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Punctuation is a device we use to clarify the meaning of written text. The general principles governing the use of punctuation are (a) that if it does not clarify the text it should be omitted, and (b) that in the choice and placing of punctuation marks the sole aim should be to bring out more clearly the writer's thought. Punctuation should aid in reading and prevent misreading.

Sometimes the careless omission of a punctuation mark can lead to a humorous statement as in the following sentence:

Wrong: While they ate the other men prepared for departure.

At first glance the sentence gives the impression that "they ate the other men." By adding a comma after "ate" we can clarify the meaning of the sentence.

Right: While they ate, the other men prepared for departure.

In its simplest sense, punctuation in writing takes the place of pauses and emphasis in speaking. One test for effective punctuation is to read your writing aloud; if you pause or use emphasis where the punctuation appears, you have punctuated correctly.

Modern writers minimize punctuation and rely on skillful phrasing to make the meaning clear. If a sentence requires a lot of punctuation, it is likely to be long and hard to understand. In addition, excessive punctuation tends to break the smooth flow of words. If your sentences seem overly punctuated, try rewriting them for greater effectiveness.

a.  The comma. About half of the errors in punctuation are comma errors. The following gives you a quick reference so you will not make the most common errors with commas. We will not cover all of the minute details of the commas, just the ones we use most often.

(1)  Commas set off independent clauses which are joined by a coordinating conjunction.

The Commander is LTC Jensen, and the executive officer is MAJ Roe.

(2)  Commas set off introductory elements.

Adverb clauses:

If you register now, you can vote by mail.

Long prepositional phrases:

In the cool air of the April morning, we prepared for the field problem.

Verbal phrases:

Speaking off the record, the Senator addressed the battalion.

(3)  Commas separate the items in a series when there are more than two items.

The book is available in bookstores, at newsstands, or by mail.

(4)  Commas separate coordinate adjectives when they are of equal importance.

Tall, stately trees lined the boulevard.

(5)  Commas set off parenthetical expressions. These words or phrases interrupt the flow of the sentence and are not essential to its meaning.

General parenthetical expressions--

She was, in my opinion, an outstanding officer.

The entire briefing, moreover, lacked vitality.

Nonrestrictive (nonessential) clauses:

Parsons Boulevard, which runs past my house, is being repaved.

Nonrestrictive (nonessential) phrases:

Mrs. Atlee, wearing red, is the commander's sister.

Nonrestrictive (nonessential) appositives.

America's first general, George Washington, started his own navy.

(6)  Commas set off absolute phrases.

The day being warm, we headed for the beach.

(7)  Commas set off names or words used in direct address.

Sergeant Jones, what are you doing?

(8)  Commas set off yes or no at the beginning of a sentence.

Yes, there is a lot of reading to this course.

(9)  Commas set off mild interjections.

Well, I'll have to think about that.

b.  The colon. The colon is a mark of anticipation. The material which follows the colon illustrates, restates, or depends on that which precedes the colon.

(1)  Colons introduce:

A list, but only after as follows, the following, or a noun for which the list is an appositive:

Each soldier will carry the following: MREs for three days, a survival knife, and a sleeping bag.

The division had four new officers: Lieutenants Smith, Tucker, Fillmore, and Lewis.

A long quotation (one or more paragraphs):

In The Killer Angels Michael Shaara wrote: "You may find it a different story from the one you learned in school. There have been many versions of that battle [Gettysburg] and that war [the civil War]."

The brackets indicate that the comment was added by the person quoting the author.

A formal quotation or question:

The President declared: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." The question is: What can we do about it?

A second independent clause which explains the first:

Potter's motive is clear: he wants the assignment.

After the introduction of a business letter:

Dear Sirs: or Dear Madam:

The details following an announcement:

For sale: Large lakeside cabin with dock.

A formal resolution, after the word resolved:

Resolved: That this council petition the mayor . . . .

The words of a speaker in a play:

Macbeth: She should have died hereafter.

(2)  Colons separate the following:

Parts of a title, reference, or numeral:

Principles of Mathematics: An Introduction
Luke 3:4-13
8:15 a.m.

