Punctuation and Capitalization Tips




Use commas or semi-colons?

Use commas to separate two or more things in a list. Example: London, New York, and Tokyo are some of the largest cities in the world.                                             Use semi-colons to separate two or more items in a list that already has commas. Example: London, England; New York, U.S.A.; and Tokyo, Japan are some of the largest cities in the world.

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Double or single quotation marks to enclose quotes?

Use double quotation marks to enclose direct quotes, and single quotation marks to enclose a quotation within a quotation. For example:                                             “We were just entering the building when someone called us from behind,” explained Sarah; and “We were just entering the building when someone yelled ‘Stop!’ from behind,” explained Sarah.

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Comma in an indirect quote?

Do not use a comma in an indirect quote. For example: You said, that you would come. (Incorrect). You said that you would come. (Correct)  

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Abbreviation and end of sentence

When an abbreviation with a period ends a sentence, that period will suffice to end the sentence. For example: Jane Doe lives in Washington, D.C.

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Use a hyphen between “re” and the verb

Use a hyphen between “re” (meaning again) and the verb to distinguish it from another word of the same spelling. For example: re-count (count again), and recount (relate in detail); or re-cover (cover again), and recover (regain).

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Comma before “and”

When using commas to separate items in a list, place a comma before “and” that precedes the last separate item in the list. For example:

The menu included a large variety of vegetables – green beans, cabbage, tomatoes, peas, eggplant, and spinach.   

Some writers disagree on the use of the comma before “and”. However, this method creates ambiguity. For example:

The menu included a large variety of vegetables – green beans, cabbage, tomatoes, peas, eggplant and spinach.   

In this example, the comma has not been used. It ends with “….eggplant and spinach”. This can be misinterpreted to mean that “eggplant and spinach” is one dish on the menu; while in fact, “eggplant” and “spinach” are two separate items.

Hence, to avoid ambiguity, it is always better to use a comma to separate items in a list. 

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Commas with an appositive

Place commas around the appositive only if the information given is not essential. If the information is essential, do not place the commas. For example:

Her husband, John, is very intelligent.

(Here commas are used before and after John because it is assumed that she has only one husband. Hence, if the word John was removed, the meaning would not change.)

Her friend Steve lives in France.

(Here commas are not used because Steve is essential information telling us which friend lives in France.)

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Period or no period

Periods/full stops are used for

• Initials in names (examples: J.F. Kennedy, Robert E. Lee)
• Latin abbreviations that need no explanation (example: e.g., i.e.)
• Contraction (example: Dr., Ltd.)
• Abbreviations end in lower case/small letters (example: Dec. for December)

Periods/full stops are not used for

• Abbreviations in upper case/capital letters (examples: UNESCO, CNN)
• Abbreviations of countries (examples: USA, UK)
• Abbreviations of compass directions (examples: NW, SSE)
• Metric abbreviations (examples: kg, cm)

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Hyphenate a compound adjective

A compound adjective is hyphenated if it precedes the noun it modifies. For example:

broadshouldered man, or
threelegged stool.

This is done to differentiate a compound adjective from two adjacent adjectives. But a hyphen is not used when the same two words appear after the noun. For example (using the same examples as above):

The man was broad shouldered, and
The stool was three legged.

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Exclamation mark

Use exclamation marks sparingly in your writing. Its over-use reduces its impact. Use it only to express:

• A strong command (Get out of here!)
• An excitement (Let’s celebrate!)
• Anger or contempt (What a rude person!)
• Surprise (It’s you!)
• A rhetorical question (How could he do it!)

These are all emotional situations. No emotions are involved in formal writing; therefore, do not use exclamation marks in formal writing.

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Semi-colon and clauses

Use a semicolon between independent clauses not joined by and, but, for, yet, or so.  For example: I like reading; my friend likes watching movies

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Capitalization of person’s title or rank

Do not capitalize the title or rank of a person when it follows the name. Capitalize only when it precedes a name.                                                                        Example1: John Doe, colonel in the army, was the chief guest at the function. Example2: Colonel John Doe was the chief guest at the function.

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Compass points and capitalization

Capitalize points of the compass (north, south, eastern, western, etc) only when they designate geographical parts of a region, and NOT when used to indicate parts of regions.                                                                                                      For example: Western Hemisphere, but western United States.

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Capitalize academic titles

Capitalize all academic titles when preceding a name. For example: Doctor Jones, Professor Smith, Judge Fitzgerald.                                                                   Do NOT capitalize them when they stand alone (i.e. without a person’s name). For example: doctor, professor, judge, etc.

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Capitalization of abbreviations

Capitalize abbreviations only if the words they stand for are to be capitalized.         For example: U.K. (United Kingdom), but p. (page).

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Resumed quotations within sentences

Do not capitalize quotations resumed within a sentence. For example: “I am not going,” he said, “because I have an assignment to complete.”

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Capitalization of family relationships

Family relationships are capitalized only when used as proper names. For example:

My favorite uncle is Uncle Jack.

In the first instance, the ‘u’ is small as the word ‘uncle’ has been used as a common noun. In the second case, ‘U’ has been capitalized because here the word ‘uncle’ is a proper noun – specifying a particular uncle.

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Question within a sentence

Always capitalize an independent question within a sentence. For example:                The question is, Who is the protagonist of the story?                                             

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Capitalize the word ‘Government’

Capitalize the word ‘Government’ when referring to the government of a specific country. For example: Japan’s Imperial Government; The U.S. Government’s decision to ……; The Government raised taxes, etc.

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