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Punctuation Reminders

Robert Harris
Version Date: February 13, 2001
(Reflects 1999 MLA style)



These reminders will help you avoid the most common errors in standard American punctuation. (Punctuation can sometimes be confusing because there are differences between British and American practice. Many of the "errors" American students make they have seen printed in books--published in England.)

1. Periods and commas go inside quotation marks, even for single words:
Fred said, "That rule is amazing."
Her mouth said, "Yes," but her look said, "No."

2. Ellipsis dots have brackets around them and spaces between them. If you wish to leave out the phrase "across the lake" in the sentence, "A breeze began to blow across the lake when the sun set," it would be punctuated like this:
A breeze began to blow [. . .] when the sun set.

3. When an ellipsis comes at the end of a sentence, a period is added. Original sentences: "I want three items for my birthday. First is a computer. Second is a book of quotations. Third is a new car." Quoted with text left out:
I want three items [. . .]. Third is a new car.

4. Here are some examples of proper punctuation with MLA citations.
If you do not name the author in the text, include the name in the parenthetical reference:
One writer has studied skunks for years (Jones 354).

If you do include the author's name, use just the page number in the reference:
Jones has studied skunks for years (354).

Other examples:
One writer called them "man's best friend" (Jones 354).
Jones has called skunks "man's best friend" (354).
Jones says, "Skunks are fun [. . .]" (426).
One opinion is that "cats are furry [. . .]" (Smith 187).

5. For quotations, a set-off introduction uses a comma or colon and a capital letter:
William Harrington says, "This object is a tree."
Janet Summers notes: "Harrington can recognize a tree."
Trudy Smith has aptly remarked, "Another example is all this is."

A built-in introduction uses "that" with no comma or colon and no capital letter (unless a proper name is used). Informal introductions are good for quotations that begin in mid-sentence:
William Harrington says that the object "is a tree."
Janet Summers notes that he "can recognize a tree."

(Note that there is no correct mixture of the two styles--do not use "that" followed by a comma and capital letter of the first word, for example.)
WRONG: Ted Freen says that, "You should not imitate this example."
RIGHT: Brown says that "invention is the mother of necessity" (326).

To quote within a quotation, drop to single quotes:
Sam says, "I like this 'doodad'--as you call it."

6. An apostrophe is used to make a regular noun possessive. For singular nouns, add apostrophe and s:
Fred's coat got mixed up with someone's hat.
A person's opinion, the student's story, tonight's weather

For plurals, make the noun plural first, and then add apostrophe and s:
the workers' coats, people's problems, children's toys

Remember also that words that are themselves already possessive do not have apostrophes in them:
its theirs whose his hers ours

(Note: "it's" is always and only a contraction for "it is" or "it has.")

7. A hyphen is different from a dash. A dash is made from two hyphens with no space on either side or between them.
I want twenty-one dollars for this blue-on-gold ring.
Note that dashes--like this--are made of two hyphens.

(Note that in Microsoft Word a genuine em dash is available by pressing Ctrl-Alt and the hyphen key on the number pad.)

8. Parentheses are used this way:
For parenthetical material as part of a sentence, do this (this is correct).
There were four items (or perhaps five) on the list.
He did not want the candy (but who can understand kids?).
(When the whole sentence is parenthetical, do this.)
Johnny asked for a cigar. (He didn't get one.)

For related information, see "Using Quotations Effectively."


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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com