Writing Mini-Lessons: Essential Punctuation Information

The intricacies of punctuation could form a year of in-depth study, but these sixth grade punctuation lessons are designed to clear up confusion and to strengthen writing. We won’t be covering old ground that should already be mastered (e.g., periods at the ends of sentences, question marks after questions, capitalizing at sentence beginnings, ellipses to show omissions and pauses), but rather, we will do a series of sixth grade punctuation greatest hits. These lessons will address confusions about periods, frequent occasions for omitted commas, reasons to use a semicolon, functions of a colon, differences between a dash and a hyphen, the fine points of using apostrophes on various kinds of possessive nouns, and why and how to avoid parenthesis in nontechnical prose.

Period Confusions

  1. A regular, declarative sentence that ends with an abbreviation takes one period at the end.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • I love the novels of Christopher Paul Curtis.
    • I awoke from my nap at 11:30 p.m.

    But a question or exclamation mark at the end keeps the abbreviation’s period.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • You woke up at 11:30 p.m.?
  2. A period always comes before the closing quotation mark, whether it’s part of the quote or not.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • I like Billy Collins’ idea of “the companionship of a poem.”

    But a question mark, an exclamation point, a colon, or a semicolon comes after the closing quotation mark, unless it’s part of the quote.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • Do you believe in “the companionship of a poem”?
    • Have you heard the song “Do You Believe in Magic?”
    • She said, “Give it to me”; I pretended I didn’t hear her.
    • “To be or not to be”: now, there’s a cliché.
  3. When a group of words within a sentence is enclosed in parentheses, the period at the end belongs outside the closing parenthesis.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • Kay Ryan should win the Nobel Prize for literature (in her opinion).

    But if a whole sentence is enclosed in parentheses, the period at the end belongs inside the closing parenthesis.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • My students adore Kay Ryan. (I wish one of them would be more open-minded about Seamus Heaney.

Most Common Comma Omissions

  1. Between two sentences joined by a conjunction (e.g., and, but, or, so), you need a comma before the conjunction.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • The road was snowy, but we let our daughter drive anyway.
    • Riley threw the ball endlessly, and Killian caught it every time.

    BUT:

    • Kate has strep throat and can’t perform in the sixth grade musical.

      (Note: the words that follow the and aren’t a sentence. They can’t stand alone and make sense, so there’s no comma.)

  2. After a phrase or clause that starts a sentence, you need a comma.

     

    EXAMPLE:  

    • By the time I got to it, the ice cream cake had been devoured.
    • When everyone was finally ready, we piled into my brother’s minivan.
    • While I showered, Bob made breakfast.
  3. In a series of three or more elements/items with one conjunction at the end, you need a comma before the conjunction.

     

    EXAMPLE:  

    • By the time I got to it, the ice cream cake had been devoured.
    • When everyone was finally ready, we piled into my brother’s minivan.
    • While I showered, Bob made breakfast.
  4. You need a comma after a vocative: a name spoken in direct address.

     

    EXAMPLE:  

    • Mom, have you seen my homework folder?
    • Okay, Mario, let’s go.
    • If I were you, Trina, I’d read this series by Lois Lowry.
  5. You need a comma after an interjection or weak exclamation.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • Hey, Mom, what’s up?
    • Sure, I’ll go along.
    • Okay, I’ll take two.
    • Yes, I’m talking to you.
    • Well, what did he say?
    • Wow, that was close.
    • Hi, Mr. Williamson.

Reasons for a Semicolon

A semicolon is one of the least used but most useful punctuation marks. It shows a close relationship between two statements or sentences. Often, when writers commit a comma splice, it’s because they’ve recognized that the spliced sentences go together meaning-wise, but they don’t know the mark that will make the connection grammatically legal. The semicolon fills the bill. It’s stronger than a comma but not as final as a period.

Use a semicolon

  1. To join two or more sentences that aren’t connected by a conjunction (e.g., and, or, because), when you want to show a relationship between them—a closeness in meaning, a cause, or a consequence.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • Stanley wouldn’t tell on us; he was a wimp.
    • I wasn’t worried; after all, Dad was a good driver.
    • I knew the conversation had to happen sometime; maybe this was the moment.
  2. To avoid confusion in lists that already contain commas.

     

    EXAMPLE:  

    • We read the poems "Workshop," "Litany," and "Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins; "The Osprey," "White Eyes," and "Starlings in Winter" by Mary Oliver; and "American Heartbreak" and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" by Langston Hughes.

Colons Signal Readers

A colon tells a reader to get ready for what comes next: a list, a long quotation, or an explanation. A colon can also cue a reader that what is to come is closely related to what came before. It’s more formal than a dash and stronger than a comma. A colon signals a stop that’s almost as strong as a period.

Use a colon

  1. To that a list or series is coming.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • I packed everything I needed for a night away from home: nightgown, toothbrush, a good novel, and warm socks.
  2. To signal that a long quotation is coming.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • Writer Robert Cormier views perseverance and desire as more crucial than talent: "If you have a minimum of talent, but you sit at that typewriter long enough, something will emerge. All I had was this burning desire to be a writer and all these emotions."
  3. To signal that an explanation is coming.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • Writing isn’t a social activity but a solo act: writers need to be able to be by themselves, with pen and paper, for long periods of time.

