Punctuation Puzzles

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Colons and Capitalization | Colons and Lists | Commas | Hyphens | One Space or Two After a Period? | Quotation Marks | Spaces and Em Dashes | Apostrophes and Possession | Semicolons in a Series | Colons Preceding Quotes | Quotation Marks | Quotes and Questions | Question Marks | Commas before and after Phrases | Commas after Introductory Phrases | Commas in Greetings | Numerals or Words? | Punctuation in Pairs | Hyphenating Superlatives | Hyphenating Adjectives, 1 | Hyphenating Adjectives, 2 | Hyphenating Nouns | Periods inside of Quotes?

Colons and Capitalization

Question: I'm editing a manuscript and am having a difficult time knowing when to use capital letters after a colon. Help!

Answer: Capitalize the first letter of a complete sentence that follows a colon: Do not capitalize the first words in phrases. Not everyone follows this rule: some writers use only lowercase letters after colons.

Items in vertical lists usually look better capitalized:

  • Something
  • Something else
  • Yet another something

Whichever practice you choose, be consistent.

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Colons and Lists

Question: When presenting a list, such as:


When does one use ending punctuation, and is that punctuation a period after each enumerated item or a semi-colon? Thanks in advance.

Answer: Use punctuation after complete sentences or independent clauses. The punctuation may be periods or semicolons with a concluding period:

  • Here is a sentence.
  • Here is a sentence.
  • Here is a sentence.


  • Here is a sentence;
  • Here is a sentence;
  • Here is a sentence.

Words and phrases do not need punctuation:

  • Word
  • Word
  • Word

When enumerating a list, be sure you have a reason to use numbers, rather than bullets or other markers. Numbers indicate that the items have a necessary order or that they will be referenced by number later.

By the way, the tag presenting the list should be (with few exceptions) a complete sentence.

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Question: What is the correct use of a comma? What are the dangers of over-using commas?

Answer: You have asked a complicated question. Commas are used to separate items in series and grammatical units within sentences. They have other uses as well. Commas can be misused — that is, placed where they do not belong.

If you have a particular example that has puzzled you, please send it to me, and I shall respond. Dozens of rules apply to using commas correctly — many more than I can list in a letter. Please consult the Gregg Reference Manual (8th edition); it is authoritative and complete. Please also visit Miss Grammar's Links. You'll find several online guides and courses that will answer your question thoroughly.

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Question: Do you have any comments on the use of hyphens? They seem to have short existences. For instance, do you write on-line or online? I enjoyed visiting your site.

Answer: Hyphens appear in newly combined words that may be growing into single words. "On-line" has become "online" for many writers, including me. "On-line" is still correct, however.

Unfortunately, no rules exist for determining when to write such phrases as two words, a hyphenated word, or a compound word, as these examples illustrate:

checklist check mark check-in
trademark trade name trade-off

Look up compound words in a current dictionary.

Hyphens also make phrases into adjectives (over-the-hill gang), separate compound numbers or fractions (two-thirds), join numerals to words (12-hour shift).

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One Space or Two After a Period?

Question: Today, my boss fired my secretary over several arguments. One of the arguments was that our secretary kept putting only one space after periods (".") ending sentences or after a colon (":").

Now, I know that the general rule states that two spaces are required after each of these punctuation marks. However, I wonder whether the computer age has not changed these old rules.

Answer: Thank you for writing. I hope you speak in jest about the poor secretary. Standard punctuation, a fairly recent invention, varies greatly among languages — and even within one language. British and American English, for example, follow slightly different conventions in matters of "pointing" text.

However, your question concerns spacing — formatting, really. Format is not grammar. Formatting should be governed by the eye — not by a set of abstract rules. If one space following a period looks good, use one space. If two spaces look good, use two.

This confusion and resulting disagreements about the number of spaces have a recent date. Older books said two spaces. Desktop publishers have sneered at this "typewriter habit" and advocated using one space.

I am firmly on the side of readability. Despite advances in word processors, they are not typesetting programs. Unless you use the fancier features — like kerning and leading — your material will probably look better with two spaces following the period. Proportional fonts are not in themselves smart enough to adjust spacing for maximum readability.

But the only way to know is by testing reader reactions. Run out sample pages both ways, in the fonts you typically use. Ask for people's opinions: Which pages are easier to read?