The place of publication from the publisher, and the volume number from the pages in bibliographies:

Miller, Jonathan. The Body in Question. New York: Random House, 1978.

Jarchow, Elaine. "In Search of Consistency in Composition Scoring." English Record 23.4 (1982): 18--19.

c.  The semicolon. The semicolon has two main purposes: first, to separate two or more independent clauses when coordinating conjunctions are not used; second, to separate items in a series when commas have already been used.

(1)  Semicolons can join closely related independent clauses which are not joined by a coordinating conjunction.

Since the mid-1970's America's campuses have been relatively quiet; today's students seem interested more in courses than causes.

(2)  Semicolons punctuate two independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb.

On weekdays the club closes at eleven; however, on weekends it's open until one.

(3)  Semicolons punctuate clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction when the clauses have commas within them.

Today people can buy what they need from department stores, supermarkets, and discount stores; but in colonial days, when such conveniences did not exist, people depended on general stores and peddlers.

(4)  Semicolons punctuate items in a series when there are commas within the series.

At the alumni dinner, I sat with the school's best-known athlete, Gary Wyckoff; the editor of the paper; two stars of the class play, a fellow and a girl who later married each other; and Tad Frump, the class clown.

d.  The apostrophe. ostrophes are used to show possession, to form certain plurals, and to mark omissions in contracted words or numerals.

(1)  The apostrophe forms the possessive case of nouns.

Mrs. Smith's car.
Davis' boat—singular.
the Davises' boat—plural.
the women's coats—plural.
father-in-law's--In hyphenated words, add the apostrophe to the last word.

Do not use an apostrophe with the possessive form of pronouns. Be particularly careful not to confuse its with the contraction it’s (it is). The personal pronouns his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs, and the pronoun whose are possessive and do not require an apostrophe.

(2)  Apostrophes show the omission of letters or numerals.

don't for do not
can't for can not
class of '84 for class of 1984

e.  The dash. Dashes mark a sudden break or abrupt change in thought.

(1)  The dash (indicated by two hyphens in typing) shows a sudden break in thought.

Well, if that's how you feel--I guess the game is over.

(2)  The dash sets off parenthetical elements.

The train arrived--can you believe it--right on time.

(3)  The dash emphasizes an appositive.

Bill only worried about one thing--food.

(4)  The dash precedes the author's name after a direct quotation.

"That is nonsense up with which I will not put."

--Winston Churchill

f.  The hyphen. We use hyphens to join compound words and to break a word at the end of a line.

(1)  The hyphen joins compound words.


(2)  The hyphen joins words to make a single adjective.

organizational-level leadership

(3)  The hyphen indicates two-word numbers (twenty-one to ninety-nine) and two-word fractions.

twenty-two for 22
three-fourths for .

(4)  The hyphen separates the prefixes ex- (when it means former), self-, all-, and the suffix -elect from the base word.


(5)  The hyphen indicates words divided at the end of a line.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx The classroom accom-
modates thirty-six people.

g.  Italics and underlining. Italics are not punctuation, but they are sometimes used in place of quotation marks and to set off words to make the meaning clear. In papers which are typed or written in longhand, underlining takes the place of italics.

(1)  Use italics (underlining) to indicate titles of separate publications.

Books -- The Catcher in the Rye or The Catcher in the Rye
Magazines and newspapers --
     Newsweek or Newsweek
     The New York Times or The New York Times
Pamphlets -- Bee Keeping or Bee Keeping
Plays, TV and radio programs, and films -- The Burning Bed or The Burning Bed
Long Poems -- The Candelbras Tales or The Candelbras Tales

(2)  Use italics to indicate the names of ships, aircraft, and spacecraft.

Schultz sailed on the Enterprise (Enterprise).
The explosion aboard the Challenger (Challenger) was a tragedy.

(3)  Use italics to indicate the titles of paintings and sculptures.

The Staff Ride or The Staff Ride
Arrival at Fort Leavenworth or Arrival at Fort Leavenworth

(4)  Use italics to indicate foreign words not yet anglicized.

We identified the phrase’s sitz im leben (sitz im leben).

