Punctuation Cheat Sheet!


A lot of people are confused about how to use punctuation, especially since texting, tweeting, and emoticons make up a lot of “written” communication today. Here’s a quick cheat sheet to help you when you need to write something important. I’ll cover colons, semicolons, hyphens, dashes, and periods. I’ll also cover caps, bold, underlining, and italics. Let’s go!

Colons and Semicolons
Don’t use either one. They are basically reserved for technical writing. Yes, they were used in all kinds of published writing in the past, but they are not for today’s audiences. Be current!

Examples
NO: The large mystery box contained: a heavy barbecue grill and hundreds of packing peanuts.
YES: The large mystery box contained a heavy barbecue grill and hundreds of packing peanuts.

NO: The sign said: No Parking.
YES: The sign said No Parking.
* There is no comma after “said” and no quotes around the name of a sign, just capitalize it.

NO: The little boy shook the fence; the dog snarled and barked.
YES: The little boy shook the fence—the dog snarled and barked.
YES: The little boy shook the fence. The dog snarled and barked.

NO: Sue collected the trash from the house; swept the leaves off the porch; filled her garbage containers; then pulled them out to the curb.

YES: Sue collected the trash from the house, swept the leaves off the porch, filled her garbage containers, then pulled them out to the curb.

MUCH BETTER: Sue collected the trash from the house and swept the leaves off the porch. She filled her garbage containers, then pulled them out to the curb.

Hyphens and Dashes
Typically, you only use hyphens (short, like this – ) to connect compound words. You use long dashes—with no spaces on either side—when you are making a phrase stand out or if someone’s words are abruptly cut off.

See my post on how to use hyphens HERE.

Examples of dashes (called “em dashes”)
NO: I saw the car swerve – almost hitting me – and slammed on my brakes.
YES: I saw the car swerve—almost hitting me—and slammed on my brakes.

NO: I saw the car swerve – and slammed on my brakes.
YES: I saw the car swerve—and slammed on my brakes.

NO: Ingrid babbled loudly, “I’m ninety-five, I’m ninety-five, I’m…”
“Shut up!” Elmer yelled.
YES: Ingrid babbled loudly, “I’m ninety-five, I’m ninety-five, I’m—”
“Shut up!” Elmer yelled.
* Notice the difference between the hyphen in “ninety-five” and the long em dash at the end.

NO: Ginny raised the bat as Conrad whipped around. “Who’s…?” He collapsed.
YES: Ginny raised the bat as Conrad whipped around. “Who’s—” He collapsed.

Periods
There is a trend today in writing to use periods at the end of single words or short phrases for emphasis. Like. This. There is a way to do it successfully, but if you don’t “get” my explanation, please don’t do this. It will make your writing choppy, jolty, and frustrating to read.

Using periods to separate words or phrases is done either to mimic the quick style of social media or to physically show a train of thought. But it has to flow. Your writing should be easy to read with only a natural pause for effect. If you do too many in a row or start with awkward words (that lead readers to believe you are headed elsewhere), it won’t work. This effect is tricky to master—even for professionals, so I’d recommend avoiding it.

NO: Luella struck the scorpion. With her shoe. Over. And. Over. And. Over. Until. It. Was. Dead.
YES: Luella struck the scorpion with her shoe. Over and over and over. Until it was dead.

NO: The man yelled to the kids, “Don’t. Ever. Come. In. My. Yard. Again!”
YES: The man yelled to the kids, “Don’t ever come in my yard again!”

NO: Serena wept. Over the note. As. Her. Heart. Broke. He was gone. For. Good.
YES: Serena wept over the note as her heart broke. He was gone. For good.

Seriously, just write fluidly and naturally. Your writing should convey the scene powerfully, not the punctuation.

Commas
See my post on how to use commas HERE.

Ellipses
See my post on how to use those three little dots HERE.

Bold, Caps, and Underlining
Don’t use any of these (except in headers). Bold, caps, and underlining are not used in writing. Often I see people use them incorrectly for titles of books, songs, movies, and magazines. I’ll cover the correct way to write those titles, but first we’ll look at regular sentences.

Use only italics for emphasis
NO: Helga glared at Herbert. “I did NOT touch your gun collection.”
NO: Helga glared at Herbert. “I did not touch your gun collection.”
NO: Helga glared at Herbert. “I did not touch your gun collection.”
YES: Helga glared at Herbert. “I did not touch your gun collection.”

Only italicize one word. Otherwise it’s overkill (LIKE WRITING IN ALL CAPS).

NO: I was so scared when I saw the tornado coming down my street!
YES: I was so scared when I saw the tornado coming down my street!
YES: I was so scared when I saw the tornado coming down my street!

Books – Italicized
NO: Have you read Charlotte’s Web?
NO: Have you read Charlotte’s Web?
NO: Have you read “Charlotte’s Web?”
YES: Have you read Charlotte’s Web?

Movies – Italicized
NO: Cindy loves the movie The Princess Bride.
NO: Cindy loves the movie The Princess Bride.
NO: Cindy loves the movie “The Princess Bride.”
YES: Cindy loves the movie The Princess Bride.

Magazines – Italicized
NO: Every day Jerome reads The New York Times, while Tiffany reads The People Magazine.
NO: Every day Jerome reads The New York Times, while Tiffany reads PEOPLE.
NO: Every day Jerome reads “The New York Times,” while Tiffany reads “People Magazine.”
YES: Every day Jerome reads the New York Times, while Tiffany reads People magazine.
YES: Every day Jerome reads New York Times, while Tiffany reads People.
* Look up official magazine names to see if “the” or “magazine” is capitalized or not. Don’t assume!

Song Titles – Only in Quotes
NO: He sang Bridge over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel.
NO: He sang Bridge over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel.
NO: He sang Bridge over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel.
YES: He sang “Bridge over Troubled Water” by Simon & Garfunkel.

* Make sure you look up the band/artist’s name and spelling, as well. Don’t guess! It’s not “Simon and Garfunkel,” there is an ampersand (&) in the name. Garfunkel is spelled with an “-el” at the end, not Garfunkle. Note that the word “over” is not capitalized in the official song name, when typical writing rules would require it to be. Make sure you are 100% accurate when writing facts.

If you master these tips, you are well on your way to excellent writing!

(I need to add a disclaimer. Anyone who writes technical manuals or textbooks need to use their style guides. This is for everyone else!)

Savvy Writer Tip:

Punctuation and emphasis are effective only when used accurately. Ditch all colons, semicolons, caps, bold, and underlining. Use italics for emphasis. Only use hyphens for compound adjectives or hyphenated words. Use periods for ends of actual sentences, and rarely use them for emphasis in short phrases. Look up the names of everything factual, such as book titles, movies, magazines (which are all italicized) and songs (only in quotes). Don’t guess. Don’t be sloppy or lazy. Savvy writers are intelligent writers! 🙂

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