An Introduction to Punctuation

Some people write well but struggle from a fear of punctuation and grammar. They know how to prewrite, organize, and revise, but proofreading for punctuation and grammar causes them difficulties. There’s no need to fear these conventions of standard written English. In fact, these conventions can help you become a more effective communicator.

Before discussing specific punctuation marks, we want you to know one important fact: punctuation is simple. Many people believe that punctuation rules are rigid commandments and that only the “experts” know all the rules. You may be surprised to learn, however, that it is not the “experts” but rather educated speakers and writers, such as yourself, who have established the practices that have come to be known as the “rules of punctuation.” In other words, over the years good writers have used punctuation in ways that have made their messages especially clear to their readers. Writers have agreed to follow these practices because they have proven to be so effective.

As an analogy, think of the traffic signs that govern the rules of the road. When you see a red blinking light or an octagonally shaped red sign, you bring your vehicle to a full stop; when you see a blinking yellow light, you proceed with caution. These traffic rules help make driving safe and efficient. But there’s no reason why a red blinking light signifies a complete stop; it could well have been any other color. The caution light, too, could very well have been another color. The important fact to remember is that drivers have agreed to follow these signals and to do certain things when they come upon them. The same is true with punctuation marks: writers have agreed that certain marks will signify specific things in written communication.

The rules of punctuation are not static; they have changed throughout the years and will continue to change. What once might have been considered improper punctuation may now be considered correct. The rules of punctuation are created and maintained by writers to help make their prose more effective, and their exact meaning changes over time, just as traffic rules evolve with time. (For example, in many states it is now acceptable to make a right turn at a red light if no oncoming vehicles are in sight.) At any point in time, a particular punctuation mark means what writers agree it means; as consensus shifts, so will its meaning.

If you approach punctuation with this understanding of its origin and flexibility, you will not be intimidated by the conventions of punctuation.

In “Punctuation Made Simple,” we discuss several of the most useful punctuation marks that you will use as a communicator. Instead of listing many rules, as a grammar book does, we discuss these various marks in general so that you can get a sense of how to use them in your own prose. Of course, every communicator should own and use a grammar handbook as a reference tool. You will still want to refer to such a book when you come upon a particularly difficult punctuation problem. Here, however, we are most concerned with helping you develop a feel for the way punctuation works.

© Gary A. Olson, 1980