(5)  Use italics to indicate words, symbols, letters, or figures when used as such.

The t (t)  is often silent.
Avoid using & (&) in formal writing.

(6)  Use italics to show emphasis.

You are so (so) right about the car.

h.  Quotation marks. Quotation marks enclose quotations, slogans, slang expressions, or ordinary words used in other than their usual fashion.

(1)  Use quotation marks to enclose direct quotations.

MacArthur vowed, "I shall return," as he left the islands.

With an interrupted quotation, use quotation marks only around the quoted words.

"I heard," said Amy, "that you passed the course."

With an uninterrupted quotation of several sentences, use quotation marks before the first sentence and after the last.

Jenkins said, "Something's wrong. I know it. He should have called in by now."

With long uninterrupted quotations of several paragraphs, use either of the following forms.

--Put quotation marks at the beginning of each paragraph but at the end of only the last paragraph.

--Use no quotation marks at all; instead, indent the entire quotation and type it single-spaced.

With a short quotation that is not a complete sentence, use no commas.

Barrie described life as "a long lesson in humility."

Use the ellipses (three periods (...)) to indicate the omission of unimportant or irrelevant words from a quotation, and brackets [ ] to indicate explanatory words added to the quotation.

"What a heavy burden is a name that has become . . . famous."


"From a distance it [fear] is something; nearby it is nothing."

--La Fontaine

When quoting dialogue, start a new paragraph with each change of speaker.

"He's dead," Holmes announced.
"Are you sure?" the young lady asked.

(2)  Use quotation marks around the titles of short written works: poems, articles, essays, short stories, chapters, and songs.

The first lesson in The Guns of August is entitled "A Funeral."

I still get misty-eyed when I hear "Danny Boy."

(3)  Use quotation marks around the definition of words.

The original meaning of lady was "kneader of bread."

(4)  Use quotation marks to indicate the special use of a word.

Organized crime operates by having its ill-gotten gains "laundered" so they appear legitimate.

(5)  Use a set of single quotation marks to indicate a quotation within a quotation.

She asked, "Who said, 'Let them eat cake.'?"

(6)  Place periods and commas inside quotation marks.

Dr. Watson said, "It's the speckled band."

(7)  Place colons and semicolons outside the quotation marks.

Coe barked, "I have nothing to say"; then he left.

(8)  Place question marks, exclamation marks, and dashes inside the quotation marks when the punctuation belongs to the quote and outside the quotation marks when they do not.

Shauna said, "Who is my opponent?"

Did Shauna say, "I fear no opponent"?

Section 4. Spelling

a.  Introduction. There is no substitute for the ability to spell. Some writers try to avoid misspelling by using only familiar words. For instance, a writer who wants to express "moving forward" in a sentence and wants to use the word "edging" to describe the action might instead substitute the less descriptive word "moving" simply because he does not know how to spell "edging." This results in writing that is flat and colorless.

b.  Suggestions for improving spelling.

(1)  Proofread. Care in writing and proofreading your work will help eliminate errors in the spelling of simple words, such as, to, there, and its.

(2)  Use the dictionary. Some people do not like to use the dictionary. However, the only sure way to find the correct spelling, or correct hyphenation of a word is to look it up in the dictionary.

(3)  Keep a list of your spelling errors. Although it is a difficult habit to establish, the habit of recording correctly the words you misspell is one technique many have found helpful. Ensure you spell the word correctly when entering it on your list.

(4)  Learn to spell words by syllables. A long word when divided into syllables becomes a number of short words. Since short words are usually simpler to spell than long ones, you can simplify your spelling problem by dividing words into syllables and spelling them part by part. Often you will discover that you have spelled the word incorrectly because when pronouncing it you omitted or added a syllable. For example, a person who spells reference as though it were refrence has made the mistake of omitting a syllable. On the other hand, if he spells incentive as though it were incentative, he has made the mistake of inserting an extra syllable. Errors such as these are errors in pronunciation which, in turn, are the result of not knowing the exact syllables in the word. Dividing a word into its pronounceable parts (syllables) will help you to pronounce and spell the word correctly.

