.S., U.K., and E.U., while others dispense with periods, such as US, UK, and EU.

Commas (,) separate items in lists, set off clauses, and set off words that interrupt flow. Much more could be said about how to use commas, but this is enough to get started. Consult Wikipedia or a style guide for the intricacies of comma use.

A semicolon (;) joins two independent clauses, when a conjunction is absent; this sentence is an example of this use. In addition, you can use semicolons to separate items in lists, especially when the elements each contain commas; in this instance, semicolons become “super-commas.”

Some people dislike semicolons, finding them too formal; however, there are occasions when nothing works better than a semicolon to connect two independent clauses when the ideas are closely related. A dash can serve the same purpose, and it has a modern feel. Be aware of prejudices and regulate your use of semicolons and dashes according to your readers’ preferences.

A colon (:) starts a list, sets off information, or separates numbers used in groups, such as:

· Ratios. Example: 3:1, meaning the ratio of three to one

· Time. Examples: 3:35 PM and 17:23:00 UTC

· Book citations. Examples: Genesis 1:27, indicating chapter 1 and verse 27; Encyclopædia Britannica (11th edition) 9:587, indicating volume 9, page 587

A colon also can join two independent clauses when the second clause repeats or expands the idea from the first clause. Example: She went to town: she rode her bicycle into the village.

Book titles often use colons to separate the main title from the subtitle. Example: Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

Some style guides use a colon to separate locations from publishers when providing publisher information in bibliographies, footnotes, and endnotes. Example: Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

A hyphen (-) joins two words used as one. Instances of its use include:

· Words used as a single adjective. Examples: one-trick pony, black-eyed Susans, multi-functional feature

· Number followed by a unit of measure when used as an adjective. Examples: 5-ton truck, 12-pound hammer

· Compound numbers. Examples: twenty-one, fifty-seven thousand

· Potentially confusing prefixes and suffixes. Examples: John re-covered the leaky roof. The organization is semi-independent.

· Span of numbers or letters. Examples: 1939-1945, A-Z

Dashes (— and —) set off words or phrases—they add emphasis or provide more information. Commas or semicolons serve the same purpose, but dashes provide greater clarity, especially if a sentence already has commas. The two types of dashes are:

· Short dash, called en dash (—), which:

· Indicates an abrupt change in thought — like this

· Sets off an appositive

· Marks a span, such as 1939—1945

· Long dash, called em dash (—), which:

· Indicates an abrupt change in thought—like this

· Sets off an appositive

· Sets off the source of a quotation

Standard keyboards do not have dashes. To add them to documents, do one of the following:

· Select the short or long dash from a list of special characters or symbols (for example, in Microsoft Word they are found at: /Insert/ Symbols/ More Symbols/ Special Characters/)

· Generate a dash by using a computer numeric keypad to enter one of the following numbers while holding down the Alt key:

· 0150 to obtain a short dash

· 0151 to obtain a long dash

· When using Microsoft Word:

· Obtain a short dash by typing a word, a space, one or two hyphens, a space, another word, and a space

· Obtain a long dash by typing a word, two hyphens, another word, and a space

Sometimes you will see two (or even three) hyphens used to indicate a dash when the dash symbol is unavailable.

While short and long dashes both set off an appositive or signal an abrupt change, be consistent throughout a document.

For more information on dashes see: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dash.

Parentheses ( () ) set off additional information, which is secondary in importance.

A question mark (?) ends a question.

An exclamation mark (!) indicates strong feeling. Technical and business writing should use exclamation marks seldom, if ever.

An ellipsis (…) shows the omission of words. Much informal writing on the internet and some sales material overuses or incorrectly uses ellipses to try to provide emphasis, continuity, or informality. Use this punctuation mark sparingly; otherwise, you will reduce your credibility.

An apostrophe (’) marks the omission of letters to form a contraction, and it indicates a possessive form of a noun. Examples of contractions: can’t, don’t, I’ll, they’ll. Examples of possessives: Martha’s, Samuel’s, Congress’s, dog’s, dogs’.

Many older style manuals recommend adding only an apostrophe (without the letter s) after words that already end in the letter s (such as James’, Charles’, Augustus’), but this practice is giving way to a more consistent use of the characters ’s after all words ending in the letter s (as in James’s, Charles’s, Augustus’s).

The possessive form of the word it, which is its, drops the apostrophe so as not to be confused with the contraction of it is, which is rendered it’s.

For more information on apostrophe see:

· en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostrophe

· en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_possessive

Quotation marks (“ ” and ’ ’) indicate quoted material or emphasized words. In many settings, overuse of quotation marks for emphasis also reduces your “credibility.”

The following table summarizes punctuation norms.





Ends a sentence.

Ends some abbreviations.



Separates items in lists.

Sets off clauses.

Sets off words that interrupt flow.



Joins two independent clauses.

Separates items in lists when elements contain one or more commas.



Starts a list.

Sets off numbers.

Joins two independent clauses when the 2nd clause repeats or expands the idea from the 1st clause.



Joins two words used as one word.

Joins a number to a unit when used as an adjective.


Sets off and emphasizes words or phrases.

( )


Sets off and de-emphasizes words or phrases.


Question Mark

Ends a question.


Exclamation Mark

Indicates strong feeling.


Shows the omission of words.


Forms possessive or contraction.

’ ’

“ ”

Quotation Marks

Indicates material quoted.

Shows emphasis.

When writing a sentence that includes a website address (URL), continue to use the appropriate punctuation. Even if the URL ends a sentence, include punctuation. In all cases, if the URL is created as a hyperlink, configure the link to exclude the punctuation, and display the punctuation directly following the link, such as that seen in the following paragraph.

You can find more information on punctuation at: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punctuation.