Is It Plural or Possessed? When to Use Apostrophe -S

punctuation marks apostrophe s

Punctuation marks: how to use apostrophe-s.

It’s one of those grammar glitches that makes English teachers twitch, and it’s a perplexing punctuation problem.

Knowing when to use an apostrophe and when to use apostrophe -s can be tricky, but this grammar quickie provides all you need to know about plural versus possession when it comes to apostrophe -s. Read More

Punctuation Marks: The Exclamation Mark

exclamation mark

All about the exclamation mark.

It’s a relatively simple punctuation mark — a bold one without a lot of confusing rules — yet it’s still grossly overused.

It gives our sentences pizzazz. It emphasizes dialogue when one character shouts or snaps at another. And it gives copy editors headaches.

The exclamation mark sure packs a punch. Read More

Punctuation Marks: Ellipsis

punctuation marks ellipses

Punctuation marks: the ellipses…

You see it everywhere, but most people don’t know what it’s called or how to use it properly.

In fact, it’s often referred to as “dot, dot, dot” even though it does have a name. This punctuation mark is the ellipsis.

It is a series or row of three periods, which is usually used to indicate an omission. It may also be used to indicate faltering or interrupted speech or a pause.

Punctuation Marks 

Some punctuation marks are clear-cut while others cause a lot of confusion. Most of us mastered periods and question marks back in elementary school. Commas, semicolons, and ellipses aren’t as easy to master. As a result, many punctuation marks are frequently misused.  Read More

Punctuation Marks: The Colon

the colon

Punctuation marks: the colon.

The colon is one of the most clearly-defined punctuation marks. It occasionally acts as a stand-in for a comma or period (though when one of these other punctuation marks will do, the colon is unnecessary).

Most commonly, the colon functions as an introductory punctuation mark, notifying the reader that the forthcoming information supports, explains, or elaborates upon what has been said prior to the colon.

These punctuation marks are common in math and science as well as technical documentation. In creative writing, we don’t see a lot of colons unless we’re working on a script. Colons are most often seen in text where a list is being introduced.

The Chicago Manual of Style provides a succinct definition for the colon: Read More

Punctuation Marks: Commas and Clauses

commas and clauses

Commas and clauses.

There’s a fine art to using commas. Today we’ll look at how commas work with clauses — both dependent clauses and independent clauses. And don’t worry if you’re not sure which clause is which. Everything will be explained.

Independent Clauses and Commas

An independent clause can stand alone as a sentence: I watch movies.

Two independent clauses can be joined with a conjunction: I watch movies and I watch television.

A comma can be placed before the conjunction: I watch movies, and I watch television.

So, should you use commas before conjunctions that connect two independent clauses? Read More

What’s The Difference Between Dashes and Hyphens?

dashes and hyphens

Dashes and hyphens.

To the passive reader, it’s a short horizontal line that appears somewhere in a text, usually joining two words together.

To a writer, it’s something else entirely, but what? Is it a dash, a hyphen, or a minus sign?

More than once, I’ve been pecking away at my keyboard and stopped suddenly when confronted with this versatile and confounding punctuation mark.

Many people use dashes and hyphens interchangeably, which is understandable, since most of us use the exact same keyboard character for both dashes and hyphens. However, they are technically two completely different punctuation marks.

When you use these punctuation marks, do you know whether you’re using them as dashes or hyphens?

This post looks at the following punctuation marks:

  • Hyphens
  • Dashes
  • Em-dashes
  • En-dashes


A hyphen is used to connect words in order to form a compound. It was also used commonly during the typewriter era to show that a word was broken at a carriage return, but that usage is rarely seen these days. Examples include:

  • ten-year-old
  • merry-go-round
  • editor-in-chief
  • co-worker
  • e-mail

Hyphens are also used to denote prefixes and suffixes when they are not affixed to a base word. An example would be re- or -ed.

Hyphenated Modifiers

Certain modifier combinations call for hyphenation. When two modifiers together modify another word, they are often hyphenated. For example, in the phrase “real-world situations,” the words real and world are connected with a hyphen. Note that real modifies world (the world is real) and as a single unit (a hyphenated modifier), the two words together modify situation. This is standard practice when one modifier modifies another to form a single modifier to a noun or verb.

