Research/English2007.01.07 17:24

Brief Overview of Punctuation: Semicolon, Colon,Parenthesis, Dash, Quotation Marks, and Italics

Brought to you by the Purdue University Online Writing Lab

Punctuation marks are signals to your readers. In speaking, we can pause, stop, or change our tone of voice. In writing, we use the following marks of punctuation to emphasize and clarify what we mean. Punctuation marks discussed in other OWL documents include commas, apostrophes, quotation marks, and hyphens.


Semicolon ;

In addition to using a semicolon to join related independent clauses in compound sentences, you can use a semicolon to separate items in a series if the elements of the series already include commas.

Members of the band include Harold Rostein, clarinetist; Tony Aluppo, tuba player; and Lee Jefferson, trumpeter.

Colon :

Use a colon . . .

in the following situations:

for example:

after a complete statement in order to introduce one or more directly related ideas, such as a series of directions, a list, or a quotation or other comment illustrating or explaining the statement.

The daily newspaper contains four sections: news, sports, entertainment, and classified ads.

The strategies of corporatist industrial unionism have proven ineffective: compromises and concessions have left labor in a weakened position in the new "flexible" economy.

in a business letter greeting.

Dear Ms. Winstead:

between the hour and minutes in time notation.

5:30 p.m.

between chapter and verse in biblical references.

Genesis 1:18

Parentheses ()

Parentheses are occasionally and sparingly used for extra, nonessential material included in a sentence. For example, dates, sources, or ideas that are subordinate or tangential to the rest of the sentence are set apart in parentheses. Parentheses always appear in pairs.

Before arriving at the station, the old train (someone said it was a relic of frontier days) caught fire.

Dash --

Use a dash (represented on a typewriter, a computer with no dashes in the type font, or in a handwritten document by a pair of hyphens with no spaces) . . .

in the following situations:

for example:

to emphasize a point or to set off an explanatory comment; but don't overuse dashes, or they will lose their impact.

To some of you, my proposals may seem radical--even revolutionary.

In terms of public legitimation--that is, in terms of garnering support from state legislators, parents, donors, and university administrators--English departments are primarily places where advanced literacy is taught.

for an appositive phrase that already includes commas.

The boys--Jim, John, and Jeff--left the party early.

As you can see, dashes function in some ways like parentheses (used in pairs to set off a comment within a larger sentence) and in some ways like colons (used to introduce material illustrating or emphasizing the immediately preceding statement). But comments set off with a pair of dashes appear less subordinate to the main sentence than do comments in parentheses. And material introduced after a single dash may be more emphatic and may serve a greater variety of rhetorical purposes than material introduced with a colon.

Quotation Marks " "

Use quotation marks . . .

in the following situations:

for example:

to enclose direct quotations. Note that commas and periods go inside the closing quotation mark in conventional American usage; colons and semicolons go outside; and placement of question and exclamation marks depends on the situation (see our quotation marks document).

He asked, "Will you be there?" "Yes," I answered, "I'll look for you in the foyer."

to indicate words used ironically, with reservations, or in some unusual way; but don't overuse quotation marks in this sense, or they will lose their impact.

History is stained with blood spilled in the name of "civilization."

For more information on writing research papers and using quotations, see our workshop on writing research papers.

Underlining and Italics

Underlining and italics are not really punctuation, but they are significant textual effects used conventionally in a variety of situations. Before computerized word-processing was widely available, writers would underline certain terms in handwritten or manually typed pages, and the underlining would be replaced by italics in the published version. Since word processing today allows many options for font faces and textual effects, it is generally recommended that you choose either underlining or italics and use it consistently throughout a given document as needed. Because academic papers are manuscripts and not final publications and because italics are not always easily recognized with some fonts, many instructors prefer underlining over italics for course papers. Whichever you choose, italics or underlining should be used . . .

in the following situations:

for example:

to indicate titles of complete or major works such as magazines, books, newspapers, academic journals, films, television programs, long poems, plays of three or more acts

Faulkner's last novel was The Reivers.

The Simpsons offers hilarious parodies of American culture and family life.

foreign words that are not commonly used in English

Wearing blue jeans is de rigueur for most college students.

words used as words themselves

The English word nuance comes from a Middle French word meaning "shades of color."

words or phrases that you wish to emphasize

The very founding principles of our nation are at stake!

After reviewing this handout, you can try the Purdue OWL exercise on semicolons, parentheses, dashes, quotation marks and italics (and then check your answers).

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