That pesky punctuation! But it’s not just something your English teacher nagged you about. It’s necessary to help your readers find their way through your sentences. Punctuation serves the same function for the written word that pauses and voice inflection serve for the spoken word.
Apostrophes have several uses.
To indicate possession:
- Add an ’s to a singular noun to make it possessive: the cat’s toy.
- Add only an apostrophe to plural nouns ending in s: the girls’ dresses.
- Add ’s to singular proper names ending in s: Bridget Jones’s diary (this is an exception to AP style).
- Add ’s to singular nouns ending in s: the witness’s response.
- Do not use an apostrophe with the following possessive pronouns: ours, yours, his, hers, its, theirs, whose.
- Do not use an apostrophe with a word ending in s when its use is descriptive, and not possessive: Masters swimming, Beatles music, Titans game.
Contractions: Use an apostrophe to form contractions (don’t, won’t, can’t, etc.) and to indicate omitted letters or numerals (rock ‘n’ roll, class of ’74).
Decades and centuries: Do not use an apostrophe to indicate more than one decade or century: the 1990s not the 1990’s.
Use a colon to introduce lists, long quotations and for emphasis:
- These are the competitive strokes: freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke and butterfly.
- Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said: “I’m really proud of our effort tonight. We could have ducked our heads when we got 10 points down, but we didn’t. We came back and became the aggressor late in the second half. That turned the game around for us.”
- Chuck Hayes: All he does is win.
Don’t capitalize the first word after the colon unless it’s a proper noun or the beginning of a complete sentence.
When to use them:
- Before and after a state name when used with a city: Nashville, Tenn., is my hometown.
- To separate adjectives that are equal in rank: a stretched-out, transparent, threadbare suit. But do not use a comma before the last adjective if it is critical to the meaning: a stretched-out, transparent team suit (not just any suit, but the suit designated for team members).
- To set introductory phrases off: When we arrived at the pool, we were overcome by chlorine fumes.
- To set off two phrases joined by a conjunction when each phrase could stand alone as a sentence: She came to Savannah to score points, but the highest she placed was the dreaded 11th place.
- To introduce short quotations: Phelps said, “I’m pleased with my time.”
- In numbers greater than three digits: The attendance was 2,060. EXCEPTION: 1000, 1650, 1500 freestyle events.
When not to use them:
- In a series before the conjunction (and, or, but, etc.) in a simple series: The Beatles are John, Paul, George and Ringo. But do put a comma before the last conjunction in complicated series, especially when some of the series items have conjunctions: Natural resources in Kentucky include coal, oil and gas, sand and gravel, and clay.
- Before the last conjunction in a complex series of phrases: Factors affecting a swimmer’s performance include whether she is rested, how much she has been training, and whether she is mentally prepared.
- With Inc.: RIGHT: Satchmo Publishing Inc. is the publisher. WRONG: Satchmo Publishing, Inc., is the publisher.
- With Jr. or Sr.: RIGHT: Gary Hall Jr. won the 50 freestyle. WRONG: Gary Hall, Jr., won the 50 freestyle.
- To separate months and years: October 1956 (not October, 1956). When using month, date and year, however, put commas before and after the year: October 13, 1956, is an important date.
The main use for hyphens is to join two or more words used as a unit to modify a word: an open-water swim, a timed-final event. Do not use hyphens with very or words ending in -ly: a very competitive heat, a highly successful coach.
Also use hyphens to prevent doubled vowels and tripled consonants: anti-intellectual, well-liked.
See the separate section on prefixes and suffixes for more guidance on the use of hyphens.
Quotation marks (“)
Use double quotes (“) for the primary quotation and single quotes (‘) for quotations within quotations: Bobby Perry said, “I knew Chuck’s nose was broken when he asked me, ‘Is my nose crooked?’”
Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks. All other punctuation goes outside unless part of the quoted material.
- She said, “Let’s go.”
- She said, “I can’t wait to go,” but then she dragged her feet.
- He said, “Let’s win this game!”
- The winner is “Million Dollar Baby”!
- Did you say, “I won’t do it”?