Note, however, that adverb-adjective combinations are not normally hyphenated. For example, a “well understood concept” is not hyphenated (well is an adverb modifying the adjective understood).


There are two types of dashes: the em dash ( — ) and the en (-) dash.

The Em Dash

This is also called the double dash — and rightly so — because it actually consists of two dashes without spacing before or after either one. Do note that the spacing is up for debate as some style guides and writers include a single space before and after the em dash, especially in online publishing due to issues with how browsers read and display certain punctuation marks.

The em dash is used to evoke emphasis or to “set off an element added to amplify or to digress from the main clause” (Publication Manual of the APA, 2001, p. 291).

The En Dash

An en dash is used more like a hyphen because it connects words. This connection forms a compound adjective where each individual word has equal weight. Here are two examples: Did you receive the July-August issue of the publication? Will you be on the San Francisco-New York flight?

Why are they called em and en dashes?

In typesetting, the em dash is the same width as the letter m, while the en dash matches the width of the letter n. It’s interesting to note that technically, a hyphen should be a tad bit shorter than the en dash. However, typewriters and computers only have the one punctuation mark (right above the p key) which must do triple duty (hyphen, em dash, and en dash), so unless you’re a professional typesetter, there’s no need to worry about measuring your marks.

How do you use dashes and hyphens in your writing? Do you have any questions or thoughts to add about punctuation marks in general? Leave a comment.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

How to Abuse and Neglect Punctuation Marks

punctuation marks

Let’s try not to assault readers with punctuation marks

What is it about punctuation marks that cause so many bad sentence constructions?

You know the sentences I’m talking about. They’ve got random commas, missing quotation marks, and way too many exclamation points.

To make matters worse, some writers break the rules and get away with it while others are chastised for doing (what appears to be) the same thing.

E.E. Cummings ignored most of the rules and made up a few of of his own, and now his poetry is studied in universities. Cormac McCarthy didn’t use quotation marks with the dialogue in his novel, and he won a Pulitzer Prize.

And then there’s the Internet. Now everyone’s a writer with a blog and a bunch of social media profiles. Bad grammar and badly placed punctuation marks have become rampant.

Common Mistakes and Abuses of Punctuation Marks

Typos are one thing. Not knowing the correct way to write a sentence is another thing. But blatantly misplacing or misusing punctuation marks is just plain reckless.

Too many commas

I’m a big fan of the serial comma, but let’s not get carried away. Commas often indicate pauses but they should not be used to tell the reader where to pause.

You can get away with placing commas at pause points to some extent, but only because many of our natural pauses occur where clauses end or after each item in a list.

Here’s an example of telling readers where to pause, using commas:

Lots of writers use commas, to tell readers where to pause, and take a breath, as if the readers can’t figure it out, on their own.

We all pause in different places and your writing will feel forced and unnatural if you use punctuation marks as if they are musical notations.

Quotation marks for emphasis

I have to admit, this is becoming one of my pet peeves: putting words and phrases in quotation marks for emphasis. Here are some examples:

  • You know, they just “had” to go fishing last weekend.
  • Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to “rock your boat.”
  • If you sign up, they’ll send you a “free book!”

Quotation marks are for dialogue, quoted material, and sometimes for titles or headlines. But for some reason, people have gone crazy with quotation marks.

Writers who abuse quotation marks in this manner need to have a little more faith in their readers. Trust that they will know where to place emphasis. If you really need to tell the reader which word(s) get stressed, then use italics. But try to avoid that, too.

This use probably stems from the (informal) practice of using quotation marks to indicate that something is “so-called.” Here’s an example:

That “writer” over there doesn’t seem to have a dictionary.

In this case, quotation marks are placed around “writer” to suggest that the person is a so-called writer, but actually isn’t much of a writer at all. These are called scare quotes, and their usage is almost always derogatory and sarcastic. Use scare quotes with caution; insulting other writers is not going to do anything positive for your reputation.