    Note: If the group of words that comes after the colon, as in example #3 above, is a complete sentence, you may start it with a capital letter, e.g., Writing isn’t a social activity but a solo act: Writers need to be able to be by themselves, with pen and paper, for long periods of time.

To Dash or Hyphen? That Is the Question

A hyphen shows connection. It comes from a Greek mark meaning "together, in one." The hyphen functions as a spelling mark. It shows that a word has been split, or that two or more words have been joined to make a new one. In appearance, a hyphen is half as long as a dash. In function, it’s completely different from a dash.

Use a hyphen

  1. When splitting a word of more than one syllable and more than five letters between lines of text, using the syllabication shown in the dictionary.
  2. On a compound name: Atwater-Rhodes.
  3. On compound word: good-bye, four-year-old, mother-in-law, merry-go-round, teacher-writer (i.e., equal roles).
  4. On numbers of two or more words and on fractions: twenty-eight, one-fifth.
  5. To indicate a span of time, a span of pages, or the score of a game: November-March; pages 21-37; final score of 28-7.
  6. To form a compound adjective that comes before a noun: snow-covered lawn, wide-eyed expression, after-school sports.

A dash shows meaning—that is, a break, shift, or interruption in meaning. As a punctuation mark, it’s more forceful than a comma, not as formal as a colon, and more natural than parentheses. In appearance, it’s twice as long as a hyphen. To type a dash on our computers, hold the shift key and the option key, then hit the hyphen/dash key.

Use a dash

  1. To indicate a sudden break, a pause, or a change in the action or feeling.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • He reached the bottom of the stairs—and his blood froze.
  2. To emphasize a meaning.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • "At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—

      Almost, at times, the Fool."

      ~T.S. Eliot

  3. To indicate interruption in dialogue.

     

    EXAMPLE:  

    • "Okay, let’s—" Ms. McClure began.
    • "Is today the deadline for turning in the Rosicrucian permission slips?" Kyle piped up.
  4. When a colon is too formal.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • "I stand on top

      of our back steps and breathe the rich air—

      a mother skunk with her column of kittens swills the garbage

      pail."

      ~Robert Lowell

WARNING: Watch out for overusing the dash and creating too many breaks in the flow of your prose. Don’t stick dashes in everywhere, and try not to rely on them to save you when you’re not sure how to punctuate.

Apostrophe Headaches

Is this a spelling mark, like the hyphen, rather than a mark of punctuation? I’m inclined to think so. The apostrophe is mostly used to differentiate plurals (nouns that end in s to signify more than one) from possessives (nouns that end in s to signify that someone owns something). Warning: the rules have been known to induce severe headaches.

  1. To make a singular noun (the name of one person, place, thing, or idea) show possession, add ‘s.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • JFK’s assassination
    • dog’s breakfast
    • Jimmy’s CD
    • a new day’s dawning
    • the kid’s baseball glove
    • yesterday’s papers
    • communism’s collapse
    • democracy’s promise
    • a witch’s cauldron
    • trail’s end
  2. When a singular noun already ends in s.

    a. if it’s a one-syllable word, most styles add ‘s

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • lass’s hair
    • the grass’s tender roots
    • Robert Burns’s poetry
    • our boss’s rules
    • our class’s procedures

    b. if it’s a word of more than one syllable, you can just add an apostrophe, or you can add the apostrophe s (I prefer the former)

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • Dallas’ sports teams / Dallas’s sports teams
    • Collins’ poetry / Collins’s poetry
  3. When a noun is plural (more than one person, place, thing, or idea) and already ends in s, add an apostrophe to make it possessive.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • the kids’ boots
    • the bosses’ secretaries
    • the Millers’ new kitty
    • girls’ basketball team
    • my grandparents’ house
    • the boys’ locker room
    • our cousins’ vacation schedule
  4. When a plural noun doesn’t end in s, add ‘s to make it possessive.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • children’s mittens
    • men’s room
    • women’s clothing
    • geese’s flight
  5. When possession is shared by more than one noun, use ‘s only for the last noun in the series.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • There’s Mrs. Johnson, Eric and Alison’s mother.
    • Jacob, Rachael, and Nate’s cat, Wallace, is tough.
  6. Some styles use ‘s to form the plural (more than one) of a letter, number, sign, or word discussed as a word. Not using ‘s is equally correct.

     

    EXAMPLE:

    • I got straight A’s.
    • You use too many and’s.
    • I loved the ’60’s.
    • Let’s play Crazy 8’s.
    • The 1860’s were a traumatic decade.
    • Are those my size 11’s?

Note: The possessive pronouns hers, theirs, yours, its, and ours have their possessiveness built in. They don’t take apostrophes. But watch out for indefinite pronouns, which do take apostrophes: one’s own topics, everybody’s folders, others‘ ideas.

Parenthesis: Why Not

Parentheses in stories have an effect on me similar to that of exclamation points. Parentheses say to readers: notice my little joke; catch the cute remark I’m sneaking in here. Let your readers find the humor, sarcasm, or irony in your writing for themselves. Except in technical writing, avoid the use of parentheses when you can. Try setting off parenthetical phrases or clauses with commas or dashes instead. Check out the examples below.