Having decided on the best appearance, codify that format in a style sheet (a specification list that prescribes formatting, grammar, and usage for an organization's publications). Distribute that style sheet, and let people argue instead about parking spaces, window offices, and long lunch hours.

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Quotation Marks

Question: I have looked in the AP Style Book, Bernstein's The Careful Writer, and on a few on-line resources for the answer to this question. They say the period always goes inside the quotation marks. But what about in the following example — is a period even needed, and if so, where does it go?

Bob asked, "Why do you want to know?".

Answer: No, you do not need a period in addition to the terminal punctuation in this quotation:

Bob asked, "Why do you want to know?"

Bernstein is excellent, but limited in scope. You may wish to buy the Gregg Reference Manual (8th edition), which exhaustively discusses punctuation.

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Spaces and Em Dashes

Question: When using an em-dash are there spaces around it?

Answer: People have different — and strongly-held — opinions about spaces and em-dashes. Some say one should use no spaces at all: Follow the word with just the mark, whether double hyphens or true em-dashes, and no space. Others say the mark reads more clearly if a little space appears between it and the word.

Em-dashes concern formatting, and their use either with or without spacing is neither correct nor incorrect — it's purely a matter of typographical style. For myself, I use the double hyphen without spacing. I use the em-dash with either a full or an "en space" on either side: It looks better that way.

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Apostrophes and Possession

Question: A punctuation problem that has "bugged all of us". Appreciate your help. For example, is it 7months' gestation or 7 months gestation (without the apostrophe? six months' pregnant — does have apostrophe.

However, six months pregnancy does not have an apostrophe. This is quoted from JAAMT Nov/Dec 1998 issue from the Chicago Manual of Style 1993. This is and has been confusing for several of our transcriptionists. Could you explain the differences for us?

With new punctuation rules (such as the comma or period inside the quotation marks), we are confused. Thanks very much and look forward to your expertise.

Answer: I would like to see the article since the advice you quote is wrong and completely misrepresents the Chicago Manual of Style's prescription (see page 199, Chapter 6.21). The apostrophe indicates possession. Here is what you should be writing:

  • 7 months' (possessive noun) gestation (a gestation of 7 months)
  • 6 months' (possessive noun) pregnancy (a pregnancy of 6 months)
  • But 6 months (adverb modifying adjective) pregnant or a 6-month (adjective modifying noun) pregnancy

You might find the Gregg Reference Manual handier and more practical to use than the Chicago Manual of Style.

By the way, enclosing periods and commas inside of quotation marks has been standard American practice for at least 50 years.

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Semicolons in a Series

Question: What does a writer indicate by using a semi-colon to separate items in a series, especially a longish series, instead of commas? Does it imply more differentiation among the items in the series than if commas were used?

Answer: Semicolons punctuate series of clauses or phrases with internal punctuation: for instance, a phrase or clause that uses commas; a group of words, such as apples, oranges, and bananas; and other examples, such as a series of independent clauses.

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Colons Preceding Quotes

Question: Should you ever use a colon to introduce a quote that is shorter than three typewritten lines? I have seen a colon introduce a short quote that was followed by an exclamation point. Is this correct?

Answer: Yes: Colons can draw attention to what follows them.

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Quotation Marks

Question: When you have a quote within a quote, how would you punctuate it? This was my attempt:

"The Bible says, 'They who are first shall be last, and they who are last shall be first'," she taught Olivia when she was a little girl.

I'm confused about it with it being at the end of the quotation. Help!

Answer: Close! Commas go inside of both sets of concluding quotation marks."The Bible says, 'They who are first shall be last, and they who are last shall be first,'" she taught Olivia when she was a little girl.

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Quotes and Questions

Question: I have a sentence that reads:

. . .but what about "after the sale"?

Does the question mark go inside or outside the quote? Thank you.

Answer: Leave the sentence as you have it. The quotation marks enclose a special use of a phrase — rather than a quote per se. Compare your example to this:

He asked, "But what about 'after the sale'?"

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Question Marks

Question: Help!! Where does the question mark go in this example: Did Mr. Hart say, "Where do you belong?"?

Answer: You do not need 2 question marks. Use the first mark that occurs:

Did Mr. Hart say, "Where do you belong?"

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Commas before and after Phrases

Question: Hello, I stumbled upon your site and was excited at the prospect of finding an answer to this question. Do you place commas before and after phrases like "of course" when they appear after a conjunction. Example: She climbed the fence and, of course, ripped her jeans on the barbed wire.