Too many punctuation marks!!!

Did you hear me??? I wrote a book!!! Let me tell you all about it…..

Some people are so passionate. It’s inspiring, really, except when I’m reading a novel or some other piece of writing that should be professional quality. It’s one thing when my friend on Facebook tell me that her kid just said Mama!!! It’s another thing entirely when a character in a novel is really, really, very excited!!!

When you use three question marks instead of one, does the question become deeper? More mysterious? Is an expression with three exclamation points more exciting or more imperative than an expression with just one exclamation point? And what’s up with using more than three dots in an ellipsis? Does a five-dot ellipsis mean it’s taking you longer to trail off than a three-dot ellipsis?

While this usage is acceptable in casual settings (and really, what usage isn’t acceptable in casual settings?), it’s a bit much when you’re writing at the professional level. Too many punctuation marks distract the reader and make the text look sloppy. They also render a pushy, in-your-face, or desperate tone. But like I said, on Facebook, they’re kinda cute.

There’s this thing called an ampersand

A few weeks ago, I started reading this novel (whose name shall be withheld), & before I finished page two, it occurred to me that something was wrong with the writing. I scanned the page & realized that the author was using ampersands in place of the word and.

& let me tell you, it was annoying.

Prose is not signage. It’s not a tweet. The ampersand is not a word; it’s a symbol, & we are not writing in hieroglyphics. We write in words & sentences. I don’t have anything personal against the ampersand. It looks nice on signage & it comes in handy on Twitter. It looks cute on trees where two lovers have carved their names:

Jack & Kate <3

Aw. How sweet.

But it really makes the reading rough when it’s used to replace the word and through an entire piece of writing.

Rough Writers

I know. I’m a mean old grammar snob. I’m sure folks who use these constructions are on the edge of their seats right now, scouring my blog for some little mistake, some place where I used an extra exclamation mark or an ampersand. I’m sure some are getting ready to drop comments letting me know that they “like” using quotation marks for emphasis, that it’s their “style.” !!!

That’s fine. I’m just pointing out what is correct usage and what is not. If writers want to break the rules and take a few creative liberties, that’s their business, and I hope it works out. Some of my favorite writers have forgone the rules (and I love them for it).

But keep this in mind: when your text is peppered with extra, unnecessary punctuation marks, it’s a distraction to readers. Like I said, the book with all the ampersands had me thinking more about what was off about the text than what was happening in the story (and the story wasn’t very interesting either, which may explain why the author resorted to gimmicks). For the record, I didn’t make it past page thirty of that book, and I’ll never recommend it to anyone.

Taking Creative Liberties

I’m all for breaking the rules, but only if there’s a good reason for it. Cormac McCarthy broke the rules and got into Oprah’s book club. E.E. Cummings broke the rules became a celebrated American author.

Why do some writers reap rewards when they break the rules while others just look like amateurs?

I personally think this has to do with the logic behind breaking the rules. Cormac McCarthy’s book was written in a minimalist fashion. The characters didn’t even have names. And E.E. Cummings wasn’t writing prose at all; he was writing poetry, which naturally allows for more creative liberties.

There’s a difference between tinkering with the rules as an experiment in art or because the style of the narrative calls for it and breaking the rules as a way to differentiate yourself as a unique writer or simply because you’re some kind of literary rebel.

Some writers believe they are branding themselves as an author or making their work stand out because they don’t capitalize the first word of every sentence, but these are just gimmicks that distract readers from the content. You’re telling readers that your work doesn’t stand on its own and you need to resort to silly tricks to make it seem interesting.

What really sucks is when good writers use these constructions. More than once I’ve read prose and poetry that was great except for all the weird punctuation marks and bad grammar. What would have been a wonderful story or beautiful poem gets lost in the mess. And that’s a shame.

The rules of grammar aren’t there to keep you in line; they are there to help you write prose and verse that readers can navigate with ease. Always keep that in mind, and when you do break the rules or use unusual punctuation marks and formatting, do so with good reason.

Have you seen writers break the rules effectively? Have you seen writers break the rules in a way that interfered with your ability to enjoy the reading experience? What was the difference? When is it okay the break the rules?

