Punctuation basics are easy. A period ends a sentence. A comma represents a pause. A quotation mark indicates a quotation. An apostrophe shows possession. Most people get that.
But the finer points — well, those are another matter. Even super-smart wordy types who pay attention to this stuff don’t necessarily know when to put a period before an ellipsis or how a comma can change the meaning of an entire sentence.
Here are nine finer points of punctuation you probably don’t know.
A period comes before an ellipsis if it follows a complete sentence. Compare the following: “When he told you there would be donuts … he lied.” “He told you there would be donuts. … He lied.”
In both cases, the ellipses indicate some words were cut out of the quotation. But in the first example, there’s no period before the ellipsis. Just a space. In the second, there’s a period then a space before the ellipsis.
The difference: In the latter example, the ellipsis is preceded by a complete sentence. That sentence needs to end with a period before you can move on to the ellipsis.
A colon is followed by a lowercase letter if the words that follow don’t make up a complete sentence. “Pundits have a term for this: the pivot.”
A colon is followed by an uppercase letter if it introduces a complete sentence, according to Associated Press editing style.
But it must introduce two or more complete sentences to warrant the uppercase letter in Chicago style. “Pundits have a term for this: They call it the pivot” would be right in AP style. But “Pundits have a term for this: they call it the pivot” would be right in Chicago style.
Commas can change the meaning of a sentence. Commas set off “nonrestrictive” modifying information. Compare “The workers who showed up on time got a raise” with “The workers, who showed up on time, got a raise.”
In the former, the phrase “who showed up on time” is restrictive because it specifies which workers we’re talking about: Only the workers who showed up on time got a raise.
But throw in a couple of commas and suddenly all the workers get a raise and their punctuality is a nonessential, nonrestrictive bit of information.
Nobody likes exclamation points. That’s all I have to say about that.
An exclamation point combined with a question mark is affectionately called an interrobang. “Are you kidding me?!” Because this is an informal structure, there are no rules for how long your interrobang can be, though common sense and good taste dictate restraint: “Are you kidding me?!?!?!”
“Scare quotes” are quotation marks used to raise doubt about a term or an idea. If I say my brother is an “excellent” singer, you know to avoid his favorite karaoke bar.
Sometimes you can use an apostrophe to form a plural. I know, I know. We grammar types lecture you all the time about how one luau plus another luau doesn’t equal two “luau’s.” It’s “luaus” because apostrophes, we always say, don’t form plurals.
Except sometimes they do. Take this example from a recent, correctly punctuated Los Angeles Times column: “He’s getting all A’s and Bs at school.” A’s and Bs? Yes. Without an apostrophe, A’s would form a word, “as.” The apostrophe can be used to prevent confusion when no alternative exists.
British punctuation sometimes requires you to put the period or comma after the quotation mark.
American punctuation rules require a period or comma come before a closing quote mark in every situation, regardless of meaning: Though she uses the word “quirky,” she really means “crazy.”