(5)  Watch for word idiosyncrasies. When the spelling of a word is contrary to the usual word structure, give particular attention to that word. Observe its special qualities. Look at it. Sound it out to yourself. Memorize it. Write it repeatedly. Write it in different sentences. Taking these steps will help you master the difficult words.

(6)  Distinguish between homonyms. Homonyms present special problems because they are words which sound alike but have different meanings and often different spellings. Some common homonyms that plague Army writers follow:

(a)  Accept is a verb meaning to receive. Except as a preposition means to leave out.

(b)  Advice is a noun meaning counsel or opinion. Advise is a verb meaning to give counsel.

(c)  Affect is a verb meaning to produce a change in. Effect used as a noun means result. Used as a verb effect means to cause or to accomplish.

(d)  Capitol (spelled with an o) is the building in which state or federal legislature meets. Capital (spelled with an a) can mean the official seat of government or wealth. Used as an adjective capital means of primary importance.

(e)  Complement (with an e) used as a verb means to make complete. Used as a noun complement means that which is filled up or completed. Compliment (with an i) used as a verb means to praise or congratulate, and used as a noun it means a formal expression of courtesy, praise, or admiration.

It is beyond the scope of this lesson to list all the homonyms that plague Army writers. Whenever you use a word that may be a homonym, use a dictionary to ensure you use it correctly.

(7)  Learn lists of frequently misspelled words. Collect lists of frequently misspelled words. From the lists identify the words you have trouble spelling. Study them. Practice writing the words several times until you have memorized them.

(8)  Helpful spelling rules. The following is a list of spelling rules which can help you become a proficient speller.

(a)  Distinguish between ie and ei. Remember this jingle:

Write i before e
Except after c
Or when sounded like a
As in eighty and sleigh.

(b)  Drop the final e before a suffix beginning with a vowel but not before a suffix beginning with a consonant.

--Suffix beginning with a vowel: guide + ance = guidance

--Suffix beginning with a consonant, final e retained: hate + ful = hateful

(c)  Final y is usually changed to i before a suffix, unless the suffix begins with i: defy + ance = defiance. Cry + ing = crying.

(d)  A final single consonant is doubled before a suffix beginning with a vowel when (a) a single vowel precedes the consonant, and (b) the consonant ends an accented syllable or a one-syllable word. Unless both these conditions exist, the final consonant is not doubled.

stop + ing = stopping
admit + ed = admitted
stoop + ing = stooping (p ends a one syllable word but is preceded by a double vowel)
benefit + ed = benefited (t is preceded by a single vowel i but it does not end the accented syllable)

(e)  Nouns ending in a sound that can be smoothly united with s usually form their plurals by adding -s. Verbs ending in a sound that can be smoothly united with s form their third person singular by adding s.


Singular Plural
radio radios
flower flowers


Singular Plural
blacken blackens
criticize criticizes
radiate radiates

(f)  Nouns ending in a sound that cannot be smoothly united with s form their plural by adding es. Verbs ending in a sound that cannot be smoothly united with -s form their third person singular by adding es.


Singular Plural
porch porches
bush bushes


Singular Plural
pass passes
tax taxes

(g)  Nouns ending in y preceded by a consonant form their plurals by changing y to i and adding es. Verbs ending in a y preceded by a consonant form their third person singular in the same way.


Singular Plural
nursery nurseries
mercy mercies


Singular Plural
pity pities
carry carries

(h)  Nouns ending in y preceded by a, e, o, or u form their plurals by adding -s only. Verbs ending in a y preceded by a, e, o, or u form their third person singular in the same way.


Singular Plural
day days
key keys


Singular Plural
buy buys
enjoy enjoys

(i)  Compound nouns form their plurals by making the main word plural.

Compound Noun Plural Compound Noun
father-in-law fathers-in-law
lieutenant colonel lieutenant colonels
major general major generals
court-martial courts-martial
passer-by passers-by

(j)  The spelling of plural nouns borrowed from French, Greek, and Latin frequently retains the plural of the original language.

Singular Plural
alumna (feminine) alumnae
alumnus (masculine) alumni
analysis analyses
basis bases

David L. Heiserman, Editor

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Revised: June 14, 2016