Rein in those punctuation marks and keep writing!

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: The Comma

the comma

The comma is one of the most widely misused punctuation marks.

For such a little punctuation mark, the comma causes an awful lot of confusion.

Some writers are too liberal with commas, sprinkling them about like nuts on an ice cream sundae. Other writers hoard their commas and avoid using them whenever possible.

Why are these punctuation marks so widely misused? Why are we, collectively, so inconsistent about where we place them? One style guide says use them, another says don’t use them. Even the experts can’t agree!

But there are some rules about comma usage that we can all observe and agree on.

Punctuation Marks

A comma often indicates a pause, but some pauses occur without any assistance from commas. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes people make is to simply place a comma wherever they want the reader to pause. In natural speech we all pause at different places, so this is not a prudent way to decide where your commas go. Instead, let’s look to the rules.

Unfortunately, the rules surrounding commas aren’t always clear. Comma placement is often a matter of style and personal (or editorial) choice. One could write an entire book on how to use commas effectively and correctly. Today, we’re just going to look at the basic rules.

Commas are mostly used to separate, connect, and set off elements in a sentence:

  1. Use a comma to separate three or more elements in a series (including items in a list). The comma that comes before the conjunction in a list is called the serial comma, and it’s recommended but not required.
  2. A comma should be used to separate coordinate adjectives. Coordinate adjectives are a series of adjectives that modify a single noun (in “the big, black dog,” big and black are coordinate adjectives).
  3. Use a comma to separate contrasting elements and if-then statements. Here’s a contrasting statement: I am writing a book, not an essay. Here’s an if-then statement: If I write a book, then I will have to market it.
  4. Use a comma before a conjunction to connect independent clauses. An easy way to remember how to identify an independent clause is that it can stand alone as a sentence (a dependent clause cannot). Here’s more information on commas and clauses.
  5. Commas should be used to set off introductory elements, short phrases that introduce sentences. Here’s an example with the introductory element in italics: As I was writing, I gave careful consideration to comma placement.
  6. Use commas to set off parenthetical elements. A parenthetical element often gives extra but unnecessary information and could be deleted without changing the core meaning of a sentence. Here is an example with the parenthetical element shown in italics: The writer made a list of books she wanted to read, mostly books on grammar, and then proceeded to order them. Parenthetical elements includes names: The writer, Jane, wanted to read a lot of books.
  7. Commas are heavily used with quotation marks. They should be placed after a dialogue tag when the dialogue follows the tag and should be placed at the end of the dialogue when the tag comes after the dialogue.

The biggest mistake writers make is using a comma for a pause. Some people are actually taught to read their work aloud and then just place commas where all the pauses go (just thinking about it makes me shudder). That is surefire way to get your manuscript all marked up in red by your editor. And if you don’t have an editor, it’s a surefire way to drive readers crazy.

Too many punctuation marks in a piece of writing are like rocks in the readers’ shoes. They are distracting and uncomfortable. Too few punctuation marks are like wearing shoes without traction on a slippery floor. Readers will slide all over the place and have trouble following your ideas.

Use commas and all other punctuation marks wisely. And keep writing.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: The Serial Comma

serial comma

Should you use a serial comma?

When you use commas to separate items in a list or series, do you include a comma before the conjunction near the end of the list?

For example:

I write poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. (This sentence does not use a serial comma.)


I write poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. (This sentence does use a serial comma.)

The Serial Comma

The comma used before the conjunction in a list of three or more items is called a serial comma. Sometimes it’s referred to as the Oxford comma or the Harvard comma.

If you pay attention to little things like punctuation marks, you’ll notice that writers are split on this one. Some people use the serial comma diligently. Some use it on occasion. Others don’t use it at all.

So, which way is correct?

Style, Grammar, and Punctuation

The question of whether or not to use a serial comma is not a grammatical matter. Technically, there is no right or wrong answer, because grammarians haven’t set forth an absolute rule for serial comma usage.

So it’s left up to the writers, which means that usage of a serial comma is a style issue.

