Punk Punctuation

  1. Forget semi-colons. Forget exclamation marks. Forget colons, except to introduce quotations or lists of bullet points.

  2. Use more full stops than you expect to. It is a rare mistake for anyone to use a full point where it cannot be right (other than in abbreviations, where best modern practice is just to leave them out). When in doubt, your instinct should always be to plump for a full stop.

  3. Use a question mark every time there is a genuine direct question. That means Are you going?, but not I asked if he was going? (wrong, because it is only a report of a question).

  4. Use dashes, but don’t overdo them. They are especially handy because they’re modern and informal, and the rules surrounding their use are hazy. You can have pairs of dashes — in place of brackets — or a single dash to mark a break in the sentence before a punch line or a throwaway remark — a bit like this.

That’s cleared the decks. But the other marks — apostrophes, commas and quote marks — need to be discussed in more detail.


Apostrophes cause no end of bother, including the most notorious error of all... the greengrocer’s plural.

Tomato’s, beet’s and cabbage’s may be good for a cheap laugh, but PC’s, sofa’s and even customer’s are not unknown in print. There should be no confusion. Apostrophes do not make things plural — and that includes Boeing 777s, size 9s and the 1990s, MPs, HQs, DVDs and P45s.

The general rule is: If something belongs to someone, you write someone’s or, for example, the manager’s (apostrophe s).

If it belongs to several people (the managers) and the plural form is made by adding an s, you write the managers’ (plural form of manager, followed by an apostrophe — no extra s). Plurals like people and children, which aren’t made with an s, take apostrophe s.

Apostrophes can also show where letters have been missed out — can’t pay, won’t pay and ha’p’orth. The short forms of familiar words like don’t and they’ll are now accepted in all but the most formal writing.

It’s is short for it is or it has (it’s been a cold day). Beware of its (meaning of it), yours, hers, ours, theirs and whose. None of them takes an apostrophe.

Be careful, too, about another apostrophe that is often mislaid, the one in 30 days’ credit and two years’ work.

One of our commas is missing

Commas confuse more people, including professional writers, than any other punctuation mark. The rule of thumb is simple. When in doubt, leave it out.

Most mistakes with commas involve dropping one solo comma into a sentence where it is not needed or where there should be two. Commas, like buses, often come along in pairs. It is wrong to write The reason is as it always was, to save money. A pair of commas should be used, like brackets, either side of the phrase as it always was.

Similarly, it may be just about acceptable to begin a sentence Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Stockport... But if you choose to write The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, visited Stockport..., you must have both commas.

The test is whether, grammatically, the sentence would still hold up if the section between the commas disappeared. The usual mistake is to forget the second comma. It often happens after abbreviations — the professional body, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) offers editorial training. The second comma, after (NUJ), has gone missing.

By contrast, the professional body that represents journalists offers editorial training needs no commas at all, because the phrase that represents journalists is actually defining what the sentence is about, rather than adding extra information.

Commas are needed, and are not optional, when someone or something is being addressed. Kiss me, Hardy must take the comma after me. Yes Minister should have been Yes, Minister. Note that what’s addressed need not be a person — Don’t cry for me, Argentina is correct.

Pairs of commas should also be used when however, say, meanwhile, for example and for instance are interjected into sentences — he, however, couldn’t tell a piece of good writing if it bit him in the leg; she might be unsure, for instance, about whether to allow a split infinitive; they might find, say, three typos per page.

At the beginning of a sentence, each of these words and phrases needs to be set off with a single comma — However, before a word starting with a vowel..., For example, if we look at...

Commas are also used to mark off separate items in a list, except, usually, between the last two items, when they are joined by an and. You can put a comma in before and if you’re American or if it’s needed to make the sense clear — The software lets you delete, cut and paste, and copy text.

A string of adjectives usually takes commas after each one except the last — lazy, long-winded, self-indulgent nonsense.

Quotation marks

Your house style will dictate whether you use single quotation marks (6/9) or double marks (66/99) to enclose direct speech. If you have the choice, using single marks generally looks more modern and less cluttered. If print quality or screen definition is low, go for double quotes, which are less likely to get lost.

Even if you are using doubles in body text, it is normal practice to use only single quote marks in headlines.

For quotes within quotes, alternate between single and double speech marks — “I’m not just going to let the author say ‘Change it back’ without a good reason,” she fumed.

Use a colon, not a comma, before quotes — The chief executive said: “This is great news for all our customers.”

Use a comma after quotes (before the speech marks) — “Time is an illusion — lunchtime doubly so,” said Douglas Adams.

Punctuation marks usually go inside the quote marks.

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