Answer: Used as it is here, you are correct. However, if an independent clause follows the coordinating conjunction, punctuate the comment like this:

"She climbed the fence, and of course, she ripped her jeans on the barbed wire."

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Commas after Introductory Phrases

Question: Does one need a comma after a restrictive introductory "if" or "when" phrase in formal technical writing? For example, If the whatever is off the thingimajig cannot be started by the automatic stuff. or When the weather is lousy the perfupulator must be kept in manual mode.

Answer: Gosh — all this technical language!

As a rule: After an introductory phrase of more than 3 words, use a comma.

If (or when) you begin a sentence with a dependent clause, use a comma to separate it from the independent clause.

In such cases as these, commas should clarify meaning.

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Commas in Greetings

Question: When sending an informal letter or e-mail message, I prefer to begin with "Hi" rather than "Dear". Should I put a comma between "Hi" and the name? (Is it "Hi, Miss Grammar" or "Hi Miss Grammar"?) I tried to find the answer in The Gregg Reference Manual - 8th Edition but I couldn't find any information on this. Thank you.

Answer: Put a comma after words of greeting, such as "hi," "hello," and "howdy." Such words are interjections and usually need some punctuation to set them off from the rest of a sentence. "Dear" acts as a modifier of the name and does not need a comma. In olden times, one might have written "My Esteemed Friend" or "Most Reverend Sir" instead of "Dear [name]."

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Numerals or Words?

Question: Which of these is correct:

  • twenty-four six-packs
  • twenty-four 6-packs
  • 24 six-packs
  • 24 6-packs

Answer: When you have two numbers next to each other, spell out the shorter number and leave the other as a numeral: 24 six-packs. (Scientific Style and Format has a clear and sensible approach to formatting numbers.)

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Punctuation in Pairs

Question: Is the punctuation used correctly in this sentence? I read somewhere that a comma should not supercede and replace a dash — that it may not be the "partner" of an enclosing dash. Thanks much. Just to reiterate — and elaborate, I don't have any information to show that this is just one of many similar projects in the state.

Answer: Use paired punctuation for asides, appositives, and nonrestrictive phrases or clauses: pairs of dashes, pairs of commas, or parentheses.

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Hyphenating Superlatives

Question: What is your opinion about hyphenating superlatives and comparatives? For example, "He is the most-improved player" or "That is the second-highest building."

Answer: Frankly, I had not given the matter much thought, but fortunately, William Sabin has. In the Gregg Reference Manual, he blesses the union of adjective (even superlative) and participle (most-improved). However, he counsels against adjective+adjective unions (second highest).

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Hyphenating Adjectives, 1

Question: I have a grammar question and my ad is going to print. If I say "American classic homes...," don't I need an apostrophe top make "American-classic" an adverb describing home? Can you help?

Answer: The hyphen would make the phrase "American-classic" one adjective. But "American classic homes..." might also say what you mean, as would "Classic American."

In all these cases the words act as adjectives of home. The meaning changes only slightly. "Classic American" sounds better to me (shorter words before longer in a series), but you know what you want to emphasize.

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Hyphenating Adjectives, 2

Question: My group of four land use planners often needs to explain the dimensions of buildings, roads, etc.One of the most common statements in our writing is something like: "the residence is 4,800 square feet in size." This seems clear enough to me, but what about something a little more complicated, like: "The current proposal would create a new 1,200 foot-long access road within a 40 foot easement... ."Where do the hyphens most properly go?

Answer: Use hyphens to create adjectives from phrases ("the hole-in-the-wall gang") and to join numerals or letters to words. Your sentence should read thus: "The current proposal would create a new 1,200-foot access road within a 40-foot easement . . .."

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Hyphenating Nouns

Question: Hi, this has been an ongoing thing, not really knowing the correct way to say, "Some 16 years old have credit cards, or some 16 year olds have credit cards."

Answer: Use hyphens to join the phrase 16-year-old and make it a noun, whose plural is then formed normally: 16-year-olds.

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Periods inside of Quotes?

Question: Where do you put the period, after the quotation or before? "period." or "period". Where do you close parentheses? Please settle this for me.

Answer: Quotation marks enclose periods and commas: "commas," and "periods." Parentheses can enclose complete sentences or just parts of sentences (like this). When they enclose parts of sentences, parentheses close before the terminal punctuation (periods, colons, and so forth). (When a sentence is enclosed so is its terminal punctuation.)

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