If you’re not sure whether you should use a serial comma, particularly for a professional piece of writing, you should consult the appropriate style guide. Most publications adhere to a style guide, as do academic institutions and many businesses.

Arguments Against the Serial Comma

Traditionally, the serial comma was standard fare in written English. However, once the printing press entered the equation, newspapers decided to forgo the serial comma to save space. That’s why journalism style guides such as The New York Times Manual of Style and The Associated Press Stylebook do not include serial commas in their guidelines.

There are several arguments against use of the serial comma. These include:

  • Using the serial comma is not conventional.
  • Including the serial comma may cause ambiguity.
  • It’s redundant, since the conjunction in such a sentence marks the same pause or separation that the serial comma would mark.


This table is reserved for the writer, Jane Doe, and Mr. Blackwell.

In the sentence above, it’s unclear whether the table is reserved for two or three people. “The writer” could be referring to Jane Doe, or the writer and Jane Doe could be two separate individuals.

As for convention, the absence of the serial comma is only conventional in journalism. In almost all other forms of writing, it is more conventional to use it.

Arguments for the Serial Comma

Most authorities outside of journalism recommend using the serial comma consistently. For example, both The Chicago Manual of Style and The Elements of Style recommend using a serial comma. The MLA Style Manual, which is the primary style resource in academics, also supports use of the serial comma.

Arguments for the use of the serial comma include:

  • Serial commas reduce ambiguity.
  • It promotes consistency, since sometimes a serial comma will be required for clarity.
  • Usage is in line with other practices for separating list items (i.e. semicolons).


I speak regularly to my best friends, Jane Doe and Mr. Blackwell.

The sentence above is unclear. Does the narrator speak to three entities (best friends, Jane Doe, and Mr. Blackwell) or are Jane Doe and Mr. Blackwell the narrator’s best friends? Adding the serial comma clarifies:

I speak regularly to my best friends, Jane Doe, and Mr. Blackwell.

Choose Your Commas Wisely

Unless you’re mandated by a style guide, you’ll have to decide whether to use a serial comma or not. This is a decision you may make only once for all time, or it could be a decision you make based on the syntax of individual sentences.

As a freelance writer, I decided a couple of years ago that it would be most professional to use the serial comma consistently in all my writing. That decision came about when I decided to choose a style guide so that all my work would be consistent, all the time. I went with The Chicago Manual of Style since it is the most widely used and most flexible style guide.

However, I was also in agreement with the folks who argue in favor of the serial comma. I think that the serial comma usually adds clarification and I also think that since one of the functions of a comma is to mark a pause, it sounds better (and provides readers with a guideline) when read aloud.

Get in on the Discussion

Do you use a serial comma? Sometimes? Never? Always? Do you even think about it? Have you ever been reading and stumbled across a sentence that was confusing because of the serial comma (or lack thereof)?

It’s unlikely that your choices regarding serial commas will make or break your writing career, especially if you are focused on creative writing. However, mastering punctuation marks is one of the essential steps on the ladder to becoming a professional writer, so you might as well get this one out of the way and take a stand.

Are you a fan of the serial comma or do you avoid using it whenever possible? Share your thoughts about this and other punctuation marks in the comments.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing

Punctuation Marks: Parentheses


Punctuation marks: parentheses.

Parentheses are among the most useful and versatile punctuation marks in the English language. They can be used effectively in both formal and casual writing, and the rules surrounding parentheses allow writers to use them for a variety of purposes.

They just might be my favorite punctuation marks, simply because they provide a clear way for writers to issue an aside.

But parentheses should be used conservatively and with discretion. Today we’ll look at the many ways in which these punctuation marks come in handy and explore the rules for usage and formatting.

Punctuation Marks

Punctuation marks are useful symbols that help us structure and organize written language. Without punctuation marks, we wouldn’t know where to pause or stop. We wouldn’t know where one idea ends and another begins. We would struggle to differentiate dialogue from narrative.

In some cases, we wouldn’t understand the meaning of a sentence.

Wikipedia gives an excellent example that demonstrates just how essential punctuation marks can be:

Woman, without her man, is nothing.
Woman: without her, man is nothing.

