You’ve definitely seen them around, but do you know how they’re supposed to be used? The major punctuation marks are the period, comma, exclamation point, question mark, semicolon, and colon. These marks organize sentences and give them structure.
A period (.) ends a sentence. It comes immediately after the last letter of a sentence, and there only needs to be one space between it and the first letter of the next sentence. You’ll also see them used used in abbreviations, such as when United States is shortened to U.S.
A comma (,) separates a series of independent sentences, nouns, adjectives, verbs, or phrases. That sentence you just read was a good example of commas separating nouns in a series. When a comma connects two independent sentences, you’ll usually see it with a conjunction (like and, but, or or). For example: “He went to the movies, and his wife went to the mall.”
A comma can also be used to separate nonessential details in a sentence. For example: “The boy, who has red hair, goes to my school.” Who has red hair, is information that doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence if it’s removed. Putting commas around an extra detail like this helps keep it from cluttering the sentence.
The Exclamation Point
An exclamation point (!) ends a sentence emphatically. It replaces a period to express strong feelings, like excitement, anger, or surprise. Some sentences that tend to use exclamation points include “Help!” “Happy birthday!” and “Get out!”
The Question Mark
A question mark (?) is used at the end of a sentence that asks a direct question. For example, “Where’s the library?” This one is pretty straightforward.
A semicolon (;) separates sentences that are closely related but grammatically independent. For example: “My brother isn’t feeling well; he’s been sick for a week.” The two independent sentences could be separated by a period. A semicolon also works here since the two sentences are closely related.
You can also use semicolons to separate a list of items that contain commas. For instance: “I’ve been to Paris, France; London, England; Rome, Italy; and Madrid, Spain.” Imagine how confusing reading that would be if there were commas where the semicolons are.
A colon (:) can introduce a list or a single item. For example, “I need a bunch of supplies for school: pencils, glue, crayons, and scissors.” Here’s an example of a colon introducing a single item: “There’s one thing I want for my birthday: a car.”