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Back to Basics: Punctuation Rules

Back to Basics- (2)Punctuation is a critical component of clear communication, especially in business. Proper punctuation can be the difference between drawing a reader in and losing them after the first sentence. If your writing isn’t clear and professional, how can a prospect trust you to produce quality work?

You may remember my favorite example from elementary school:

Let’s eat grandma.
Let’s eat, grandma.

A simple example, but you can get the point: punctuation matters.

Some punctuation marks are trickier than others. Here is a refresher on the basic rules and functions of those that can trip people up most often.

Punctuation Tips for Business Writing

Commas vs. Semicolons vs. Colons

Comma (,)

Use Case:
Most people have comma usage down, but it’s important to include here in comparison to the semicolon and colon. Use commas to join two independent clauses, to separate items in a list, or between two coordinate objectives, among other uses.
Examples:
We ordered the blue polo shirts for our employees, but the supplier sent green shirts instead.
We have polo shirts in blue, green, and red.
My favorite is the blue, soft polo shirt.

Semicolon (;)

Use Case:
Like the comma, the semicolon is used to connect two independent clauses. It can also be used to separate items in a list when a comma would be confusing. Do not capitalize the word following a semicolon.
Examples:
We are interested in web design and social media; however, please suggest the services you think are best.
We have offices in Seattle, Washington; Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Mystic, Connecticut.

Colon (:)

Use Case:
Everyone knows to use a colon before a list, but the colon is also used to offer an additional explanation after a clause that can stand alone.
Example:
We only have one position left to fill: marketing manager.

Bottom Line:

Semicolons and colons are among the most confusing punctuation marks, and I often see them used improperly. Refer to these use cases so you don’t get tripped up.


Hyphen vs. En Dash vs. Em Dash

Hyphen (-)

Use Case:
The hyphen is often used incorrectly in place of an en or em dash. The proper use of the hyphen is to connect two closely related words. These word pairs typically function as compound nouns or compound adjectives. There are no spaces between the hyphen and the words it connects.
Examples:
Father-in-law
State-of-the-art design
Three-year-old boy

En Dash (–)

Use Case:
An en dash is used instead of a hyphen to indicate a range of time, distance, or numerical value. There are no spaces between the en dash and the words it connects.
Examples:
January–May 2017
Pages 120–175
Monday–Friday
Mac Keyboard Shortcut: Alt + –
PC Keyboard Shortcut: Ctrl + –

Em Dash (—)

Use Case:
The most common use for an em dash is to introduce additional information to a sentence. You can also use parentheses or commas to achieve a similar effect. The AP Stylebook indicates using a space between the em dash and the words preceding and following it.
Example:
Company ABC — the world’s largest provider of office supplies — is based in Boston.
Mac Keyboard Shortcut: Shift + Alt + –
PC Keyboard Shortcut: Alt + Ctrl + –

Bottom Line:

I bet you didn’t know there were three different lengths of dashes! Many won’t notice the subtle difference between a hyphen and an en dash, but proper use will ensure consistency in your written materials.


The Oxford Comma

Use Case:
Also known as a serial comma, this punctuation mark comes after the penultimate item in a list, before and or or.
Example:
Please provide a quote for web design, public relations, and online advertising.

Bottom Line:

To use the Oxford comma or not? This is a hotly debated topic among grammar enthusiasts. I say develop a rule and stick to it! Consistency is key here.


The Apostrophe

Singular Nouns Ending in -S

Use Case:
On the surface, the apostrophe seems to be a simple punctuation mark; it shows possession or is used in a contraction. Easy! However, there is some debate when it comes to possessive nouns ending in -s. Do you add an apostrophe or an apostrophe + s? Here are some options for singular possessive nouns.
Examples:
1. Add an apostrophe only to all singular common nouns and proper nouns ending in -s (my boss’ husband, Mr. Jones’ dog)
2. Add an apostrophe + s to all singular common nouns and proper nouns ending in -s (my boss’s husband, Mr. Jones’s dog)
3. As a hybrid approach, add an apostrophe + s to singular common nouns ending in -s, but an apostrophe alone (without the -s) to singular proper nouns ending in -s. (my boss’s husband, Mr. Jones’ dog)

Regular Plural Nouns

Use Case:
Regular nouns become plural by adding -s or -es. To make a regular plural noun possessive, simply add an apostrophe.
Examples:
The girls’ house (more than one girl lives there)
The waitresses’ tips (more than one waitress)

Irregular Plural Nouns

Use Case:
Some nouns have irregular plural forms.
Examples:
The children’s teacher (referring to a group of children)
The men’s restroom

Proper Plural Nouns Ending in -S

Use Case:
This one can be confusing, and may even sound wrong, but here are the rules for the possessive forms of proper plural nouns ending in -s. You first have to pluralize the proper noun. So the Jones family would be the Joneses. Then add an apostrophe to show possession.
Example:
The Joneses’ dog ran away.

Bottom Line:

Again, consistency is key here. There is no right or wrong answer, but you should pick one format and stick to it.


Quotation Marks

Double Quotes (“)

Use Case:
Double quotation marks are used to open and close direct quotes. Also use double quotes when giving a word special treatment, such as sarcasm.
Example:
“The next meeting starts at 4:00 p.m. in the conference room,” Bill said.
Our “friend” the tax man.

Single Quotes (‘)

Use Case:
Use single quotation marks for quotes within a quote.
Example:
“Our new client wrote, ‘Highly recommended!’ in their testimonial,” Bill told his coworkers.

Bottom Line:

The use cases for double and single quotation marks are fairly straightforward; however, it’s important to note the proper placement of punctuation marks near quotes.

  • Always capitalize the first word of a complete direct quote, even if it starts midsentence. (Bill asked, “When does the meeting start?”)
  • Do not capitalize the first word of a quote when it appears as a continuation of a sentence. (Bill said the meeting would last “about an hour.”)
  • Always precede a quote with a comma. (Bill asked, “When does the meeting start?”)
  • Use a comma before he said, he wrote, he asked, etc. (“The meeting will last about an hour,” he said.)
  • Place punctuation marks inside the quotation mark.
  • Question marks are the exception to the rule above. If the question mark is part of the quote, place it within the quotation marks. Otherwise, place it outside the quotation marks.

Punctuation Tips

When writing for business — whether for your own collateral or for client work — always have at least two people proof your work: one who is involved in the project (they can help with content) and one who has not ben involved in the project at all (they can provide an objective opinion and can check for details). It’s also a good idea to use a tool like Grammarly, but note that it’s still important to have a human read your work.

There are a handful of style guides and usage guides out there, each with varying opinions on punctuation. You can follow whichever rules make sense for you, but above all else, be consistent in whichever formats you choose.


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About the Author:

Brian Shilling
Brian is a Branding & Digital Marketing Director with experience leading diverse teams of marketers and designers in strategic marketing, content creation, and crafting comprehensive messaging and positioning platforms for our healthcare and tech clients. To learn more about Brian's experiences and qualifications, visit our Meet Our Executive Team page.

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