There are definitive rules that affect how we should use punctuation marks (like parentheses), but there are also stylistic choices that writers can make (and such choices are best made with the assistance of a reputable style guide).


One of my favorite ways that writers use parentheses is to designate text that represents an aside. This gives readers the sense that the writer is leaning in and whispering something special in their ears, an extra tidbit that pertains to the subject matter, often a personal reflection. It’s a technique that works well when the author wants to insert jokes regarding the material he or she is writing about. But this is a fairly informal way to use parentheses, one that renders a casual, funny, or friendly voice (and as we know, writers need to establish voice).


The formal usage for parentheses involves adding information that is relevant but not essential. Parentheses should enclose words, phrases, and passages that contain details or remarks that are only loosely related to the subject matter that the surrounding text deals with.

As with all punctuation marks, parentheses should not be overused. If you scan through a piece of writing and parentheses are liberally sprinkled about, they are not being used effectively or properly. A good rule of thumb is that making nonessential statements from time to time can be a good thing, but you shouldn’t overdo it because that means you’re not sticking with your main message.

Parentheses are also used to add supporting or supplemental information. For example, during election season, you’ll notice that Senators’ political parties and state of origin are often presented in parentheses:

Name of Senator (I – CA)

We also sometimes see parentheses holding the letter s to indicate either the singular or the plural form of some word(s).

In formal and especially academic writing, parentheses are heavily used for citing sources.

Formatting According to The Chicago Manual of Style

The style and formatting rules listed below are derived from The Chicago Manual of Style. These are some of the most general and common issues that arise regarding the use of parentheses. If you’re using parentheses in a piece of writing and are not sure how to use them or format them, make sure you check a reputable and appropriate style guide.

  • Parentheses should be formatted in the same font as the surrounding text rather than the text within the parentheses (if the text outside of the parentheses is styled regular but the text inside the parentheses is in italics, then the parentheses themselves should be regular).
  • If a parenthetical statement is included at the end of a sentence, the terminal punctuation marks go after the closing parenthesis (like this). On the other hand, if the material within the parentheses is a self-contained, complete sentence, that material (parentheses and all) can be placed after the terminal punctuation mark. (Here is an example of how that would look.)
  • Also, if the parenthetical enclosure includes more than one sentence, it should be self-contained. (This is an example. It shows how two or more sentences are self-contained after the surrounding text but nestled inside parentheses.)
  • As with most other punctuation marks, parentheses should not appear back to back. (Here is an example of back to back parenthetical statements.) (Do not do this.)
  • If you need to embed parenthetical material, use regular parentheses on the outside and use square brackets inside. (In this manner you can place [bracketed] parenthetical statements inside of other parenthetical statements.)

Keep in mind that the text within parentheses is independent from the surrounding text. Any other punctuation marks should be placed accordingly. In other words, if the punctuation belongs to the material within the parentheses, then it goes inside the parentheses.

Parentheses formatting for references and citations varies widely. For academic or journalistic references and citations, be sure to check the appropriate style guide to ensure you format your parentheses properly, especially in bibliographies and works cited as well as within the text of your project.

Synonyms and Forms

The word parentheses refers to a pair of punctuation marks that are used as containers (like this). Therefore, the word itself is plural. The singular term for one of the pair is parenthesis. Here’s one now: )

Parentheses and Other Punctuation Marks

Many writers struggle with punctuation marks. Commas and semicolons have been causing headaches among writers for centuries. Luckily, parentheses aren’t as complicated and are fairly easy to use properly with just a little learning. They often come in handy and can be used in fun or interesting ways with some types of writing. William Faulkner and E. E. Cummings were two celebrated writers who handily used parentheses in their creative writing.

Professional writers should always make an effort to learn the proper way to use punctuation marks in their work. This makes their work more readable and establishes credibility and professionalism.

Do you set aside time to study grammar, spelling, and punctuation? Have you ever struggled with how to properly use or format punctuation marks in a piece of writing? How do you use parentheses? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

10 Core Practices for Better Writing